Aleksy hated the work. It wasn’t that he was lazy, not by far – he always finished the task in front of him. It was the heat, and the flies and mosquitoes, and the constant jarring of the axe in the wood. It wore a man out, swinging a hunk of metal and wood from sunup to sundown. At night, he would return to the barracks, hot and sore and tired, the calluses on his hands sometimes still breaking open, turning his palms red and raw.
He had been raised in Warsaw, with the forest just to the north of him his entire life. There had been plenty of work there for a man willing, and though the pay was poor, it had never seemed as hard as this. When the Germans came through, he made the choice to join, not for any lofty cause – the Germans could have their land and their rule – but because it was better than being clapped in chains and letting his family starve.
Beside him, Oskar raised his head from the axe he had been working, and wiped his arm across his forehead. “You stop swinging for a reason, brother?” He asked.
Aleksy hated that, as well. Oskar called everyone ‘brother’, and he knew it was probably just a verbal tic, but it still rankled him. Oskar had joined willingly, ready to fight the Americans and British that crossed the ocean. When they weren’t working on the trees, Oskar would lie in the barracks and boast about killing the enemy, taking their medals or helmets for souvenirs. He insisted he was made for glory; all he needed was the chance to prove it.
Aleksy shook his head, and grabbed the axe again. “Hot.” He said.
Oskar looked around, peered up through the canopy of the forest. It was thinner here, this part made mostly of newer growth, the great old giants further in. The man shook his head and grabbed his axe as well, and went back to work on the tree he had been trying to fell.
The two men worked in silence for a while, the smells of freshly-cut wood and forest loam that was never quite dry and sweat drifting around them in the late afternoon heat. The sounds of axe heads biting into the wood went on, a rhythmic thunk-thunk that echoed through the trees. In the distance, Aleksy could hear echoes of their axes, and a sharper, higher sound – metal on metal – as men dropped and secured the first rails and ties for the carts.
German command had decided the forest would be an excellent strategic resource, and so had moved the 9th Army through Poland to the border of Belarus. As they went, they conscripted men and women into the army. Those that wouldn’t go were clapped in chains and sent to the closest prison. Those that did were given a uniform, a rifle, a kit, and marching orders.
When they arrived, it was to a mixed bag of emotions. The ones like Oskar, and the relatively green recruits of Germans, were disappointed. There was to be no fighting here. They were to secure the forest, and then begin exploiting it. There was a great deal of good hardwood in those miles, and an almost equally abundant supply of wild game. As far as Aleksy, and the men who believed as he did, were concerned, if the worst the Germans asked of them was some deforestation, they would take what was handed them and not grumble. It was still better than laying face-up in a crater in no-man’s land with your guts spilled to your side.
Aleksy thought for a moment of his cousin, Jarek, and his deployment with the 1st Army. He wondered how his cousin was doing. He wondered if there were any forests where he was, on the western front, bogged down in the mud and fire.
His thoughts cut off as Oskar nudged him. “Look sharp, brother.”
Aleksy looked up from the axe he wasn’t aware he had stopped swinging again. Oskar nodded off to their right. Sergeant Moser was walking the labor lines, inspecting the men’s work. He would occasionally stop and say something to a man on the line, and then continue on. The times he did stop, the man he had spoken to would slump a bit, and then return to work with only a slight increase in vigor.
“Dupek.” Oskar muttered, and spit off to the side.
Aleksy smiled to himself. It was comforting to know that despite Oskar’s bravado, the man hated his boss just like everyone else. The sergeant was getting closer, and Aleksy and Oskar resumed chopping at the trees, just a bit harder than they normally would have.
Five minutes of hard cutting had them sweating and grunting, the only sounds in their ears of axe head hitting wood. Aleksy was ready for a break. A bit of water, maybe a smoke borrowed from one of the other men. He tried not to think of it, and before long lost himself in the work. He nearly dropped the axe when a shadow passed over him, and instead of moving on, it hovered, the sensation of being watched sending prickles down the back of his neck.
He swung the axe that much harder, not wanting to hear the Sergeant’s criticisms. THWOCK. THWOCK. A minute passed, and then two, and Aleksy’s shoulders and hands threatened to cramp from the repetition and impact. Just before he was sure he would have to leave the axe in the tree and deal with Moser, the shadow passed over him.
He risked a glance over his shoulder, and saw the man slipping between the trees. He slowed his pace, still swinging, but only just enough to make noise, until Moser disappeared in the shadow of the forest. When the sergeant was gone, he stopped cutting and left the axe in the tree.
He stood and knuckled his back, and then wiped the thick sheen of sweat from his forehead with his arm. He walked over to a nearby stump, and pulled his canteen from his kit, taking a long pull. The water was warm, but good, clean spring water. Oskar joined him after a minute.
They leaned on the stump and watched the last of the afternoon light filter through the forest canopy. A breeze sprung up, and sent the leaves overhead dancing, making watery shadows on the ground. Neither man said a word, and that was good, as far as Aleksy was concerned. Too many people thought that every moment spent with another person had to be filled, any sound, no matter how inane, better than even small silences.
They listened to the forest around them, taking small sips from their canteens. They knew they had to be back at it, but it was getting close enough to dusk to not make a difference, and with the inspection gone and passed, they could relax a bit. In the darker parts of the forest, something broke a twig as it passed by, and a bird called out, low and musical. The last of the light started to go, turning the light first red, then a deep orange.
A whistle, high and sharp, pierced the forest, and they were broken from their quiet. Quitting time. They’d have enough time to gather their things, and maybe take a quick shower in one of the stalls outside of the barracks before the bell rang for mess. They began to gather their things, stowing first their canteens in their kits, and then taking up the big axes from where they had left them in the trees.
They started down the path, moving at a quick walk. The path hadn’t been there even two weeks before, but heavy traffic and the work of dozens of men with axes had quickly cleared enough undergrowth and smaller trees to allow the men access to increasingly deeper parts of the forest.
Halfway to the camp, Oskar stopped. He glanced over his shoulder, and held up his hand, signaling for Aleksy to stop as well. Aleksy did so, and watched, as the other man crept to the edge of the path, his axe in both hands, his kit laid on the path. Oskar peered into the bush for a moment, and cocked his head, as if listening. Nervousness began to creep in Aleksy, and he wondered if he shouldn’t have his axe at the ready as well, rather than slung over his shoulder. Tense moments passed, and he began to lay his kit down, so he could grip the axe. Then it was over, and Oskar was returning to the path, his axe held loose again.
“Well?” Aleksy asked.
Oskar shrugged. “Thought I heard something pacing us.” He pointed the axe in the general direction of the bush. “Gone now. I was hoping it was a boar.”
“Yeah, you know, big pig, tusks. We would’ve eaten like kings!”
They resumed walking, and Aleksy shook his head, but couldn’t keep a grin from his face. He tried to imagine Oskar as any kind of hero, even as the man went on about bacon and short ribs and chops. Oskar the hero. He almost chuckled aloud.
The 9th Army’s camp had grown into a sprawling monster in the few months since they had arrived. Despite the remoteness of the location, the officers had decided not to take any chances (some of the more gung-ho ones had insisted they needed to keep their eyes peeled for the Russians), and had erected a fenced palisade topped with barbed-wire, with another small field of barbed wire extending past that for several yards.
The camp was laid out according to military code, with utility buildings like the mess and infirmary and command nearer the back, butting up against a small hill that had been cleared, and soldier’s tents and barracks erected in neat lines that allowed for straight avenues and easy navigation. Latrines marked the outer boundary of the camp, on the leeward side, in the hope that the wind that passed though the countryside and forest would carry the worst of the scent away.
Aleksy and Oskar passed through the gate leading into the camp. The path they had been walking had turned into a well-worn wide dirt road a half-mile back, and they kept to one side should vehicles, or rarely, a horseman, pass by. They were waved inside by the two privates on duty, rifles slung over their shoulders, a disinterested look in their eyes.
One of the men, Conrad, smiled at Aleksy as he passed. Aleksy thought of him as decent enough, for a German. He was smoking one of those Turkish cigarettes, the smoke rising in wisps that the wind tattered away. He could smell the strong scent of burning tobacco as he passed, and it made him wish he had brought his pipe.
Inside the camp, they passed groups of men, heading in a hundred different directions. It seemed to Aleksy the camp was more akin to a lethargic beehive, everyone working, with no one really all that excited about it. This far out from command, there were very few officers seen mingling with the enlisted, and everyone seemed to be happier for it. The majority of the men here were conscripts like him, and though they weren’t all happy with their lot, they were still good, hard-working men, regardless of the proximity of officers.
They passed a group of privates chatting in excited tones. The weekend was coming soon, and the rumor was that several of the men were being allowed passes to the city. Their chatter slipped by as Aleksy and Oskar walked, and they passed two more groups of men, all going different directions as they went. Men reporting for duty, or heading to mess. He was starting to think he and Oskar might have to miss their showers when they turned a corner, and the barracks came into sight. He breathed a sigh of relief, and Oskar clapped him on the back, shot him a quick smile, and quickened his pace.
They half-jogged to the back of the barracks, axes bouncing on their shoulders, until they reached the row of equipment lockers there. They put away their axes and field kits, and locked the boxes when they were done, each man with a key that hung around his neck. With that done, they made their way around the corner, where the showers stood, really little more than stalls with thick plastic curtains, where the men could clean up quickly. They stripped down, and stepped into one each, and Oskar started to talk, while Aleksy tried not to think of the grumbling his stomach was sending up.
“Oksana. You remember her, right?” Oskar grinned and ducked his head under the water. Aleksy nodded.
“Yeah, she was what, sixteen? Girl followed you around like a puppy.”
“She liked it like a puppy, too.” Oskar’s grin got wider, and Aleksy rolled his eyes.
“Oh, and you’re so pure, brother?” Oskar shot back.
Aleksy ignored the comment. He had had his fair share of farm girls and working girls on their tour; he just preferred not to talk about it. He didn’t believe you needed to trumpet every conquest like an elephant with something to prove. Sometimes, a man just needed a warm body to keep him company for a night, and sometimes a woman needed the same thing. It wasn’t an issue of pride for him as much as a necessity of the human condition.
Oskar was still going on in the background. “What do you think we’re having for dinner? Beets and venison again?”
Aleksy’s stomach growled at that, but it was only half-hearted this time. He hated beets, though venison was starting to bring up the rear in that race. He almost wished Oskar would’ve got that boar. The man would’ve been insufferable for a week, but they’d have something other than deer steak and beets. Or deer steak and leeks. Or deer steak and onions. He was starting to wish he had found the boar, for that matter.
The mess whistle sounded across the camp, snapping Aleksy out of his thoughts. He stepped out of the stall and dried himself and then shucked back into his uniform. It still smelled of sweat, but not as strongly. He could change out of it when dinner was over.
Oskar wasn’t far behind, and Aleksy waited for the man to finish dressing, while he ran his fingers through damp hair. When Oskar was done, they started off toward the mess hall, silence dropping over them once again.
The mess tent was a cacophony of noise and motion, men lining up to eat, men wandering the rows of tables looking for a place to sit – either with friends, or as close to the door as possible – and the sounds of chatter and the metallic clink of silverware hitting tin trays. Aleksy and Oskar made their way through the line, waiting patiently as the cooks dished out food into the compartments on their trays. Beets, stewed in their own sauce, making a violet almost-jelly, a brown steak that smelled somewhat gamey, and a dense piece of cake that looked like it might be a brownie.
They took their food, and wandered the tables, until they found one with two spots open, and sat down. Aleksy tried not to shift too much while sitting on the rough wood. He had learned the hard way, the first week, and the camp medic had to pull a two-inch splinter from his rear. He had no wish to relive the sensation of a man giggling behind him while he was bent over a gurney, with his pants down.
Oskar was already bragging, the other privates and corporals leaning in to hear his story.
“Bet on it, brother! Tomorrow, I’m going to catch that boar, and then we’ll all be eating ribs! Three feet tall, if he was an inch, I swear to you!”
Aleksy rolled his eyes (something he found himself doing more often than not around Oskar), and set to his meal. The beets were slimy, as always, and he had a hard time choking those down. He tried the steak, and though it was a bit chewy and salted to beat the Dead Sea, he found if he dipped it in the beet juice, he could eat it. He managed to finish both, and tried the brownie. It was dry and crumbly, and he ended up going back to the water bins twice to refill his cup before he finished it. Still, it was food, and his stomach had finally stopped dancing and growling.
The other men at the table were laughing at something Oskar had said, and it drew Aleksy out of his head. Oskar clapped him on the back, and was grinning. Aleksy looked over at the man to ask him what was so funny, when motion out of the corner of his eye made him turn his head. He saw the smile slip from Oskar’s face.
Karl Amsel, Colonel Amsel, if you were an enlisted man, was striding between the long trestle tables down the aisle that led to the back of the tent. Oskar was still leaning close to Aleksy, and whispered under his breath.
“The Stonebird himself. Pieprz mnie. Must be big news, for the old man to come down. Hey, maybe we’re finally going to see some action.”
The colonel reached the end of the aisle, and leaned over the cook counter, speaking in low tones to the men behind it. They stopped what they were doing, and came out from behind it, sitting at one of the more sparsely occupied tables. The colonel turned, and cleared his throat.
He was not a large man, maybe five-foot six, give or take an inch. He was however, dense, like concrete. His uniform strained at the seams, none of the bulk fat, and his wide face and square chin gave him the impression of being carved from granite. Despite his age (he was rumored to be in his sixties), his hair and moustache were jet-black. Nearly black eyes full of intelligence looked out from over a nose that hooked like a beak, all of it together giving him the impression of a bird watching its prey.
The colonel began to speak, and Oskar hushed.
“For those of you who don’t know yet, and I’m guessing from the whispers I’m hearing, that’s most of you, we lost a soldier today. Dietrich Moser, Sergeant Moser, was last seen checking the labor lines close to the three-mile mark when he went missing. For now, we’re assuming he is simply lost, maybe turned around in the trees out there, and not AWOL, or worse. As a result, we’ll be taking volunteers to from search parties and beat the bush. If we do not have enough volunteers, we will begin drafting men at random in order to fill out the groups. This duty is in addition to your regular work, so do not expect to volunteer and be given a pass.”
A quiet groan went up from the gathered men. The colonel ignored it.
“In addition, until we find the sergeant, or put to rest what has happened, all weekend passes are suspended.”
A larger groan went up, and this time, the colonel shot a glare around the room, quieting it. When it had settled, he went on.
“That is all. I expect you men to use common sense in the forest. Keep to twos, keep your kits on you at all times, and pay attention. Now, those of you who wish to volunteer, you may go to the notice board and sign the sheet posted there.”
He finished, and began to walk out; paying no attention to the glares he must have caught from the corners of his eyes. The tent flap closed behind him, letting the last of the dusk light in, then cut it off. The chatter began to pick up in the silence he left behind.
Oskar leaned in, talking in a low voice. “It’s bullshit, I tell you, brothers. The Soviets are responsible for this. They’re out there, in the dark, just waiting until we go to sleep, and then they sneak in, and slit our throats. Or, they just pick us off, one by one. One minute, you’re dropping a tree, the next; you’re trying to breathe through the knife in your lung.”
One of the privates, Dariusz, replied. “What’s the big deal? If it’s the Soviets, they can’t hide long, and we’ll beat them out. If it’s not, or even if it is, Moser’s gone. Tell me that’s not a good thing. And hey, you finally get your action.”
Oskar leaned back. “You make good points, brother.” He clapped Aleksy on the back. “C’mon, let’s go sign up, maybe we’ll get to kill us some Russians.”
Aleksy wasn’t thrilled with the idea. He wasn’t a coward, just a realist. Fighting meant someone getting dead, and in close quarters, it meant getting dead in a messy way. He hoped to God it wasn’t the Russians. He hoped either the man had gotten himself lost or killed, but not by another man’s hand. Oskar stood up, and was making for the tent flap. Aleksy followed after a moment. He wasn’t in love with the idea of pulling double-duty, or with kicking through bushes, but someone had to watch Oskar.
As it turned out, luck was on their side. They had pulled the search shift on one of their off days, and so had plenty of time to pick through the trees. They set out with a group of eight other men, who were in turn accompanied by seven other groups of ten, eighty men in all, trudging in a line with electric torches and long sticks to beat the bush. Each man was spaced roughly five feet from the other, the torches lighting up the underbrush and tree trunks in the darkness of the canopy, calling out for Sergeant Moser in voices that echoed in the dim light. In the dim light, it looked like a dance written for fireflies.
They had made it almost to the three-mile mark, the point where the path thinned out, and the trees thickened, when Oskar began to edge a bit closer to Aleksy. Aleksy groaned internally.
Here it comes, he thought. He’s going to go on about how he’s going to be a hero, get a medal, maybe catch that boar, as well.
He tried to ignore Oskar as they moved along, making a point of shining his light into a hawthorn bush, the red berries catching the light and drinking it, turning each of them into round rubies amid gem-like green leaves. He poked his stick into the base of the branches and shook it, but only managed to startle a vole out of its burrow. He straightened up, and Oskar was next to him, looking out over the bush as the rest of the men moved on.
“Still looking for that boar, Oskar?” Aleksy tried to keep the smile and the sarcasm from his voice. Oskar didn’t notice. He leaned in – you could always tell when Oskar was about to say something that could get him in trouble when he did that.
“Nah, brother. I’m thinking – eh, well, you probably don’t care, what with being pure as the driven snow. Look, I saw something. Someone.”
Aleksy frowned in irritation at that, but let it go. “What?” He said instead. Oskar wasn’t making sense. He shot a quick look at the man while still pretending to check the bushes. He didn’t see any of the signs of sickness. No yellow skin, or red eyes, no thick sheen of sweat.
“There are women here, brother!” Oskar almost let his voice rise above a whisper.
“What? Where? How?” Aleksy stopped poking the bush, and stood up. He didn’t really know what else to say. The closest women were ten or fifteen miles away, in Bialowieza. There was little chance any had snuck into the camp, with the fence around it, and any in the forest were likely to be spies, or lost beyond hope.
Oskar went on. “I saw her, brother. Young thing, probably about sixteen or seventeen, dancing in the trees. She was there, for a minute, dressed in a skirt, and that’s it. Didn’t make a sound, either. She saw me though, sure as I saw her. Waved me on. I think she’s in that stand of trees over there.”
He pointed to a group of oaks growing in clusters of twos and threes. Aleksy could see that the line of men had moved on past them, their lights bobbing points in the distance. They had closed ranks as they went, as though they hadn’t even noticed the absence of two of their own.
“C’mon, brother.” Oskar started toward the group of trees. “Maybe she has a sister.”
Aleksy didn’t like where this was heading. If the men ahead of them noticed they were missing, and reported it, he and Oskar would be in hot water. Worse, if Oskar were sick, despite not showing any symptoms, he could get himself, or even both of them, killed. He hesitated. It would be easier to join the men ahead, or even go back to camp, make an excuse, and leave Oskar to his fate.
Oskar was already on his way towards the grove, his torch pointed down so as not to attract attention. He stopped at the edge of the circle of trees, lit from overhead by light filtering through the canopy. Aleksy set his shoulders, and followed, still uneasy. He caught up to Oskar as the man slipped between the trees, his torch forgotten on the ground. Aleksy stopped to pick it up, and followed.
Full sunlight streamed into the clearing, a space several yards across, and almost empty of trees. A circle of stones ran just inside the perimeter of the clearing, lush green grass growing inside of it. Oskar stood in the center of the stones, turning a slow circle with his hands out, and a puzzled look on his face. When he saw Aleksy, he stopped turning, and raised his hands in a frustrated gesture.
“She was right here, brother. Where did she go? Come out, come out!” He almost shouted the last.
Aleksy stepped into the circle, and set the torches down. He walked to Oskar, slowly. The man’s eyes were wide, and he looked spooked. Aleksy wasn’t sure what he could have seen or heard in the minute or two it took him to get to the man, but it had clearly set him on edge.
“It’s okay, Oskar.” He said. “You probably just saw a trick of the light. It’s hot, we’ve been searching for hours, and you’re over-excited.”
Oskar looked back at him. He could see little red veins running through the whites of the man’s eyes, and the vein in his forehead pulsing. “No, she was here. She was here, and now she’s gone. The little tease. The little BITCH!”
The shout echoed through the trees around them. Aleksy cringed a bit, knowing that it had to have reached the men ahead of them, and that someone would be turning back to find out what the matter was. His stomach knotted. He thought of all the ways he could be punished for shirking duty, not the least of which was a flogging in the center of camp.
“God damn it! God DAMN it!” Oskar was shouting. The man really had lost his grip. Whatever had a hold of him had him fast, and he was going to bring the both of them down.
Another shout made Aleksy’s mind up, and he did the only thing he could think of. He stepped forward and brought his fist up, hard and fast. It connected with Oskar’s chin with a thunk, like a hammer hitting a melon, and shut the man’s shout off mid-yell, like someone turning a valve on a faucet. For a moment, nothing happened, the clearing perfectly still. Even the forest outside seemed to be holding its breath for a beat, as though waiting for a hammer to fall.
Aleksy stood still, watching Oskar’s eyes bulge. He waited for something to happen, listening to his heart pound. He could hear the wind stirring the grass and branches, the scrape of his eyes in their sockets. Time seemed to reach a standstill, and he imagined he could see the wings of a fly as they beat, moving in snapshots of light.
Then it was over, and time snapped back into place. A throbbing shot through Aleksy’s hand, even as Oskar’s eyes rolled up into his head, and the man crumpled to the ground, boneless as a sheet. Aleksy turned to go, to call for help, when the sounds of movement, and a low buzz of voices entered the clearing, and a second later, the men attached to those voices came into sight.
They stopped at the edge and surveyed the scene, and one of the men broke free and approached him. Aleksy could see by the insignia on his uniform he was a corporal.
“What happened here, private?” The man asked. The name on his breast read ‘Albrecht’.
Aleksy gestured back toward the circle. “He wandered off, was muttering to himself the whole time. I found him like this.”
The corporal peered Aleksy’s shoulder at the man lying prone on the ground. “You did good, staying with him, then. Would’ve looked bad for everyone if we had lost one man while looking for another.”
He turned to two of the men and ordered them to pick Oskar up, and take him back to camp. He waited until they were done, and waved the rest of the men standing around off. When they were gone, he turned back to Aleksy.
“You look like shit. I’m cutting your work short for the day. Go on back, get cleaned up, and get some chow.”
The corporal turned to go, and Aleksy thanked him. He watched the man walk out of the clearing, and stood there for just a bit longer, turning in a circle, listening to the wind in the trees.