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  • A story by Charles Gillingham

    Posted by Charles Gillingham on June 7, 2019 at 2:39 pm

    [This is the first thing I’ve written in about seven years.]

    The Necromancers
    By Charles Gillingham

    It was early. As with his every effort, Georg was failing, failing to turn the magneto. Another wind up Prussian. All stamped out of the same press, all installed with the same precise gears, though those wheels wouldn’t spin right when over-greased. The cold light of morning had just seeped over the horizon, but not enough. The procedure was thus slowed, for Hans couldn’t see what was flesh and what was dust and debris, he had to switch from removing shrapnel to removing bits of wall, every time his forceps would enter the wound. What might have taken an hour took two. With every fallen shell, a little more of the crumbling walls besides them would fall, deep into the patient. His breath became weaker, and he slipped into death.

    “You and your comrades, rot like you have lost us this war!” Hans said, as he placed his tools, with exact care, on an adjoining table.

    Georg would not respond. Only Hans’ assistant for a day, no task in which he been given could be thought of as that difficult. He would spill water he was told to fetch, forget to clean tools. He knew that any of his fellow soldiers might done these trivial labors better, and the only reason he been chosen is that his ranked incompetence so far had spared him from the courage required to die.

    “Let’s profit from your stupidity.” Hans started unbuttoning the tunic of the dead soldier. The task complete, they flipped the corpse over, pulling the uniform from the flesh. On his naked back, thick leather strips were laced across a bright red scar.

    Hans’ curiosity needn’t be spoken, Georg handed him a scalpel. The incision summoned a weak stream of oozing blood, weakened from death. The blade wasn’t too deep when it was stopped, the familiar sound of metal scrapping metal. Hans dug all around it, working by feel around the penetrated object. Much material was removed before the object would be extracted.

    “I have seen one of these before, this very shape. A leaf shaped arrowhead, clean, made of chipped stone.”

    Hans remembered the day he first went into those woods alone, chasing that rabbit. He remembered just where he found the arrow, as though it was sat down there by an easy hand. A shaft taller than he. They must have left it there.

    The chipped stone head. It might have been a real leaf, from a pear tree covered by Vesuvius. Then he remembered the man.

    “What does this mean? Is the Soviet so desperate they are using bows? Surely this is a good sign.” Said Georg.

    Hans always took the opportunity to mock Georg’s shallow understanding of every subject, but this mystery was too vexing. Nothing, not ever the encouraging booms, or Georg could distract him. Could this be the very same arrowhead? No, no, those woods were too far from the steppe. Whichever savage that carved this was different from whichever boy carved that. Though perhaps they had read the same book, worked from the same text. It didn’t matter.

    A hand on his shoulder interrupted his reverie. The hand of Hauptmann Winkler. “Assistenzarat Klein. I want to see everyone, officers and soldiers alike, in front of my command station. And Lehmann, too, I suppose. Right away.”

    Hans was still too deep in memory to respond. He wanted to tell Winker about these strange injuries that killed this soldier. Bizarre enough by themselves, even ignoring what was removed from his back. Filled with shrapnel, conal depressions, pits reaching deep into the chest cavity. This soldier was the latest of many he had seen with these same wounds.

    While turning to leave, he caught a questioning glance from Georg.

    The dead soldier was like so many others in the current struggle. Though Germany had not yet extended it’s full strength, and never truly could, more and more men at the front were from less than ideal stock. Ins this case, an old man. How old was hard to say, older than Hans’ own father, absurd as that might be. By maybe a year or two. Germany’s strongest sons were lost on the fields of France or the scrubland of Africa, or dead expended in this great struggle in Russia. Those that replaced them would not be the same.

    Winkler kept his command in what been a storage shed of this tractor factory. Pathetic, but as good as their Soviet hosts could provide. Their meager attempt at industrial civilization was laughable. Though Winker hadn’t made it much better. Hans had a chance to glance in once or twice, only to see piles of orders, a broken Enigma, half burnt pipes, uniforms partially made into blankets. Hans han been under Winkler’s command since the beginning of the invasion. His previous quarters hadn’t been quite the same mess of entropy. The progress of chaos is unending.

    If he would glanced that day, Hans imagined he woudl see a loaded and ready Mauser, or a vile full of liquid cyanide.

    The few left in the company assembled in the front of Winkler’s command post. The sun had almost risen. He exited through the thin curtain that served as a door.

    “Heil Hitler!”

    “Heil Hitler!” A weak exclamation from the company.

    “Good morning. I am always happy to see you brave few. My brave few. I want to talk to you about the future. We have lost this battle, and with it the war.” The assembled were silent, not one murmur of disagreement. “But our struggle is not over. Our’s as well as the Fatherland’s. Our thousand year Reich began when we gave our Fuhrer power.”

    Those old hopes floated backed. The size of the crowd, the roar of triumph. Hans had made it to the second or third rally, the first that represented the ture love of their Father. Hans wanted nothing more than to dissolve into the crowd, to be one with the masses. In every family portrait, in his graduating photo, he would always be towards the back. Dissolving into the background. Becoming a color.

    It was the first year of the war. His brothers sent forth in defense of the Reich. All alone in wet September. How far the front was he knew not, but close enough cowards were known to hide in the hills.

    He thought of how many were here because of the power of the typewriter, the linotype, and the printing press. All that paper inspiring their great nation. And how many more next year, bought by the film projector. Joy, joy at the thought of their nation, their whole people, operating together as if they were one giant mechanism.

    Father was a quiet and hard man. Another son killed his wife. Mother was also quiet, but not by choice. When the letters arrived, both him and Mother were punished. He was thankful when they were all gone. Dead in and out of holes.

    Father was loud. Even without amplification. Every word was perfectly chosen. Everyone movement. The slight gesture would make the crowd surge. They were part of something bigger. Older.

    “Everyone of us will die, or worse, taken by the enemy and tortured and enslaved. But our duty is not over. Everyone of these rot bastards we kill, is one fewer of our mothers or sisters or daughters that they will rape. Believe me, we will fall here, and the rats will overrun our Fatherland, but the Reich will-”

    A shell landed right on top of Winkler, it must have entered him right on the top of his head. Blood and sinew sprayed everywhere. A flying bone lodged itself in the neck of the soldier standing besides Hans. The shock wave knocked Hans onto his back, and the darkness took him.

    A shaft as tall as he was. White hot ash falling like snow. The boys in the play yard chasing each other. Claws wrapping around his neck, a light far above. Something chasing him. The drain being pulled out of the bath, being sucked out, stuck to the floor, ripping at the walls. A candle is blown out. Now he remembers.

    Father worked at a factory making cages. When he wouldn’t strike with the rest of the workers, the soldiers bead him to death. Hans’ school was on the other side of the woods. That must have been why he built the cabin there. From anywhere in the woods they could hear the screams.

    “Are you alright?” Starring down, the fat face of George. A little less bloated than a few moments before. A hand. Hans is helped up.

    “The others?”

    “Scattered. I was blown up against that wall. Too painful to move. I watched them all rise and leave, one by one.” Georg started sweating, freezing before it left his skin.

    “We had better leave. Lighting strikes twice.”

    There was no longer any semblance of a front. This had been truth for quite some time now. Single buildings made up a battle field. Single rooms. Pockets of resistance were thought to be everywhere. Where were they?

    Hans and Georg decided to go in the direction with the least noise. They traveled for the rest of the day. Little progress, a few feet was all that was possible before a mortar or a sniper stopped them.

    A Panzer IV lay slumped against a wall, crumbling, it’s skeleton exposed, emaciated metal sides. The courtyard was filled with similarly broken weapons of war. Bodies. Exhausted, Hans and Georg searched the courtyard, seeking shelter. Nothing. The broken tank would have to make due.

    The armor crumbled at their touch. The walls were like sand. How long the tank had been lying there Hans couldn’t guess. The invasion had only been launched a few months before, how could material be this degraded in the field? At the beginning, everything was new, the Reich’s best weapons, the thumping cannons of the Tigers and the shrieking dive bombs of the Stukas. Hans had heard rumors, of those Juden given the privilege of assisting the war machine of their Fatherland, forsaking their honor to sabotage the very arms they were crafting. But what might have done this, what trick, what possible emulsion of chemistry could return these results? Klien was too cold to continue this curiosity. The hatch handle dissolved is his hand, so did the hatch itself when pressed upon, thus Hans and Georg entered the body of the vehicle with ease. Soon they two were taken by a bitter sleep.

    The first month of the war. His brothers scattered. Two to the west and one to the east. Silence and thunder. Then the rains.

    Alois taught him everything about the woods. From willows to weasels. Which pinecones were edible and which mushrooms were not. Together they followed brooks and climbed tress. When the was came, there was no one to go with. The only blessing was Father having longer hours at the factory.

    The best mushrooms come up after a hard rain. Everything is wet and rotting, decaying wood falling apart. In the shade, the skin is bleached, blasted by the wet wind. Breaching the ground, their little head just begging to pop up. He ran after them, though he knew not where they were.

    A fat little rabbit, standing erect on the top of a log. He had to have it. This is when he found the arrow, as tall as he was. Some other boy must have left it behind. The head like a pear leaf. He just began to example it when he appeared. A big red hat, a big white beard. He knew exactly who he was. Or rather, who he was suppose to be. He would soon learn everything about him, or rather, nothing about him. A part cast in the hottest furnace. This was not a chance meeting.

    Hans followed him back to the cabin. The edges of his memory were soft. Rounded. Fresh green logs and a shiny new copper roof. The boy had been in this part of the woods before, but had never noticed it. It must have been put up in a matter of days. The door, red, newly painted, a shiny brass knob, polished from use by a thousand hands. He walked in and the man closed the door behind him.

    This happened every year, around the same time, for the rest of the war. The first change Hans barely noticed. Maybe he had just trimmed his beard. Maybe there never was any hair under that cap. It wasn’t because he was older. He was not older. Hans pretended not to notice. He walked in and the man closed the door behind him.

    Only after the war did he know long it went on. He would have guessed longer, but the war was only four years. An endless dream, his own little fairy tale. All he ever wanted. A prince and a king. Only long afterwards did he guess it was a different king every time.

    The last year of the war. His happiest journey, every little step better than the previous. A smile on his face, the fading sun raining down though the trees. But something was different, he had to open the door himself. He was at his desk, writing a letter. Not turning around at the sound of Hans coming in, “Oh,” he said without turning “it’s you.”

    Facing him, Hans never thought he was more handsome. His beard had never been as long, as full. “You, like the rest of your nation, will surrender. Now.”

    The bedroom. The bed. Hans was taller now. He wouldn’t have been able to reach the man’s face, before. Or maybe this time he was just shorter. Before it was started, and done, Hans reached up. The beard fell off, barely adhered. They didn’t even bother an attempted this time. Why would they need to? He took off the hat, stared down at the boy.

    “You were so perfect. So young, so soft. Everything we wanted. And,” he looked away, “And. And… You will die in battle and no one will remember you.” He stepped behind Hans, closing the door. “I already miss your smile.”

    Morning crept into a rut in the side armor. Part of that side must have melted away during the night. That oldest of known diseases finding someone new to infect.

    Hans saw Georg open his eyes, wider than ever before. He had a new purpose. They had chosen well.

    “We must leave this place. now.” Just rising was enough energy to break the whole structure apart. It had become a fine white sand, almost glowing. Hans was beyond the point of wonder, he didn’t want or need answers.

    “Before the end, I want to tell you something.” Hans stalled at the tank’s exit. Georg had already made it outside. “I changed my name, when I left to seek my doctorate. My real name is Hansel. I was named after my father. But that doesn’t matter now.” Nostalgia is the oldest cruelty.

    Georg half ignored him. “We must leave this place. Now.” Why was he in such a hurry, when their only end was death?

    Before the courtyard was behind them, Hans was caught by another broken weapon. A twelve pound cannon. On it was the inscribed insignia of whichever detachment of the Grande Armée had dragged it here. Hans didn’t know that they had made it this far, or this far south. More likely the rot had been so desperate to use anything they could dig up. It too was melting away, like a candle found in the morning, but a true century had existed between it and the tank. One needn’t wonder at this decay.

    They traveled til midday, a crawl through broken bones. The shells came less and less every hour. Surely this meant that they had won. The great invasion was now over. Or it would be soon, which meant that they could all die.

    They had found wherever it was that Georg was leading them. The buildings that formed it’s boundaries were barely touched. The battle had yet to spread here, only the general neglect the rot had had for all of their own places.

    Bullets ripped through the wall right besides Hans’ face. The splattering of concrete flakes managed to miss him entirely. Not so for Georg, who’s face exploded into blood.

    “Finally! Yes!” Georg screamed. “Now is our glory! Why we are here!”

    “Fool! Blasted fool! Get down!” Hans grabbed Georg, by what loose clothing he could find, throwing him down to the ground. They piled on top of each other, rolling and changing positions. Meanwhile, all around them was the chaos of bullets, splitting apart walls and failing doorways.

    “Yes, yes, this is what we wanted.” Said Georg, his voice weakened by the ground. Georg was the greatest of idiots even at moments of inactivity, those moments before the universe calls on us to make that final decision. What drove this new madness Hans would soon know.

    Thinking that the barrage was over, they slowly stood. Just as their limbs became perpendicular to the Earth, a grenade fell onto a spot less than a meter from them. Nothing left besides his comrade, Hans hurled himself onto it. In the very moment his body enveloped it, it went of. When he could have a thought besides dull screaming, Hans knew that it must have been a dud. He yet lived. Rising, he saw the burned and cracked ground. His body had somehow contained the explosion. Hans had no more questions.

    Around the corner a few troopers emerged, the cold grey of their countryman. No sooner as seeing them did Georg raise his weapon, sending a few shots into the closest solider. His friends retaliated right away, Georg catching burning metal in his throat. Hans was hit as well, but without injury, of course. He would take Georg’s involuntarily discarded weapon up, and find revenge on his new found enemies. Georg laughed, blood dripping out with every syllable.

    The dead soldiers were inspected, all of them couldn’t be younger than sixty.

    Hans took Georg’s raised hand. Together they limped forwards. Always more soldiers. Grey and rot, finding their way out of cracks and hidden alley ways. Little desperate battles. Some would smile and giggle, while the brains of their opponents would slash out. Others would make quick agreements, put out a knife or a club, and go upon each other with cool conviction. A planned dance. Quick engagements or prolonged battles, everywhere, flooding the square to the point of busting. The dead were everywhere. Piling up. Forming little walls, some reliably erect and others collasping onto each other.

    One pile, by chance of infinite combination, formed a little room. Light shined through the roof’s apex, though with each heaped body the room compressed, becoming smaller. One much like a room where one of Hans’ brothers must have lived during the last great struggle. Every body drove the walls closer and closer in.

    Georg showed a weak smile. “I am fine with it being here. And with you. They loved you. Or, they loved what you might have been.” he stared ahead, wandering eyes that soon lost their hunting drive.

    Hans couldn’t breath. He fled that little dying room. Outside the piles larger than ever. Grey and rot mixing together. All flowed together, one silent army of the dead. Hans walks through this mute revelry, floating through all his past known happiness. The screams in that cabin. They all knew. Here was the paying audience, the happy watchers of his life. Here were a group of greys kicking a rot to death. Here a running rot, checking the time on his wrist, huffing, before he leaps on a waiting pile. Here two greys stab each other with bayonets, yawning, bored with the whole affair. Here a rot craves tiny triangles into a grey’s forehead. Here a grey sewing this own intestines back into his abdomen. Here a rot, arms spread in the air, begging to be killed like all the rest.

    There, at the end of his path. From his first step to his last, the moist little thing at Mother’s breast, to here, the tall soldier in shining boots, here on his Father’s greatest battle field. Where it was all decided, here would be the place. There, that same door, red, newly painted, with a brass door knob, polished by all those that came before, and all those that would come after. Hans reached down, touching it ever so softly. All his again. So happy, so young and so new. He turned the doorknob, the door swung in, and he saw what was hidden.

    He knew then that soon He would be dead.

    Charles Gillingham replied 4 years, 10 months ago 1 Member · 0 Replies
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