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Percy and the Lamb

ISSUE:  Winter 1996

Sometimes when my father got tight on a Kriek Belle Epoque he would tell me again about the Mystic Lamb and how this black American soldier was shot down on a Belgian street by a white one from Arkansas in 1945. It’s really Godfrey’s story, his father, a name I’m glad my father didn’t pass on to me. Godfrey is the one who actually saw it. He died at 40 in 1962, and my father was old enough to hear it on more than one occasion. I think my own father got hooked on imported Belgian beer because of Godfrey, who discovered it when he was stationed in Belgium for a while after the war ended. You wouldn’t believe the number of different beers the Belgians brew—cherry-flavored krieks, pale gueuze, dark high-octane stuff from the Trappist abbeys, such as Orval, Godfrey’s favorite, with its icon of a fish standing on its tail, spitting out a golden ring.

My father went for the krieks, so much so that on certain summer afternoons pink foam framed his moustache, and his breath released a musk of hops and over-ripened cherries. It would take two or three krieks to get him started on the Lamb. Usually he would be sitting on the screened porch, his bony knees peeking from beneath tartan Bermudas, and The New York Times Travel Section spread around the flagstones of the porch floor, fanning out from his old loafers, a penny still stuck in the left one’s calfskin lip. From the porch he liked to watch the swimming pool my brother Charlie and I set up each May in the backyard next to the garage. It was an above-ground number, not too expensive, and the metal frame was rusting out underneath the vinyl lining, which was blue but had a scummy feeling below the water line and you didn’t want to rub against it. He liked the idea of a pool though, especially after coming home from Manhattan in one of the Long Island Railroad trains.

“Charlie. I’m gonna swim the Channel. I need strong backs. Steady oars. Pete. You take the lead boat.” Then he’d jump in, dog paddle along the edge, water slurping over the side. “Shazaam,” he would say, pointing to the sky.

In the summer he wore a seersucker suit that didn’t conceal half moons of dried sweat under his arms. He carried a leather briefcase my mother gave him when he was promoted to chief comptroller of a division of Marvel magazines—Captain Marvel and all that, In the comics, when Captain Marvel pointed his finger and shouted Shazaam, the bad scene he was pointing at would turn into something good. My father would walk up Lewis Street all the way from the station. He would start thinking about the pool from around Marion Avenue, walking beneath the shade of the sugar maples planted next to the sidewalk 50 years before.

So on the screen porch or in the pool sometimes my father would come back again to this Mystic Lamb business, which happened when Godfrey was a sergeant in the Third Army. First of all, you have to understand about this picture, a great painting really, called the Mystic Lamb, done by Jan Van Eyck around 1430. He painted it in oil, which was a breakthrough at the time, they say, although I can’t guess what they were using before that. Jan had his brother Hubert work on it, although here too I am not sure who did what panel, the damn thing is so big, for one thing. Jan painted it in Ghent, which is in Belgium but called Flanders then and spelled Vlaanderen. This place in Jan’s time was flat, fertile, with lots of cities connected by canals the Flemings dug with wooden shovels, and the canals are still there. Being so flat it was easy to move about, a fact not lost on invading armies from places like Spain, France, and Germany, and all of them did just that, one time or another, burning those cities and carrying off the art works and you can imagine the rest. Maybe the worst was in 1914, when the German Imperial Army came pouring through from the east, and were finally stopped first at the Albert Canal and then along a line right through the country. The armies stayed put for four years lobbing shells at each other. Even today, that is, the nineties, an occasional Belgian farmer is blown right off his tractor by a live shell stuck in the mud for 80 years.

But that was way before my grandfather’s time. He caught the tail end of the second time the Germans came out of the east and spilled across Belgium like a giant oil slick. In January 1945, the year my father was born, Godfrey was busy trying to stay alive during the German army’s attempt to retake Belgium from the British and the Americans, which Americans call the Battle of the Bulge and the British have another name. Godfrey was lucky. His unit drove trucks, and so he tended to arrive on the scene after the fighting was over, and his accounts to my father were marked not by explosions or gunfire but by traffic jams—small stone bridges cluttered with burned out jeeps, boxes of C rations dumped on the road, tangled burrs of telephone wires hanging too low to pass under. Once his two-and-a-half ton truck skidded on an ice slick outside Liege, spun once and came to a stop in front of a church with its stained glass windows all blown out, but people inside, singing anyway. Catholics, he guessed, looking through the windshield at the snow flakes lining themselves up in a pattern so startlingly alive with hidden meaning that he needed prodding from the lieutenant sitting next to him to start up the engine and get out of there. Godfrey had stalled the engine half way into the spin.

My grandfather was issued a carbine but never fired it, and no one ever shot at him, which is the way he liked it, and you can’t blame him. The lieutenant, from Sharpsburgh, Arkansas, was not comfortable with a driver-sergeant from Brooklyn with a name like O’Neill. The lieutenant’s name was Tyson Parmell, and he wanted more than anything to catch up to the war, which seemed to him to be receding from the steel mesh of the truck’s radiator screen just as fast as the truck’s speed. Parmell’s frustration at lording over mere truck drivers and mechanics, most of whom were recently drafted privates and some were black, increased with each sign that the war might end without his personal participation.

Lieutenant Parmell stroked his sheathed .45 automatic and reviled my grandfather and his crew of benighted slackers, though his language was stronger than that. Remember that the U.S. Army didn’t integrate until later, and that whole units were entirely black, such as the 784th Tank Battalion (Cld) that was clanking along many miles east of my grandfather’s truck, exchanging rounds with Panzer units and looking much the worse for wear. Cld meant “Colored.” Pop open the rear hatch of one of those Shermans in the 784th and everybody climbing out—drivers, gunners, mechanics—would be black. But in the confusion and disorder of the Bulge, protocol was often fluid, and Godfrey found himself guiding five trucks loaded with wooden crates of small arms ammunition and loose stacks of mismatched combat boots. Ten soldiers were under him, six of whom were black. Lieutenant Parmell had not yet joined them. Godfrey assigned his best drivers for each truck and three of the five were black. It seemed to work best that way, Godfrey told my father, although he wasn’t sure that even his worst driver, also black, would have been more agreeable company in the cab than Lieutenant Tyson Parmell, who later sat next to Godfrey rubbing his leather holster as if all the German soldiers they were passing weren’t already dead in the snow or walking to prison camps under the eye of guards who were themselves probably relieved to be walking west, away from the ongoing ruckus along the Siegfried Line.

Godfrey’s truck pushed the war in front on him, Lieutenant Parmell fumed in the cab, and soon even the snow was disappearing, along with German resistance. Godfrey was moving along the Stuttgart-Munich road, trucking supplies, passing entire fields filled with reclining and sitting German soldiers, their officers standing aloof and smoking, waiting for the formalities of capture. His truck passed burned out homes, baroque churches with rooftiles gone, shards of glass in the street. Once a toppled statue of Saint Joseph appeared in front of his bumper. Joseph’s hand was raised in benign salute to Godfrey’s front left tire, which was nudging the statue’s marble base. Godfrey watched through his side mirror to make sure the trucks behind him cleared the statue.

In Bavaria Godfrey saw mountains covered with snow. Special infantry units were rushing to nearby holdouts like Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, and Godfrey had to pull over his small convoy to let them pass—tanks, jeeps with four-barreled machine guns mounted on the back, and grim-faced G.I.s staring straight ahead. Lieutenant Parmell wished himself into the back seat of one of those jeeps, aiming the four gun snouts at whomever he wanted, but he was stuck in a supply convoy driven by city riffraff and darkies. He knew the real fighting was further north and east, where the Russians were entering Berlin. Down here the Germans couldn’t surrender fast enough to the Americans.

By late March Godfrey was in Munich, his five mud-stained trucks parked inside the courtyard of a stone barn the size of a circus tent. Inside the barn intelligence officers came and went, carrying papers, walking past the parked trucks, leaping back into jeeps with their windshields folded down flat and driving away. Finally a colonel came out, ordered Lieutenant Parmell and Godfrey to come inside. They saw desks, papers, a lantern, and behind that, where the farm animals used to stand, sleep, void, was a series of panels wrapped in brown canvas with German words chalked on them. It was the Mystic Lamb, or the Ghent Altarpiece. The Germans had looted it from St. Bavo’s Cathedral in 1941, placed the panels on a train in Ghent, and stored them in a salt mine south of Munich.

The colonel held the edge of the central panel back for his two subordinates to see. He was smoking a cigar. With the cigar he pointed to the panels, aiming a flashlight at the faces of angels in embroidered robes singing around a pipe organ. Godfrey saw saints, palm trees, delicate flowers the size of dimes, a blue haze behind some sandstone towers that caught the light of the sun. The flashlight made the oil gleam. It was Godfrey’s first art lesson. There were 12 panels in three groups of four, with scenes painted on both sides of each panel. If you closed one side, a whole new scene would leap into sight. The colonel couldn’t move them back and forth because the hinges were not fastened to anything, but he walked around them, opening up the canvas, shining his flashlight into the eyes of Mary, who was sitting down reading from a book and at the Lamb itself, standing on an altar. A tiny spurt of blood arched neatly from the Lamb’s breast to the altar. Saints were kneeling in groups around the Lamb and above the altar was the sun, throwing light on the outline of a great city in the distance, maybe Ghent itself. If so, then the sun pointed Godfrey in the right direction, west, back through Belgium and into the cobblestoned streets of Ghent. Because that’s what they were told to do. Lieutenant Parmell and his riffraff were going to truck the whole thing back to St. Bavo’s.

They took only three trucks, Godfrey and Parmell in the lead one, Percy Green and Henry Washington, two black privates from Georgia, in the second, and two in the third, both white. The quiet one named Cunningham was from New Jersey, and the other, named something like Wilson, Godfrey couldn’t recall, was from Oklahoma. They took the Stuttgart road and then headed north, crossing the Rhine at Cologne the next day. The three trucks nosed across a pontoon bridge set up downstream from a bombed-out railroad bridge. Everything in Cologne was rubble except for the cathedral, which the Allied bombers had tried to avoid. The streets had been swept clear and they made neat grids through the rubble. German civilians walked along where the sidewalks used to be, picking at bricks. Godfrey and the others in the three trucks watched them through the mud-stained windows, but the civilians did not look back. Godfrey drove through the grid of streets and aimed the truck for Aachen. They were close to the Belgium border. It was getting dark so they stopped at a depot for tanks. In a cabbage field were the hulks of damaged tanks, most of them Shermans. There were parts of tanks arranged on the ground for salvage—treads, rollers, stacks of turrets with their 75mm gun barrels removed. Four searchlights were set up around the field, run by a diesel generator. Next to the turrets a line of tents was set up, and Godfrey’s unit was given permission to use two of them.

Godfrey sat with Percy Green and Henry Washington, smoking, watching the stacked turrets reflect the searchlight. The turrets were wet, had white numbers on them below a white star. Some of the tanks were from the 784th. Percy said he was glad he spent his wartime in a truck and not inside a Sherman. They were eyeing the stacked turrets.

“They like tombs,” said Percy, blowing rings into the wet air. “You inside one of them when the shit lets loose you ain’t gonna make it.”

Henry agreed. “They be dead, sure.”

The generator throbbed somewhere behind the tents. Godfrey asked Percy what he wanted to do when he got back to Georgia. Percy wanted to marry a certain gal, Henry wanted to open up an automobile repair shop. Godfrey said to Henry that if he could fix cars the way he fixed the trucks he drove, he would be in clover. They listened to the generator. Godfrey was thinking that the gleam on the wet turret in front of him reminded him of the way the sun glowed on one of those stone towers in the painting. He asked Percy and Henry if they knew about the Mystic Lamb. Percy said he knew the canvas-covered pieces in his truck were art works that came from Belgium. Godfrey decided to show it to them. He led them to his truck, which had the top three central panels and the right wing of the triptych, with Eve naked and holding a tiny fruit with bumps on it between her thumb and forefinger. They climbed in the back, and Godfrey started untying the cords of the canvas. The pieces were lying flat on the truck bed, so you had to walk carefully around the edges. Godfrey’s flashlight plucked Mary from the darkness. The book she was reading had silk bookmarks hanging down so delicately they seemed to sway in the flashlight’s cone.

“She look like a queen,” said Percy. Henry whistled. “Look at them jewels she got on her crown.”

Rain was pattering the truck’s canvas covering. Godfrey closed the panel and tied the cords. He opened another, a narrow one, with Eve squeezed between its frame. The flashlight seem to catch her exposed. She was naked, her belly and flanks swollen, a ripe fruit. Eve.

“There she be,” said Henry. “Mother of us all. Says the Good Book, anyhow. What do you think, Perce?”

“Don’t look like my momma,” Percy said, smiling. Godfrey moved the flashlight down past her knee, her ankle. Her left toe seemed to touch the edge of the panel.

“Dammed if she don’t look like she could walk right out of there,” Henry said.

“The man could paint,” Percy said. “Who done it?”

Godfrey told him what he knew from the colonel. He said it was painted for a particular place, a chapel in a church in Ghent, and that it was there for about 600 years and then the Germans took it.

“Well, me and Henry here will just take it right on back where it come from.”

“With some help,” added Godfrey, moving the flashlight. They squatted next to the panel, indifferent to the sound of the rain overhead. Their eyes followed the light on the oiled surface, past the shadows under Eve’s breasts. The shadows seemed to move under the light, and it was hard to tell the real darkness of the truck from the painted shadows. The men were quiet. The light moved in Godfrey’s hand as if on its own. Then the canvas to the truck’s rear was thrown back, another flashlight cut up the dark.

“What’re you nigras doing in here?” Lieutenant Parmell’s voice. His light picked out Godfrey’s face.

“O’Neill. What in hell you got in mind?” He was in the truck.

“Careful where you step,” Godfrey said. “The panels.” Parmell was breathing hard. He pointed his light at their faces, one at a time. Then he found Eve, stepping out of the darkness and leading with her left toe.

“You getting your jollies over this? I tell you, O’Neill, it’s a sorry sight when nigras are foaming over a naked white woman, even if it is a goddam painting. Tie it back up and get out of here.”

Lieutenant Parmell climbed out into the rain. The three tied up the panel and left the truck in silence. Inside the tent, with the searchlights making small moons on the wet canvas, Godfrey told Percy and Henry everything he could remember from what the colonel said. They were on their backs in the cots, looking up at the four moons. Godfrey told them about the panels, and the way they could be opened and closed, with another whole scene on the reverse side. He asked them to picture the Lamb on the altar, and the angels kneeling there with giant swallow wings painted in gold and silver and red growing out of their shoulder blades. With jewels on the wings, like the ones they saw in Mary’s crown. He said that he would show them the rest of the painting, they just had to bide their time.

“No point in getting our lieutenant riled up, no telling what he could do.”

“This war’s done,” said Percy. “That’s what them turrets saying outside. They saying our soldier time’s nearly up. They saying he won’t be boss man much longer.”

“But he is now,” Henry said.

In the morning Lieutenant Parmell assigned Percy and Henry to the last truck, Cunningham and Wilson, if that was his name, to the second one. He rode with Godfrey in the lead truck. He told Godfrey that his big city ways had spoiled his vision, and as a result Godfrey couldn’t see the forest for the trees, that there were certain natural divisions that ought to be respected. Godfrey asked what those were, and Lieutenant Parmell stared out the window and rubbed his leather holster.

They were in Belgium now, moving through the hills of Liege past piles of coal slag and then into the flat potato fields east of Brussels. There was more life, fewer farmhouses without roofs. The roads were clear, jeeps and trucks and even a civilian car here and there. They were in the British zone and Godfrey handed papers through the truck window to Canadian soldiers, to Welsh guards, and got papers back and they kept moving. Some of the Welsh Guards chatted with them at checkpoints and called them “mates.” There was a sense that everyone in uniform was going to go home safe.

The three trucks filed past the street cars of Brussels, which were operating again, and Godfrey saw the Palais de Justice high on a hill with its dome burned out. It had been Gestapo headquarters for the past four years, and the Germans had set fire to it when they left. The trucks moved past the Palais de Justice and the drivers saw pigeons flying in and out of the space where the dome was. Godfrey aimed for Ghent, fifty miles away, and tried to calculate how much of the rest of his life would have to be spent with Lieutenant Parmell sitting next to him in a bouncing truck. If he lived for 40 years, say, then the percentage of time would be a tiny fraction of that expanse, a blink of the eye, so to speak, and Godfrey began multiplying 365 times an ever-changing number, and then they were at the outskirts of Ghent. They could see towers in the distance, rising up out of the flat land, and the towers were gray, dripping with rain, unlike Jan’s towers of sunshiny sandstone. Still, it was definitely Ghent, and one of the towers was the Cathedral of St. Bavo, so Godfey could navigate through the narrow streets with strange Flemish names just by taking a bead on the towers.

The trucks pulled into the square in front of the Cathedral, and there was a small group of Flemings standing under umbrellas, waiting for them. City officials, some art curators, and a couple of priests, all wet-looking but patient. One of the priests was bald. These Belgians sure know about rain, Godfrey thought. They clustered around the trucks and Lieutenant Parmell asked if they knew the whereabouts of a certain British officer who was supposed to sign some papers because all this part of Belgium was in the British zone. They all spoke English but the officer had not arrived. The plan was to unload in the morning, under the direction of the art curators. The Mystic Lamb would spend one more night under canvas. The Flemings were excited at the thought of its imminent return to the chapel inside St. Bavo’s. The art curators wanted badly to see the paintings to check for damage, but Parmell sensed that without that British officer around he could do what he wanted. He told them everyone had to wait until morning.

The Flemings invited them all for refreshments so Lieutenant Parmell ordered Percy and Henry to guard the trucks. They were not to sit in the cab, but to stand outside. Godfrey and Parmell and the two white privates then followed the Flemings to a small restaurant facing the square, and they all sat down, lighting up cigarettes. Two waitresses brought out trays of Orval dark beer, brewed in the monasteries even during the war. Godfrey liked the tarry jolt of the Orval, as well as the smell of fried potatoes, the clouds of tobacco smoke, the stone ceiling which was made of interlocking cones standing on stone pillars. The pillars had four carved heads perched on the capitals, each looking down at the Flemings and the four American soldiers, who were sitting at three tables, and becoming animated and informal. Godfrey asked the waitress if she could bring some fried potatoes out to the truck guards, that he would pay, but she didn’t understand English, and when he asked one of the priests, who was smoking but not drinking, to translate for him, Lieutenant Parmell overheard Godfrey and told him to cancel that order. The Flemings were good hosts but could see there was some tension between these two Americans.

More glasses of Orval came out of the kitchen, and one Fleming told Godfrey what it was like to live under the Germans for four years. The Germans had confiscated all the bicycles from the citizens of Ghent. His brother had saved his bicycle by lowering it on a rope into one of the canals. Every few weeks he would pull it up at night, dry it, rub the chain with pig fat, then lower it back in. He was the only one who owned a bicycle in that part of Ghent. Godfrey went into the kitchen and asked for fried potatoes to be wrapped in a newspaper. He pointed at the potatoes, made wrapping gestures with his hands. The waitress in the kitchen did what he asked, and he offered her dollars but she said no. He went out the back door into an alley, worked his way into the square and over to the trucks. It was still raining. Percy and Henry were leaning against the first truck, their ponchos glistening under the street lamps. Godfrey told them to climb into the back. They could smell the potatoes, and they were right behind him. Godfrey spread out the newspaper on the truck floor and held his flashlight on the potatoes. When the potatoes were gone, Godfrey opened the canvas flap and peed into the Belgian night. Then he remembered the paintings. He opened one of the canvas covers, glanced at the painting, sealed it up. He was looking for a particular one. The third one he checked was it. A woman was playing a pipe organ. Four other women were accompanying her. One had a harp, another some kind of viola, two were singing. Their hair was long, and they had high foreheads. The one playing the viola looked to Godfrey like the waitress who had given him the potatoes. Under the flashlight the singers’ mouths seemed alive, ready to give forth sound.

“Man, how he make the cloth that way,” Percy said. “All them wrinkles. Look too real to me.”

“They gonna sing, for sure. Hold it up there, Perce.” Now Percy had the light. “Never seen such folks. They angels? Ain’t got no wings.”

Godfrey was feeling strange. The smell of fried potatoes lingered in the truck, and his tongue retained the sour bite of the Orvals. He followed the gleam of the singers’ hair. Tiny braids were woven into the hair like ribbons, holding it all in place. Godfrey was beginning to realize how little he knew of the world. He knew his wife was pregnant, but he didn’t know how it had turned out. He wished he knew more about van Eyck.

“You have to see the Lamb,” he said to his drivers, really his best drivers, something he knew all along but now for some reason wanted to tell Lieutenant Parmell. “It’s the central one. It’s in the other truck.” “He gonna let us see it? When they put it back?” Percy opened his arms, his gesture embracing the whole altar piece, mounted in some pattern in his mind, the pieces swinging gently on their brass hinges, more and more faces coming into his view, angels, saints, Mary reading a book, a lamb bleeding without pain.

“I don’t know. Maybe we should see it now. It’s in the second truck.” Percy and Henry placed their Ml Garand rifles—bulky things, Godfrey felt, lacking the neat heft of the carbine he had used in training—side by side on the floor, over the grease-stained newspapers. They climbed out of the truck and into the rain, which was picking up again. The cobblestones in the square were slippery, and the tower of St. Bavo’s rose up dark and wet. As they began untying the canvas on the second truck, a cluster of stones embedded in the tower behind them jumped into view. Lieutenant Parmell was running toward them from the restaurant, his flashlight bobbing. Godfrey saw the ponchos of Henry and Percy, the tower’s brick lines, the gleaming truck tires at their feet tumble in and out of the darkness.

“No you don’t. Sons of bitches. Get away from that truck.”

Lieutenant Parmell shoved Henry and tried to grab Percy but his hand slopped on Percy’s wet poncho, so he swung the flashlight at Percy’s shoulders and Percy gave a shove to Lieutenant Parmell, sending him backwards. The Lieutenant sprawled on the wet cobblestones, and then sat up. Godfrey could hear their breathing. Percy stood over the sitting Lieutenant, backlighted by the front window of the restaurant, where Cunningham, Wilson, and the Flemings were dark shadows looking out, raising their hands to shield their eyes, but otherwise not moving.

Godfrey saw Lieutenant Parmell reach for his leather holster, and sensed that the Lieutenant had been waiting a long time for this. The .45 automatic came out of the dark and Percy turned to run. Godfrey shouted but the Lieutenant took aim from his sitting position and pulled twice. Godfrey saw the copper shells jump away from the gun before the two blasts shattered his hearing, echoing off the stone walls of St. Bavo’s and down the narrow cobblestoned streets. The heads in the restaurant window dropped down fast and came up slowly. Godfrey could hear Percy thrashing in the rainy dark, his boot heels beating on the wet stones. Henry was already running for the other truck, and Godfrey knew why, so he chased Henry down, and they wrestled at the back of the first truck until the Ml fell to the cobblestones. Godfrey put his foot on it, holding Henry’s neck and shouting into his ear, and then he kicked the rifle under the truck. Godfrey told him to follow him and they passed the Lieutenant, who was still sitting, the gun in his lap. They ran to Percy, who was on his back, the drumming of his heels already slowing. His poncho was tangled around his shoulders, covering his face, and Godfrey and Henry lifted him and started for the restaurant. Godfrey walked backwards holding Percy’s legs and Henry had his arms under Percy’s shoulders. With each step Godfrey saw the faces of Henry and Percy emerge from the dark into the light.

The Flemings held open the door, and were moving chairs. They put Percy on two tables pulled together. The bald priest held Percy’s head and whispered English words into his right ear, but a thin line of blood was coming out of that ear, so the priest switched to the left, and his whispering was the only sound Godfrey could hear in the restaurant. Godfrey knew Percy was dead before the priest started making the sign of the cross over the bundled poncho on the table. The Flemings turned away from the poncho and began to look out the front window at the square. Lieutenant Parmell was standing near the second truck. He was looking down at the rifle lying under the truck axle but he didn’t pick it up. The Flemings slowly came out of the restaurant. First the man whose brother had put pig fat on his bicycle chain, then the bald priest, then the art curators. It was their square.

In April there was a hearing in Brussels, Godfrey told my father. Weeks before, the Third Army had set up a Judge Advocate General court in a small room of the Palais de Justice. The good rooms went to the British, because it was their zone. While he was waiting to be called, Godfrey had a chance to look up at where the dome used to be and see the pigeons flying in and out. Henry Washington was not called. Three officers sat facing him with their hands resting on typed papers. Godfrey could see that his appearance was only a formality. Godfrey told them that he would write a letter describing what he saw in front of St. Bavo’s Cathedral to six people, and he listed them. Generals Eisenhower, Bradley, and Marshall, the two senators from his state of New York, Senators James M. Mead and Robert F. Wagner. And President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The clerk taking notes asked Godfrey if Mead ended with an “e.” The officer in charge asked him if he knew that the President had just died. That was how Godfrey found out.

“Eleanor, then,” Godfrey said.

While he was in the Palais de Justice looking up at the pigeons, the Flemings assembled the Mystic Lamb panel by panel in its chapel on the south side of St. Bavo’s Cathedral. Godfrey never saw it. He did write the letters, and he heard months later from the two senators, whose letters quoted the same phrases from the official report exonerating Lieutenant Parmell. When he returned to Brooklyn, the victory parades had been over for some time.

My father, whose tartan Bermudas hid for a while the presence of prostate cancer, also did not see the Mystic Lamb, although he usually ended his father’s tale with the hope that some day he would.

“Belgium is not that far, Charles,” he would tell my brother, rustling the pages of The Travel section. He pointed to an article on Bruges in Belgium, and said “Shaxaam.” He quoted prices on upcoming Sabena flights and looked up how many Belgian francs a dollar would buy. He sent for brochures. But by the summer of 1988 the walk across the grass to the pool became too far. He surpassed Godfrey’s life span by only four years. So I went myself, a year ago, when the dollar bought even fewer francs than my father’s penciled notes once recorded. I took the train from Brussels to Ghent, and walked from the station. There were new cars everywhere, some driven up on the sidewalk to park, sticking out into the traffic at odd angles. I edged past the polished bumpers of Citroens and BMWs, following the line of Belgian shoppers who were wearing much leather and fur and carrying no-nonsense umbrellas with wooden struts. I could find my way by watching the towers move over the store-lined streets. The square was filled with parked tourist busses with dark wrap-around windows and German words on the sides.

The Cathedral was dark and cold, with half the walls made of brick and the rest in dressed stone. The Mystic Lamb was no longer in its chapel, but had been moved a few years before to a room to the left of the entrance. The room was large and white, and you could walk around the altarpiece, viewing the front and back without the need of a guide to swing the hidden side out for you. People were taking a long time looking at the individual panels. There was a lot to look at, and the whole thing was higher than Godfrey must have imagined it. Christ was in the center, a crowned king, big as life, and looking down at the people moving around. To his right Mary was reading her book, and where the book marks came out of different pages, you could see part of the Latin words on the half-opened page. The four women making music were to Christ’s left. I looked at the one playing the viola until I felt the cold of the stone floor enter my loafers. Further to the left was Eve, the small toe of her left foot inching out of the frame. The mother of us all. Of Percy and Henry and Godfrey and my father. Even of Tyson Parmell.


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