Perdeau Valley, France, 1918.
The artillery shell rocked Hermann’s machine gun nest like a rickety ship in rough seas. The south wall of sandbags and cypress timbers caved onto two of his mates. Although Hermann and young Gustav quickly extricated them, the men were dead—torsos crushed, their bewildered eyes frozen at the precise moment of their demise. Gustav’s face melted into a blubbering mass, and he unleashed an agonized wail. He then bolted from the nest, ignoring Hermann’s pleas to stay put. Hermann couldn’t fault the kid for his fragility. Gustav was only 17, and he hailed from Plauen, a city renowned for delicate lace, not intrepid soldiers.
Another shell exploded 30 meters away. As seismic waves roiled the earth under Hermann’s feet, the nest rose and plunged like flotsam on a breaking wave. His mouth filled with hot spit, his guts with a prickly queasiness. His nausea, moreover, was tinged with irritation. He’d purposefully avoided enlisting in the navy because of his weak stomach. So how the hell could he be seasick in the midst of a pitched land battle?
Hermann railed at the heavens. “Just send the next bomb and be done with it!”
But there would be no next bomb. An extended quiet—the first in 40 hours—descended on the valley.
When Hermann was confident the pause would hold, he dragged the two corpses outside. His calls to Gustav went unanswered, and searching for the frazzled boy in the mist would’ve been fruitless. As soon as he’d restacked the sandbags and timbers into the semblance of a wall, he ducked back into the nest and awaited whatever would come next—the American ground invasion, he assumed.
He had a more immediate problem, anyway. His hand was in excruciating pain. How long had he been bleeding? He nabbed the first-aid kit from a makeshift shelf on the north wall. He spun a thick cocoon of gauze around the burbling gash on the back of his hand. A crimson dot erupted in the clean white cotton and dilated as if a tiny person buried deep in the mesh was opening a dark red umbrella.
Hermann plopped down on a crude sandbag chair and set the first-aid kit on the dirt. He dubiously regarded his mummified appendage. When the ground battle eventually reached him, he wouldn’t put up much of a fight with only one functional hand to operate the machine gun and reload the ammunition belt. There were morphine syringes in the open first-aid kit. He imagined injecting himself and the pain melting away. The army provided the drug in premeasured doses for this salutary purpose. Yet Hermann understood the malleability of purposes all too well, how easy it was to stretch and twist them into fun-house distortions of their original intentions.
He settled on another option—the fruit brandy Gustav’s father had given the boy before heading to the front. Although the booze was disgustingly sweet, Hermann drank it until his thoughts melted into blackness. His last clear memory was futilely trying to pinpoint the tiny man buried in his bandage.
Hermann started awake sometime later, stomach burning, head throbbing. At least the pain in his hand had settled into a dull, warm thud. He grabbed his binoculars and peered out of the nest. The mist was still thick as soup. Distant machine gun fire suggested that a ground battle was raging on the valley’s far side.
The muffled rat-a-tat-tats reminded him of Herr Professor Heinrich from his university days. The jittery philosophy professor had a habit of drumming his fingers on the blackboard with one hand while writing axioms with the other. Once, he’d presented the “overcrowded lifeboat” hypothetical and asked the class to decide whom they would toss overboard if one person had to be sacrificed to spare everyone else. The professor’s frantic fingers nearly pulverized the blackboard when the students announced their unanimous decision—the professor.
Suddenly, a grunting soldier in a forest green uniform backed into the nest. An American was dragging Gustav by his arms. Gustav’s legs were gone, each pulpy stump tied off with a tourniquet. Hermann unholstered his Luger and trained it on the intruder. He toggled the safety lever, which made a clicking sound. The American raised his hands and turned tentatively.
“Bitte. Bitte,” the American pleaded. He pointed to his armband. “Ich bin ein Sanitäter.”
The man’s perfect German confounded Hermann. The American’s left arm bore a Red Cross brassard. He wore a leather and canvas musette bag over his shoulder. Around his waist hung a bulky medical belt with numerous leather pockets. A small hand ax dangled against his left hip. He was a medic.
“Where’s the rest of your company?” Hermann demanded. “Outside? Why don’t they attack?”
“I… I don’t know where they are. I got lost in the mist.”
“Bullshit! This is a trick. American medics don’t pay house calls to enemy nests.”
“It’s no trick. I’ve been wandering the valley for an hour. I stumbled upon your man here.” He gestured to Gustav’s body at his feet. “I secured the tourniquets, but he’d already lost too much blood. I’m sorry. I couldn’t save him.” The man stepped forward. “Your hand is injured. Perhaps I can help.”
“Stay where you are!”
Hermann tightened his grip on the Luger. Something felt off. The gun was too light. Idiot! He’d neglected to reload it after skirmishing with French reconnaissance soldiers three days earlier. He waved the gun in a shooing motion to direct the medic away from the nest’s opening. He then fumbled for a cardboard box on the makeshift shelf. In his haste, he knocked the box to the ground, scattering bullets at his feet.
Hermann popped the Luger’s magazine and squatted down. He had no trouble inserting two bullets with one hand. For the third round, however, he had to compress the magazine’s spring mechanism with the thumb of his injured hand. The slight exertion roused the pain, and he dropped the magazine.
Hermann struggled to insert the third round. It was impossible. Frustrated, he flicked the bullet away. He jammed the magazine into the grip, but, because his injured hand couldn’t steady the gun, he couldn’t cock the toggle mechanism to load a round in the chamber. Pitiful.
Hermann studied the medic’s earnest, bespectacled face. With his aquiline nose, push broom mustache and jumpy disposition, the American bore a passing resemblance to Herr Professor Heinrich. Hermann concluded that the medic wasn’t much of a threat, and if he became one, he could always brain him with the Luger.
Hermann dropped onto the sandbag chair, exhausted. He then laid the Luger on his lap and extended his blood-soaked mitt to the medic.
The relieved medic knelt before Hermann and examined his hand. “My name is Hamlin. Hamlin Swindle.”
Hermann raised an eyebrow. “Swindle? Are you going to steal my hand?”
“You can’t very well judge a man by his name, can you?”
“Of course you can,” said Hermann. “My last name is Mützenmacher.”
“You are a maker of caps?”
“Caps. Homburgs. Fedoras. All kinds of hats.”
“Well, you generally can’t judge a man by his name.”
Hamlin slid the musette bag from his shoulder and pulled out a silver case imprinted with the words “Mulford Hypo-Unit.” Inside were small collapsible tubes, each with an attached hypodermic needle.
“We’ll need to slide your coat down for the injection,” said Hamlin.
“Put it away.”
“It’ll ease your suffering.”
“I know what it does.”
Hamlin set the syringe in the metal case and then pulled scissors from the bag. He cut the bandage where Hermann had tied it and began unraveling it.
“Your German is flawless,” said Hermann.
“I lived in Essen until I was 10. My father made battleship armor for Krupp and then took a job with Ford in Detroit.”
“And he produced a doctor for a son. He must be proud.”
“Pride was not a word that passed his lips in my presence. Anyway, I’m not a doctor. Just a medic.”
Hamlin unwound the last of the bandage. Blood welled from the gash. He nodded approvingly and said, “Good.”
“How’s that good?” asked Hermann.
“It’s not bleeding too badly.”
Hamlin retrieved a canister of silkworm sutures and a large semicircular surgical needle with a lancet-shaped point. As Hamlin threaded the needle, Hermann broke into a cold sweat.
“Sure you don’t want the morphine?” asked Hamlin.
Hermann took a generous swig of brandy.
Hamlin set down the needle. He opened a pouch on his belt and retrieved an ampoule of iodine with a mesh brush at one end. He snapped the ampoule’s end between his thumb and forefinger, used an unsullied portion of the old bandage to wipe excess blood from the wound, and then liberally painted the wine-colored tincture on Hermann’s hand.
Hamlin bit his lower lip contemplatively.
“What’s the matter?” asked Hermann.
“Your tendon’s partially severed. I’m not qualified to mend it. Don’t worry. A competent surgeon can patch you up when this is over. Shouldn’t impair your hat-making skills one iota.”
“That’s not saying much. I’m a terrible hat-maker.”
“Is that why you enlisted? Couldn’t make ends meet?”
“The hat business is booming—at least it was when I left my wife and son. They make the hats. I just fumble around at the register and sweep up. My father would’ve been ashamed.”
Whispering voices filtered into the nest. English. Hermann shot to his feet and positioned himself behind the machine gun. He still couldn’t discern a damn thing outside, which meant the American soldiers probably couldn’t see the nest either. He waited five minutes, then three more. Suddenly, there they were, five men backing toward the nest. Immersed in the mist, they appeared to have no idea what lay behind them. Hermann did what he was trained to do, what he’d already done scores of times without hesitation or remorse. He opened a strafing fire. It took only a few seconds. Gradually, the creeping mist and the silence reclaimed the five contorted corpses.
After Hermann sat back down in the sandbag chair, he noticed Hamlin’s mortified expression. Hermann shot him a “Hey, it wasn’t personal” look, trying to say, without actually saying, that he hadn’t known those Americans at all, whereas he was on a first-name basis with Hamlin.
Hamlin cleared his throat, then picked up the threaded needle. “Shall we begin?”
Hamlin gently squeezed the gash together, sewed an interrupted stitch, and tied it off with a surgical knot.
“Not a very elegant stitch,” Hermann mused.
“Sorry. It’s the only one I know.”
“I’ve always admired the feather stitch Abe Finkelman sews into his hats. Still, it pales next to my Elsie’s herringbone cross stitch. Elsie’s my wife.”
Hamlin tied and snipped four more surgical knots. He patted the closed wound with clean gauze, then wrapped Hermann’s hand in a fresh bandage.
“Thank you,” said Hermann.
Hamlin pulled a syringe from his bag and slid Hermann’s coat down his shoulder.
“I told you,” Hermann protested, “no morphine.”
“It’s anti-tetanus serum.”
“Oh. Very well.”
Hamlin gave the injection. He then gathered the soiled gauze and placed it in the corner of the nest along with the spent syringe. He wiped the surgical needle with iodine and placed it back in its pouch. He slid the musette bag’s strap around his neck and checked that the pouches on his medical belt were closed. He then stood still for a moment, unsure of his next move.
Hamlin peered outside the nest. “The wind has shifted. The mist is lifting,” he said over his shoulder.
“I don’t hear any gunfire,” said Hermann. “I wonder what’s happening.”
“Do you think the battle’s over?”
“That’d be awful quick. And who won?”
“Do you mind if I wait with you a bit, until we have a better idea what’s going on?”
Hermann extended the half-empty brandy bottle to Hamlin, who sat on the dirt next to him. Hamlin took a drink, wincing at the intense sweetness.
“I know,” said Hermann. “It’s like molasses, but it really packs a punch.”
Hamlin regarded Hermann curiously. “You never answered my question about enlisting.”
“Why are you so interested?”
“I don’t know how to say this without offending, but—”
“Why’s an old fart like me at the front?” Hermann interrupted. “I’m not offended. The answer is I bribed a captain in the mustering office to let me take my son’s place.”
“That was very noble.”
“Isn’t it obvious? You may end up sacrificing your life for his.”
“You can’t sacrifice that which is already dead.”
“I’ve been dead since 1904,” Hermann said in a matter-of-fact tone.
“What, you’re a ghost?”
“In a fashion.”
Hamlin chuckled. “Since when do ghosts require stitches?”
“Oh, I’m alive enough on the outside, but I assure you I’m quite dead inside.”
“All right. I’ll take the bait. How’d you die?”
“When I was young, about your age, I was stationed in the African colonies. I guarded tribesmen in a labor camp run by then-Major von Tannenberg. The men cleared rocks for roads and railroads. Brutal, dangerous work. We fed them next to nothing—uncooked rice and whatever rodents they could scrounge. The women had it worse. Those who weren’t prostituted were forced to boil decapitated heads.”
“What the hell for?”
“For study by our twisted scientists back home in the Fatherland—to prove the inferiority of the Negro race. After the boiling, the women scraped the flesh away with glass shards and packed the cleaned skulls in crates. It was a living nightmare. I kept trying to wake myself up but I couldn’t because it was real.
“One day, a woman—Kakuve was her name—fished her son’s head from the boiling vat. He’d been killed in a black powder explosion, though she didn’t know it yet. The change that passed over Kakuve chilled me to the marrow. It was like invisible fingers had reached into her head and snuffed out the light behind her eyes. She didn’t gasp or wail. Didn’t even cry. She just did what she’d been doing for months—scraped the flesh off the boy’s skull. When she finished, she slit her own throat, lay her head on the table, and stared into her son’s empty sockets.
“I hid the boy’s skull in that rag of a dress she was wearing and hauled her corpse away. She was so light, it was like she was hollow on the inside, like the real Kakuve had crawled out of this shell of a woman. I’d been ordered to dump her body in a pit with all the others. I dug two graves by a quiver tree and buried them there, instead. I must’ve caught something from them because my eyes felt funny afterwards. When I returned to quarters and looked in the mirror, there were two black voids staring back at me. The camp doctor didn’t see anything off. What the hell did he know?
“I began drinking heavily. I got so tipsy one morning, I walked smack into a horse cart pulling railroad ties. Broke my arm. Bone snapped right through the skin. They stitched me up and shot me with heroin. Took the pain clean away. That’s heroin’s purpose, right? But the dope also changed my eyes from black to indigo. I knew I had to be hallucinating, yet I couldn’t help feeling hopeful. Sure, my eyes were screwy, but at least they weren’t dead. I’ll take screwy over dead any day. But there was a catch. I had to keep shooting up to keep them that color. I doubt the geniuses at Bayer had that purpose in mind when they invented heroin.
“I kicked the needle after returning home. I expected my eyes to go dark, and they did, but then so did the rest of my insides, as though a big pit opened from my eyeballs to my guts, and all the feelings I’ve ever had or could ever have fell down it—all but one, that is. Dread. Dread for the nighttime, when I always have that same dream—the one where I’m staring through Kakuve’s eyes as she scrapes flesh from her son’s face.
“That, my friend, is how I died in 1904.”
Hermann lit two cigarettes. He plucked one from his mouth and handed it to Hamlin.
After a puff, Hamlin said, “I guess I’m dead too.”
“My condolences. When did you meet your end?”
“My 21st birthday. There was a draft. I registered as a conscientious objector on the grounds that I’m a Mennonite. Man, was my father pissed. As far as he was concerned, we’d left God behind in Germany. The truth is, I didn’t have a moral objection to killing. I was just scared shitless of war. I assumed if I got called up as a conscientious objector they’d keep me stateside. I’d file paperwork or maybe help deliver freight to the ports. My father kicked me out of the house and said I was dead to him. The next day, his heart gave out. He was dead to me.
“The Navy called me up, trained me as a medic and embedded me with the Marines in France. My plan to avoid war had completely backfired. Didn’t even get a gun to protect myself. But you know what? I’m not that afraid of the bullets and bombs. I just focus on my job. I’ve lost a lot of men. My hands have held their exploded guts. But I’ve saved a few fellows too. Doesn’t matter, though. My dad died thinking his only son was a coward, so now I have to stay dead.”
Hermann rested a hand on Hamlin’s shoulder. Hamlin looked the other way to keep his tears in check. Hermann handed him the brandy.
The two dead men alternated drags and swigs in somber silence, until Hamlin’s face brightened, and he asked, “Is that what I think it is?” He stood and pointed to a dingy brass cornet dangling from a nail in the sandbags. “Holy mackerel! It is. It’s a cornet.”
Hermann smiled. “Want to hold it?” He plucked the instrument from the nail and gave it to him.
Hamlin slid his hand along the curved tube and around the rim of the bell. “This is a real beaut. The James Reese orchestra played ‘The Memphis Blues’ for us a while back. Damn good stuff. Lots of syncopation and crazy notes. I thought they were using trick instruments. Do you play?”
“Me? No. My son’s a huge ragtime fan. He was always pestering me to buy him a cornet. I told him to find a more productive hobby like sword-fighting or boxing. The day I mustered into the army, I was walking down Mauer Street when I heard these amazing sounds spilling out of the Kabarett de Karnivale. I stepped inside and asked the maître-d’ what I was hearing. He said it was ragtime. ‘That’s ragtime?’ I asked him. ‘That’s the music my son goes on and on about?’
“For the first time in years, I felt something other than dread. Joy. Pure joy. I didn’t have to look in a mirror to know my eyes had color again, if only a little. I wanted to sprint home and ask Kasper, my son, to play his ragtime records on the phonograph and tell me about the musicians. But there wasn’t time. I had to report for duty. The only thing I could think of was to ask the cornet player if I could buy his horn for my son. It wasn’t for sale, but he gave me his worn-out spare for free. It’s been two years, and I still haven’t mailed it to Kasper. Why? Because I’m a fool. Because I have the audacity to believe I’ll give it to him in person after the war.”
“You’ll give your son the cornet,” said Hamlin. “Don’t give up hope.” He paused and listened. “Still quiet as a church out there.”
Hermann glanced at the ceiling. “Yeah.” He grabbed his binoculars and scanned outside. “It’s cleared up. Wait. I see men, Germans, they’re walking down the valley. They’re unarmed. Marines behind them. Looks like your side won.”
Hamlin stepped outside, and Hermann followed. The valley was a devastated moonscape of shattered trees and exploded earth, but the sun was shining and the sky was a rich Prussian blue. German and American troops were gathering at the valley’s nadir, near the massive concrete wall holding back Lake Perdeau.
A German runner approached and said, breathlessly, “General von Tannenberg has given his unconditional surrender. All infantrymen are to evacuate their nests, unarmed, and proceed to the dam.”
The runner took off for the next nest a quarter mile away.
“Why do you look so grim, Hermann?” asked Hamlin. “This is good news. Your side lost the battle and you’ll be a POW, but the war shouldn’t last much longer. You’ll be able to give your son that cornet sooner than you think.”
“This doesn’t feel right. Von Tannenberg isn’t the surrendering type.”
Hermann scanned the dam and its environs through his binoculars. He spotted the general and his officers above the dam, on the banks of Lake Perdeau, mingling with American officers. A German captain stood separate from the others. He was holding a snub-nosed pistol and glancing at his wristwatch. As the general spoke with his American counterpart, he nodded to the captain.
Hermann searched the valley’s rim. His battle-trained eyes discerned the telltale rectangular patches of evergreen brush—camouflage for the heavy-siege howitzers. There were three patches on the valley’s east side and four on the west. Every barrel was pointed the same direction, toward the same target.
“We need to get the hell out of here,” said Hermann.
Hamlin started down the valley.
“No. The other way. Up.”
“But the surrender—”
“It’s not a surrender. Von Tannenberg is going to blow the dam. He’s got seven howitzers trained on it.” Hermann took Hamlin’s arm and started uphill. “Come on!”
Hamlin didn’t budge. “That makes no sense. There are more Germans than Americans down there.”
A flare raced skyward like a flaming raven. It soared from von Tannenberg’s position above the dam and arced over the valley.
“It makes perfect sense for von Tannenberg,” said Hermann.
Puffs of smoke appeared around the valley rim, where Hermann had spotted the hidden cannons. Seven rib-rattling booms followed.
“The shells breached the dam,” said Hamlin, his eyes rheumy and voice quivering with horror. “The flood is too big. We’ll never make it out.”
To his surprise, Hermann didn’t despair. Instead, joy surged inside him, the same joy he’d felt when he appreciated ragtime’s appeal, the joy he hadn’t been able to share with his son and never would.
Tears streamed down Hamlin’s cheeks.
Hermann draped a consoling arm around his shoulder. “Don’t be sad. Remember, they can’t kill what’s already dead.”
Mourning doves alighted from twisted stumps throughout the valley. The air filled with a rushing sound, as though a great invisible river was flowing overhead.
Hermann regarded the oval-shaped nest quizzically. It reminded him of something—a story from his childhood, an ancient, impossible story.
“There are at least two healthy swigs of brandy left,” said Hermann. “Come inside and ride out the flood with me.”
“Ride it out to what end?”
“Who really knows what’s at the end? Let’s find out together. You and me. Also, I have a gift for you. I think you’re really going to like it.”
The sunlight refracted in Hamlin’s tears, lending his blue eyes an indigo cast. He slung his arm around Hermann, and then they squeezed inside, side by side.