OUTSIDE OF TORUŃ, IN THE ANNEXED FARMLANDS
The spy fled the death of the town. Amid flames high and smoke carried on winds of infant winter, his booted feet trudged through damp earth shamed with blood. The flames licked higher into a black sky, and though they showed him the many paths he might take to escape, the flames barred just as many. Flames leapt from house to barn to field and did not want for kindling. He slipped twice and almost fell and both times the large stick, which he had grabbed as both a potential weapon and walking stick, kept him upright.
Guns popped. Bullets hissed out from the darkness behind him. Embedded themselves in the ground next to him. Sent mud across into his eyes and mouth. He turned down a row. Horses shrieked. Or maybe it was a woman. Sounded the same from a distance. A creature moved off to his right. A dog, limping, its arse bleeding.
The spy turned left, right, right again, down a narrow cobblestone path flanked by homes set to flame. He ran on, passing finally into a portion of the town not yet aflame, though a few Kraut soldiers rode proud in wagens and fired at men and women like they were shooting turkeys. Some rode horses and shot men in the street and butchered boys and took girls squealing into a horse stable. The spy made time to deal with those last ones. Skewered one through the neck with a pitchfork he’d found leaning against the stable, while the others were on the ground trying to get the girls’ skirts up. Hammered another’s skull with one swing of the pitchfork. The last one tried to get a shot off but his gun belt was around his ankles, along with his pants, and the spy impaled him with the pitchfork. He told the girls to run. They asked him where to. He told them, “I don’t know just never stop running!”
They disappeared into smoke and he grabbed one of the dead men’s pistols and went the opposite way.
There was a bullet in his side. Couldn’t forget that. He put pressure on it. His breath left him in a cloudy gasp of pain. If he was lucky the bullet had passed through him, but he could not find the exit wound and he feared it might be lodged. He turned down another road.
Ebon shapes flitted through windows, two white pupils occasionally peeking out at a world that might turn its cruelty on them. A baby cried somewhere unseen. The mother, also unseen, tried shushing it. No avail. The wind, not to be forgotten, found its way into these narrow corridors. Six armed men crossed the alley ahead of him. The spy held up his pistol. Though it was empty, it might frighten them if they turned and saw him. But they didn’t see him. They shouted to one another as they ran into a barn.
He sighed heavily. Checked his wound. A welter of blood seeped out of his black shirt and dribbled down his dark-green pants. He looked around. Despite the cold, the flames ruled the night. The heat was intense. The flames stretched out, created long shadows that shifted and occasionally danced. An old woman lay dying near his feet. She called out in some incomprehensible wailing, pleading with someone, maybe God, then went quiet.
One of his jacket pockets was detachable, and it held a compass. He also had a deck of playing cards that concealed a map. He consulted both. He checked his right breast pocket. Made sure he had not dropped the 16mm Kodak. Kept moving.
A loud, descending whistle. A call from the leader of the Germans. The spy had heard it seven, eight times already. A series of whistles that changed tune and commanded them all to convene or kill or commit some other tactic of murder. The town was under siege and there was no lawman around to save it. The Krauts seemed to be everywhere, seemed to know everything about everyone’s movements.
How many spies does Böhm have? he thought, recalling the joke he’d heard passed around OSS offices. I’d tell you, but then they’d hear.
Beneath his feet, the ground trembled. A tank, maybe?
He passed through curtains of huge blankets strung up from one building to another, all of them acting as screens that fluttered in the wind and gave occasional glimpses of the horrors beyond. Ahead of him, a child ran from nothing, towards nothing, and vanished through an open window. One more of Man’s displaced children. All of Man was running, the spy reckoned. If not from the Germans then from the flu, and if not the flu then famine.
The flames near. The last words his father spoke before he slipped away. Why did those words come to him now?
I should’ve stayed on the farm, the spy thought.
His empty pistol clutched tight, the spy moved through the smoke, hacking and coughing. Made it out to the other side of yet another wall of black. Astride a horse came one large man in brown uniform and black jacket. He rode a destrier, surely stolen, too strong and fine an animal to belong to a German who traveled this far. Behind him was a tub-car, one of the Kübelwagens, with two men poking out of the back windows with machine guns in hand.
The hooves of the Kraut horses were wrapped in gunny cloth and their halters and cinches were greased to cut back on the noise they made. This particular Kraut saw him. He shouted something, and pointed at the spy. Then his horse surged forth, and the Kübelwagen’s engine roared as it came for him.
The spy turned down a lane, jumped over the fence in someone’s burning back yard, then headed into the forest. Some of the trees had already caught fire, but not enough to deter him. Even if they had been ablaze, better to roast alive than be taken by the enemy. He ran for ages, feeling the heat, and sensing the ground quaking beneath his feet, like some drunken giant had fallen to Earth and was stumbling around. He knew what that meant.
Once he was well away from the town, he looked back at it. It had been called Toruń. Now flames rose from it and danced like girls in red skirts. Great columns of smoke rose into the sky. He turned and ran and never looked back again.
Dusk came. The trees thrust like charcoal spears into the sky. The stars twinkled in their majesty and the moon was almost bursting. The ground still trembled. Probably one of the tolle maschinen.
They were still looking for him. At times he could hear them all around him, the grumble of their engines echoing through the woods and telling him where the roads were. He slapped at thick briars and brambles, and dashed through a clearing, across a river of shin-deep freezing water, then ran across a muddy marsh, then clambered up a hill and into a farmer’s field.
The pain in his side grew. He checked it. Still bleeding, though not as much. He needed to wash it, see if there were bullet fragments left in there, and sew it up.
The earth shook. He heard dogs barking and men yelling. As he ran across the field, he looked west at the blushing-pink sunset. There, framed as a dark god with the dying sun blazing behind it, the tolle maschine stood. The two-legged steel behemoth moved sluggishly, with slow, wide steps. Its gun mounts were not visible from this distance. The steam chuffed thickly from its rear chimney like the smoke of an angry dragon, and each footfall made the earth tremble. The spy felt it in his bones. Hope drained. They were everywhere now, the tolle maschinen. Even here in remote farmlands. This one was an oberpanzer, an X-series mech, fiercest thing the Krauts had.
With hunched posture, the thing moved like a saurian raptor, like a flightless bird, moaning with each step of its reverse-jointed legs. The spy had once been on a steamer when it ran aground, its iron hull had moaned similarly as it ground against the rocks. The tolle maschinen made that sound no matter the terrain, no matter how slow or fast they moved. The spy saw the great war machine and felt small, and might have spared a tear for all humanity if he didn’t have to run.
“Er ist hier drüben!” someone shouted. The spy knew German. He’s over here, they were saying.
He did not know from whence it came, or if they were talking about him or some other person fleeing the dying town. He heard the dogs, though, and the grumble of a wagen, and the raised voices of men with booted feet. Panting but still capable, the spy turned west. He ran through someone’s farm, past their barn, and did not stop here to check his wound because his enemies were too near. He needed to make distance.
He took a brief rest in a creek, drank handfuls of water from the stream, clutched the necklace around his neck and asked God to watch over Gladys if he didn’t make it.
He moved carefully, frightened of making any sound. How many spies does Böhm have? I’d tell you, but then they would hear.
He melted into the night, and kept running till morning. He outran his pursuers. But no matter how far he ran, he could always hear, faintly in the distance, the grinding of steel gears, which to him sounded the death knell of Poland and all her allies.