Prologue: A BEDTIME STORY
It was a cold day, so cold you could see the smoke turn to frost as it rose off our fires. We were bundled up with any bit of clothing we could find. We didn’t know if we were going to die from the cold or from suffocating under the weight of the wool. Sammy and I decided to break off from our troop and check out the North end of the village. Sarge never liked when we split off on our own, but even he knew better than to argue with Sammy.
The town was quiet. The villagers had been gone for some time from what we could gather, and they had left pretty quick, too. There were overturned wheelbarrows, broken doors, and no sign of life within a mile
Sammy took the lead, and I lagged behind, searching through windows to see if there was any good loot left in the exodus. All I saw were empty houses and broken dishes in the sinks. It was a real shame. This place was a cute village before all the chaoscame through.
I scanned ahead to find where Sammy had gotten to. He stood about fifty yards away in a small square. We caught each others eyes. A cloud of pink mist replaced where his head had been. It mingled in the air above his swaying body. I had no idea what to do other than hide, so I threw myself into the nearest doorway before his corpse hit the ground.
My adrenaline was pumping as I scrambled through the cottage. I pinballed my way through the kitchen,tripping around chairs, dishes, and the dead occupants cluttering the room. I shook the macabre sight from my head and locked my eyes onto the far set of stairs. I clamored up to the second level and dashed into the open door at the top of the landing, pushing it closed behind me. I Backed away from the door and stared into the wood grain. Its ancient layers were all that separated me from the Nazi scum sweeping through the village.
I tripped over the bed, rolling ass over heels to the ground, settling in the far corner, facing the door. I was breathing hard and coated in a slick sweat beneath my heavy layers.
I huddled in the dark for hours, waiting for the Nazi patrol to finish their sweep and move on. The shot that took out Sammy was only the first one; the afternoon was peppered with sporadic pops and cracks as the rest of my squad were hunted down in the streets. The Nazis made short work of anyone left in the open, including my band of brothers. It wasall I could do to stay quiet and stay alive. So I huddled in the cold, listening to the gunfire as my friends were dispatched with all prejudice.
The minutes fused into hours which fused into dusk. The damp from my sweat seeped into my clothes. I ached inside and out from the piercing chill. My hope was to keep warm enough to stave off the majority of frostbite trying to claim my fingers and toes as the night’s chill wrapped around me.
The sadistic sound ofgunfire died away. There would’ve been no point in my trying to be a hero. My squad was gone, and any adrenaline-fueled assault I might have been able to mount would have been cut short before it even started. Surviving the night and getting back to my company were what mattered. After that, a long-awaited transfer back to the states and home was what fueled me to stay put.
Hours passed, and the heavy boots in the street outside softened their beat. It had been at least an hour since I heard any soldiers. My thighs screamed for movement. I had been crouched behind the bed the whole time. To take my mind off the searing pain, I stared. Not blankly into space, but at the rounded wooden body perched across the room. It had smooth curves, highlighted by hand-crafted slopes of sculpted space. The rounded body followed the silken wood’s grain, throughout the carved wood frame. Accentuated by the old-world craftsmanship, the sleek details guided my eyes along new paths anddesigns in each pass of my gaze. Like a lover following the gentle round line of his sleeping partner, I memorized the wooden instrument’s contours.
“Hey, you wanted a story. This is the story I have, so are you gonna let me finish?”
“Now. Where Was I? Oh yeah….”
I wasn’t musically trained, but I knew enough to tell this was either a bass or a cello from its size. It was proppedagainst a chair across the room, calling me to explore and discover its secrets further. I passed the time caressing the instrument with my mind, imagining the cool wood, smooth under my fingertips, the dark red varnish enhancing its natural grain. So ready to perform, it seemed to resonate under my mental touch. Not even needing so much as a bow to induce the acoustic vibrations haunting my thoughts. I yearned to pull at the textured metal strings, to make it hum and sing.
A sharp creak of a rusty hinge whistled at me from downstairs. I fought with my screaming leg muscles and slowly pushed up from my perch. I willed my limbs to work and brought up a knee to steady my raised rifle. I trained the sights on the closed door and waited, listening for the moan of floorboards downstairs. I hoped the two dead villagers I found at the kitchen table earlier would be enough to tell the intruder there was nothing of consequence left for them in this house. The death squad hadalready done its duty, and no amount of snooping would reveal anyone besides the mice in the walls.
The floor below gave a long, slow whine. I hoped that meant there was only one body moving around down there. I thought about the rifle, ready to end whoever came through my upstairs door. It would be loud. It would bring down more than just the one straggler. If I took him out that way, I would have a matter of seconds, perhaps a minute or two before there would be more devil dogsdescending on me, hunting me, sending me to join my fallen friends. No way was that gonna happen. Slowly, I uncocked the firing mechanism, unlocking the weapon with little more than a pin drop to give me away.
Another creak downstairs. The interloper seemed to be moving towards the stairwell on his sweep of the house. There were no rushed footsteps and there did not seem to be any urgency to the search. I figured it was a soldier scavenging for souvenirs.
I decided the thunder clap from my rifle would attract too much attention, so I set it on the soft, down mattress next to me. Two more creaks downstairs. They were less cautious-sounding now. I hoped he had decided the cottage was abandoned after all and would move on soon. I continued to ready myself just in case that was not the situation.
I felt the handle of my assault knife, nestled in its leather sheath. With a quick flick, my thumb released the button on the securing strap. I listenedfor any footsteps. They were still slow, but nearing the stairs. I wrapped my fingers around the Coke-bottle-shaped handle of textured metal. My Marine stiletto was comfortable in my grip, more so than the bulky utility knives my buddies carried. It was not going to open a can of rations any time soon, but the razor sharp, double-edged blade had saved my ass in a pinch before. I readied it for battle.
I could not risk moving any closer to the door. I lifted my helmet off my headand wound it back, primed to pitch it at whoever’s head was on the other end of those stairs making their way up and into the room that had hidden me throughout the day.
Hard rubber soles resonated through the wooden floor as the intruder scaled the stairs. The distance between me and the SS enforcer closed one step at a time. Adrenaline pumped through my veins. Sweat collected and wet my hair. Condensation streamed down my face. I felt the chill from the frigid air around me licking at the moisture building up in my clothes and on my skin.
My pitching arm was primed with my helmet, and my stiletto sat in my grip, ready to let loose its fury once the helmet was set on a collision course with whatever tried to enter. I would only have a split second to aim and hurl my knife at the intruder. I hoped the dagger would connect before he could let loose a barrage of bullets from his gun that I imagined was already cocked and ready to cut me in half.
The footsteps cleared the final stairs. They moved forward the few steps to the oak barrier separating me and him. Then, he stopped. In my striking pose, my tensed legs, still on fire from their long agonizing crouch, shook from the built-up tension. I clenched my jaw and ground my teeth. My molars rang in my head, bouncing from ear to ear, deafening me in the room’s silence.
The door’s iron latch clicked as its hold on the doorframe was tested. The mechanism gave way, andthe door swayed inward, revealing my target. I was about to let loose my helmet, but I stopped mid-swing.
A girl, about eighteen years old, shuffled into the room. Her dress was dashed with dirt from her chores that were interrupted by the attack. Earth-shaded smudges colored her cheeks, and a wave of blonde hair divided her face where it had escaped the pale blue bonnet on her head.
A smile lifted at the corner of my mouth. “What are you….”
A Nazi jackboot’s oily footprint stained the girl’s back as the soldier kicked her through the half-open door, sending her reeling into the room, limbs akimbo. I dropped my helmet, and leapt forward, scooping her from the air before she connected with the end table. The gray-clad menace stepped into the room, filling the doorway with his hulking figure. His tight lips wrapped across an apish muzzle with a vicious grin. I spun from the girl’s weight as I snatched her up in my free arm. I landedmy aim on the goon in the door. The soldier locked a round into the chamber of his pistol with a sharp metallic crunch, readying it for the kill. Finishing my rolling spin, I whipped the stiletto underhand. The weighted blade flew true.
I landed hard, and the village girl crashed down on my chest. I expected to hear gun fire rat-tat-tatting the soldier’s response to my knife throw. But, that was pre-empted by the squishy thud of my blade burying itself deep in his neck, pinninghim to the door frame.
I looked up at the dying man, his black eyes filled with terror and pain, unable to speak his final words. I swallowed back the light film of bile working its way up my throat as I watched the soldier’s mouth working like a goldfish plucked from its bowl. The soldier’s gun clattered to the floor, his life dripping down the door frame into a pool of thick crimson, and his eyes and limbs went limp.
I looked into the girl’s eyes, put my finger to my lips to signal for her to stay quiet. She answered with her own finger-to-lips motion, and nodded back. I rolled her soft body gently to the ground, listening for more soldiers. The cottage was silent. I stood and moved to the dead soldier to retrieve my knife. I braced the man as I tore the blade from the wood, releasing the masterless marionette to crumple into a twitching mass.
It was time to leave. The dead man’s comrades would notice he was gone soon and comelooking for their friend. I gathered up my gun, the soldier’s gun, and rummaged through the corpse’s rucksack for any usable supplies. After all, a few more rations would be useful if I had to hike for a day or two with the girl in tow.
Food and water gathered, I glanced back at the beautiful carved wood that had helped me to focus and survive the past fourteen hours. The sensuous curves that allowed my mind to stray from the pain and aches in my body while I sat in the cold. Thesilent music that it played for me, keeping me awake and drowning out the torment and screams of the raid outside my sanctum. I could not just leave it here for the Nazis to burn. I went to the bed, pulled off the sheet, wrapped the wooden body and tied the ends in straps to secure the instrument over my pack.
The bulky instrument felt light as it tugged on my shoulders. I looked into my new companion’s dark, wide eyes.
“You up for a hike, pretty lady?”
The girl grinned, wrapped her strong fingers around my hand, nodded with a blink, and we were off into the night.
“And that is how your Nanna and I managed to escape those nasty Krauts and how I came across the sweet red beast over in the corner, Cass.” I gestured to the polished upright bass, nestled in the corner. “Someday, she will be yours.”
“Tell it again, Pop-Pop! Again!”
“All right. But this is the last time, and then you goright to sleep. Just don’t tell your Mom.”
Cass’ wide eyes beamed up at her Pop-Pop as he launched into his harrowing tale once more. She soaked in the dark story, mesmerized by the violent details. The story’s tension had a soothing affect, and she fantasized about her chance to one day play the great red beast.