The Majesty of Warfare

Johnny sits gasping in the orchard of a sprawling German estate. In his breast pocket are several hastily-scrawled figures, in his shoulder a bullet, still warm, and in the woods at his back is the sound of two dozen pairs of polished black boots stomping through the underbrush. He is almost certain he threw them off, but the sound is getting closer, and his heart is in his throat. He can’t help grinning.

“What have we here?” A man stares down, his dark hair gleaning almost plum in the moonlight. “An allied spy would be my best guess, hiding in my apple trees.”

Johnny, defeated, pulls a cigar from his trouser pocket. “My matches are wet,” he says, like it’s the most natural thing on earth. “Can ye spare a fellow a last light?”

The man tilts his head and stares, and perhaps Johnny only imagines the faint smile, conjures it up from the shadows playing across the man’s face,but he does not imagine the swish of his long jacket as he turns around, “Come inside before they pick up your trail, they dare not bother me.”

* * *

“Are you getting my good side?” Enrique asks, turning his face to the left, cocky grin in three-quarter profile. “It looks better like this, right? I look far more majestic.”

“If you want me to ever finish this you are going to have to stop moving,” Oliver tells him, idly fleshing out his charcoal sketch.

“Well if I’d known you were going to take so long, I’d have picked an easier pose.” Enrique leaps off the stool and stretches, his military cap tipping precariously off-kilter. He tiptoes behind Oliver and cranes his neck over his shoulder. “Ah, wow, that’s exactly perfect! I knew you were the man for the job.”

Oliver adds a few strokes about the face, and without looking back replies “I thank you for the compliment.”

* * *

Johnny winces as the doctor sutures his bullet wound, a piece of leather between his teeth gnawed down to nothing over the course of the evening. “Nearly done,” the doctor tells him, and Johnny wipes the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. “Again, I apologize for the lack of anesthetic, Herr Jurgen was not specific about your malady.”

“”s fine,” Johnny says. He glances over at Robert, the man who owns this castle, sprawled out in an overstuffed armchair across the room. He is staring back over tented fingers, and Johnny abruptly looks away. He has not said a word to Johnny since leading him to this room, near the back of the castle, overlooking the orchard. Johnny looks out the window and fancies he can see the dark patch of ground where Robert found him bleeding, wonders if the soldiers will find it, if the dogs will sniff him out and damn them all. Did they have hounds with them? He can’t remember any longer.

“I had one of my people clean it up,” Robert says, startling Johnny and making the doctor frown at him. “They dare not bother me unless it is necessary, as I already informed you. And the doctor is very discreet.”

“You’ll forgive me if I dinna trust a German lord,” Johnny replies as the doctor ties off the suture, “Even one kind enough to patch up ma arm.”

Robert stares at Johnny for a moment and then stands, strolling to the bed and stopping uncomfortably close. Johnny’s eyes dart to the door. He’s fairly certain he could bolt out of the room, but he is injured and Robert is no pampered fop.

“What is that strange accent you speak with?” Robert asks, staring into Johnny’s eyes, inches from his face.

“I’m Scottish,” Johnny mutters.

“Fascinating,” Robert says.

* * *

Late one evening, there is an incessant pounding on the door to Oliver’s flat. He frowns, sets down his newspaper and pads barefoot to answer. “Ah!” he exclaims, looking through the peephole, “You!” He flings open the door. “You were supposed to pick up your portrait this afternoon, monsieur. I’ll go get it right now.”

“Oliver!” Enrique sobs, stumbling drunkenly through the door. He collapses on Oliver’s shoulder in hysterics. “Why are French women so terrible? I miss my Italian women, I miss the way they smell and the way they laugh, and I miss the way they never string you cruelly along so you’ll buy them things, and then say they will not kiss you because you’re a soldier.”

“I’m sure all women do such things, French women are just more open about it.” Oliver leads Enrique to the sofa, sits him down and pats his back. “Sometimes one must endure such trials on the quest for love.”

Enrique sighs. “How do you navigate their treacherous waters?” he asks, tugging at Oliver’s sleeve, eyes wide and imploring. “Teach me the ways of the French Lothario, my friend! I am dying of thirst on the ocean.”

Oliver laughs, and Enrique frowns again, unsure. “I have nothing to teach you, I stay far away from French women,” Oliver tells him, reaching for the glass of wine on the small table at his side. “I could tell you only about French men.”

Enrique leans back, aghast. Oliver leans forward, wineglass still in hand. Enrique idly notices a streak of green paint in Oliver’s blond hair. “Would you like me to teach you?” he asks, taking a sip, an impish grin tugging at his lips. “I promise you, I am most discreet.”

* * *

Johnny crunches on an apple, pilfered from the basket in the kitchen, cold and crisp and slightly sour, just the way he prefers. He met his contact in a small café in the village early this morning, he sets off for Berlin tonight. “I’ll be done within the fortnight, but I canna say when I’ll be back here,” he says. “Maybe not for some months, I figure. There are other safe places nearer to where I’ll need to be.”

“Such a respite for my larder,” Robert says. “Please don’t come back with any bullet wounds this time, you ruined the sheets on that bed.”

Johnny pelts his apple core into the rubbish bin. “I’ll try my very best,” he says.

* * *

Enrique grins. “Oh, we’re all awful,” he says, “an entire unit of spoiled rich boys, right? We all bribed our way here, drives the few legitimate soldiers completely mad.”

“Mhm.” Oliver touches up a few spots on the painting, a still life, his preference. “It’s a good thing the rest of the occupation are competent, or you’d be in some trouble, no?”

Enrique laughs and peeks over Oliver’s shoulder, carelessly circles his arms around him. “It looks like a photograph,” he says, “It’s even better than the portraits. How do you make it so much like the real thing, when we’re in here and that’s out there?”

Oliver smiles, adding the final brushstrokes. “I love this city,” he says, “I could paint every street by memory.”

* * *

Robert Jurgen insisted on the utmost secrecy. “If no one knows but me, you won’t be safe,” Johnny would tell him, over and over. “The Allies are coming, and you rank far too high in the party. If something happens to me, all you’ve done will come to nothing.”

“You’d better not die, then,” is all Robert would say to him.

Johnny struggles through the underbrush. It is two miles to the castle. There are no army boots following him this time, their work already done. Will he damn them both, going there, is that what they were waiting for? He does not know, but he is grateful that, at least, whomever spilled the secret about a meeting at a café in the village could not also turn Robert over to his fellow party members.

* * *

It isn’t long before Enrique’s troop surrenders to the Resistance; they are outnumbered and outclassed, a group of ill-trained young men with the money to buy a posting in the City of Light. The Allies are on their way, they reason, there is really no point in dying at this stage. They lay down their weapons and are ushered to a nearby resistance holding, flanked on all sides. DeGaulle’s troops will be arriving soon for reinforcements, they say, they’ll find somewhere more permanent for their prisoners then.

Throughout the ordeal, Enrique is completely silent. One of their captors has flecks of green paint in his blond hair.

* * *

It is the pain that rouses Johnny from unconsciousness, a feeling he can’t describe, something so all-encompassing that he knows no words to explain it. Breathing in sharply, he lifts the bloodstained quilt and peers beneath. A moment later, he replaces the covers, knowing he is going to die.

Robert sits in a chair across the room, sipping red wine and reading Faust. “The doctor did what he could,” he said. “We couldn’t take you anywhere, you know that.”

“I know,” Johnny says. There is still a cigar in his pocket; he takes it out and places it in his mouth, fishes out his matches and revels in the thick, heady smoke as he lights it. “Always hoped it’d go like this, all flash.”

Robert sets his book down, stares at Johnny that way he has, Johnny has long grown used to it. “The Allies began to take back France while you slept,” he says, “It is only a matter of time before this war is over. What did you accomplish two nights ago, was it worth it?”

Johnny chuckles softly. “It was never for the war,” he says, “It was for the thrill of the chase. It was worth it.” He blows a waft of smoke out the open window overlooking the orchard. “With me dead and your insistence on secrecy, you’ll have no proof of your deeds these last eight months. The Americans will come for you. Was it worth it?”

Robert is at his side now. “You interested me,” he says.

Johnny grins a crooked grin. “I thought so.” He lifts his arm, trembling, and grasps Robert by the collar, pulls him down with surprising force. He kisses him at the corner of the mouth, lingering. “Sorry about your sheets,” he says.

* * *

“He’s my Italian cousin,” Oliver says to the guard, and a sack of francs changes hands. “He’s free to go.”

Enrique is lead out onto the street. They have not spoken in some number of weeks, four days before his unit’s surrender when Enrique had kissed the white skin at his shoulder. Oliver hands him an envelope. “There’s a false passport and a train ticket,” he says, and his voice is strained and tired. “Go back to your Italian women.”

* * *

Robert is sitting in the orchard when the American soldiers stamp through his gates, clomp clomp clomp in their muddy leather boots. He is reading Faust, and his wind-up radio is tuned to classical. A cigar hangs from his lips, unlit.

He is to be arrested, they tell him, for a status bought with fistfuls of Reichmark. When he refuses to speak, one of the soldiers hits him across the face with the butt of his gun. Blood drips from the side of his mouth, leaving dark spatters on the ground. They lead him away from the orchard, from his bench beside a shallow indentation in the ground. He walks proud, with his shoulders back and his chin held high. They will use this against him in the trial. In six months’ time the orchard will be overrun with tall grasses.

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