Author’s Note: What follows is an excerpt of a project I’ve been working on for a little while now. It’s been a while since I’ve posted any of my own work, so I figured I’d toss this one out there. The novel itself is in a state of severe ‘take entirely apart and put back together again’ revision, so whether this scene even stays is on the ropes. I think it makes for a pretty sweet opening, anyway. Hope you enjoy it and, of note, it is *rough*, so please excuse the occasional typo/awkward phrase. Thanks! ~AAH
The men moved like hunting dogs in the dying light – heads cocked, ears pointed to the sky, every step made with ruthless caution. The ruined city looked as though cloaked in snow, a thin layer of white coating the blackened remnants of apartment buildings, machinery, and lampposts. It was not snow. It was ash.
Somewhere not very far away the frenetic pop and crack of rifles would start up and then stop and then start again. This was a time of peace for the city; in an hour or so, when darkness filled every empty doorway and rubble-choked trench, the real dirty fighting would begin again. Face-to-face, toe-to-toe, Stalin had ordered his soldiers as close to the Germans as they could get, hugging their lines in a masochistic embrace. The dead were piled in every alley, Russian and German alike.
Then men creeping down the ash-white street knew this. They were all veterans who had invaded the city with Hitler’s Sixth Army and had been here ever since, painting the masonry of Stalin’s city with the blood of its defenders. Hard men in chalk-grey coats, their eyes a thousand miles away, their fingers never far from the trigger. They moved quickly; they knew the way.
None of them looked at the officer who was with them, striding down the street as though this place were the corridors of his private library. His black trenchcoat was spotlessly clean, his peaked cap, which had never known the touch of dirt, sported the silver eagle of the Reich, and his leather gloves still shone. He had arrived in the city just yesterday, with a signed order from the Führer himself. He said his name was Hoffstadt, and that ten men were to take him behind Soviet lines and into an area of the city known to be abandoned and avoided by both sides for reasons no German officer had been able to adequately explain to his superiors.
No one had dared to argue with him; the men simply hoped Hoffstadt would catch a sniper’s bullet and then the ten of them could ditch his body and head back to their own lines. He had not. Not yet.
Stalingrad had been so ravaged by the battle that it was difficult, at times, to tell where a street ended and a ruin began and vice versa. Hoffstadt got the sense that they were crossing streets and slinking through ruins rather than following the map he’d been given; he found himself passing through the devastated remnants of kitchens and sitting rooms, bullet-riddled bedrooms and bathrooms. He felt like an archaeologist of sorts, passing through the living spaces of people long since dead and gone and for whom there would be no eulogy save their bathtub, shrapnel cracked and smoke stained, that had once served as a crucial machine gun nest.
The sergeant called the men to a halt with a silent hand gesture. They were at the base of a stairway that led to nothing – a building whose top floors had been removed by some work of explosive destruction – peering through a half-open doorway with the tangled concrete rubble of the rest of the city block on two sides. Not bothering to duck, Hoffstadt stepped beside the sergeant and whispered. “What is the matter? Why the delay?”
“Please, mein Herr, lower your voice.” The sergeant hissed. “The enemy could be anywhere.”
“We haven’t seen or heard a Russian for blocks now.” Hoffstadt said, brushing dust off his epaulets. “You men have become overly cautious. This area is devoid of enemy activity.”
“And yet, mein Herr, those who go in do not come out.”
“That, gentlemen, is why I am here. Trust me – I am prepared for what we face.” He patted the satchel at his side. “Is it just over there?”
The sergeant poked his head out of the door in the direction that Hoffstadt pointed. “The Russians claim the koldun lives in that church across that plaza, yes. Allow my men to secure the area, though, before you…”
Hoffstadt stepped through the door and into the open.
The church was not a church, of course. Not anymore – the communists had repurposed the building, torn down its iconography, and made it into a shrine to the Russian Worker, instead. Iron murals of taut-muscled young men working hammers and scythes flanked the entryway; posters with red stars and the mustachioed face of Comrade Stalin were plastered across fat stone pillars. The front of the church had taken a direct hit from an artillery shell, leaving a ragged hole in the upper façade, like a mouth wailing at the sky. Hoffstadt walked toward it, and when he was not shot, the soldiers followed, hopping from cover to cover as they crawled in his wake.
The plaza before the church was strewn with rubble and threaded haphazardly with razorwire, but these things did not catch Hoffstadt’s attention. He stepped around and past them, his eyes fixed on a spectacle spread out across the base of the wide stairs leading up to the church’s front doors. It was a row of wooden stakes, each over six feet long, set into the ground at regular intervals. Impaled on each was a human head, severed at the neck or perhaps torn from its moorings – it was difficult to tell. Flies buzzed around each stake, and as Hoffstadt grew closer, he could see that each was sticky with blood. He stopped just shy of crossing the line. The soldiers, weapons ready, crouched in the half-darkness behind him.
“Hello in there!” Hoffstadt yelled in Russian. The deathly silence of the plaza seemed to swallow the words. He raised his voice. “Is anyone at home? Hello?”
As one, the eyes of the severed heads opened. Hoffstadt’s breath caught in his throat. “Is that you, Khostov?”
The bloodied, lipless mouths of the heads moved in unison. The soft, rasping whisper of a dozen severed vocal chords awkwardly vibrating filled the air. “Who are you?”
Hoffstadt smiled and looked back at the soldiers. Their faces were as pale as those of the heads. They looked at him with wide, panicked eyes. He motioned for calm and, just for fun, gave them a wink. He then planted his feet and faced the heads again. “So it is you, isn’t it?”
“Who are you?”
“I am Ernst Hoffstadt, special advisor attached to the Führer’s SS. I am looking for the Russian sorcerer named Vitaly Khostov. Is there anyone by that name here?” Hoffstadt grinned. “Perhaps it is one of these heads, eh?”
“You are not welcome here.” The heads moaned. Their fish-white eyes rolled in their blackened sockets.
“Yes. I had gathered that.” Hoffstadt reached into the satchel and drew out a small pewter flask embossed with a golden swastika. He casually unscrewed the cap.
“Sir!” The sergeant had his MP40 trained on the heads; his hands shook. “What…what is this? Is this real?”
Hoffstadt looked down at the man and thought about it. No, there was no sense in explaining. “It’s electronics, Sergeant. A theatre show, yes? Remain calm – all is well.”
“You are not welcome here.” The heads repeated.
Hoffstadt chuckled. “And yet, here I am.” He stepped forward a full pace, up to the very edge of the line of stakes, and poured a fine white powder out of the flask. It collected in a small pile at his feet; he began to walk, drawing a white line against the scorched, blackened earth in a large circle about two paces across and then took up a position at the center of it.
“Begone.” The whispers from the dead lips lacked inflection, but Hoffstadt felt he could detect something behind the words—frustration, perhaps. Annoyance? All the better.
“I will not leave until I’ve completed my mission, Herr Khostov. My mission is to speak with you, in person. If you will come out of your little ruin and have a conversation with me, I will gladly go away. Until then, I’m afraid you’re stuck with me.” Hoffstadt smiled and folded his hands behind his back. He waited for the counterstroke.
It came from one of the soldiers. He was a simple private – a youngish man with an uneven yellow beard. His blue eyes were transfixed on the heads, his face locked in an expression of mute horror. Out of the corner of his eye, Hoffstadt saw him slowly stand up, Mauser rifle gripped tightly in his hands, eyes still glued to the heads. Hoffstadt could see their lips moving, but they made no sound. Whatever they said, it was for the soldier alone.
“Gerd!” The sergeant barked, “Get down! What is the matter with you.”
Hoffstadt smiled and drew his nickel-plated P38 from its embossed holster. “Do not worry, Sergeant. Gerd isn’t himself at the moment.”
The soldier turned his rifle towards Hoffstadt, his eyes nearly popping out of his head, his veins bulging from his neck. Hoffstadt waited just long enough to make certain the young private couldn’t snap out of it, and then he shot him once through the heart. Gerd dropped his rifle, fell to his knees, and then collapsed, face first, into the ash. The soldiers were utterly still; some of them looked to the sergeant.
“You acknowledge, Sergeant, that young Gerd over there was about to shoot me, yes?”
The sergeant was looking at Gerd’s body. His face was as gray as his coat. “Yes, mein Herr. Yes, but…”
Hoffstadt turned back to the heads. “A very good trick, Herr Khostov, but you must agree that it is inefficient. I can shoot down any man you seek to dominate, and then where are we, eh?”
The heads regarded him with their empty eyes, their mouths quivering in unison. It took Hoffstadt a moment, but he realized that they were laughing.
“Mein…mein Herr…” The sergeant managed to croak, his voice labored as though he were carrying a great weight. Hoffstadt looked – the sergeant was slowly rising, his eyes fixed upon the dead gaze of the heads, just as Gerd’s had been. All nine of the remaining men were doing the same, all of their faces frozen with terror, all of them slowly, inexorably turning their weapons towards Hoffstadt.
Seven rounds left in the magazine, nine men. Hoffstadt kept calm, taking careful aim. The pistol barked seven times, and seven more bodies dropped. The last two were the Sergeant and his corporal. Hoffstadt could see them fighting the compulsion, their bodies trembling as though they might shake apart at any moment. Hoffstadt fell to one knee as the corporal fired, the rifle shot zinging past his head close enough to blow off his hat. He ejected the P38 magazine with one hand as the other fished its replacement out of his satchel. The corporal’s trembling hands reluctantly worked the bolt on his Mauser.
The sergeant’s MP40, though, was unlikely to miss at this range. The submachine gun roared to life, spitting a half dozen rounds into Hoffstadt’s chest, ripping apart his fine trenchcoat and throwing the SS operative onto his back.
The sergeant’s weapon jammed, but the compelled German soldier could not stop holding down the trigger. Hoffstadt rolled to knees and stood up, chuckling. “You are not the only one with secrets, Herr Khostov.” He chambered the first round in his pistol and shot the sergeant in the face, then the corporal in the throat – his aim was a bit off.
The heads had fallen silent.
Hoffstadt took off the trenchcoat. His uniform beneath was likewise riddled with bullets, but the effect was less noticeable. He shook himself and the flattened slugs clattered out from underneath his shirt. “The Green Draught – surely you know it, yes? My, but it tastes terrible. The effects, though,” Hoffstadt pointed to his chest. “They cannot be argued with.”
“It only protects against some things.” A figure in a dark cowl stood in the doors of the old church. Hoffstadt could see nothing of his features, but his voice was somehow still and cold, like a pond in winter.
“Herr Khostov, I presume.”
The figure did not move. “What do you want?”
Hoffstadt holstered his pistol and picked his hat up, brushing the ashes off its brim. “It is not what I want, Herr Khostov, but what you want. I come with an offer from the Führer himself.”
The black-cowled form of Khostov came closer, seeming to float down the cracked steps. In the distance, an artillery shell exploded, lighting the sky. “And why would I accept an offer made by your Führer?”
“Do you think there is a future for you here?” Hoffstadt squinted in the dying light at the Russian sorcerer. He thought he might have seen something…glowing. Underneath the hood of the cowl, perhaps?
“You presume a great deal.” Khostov stood at the edge of the line of stakes, their grisly top-pieces now silent. Another shell brightened the waning light of day.
“The Russians are finished, Herr Khostov. When we have crushed them here, it will all soon be over. Even if it weren’t true, just how welcoming do you think Comrade Stalin will be of a man of your…peculiar talents? He will seek to enslave you; the Reich would seek to uplift you. We welcome you as a member of the superior race. This could be the beginning of your greatest triumph.”
“You would have me abandon brutes to work with butchers.” Khostov observed quietly. Hoffstadt could definitely see something glimmering beneath the cowl, now, as the night was falling faster and faster.
“We are but pruning the tree of humanity, Herr Khostov. We are paying the price for a better tomorrow—surely you, of all people, would understand the need for sacrifice to achieve greatness.”
Khostov, now barely visible except as a black outline in the dark, shook his cowled head. “No. I am no judge of such things and neither is Hitler. I reject your offer, Ernst Hoffstadt.” The sorcerer moved to come closer, but paused at the edge of the white powder the nazi had poured around himself.
Hoffstadt grinned. “Salt, Herr Khostov. The barrier your kind cannot cross, yes? We have studied, you see. We know more than you realize.”
Khostov produced a sound that Hoffstadt thought was some kind of cough or wheeze, but as it intensified, he realized that the Russian sorcerer was laughing. It was a thin, gallows-laugh, mirthless and chilling. Somewhere, far away, another bomb dropped, shaking the earth. “I’m afraid I don’t understand what’s so funny, Herr Khostov…”
Khostov’s hooded head turned towards him, and now Hoffstadt could see the two globes of pale green light hanging there in the depths of the cowl – the eyes of something wicked, something damned. “You have made a mistake only a Nazi would, Hoffstadt.” The sorcerer – the creature – stepped smoothly over the line of salt. “This salt is not kosher.”
Hoffstadt staggered backwards, but Khostov’s hands – little more than bony claws – seized him by the arm. There was the flash of a distant flare and, for a split second, Hoffstadt saw what was beneath the sorcerer’s cowl: A half-decayed human skull, muscle clinging in tarry strips across the face, and floating in the empty eye-sockets was that deathly green light.
Ernst Hoffstadt’s screams were muffled by the sound of Nazi bombs and artillery shells rending asunder that which, with utmost care and hope, Russian hands had put together.
I love listening to veterans talk about their experiences. Usually it’s the ones that don’t like to talk about it that have the most incredible tales. These stories aren’t really the har-har, slap-your-knee, ain’t-it-cool type things you usually get from anecdotes–they’re something different. You, the listener, are getting a glimpse of a place you probably will never go, assuming you’re reasonable lucky and live in a serviceable stable society. War isn’t noble or good or awesome or anything like that–I’m no jingoist–and the stories that come from it aren’t there to entertain. They exist, for me, as a fascinating window into a state of human existence beyond the scope of my experience or understanding. I crave them because I want to hear how regular people react to completely impossible, improbably scenarios. They’re hard things to understand sometimes, or sometimes they’re too easy so long as you don’t ask, but they draw you in anyway; they get you caught in their teeth and won’t let go. They stick with you forever.
Tim O’Brien, in his simply incredible collection of short stories The Things They Carried, has one story called “How to Tell a True War Story” that puts the trouble with war stories best:
You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterwards you ask, “Is it true?” and if the answer matters, you’re got your answer.
For example, we’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.
Is it true?
The answer matters.
You’d feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the ways all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen–and maybe it did, anything’s possible–even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Happeningness is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.
The experience of war is a mess, from what I am given to understand. Tim O’Brien knows this better than most; I am willing to trust his word. He’s right about the question of truth, anyway–truth doesn’t depend on fact and never has. Those who compile their understanding of the world on the basis of fact alone are living half a life, are seeing half the world.
For this Veterans Day, I’ve got two war stories for you. The first is from my Great Uncle, now deceased, who was a tank commander in the US Army during World War 2. He drove a Sherman through Italy and, at one point, experienced 150 hours straight of combat. Straight–no breaks. A week of being shot at, shooting, being scared as hell, and barely sleeping. You don’t believe it, take it up with him. He didn’t talk about it much, but I do have this story:
Bro (my uncle’s name) and his crew never left the tank if they could avoid it. They slept in it, they ate in it, the lived in it–a rolling armored apartment with not much elbow room but lots of armor plating between them and any bullets heading their way. They were driving up through the Italian countryside–I don’t know where they were going or their precise mission, but it was close to the front–when they come upon a German motorcycle leaning against a tree. This was a sweet bike–brand new BMW, still shiny, no apparent damage. Yeah, sure, it’s just a motorcycle, but this is a tank full of teenagers and early twenty-somethings and this is a free BMW motorcycle. The Germans were running for the hills at this point, so they figured it was left behind.
Breaking with all tradition, they decide the bike is too valuable to leave behind for some infantryman or supply douchebag to snag as his own, so they all hop out of the tank and lift the thing up on the back and spend a minute or two tying the thing down. After they get it secure, they get back inside the tank.
The second the hatch closes, the whole tank shudders and the world roars as an enemy artillery shell hits the tree the motorcycle was leaning against. The tank is fine, the guys inside are fine, but the motorcycle was shredded to ribbons. Had they spent another ten seconds outside admiring the thing, they would all have been dead.
That’s it–that’s the story. My Uncle Bro went on to weather the whole war without sustaining injury until the very end, after V-E Day. His tank was being transported via train to where it would be loaded up and taken back to the States. True to form, he was sleeping inside. When the tank fell off the train, he bashed his head open on the metal bulwark inside and had to have a steel plate put in his skull.
What’s that all mean? No idea. Did it happen? Don’t really care. It sucks me in anyway. I think about it all the time–those guys peering out their hatch and through their little view-slits to take a gander and a gleaming BMW and risk their lives on it. I love it, and I know it’s true in all the ways that matter to me.
The other story is something different. Met an old guy at a party once–faint German accent, well dressed, said he was a dentist. Told me this story:
He was a soldier in the German army in World War 2, and he served on the Eastern Front. He was at Stalingrad and he related, with a kind of ghoulish grimace I can’t simulate or understand, how “when the Russians came, they came women first.” He said there were men who wouldn’t shoot the women, but they had knives and cleavers and axes and clubs, and when they got to you, you died. “So,” he said, “I shot the women.”
One day he was firing his gun (I gathered from the description it was either an MP40 or Sturmgewehr or something) at a human wave coming at him, howling for blood. The air was so cold and the gun was so hot that his hands were numb so, when he heard the sharp crack, he expected to see that his gun had jammed. Instead, the bottom of the gun had been blown off by a stray bullet (or perhaps it was aimed–who knows). It’s path through the gun had taken off the bottom of his right hand–the last two fingers.
At this point in the story, the old man held up his mutilated hand–his evidence, his proof. He then added, “It was good that they shot off my fingers, because I was put on a plane to the rear for medical attention. It was the last plane out before the rest of the army was cut off.”
He showed me that grimace again and chuckled dryly. “Not many others made it out. Nobody I knew, anyway.”
After the war he came to America and spend decades not telling anyone about what he had done during the war. Then, one day, he decided he ought to talk about it. I don’t know if I believe him, but the story stuck with me anyway.
Where am I going with this? I’m not sure, except to say that we ought to remember that the veterans we welcome home bring with them a heavy burden of narrative. How to describe something so alien as war? Not many are equal to the task; still, if they should talk to you, it is the least you can do to listen.