The old man had been working in his small vegetable garden when the young foreign reporter approached from the dirt road that led out of the village and into the foothills.
The old man leaned on his shovel and listened to the reporter explain that he had been separated from a group of soldiers he was following into the hills near where the fighting was happening.
They were able to communicate using simple words in broken sentences in each other’s languages. The old man gestured towards his cottage and told the young reporter it would be safer to spend the night here and try to find the soldiers at daylight. The young reporter looked towards the orange sun, large in the sky, as it began dropping below the mountains in the distance.
“Okay. Thank you so much. I’ll spend the night then.”
The old man nodded and led the reporter into his cottage. Inside, the old man lifted an oil lantern from a hook on the wall, lit it and set it on an oak dinner table to light the room.
The oak table divided the square room into a small kitchen with a cast iron stove and a sitting parlor with a naked pine rocking chair. The reporter noticed a tiny room in the back of the cottage with a door frame, but no door. He assumed that was the old man’s bedroom.
The young reporter gestured towards the table and asked if he could sit down.
“Sure, sure,” the old man said.
The reporter set his leather rucksack on the floor, opened it, and removed a compact typewriter. He sat at the table and began loading a sheet of paper into the carriage. The old man stood over his shoulder marveling at the small typewriter’s compact size. He had seen a huge printing press one time in the city, but he had never seen a typewriter like the one the reporter now used in his parlor.
As the reporter started typing the old man enjoyed the rhythmic tapping sound for a moment and then went around the table into the kitchen to start dinner.
He had only a pot of beef stew, a rock hard baguette, and a block of cheese that he feared would be too sharp for his foreign guest. But he would share all he had regardless.
After he had finished cooking the old man brought two wooden bowls full of stew, two large wooden spoons, and two sharp knives for the bread and cheese to the table. The young reporter stopped typing and politely placed his typewriter back in his rucksack.
The old man sat, with a slight pain in his back, opposite of the reporter. He watched as the young man held the hard baguette studying it.He suppressed a chuckle and dipped his in the stew showing the young reporter how to soften it enough to eat.
The reporter sopped up the stew and ate the bread with gusto, exclaiming several times in both languages, “Delicious!”
When he attempted the cheese though, as the old man had feared, it was too strong for him. He gamely finished it though and the old man hoped it would be easy on his stomach later in the evening.
After dinner the old man carried everything to the kitchen. The young reporter tried to help, but the old man waved him off using gestures and swooshing sounds to explain that he would wash everything in the stream behind his cottage in the morning.
At that, the old man remembered something and led the reporter to the front door. He opened it and used the oil lantern to shine out towards the backyard. For a moment the reporter was confused until he spied the small outhouse in the dark.
“For the cheese,” the old man said smiling.
“Yes. For the cheese. Thank you.”
The reporter politely asked if he could return to his writing and the old man said again, “Sure, sure.”
As the reporter sat at the table and began typing the old man eased into his creaky rocking chair, lit some some sweet smelling tobacco in his pipe, and rocked away while reading a thick book in his lap.
After a while gunfire could be heard in the hills in the distance. First the chatter of a machine gun and then several single shots from rifles. The reporter jumped up from the table and went quickly to the window trying to locate the battle. The old man continued rocking and reading his book.
“Do you hear that? The gun battle?” the reporter asked.
“Yes. Far away.”
The reporter looked out through the window for a long time occasionally seeing yellow flashes of gunfire in the dark in the hills.
An hour later the old man finished smoking his pipe, put the book on the floor near his rocking chair, and went into his room. He returned to the parlor with two thick blankets and a pillow which he set up on the floor near the window. He put out the fire in the stove, turned the oil lantern down very low and hung it near the front door.
Then he said good night to the young reporter in both languages and turned for his bedroom.
“Wait, can you sleep with the gunfire like that?” the reporter asked.
The old man paused for a moment before answering.
“When guns far, it is like gentle rain on the roof. Safe. When near, I don’t sleep. Silence is the worst.”
“Why is silence the worst?”
“When silent that’s when the artillery or planes come.”
The old man nodded once to the young reporter and went into his room. Soon the reporter heard the old man softly snoring. But the reporter did not sleep for a long time. Instead, he listened to the gentle rain in the night.