The Moon is Down

John Steinbeck, 1942

"I will not lie to you, Lieutenant.  They should have trained you for this, and not for flower-strewn streets.  They should have built your soul with truth, not led it along with lies."

The Moon is Down
John Steinbeck, 1942


In the dark, clear night a white, half-withered moon brought little light.  The wind was dry and singing over the snow, a quiet wind that blew steadily, evenly from the cold point of the Pole.  Over the land the snow lay very deep and dry as as sand.  The houses snuggled down in the hollows of banked snow, and their windows were dark and shuttered against the cold, and only a little smoke rose from the banked fires.

In the town the footprints were frozen hard and packed hard.  And the streets were silent, too, except when the miserable, cold patrol came by.  The houses were dark against the night, and a little lingering warmth remained in the houses against the morning.  Near the mine entrance the guards watched the sky and trained their instruments on the sky and turned their listening instruments against the sky, for it was a clear night for bombing.  On nights like this the feathered steel spindles came down and roared to splinters.  The land would be visible from the sky tonight, even though the moon seemed to throw little light.

Down toward one end of the village, among the small houses, a dog complained about the cold and the loneliness.  He raised his nose to his god and gave a long and fulsome account of the state of the world as it applied to him.  He was a practiced singer with a full bell throat and great versatility of range and control.  The six men of the patrol slogging dejectedly up and down the streets heard the singing of the dog, and one of the soldiers said, "Seems to me he's getting worse every night.  I suppose we ought to shoot him."

And another answered, "Why?  Let him howl.  He sounds good to me.  I used to have a dog at home that howled.  I never could break him.  Yellow dog.  I don't mind the howl.  They took my dog when they took the others," he said factually in a dull voice.

And the corporal said, "Couldn't have dogs eating up food that was needed."

"Oh, I'm not complaining.  I know it was necessary.  I can't plan the way the leaders do.  It seems funny to me, though, that some people here have dogs, and they don't have even as much food as we have.  They're pretty gaunt, though, dogs and people."

"They're fools," said the corporal.  "That's why they lost so quickly.  They can't plan the way we can."

"I wonder if we'll have dogs again after it's over," said the soldier.  "I suppose we could get them from America or some place and start the breeds again.  What kind of dogs do you suppose they have in America?"

"I don't know," said the corporal.  "Probably dogs as crazy as everything else they have."  And he went on, "Maybe dogs are no good, anyway.  It might be just as well if we never bothered with them, except for police work."

"It might be," said the soldier.  "I've heard the Leader doesn't like dogs.  I've heard they make him itch and sneeze."

"You hear all kinds of things," the corporal said.  "Listen!"  The patrol stopped and from a great distance came the bee hum of planes.

"There they come," the corporal said.  "Well, there aren't any lights.  It's been two weeks, hasn't it, since they came before?"

"Twelve days," said the soldier.

The guards at the mine heard the high drone of the planes.  "They're flying high," a sergeant said.  And Captain Loft tilted his head back so he could see under the rim of his helmet.  "I judge over 20,000 feet," he said.  "Maybe they're going on over."

"Aren't very many."  The sergeant listened.  "I don't think there are more than three of them.  Shall I call the battery?"

"Just see they're alert, and then call Colonel Lanser - no, don't call him.  Maybe they aren't coming here.  They're nearly over and they haven't started to dive yet."

"Sounds to me like they're circling.  I don't think there are more than two," the sergeant said.

In their beds the people heard the planes and they squirmed deep into their featherbeds and listened.  In the palace of the Mayor the little sound awakened Colonel Lanser, and he turned over on his back and looked at the dark ceiling with wide-open eyes, and he held his breath to listen better and then his heart beat so that he could not hear as well as when he was breathing.  Mayor Orden heard the planes in his sleep and they made a dream for him and he moved and whispered in his sleep.

High in the air the two bombers circled, mud-colored planes.  They cut their throttles and soared, circling.  And from the belly of each one tiny little objects dropped, hundreds of them, one after another.  They plummeted a few feet and then little parachutes opened and drifted small packages silently and slowly toward the earth, and the planes raised their throttles and gained altitude, and then cut their throttles and circled again, and more of the little objects plummeted down, and then the planes turned and flew back in the direction from which they had come.

The tiny parachutes floated like thistledown and the breeze spread them out and distributed them as seeds on the ends of thistledown are distributed.  They drifted so slowly and landed so gently that sometimes the ten-inch packages of dynamite stood upright in the snow, and the little parachutes folded gently down around them.  They looked black against the snow.  The landed in the white fields and among the woods of the hills and they landed in trees and hung down from the branches.  Some of them landed on the housetops of the little town, some in the small front yards, and one landed and stood upright in the snow crown on top of the head of the village statue of St. Albert the Missionary.

One of the little parachutes came down in the street ahead of the patrol and the sergeant said, "Careful!  It's a time bomb."

"It ain't big enough," a soldier said.

"Well, don't go near it."  The sergeant had his flashlight out and he turned it on the object, a little parachute no bigger than a handkerchief, colored light blue, and hanging from it a package wrapped in blue paper.

"Now don't anybody touch it," the sergeant said.  "Harry, you go down to the mine and get the Captain.  We'll keep an eye on this damned thing."

The late dawn came and the people moving out of their houses in the country saw the spots of blue against the snow.  They went to them and picked them up.  They unwrapped the paper and read the printed words.  They saw the gift and suddenly each finder grew furtive, and he concealed the long tube under his coat and went to some secret place and hid the tube.

And word got to the children about the gift and they combed the countryside in a terrible Easter egg hunt, and when some lucky child saw the blue color, he rushed to the prize and opened it and then he hid the tube and told his parents about it.  There were some people who were frightened, who turned the tubes over to the military, but they were not very many.  And the soldiers scurried about the town in another Easter egg hunt, but they were not so good at it as the children were.

In the drawing room of the palace of the Mayor the dining table remained with the chairs about it as it had been placed the day Alex Morden was shot.  The room had not the grace it had when still it was the palace of the Mayor.  The walls, bare of standing chairs, looked very blank.  The table with a few papers scattered about on it made the room look like a business office.  The clock on the mantel struck nine.  It was a dark day now, overcast with clouds, for the dawn gad brought the heavy snow clouds.

Annie came out of the Mayor's room; she swooped at the table and glanced at the papers that lay there.  Captain Loft came in.  He stopped in the doorway, seeing Annie.

"What are you doing here," he demanded.

And Annie said sullenly, "Yes, sir."

"I said, what are you doing here."

"I thought to clean up, sir."

"Let things alone, and go along."

And Annie said, "Yes, sir," and she waited until he was clear of the door, and she scuttled out.

Captain Loft turned back through the doorway and he said, "All right, bring it in."  A soldier came through the door behind him his rifle hung over his shoulder by a strap, and in his arms he held a number of the blue packages, and from the ends of the packages there dangled the little strings and pieces of blue cloth.

Loft said, "Put them on the table."  The soldier gingerly laid the packages down.  "Now go upstairs and report to Colonel Lanser that I'm here with the - things," and the soldier wheeled about and left the room.

Loft went to the table and picked up one of the packages, and his face wore a look of distaste.  He held up the little blue cloth parachute, held it above his head and dropped it, and the cloth opened and the package floated to the floor.  He picked up the package again and examined it.

Now Colonel Lanser came quickly into the room, followed by Major Hunter.  Hunter was carrying a square of yellow paper in his hand.  Lanser said, "Good morning, Captain," and he went to the head of the table and sat down.  For a moment he looked at the little pile of tubes, and then he picked one up and held it in his hand.  "Sit down, Hunter," he said.  "have you examined these?"

Hunter pulled out a chair and sat down.  He looked at the yellow paper in his hand.  "Not very carefully," he said.  "There are three breaks in the railroad all within ten miles."

"Well, take a look at them and see what you think," Lanser said.

Hunter reached for a tube and stripped off the outer covering, and inside was a small package next to the tube.  Hunter took out a knife and cut into the tube.  Captain Loft looked over his shoulder.  Then Hunter smelled the cut and rubbed his fingers together, and he said, "It's silly.  It's commercial dynamite.  I don't know what percent of nitroglycerine until I test it."  He looked at the end.  "It has a regular dynamite cap, fulminate of mercury, and a fuse - about a minute, I suppose."  He tossed the tube back on the table.  "It's very cheap and very simple," he said.

The colonel looked at Loft.  "How many do you think were dropped?"

"I don't know, sir," said Loft.  "We picked up about fifty of them, and about ninety of the parachutes they came in.  For some reason the people leave the parachute when they take the tubes, and then there are probably a lot we haven't found yet."

Lanser waved his hand.  "It doesn't really matter," he said.  "They can drop as many as they want.  We can't stop it, and we can't use it against them, either.  They haven't conquered anybody."

Loft said fiercely, "We can beat them off the face of the earth!"

Hunter was prying the copper cap out of the top of one of the sticks, and Lanser said, "Yes - yes, we can do that.  Have you looked at this wrapper, Hunter?"

"Not yet, I haven't had time."

"It's kind of devilish, this thing," said Colonel Lanser.  "The wrapper is blue, so that it's easy to see.  Unwrap the outer paper and here" - he picked up the small package - "here is a piece of chocolate.  Everybody will be looking for it.  I'll bet our own soldiers steal the chocolate.  Why, the kids will be looking for them, like Easter eggs."

A soldier came in and laid a square of yellow paper in front of the colonel and retired, and Lanser glanced at it and laughed harshly.  "Here's something for you, Hunter.  Two more breaks in your line."

Hunter looked up from the copper cap he was examining, and he asked, "How general is this?  Did they drop them everywhere?"

Lanser was puzzled.  "Now that's the funny thing.  I've talked to the capital.  This is the only place they've dropped them."

"What do you make of that?" Hunter asked.

"Well, it's hard to say.  I think this is a test place.  I suppose if it works here they'll use it all over, and if it doesn't work here they won't bother."

"What are you going to do?" Hunter asked.

"The capital orders me to stamp this out so ruthlessly that they won't drop it anywhere else."

Hunter said plaintively, "How am I going to mend five breaks in the railroad?  I haven't rails right now for five breaks."

"You'll have to rip out some of the old sidings, I guess," said Lanser.

Hunter said, "That'll make a hell of a roadbed."

"Well, anyway, it'll make a roadbed."

Major Hunter tossed the tube he had torn apart onto the pile, and Loft broke in, "We must stop this thing at once, sir.  We must arrest and punish people who picked these things up, before they use them.  We have to get busy so these people won't think we are weak."

Lanser was smiling at him, and he said, "Take it easy, Captain.  Let's see what we have first, and then we'll think of remedies."

He took a new package from the pile and unwrapped it.  He took the little piece of chocolate, tasted it, and he said, "This is a devilish thing.  It's good chocolate, too.  I can't resist it myself.  The prize in the grab bag."  Then he picked up the dynamite.  "What do you think of this, really, Hunter?"

What I told you.  It's very cheap and effective for small jobs, dynamite with a cap and a one-minute fuse.  It's good if you know how to use it.  It's no good if you don't."

Lanser studied the print on the inside of the wrapper.  "Have you read this?"

"Glanced at it," said Hunter.

"Well, I have read it, and I want you to listen to it carefully," said Lanser.  He read from the paper, "'To the unconquered people:  Hide this.  Do not expose yourself.  You will need this later.  It is a present from your friends to you and from you to the invaders of your country.  Do not try to do large things with it.'"  He began to skip through the bill.  "Now here, 'rails in the country.' And, 'work at night.' And, 'tie up transportation.'  Now here, 'Instructions: rails. Place stick under rail close to the joint, and tight against a tie.  Pack mud or hardbeaten snow around it so that it firm.  When the fuse is lighted you have a slow count of sixty before it explodes.'"

He looked up at Hunter and Hunter said simply, "It works."  Lanser looked back at his paper and he skipped through.  "'Bridges:  Weaken, do not destroy.'  And here, 'transmission poles,' and here, 'culverts, trucks.'"  He laid the blue handbill down.  "Well, there it is."

Loft said angrily, "We must do something!  There must be a way to control this.  What does headquarters say?"

Lanser pursed his lips and his fingers played with one of the tubes.  "I could have told you what they'd say before they said it.  I have the orders.  'Set booby traps and poison the chocolate.'"  He paused for a moment and then he said, "Hunter, I'm a good, loyal man, but sometimes when I hear the ideas of headquarters, I wish I were a civilian, an old crippled civilian.  They always think they are dealing with stupid people.  I don't say that this is a measure of their intelligence, do I?"

Hunter looked amused.  "Do you?"

Lanser said sharply, "No, I don't.  But what will happen?  One man will pick up one of these and get blown to bits by our booby trap.  One kid will eat the chocolate and die of strychnine poisoning.  And then?"  He looked down at his hands.  "They will poke them with poles, or lasso them, before they touch them.  They will try the chocolate on the cat.  Goddamn it, Major, these are intelligent people.  Stupid traps won't catch them twice."

Loft cleared his throat.  "Sir, this is defeatist talk," he said.  "We must do something.  Why do you suppose it was only dropped here, sir?"

And Lanser said, "For one of two reasons: either this town was picked at random or else there is communication between this town and the outside.  We know that some of the young men have got away."

Loft repeated dully, "We must do something, sir."

Now Lanser turned on him.  "Loft, I think I'll recommend you for the General Staff.  You want to get to work before you even know what the problem is.  This is a new kind of conquest.  Always before, it was possible to disarm a people and keep them in ignorance.  Now they listen to their radios and we can't stop them.  We can't even find their radios."

A soldier looked in through the doorway.  "Mr. Corell to see you, sir.

Lanser replied, "Tell him to wait."  He continued to talk to Loft.  They read the handbills; weapons drop from the sky for them.  Now it's dynamite, Captain.  Pretty soon, it may be grenades, and then poison."

Loft said anxiously, "They haven't dropped poison yet."

"No, but they will.  Can you think what will happen to the morale of our men or even to you if the people had those little game darts, you know, those silly little things you throw at a target, the points coated perhaps with cyanide, silent, deadly little things that you couldn't hear coming, that would pierce the uniform and make no noise?  And what if our men knew that arsenic was about?  Would you or they drink or eat comfortably?"

Hunter said dryly, "Are you writing the enemy's campaign, Colonel?"

"No, I'm trying to anticipate it."

Loft said, "Sir, we sit here talking when we should be searching for this dynamite.  If there is organization among these people, we have to find it, we have to stamp it out."

"Yes," said Lanser, "we have to stamp it out, ferociously, I suppose.  You take a detail, Loft, Get Prackle to take one.  I wish we had more junior officers.  Tonder's getting killed didn't help us a bit.  Why couldn't he let women alone?"

Loft said, "I don't like the way Lieutenant Prackle is acting, sir."

"What's he doing?"

"He isn't doing anything, but he's jumpy and he's gloomy."

"Yes," Lanser said, "I know.  It's a thing I've talked about so much.  You know," he said, "I might be a major general if I hadn't talked about it so much.  We trained our young men for victory and you've go to admit they're glorious in victory, but they don't quite know how to act in defeat.  We told them they were brighter and braver than other young men.  It was a kind of shock to them to find out that they aren't a bit braver or brighter than other young men."

Loft said harshly, "What do you mean by defeat?  We are not defeated."

And Lanser looked coldly up at him for a long moment and did not speak, and finally Loft's eyes wavered, and he said, "Sir."

"Thank you," said Lanser.

"You don't demand it of the others, sir."

"They don't think about it, so it isn't an insult.  When you leave it out, it's insulting."

"Yes, sir," said Loft.

"Go on, now, try to keep Prackle in hand.  Start your search.  I don't want any shooting unless there's an overt act, do you understand?"

"Yes, sir," said Loft, and he saluted formally and went out of the room.

Hunter regarded Colonel Lanser amusedly.  "Weren't you rough on him?"

"I had to be.  He's frightened.  I know his kind.  He has to be disciplined when he's afraid or he'll go to pieces.  He relies on discipline the way other men rely on sympathy.  I suppose you'd better get to your rails.  You might as well expect that tonight is the time when they'll really blow them, though."

Hunter stood up and he said, "Yes.  I suppose the orders are coming in from the capital?"


"Are they -"

"You know what they are," Lanser interrupted.  "You know what they'd have to be.  Take the leaders, shoot the leaders, take hostages, shoot the hostages, take more hostages, shoot them" - his voice had risen but now it sank almost to a whisper - "and the hatred growing and the hurt between us growing deeper and deeper."

Hunter hesitated.  "Have they condemned any from the list of names?” and he motioned slightly toward the Mayor's bedroom.

Lanser shook his head.  "No, not yet.  They are just arrested so far."

Hunter said quietly, "Colonel, do you want me to recommend - maybe you're overtired, Colonel?  Could I - you know - could I report that you're overtired?"

For a moment Lanser covered his eyes with his hand, and then his shoulders straightened and his face grew hard.  "I'm not a civilian, Hunter.  We're short enough of officers already.  You know that. Get to work, Major.  I have to see Corell."

Hunter smiled.  He went to the door and opened it, and he said out of the door, "Yes, he's here," and over his shoulder he said to Lanser, "It's Prackle.  He wants to see you."

"Send him in," said Lanser.

Prackle came in, his face sullen, belligerent.  "Colonel Lanser, sir, I wish to -"

"Sit down," said Lanser.  "Sit down and rest a moment.  Be a good soldier, Lieutenant."

The stiffness went out of Prackle quickly.  He sat down beside the table and rested his elbows on it.  "I wish -"

And Lanser said, "Don't talk for a moment.  I know what it is.  You didn't think it would be this way, did you?  You thought it would be rather nice."

"They hate us," Prackle said.  "They hate us so much."

Lanser smiled.  "I wonder if I know what it is.  It takes young men to make good soldiers, and young men need young women, is that it?"

"Yes, that's it."

"Well," Lanser said kindly, "does she hate you?"

Prackle looked at him in amazement.  "I don't know, sir.  Sometimes I think she's only sorry."

"And you're pretty miserable?"

"I don't like it here, sir."

"No, you thought it would be fun, didn't you?  Lieutenant Tonder went to pieces and then he went out and they got a knife in him.  I could send you home.  Do you want to be sent home, knowing we need you here?"

Prackle said uneasily, "No, sir, I don't."

"Good.  Now I'll tell you, and I hope you'll understand it.  You're not a man any more.  You are a soldier.  Your comfort is of no importance and, Lieutenant, your life isn't of much importance.  If you live, you will have memories.  That's about all you will have.  Meanwhile you must take orders and carry them out.  Most of the orders will be unpleasant, but that's not your business.  I will not lie to you, Lieutenant.  They should have trained you for this, and not for flower-strewn streets.  They should have built your soul with truth, not led it along with lies."  His voice grew hard.  "But you took the job, Lieutenant.  Will you stay with it or quit it?  We can't take care of your soul."

Prackle stood up.  "Thank you, sir."

"And the girl," Lanser continued, "the girl, Lieutenant, you may rape her, or protect her, or marry her - that is of no importance so long as you shoot her when it is ordered."

Prackle said wearily, ""Yes, sir, thank you, sir."

"I assure you it is better to know.  I assure you of that.  It is better to know.  Go now, Lieutenant, and if Corell is still waiting, send him in."  And he watched Lieutenant Prackle out of the doorway.

When Mr. Corell came in, he was a changed man.  His left hand was in a cast and he was no longer the jovial, friendly, smiling Corell.  His face was sharp and bitter, and his eyes squinted down like little dead pig's eyes.

"I should have come before, Colonel," he said, "but your lack of cooperation made me hesitant."

Lanser said, "You were waiting for a reply to your report, I remember."

"I was waiting for much more than that.  You refused me a position of authority.  You said I was valueless.  You did not realize that I was in this town long before you were.  You left the Mayor in his office, contrary to my advice."

Lanser said, "Without him here we might have had more disorder than we have."

"That is a matter of opinion," Corell said.  "This man is a leader of a rebellious people."

"Nonsense," said Lanser; "he's just a simple man."

With his good hand Corell took a black notebook from his right pocket and opened it with his fingers.  "You forget, Colonel, that I had my sources, that I had been here a long time before you.  I have to report to you that Mayor Orden has been in constant contact with every happening in this community.  On the night that Lieutenant Tonder was murdered, he was in the house where the murder was committed.  When the girl escaped to the hills, she stayed with one of his relatives.  I traced her there, but she was gone.  Whenever men have escaped, Orden has known about it and has helped them.  And I even strongly suspect that he is somewhere in the picture of these little parachutes."

Lanser said eagerly, "But you can't prove it."

"No," Corell said, "I can't prove it.  The first thing I know; the last I only suspect.  Perhaps now you will be willing to listen to me."

Lanser said quietly, "What do you suggest?"

"These suggestions, Colonel, are a little stronger than suggestions.  Orden must now be a hostage and his life must depend on the peacefulness of the community.  His life must depend on the lighting of one single fuse on one single stick of dynamite."

He reached into his pocket again and brought out a little folding book, and he flipped it open and laid it in front of the colonel.  "This, sir, was the answer to my report from headquarters.  You will notice that it gives me certain authority."

Lanser looked at the little book and he spoke quietly.  "You really did go over my head, didn't you?"  He looked up at Corell with frank dislike in his eyes.  "I heard you'd been injured.  How did it happen?"

Corell said, "On the night your lieutenant was murdered I was waylaid.  The patrol saved.  Some of the townsmen escaped in my boat that night.  Now, Colonel, must I express more strongly than I have that Mayor Orden must be held hostage?"

Lanser said, "He is here, he hasn't escaped.  How can we hold him more hostage than we are?"

Suddenly in the distance there was a sound of an explosion, and both men looked around in the direction from which it came.  Corell said, "There it is, Colonel, and you know perfectly well that if this experiment succeeds there will be dynamite in every invaded country."

Lanser repeated, "What do you suggest?"

"Just what I have said.  Orden must be held against rebellion."

"And if they rebel and we shoot Orden?"

Then that little doctor is next; although he holds no position, he's next in authority in the town."

"But he holds no office."

"He has the confidence of the people."

"And when we shoot him, what then?"

"Then we have authority.  Then rebellion will be broken.  When we have killed the leaders, the rebellion will be broken."

Lanser asked quizzically, "Do you really think so?"

"It must be so."

Lanser shook his head slowly and then he called, "Sentry!"  The door opened and a soldier appeared in the doorway.  "Sergeant," said Lanser, I have placed Mayor Orden under arrest, and I placed Doctor Winter under arrest.  You will see to it that Orden is guarded and you will bring Winter here immediately."

The sentry said, "Yes, sir."

Lanser looked up at Corell and he said, "You know, I hope you know what you're doing.  I do hope you know what you're doing."