Author's Ink

We grow writers!

Stone Soup Chapter 1

Novel in process.  All feedback welcome.

 

 

The breath of the men rose in clouds, absorbed into a gray expanse of sky.  Though snow had stopped falling hours ago, a sweeping arctic wind continued to blow drifts across the open ground.  The wind filled the air with swirling flakes, snatched from the drifts and driven like rejected angels back to heaven.  At hardly past three in the afternoon, beneath the trees of the evergreen forest, it was almost as dark as twilight.  Dark figures of men moved about between the trees, simply shadows in a world of shadows. 

One of those shadows, Bernd Hornung, blew on his fingers and watched Paul Geiger argue with a Panzer crewman.

“Have a heart,” Geiger said theatrically holding his hands over his own heart.  “The wood is wet, we can’t get it lit.  We’re freezing to death.”

Geiger was nothing if not persuasive.  Right now, he brought all of his formidable power of manipulation to bear on the tank crewman.  Sometimes, Hornung thought, people gave in to Geiger simply to shut him up.  

“Then you’ll have to sacrifice something for kindling,” the tanker replied irascibly,  “We’re short of fuel.  If we’re not supplied soon, we’ll not be rolling by midday tomorrow.”

“Well, if you’re that low, then a thimble full for our fire will make little difference.”

“A thimble for you, a thimble for someone else, a thimble for someone else, then I’m walking, too.”

The commander of the Panzer, only his head protruding from the upper hatch, was weary of the debate. Fuel consumption notwithstanding, he rolled his eyes to punctuate the consumption of the last drop of his patience. 

“Kurt, give him some goddamned petrol,” the commander said sharply.  “It won't kill us.  We’ve outrun our supplies and we’ll probably be walking tomorrow anyway.  We’ll be cold before this night’s over and I trust he’ll share the warmth.”

Kurt shrugged.  He was cold now.  But it was no concern of his if the boss wanted to waste their fuel.  Except, of course, that it was a long walk back to Germany and there was no way he was going to Moscow on foot. 

Geiger took off his helmet and held it up while Kurt poured the gasoline.  It may as well have been gold from the look on Geiger’s face.   

“Is there anything else I can do for you?” the tanker asked, with sarcastic courtesy.  “Perhaps hold your dick for you while you take a piss?” 

“I’ll let you know,” Geiger said, his broad grin almost genuine in his victory.   

He slogged back through the snow, holding his helmet carefully to avoid spilling any of the fuel.  Hornung thought he looked like a man carrying nitroglycerin.     

Most of the men in the column were busy building fires and soldiers scurried about in every direction collecting what firewood they could find.  Plenty lay about.  Much of it was wet because of the snow and much of it was green because of the shelling.  Splintered wood from decimated trees lay everywhere in the snow.  At least they had killed some Russian trees.  Russian soldiers, on the other hand, were nowhere to be found.  Driving them from the forest had not been the most heroic effort of the division.  If, indeed, they had driven any Russians from the forest.  As far as Hornung knew, there had not been many there to begin with.  They found no bodies in their advance and the only fire they had taken had been both very light and very sporadic.  Still, they had sent a round after round into the trees, blowing them to pieces.  And, if the shelling itself had not scarred the outskirts of the small forest enough, the rolling juggernauts of the Panzers cut slashing wounds to mark their passing.  Wood was plentiful but very little of it was conducive to a campfire. 

In spite of that and in short order, Paul Geiger had a fire going.  Even wet wood yielded to his relentless tenacity.    

Fires were dangerous and usually forbidden.  But no spotter planes or patrols would be able to mark locations from the tendrils of smoke.  The sky was too overcast for that and it  seemed that everyone felt risking a few soldiers to snipers was preferable to freezing to death.  Every step of the way toward Moscow the German rifle companies and the Panzergrenadiers had been harassed by Russian snipers.  There was no place really safe from them and to build a fire, to stand silhouetted against the flames, against an exposed rise, against a pale moon, was to court disaster.  Still, it was that or freeze in a climate that seemed to hate them as much as the Russians did.

Hornung had hoped to take up residence in a farmhouse or barn but the pickings were meager here.  The Russians destroyed everything they could as they fell back.  Only the small forest offered shelter and it was not much.  Amid the rolling steppes, there was hardly anything to speak of in the way of villages and the Russian isbas, the farmhouses of the collectives,  were sorry affairs when compared to German standards.  Still, a roof with some walls would be very welcome. 

He beat his arms against his ribs and stamped his feet.  They had been expected to be in Moscow before the snows.  Indeed, they themselves had expected to be in Moscow before the snows.  Now, with improper clothing and sporadic supplies, it seemed as if they were losing almost as many men to exposure as to enemy guns.    

Hornung squatted by the spitting pyramid of reluctantly burning logs that still reeked of their tank fuel baptism.  His warm breath swirled about his face as he held his hands close to the flames.  The air itself was ice.  Any colder and his breath might freeze, falling to the ground in solid crystals to shatter against the iron earth.  Much colder and the flames themselves would freeze, yielding to the utter futility of trying to stand against the irresistible force of the Russian winter.

He tried to keep an inscrutable expression on his face, for the benefit of his comrades, but the stinging of near frozen nerve endings coming back from the dead caused him to tighten his jaw.  Paul Geiger, his fingers as red as his hair and throbbing as they began to thaw, sat across from Hornung, his wet steaming gloves draped over his helmet which was almost in the fire.  Paul turned the gloves and spoke without looking up.           

“Strange, isn’t it?”

“What?” Bernd answered.

“That something as comforting as a warm fire can cause such an unpleasant sensation initially.”

“Mmm.”

“There’s nothing more unpleasant than this,” Wolf Pabst said, jerking his head in a sweeping indictment of entire frozen world.  Pabst, wrapped in his greatcoat, had his socks and tunic draped over a makeshift frame of evergreen boughs to dry.  His boots remained on his feet which were almost in the fire and steam rose from the damp trousers clinging to his trembling legs.  “I couldn’t have a more unpleasant feeling if you spitted me and hung me in the bloody fire.”

He pushed his feet as near as he dared to the fire and grimaced as he spat into the snow. 

“Fucking Russia.  Fucking wasteland.  I wouldn’t give the price of a watered-down drink for the whole goddamned country.”

Afrikakorps.”  Geiger said, drawing his own conclusion.

Pabst’s only comment was a disgusted grunt.     

“You should be in the Afrikakorps,” Geiger elaborated, when Pabst failed to respond further.   “There you could die warm and comfortable.  From British bullets.” 

“I’d go tomorrow,” Pabst said.  “For that matter, I’d attack London single-handed with a goddamned cricket bat if I thought it would get me out of Russia.”

Geiger laughed. 

“Now that’s the attitude we need, Wolfchen.  The fastest route to London, for us at least, is through Moscow.  I’ll see if I can’t find you that cricket bat.”

“Fuck you,” Pabst said, without conviction.

The young man shivered and pulled his greatcoat tighter around his body.          

Hornung flexed his hands as he got to his feet.  The sounds of other soldiers came drifting through the late afternoon mist.  Today, at least, there had been little resistance.   The Red Army had fallen reluctantly back for the duration of the campaign but that lulled him into neither a false sense of security nor sense of impending victory.  All summer long they had driven the Red Army before them like bits of straw in a strong wind.  Kiev, Smolensk, Viasma, all had fallen to the irresistible force of the Wehrmacht.  They had taken land and crushed Red Army Group after Red Army Group until they securely held all territory from the Polish border to Finland to less than thirty miles from Moscow.  

Russian losses, according to Radio Berlin, were in the millions as were the captives from the great Krasny Armya, the Red Army.  But the army of the Reich had paid dearly for the victory themselves and they would pay again.  And it was widely believed among the troops that sooner or later–tomorrow, the next day, the day after that, or weeks from now–the divisions would again pay in blood for every inch of ground they covered.  Of that, Bernd Hornung was certain.  The question was not even academic.  The Russians, their backs against the wall of their homeland, would form a line and the Devil would collect his due. 

Perhaps the Blitzkriegs of Poland, Holland and France had gone to his comrade’s heads.  The easy victories had perhaps infused them with too much confidence.  One thing was certain; the Russian fighting man was a different kind of animal, one such as they had never faced before.

The rumor was that many Russian divisions were massing in and around Moscow and their resistance would be ferocious.  The fact that the Russians had chosen their battleground, prepared defenses, dug in, was something he tried not to think about.  

To his left, the grumbling of a Panzer engine was a low vicious snarl that drifted  between the trees and stalked the forest like a wild thing.  A number of soldiers stood huddled around the engine bay and pushed close against the exhaust for warmth.  Already it was so cold that fuel and hydraulic lines froze, gun-sight lenses cracked, tanks settled into the snow and froze there, requiring the use of gas torches to thaw the tracks before they could move.  The tankers built fires under their engines during the night to keep them warm enough to start in the morning. Freezing men gathered close to benefit, if only for a moment, from the warm rush of heat when  flame met metal. 

Somewhere, beyond the Panzer, another tank engine roared and then fell silent.  From time to time throughout the night one Panzer or another would be started periodically to keep the engines from freezing.  The soldiers, even the light sleepers, never really noted the noisy routine.  It had become such a common part of ordinary existence that the absence of the sound was much more disconcerting than the sound itself.

Hornung, too, was accustomed to the noise and could sleep through it without so much as a twitch.  But he did not think he would ever become accustomed to the sudden appearance of Panzer columns emerging from the mist like a herd of prehistoric beasts from the American film “King Kong.”  And, if such a sight was initially terrifying to him, a part of the armored column, he could only imagine what effect they would have on the Russian soldiers hunkered down in their paths.  But he did not imagine long.  He did not want to put himself in their position. 

Yet now the great Blitzkrieg of Russia ground slowly to a halt.  Some groused that the armored columns–if they had continued their initial push toward Moscow–would have been housed in the Kremlin tonight rather than camping out in a frigid Russian wood.  But someone, perhaps the Führer or one, maybe all, of his military advisers, had decided to turn the armies to fight in the Ukraine and in the southern oilfields.  The brass, so it was said, had decided to expend the energies–and a significant percentage of the armor–of the invasion forces capturing territory from cut-off and encircled armies they could have taken at their leisure in the springtime.  Corporals sometimes spoke like commanders without giving any thought to obvious gaps in information but such tactics did not make sense to Hornung–little did anymore.

Besides, Bernd Hornung fought a much smaller war on a much smaller scale.  He was a sergeant but when it came to anything other than sharpshooting, Hornung deferred to Obergefreiter Paul Geiger, lower in rank but vastly more comfortable with leading men.  When Bernd fought, he fought alone or with his partner, Feldwebel Jürgen Schleisl.  They were left to their own strategies.  Military decisions were not his to make nor was he asked for his opinion.  And, really, Hornung had no military opinion.  Leave that for the strategists at home who sat in the cafes and planned, between gulps of beer, what they might do if they were Feldmarschal.  He was not kept posted on such matters.  He was simply told when to march, when to stop, when to fight.  Still word did get around and opinion was formed.  And the current opinion, very carefully articulated when addressed by anyone but extant nevertheless, was that command had made some serious errors and, in the ways of armies, the infantry would pay for the brass’s miscalculations.            

By the time they got back to the task of taking Moscow, as if capturing the enemy capital was an afterthought, the rains slowed them down.  They waded, wallowed and swam through seas of mud that had almost overnight solidified into a gigantic brown and white ice-cube.  But, unpleasant as such conditions were, the divisions still made adequate headway; constantly harassed by small groups of Russian soldiers, partisans and citizen militias.  Had they started a few weeks earlier, or if the arrival of winter could have been delayed for that length of time, it would have been another story. But that had not been the case.  Now the blitz had run into other walls, a wall of desperate Russian resistance, a wall of fire and steel and ice.  And this stopped them in their tracks.

He turned and trudged through the collecting snow to the relative privacy of a tree some twenty meters from his fellows to relieve his bladder.  His hands were cold again as he pushed back the greatcoat, fumbled through the layers of clothing and grimaced as he touched himself. 

There was despair but few spoke of it.  Nor would they.  Even the customary griping of the infantryman had to be carefully worded to avoid charges of “defeatist attitude” being brought against the complainer.  The ranks were full of the dedicated, whose comradeship with their fellows was contingent upon a rigid, blind faith in German invincibility and they allowed no deviation.  Even among the non-political, a certain discipline of thought had been drilled into them as soundly as had marching and marksmanship and unquestioning obedience to one’s superior. 

But an equal level of doubt was often evidenced on many faces.  He saw it from time to time on Wolf Pabst, the former student cum poet cum pianist whose talent was not great enough for the concert stage but more than adequate for his civilian job in a Wiesbaden beer hall. 

For all his griping, Pabst was as an efficient soldier as the Fatherland had to offer.  His cynicism with his fellows, colored by a pre-war good-humor that had not been entirely extinguished, belied a murderous single-minded intent.  Pabst wanted out of Russia and he intended to get out of Russia.  To this end, he was determined to kill every Russian soldier who stood in his way–and every Russian soldier stood in his way. 

In any case, a quick victory was totally out of reach and had been for some time now.  Though Pabst killed Russians as purposefully as ever, it was clear to those who knew him that–at least at times–he was not certain that the outcome would be favorable.  He was not certain he would ever leave this wintry hell.

Personally, Hornung tried to avoid thinking about outcomes.  Such thinking was trouble and, of course, it was simply more expedient to believe in victory.  But it was obvious that more than a few of his fellow sufferers did think about the “what ifs.”  Bernd could not identify the day that such questions had become irrelevant to him.  He only knew they had and his patriotism had been left somewhere in Poland or perhaps Holland.  His only goal for some time now was to stay alive.

Every day was a constant grinding misery; alternate waves of terror and boredom, hunger and relentless physical discomfort at the hands of the weather.  Given such a grim reality, he wondered from time to time why he even considered survival important.  At least in hell, he would be warm. 

“Hornung!”

He stopped and waited as Jürgen Schleisl came striding through knee-deep snow; snow that was knee-deep for Hornung anyway.  But Schleisl could stride through it.  At six-foot-two, with blond hair and clear blue eyes, he could have stepped right off an SS recruitment poster.    

Jürgen Schleisl, oddly enough, was American-born and spoke fluent English.  In fact, he still retained United States citizenship.  Of course, that was likely because the United States was totally unaware of his career in the Wehrmacht.  He had become a supporter of Hitler almost by default, not because he believed so strongly in the cause of National Socialism but because of his utter hatred of Communism and because he feared the total falling apart of Germany.  He had fought the red Spartacists in the streets of Berlin, along the barricades and in the beer halls of Munich, and he had fought as a volunteer in Spain.  Now, he fought the Russians. 

Still, not many German soldiers served with a sergeant born in the United States.  North Dakota of all places.  From the little Hornung could remember of his geography, he relegated North Dakota, USA to a cultural and climatic par with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  Which, in Hornung’s mind and in the minds of his comrades, meant that it was a barbaric place, a savage frontier best left to savages and in no way worth dying for. 

Schleisl tilted his head and gave Hornung a quizzical look as he approached. 

“What’s funny?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Hornung said.  “Why?” 

“Then stop grinning like a farm girl who’s just been screwed.  We’re stopping for the night.  The snow and the fog have made a further advance too difficult.”

“I know.  Tillich has first watch and Geiger’s already built a fire.  Come along.”

Schleisl fell in alongside Hornung.

“We’ll leave before first light tomorrow,” Schleisl continued.  “At least if Hauptmann Holzapfel has his way.  The captain wants to get well clear of the trees before sunrise.  Between the tanks and the Luftwaffe, the Russians should not hinder us.”

Hornung nodded but did not reply.  Once on open ground again, they would make up for lost time.  With air support, spotting and attacking gun emplacements and troop movements, they should fare well throughout the day.  The advance to Moscow would be open and unimpeded but for ground forces and artillery.  Unless, of course, they ran into Russian tanks.  Between the weather and the Soviet T-34s, there was not a man among them with eyes who did not question–even if only to himself–the invincibility of the Panzerkorps.  The few hours of extra rest would do the men good.

Nine men now huddled around the small fire in the gray light of the snowy afternoon.  Günter Tillich looked up as Hornung and Schleisl approached and a heavy damp snowflake landed in his left eye.

“Damn, is it snowing again?”  he asked, rising to his feet and swiping a thumb across his eye. 

Hornung looked past the trees into the open ground of rolling, iced over farmland.  Under the trees, it was sometimes difficult to tell if snow was falling from the skies or from the branches, particularly when the heavy Panzers caused the ground to tremble.  The gray mist rolled over the meadow, hanging low to the ground but Hornung could see the falling snow against the horizon.

“Yes,” he said to Tillich.  “But is that news in Russia?  The real news is that it’s not snowing heavily.”

“Goddamn it all.  Snow, ice, cold.  You’d think Geiger could pull some strings with his uncle and get us out of this.”

“If Generalfeldmarschal von Bock were my uncle, we’d all be safely ensconced in the rear.  Or in Paris,“ Geiger said.  “Everyone but Pabst.  The bad weather keeps him honed to such a fine combative edge that it would be a terrible waste for him to be anywhere but here.”

“Fuck you,” Pabst said, without looking up from the fire.          

"Such a lover's promise," Geiger said.  "But can I believe it?"    

“I don’t think I’ll ever be warm again,” Tillich said, reaching for his water bottle.  He uncapped it, raised it to his lips and tilted it.  Bernd watched his Adam’s apple.  Tillich did not swallow.  Instead, he shook his head in disgust as he looked at the traitorous bottle.  A sparse, dark stubble, that without the dirt and greasy smudges would hardly be noticed, made his gaunt face look much older than his twenty years. 

“Here’s something for you,” Tillich said, holding his canteen aloft and shaking it.  It did not slosh.  The cold caused his nose to run.  Everyone had a runny nose.  All conversation was punctuated by the “snuffling” sounds of sharp nasal inhalations, as if they would do any good. 

“It’s frozen,” he said, disgustedly.  “I can’t even get a drink.  There’s nothing in here but ice.” 

“So, melt some snow” Schleisl said.  “God knows we have plenty of that.”

Tillich dragged the sleeve of his left arm across his nose and started to say something else. 

 Before he could his chest exploded.