Ardennes ’44

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Joseph Noonan


The waiting was easier at night, but only by a little. Alone in the dark of the barren upstairs room, Argent found it at least bearable to sit, nursing his found whiskey and waiting for the sound of war. He listened with a jittering awareness. They’d trained him to be aware. They’d trained him to remember. They’d trained him to obey. Now he hated that awareness, cursed his memories, and wished he’d never learned to obey. He wrapped his greatcoat closer around him and pawed through the remnants of someone’s old fire, long cold. His empty stomach nearly revolted against the whiskey. His clothes stank of cordite and sweat, blood and fear.

In the daytime, his manic eyes would cover the walls and bookcases endlessly. They did so now, but in the darkness the edges of the room melted away under an alcoholic gauze. He ached for sleep as well as food. Argent couldn’t remember the last time he’d been able to put his head down for more than a few desperate minutes of semi-awareness. And now, even that would be impossible. He’d done his best to block all the doors shut from inside and pushed whatever furniture he could move against the upstairs windows. It wouldn’t be enough. He wished he could smoke. Smoking helped, but the ember in the darkness could be enough to give him away. Now all he could do was wait. Wait and mutter and rock, clutched bottle tilted to his lips as he sipped at the bitterness.

Argent knew that the machines coming now would be green ones, with white stars painted on them. He didn’t much care. The gray ones with the black crosses painted on them were just as eager to grind you under. The machines would be coming soon. Not the simple, useful farm machines his father had owned when Argent was a boy near Frankfurt. He had grown up around well-designed machinery. He had understood the need to respect the moving parts, the belts and gears and pulleys, since before he could read. He held no respect, nothing but a terrified disdain for these new machines, even if some of them could fly. The treaded ones could crawl faster than he could run, even when he’d had two sound legs. And they all knew hunger, for other machines and for the men beside them.

At first his mind had balked at the speed and ferocity with which the things spewed death at their enemies. He found soon enough that, in their randomness, anything in their way was an enemy. His final concession to the realities of war had come with the acceptance that these machines were perverse in design, with completely different reasons for being than those from his childhood. Their sole purpose was to be dangerous. Lethal. All the safety housings and shields had been deliberately removed, and the unfortunates near by were all encouraged—no, required—to get as close as possible to the spinning gears, the flashing blades. Were made to touch them. Feed them. The machines were mindless but voracious. And they were everywhere. They came from the woods and out of the sky. Day and night didn’t matter to them. There weren’t enough warm bodies anywhere to satisfy their want, and they would devour him if they could. Once he had accepted that fact, killing those who tended the machines had been easier.

Argent crawled to the front of the room and gazed out through his barricade. He heard nothing but the whisper of falling snow and a light breeze passing through whatever was left of the town. The snow looked lumpy and strange as it fell. He finally realized that it was mixed with ashes. He looked out to the west, and could see the low clouds lit from below with a dull orange glow. He had a brief disorientation, like vertigo, thinking that somehow the world had flipped and the dawn was rising in the west. But no, it was just the forest hugely burning, maybe twenty kilometers away, maybe less. The wind had shifted to carry the ash to him and now he could smell the woods burning. How long before the real dawn? He had no idea.

As he started to draw back away from the window, a glint of blue light caught his eye from the village square below him. He turned back to watch as a small group of young children appeared from behind the central fountain. They were holding hands and chanting a complicated melody. At times it sounded like a schoolyard song, and at others, a dirge. The primary tune struck a note of familiarity with Argent.

He saw that the shades before him all had a glowing bluish cast. He could see the fountain through their shapes as they passed before it. Their small feet didn’t appear to actually touch the ground as they moved around. He couldn’t tell if they were aware of him watching. As they chanted, they went through a simple series of dance steps. In all, it lasted for several minutes. Argent’s glazed eyes were unable to look away. He was too numb for terror at the sight of a few dead schoolchildren, but they held his shattered attention. Gradually the glow began to fade from the square, and the children with it. Only the melody lingered a bit longer before it, too, vanished. The silence returned, with the falling snow and ash and the wind.

Argent still stared out at the again-empty square, trying to place the melody. It seemed important that he remember. He realized finally why it was familiar. When he’d first dragged himself up the stairs, he had checked the rest of the house for squatters like himself, or remaining family members like the dead boy downstairs. There had been no one. But in the rear of the house, in what had once been someone’s small bedroom, he’d found a tiny black lacquered music box. When he wound it, a miniature ballerina popped spinning from the box and the tiny metal tangs had sprung over the posts to play the same tune the children had just been chanting. He crawled now to the rear of the room to where he’d left it.

*

He’d set all of his trophies on a small table standing beside the doorway to the bedroom. The music box was one of them. He’d placed it a little bit off to the side from the others, because it was so different. All of his other mementos would definitely qualify as war souvenirs. There was the .45 caliber pistol taken from a dead American GI half a year ago in northern France. There was also a bayonet—he wasn’t sure what nationality, just that it wasn’t German. He had found it pinning one of his own Gruppe against the blasted remnants of a huge oak tree in another town square. When he’d pulled it free, the man had slid soundlessly to the ground. Nothing to be done for him. Argent couldn’t even remember what village that had been in now. Almost all of the other keepsakes were much more personal, victory reminders—dogtags if he could find them, an ear or finger if not. All taken by force from someone who had always been, just moments before, intent on killing him.

These last had been a recent development, the body parts. Argent had known as he started taking them that something fundamental within him was forever gone. He felt a dull sadness at its passing, but was helpless to prevent it. He was beyond redemption. He realized that there was very little left in him now that was human. The winning didn’t even mean anything to him now. Every grim victory just meant that he got to live a little longer, out of spite if nothing else.

His last fight, hand-to-hand and man-to-man, had been the price of admission into this house. It had been against a terrified boy barely old enough to shave, but had been vicious and frantic. Argent had had nothing more than his knife at hand, his ammunition gone days before. He was looking for a place to hide, and eventually had come upon the one last unblasted house by the village fountain. He’d been crawling through a broken window, dragging his ruined left leg in behind him when a closet door had exploded open, and he’d been set upon by the boy.

Normally, the fight would have been no contest. Argent outweighed the boy by at least 50 kilos, and carried his service knife against the other’s improvised club—simply a piece of wood with some cloth wound around it for a handle. The boy’s sudden appearance had a least given him a fighting chance, which he took with both hands. Argent was still half in and half out of the window, his bad leg was tangled against the sill and he had been badly surprised.

The boy had been on him immediately, trying to crush his windpipe from behind with one arm. With the other, he’d rained blows down on the German’s head. Argent saw his vision going dark as he fought for air. With a final convulsive heave, he threw his body forward, scoring the bad leg over the jagged remains of the window. The boy had ridden him down to the floor inside. Argent bellowed with rage and pain when the leg twisted beneath them as they fell.

The boy was on him again as quickly as he could scoop his club back up. Argent batted it away, to land in a corner. As the boy leapt to retrieve it, Argent grabbed an ankle, spilling him back to the floor. Argent clawed for his sheathed service knife with his other hand. Denied the chance to retrieve his weapon, the boy instead dove back and onto Argent’s chest, shrieking and trying now to thumb out his eyes. Argent threw his left arm over his face, protecting his vision. He drove the knife upward and home with his right. It slid easily up through the ribs and into the heart.

The boy’s lips curled back in a wild snarl as the light faded from his eyes and his last breath wheezed out into Argent’s face. The boy collapsed forward onto Agent and lay still. Argent whooped in ragged gasps of air, finally steadying himself enough to roll the now-dead weight off and sit upright. He wasn’t sure how long he sat there by the body, bloody, dazed and wracked with trembling, before he reached over and took an ear. He’d shoved it into his bag with the rest, and continued into the house, lying on his side now and pushing his way forward with his good leg.

*

He pushed his way forward the same way now, taking the music box down as he reached the table by the doorway. None of the other souvenirs there held any real interest for him any longer. He wanted to hear the song again, watch the ballerina twirl. The delicate key unlocked something singular, he was certain. His blunt, awkward fingers trembled slightly as he wound the spring inside, gently so as to not overtighten and ruin it. Once finished, he released the key and held the box before him, and readied himself for whatever was to come. He still jumped a bit when the box popped open, and the graceful figurine inside appeared. The tune was indeed the same as the one the children in the square had sung. It echoed strangely in the barren room.

At first he saw nothing more than the twirling figure, but as he stared at it longer, he became aware of a soft blue glow filling the doorway into the bedroom to his right. His shoulder on that side felt chilled. He finally took his eyes from the music box and looked into the room. He saw a young girl, bathed in blue wavering light, hovering just above the floor across the threshold. Coldness spilled from the doorway. The light pulsed gently, in time with the rhythm of the music. Argent stared raptly at the figure before him.

Like the children from the square, she was transparent. He could see the wall behind through the girl. Unlike them, she did not dance or sing, simply stared at Argent with deep knowing eyes. He was no longer uncertain that these figures could see him—the girl’s eyes followed his small motions as he hitched himself around to a sitting position, his back against the doorframe and the box on his lap. Although the hair on the back of his neck had bristled erect, he felt fascination more than fear. He mouthed a few silent words in greeting, but the child remained as quiet as stone. Perhaps she had been a mute in life—the dead children by the fountain had been capable of singing.

Argent held the box out towards the girl. She finally smiled as the figure spun before her, and her gaze shifted to watch it, but nothing more. Argent sat there holding up the box until the spring was nearly unwound, the tune beginning to slow and lose its tempo. The girl’s eyes became cloudy as the blue light around her started to stutter and fade, and she winked from existence as suddenly as a blown out candle’s flame when the box spun to a halt.

Argent took the whiskey bottle from his pocket, twisted the cap off with jittering fingers and took a long shuddering drink. Then another, just as long. The alcohol quickly laced its way into his head. Once again, he was uncertain how long he sat there recovering himself from a trembling fit. Hunger, exhaustion, blood loss and fear had left him broken. His leg was worse than useless, a constant agony. But in spite of all of it, he was sure of one thing—he wanted to see her again. The fascination won out over the fear. He decided to wind the box a second time, just to see if he could summon the girl again. Hell, the machines were coming for him. What better time to make friends with the dead?

Argent wound the box more quickly this time, already knowing when he needed to stop. He held his breath and the key for a second longer, then released both. As before, the music filled the near-empty room with an echoing version of the children’s song. Shortly the blue light began to flicker in the bedroom. This time Argent watched the light instead of the music box. It came brighter and faster, finally appearing to coalesce into the form of the girl, floating just above the floor.

Argent could swear she was closer this time—nearer the door than the bed. He could have reached out and tried to touch her. He knew on some childlike, instinctive level that he should not. She again spied the music box that he held out before her, and smiled. This time, Argent actually spoke a simple greeting. He was suddenly convinced that her name had been Maria, and called her by name. She responded to the sound, and looked into Argent’s eyes rather than at the ballerina. He saw how deep and dark they truly were. He pulled his gaze away, afraid of losing himself in them. Not yet. He still had some time.

Some time, but not much. Argent felt, rather than heard, the explosion of a large shell somewhere outside the village. The house shuddered. The few remaining windows rattled in their frames. Plaster dust floated down from the ceiling onto his clothes, onto the box. The first explosion was followed closely by another, then another. Both were increasingly nearer than the first. Now he could hear the dull whumping thuds of the blasts, not just feel them. The machines were here, hurling their deadly offspring into the village as their keepers adjusted for range and walked the shells towards their targets. Damn them. Damn them all.

Argent held out the box until the spring unwound again, and watched again as the girl winked from existence. He drank some more, wiping away with his sleeve the whiskey that slopped past the bottle’s neck and over his chin. Setting the bottle down to spill at his side, he wound the spring again.

The girl appeared, this time closer again than before. She was no longer smiling. Her eyes never looked towards the box again, just at Argent, with a more insistent urgency. He refused to look into them for longer than a second at a time. He simply waited until the spring unwound, then wound it again. She was closer. The spring ran down. He wound it again. Closer still. Wound it again. Closest.

The girl was floating just beside him now, almost hovering over him. Her coldness ran straight through him, pinning him to the doorframe like a thousand dark icicles. The forgotten bottle lay on the floor beside him. Its last mouthful ran out onto the floorboards and into his shattered leg. He was beyond feeling it. He gazed finally up into the girl’s eyes, saw the inviting blackness there. She reached out to touch his shoulder. He felt a crackling chill race down his arm and through his hand, but the fingers holding the music box never loosened. The ballerina twirled, the music played.

Argent had only the briefest of moments to register the sound, like cloth tearing. An incoming shell punched through the roof of the house and into the room behind him. He had a momentary sense of brilliant lightning and a roaring noise so loud it was incomprehensible as sound. Then nothing but silence and the darkness of the blue girl’s eyes.

*

Sergeant Leon Kawalski had drawn duty sweeping the town for stragglers, either villagers or POWs. He doubted there would be any of either, considering the pounding the place had taken from artillery and air support before the ground troops advanced. There didn’t seem to be a tree left standing, or a single building intact. All the bricked corners stood divorced from their walls, now just piles of reddish dust lying in the streets. No nesting places left for snipers. That was good. Smoke was still seeping from beneath the blasted remnants of roofs and up from cellars, all blended together in new random geometries. A slight breeze pushed the smoke around as it rose. Except for the clinking of the men’s gear as they walked, there was almost no sound. It reminded him of the aftermath of tornado strikes back home, but on a very much larger scale. Even the smell seemed the same—powdered mortar, smoke and organic decay. He was grateful for the cigarette smoke lacing up into his nose. At least it killed the smell a little. Some of the dead had been so for days.

“Hey, Leon. anything over there?”

“Nah, same old shit. Whatta they expect us to find? We blasted the place for three days.”

As he said this, Leon stepped over another pile of rubble, into the outer corner of what must have been at least a two-story house, judging by what was left. His boot slipped and he slid down quickly on the other side, just saving himself from a fall. He stepped down onto something soft and yielding. Looking down, he could just make out the grimed edge of a greatcoat’s sleeve. The owner of the coat was buried under the bricks and wood. Next to Leon’s foot, the blackened fingers of the hand sticking out of the sleeve clutched a small wooden box of some sort. Leon bent down and pried the box away, brushing it off for a better look as he stood. The box was painted black, dusty but intact, with one side holding a protruding metal key. Leon wound the key a couple of times and as he released it, the lid popped open to reveal a tiny blue ballerina, twirling. The box began to play a tune which Leon couldn’t have named, but seemed pleasant enough. Lilting, almost haunting. He grunted to himself, surprised the tiny machine had survived. And what the hell was a German soldier doing with it? Whatever it had been, he certainly wouldn’t miss it now. For a moment, from the corner of his eye, Leon saw a blue light flash in a darker rear corner. He turned quickly to follow the movement, thinking the worst—Kraut!—but saw nothing more. After a moment, his pulse started to slow and his breathing returned to something like normal. Christ, now he was jumping at shadows. Leon closed the music box up and slid it into his kitbag, thinking it’d make a nice memento to save for Jane, waiting for him back in Kansas. At least he hoped she’d be waiting.

Kawalski scrambled to catch up with the other sweepers, and they finally clambered onto the backs of tanks waiting at the eastern edge of the town. The diesel exhausts coughed and the treads spun as the convoy moved east again. As he rode out of town and into the fields, Leon was humming an almost familiar tune and thinking of home.

pencil

“Middle-aged, married (Hi, Linda!), father of two. No fine arts education—all secondary and later college has been technical. Entire adult career spent in technical work—electronics, computers, network administration, service supervision. Avid reader, decided it’s time to produce rather than just consume. Favorite authors: the list could be a long one, but needs to include John Steinbeck, Robert Pirsig, Lee Child, Stephen King.” E-mail: j.e.noonan[at]verizon.net.

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