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About the Author
A.L. Sirois does software engineering, web design and graphics for a small company in New Jersey, where he lives with his wife and two children. He has recently completed a screenplay involving Willy Ley and Nazi espionage. When he's not writing, working or spending time with his family he plays drums in a rock band and oversees the SFWA BULLETIN website.
Mr. Sirois invites you to visit his Web site.
March 11 1936, 5:30 AM
by A.L. Sirois
Image Copyright 1998 by A.L. Sirois
Here, beneath the damp evergreen branches, the morning was cold and so quiet that it seemed impossible so many Reichswehr troops could be camped nearby. His boots made scarcely any sound on the soft brown carpet of pine needles beneath his feet. He wore a cape against the chill, and as he walked he toyed with the edges of it. Cold though the air was, a mist was rising.
Most of the troops were still asleep, huddled in their sleeping bags. Only the cooks were awake. The odor of coffee and eggs drifted along with him as he walked through the fog. He himself had, as usual, slept poorly, but this time at least he could attribute his sleeplessness to excitement rather than troubling nightmares.
Within the hour he would be in his private train on his way back to Berlin. Events in the Wilhelmstrasse were moving quickly and required his constant attention. It had been an impulse that had brought him here for a brief inspection after the Army's sudden and unchallenged -- so far, anyway, by the grace of God! -- incursion into this territory. But it was an impulse that had had to be obeyed. He had known that his men would be heartened to see him. He couldn't deny them that.
A small smile softened the tight line of his mouth. Only last month thousands of foreigners and hundreds of reporters had crowded the tiny town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the Bavarian Alps for the Winter Olympics. If any of them -- particularly the British -- could have guessed what was going to happen, here in the forest.... But they hadn't guessed. No, he had played his part well, appearing enthusiastic and excited about the games though they -- no more than the upcoming Summer Games, to be held in Berlin -- held no interest for him except as propaganda for a revitalized, virile Germany. All the while, sitting there with the snow accumulating on the brim of his cap, he had been concentrating on this move into the Rhineland, in direct violation of the 1925 Locarno treaty. Yes....
"I follow my course with the precision and security of a sleepwalker.
"The precision and security of a sleepwalker," he said again, a little louder, testing the sound of the words. A good phrase. He would be sure to use it in a speech soon.
He had walked alone away from the bivouac, waving away the eager, thick-necked young guards who were so anxious to see to his safety. Nothing here could harm him, and he craved a few moments of privacy in which to savor his triumph.
In a way, he owed this victory to the British. Their king, George V, had died less than two months previously. He was succeeded by Edward VIII, who had never denied a sympathy with many of Germany's aspirations. That, and, of course, the mealy-mouthed mewlings of the League of Nations concerning Italy's aggressions had convinced him: the time was ripe to declare an end to the demilitarized zone in the Rhineland.
And, he thought with growing excitement, he had been right: the Rhineland was once again, after more than a decade, a part of Germany. As he had predicted -- albeit, he thought with a wry twist of his lips, with less surety than he had projected -- France made no move to stop him. Now, of course, he was sure that if their troops hadn't already come marching, they never would. The swine! The contemptible cowards!
He wished he could have seen his Reichswehr soldiers tramping across the bridge and into Aachen, grim gray-clad men marching behind their mounted commander.
He grimaced. From all accounts the event had been rather more like a parade. He wondered whose idea the band had been. Stupid. Most of the soldiers still had much to learn about being Nazis. They loved their uniforms, but they generally lacked real discipline. Still, the land was successfully occupied -- there was no denying that -- by more than 25,000 troops. Cologne, Dusseldorf, Bonn -- all German territory again. The reports given him said that some of the inhabitants had actually been so happy as to have thrown flowers at the troops! Flowers, he thought, for Wagner's "furious army," Woden's soldiers marching from the depths of nocturnal storm.
"We are the reforged sword," he murmured to the pines around him, looking up. The mist seemed to have thickened. It curdled beneath the trees, the wringing of ghostly hands. He shrugged and moved on, further away from the encampment.
What, then, from here? he wondered. The first step, he felt sure, would be to dissolve the Reichstag. He sneered. No further "checks and balances" were needed. He knew now that his own political instincts were superior to all the plans and goals of his generals. His authority alone would be sufficient to guide the course of the growing army. And to underscore that for any doubting military man, he would submit his policies to the people as a plebiscite. There was no doubt he'd win it... certainly not with the Party workers enforcing the vote.
He looked up. In the curdling mist, he saw the specter of a glorious future for the German people. He, the chosen one, would lead them to heights of power and glory previously unknown to civilized people.
Even now, weapons of fantastic design and unimaginable power were on the drawing boards. Scientists were laboring night and day to bring their gleaming ideas to reality.
"A long way from those miserable days as a Viennese guttersnipe. A long way from the jail cell and the soup kitchen...."
True enough, problems aplenty remained. There were political balls to juggle. There was that strutting, egotistical fool, Mussolini. Il Duce, indeed. The man was nothing more than a clown. For now, however, the clown and his country had their uses. The Reich needed all the friends it could get - for now.
There were other questions, too: foreign policy questions having to do with the Japanese and Russians, and -- he scowled -- internal problems, notably those having to do with the Jews. But answers, at least as far as the Jews were concerned, were in hand. Soon, perhaps, they could be implemented.
His excitement grew as he paced deliberately into the trees, but he kept it in tight rein. Control was paramount. As if to prove this to himself, he allowed himself to almost-strut for a moment -- but after that single show of fierce joy he was again the Fuhrer, controlled and controlling.
Wrapped in his cogitations, he absently noticed that the trees around him had grown indistinct. He stopped walking. The fog was the thickest he had ever seen. He could hear nothing now, nothing save his own breathing. The vapor pressed in so closely that his exhalations stirred it around his cheeks and chin as he glanced to the right and left seeking any indication of sound. There was nothing.
Some vague quality of the fog-filtered dawn light annoyed him. Frowning, he glanced around. There was the sense of a bated breath, an anticipation. It was as if he had entered a church or shrine. His eyes glittered under the brim of his military cap.
He resumed walking, mulling over the idea of a plebiscite. The creaking of his leather boots seemed louder than he would have expected.
The mist directly ahead of him -- it really had become all but opaque -- seemed suddenly to melt away. He halted at the edge of a clearing. Oddly, the ground fog seemed thinner here, as though a volume of it had been scooped from the clearing, leaving an area more or less devoid of mist yet walled in by it. Questing tendrils were already nosing in from beneath the trees at the verge. Beyond, he could now hear the sound of running water: a spring or stream.
He blinked, his mind already halfway back to Berlin, and looked around. It was time to be getting back to camp. He started to turn, when a furtive movement across the clearing made him pause.
He turned toward it, seeing nothing. A squirrel, perhaps. Then he caught movement again, behind a tree.
For a moment he saw nothing -- then he noticed a hunched form standing beside the tree, almost impossible to discern against the forest floor in the uncertain light. A pointed hood covered its head, save for a wrinkled, bearded face, indistinct in the gray light.
"Who are you?" he rapped out. Irritatingly, there was no response.
"Are you witless?" He all but shouted the last word.
The hooded man, slight, elderly, simply stared up at him with sad, calm eyes. What trick of mist and dawn made those eyes so yellow?
His hand moved slowly toward his holster. Watching, the little man began stroking his long, untidy beard.
"You'll speak, or --" He paused, and dropped his hand. A gun? For a filthy peasant? With his wizened, evil face and dirty clothing, this was some subhuman, in all likelihood driven out of one of the nearby towns and left to fend for itself. Probably it managed a miserable existence, here in the forest, in a cave or some hole it had dug.
He sneered at the hooded man.
A Jew, he thought. It certainly looked like a deformed little rabbi, with its deeply lined, bearded face.
He turned, ready to stride off into the mist in the direction of the camp, but no sooner had he taken a step then the boughs of the surrounding trees seemed to dip down as though to impede his passage. He lifted his arms to fend them off, when the sound of movement in the clearing behind him drew his attention. Looking back, he saw with a shock that two more peasants had appeared beside the first. Both were hooded, but one, beardless, was clearly a female, dressed similarly to the male. The other was a smaller version of the male.
He struggled to keep from vomiting. An entire family of degenerates! God, how many more could be hiding out here? He'd have to get back to camp now, alert the men, have them hunt down and imprison these ugly monsters.
Resolutely, he turned. The trees no longer pressed in so closely, but the mists behind him had become virtually impenetrable, to the point where visibility was totally obscured beyond a meter or two. He took a step, then stopped suddenly as he saw the blurred shape of one of the forest-dwellers materialize ahead of him.
No: the fog had confused him. The approaching silhouette was well-shaped, tall and confident in bearing. One of the soldiers from the bivouac had surely followed him, under orders to keep a discreet eye on the Fuhrer.
Relieved, he stepped forward to greet the man.
"You!" he rapped out. "Get a detail and bring them back here with their weapons. I want...."
He faltered. The arrival was not a German soldier.
It was a girl or a young boy -- the poor lighting rendered its identity uncertain. Tall, tall and blonde, with hair so fine and light it melted away into the vapor, surrounding her --him?-- like a nimbus. It was clothed in loose green garments that provided no clue to its sex.
Too surprised to react for a moment, he stood frozen as the youth glided past him without so much as a glance and went to stand beside the hideous subhumans. As it passed him, he saw that its ears came to a slight but distinct point.
He opened his mouth to demand the stranger's identity but noticed another form, coalescing out of the swirling vapor behind the slender youth, step into the clearing. This one was quite small, a dwarf, in fact, carrying a small shovel.
He clenched his fists, feeling fury rise. "What in the name of God is going on here? Who are you?"
No one answered, but the dwarf's face twisted into an expression that might, under the dirt and grime, have been a grin.
Now, from behind trees and out of thickets, other figures appeared. He saw more creatures like the degenerates, with ancient faces and pointed hoods; tall, spindly forms similar to the pointy-eared youth; more dwarves, quite a number of dwarves in fact, more than he had ever seen in one place, all dressed in crude earth-colored clothing and carrying primitive tools.
Staring, he saw behind the stream of little men a face appear among the trees: a huge face of surpassing stupidity yet with a crafty glint in its eyes. It met his gaze.
The giant stared at him. And that was what finally brought him to himself.
It was, he understood, a giant.
"Such things don't exist," he said aloud. I am therefore dreaming. He recalled his image of himself as a sleepwalker, and almost smiled, hoping he'd remember it when he awoke. It was a good turn of phrase.
And this was a good dream, if a trifle disorienting at first. But he had its measure now.
The small beings with shovels were, of course, dwarves or gnomes. The degenerate, hooded manlike things were kobolds, and the girl-boy things were sprites of some kind, naiads, nixies, perhaps elves.
Despite himself, he was almost delighted. He could not recall any dream, not even his tormenting nightmares, being so completely real.
But this was a dream, he told himself. There was no precedent for such a convocation in any of those old stories. So many figures now crowded the small clearing, in fact, that some of the smaller ones had been forced to the sides, into the fog, and appeared as little more than silhouettes.
Nor was it clear that these creatures all got along. A fairy, sparkling like a frozen pine cone, flashed across the clearing, narrowly missing a leafy corn wolf. The vegetable beast whipped around to follow the glittering form but was distracted by a shambling troll.
He watched all this with growing astonishment. The child he had once been would have wept with delight.
He would have run to tell Mama about it. She would have listened, maybe for hours, almost as delighted as he, until Papa reeled in from the tavern in the village. Then there might well be beating, certainly for Mama and perhaps for him. In any event, there would be an end to fairy stories.
He was a long way from that child, further then he was from Vienna, Munich....
He scowled and shook his head to banish these thoughts. Never sentimental, he didn't like thinking about the past.
Looking up, he realized they were staring at him, all ropy and beautiful, terrible and fanciful, winged, clawed, hoofed, hairy, horned. They sat or crouched or stood, and they stared.
There was no shuffling, no fidgeting, no movement of any kind, save for the blinking of their eyes. Even the corn wolf sat back, its husk of a tongue lolling.
Almost overwhelmed, he placed his hand on the trunk of a tree for support -- and recoiled: the tree was warm, its bark pliant like flesh. He stared open-mouthed as the section of bark where he had laid his hand shuddered like a horse ridding itself of flies. Dim, semi-human features appeared in the quivering wood as the pale face of a drowned man might, slowly nearing the surface of dark water, then receded.
Hesitantly he again touched the tree. The wood was still warm. He pressed his hand against it, feeling the texture of the bark, rough against his palm.
It's not a dream, he thought.
"In God's name," he whispered, "what is happening here?"
In the tales he had heard and read as a child, such beings as these would perhaps show themselves to someone in the forest but usually only to one who was lost or in some sort of extremity -- and, even then, rarely to an adult. And never in such numbers, nor in company with each other.
He scowled. He was in no danger here; plus, he had his sidearm, and hundreds of soldiers were within earshot of any call for assistance.
Suddenly the fairy -- or another; who could tell? -- zipped by the wolf's snout again. It snapped at its mosquito-like tormentor, and the sprite, apparently caught off guard, swerved to avoid the beast's jaws, lost control of its trajectory and shot across the clearing straight toward him.
It struck him just below his breastbone, with no more force than a badminton bird, and rebounded in a cloud of glittering dust.
He stared dumbly down at the front of his greatcoat. The smudge of fairy dust faded even as he stared at it.
He touched the spot. It felt faintly warm.
Slowly he looked up at the gathering of spirits. All observed him closely -- they saw that he had indeed felt the fairy strike him, as he had felt the warmth of the dryad in the tree.
He took an involuntary step backward, into the lowered branches of the pines. His retreat, he understood, was blocked.
But if I am not dreaming, and am not mad....
He blinked. Then, he must truly be among the creatures of Faerie.
"Wh-what do you want?" he asked, his voice harsh and discordant in the silence.
He understood that he had been neatly trapped here, drawn in and captured by his own lulled suspicions. Who, after all, would ever suspect that he was being observed by mythological beings?
He tugged his coat into position and adjusted his cap, determined not to let them see a trace of fear. He leaned forward from the waist and gazed intently at them.
"What do you want?" he demanded again. This time he made his voice strong and confident. "I warn you, my men are nearby."
But even as he voiced the threat, he knew how absurd it was. Though he might have blundered over a bridge between worlds, it didn't necessarily mean that his troops would be able to follow. Slowly his hand dropped to his holster, but again he rejected the thought. Gunshots could not harm such as these.
The trees seemed to be leaning down toward him as though to catch the scent of his breath, and he was momentarily thankful that he was a vegetarian.
He cleared his throat. Eyes blinked. Frowning now, he adopted the mantle of Fuhrer. He drew himself up. What were these bestial, insubstantial phantoms about?
He gazed from face to alien face, doing his best to intimidate with his stare. But, disconcertingly, not one of his watchers avoided the penetrating gaze he had come to recognize as his most intimidating quality. In fact, as he caught and held the quiet eyes of a dozen or so of the beings in turn, he himself began feeling reluctant to continue. Only sheer force of will allowed him to keep trying. Despite the cool of the morning, perspiration stood out on his forehead.
After a few more moments he realized that in those inhuman eyes he was finally reading a human emotion, one he had seen often in antagonists. He had seen it in Hindenburg's face in those early days before the senile old man had caved in and allowed him to adopt the post of Chancellor: disapproval.
But where the Field Marshall's condescension had been born of class differences, this was a disapproval closer to distaste or even disgust, as of a woman watching an insect skitter across her kitchen counter.
He drew back, raking the tops of the trees with his gaze as if appealing to Heaven. Outrage welled within him. What could these pagan things know of human affairs, of human striving?
What did they know of his struggle, of his self-imposed task to liberate the Rhineland, to make Germany a great power again, to make her premier among nations, foremost in the entire world?
"What are you? Are you spirits? Is that it? Spirits?" He broke off to laugh. "I am the spirit of this land now!"
He waved his arms around, encompassing the forest. "The trees, the stones... what have you done with them? What have you done other than skulk about among the trees, in barns and streams? What did you do with the earth while you had it?
"Stand aside now, and you will see what Germany can do."
He paused, panting. The familiar red rage had dropped into place, comforting and enfolding him. Strength rising now within him, it all seemed so clear: yes, they had gathered to pass on to him their right to the soil. It was his now.
Almost carried away with his new idea in the face of Faerie, he suddenly noticed a slender, naked girlish form near the edge of the gathering. A river spirit, a nixie, he saw, by her long blonde hair. Something about her face made him falter.
He clenched his fists. The nixie was regarding him with the same expression his mother would have worn on her face whenever, as a small child, he had done something wrong.
His hands went to claws. Did she pity him? Was she judging him? How dare she? How dare they?
He pulled his pistol from its holster and began firing it.
"This is the new Germany!" he screamed. "This is the new power -- technology! Weapons! Arms!"
He watched the bullets tear into the branches. Dislodged, snow drifted down.
When he lowered his head, he saw they had vanished.
The wall of mist was gone, too, evaporated.
He was alone. The clearing was empty of life.
No, he saw -- not empty. Something quivered under a tree at the far edge.
He stepped into the area for the first time, walking now on ground that had been, until a moment ago, packed with mythological creatures standing shoulder to shoulder. Now there was only this small, shuddering form among the fallen pine needles.
It was, he saw, a hedgehog.
Asleep here? He bent closer, and caught the sweet, musty scent of corruption. With the toe of his boot, he turned the beast over. Its underside was a mass of writhing maggots.
Revolted, he drew back.
Thuds and shouts behind him.
He whirled, pistol at the ready.
"Fuhrer!" someone shouted.
A helmeted soldier, two, five, a dozen, pounded into the clearing, faces pale, weapons at the ready.
"Fuhrer! Are you well? What's happened? What were those shots?"
He holstered his pistol.
"Nothing," he said quietly. "A bit of target practice is all."
He saw them look about in puzzlement for whatever he had been shooting at.
"It's time to get back to camp," he said, stalking past them, away from the clearing, knowing they would follow.
They always followed.
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