For a while now, the weather report had suggested things were going to warm up, to thaw. The winter dragged on hesitantly, and although the skies had recently given way to brighter shades of blue, the temperatures still took a plunge deeper, like the season gained sentience and dug in claws made of ice.
I’d woken up early this morning, and tumbled about trying to reclaim my slumbering bliss, to no avail. I think I’d spent an hour lying there, eyes closed, mind full of half-formed ideas rising only to burst on the surface of my consciousness, like bubbles in a glass of champagne. That reminded me of the evening before; as I rolled aside and pivoted my feet over the edge of the bed, sitting upright, I saw the empty whiskey glasses on the nightstand tables. One on my side of the bed, another one on my other side of the bed – only last night, that had been her side of the bed.
Of course, she wasn’t here any more, and I’d known that almost right away. I stood up, feet shuffling across the rough, unpainted wooden floorboards of the cabin. The faint tinkle of thick, shattered glass playing out as I brushed aside the remnants of an empty, broken bottle which once contained the whiskey we’d drank while discussing the war, the peace that was supposed to follow, the inhibitions we were drinking in order to lose. I barely remembered the predictable nocturnal pastimes we’d engaged in, that much I’d drank; now I contended with the throbbing headache that followed, and wondered in retrospect if the fleeting pleasure I couldn’t even bring to mind, was worth bearing the risk it carried in the end.
The blue tinged pain emanating in my temples was joined by a sharp jabbing from beneath the sole of my left foot, nestled in the instep. I looked down, and beheld a glistening trail of blood. I must have cut myself, what a fool I’d been going this way, and not another.
I could hear the wind whistling through a chink in the shingled armor of the house, rising an octave when the currents blew just so. With it came scents of the ocean, crashing ashore just twenty yards away, the odor of wet wool and damp serge, my coat hanging by the kitchen, I supposed. But serge? That was foreign, and yet still, I continued down this way and not the other, staggering forward slowly.
The dining room was small, just big enough to contain a table for four, a coat rack, and a cupboard that was empty, save for a loaded long gun, a Winchester 1897 Trench that predated the last Great War, let alone this one. And there was my guest, seated before me, waiting.
He was slight in build, injured, viscera adding claret red to the grey of his uniform. A wound to his head had been clumsily bandaged up, covering half his vision, and still he stared, one eye’s intensity doubling as if to compensate for the other. The lace curtains were drawn, but the sunlight still persisted enough to gleam off the embellishments on the officer’s epaulets. The twinkle of the initials ‘SS’ electrified every fibre of my body, the pain of the headache, the foot, gone in an instant.
“Sit down, please,” he said, in a tone that sounded more parental than menacing.
A German service pistol lay atop the table, just out of his immediate grip. The clip was out, which I found incredibly strange, but was a bullet chambered? Should I resist the urge to leap forward, cast aside the cartridge full of ammunition, and find out?
The chance of death was fifty-fifty.
“Sit down! Now!”
I complied, and inched closer, hands in full sight – and also at the ready. I reckoned the closer I was, the better my luck. Should I flail just so, left hand to the right, knocking the bullets to the ground, and right hand to the left, I could deflect the weapon, aim it away if not grab it entirely and turn it against him. It was a strange twist of irony that here, coming into point blank range from the combatant might actually help me live long enough to retell the tale.
“Do you know why I am here?” the man from the Schutzstaffel asked, flatly, imperfectly and yet in my mother tongue.
I shook my head.
“Then you are stupider than you look,” he said, slowly raising his arm to the table, hand not quite in view.
My own arms, both of them, began to tighten, muscles solidifying beneath the flannel of my pajama sleeves. It was then that I caught in my eye the faint shadow of someone else approaching, like an apparition in my periphery, through the glowing whiteness of the curtains. The figure, male or female, carried something aloft, bulkier than a weapon; it encumbered them so that as they made their way past the window, they struggled to free a hand, to reach for the door handle and to twist it. They were carrying firewood. Was it the girl, was that why she had left me? Had she come back?
For a while now, the weather report had suggested things would warm up, but the report had been wrong.