By Lori Howe
Their wooden skis made a shushing sound. Bud had put Keyes on point after Shugak was taken out by sniper fire 5 clicks back, and Keyes, glancing down, saw his boot touch a foreign object. He hunched into himself against the inevitable explosion of limbs and snow. When the sky and snow kept still, he looked foot-ward again, surprised to see something non-lethal in his path. Blackened but unmistakable, a doorknob snugged up against his left ski. Small weight magnified, it leaned against him like misplaced ordnance.
Two days before, the Lieutenant had taken five rounds from a German medic. They’d buried him in a low cave full of stone streaked with silver and rose. “Quartzite,” said Carlson. They covered him with loose rock to keep the animals away. In the scant, filtered light from the entrance, the Lieutenant’s grave shone, reflective.
After that, Bud had sent Dawson down with Traylor, the radioman. It had been eight days, with no orders. They were up too high, too far away now to get through by radio. The two men would snowshoe back down to call in. The glacial passes full of rock and the detritus of shells—it would take them at least 3 days to make it back, if they made it at all. Bud watched them grow smaller and darker as they descended, the forest dropping scraps of shadow.
Bud and Horse took the rest of them on up the rutted track. They’d find a clear place to sit with their backs to the mountain and hope for shelter. Having cleaned out all the caves on this side of the mountain, they’d wait for orders now. Tired of killing Germans.
Bud held up a gloved hand, and the other men stopped silently on their skis, weapons poised. He gestured, and Keyes tossed him the doorknob, his eyes still wide, faced blanched white. Bud studied the fixture, surprised by this ordinary chunk of daily life, scorched and left lying in the snow, miles from any house they’d seen.
Before them, the forest hooted with wind, indicating nothing beyond the treeline.
Bud motioned to Horse and Wallace to take point, pulled Keyes back. Bud knew the boy had lied about his age. Keyes was barely 16, with almost a year in, now. He’d seen enough ruined villages, corpses blackened and frozen to the ground. Starved horses rotting along the trails and roads, adding to the reek of thaw.
Bud hefted the palmful of metal that had lain atop the crusted snow. Thought of Anne, the children, the clatter and glad scent of home. The doorknob lay cold in his hand, divorced from meaning.
The clearing was sheltered from wind, snugged up against the mountain. The house had been shelled by the Germans and left to burn, Bud figured, maybe two months back. The stench of char had settled and faded. It had been a stone house, the loads of carnelian and grey rock carried from the nearby river. It might have survived fire, been rebuilt, but for the flattening of shells. Some outbuildings remained; an empty tractor shed, a chicken coop filled with the emaciated carcasses of birds, a lean-to that turned out to be a well-house.
Nearest to where the house had stood was a barn, three walls leaning against themselves, most of the fourth torn away by shells. The roof sloped inward, as though gathering what small shelter it could offer.
Bud and Horse stood in the doorway. It took them a minute to see what they were looking at, to see what someone had wrapped in blankets and settled in straw, covered with a quilt as though saying goodnight. The wrongness of it brought bile into Bud’s throat; he swallowed, twice, against it.
When they had lost Judith to diptheria, Anne had lain blankets over her dolls and shoes, covering the bits left to them, the things their daughter had slept with, had worn. Bud felt he knew this man, who had wrapped his own until thaw came. He hoped he would not come furtively back to put his family to rest, not now, when the clearing this man had hewn with his own hands was full of American soldiers. Enemy or no, Bud did not know if he could shoot him, though he’d probably welcome it, Bud thought, surveying the remnants of the man’s life.
Horse turned his head, spat into the blackened snow. “Bury them?”
“Yeah,” said Bud, pulling a shovel off its peg on the wall.
They took turns with the shovel. Carmichael found a hoe and helped them make the raw, half-frozen holes. The sun was cold; their noses ran, they panted like horses. The stink of sweat and onions bled through the tight weave of their coats. Finally, they carried the small, loose bundles, lay them in the earth, covered them.
“Well,” Carlson said, wiping sweat off his face.
“Yeah,” Bud said, “That’s it, then,” and crossed himself over the pitiful graves.
Horse came back, carrying the quilt. He did not look at the others. Spread the quilt over the small mounds. Bud turned his eyes away. He too carried pictures of his children, his wife, smiling up at him from the breakfast table.
Bud was offended by the clarity of the day, wished for rain, for darkness.
Horse turned his head, spat again. They walked back into the clearing, into stronger daylight.
They made camp as day waned, found the woodpile. Bud chanced a fire, saw himself again in the man who’d stacked this wood tightly against winter. Night took the clearing, his men roosting in the surviving structures.
Bud rose early, just as light leaked into the clearing. A farm boy, he found the root cellar. The snow had been too sudden and deep to refreeze the ground. He unearthed half a peck of potatoes, dug around in his duffle, the silent chill in his clothes. He brought out two cans of bacon, taken off a dead German almost a month ago. He sliced the potatoes roughly, and set it all to fry.
The smell of cooking woke the men, and brought back Bud’s dream: he was 9, waking to his mother’s call as she stood in the kitchen. When he thought of her, he always saw her there, before the stove, the steam from the kettle and the heat of the oven on her face, making her hair curl as she fried dumplings in bacon grease.
Wallace produced almost a half-pound of coffee, and as it perked up and over the sides of the pot, they all sat around, inhaling too sharply, the thin, hard air burning their noses and throats. They reached tin cups to catch the spill.
No one said anything. There had been no hot food for almost two weeks. They hadn’t been able to risk fire, not unprotected, not on that mountainside. Possibly they were still in Austria, but could not know for sure.
Wallace dished out bacon and fried potatoes; Horse poured coffee. It was almost more than any of them could do, just to look at each other, with home on their plates, in their mouths. Every one of them was thinking of a woman, mother or wife, forgetting their clothes stiff with sweat, the blood and torn bodies.
“The Lieutenant,” Wallace said, clearing his throat. “To him.” They all raised their cups, choked down a swallow of the fiery liquid. “The Lieutenant.”
Bud thought of the cave, the rocks that caught the scant light and gave it back in color. They would go back for his body. “I’d just as soon be left there,” Bud thought but did not say. They would go back, take the Lieutenant home to a widow who still thought herself a wife.
Another day passed, then two. Sun scoured the clearing with a heatless light. The sentries saw nothing. Not even their bold fires bought them attention. Carlson found a crate of unlabeled bottles in the tractor shed; some foul liquor, tasting of black licorice, it burned through them, even warmed their feet, which they’d begun to think of as distant cousins, far to the north.
On the third day, there was movement in the dark skeleton of trees.
It was Traylor, Dawson behind. Their lips were split from the stinging wind, the lines around their mouths and eyes topographical.
Traylor took in the ruined house, the camp and smoking fire. His jaw worked. “We’re on German soil,” he told them, “looks like they’re off the mountain now.” Traylor took a tight swig from the unlabeled bottle that Bud handed them. He winced as it cut into the raw lines around his mouth. “Tomorrow morning, we go back down.”
Dawson took a short pull on the bottle, surveyed the ruined house, destroyed by German artillery. “We’re in godamn Germany,” he said.
Dawson and Keyes both shot rabbits that afternoon. Traylor had bought loaves of black bread in Porlach, traded his watch for butter. Wallace came up from the root cellar and made stew. They emptied the last of the bottles from the shed, talked of home, promised much.
At dawn, as the others smoked and rolled gear, kicked ice off skis, Bud walked the skeleton of the house, tracing its rooms with the soles of his boots. It had been a good place—hardwood, river stone, deep well, black soil, strong morning light. A good place to bury your own.