The Moon is Down

John Steinbeck, 1942

"Conquest after conquest, deeper into molasses.  His laughter choked him and he coughed into his handkerchief.  "Maybe the Leader is crazy.  Flies conquer the flypaper.  Flies capture two hundred miles of new flypaper!"

The Moon is Down

John Steinbeck, 1942


The days and weeks dragged on, and the months dragged on.  The snow fell and melted and fell and melted and finally fell and stuck.  The dark buildings of the little town wore bells and hats and eyebrows of white and there were trenches through the snow to the doorways.  In the harbor the coal barges came empty and went away loaded, but the coal did not come out of the ground easily.  The good miners made mistakes.  They were clumsy and slow.  Machinery broke and took a long time to fix.  The people of the conquered country settled in a slow, silent, waiting revenge.  The men who had been traitors, who had helped the invaders - and many of them believed it was for a better state and an ideal way of life - found that the control they took was insecure, that the people they had known looked at them coldly  and never spoke.

And there was death in the air, hovering and waiting.  Accidents happened on the railroad, which clung to the mountains and connected the little town to the rest of the nation.  Avalanches poured down on the tracks and rails were spread.  No train could move unless the tracks were first inspected.  People were shot in reprisal and it made no difference.  Now and then a group of young men escaped and went to England.  And the English bombed the coal mine and did some damage and killed some of both their friends and their enemies.  And it did no good.  The cold hatred grew with the winter, the silent, sullen hatred, the waiting hatred.  The food supply was controlled - issued to the obedient and withheld from the disobedient - so that the whole population turned coldly obedient.  There was a point that food could not be withheld, for a starving man cannot mine coal, cannot lift and carry.  And the hatred was deep in the eyes of the people, beneath the surface.

Now it was that the conqueror was surrounded, the men of the battalion alone among silent enemies, and no man might relax his guard even for a moment.  If he did, he disappeared, and some snowdrift received his body.  If he went alone to a woman, he disappeared and some snowdrift received his body.   If he drank, he disappeared.  The men of the battalion could sing only together, could dance only together, and dancing gradually stopped and the singing expressed a longing for home.  Their talk was of friends and relatives who loved them and their longings were for warmth and love, because a man can be a soldier for only so many hours a day and for only so many months in a year, and then he wants to be a man again, wants girls and drinks and music and laughter and ease, and when these are cut off, they become irresistibly desirable.

And the men thought always of home.  The men of the battalion came to detest the place they had conquered, and they were curt with the people and the people were curt with them, and gradually a little fear began to grow in the conquerors, a fear that it would never be over, that they could never relax or go home, a fear that one day they would crack and be hunted through the mountains like rabbits, for the conquered never relaxed their hatred.  The patrols, seeing lights, hearing laughter, would be drawn as to a fire, and when they came near the laughter stopped, the warmth went out, and the people were cold and obedient.  And the soldiers, smelling warm food from the little restaurants, went in and ordered the warm food and found that it was oversalted or overpeppered.

Then the soldiers read the news from home and from the other conquered countries, and the news was always good, and for a little while they believed it, and then after a while they did not believe it any more.  And every man carried in his heart the terror.  "If home crumbled, they would not tell us, and then it would be too late.  These people will not spare us.  They will kill us all."  They remembered stories of their men retreating through Belgium and retreating out of Russia.  And the more literate remembered the frantic, tragic retreat from Moscow, when every peasant's pitchfork tasted blood and the snow was rotten with bodies.

And they knew when they cracked, or relaxed, or slept too long, it would be the same here, and their sleep was restless and their days were nervous.  They asked questions their officers could not answer because they did not know.  They were not told, either.  They did not believe the reports from home, either.

Thus it came about that the conquerors grew afraid of the conquered and their nerves wore thin and they shot at shadows in the night.  The cold, sullen silence was with them always.  Then three soldiers went insane in a week and cried all night and all day until they were sent away home.  And others might have gone insane if they had not heard that mercy deaths awaited the insane at home, and a mercy death is a terrible thing to think of.  Fear crept into the men in their billets and it made them sad, and it crept into the patrols and it made them cruel.

The tear turned and the nights grew long.  It was dark at three o'clock in the afternoon and not light again until nine in the morning.  The jolly lights did not shine out on the snow, for by law every window must be black against the bombers.  And yet when the English bombers came over, some light always appeared near the coal mine.  Sometimes the sentries shot a man with a lantern and once a girl with a flashlight.  And it did no good.  Nothing was cured by the shooting.

And the officers were a reflection of their men, more restrained because their training was more complete, more resourceful because they had more responsibility, but the same fears were a little deeper buried in them, the same longings were more tightly locked in their hearts.  And they were under a double strain, for the conquered people watched them for mistakes and their own men watched them for weakness, so that their spirits were taut to the breaking point.  The conquerors were under a terrible spiritual siege and everyone knew, conquered and conquerors, what would happen when the first crack appeared.

From the upstairs room of the Mayor's palace the comfort seemed to have gone.  Over the windows black paper was tacked tightly and there were little piles of precious equipment about the room - the instruments and equipment that could not be jeopardized, the glasses and masks and helmets.  And discipline here at least was laxer, as though these officers knew there must be some laxness somewhere or the machine would break.  On the table were two gasoline lanterns which threw a hard, brilliant light and they made great shadows on the walls, and their hissing was an undercurrent in the room.

Major Hunter went on with his work.  His drawing board was permanently ready now, fir the bombs tore out his work nearly as fast as he put it in.  And he had little sorrow, for to Major Hunter building was his life and here he had more building than he could project or accomplish.  He sat at his drawing board with a light behind him and his T-square moved up and down the board and his pencil was busy.

Lieutenant Prackle, his arm still in a sling, sat in a straight chair behind the center table, reading an illustrated paper.  At the end of the table Lieutenant Tonder was writing a letter.  He held his pen pinched high and occasionally he looked up from his letter and gazed at the ceiling, to find words to put in his letter.

Prackle turned a page of the illustrated paper and he said, "I can close my eyes and see every shop on this street here."  And Hunter went on with his work and Tonder wrote a few more words.  Prackle continued, "There is a restaurant right behind here.  You can't see it in the picture.  It's called Burden's."

Hunter did not look up.  He said, "I know the place.  They had good scallops."

"Sure they did," Prackle said.  "Everything was good there.  Not a single bad thing did they serve.  And their coffee -"

Tonder looked up from his letter and said, "They won't be serving coffee now - or scallops."

"Well, I don't know about that," said Prackle.  "They did and they will again.  And there was a waitress there."  He described her figure with his hand, the good hand.  "Blonde, so and so."  He looked down at the magazine.  "She had the strangest eyes - has, I mean - always kind of moist-looking as though she had just been laughing or crying."  He glanced at the ceiling and he spoke softly.  "I was out with her.  She was lovely.  I wonder why I didn't go back oftener.  I wonder if she's still there."

Tonder said gloomily, "Probably not.  Working in a factory, maybe."

Prackle laughed.  "I hope they aren't rationing girls at home."

"Why not?" said Tonder.

Prackle said playfully, "You don't care much for girls do you?  Not much, you don't!"

Tonder said, "I like them for what girls are for.  I don't let them crawl around my other life."

And Prackle said tauntingly, "It seems to me that they crawl all over you all the time."

Tonder tried to change the subject.  H said, "I hate these damn lanterns.  Major, when are you going to get that dynamo fixed?"

Major Hunter looked up slowly from his board and said, "It should be done by now.  I've got good men working on it.  I'll double the guard on it from now on, I guess."

"Did you get the fellow that wrecked it?" Prackle asked.

And Hunter said grimly, "It might be any of five men.  I got all five."  He went on musingly, "It's so easy to wreck a dynamo if you know how.  Just short it and it wrecks itself."  He said, "The light ought to be on any time now."

Prackle still looked at his magazine.  "I wonder when we will be relieved.  I wonder when we will go home for a while.  Major, wouldn't you like to go home for a rest?"

 Hunter looked up from his work and his face was hopeless for a moment..  "Yes, of course."  He recovered himself.  "I've built this siding four times.  I don't know why a bomb always knocks out this particular siding.  I'm getting tired of this piece of track.  I have to change the route each time because of the craters.  There's no time to fill them in.  It seems to be too much work."

Suddenly the electric lights came on and Tonder automatically reached out and turned off the two gasoline lanterns.  The hissing was gone from the room.

Tonder said, "Thank God for that!  That hissing gets on my nerves.  It makes me think there's whispering."  He folded the letter he had been writing and he said, "It's strange more letters don't come through.  I've only had one in two weeks."

Prackle said, "Maybe nobody writes to you."

"Maybe,"  said Tonder.  He turned to the Major.  "If anything happened - at home, I mean - do you think they would let us know - anything bad, I mean, any deaths or anything like that?"

Hunter said, "I don't know."

Well," Tonder went on, "I would like to get out of this god-forsaken hole!"

Prackle broke in, "I thought you were going to live here after the war!"  And he imitated Tonder's voice.  "Put four or five farms together.  Make a nice place, kind of a family seat.  Wasn't that it?  Going to be a little lord of the valley, weren't you?  Nice, pleasant people, beautiful lawns and deer and little children.  Isn't that the way it was, Tonder?"

As Prackle spoke, Tonder's hand dropped.  Then he clasped his temples with his hands and he spoke with emotion.  "Be still!  Don't talk like that!  These people!  These horrible people!  These cold people!  They never look at you."  He shivered.  "They never speak.  They answer like dead men.  They obey, these horrible people.  And the girls are frozen!"

There was a light tap on the door and Joseph came in with a scuttle of coal.  He moved silently through the room and set the scuttle down so softly that he made no noise, and he turned without looking up at anyone and went toward the door again.  Prackle said loudly, "Joseph!"  And Joseph turned without replying, without looking up, and he bowed very slightly.  And Prackle said still loudly, "Joseph, is there any wine or any brandy?"  Joseph shook his head.

Tonder started up from the table, his face wild with anger, and he shouted, "Answer, you swine!  Answer in words!"

Joseph did not look up.  He spoke tonelessly.  "No, sir; no, sir, there is no wine."

And Tonder said furiously, "And no brandy?"

Joseph looked down and spoke tonelessly again.  "There is no brandy, sir."  He stood perfectly still.

"What do you want?" Tonder said.

"I want to go, sir."

"Then go, goddamn it!"

Joseph turned and went silently out of the room and Tonder took a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his face.  Hunter looked at him and said, "You shouldn't let him beat you so easily."

Tonder sat down in his chair and put his hands to his temples and said brokenly, "I want a girl.  I want to go home.  I want a girl.  There's a girl in this town, a pretty girl.  I see her all the time.  She has blond hair.  She lives beside the old-iron store.  I want that girl."

Prackle said, "Watch yourself.  Watch your nerves."

At that moment the lights went out again and the room was in darkness.  Hunter spoke while the matches were being struck and an attempt was being made to light the lanterns; he said, "I thought I had all of them.  I must have missed one.  But I can't be running down there all the time.  I've got good men down there."

Tonder lighted the first lantern and then he lighted the other, and Hunter spoke sternly to Tonder.  "Lieutenant, do your talking to us if you have to talk.  Don't let the enemy hear you talk this way.  There's nothing these people would like better than to know your nerves are getting thin.  Don't let the enemy hear you."

Tonder sat down again.  The light was sharp on his face and the hissing filled the room.  He said, "That's it!  The enemy's everywhere!  Every man, every woman, even children!  The enemy's everywhere!  Their faces look out of doorways.  The white faces behind the curtains, listening.  We have beaten them, we have won everywhere, and they wait and obey, and they wait.  Half the world is ours.  Is it the same in other places, Major?"

And Hunter said, "I don't know."

"That's it," Tonder said.  "We don't know.  The reports - everything in hand.  Conquered countries cheer our soldiers, cheer the new order."  His voice changed and grew soft and still softer.  "What do the reports say about us?  Do they say we are cheered, loved, flowers in our paths?  Oh these horrible people waiting in the snow!"

And Hunter said, "Now that's off your chest, do you feel better?"

Prackle had been beating the table softly with his good fist, and he said, "He shouldn't talk that way.  He should keep things to himself.  He's a soldier, isn't he?  Then let him be a soldier."

The door opened quietly and Captain Loft came in and there was snow on his helmet and snow on his shoulders.  His nose was pinched and red and his overcoat collar was high about his ears.  He took off his helmet and the snow fell to the floor and he brushed his shoulders.  "What a job!" he said.

"More trouble?" Hunter asked.

"Always trouble.  I see they've got your dynamo again.  Well, I think I fixed the mine for a while."

"What's your trouble?" Hunter asked.

"Oh, the usual thing with me - the slowdown and a wrecked dump car.  I saw the wrecker, though.  I shot him.  I think I have a cure for it, Major, now.  I just thought it up.  I'll make each man take out a certain amount of coal.  I can't starve the men or they can't work, but I've really got the answer.  If the coal doesn't come out, no food for the families.  We'll have the men eat at the mine, so there's no dividing at home.  That ought to cure it.  They work or their kids don't eat.  I told them just now."

"What did they say?"

Loft's eyes narrowed fiercely.  "Say.  What do they ever say?  Nothing!  Nothing at all!  But we'll see whether the coal comes out now."  He took off his coat and shook it, and his eyes fell on the entrance door and he saw that it was open a crack.  He moved silently to the door, jerked it open, then closed it.  "I thought I had closed that door tight," he said.

"You did," said Hunter.

Prackle still turned the pages of his illustrated paper.  His voice was normal again.  "Those are monster guns we are using in the east.  I never saw one of them.  Did you, Captain?"

"Oh, yes," said Captain Loft.  "I've seen them fired.  They're wonderful.  Nothing can stand up against them."

Tonder said, "Captain, do you get much news from home?"

"A certain amount," said Loft.

"Is everything well there?"

"Wonderful!" said Loft.  "The armies move ahead everywhere."

"The British aren't defeated yet?"

"They are defeated in every engagement."

"But they fight on?"

"A few air raids, no more."

"And the Russians?"


"It's all over."

Tonder said insistently, "But they fight on?"

"A little skirmishing, no more."


"Then we have just about won, haven't we Captain?" Tonder asked.

"Yes, we have."

Tonder looked closely at him and said, "You believe this, don't you Captain?"

Prackle broke in, "Don't let him start that again!"

Loft scowled at Tonder.  "I don't know what you mean."

Tonder said, "I mean this: we'll be going before long, won't we?"

"Well, the reorganization will take some time," Hunter said.  "The new order can't be put into effect in a day, can it?"

Tonder said, "All our lives, perhaps?"    

And Prackle said, "Don't let him start it again!"

Loft came very close to Tonder and he said, "Lieutenant, I don't like the tone of your questions.  I don't like the tone of doubt."

Hunter looked up and said, "Don't be too hard on him, Loft.  He's tired. We're all tired."

"Well, I'm tired, too," said Loft, "but I don't let treasonable doubts get in."

Hunter said, "Don't bedevil him, I tell you!  Where's the colonel, do you know?"

He's making out his report.  He's asking for reinforcements," said Loft.  "It's a bigger job than we thought."

Prackle asked excitedly, "Will he get them - the reinforcements?"

"How would I know?"

Tonder smiled.  "Reinforcements!" he said softly.  "Or maybe replacements.  Maybe we could all go home for a while."  And he said, smiling, "Maybe I could walk down the street and people would say, 'Hello,' and they'd say, 'There goes a soldier,' and they'd be glad for me and they'd be glad of me.  And there'd be friends about, and I could turn my back to a man without being afraid."

Prackle said, "Don't start that again!  Don't let him get out of hand again!"

And Loft said disgustedly, "We have enough trouble now without having the staff go crazy."

But Tonder went on, "You really think replacements will come, Captain?"

"I didn't say so."

"But you said they might."

"I said I didn't know.  Look, Lieutenant, we've conquered half the world.  We must police it for a while.  You know that."

"But the other half?" Tonder asked.

"They will fight on hopelessly for a while," said Loft.

"Then we must be spread out all over."

"For a while," said Loft.

Prackle said nervously, "I wish you'd make him shut up.  I wish you would shut him up.  Make him stop it."

Tonder got out his handkerchief and blew his nose, and he spoke a little like a man out of his head.  He laughed embarrassedly.  He said, "I had a funny dream.  I guess it was a dream.  Maybe it was a thought.  Maybe a thought or a dream."

Prackle said, "Make him stop, Captain!"

Tonder said, "Is this place conquered, Captain?"

"Of course," said Loft.

A little note of hysteria crept into Tonder's laughter.  He said, "Conquered and we're afraid; conquered and we're surrounded."  His laughter grew shrill.  "I had a dream - or a thought - out in the snow with the black shadows and the faces in the doorways, the cold faces behind curtains.  I had a thought or a dream."

Prackle said, "Make him stop!"

Tonder said, "I dreamed the Leader was crazy."

And Loft and Hunter laughed together and Loft said, "The enemy have found out how crazy.  I'll have to write that one home.  The papers would print that one.  The enemy have learned how crazy the leader is."

And Tonder went on laughing.  "Conquest after conquest, deeper into molasses.  His laughter choked him and he coughed into his handkerchief.  "Maybe the Leader is crazy.  Flies conquer the flypaper.  Flies capture two hundred miles of new flypaper!"  His laughter was growing more hysterical now.

Prackle leaned over and shook him with his good hand, "Stop it!  You stop it!  You have no right!"

And gradually Loft recognized that the laughter was hysterical and he stepped close to Tonder and slapped him in the face.  He said, "Lieutenant, stop it!"

Tonder's laughter went on and Loft slapped him again in the face and he said, "Stop it, Lieutenant!  Do you hear me?"

Suddenly Tonder's laughter stopped and the room was quiet except for the hissing of the lanterns.  Tonder looked in amazement at his hand and he felt his bruised face with his hand and he looked at his hand again and his head sank down toward the table.  "I want to go home," he said.