by Frank Oreto
I am being punished.
Captain Jurgen Shurke closed his eyes and thought of his nightclub in Berlin. He hummed a bit of forbidden jazz and could almost smell the heady mix of tobacco, brandy, and beautiful women that once filled his nights. A hot iron hissed against damp cloth from across the room. The scent of starch-laden steam robbed him of his illusions.
Jurgen stared balefully at the diminutive soldier, who acted as his valet as well as his second in command. “The men say you once studied for the priesthood.”
Lieutenant Reuig stood barely five feet tall. Round wire-rimmed spectacles made his eyes seem too small for his large head. He set the iron upright and carefully hung the wool trousers on a wooden clotheshorse before answering. “Yes, Sir, I attended seminary, but my father… he believed patriotism outweighed piety.”
“Fathers.” Jurgen thought of the Polish farmer he’d hanged a week before. How the skin sagged from his old neck, remnants of a long-gone plump affluence. The man had screamed curses and defiance at Jurgen as if he longed for the rope. The language was foreign, but the tone reminded Jurgen of his own father. He’d not been sad to see the man’s face darken as the noose cinched tight.
“Well, my little priest. You perhaps will understand my predicament better than most. Do you know why I am here?”
“Our orders are to ferret out the rebels of Prolz,” the lieutenant said.
“Ah yes, the Rebels of Prolz. Rebels so cunning and stealthy, they never attack, never light a fire, never leave a single trace. Almost as if they did not even exist.” Jurgen made a sound of contempt like a low growl in the back of his throat. “Yes. Those are the orders. But I did not ask what our orders are, little priest. I asked, why am I here? Why is Jurgen Shurke, famed impresario, here in this bombed-out crater of a village, when I should be currying favor in an office in Berlin?”
The Lieutenant did not answer, and Jurgen had not really expected one. “You must know the story of Bathsheba and King David. Yes?”
“That is why I am here. King David saw a woman and had to have her despite the fact she was married. The inconvenient husband was sent away to die in a war. Not such a grim tale if you’re king. But I am no king. So, when I seduced General Wielding’s wife, the bastard sent me to the front. But then I did a very rude thing, Lieutenant.”
Jurgen waited for the question but heard only the hiss of the iron. “Well, ask what the very rude thing was? I can not hold up both sides of this conversation.”
“What rude thing did you do, sir?”
“I did not die. And so, the general has sent us all here to seek the invisible rebels of Prolz. He must think if a bullet does not find me, then he will bore me to death. Or perhaps, if winter comes and the rebels have not been found, we will all starve. There are only so many escaped cows roaming the abandoned fields.” Jurgen rubbed a hand over his face. “I am being punished.”
From the street came a high-pitched wail like the cry of a hungry child, followed by the sound of the sentry’s gruff challenge. Jurgen stepped forward, pressing close to the window. One of his men stood before a bent gray-haired woman holding the handles of a wheelbarrow. A long-handled spade lay across it. The pair spoke, while their shapes cast mad shadows in the light of the sentry fire. The wailing had been the sound of the barrow’s ungreased wheel as it turned. Jurgen heard it again now as the sentry lifted a hand in farewell and the old woman guided her barrow down the street.
“Lieutenant Reuig, come here.” They both stood in the window, watching the old woman push her barrow around piles of rubble as she made her way.
“So, a villager goes out late at night and our sentry… waves at her?!”
“It is only Frau Rebholz.” Reuig leaned closer to the glass. “She goes to the cemetery.”
“The cemetery, at night, with a wheelbarrow?”
“Yes, sir, every night. She and her husband were the groundskeepers. A family position, passed on from generation to generation. The husband died before the war.”
Reuig stepped back from the window. “Frau Rebholz does not meet with rebels, if that is what you believe. I have followed her, watched what she does. Both the church and the graveyard were heavily shelled. She fills holes. Levels gravestones. Prays for the dead.”
“Yes sir. She cleans and cooks for us during the day. I assure you—”
“You assure me of nothing but your own incompetence. The woman knew you followed her. Of course, the rebels did not meet with her then. But now that you ignore her….”
Jurgen took his trousers from the clotheshorse and dressed in the still damp uniform.
“I thought you didn’t believe there were any rebels,” said Reuig.
Up to that moment, Jurgen had not. But now he felt something warm and unfamiliar inside himself. This must be what hope feels like. Maybe there were people hiding in the fields and woods around Prolz. Perhaps not steely-eyed rebels yearning for German blood. Just hungry peasants, too afraid of the soldiers to come into town. It wouldn’t matter. If Jurgen could find them, his orders would be fulfilled. He could report back to central command and call on favors owed him. I’ll be in Berlin by Christmas.
“Have the men fall in, Lieutenant. We are going to this cemetery. And I will find my rebels.”
A few roughly made torches lit the soldiers’ way as their heavy boots beat out a rhythm on the road’s hard-packed soil. Fields of unharvested hay grew to either side, tall as a man’s chest, somehow untouched by the shelling.
“How far, Lieutenant?” The men had taken only a few minutes to form ranks, but the old woman was faster than Jurgen thought. He’d not caught sight of her yet.
The lieutenant marched beside his commanding officer, head down, speaking in a low murmur Jurgen could not make out.
“I asked how far?” Jurgen recognized the name of Jesus in the Lieutenant’s low words. “Are you praying? You’ll face God one day, little priest, but right now, you have me to obey. How far?”
The Lieutenant raised his head. “Another half mile, sir.” The young officer’s skin shone parchment-pale in the torchlight. “I asked to be here, sir.”
“You pray for odd things, lieutenant.”
“Not in my prayers, sir. I mean…” Reuig paused, as if preparing himself for something difficult. “Earlier, you asked why we were here. As for me, I asked for this. Not to be here on this road, but to be sent to the front.”
The shock of the statement brought Jurgen to a standstill. The soldiers came to a halt as Jurgen stared open-mouthed at his lieutenant. A red anger rose in him like hot bile and Jurgen barely kept himself from striking the man. “I would kill to be back in Berlin,” he hissed. “I have killed.” Jurgen again saw the face of the old farmer, blackening as the noose took him.
“My father wanted me to be a soldier,” said Reuig. “But he did not want me to die. He secured an administrative position for me at a work camp in Belzec.”
“And you’d rather be here?”
The lieutenant gave out a bone-dry chuckle. It was the first and last time Jurgen ever heard the man laugh. “Perhaps we are all being punished, sir. We certainly deserve to be.”
Jurgen had no answer to such madness and so turned and marched on.
The church, or what was left of it, appeared suddenly on a low rise. The shelling that spared the fields had found a target here. A bit of wall and a door somehow still stood. the only recognizable parts of the church’s architecture. Shells had reduced the rest of the building to bits of scorched stone and wood, jutting up between darkness-filled craters.
Jurgen ordered a halt. In the silence, a woman’s voice called out in the night, asking for something. He drew his luger and strode into the cemetery. “Follow.”
The men marched as well as they could over the shattered terrain. They faltered when they reached the cemetery. Bones littered the ground, but not in the scattered disarray Jurgen expected. Skulls—some still whole, their empty sockets staring—were piled in a high rough pyramid along with countless broken jawbones sprouting ivory teeth. Longer bones, femurs and fibula, ulna and humerus, lay stacked like cordwood. Miscellaneous bits and pieces were heaped together, perhaps, Jurgen thought, for later examination.
“After the shelling, she could not tell who was who, so she sorted them,” said the lieutenant from where he stood at Jurgen’s elbow. “She hopes to bury them again the best she can. I offered to pray over the remains, but she would not allow it. She hates us. But for all that hate, she is just a harmless old woman who talks to the dead.”
Jurgen’s eyes swept over the cemetery, empty but for the old woman and her stacked bones. He looked further out to the tall hay of the surrounding fields. The long grasses rustled in the night breeze. But no, not just the breeze. Men, the rebels he sought. Jurgen could not see them. But they had to be there. If not, he was condemned to stay in Prolz. To never see Berlin.
“Burn the fields. Drive the rebels out.”
Soldiers ran forward to obey. Glowing torches brought the dry hay to red life.
“Captain, we both know there are no rebels.” Flames danced in the glass of the lieutenant’s immaculately polished spectacles. “Be reasonable. The fires may spread to the town.”
“I don’t care! The rebels are in those fields.” Jurgen was beyond reason. He’d have his rebels if he had to summon them through sheer force of will. “This woman comes to them and tells them our whereabouts. Now we will burn them out.”
Flame devoured the grass, its flickering glow painting the piles of ivory bones red.
Jurgen strode toward the old woman. “With me, lieutenant. You will translate.”
The young soldier’s only complaint was a brief sigh.
The woman still spoke. Almost shouting now.
“You see,” Jurgen said. “The rebels are out there. What does she say to them? Does she tell them to attack or to run away?”
Lieutenant Reuig shook his head. “She asks them to rise up and take revenge. But her words are not for the living. And the dead do not listen.”
Tears ran down the woman’s face as she turned and spoke to Jurgen.
The lieutenant dutifully translated. “She says the dead will not fight for people who have forgotten them. Sir, leave this woman to her cemetery. We can still put out the flames.”
“No!” Jurgen drew his luger, pointing it at the old woman’s frail chest. “I will kill her!” He shouted the words at the fields and the rebel forces that must be there. “If you do not show yourselves, she dies. Surely, she is mother or grandmother to one of you.”
Flames leapt into the night sky, but no figures emerged to fight or beg for the old woman’s life.
“If you won’t save her, perhaps you will avenge her.”
Too late, the woman realized what Jurgen was about to do. She turned and stumbled away from the man with the gun.
Jurgen shot her twice in the back.
The bullets tossed her forward to land face down in the cemetery’s black clay. Lieutenant Reuig ran to her, kneeling beside her fallen form. His prayers came in a harsh, angry whisper.
Jurgen stood panting, feeling impotent now, despite the gun in his hand. There was no one left to shoot.
A soldier—one of Jurgen’s—shouted and pointed. Not at the empty burning fields, but at the ground itself. Clumps of dark soil were moving, slowly at first, then dancing like beads of water on a hot griddle.
Jurgen looked down at his well-polished boots. A chipped stone cross slid past him as if caught in a swift current. Flickers of white tumbled through the moving dirt. A stream of dead men’s teeth.
Lieutenant Reuig stood and walked toward his commander. Bone, dirt, and broken stone turned end over end, flowing around the young officer as high as his knees. The lieutenant no longer prayed. The only sounds now were the crackling of flames and the rattle of bone and rock as they tumbled against each other.
“What is happening, Lieutenant?”
“She begged them, sir. I would follow her here each night and watch as she pulled the bodies bit by broken bit from the craters their graves had become. She begged the dead to rise and destroy us for what we’d done to her home. And when they would not, she cursed them. She said the dead had forgotten their children just as surely as their children had forgotten them. Only she remembered. Only she still honored them. Frau Rebholz was the one person the dead cared about enough to avenge, and you killed her.”
Above the body of the old woman, black earth, gray stone, and ivory-white bone spiraled as if in the grip of some silent tornado. Slowly, the cemetery of Prolz shaped itself into the form of a rough-hewn colossus. Its body bristled with spears of splintered bone. A shifting heap of leering skulls served as its head.
There was no need for Jurgen to give the order to fire. Mausers spat bullets in a rapid cadence. The shots sank into thick black dirt or ricocheted off granite and bone. Five hundred years of the village’s dead stepped over Jurgen and his lieutenant and attacked the firing soldiers.
A wide stone heel ground two men to red pulp. A long arm swept through the fleeing soldiers. Bodies toppled, their flesh torn open by the jagged ends of a thousand bones.
Jurgen shouted orders at his lieutenant, but the young officer ignored him. He only gazed at the destruction of his fellow soldiers with a beatific smile on his lips.
The man is mad. Jurgen turned away. A rough plan formed in his head. He had always been a survivor. While this impossible cemetery creature was busy destroying his men, Jurgen had a chance. The fields were aflame, but he could go through the ruins of the church to the road and perhaps still outrun the thing.
Jurgen had taken three steps when something grabbed him around the waist, and he tumbled to the ground. Not the cemetery creature, the lieutenant. They rolled, Jurgen kicking free and bringing the Luger up.
“Yes,” yelled lieutenant Reuig. “A bullet will serve just as well as that thing you brought to life.”
“No. I am guilty. There was no madness in the work camp. Our actions were thought out and efficient. We all must pay for our sins, Captain.”
“You can pay for both of us. I am going to Berlin.” Jurgen’s Luger spat fire three times. The holes appearing in a neat line across lieutenant Reuig’s chest.
Jurgen leapt to his feet, ready to run. But the dead lieutenant’s last act had robbed him of his chance to escape. The Cemetery of Prolz stood before him now. The torn and broken bodies of Jurgen’s men hung on hooks of barbed bone from its hundred-foot form.
The creature moved slowly, as if sure of its final victory. It extended a giant hand. Talons of bone pierced Jurgen’s belly. He felt the steady tearing pressure as his bowels shredded. Red foam and curses flowed from his mouth.
Jurgen was hefted into the air until he hung before the thing’s head. A fissure formed among the leering skulls, creating a wide, rough mouth. Inside that mouth, thousands of broken jawbones studded with ivory teeth grated and ground against each other with a low rumble, like the sound of distant shelling.
With the last of his strength, Jurgen pressed the barrel of his Luger to the roof of his mouth and pulled the trigger. The toggle bolt rose, then jammed tight. No bullet would end his pain and terror. As the enormous hand propelled Jurgen toward the maelstrom of grinding teeth, he closed his eyes and tried to remember the smell of cognac and beautiful women. But the memories would not come.
I am being punished.