It was nightfall when they reached the town. The road up that way had trees once but now they were all broken to pieces, sticking up like bayonet blades out of the ground. One little, gnarled one by the old sign post was more or less intact but bare, black-barked and not pretty at all. That could be said, Harry thought, of most of Germany, or what he'd seen of it.
Ramshackle houses stood full of holes, with their stones blown apart and crumbling underfoot. But at least these stood, not like the towns in the hot zones; this town had not truly been shelled. Only a little, in the military way. A tawny cat scrambled up a pile of bricks and down the other side, disappearing in the dusk as the line of weary doughboys filed down the main road. Too many of them for the jeeps, they were left to walk the twenty miles back from the border, headed East to Coblenz, from what Harry knew.
There were so many locals standing in the pitted street, just standing there even though there was a slight sleet coming down. They didn't say a word, only turned their deeply wrinkled faces to watch the stream of American olive drab coming up the main way, all huddled 'round the square. Set in a grim line, these townsmen were pale and fading and bereft as their homes. They too were crumbling, right in front of him.
One type of soldier was traded for another, and Harry saw a few of them, uniformed lads, with crutches or some such lingering in the back. Were they afraid? Did they hate him? He couldn't tell.
"Brandt!" someone snarled. It was unmistakably the Major.
Out of breath, Harry bent a little, clinging to the straps on his pack as he stumbled up beside his commanding officer. He looked anywhere but at his eyes.
"Come with me, see if you can get us a place to sleep for the night."
The Major motioned to a few lesser officers and strode towards the group of townspeople.
A small, thin man with spectacles stepped forward, hands together like a prayer.
The Major shook his head. "Brandt, get us some rooms."
Harry turned to the man, who spoke to him in German.
"Please, we haven't any food or anything of value."
"We're not here to take anything from you," Harry said in German. "But we would like rooms for the night."
"Ask him for directions to the train," the Major said.
"And directions to the train East."
The old man looked nervous. "We can try. We are a small town. How many are you?"
"About a hundred, more or less."
"You are British?"
"No, American." Harry tried to speak gently. "We don't want problems with you. Just rooms for one night."
The old man went to discuss with some others. Harry asked the Major, "And for food?"
"Any supplement is good but we'll survive on rations until we hit Coblenz."
"Each person here can take a few soldiers," said the old man. He wrung his hands at the idea, though.
Harry told the Major, and the Major directed the boys off with a few lieutenants and sergeants to take each group. The two Captains, Lt. Miller, and Harry he kept in his own group. "We'll go with him." The Major pointed to the old man. "He seems to know what he's about."
Harry relayed the message, and the old man beckoned them after him. "I am a doctor," he told them as they walked to a small, gray-wood cottage. "Maybe I can see to your men in exchange for some supplies?"
Harry asked the Major.
"Tell him thank you, and we'll see if we need it, or what might be spared." But he didn't look like he liked the idea.
Beside the door of the house was a short, plump woman in long skirts that frayed at the edges, and her shirt cuffs were balled tightly in her hands. She watched the soldiers with a look of great distress.
"My wife," said the Doctor.
"Guten Abend," said the Frau.
The Doctor knocked on the door but there was no answer. Quietly, his Frau called "Peter, please open it."
Peter opened the door. He was a tall boy, fair haired and once handsome. There was a bandage over his eye which had slipped down his nose and showed livid purple brusing, yellow on the edges. The bandage was yellow too, from the puss leaking down around the sides. The eyelid was puffy and so dark it was almost black, and sunken into its socket; the eye had been destroyed.
With his cracked, thin lips pressed into a hard line, Peter stood in the doorway with his head almost brushing the lintel. He said nothing. He only looked with his one good eye.
"Peter, come inside, come away my Liebchen," said the Frau, and she took his hand in hers. He took it away, snap. But he retreated inside and lay down as his mother asked on the couch in the room just inside the door. The Doctor looked back at Harry and the Major apologetically, but the Major raised his hand and shook his head. It was alright, and that didn't need translation.
Could they wait in the kitchen? The Doctor asked. He would prepare some pillows and blankets and a few mattresses in the attic.
So they waited in the kitchen. The wood cabinets were gray and there were no milk bottles, no hanging chickens or meats by the oven, only a few small carrots and garlic hanging by the window and a bowl of potatoes in the corner. It made Harry's heart hurt.
As soon as the attic was ready, he went up with the Major and did not want to go down again. He did not want to take dinner with the poor Doctor, or see Peter and his angry, lone eye. His joints were weary and he hurt in so many places, so he just sat down to eat out of his kit and forget about the whole bloody thing.
Had their guns shelled this town? Was there much of a difference between American and French guns? No, Hell with it. Forget about the whole, horrible thing.
An hour later it was dark and the officers climbed under their blankets.
"Get some sleep, Brandt," the Major told him, "if you can. Hell if I know how, but do it if you can." And he laid down on a little cot on the other side of the room.
It was mostly silent, and the only light came in through the little round window near the ceiling. It was not much light at all.
The sleet stopped by midnight, and the doughboys had settled to no louder than a murmur. Dotted along the barns and houses they kept their little candles lit and read or spoke to one another or thought to themselves. But soon after midnight, one by one the candles went out.
Everything ached, deep in Harry's back and down the spine into his hips and knees; it was bad pain, not the kind of over-in-a-day pain he got from baseball sometimes, but a horrible all over ache in his ground-down joints and trembling heart. He lay, breathing shallowly, with nothing to take the pain away.
It was silent, and the silence scared him. Too long in small holes with the other mice, too many guns always barking, shells exploding, dirt raining, and now, none of those things but instead the groan of an old house in the wind, and the nothing that came with freshly fallen December snow and ice.
Creaking like an old man, he got up, took his kit and canteen, and hobbled on swollen feet to the head of the stairs. He could use a smoke, maybe breathing some cold air. He took them one at a time, slowly, down.
In the room with the couch across from the kitchen Harry heard the son's shallow breathing. It was steady now, and he was probably asleep, but Harry tried to go quietly. There was one candle still lit on the sideboard beside the door, and the door was not locked. Harry opened it; there was the Herr Doctor, standing on the step in his housecoat. He was smoking. In the tiny orange halo of light from the candle his face was more drawn than before.
The Doctor forced a smile and waved him out with a thin hand. Harry came, and closed the door quietly. His feet hurt. Good Christ, they hurt. But he stayed standing with the Doctor anyhow, instead of sitting on the stoop.
"Gute Nacht," Harry replied.
He was a thin old man, that poor Doctor, Harry thought. Thin and frail and still out in the snow with his cigarette pinched in his trembling fingers. Maybe trembling from the cold or from fear or just because that's what war did. Harry reached into his kit and pulled out a stale chunk of bread. He ripped it in two and offered the bigger half to the Doctor, who leaned back from it, to squint and see it properly.
"Please, take it."
The Doctor didn't argue twice. He took the bread and sampled some. The lines furrowed deeper on his face; he restrained himself from eating more and took it in to tuck it in the cupboard.
He came back out. "Thank you."
"Will you smoke?"
Harry nodded and took a cigarette, then struck a match and offered it to the Doctor. It was a small Christmas miracle, but dry matches were ever so hard to come by when you lived always in the rain and the snow and the mud, so Harry was grateful.
"Your German is good," said the Doctor.
"You have the accent from Berlin."
"My mother is from there," Harry said, "and Father's parents."
Herr nodded. "So you're German?"
"American," Harry said. "And German."
"But first, American?"
Harry looked at the ground.
"Where will you go now?" asked the Doctor, shifting his feet.
"Coblenz, I think. But you shouldn't know."
"I'll act like I don't know. You will find better accommodations in Coblenz," he said. "It is a bigger town, farther from the border zone, they will not have the problems we do."
"Then it will be a good place to set up."
"I should think."
They went quiet for a moment and watched the little snowflakes blow off the pine trees and dance in the moonlight before settling on some pile of bricks or window sill.
"How long were you in the war?"
"Oh, over a year now."
"How did you find it?"
"Yes," agreed the Doctor, and he had tears in his eyes. "It was." Then, "You seem a healthy boy."
On the outside, Harry thought.
"Will you go back home soon?"
"I don't know. I think so, in a few months."
The Doctor nodded. "My son
" he started, but he had to take a moment to recover himself. "My son came back six months ago. It's a lucky thing I am a doctor. We kept the eye from getting an infection. But it's not the eye, not really." The Doctor looked at his cigarette and his old eyes were sunken deep into his skull, and they were full of tears. "It's that he never talks anymore. Never at all. Used to talk all the time but now, not at all." He was really choked up now, the Doctor. "Sometimes I think he wishes he were somewhere else. Oh, he was such a good boy." He put his hands up to his face and covered his tears. He did not cry loudly, he did not make a fuss. He just wept into his hands, and Harry stood beside him, numb and smoking his cigarette and feeling inside him that the war was supposed to be over, but it wasn't.
"Peter," said the Doctor. "It was a terrible, horrible war."
Harry tried to put a hand on his trembling shoulder, but he was hesitant and the touch made the old man jump. Then Harry jumped, and he took his hand away.
The Doctor wiped his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm sorry for that." He tried to force a small smile but it drooped at the corners. "You stay a healthy boy. Go home and talk to your father." He gave Harry a stiff pat. "Please excuse me. I shall retire."
Harry nodded, and the old Doctor trundled back inside. He was old, Harry could see it in the candle light, old and bent and afraid.
"I'll leave the candle for you?"
"Not necessary," Harry said. "I'll be alright."
The Doctor nodded and snuffed the candle, leaving Harry alone in the cold, blue, winter night.
III. Schwarz zu Blau
Harry finished his cigarette and thought about some people he had known and a few things he'd done in the past year. Then he didn't want to think about it anymore, and he had to try very hard to keep those thoughts from coming back again. When the cigarette was finished, he flicked it down into the snow.
He went back inside and up the stairs as quietly as he could, but his feet were swollen and torpid and he made little thumps from time to time. When he reached the attic most of the officers were still asleep, although, he wasn't sure about the Major. But he didn't want to talk, and he was sure the Major wouldn't want to talk. So he got back under his blanket, and he looked up and out the high round window near the ceiling.
He was so tired, and everything hurt. It was amazing how much war hurt. He felt old in his bones and each one of them hurt him badly, from the walking and the weight and the killing and the sorrow. It really had been a terrible war. But still, he couldn't sleep. Some hours after midnight the clouds rolled on, eastwards, and he wondered if they'd wait for the Americans in Coblenz.
The war was over, but it was not over. Maybe it was never over. He thought about Peter and that bandage drooping down over the purple, no-eye socket, and he wondered if the war was over for him. But he couldn't think like that, it didn't get a body anywhere. It had to end someday.
That circle of thoughts stayed with him for a while, reeling themselves around and around in his head. Outside the darkness was fading and the sky was slowly going from black to blue. The sun would come up on another day; how that was even possible after what had passed over the earth these last few years, Harry did not know. But the sky looked fine, there were no clouds, so even if it was cold, at least there'd be no snow to march in. That was something.
Major said they'd make Coblenz in two days. Well, Harry thought, maybe the war was over in Coblenz. He'd have to wait and see.