Dawn nudged up from the edge of a turnip field. The Focke-Wulfe reconnaissance plane circled once, then alighted with barely a sound. A hatch below the wing opened; a ladder dropped to the loam. Two men in gray descended, then the pilot, a swollen figure in white. The Reichsmarschall himself.
Küsters was summoned, introduced. The Reichsmarschall was handed white gloves, a tasseled scarf. There was a ring on the little finger of each hand, ornaments befitting a knight of the air. The Reichsmarschall's cheeks were doll-pink.
He nudged Küsters with an ivory baton. "Tell me, friend, how are the stags this year?"
"Full of pride and trickery, Herr Reichsmarschall."
"Like Berlin. I'm well prepared, then."
The army that had thrust a red spear through Germany on a map in General Eisenhower’s trailer was now a blue circle—another chip bet on a new world order. In truth, the blue circle was a swarm of olive drab vehicles, mostly M3 and M4 tanks—Lees and Shermans—with their attendant Jeeps and deuce-and-a-half trucks. Gadwall had churned his way up from Sicily with Patton’s Third Army in a Sherman decorated with a lovingly rendered pin-up girl and the words Hell's Belle.
Since V-E Day, he had the feeling they were waiting for a football game to start, if only the opposing team would show up. At the morning staff meetings they were read vaporous orders: their unit was to carry out its mandate as an occupying force; they were to remain alert to the movements and activities of former Nazi officials and sympathizers; their vigilance in their sworn duties was to be absolute and upheld at all costs.
On their days off, the tankers visited the yellow house on Hochstrasse, where they drank cherry brandy and doppelbock chasers with hungry, blue-eyed girls with names like kinds of ice: Ilse, Freda, Heike.
Only Gadwall—a Maine lobsterman's son—went hunting. For the first month he had gone out alone, driving through dark corridors of pines in a Willys he'd managed to wangle from the motor pool. Hehad only managed to bag a doe with a skin like red suede and a woodchuck of some kind—both of them taken with Uncle Sam's M-1.
Küsters stood in the hall, listening to the toasts echoing in the timbered dining room. He watched the crumbling nest of flame in the bowl of his meerschaum, and enters his quarters, a chamber next to the toilet, not much bigger than his bed.
The roar of someone vomiting roused him from a pheasant-filled dream. He stepped into his boots and waited in the corridor with a towel over his arm.
The toilet was flushed, then something rattled in the porcelain sink. A sigh was uttered.
Küsters moved closer to the door to speak. “Would you like a towel, sir?”
“Who's asking?” said the voice behind the door. It was the Reichsmarschall.
"Küsters, Herr Reichsmarschall."
"Küsters the caretaker."
The door opened without warning. The Reichsmarschall was dressed in a blue silk robe patterned with runic symbols. His eyes focused through a dull glaze.
"Jagermeister Küsters." The Reichmarschall's glistening smile. "The hunter of hunters. Tell me, what do you think of my shooting?"
"Herr Reichsmarschall is a wolf in the forest."
Another smile. “I have an instinct for it.” There was lipstick on his teeth.
Küsters looked away, then held out his arm. “A towel, Herr Reichsmarschall?”
“Very well. It will now be my turn to return the favor.”
“Guten nacht, Herr Reichsmarschall.”
“Like a wolf,” said the Reichsmarschall, moving down the corridor.
When Küsters moved to shut the door to the toilet, a sliver of light winked from the porcelain. Bending closer, he saw a glass ampoule stamped with a single word: morphium. Morphine. It was a hint of surrender.
Night in the back room of the kneipe with the chipped wooden figure of a tinker over the door. Gadwall lingers over a kirsch, watching the man in the corner nook, a shrunken figure in woolen garments with his few pleasures laid out before him: a pipe and a pouch of tobacco. Gadwall has the girl bring the man a drink. Then another.
The man stops at his table on the way out. Gadwall had first seen him walking along the road that led out of town on an evening in late October. He remembers the cocked hat and short wool jacket of loden green, the pair of fat grouse that swung from his shoulder—one wing fanned open like a broken umbrella. A hunter in a land of ruined shopkeepers and pale widows.
"Danke,” the man says.
"Sure thing." Gadwall stands up. "Say, where does a man go to shoot birds around here?"
"This I do not understand."
Gadwall mimes a hunter taking aim. "Where'd you bag those two I saw you with last week?"
"Entschuldigen sie. Excuse me, it is late. He tromps toward the door.
Gadwall follows, chiming the keys in his pocket. "I'll give you a lift."
The night air is acrid with burning fuels: coal, wood, siphoned petrol. The man fastens the horn toggle of his collar and moves on.
"Wrong way," Gadwall says. "Jeep's over there if the boys haven't hotwired it."
A curfew warning from the MPs flaps on a door, spinning from a tack. The man bends forward to read it, then turns slowly.
"It is not far," he says.
"Nothing's far when you've got friends in the motor pool."
Gadwall drops the old man in front of a building that is connected to its neighbors by skeletal walls pierced by vacant doorframes.
“You like hunt?” the old man says.
They were stalking through misted trees just before dawn. Küsters kept a goat's pace, locking his knees on each uphill step. Gadwall huffed behind, blaming the Dunhills he had won from a mechanic who had won them from an RAF airman in town.
Küsters waited for him as if in ambush, his loden coat hung over one shoulder. His gray shirt was worn to gauze at the elbows. Gadwall was allowed to rest long enough to ease the burning in his throat with sips from his canteen.
Küsters' gray eye tells him to get ready. A scent drifts over them: musky, cruel. The smell of an ogre. The old man's face is turned, but Gadwall sees the lid rise, then settle, unblinking.
The stag bounds past in a squall of muscle. Gadwall swings around and puts the sight just ahead of the shoulder. He's not even sure he's pulled the trigger. The oaken flanks are gone. He lays the rifle across his collarbone and scrambles downhill.
"Nein." Küsters tamps a pinch of tobacco into his pipe with his thumb. "We wait."
"Not sure I hit him. He didn't slow any."
"Smoking time." A match flares in Küsters' callused fingertips. "Smoke them if you got them, ja? Later we go."
They found the stag sprawled beneath a hemlock, its head resting as if in sleep on a silver pillow of moss. Gadwall measured the spread of the antlers with outstretched arms. He knelt in pine needles as they prepared to dress out the carcass. His K-bar looked dull, the forged steel blade freckled with rust.
Küsters motioned to him to hold off. He was already at work with a knife of his own, the blade flashing white before it sank into the arch of the ribcage. Küsters pulled it down to the hollow of the loins as though drawing a line with a brush dipped in red paint. The entrails sluiced onto the loam in a pile of wet cable. Dressing out the stag was a process of refinement. The offal was removed, cast aside, leaving only a crowned head atop a buff-and-gray robe.
Küsters wrapped the meat in spruce bark, then stowed it in a leather bag.
Gadwall wiped down the barrel of his M-1 with a scrap of parachute silk and shouldered the weapon, preparing to move on.
A faint weight settled on his arm, just enough to hold him.
Küsters. He was holding the knife by the blade, the silver hilt and ebony handle extended above his fist. He lowered his head. “For honor.”
Küsters swiped a thumb along the flat of the blade, marking Gadwall’s cheek with a bloody jot before dabbing his own.
“You crazy son of a bitch.” Gadwall backed away, trying to wipe off the maroon smear with his sleeve. “Anybody else did that I’d sock ‘em good.”
“Bruder.” Küsters put the flat of his hand on Gadwall’s shoulder. Brother.
Dawn. A cold canvas seat and canteen of ersatz coffee. Gadwall gooses the Willys through flat bands of daylight laid over the city, past the wafer-like façade of a church.
Küsters is waiting for him, as is his habit, though the spot is always changing. A cellar hole. Atop the burnt shell of an armored car. Beside a cracked fountain. This morning he is squatting in front of wrecked shop. Bits of glass remain in the window frame like canine teeth. A clockwork chimpanzee claps its paws at the old man's feet, performs a somersault in the rubble, claps slowly, stops. Küsters notices Gadwall in the Jeep and stands up, smiling.
"Morgen," he says.
Küsters picks up the bundle on the seat.
"Yeah, that's for you," Gadwall says.
The old man loosens the webbing that holds the bundle together. There are two olive drab field shirts and a pair of pants inside, all of them slightly faded.
"They're got some wear, but I figured you could use 'em. Back home, we pay hunting guides a decent wage. This is the best I can do."
Küsters fingers the buttons of one of the shirts, then folds it carefully. "Danke."
"Okey-dokey. Let's bag some stags."
A tableau like something carved in the stock of a custom hunting rifle: a chesty buck recumbent beside the silver ribbon of a stream, filigreed mountains framing all of it.
Küsters had dressed out the carcass and saved a choice bit of loin, which he spitted and roasted over beechwood.
Gadwall chewed slowly. "You ever thought about going to the States, workin' as a guide somewhere?"
"Fella like you could make good money guidin' some famous people. No kidding. Guys like Ernest Hemingway, movie stars, Gary Cooper—people like that."
"Those people not—how you say?—komrades."
"Maybe not, but they sure pay well."
Küsters sat up, his gray eyes sighted in on Gadwall's face. "Kapitan…"
"Friends, huntin' buddies, whatever you want to call it."
Küsters reached down toward his belt and pulled at something; his hand came up with his hunting knife. It was both tool and tale—a medieval legend told in precious metal and wood. A silver eagle's head flowed into an ebony grip with a castle inlaid on one side and a lion on the other; talon-shaped silver fingerguards were poised on either side of the blade itself, a lightning bolt of polished steel inscribed with runic German handwriting. Two of the words needed no translation: Hermann Goëring.
Gadwall said. "He gave you this?"
Küsters shrugged. "Reichsmarschall Goëring. Ja, so? Fair trade." Küsters pulled at the Army olive drab shirt he'd been wearing. "For this."
A letter from his sister in East Boothbay. Mumma has taken ill, she had written in a script like razor wire. Rev. Nobb says he'll send a letter to your commanding officer to get you back home.
A matter of family hardship and necessity.
Now he has packaged a war's worth of possessions in a stenciled duffel bag. Gadwall requests a stop on the way to the train station. 24 Marktstrasse.
"Take your time, Cap," the driver says. "After running around for the Major all morning, I wouldn’t mind burning some smokes."
The building is a husk of stone and mortar. An MP had mentioned it at lunch in the mess. A pack of Luckies had gotten more details: Yessir, a possible sympathizer had been winged by a corporal named Dingbaugh. Nossir, the sympathizer hadn’t been caught—the sumbitch went to ground.
Gadwall enters the cellar through the twisted remains of a coal chute. There is enough light to see that the walls are water-stained, bullet-chipped. An exploded boiler gapes in a corner. Gadwall kicks at a hint of cloth beneath blackened bricks. It’s a pair of trousers with a folded square of paper in one pocket. He opens a cartoon drawing of a tailor hemming a suit of human skin, then sets it aflame with his Zippo and drops it to the floor.
Gadwall climbs what’s left of the stairs to the wreckage of the ground floor. Fire has eaten through the flat planes of walls and ceilings. He watches a shred of cloud pass by a gap in the roof like milk poured from a glass. There is nothing for him here.
Another ravaged stairwell. Gadwall’s boots raise puffs in the silted plaster. He smells the joyless odor of rancid fat. A Wermacht mess tin is upended in a nest of scorched wood. He nudges the tin aside. Sifts through the ashes. Finds the scalloped edge of a burnt photograph. The scrap shows a man’s booted foot resting between the scrolled horns of an ibex. It might be anyone; Germany is a land of hunters whose religion is the forest.
Gadwall looks for spoor in the rubble. Something to follow. The only blood sign is his thrumming pulse. On a hunch, he leans out a window facing the street. The wood frame is chewed away; bits of glass wink on the sill. It is a hunter's vista: elevated, with sight lines to three streets and opportunities for what the tactical manuals called enfilading fire. He can see the driver dip his head to light a cigarette, then snap alert as a figure slides down a heap of rubble and limps across the street.
Gadwall twists around in his seat to check the road as he talks to the driver. "What'd he look like?"
"About wore out, sir, like most of them."
The Jeep bucks as the driver shifts gears.
"All in order, sir."
"You catch his name?"
"Wisht I could remember, sir."
"And you're sure he went this way?"
"Sure as you're settin' there, sir. If I'd a known you wanted him detained he'd be here right now."
"How was he dressed?"
"Nothing special. You really got it in for this guy, sir?"
“Take the next right,” Gadwall says.
“Eyes on the road, bud.”
They search a grid of cobblestones and twisted iron. Up ahead, a sergeant and two privates are checking the identity papers of a line of civilians at a footbridge; it is a pantomime with cocked .45s.
"Pull over," Gadwall says.
"Sir," the driver salutes.
The sergeant hands papers back to a man, waving him on.
Gadwall hops out of the Jeep and walks—then trots double-time—toward the bridge. The man has made it across, continuing up the hill on the other side at a goat's steady pace.
One of the privates checking identification turns—straightens up—at Gadwall's approach.
"Watchin' who goes out the back door, sir," the Private says, "Nothin' but broken-down old folks."
Gadwall points at the man across the river. "You get a look at him?"
"Yessir. Wiry little bastard."
"Carry on, Private."
Gadwall squints into raking sunlight, picks out the figure in the trees across the river. The man isn't moving.
A breeze tugs at the hemlocks. Viewed from the bluffs above the river, the town appears flattened and porous, a honeycomb mauled by a bear. Küsters rubs his thumb over the smooth skin where his mustache had been and looks down at the lace-frail bridge, at the small figure in uniform standing beside the black muscle of the river.
The air has the clean scent and taste of distance, honor. During a radio broadcast two nights before, the announcer had said that Reichsmarschall Göering had poisoned himself before he could be executed. The man was not a hunter; never had been.
Küsters eases his weight to his good hip and opens his knapsack. He would like to have a drink of something, make a toast. There is a chunk of hard GI chocolate in his pocket, but he will need it for the journey. He looks back again at the miniature soldier by the bridge, waves once.
Gadwall smokes a Lucky Strike down to his knuckles, watching the figure across the river. There is a twitch of movement, what looks like a raised arm, then nothing. Gadwall slides the silver dagger from the pocket of his tank crewman's jacket, waggles the blade in the sun. There is no response, no need for one.
"See something up there, sir?"
Gadwall lowers the dagger to his side and turns to face the private.
"That pig-sticker's a beaut, sir,” the private says. “You plug a kraut to get it, sir? I've dropped six of them myself."
"You're a credit to your unit."
A vague salute. "I try, sir."
Gadwall looks back at the bluffs.
"You're dismissed, private."
Küsters hangs his wool jacket from a hemlock bough. He will put on Gadwall’s olive drab fatigues and then walk over this mountain and then the one after that and so on, until he gets to the place where movie stars pay good money to shoot moose with antlers as big as plows. The Pine Tree State. He will build himself a cabin on a lake with an Indian name and smoke his pipe in the evenings. And at dawn, he will hunt with Errol Flynn and James Cagney in forests of loden green.
Copyright E.A. Mayer