I’m feeling super-lazy today. This weekend was fun, but a lot of work. I made 2 kinds of jam and some mushroom ketchup, as well as dissected the structure of Madeline L’Engle’s “A Ring of Endless Light.” Not the exciting stuff that blog posts are made of. It has dawned on me, though, that I haven’t posted any writing in a while. And so here you go: this is 1/2 of a story I’ve been finessing the ending of before I start shopping it again.
In Search Of:
“Do you think she wanted to drop it, or do you think it was an accident?” said Jack to Fritz.
“Does it matter?” said Fritz. “We still have to find the bloody thing. And if you thought the proverbial needle in the haystack was bad, try the golden apple in the miles of mud. We’ll never get back to Olympus, you know.”
The green khaki they both wore was stained with dry earth, their leather boots caked, their round helmets just covering their eyes. The helmet was just for looks. Even if someone dropped a grenade or a bomb into the pitted, broken earth of no man’s land, it wasn’t likely to harm either of them. Or not for long, anyway.
“Speak for yourself,” said Jack. “This war can’t last forever. We’ll find it. I have confidence.”
“I had confidence last year,” said Fritz. “But I don’t anymore. You’ve heard of the hundred years’ war, right? Doesn’t have to stop any time soon, brother.”
The land he and Fritz were walking over was nothing but violent pits of loose earth that undulated like waves, barbed wire fencing stuck between.
It had been almost three years since they frog marched him and Fritz down the mountain top and told them not to come back without apple in hand.
The golden apple. It had been so long, but Jack still remembered the way the thing reached into his mind and implanted its own memories, all of them horrifying. The desire that came with it, the wonder, the need to own it, to look into its precious golden surface forever. The urge to cut the eyes from anyone else who wanted to look too.
The size of a fist. Perfectly round, glossy, tantalizing, with a thin silver leaf reaching from the spindly, ideal stem.
“Come on, put your German on,” said Fritz, nudging him. “This is the spot – whole bunch of shelling, no movement either way. Looks promising.”
Jack shrugged and then touched his hand to his helmet and his sleeves, and then to Fritz’s. A faint, sweet smell of ozone rose from his palms and the flags on their uniforms turned to black, white, and red stripes. The holes covered over with green. Their boots gleamed.
“Which story are we trying?” said Jack.
“I dunno,” said Fritz. “Inspecting the troops in the wake of the General’s visit?”
“Sure,” Jack nodded.
Fritz made the vehicle out of the clouds that coalesced in the gray sky. He beckoned them down and encouraged them into the shape of an armored car, German flag on the door and flying from the side mirrors. They both got behind it and walked it up to the trench camp, and they both made sure to step out of it via the illusory door Fritz waved into being. It looked good unless someone tried to touch it, but Fritz parked it far enough back that probably no one would.
They had learned after Fritz took a bayonet to the thigh in the Italian camp almost 2 years ago. Blood everywhere and a whole week lost while his hamstrings knit back together.
The scene before them looked like all the other trenches they had been to. Broken earth, barbed wire, a deeper wound on the pitted earth that was the fissure these men fought from. The round helmets of a few men in the distance peaked over the wound, scanning the bare earth beyond for the siege of men that would come crawling over the top; if they weren’t the men crawling over the top of someone else’s trench instead. Every few hundred feet stood a machine gun tower.
The sentry nearest them raised a hand.
“Guten Tag!” Fritz called.
“Guten Tag,” said the sentry, saluting. “What brings you both today, Majors?”
“You will point us to your Kapitän.” said Fritz, in fluent German.
“Right away, Major,” he said. “Lars will take you.”
They followed behind the Musketier, keeping their shoulders upright, their strides purposeful, their movements sharp. The man led them down a wooden ladder, and then through the muddy trench made of piles of sand bags. Jack could touch the walls on either side if he reached out his hands far enough. Dark stains dotted the top row of bags.
Inset into the back of the wall was a framed doorway, which led into a hole with a desk in it. The walls here were wooden.
“Men from the Home Office to see you, Kapitan,” said the Musketier, saluting.
Jack blinked, closing his lids hard. When he opened them, they had adjusted to the darkness as if it was day. The room had a bare bulb swinging from the ceiling, and had been wallpapered in something floral that might have once been cheery but was now dust like everything else.
The Kapitan rose and saluted to them. Jack and Fritz soluted back.
“Nothing confidential,” said Fritz. He handed the Kapitan a folder. Inside it was the page he had encouraged weeks ago to appear like an official telegram.
He let the man look it over for a moment before he spoke again. “We are to bring you this news, and also to inspect the troops ourselves, as a precursor to the Generalleutnant’s arrival. He will be here in two days. Plenty of time for you to prepare your men.”
“Certainly,” said the Kapitan. “Should I call them now?”
“No rush,” said Jack. “We will spend most of the evening with you. We know there isn’t much room and won’t claim a bed, but part of our orders also include bringing back any requests for equipment you might need, or additions to these accommodations.”
“We are hoping not to be here long,” said the Kapitan. “Within the next month, we will take the next trench ahead from the Americans.”
“Certainly,” said Fritz. “But you will, of course, still hold this trench. We are not speaking of great things. Perhaps reinforcements to walls and frames?”
“Of course. We always need additional sandbags, but could also use whatever wood can be spared.”
“So we have your permission to go where we will and see if there is anything else we think you could benefit from?”
“The Generalleutnant orders it,” the Kapitan shrugged. “I will muster the troops for inspection just before evening mess, and then you must dine with me.”
“We would be honored,” said Fritz.
“With your permission?” said Jack
The Kapitan nodded and stood again. “You are dismissed.”
They traded salutes.
Out in the trenches again in the dark earth beneath the drab sky, they were alone except for the men on the top of the wall who looked only to the horizon. Jack took a deep breath and inhaled. Nothing but the faint traces of molasses ozone that came from their uniforms, and the piece of paper that was still inside the office.
He shook his head. “I can’t smell it,” he muttered.
“Of course not, idiot,” said Fritz. “None of them are pretending right now. They’re alone. There isn’t any fake to smell yet. You try this every time.”
“One of these days, we won’t have to stay until dinner to figure it out,” said Jack.
“Smell anything else, though?”
Fritz was talking about the smell of the golden apple, cloying and metallic.
It had been too long since either of them had seen the golden apple sitting under a crystal dome on Olympus. It was so long ago that Jack couldn’t remember the smell. He just knew he would remember it when he caught a whiff, that it was unlike anything else he had ever smelled. It was gunpowder and desire; honey and hunger; sex and blood.
“No,” said Jack. “None of that, either. It isn’t here, but we still have to ask.”
“Bloody unlikely that’ll be any help,” said Fritz. “Thousands seen it, no one’s grasped it. Come on, let’s get this ‘inspection’ going. The sooner we can move on…”
“Yeah, I know,” said Jack.
The Kapitan mustered the men just before dusk duty. They stood at attention, backs to the walls of the earthen trench, chests proud and muscles taut. Jack walked behind Fritz and breathed in. They got to the middle of the row before Jack smelled it; the ozone smell gone wrong, sweet rain with undertones of phlegm, the lie.
This one had the sickness.
He was pretending pretty well. The smell was not overwhelming, so maybe he only had obsessive thoughts of home now. But soon the Apple would take him, and he’d be at the mercy of what it chose to show him: cannon fire raining from a ship, pelting the walls of a seaside fort, men falling from the ramparts into the water; A woman plunging a knife into a man’s back, he gasps a sucking sound before falling to the dirt.
It would eat him. It ate anyone who was mortal.
Jack made note of the soldier. Blonde hair too long, escaping from his helmet. Grimy moustache above his lip. He may have been fat once, but now his cheeks hung from his face. His attention pose was looser than the men around him.
“Very good, Kapitan,” said Jack. “You have an impressive force here.”
Jack snuck out during dinner. He excused himself from the table and then made his way to the barracks. His calculation was right. The rest of the men were at mess, but this one had stayed behind. He was staring at the wall, hand poised over a piece of paper as if he was writing a letter. But the paper was filled with apples, the lines of them frayed and round.
“What is your name?” Jack asked him.
He startled. “Rolf,” he said, covering the paper with his arm.
“And you have seen the Golden Apple?”
“Is that what this is?” he said. He picked up the paper and held it out to Jack, hands quivering.
“I don’t know,” said Jack. “Tell me.”
“I was on patrol with – a friend. Oskar. Oskar Berger. And the Americans started shelling. A wave of dirt flew up and something landed next to my shoe. I thought it was a shell. But it didn’t blow. It was gold, and it brushed against me. But another shell hit, and this time it was a real one. It hit Oskar, and it… the earth and his body, his… it all thrust me aside and knocked me out.”
“Where?” said Jack. He could taste the apple now, the metal and cake. But it was the ghost of a smell, the memory of it.
“Oskar. Oskar Berger. Another faceless man lost to this…”
“Oskar Berger. We both remember him now,” said Jack.
“When I joined this war, I was so…” said Rolf. “All we saw was uniforms and glory, the heady shock that reverberates through your arm when you shoot a rifle, the glee that rises in your throat. We didn’t know what happens when the bullets hit their target, what your throat feels like then.”
A sob caught there, Rolf’s Adams-apple bobbing, keeping it in with a sucking sound.
Rolf swallowed. “I don’t know,” he said. “It was months ago. We weren’t even in this trench back then. I don’t know where I saw it.”
Jack sighed. “No, no. Of course you weren’t.”
“If you find it…?”
Jack shook his head. His answer was always the same. “You’ve touched it, and your mortal brain couldn’t handle the strife it’s been through,” he said. “Once you’ve been touched, it never lets go. That’s it. You will have to learn to manage as best you can.”
“No,” said Rolf. He closed his eyes, and the silence surrounded them. He opened them again. “And when will this damned war be over?”
“When I have found the apple,” said Jack. “Have faith, brother. I’m trying as hard as I can.”
Would it be another hundred years? Two?
Rolf covered his face with his hands and turned away. Jack went back to the bleak Kapitan’s quarters to finish his meal.