When he comes down again, his plane is steaming like a war horse. It is cold up there, despite the heat of battle. We all rush to him. Few others’ hearts are racing like mine, I expect. Mine is rattling like a badly maintained engine. The harsh tack-tack sound is hollow and sad and more dangerous than empty ammunition boxes in the middle of a dogfight.
The others are landing, too, steel eagles rolling over the tarmac; I don’t have time to count them. I’m normally counting the empty spaces. The absences. But I never count them in his Staffel. Nobody else exists to me when he lands. Everything stops existing when he takes off, as if he takes it all with him when he goes up there, to places I’ll never see again. That vast open non-place of emptiness that becomes significant only when his comrades are there, too, and of course the enemy fighters guarding the bombers bound for Berlin.
I freeze outside the small crowd greeting him as he pushes out of the cockpit—now the only animated part of the steel bird—briefly separating from it to drink, eat, rest while I care for the shell he leaves behind. Even from here I can see this was a bad fight. There’s a hole low in the cockpit window, the very end point of a line of them along the nose of the Messerschmitt Bf 109. I don’t expect to find a single bullet in the boxes when we open them up, but there might be a bullet meant for the pilot inside the cockpit.
He all but vanishes in the welcoming crowd, which is our signal. Like my other black-clad brethren, I’m there foremost for the plane, to fix what can be fixed, clean up what needs to be cleaned, to reload and refuel.
We push the plane to the side of the tarmac where we Schwarzen Männer, the “black men,” work, lately in grim silence. We know the bird needs to fly—there are few enough of them as it is, and while we dawdle, Berlin is burning, just as Hamburg has burned. This Jagdgeschwader is hunting bombers, downing them before they reach the city, if our pilots are lucky.
I used to count the absences when they landed.
There is a lot of work. They fight by day. They fight by night. We repair and reload whenever they come back. Once they receive word that bombers are en route, they jump out of their bunks, rookies and Experten alike, and get ready to fight. It’s the rookies who don’t last very long. At the speed at which the pilots are hurled again and again into the sky, many never make it. Their training is rushed, they are thrown into battle with hardly any flight hours at all, they cannot rest enough, and they take risks because they don’t know any better.
The Messerschmitt is not an easy plane. It can be volatile during landing and takeoff. It has pride; it doesn’t yield to just any man. Those who subdue it become old hands in a few flights.
# # #
It’s late at night when I sit near a wing on my toolbox. I can’t sleep. The cloud cover I see beyond the open hangar doors is heavy, no moon visible. This might be a flight night, or it might not be, but I’m not holding out much hope. This bird is ready to go. I fitted a new canopy myself—parts aren’t easy to come by, but there are wrecks I can salvage. Peter Christensen taught me everything I know about this, before they moved him west for a great offensive and he never came back.
I sit, smoking, my head against the cool comfort of the fighter plane’s wheel, its wing shielding but never embracing me. I’m a cold nestling tonight.
I want to read, but the situation won’t allow it. The leaden lump of what we’re doing and the sheer desperation of it stifles every thought of returning to the thick Karl May book I’d been reading. Adventure stories, where evil always loses in the end, defeated by the German hero and his American blood brother. The very idea feels like sacrilege now—there won’t be a red-skinned Indian brave to cover any German’s back. No cattle thieves, no bandits fighting over lost treasure in the endless prairie. This here is serious, and as far away as it can be from a schoolboy’s dreams.
And those other dreams, too. I must be the only one who felt an odd, deeper thrill at the rites of blood brotherhood in those books, of a friendship as deep as destiny that bound those characters together. Companions of my childhood, whispering words that inspired my sweaty dreams when I was old enough to see a deeper meaning. I would devote myself like this to another man. Take the bullet meant for him, and die in his arms, knowing I had fulfilled my destiny.
But I’m no Indian brave.
Steps circle the plane. I straighten up, expecting I-don’t-know-who. An inspection. My former superior, Christensen, who barked at me not to smoke anywhere near the priceless machines, his Berliner accent thick and comical but for his glare and his tendency to grab you by the scruff of your neck if you didn’t jump immediately. I never expected I’d miss him, but I guess I do.
I didn’t expect him, certainly not in uniform, and a recklessly dishevelled one at that. I’m about to jump up when he pushes an empty ammunition box closer to me and simply sits down, waving off any startled movement I could make. I’ve never spoken to him. Will he speak? Wordlessly, I offer him a cigarette, and he plucks it from the packet.
It’s the first time I see his hands, normally wrapped in black leather. His nails are so short that if they were any shorter, they’d bare the quick underneath. They are cut, not bitten.
I rub my hands on my coveralls before I offer him fire; he bends closer to take the flame rather than the lighter. My hands are steady, even though I expect them to lose that at any moment. I’ve never been so relieved to be able to snap the lighter shut, though I could have watched his face illuminated by fire for an hour. There’s a reflection of flame in his features, like in the painting of an old master. Flesh made light. I pull on my own cigarette, watch him cross his uniformed legs, then cross mine, realize what I’m doing and put them firmly back where they were.
“Felix, isn’t it?”
I almost swallow my cigarette, then manage to nod, wishing I had some more words, something as remotely as natural and nonchalant as his.
“The lucky one,” he continues, before inhaling smoke.
I’m tongue-tied. The idea that I will say something stupid is more mortifying than him thinking me a gaping idiot. “Don’t feel so lucky,” I choke out.
He looks at me. Dark blue eyes. But the feature I admire most is his forehead, the eyebrows. They look heroic, for want of a better word. My mother reads physiognomy books and says that the curve of the forehead expresses willpower. If it is shaped like a ram’s, the person it belongs to will push through a wall. The Leutnant’s forehead is that of a conqueror, then. Clear, strong features not out of place in a weekly newsreel.
“Why’s that?” he asks patiently, then his face falls and he looks down and to the side for a moment. “I guess it’s personal.”
Oh God, does he think my family was trapped in a firestorm? I’m on the verge of stuttering, but manage to catch myself. “I wish I could fight, Herr Leutnant.”
He regards me curiously.
“I dreamt of flying. As a boy, I mean.”
One corner of his mouth pulls up. Now he looks more like the fighter ace, the man who makes my hands shake. He must hear that a lot. He’s a legend. Every green boy desires to be him. I don’t. My desires are more complicated. “And?”
“I did not pass the test,” I admit, even though it kills me a little inside. He can laugh at me or mock me. That would make all of this easier. He’d crush me like a cigarette butt under his heel. He can do anything to me.
He is silent for a while, while I try not to stare too eagerly at him for my punishment.
“So you are the lucky one,” he says and leans forward.
I’m struck dumb. I want to hide from his gaze, penetrating and reckless as an eagle’s. Eyebrows shaped like wings, so expressive in a small lift. I wish I were a painter. Or that I owned a camera. Not that I could simply photograph him. He’d ask why. “Herr Leutnant?”
He glances at the Messerschmitt sitting next to us like a third person. “What have you done to her?”
“I did an engine check, replaced the canopy. I . . .” I reach into my pocket and pull out the bullet I found stuck in his seat. It must have missed his shoulder by no more than a thumb’s breadth when he twisted in his seat to look out for enemy planes—the shoulder that now moves in his uniform as he reaches out. I’ve offered the bullet without meaning to. I don’t want to drop it into his hand. So he takes my wrist and I nearly jump again. But I don’t let go of the bullet. He turns my palm in his to have a better look at it. “I was wondering where it went.”
I can’t even think. Leutnant Baldur Vogt is holding my hand. I’m holding something that almost killed him. Well, wounded him. Missed him, in any case. I can’t free my hand to turn it and relinquish the bullet. I want to. But I don’t.
He glances at me, his expression blank but somehow intent. Then his lips pull into a smile, giving me permission to breathe. I need it. “Do you want to keep it?”
My skin is hot and then cold. Why did he have to ask that? What does it mean? How to answer? My fingers are nerveless; I drop the bullet, he catches and lifts it, peers at it like a scientist would peer at a test tube. Just what is he reading in the grooves and marks on the brass surface?
I can breathe, so I breathe. “You were lucky it missed you. It was in the seat.”
The Leutnant looks at me abruptly, drops the bullet, then catches it like somebody would catch a tossed coin. “Really? You call this lucky?”
Yes, it would have killed you. Or can you fly with a bleeding shoulder? Well enough to escape the hunters?
“I don’t understand, Herr Leutnant.”
He scoffs. “Morbid thoughts.” He glances back at the open hangar door, then stands. I don’t want him to leave, even if he makes me feel like an idiot. I want to watch him smoke, I want to tell him what I did to ensure he will be as safe up there as I can make him. That I’m praying to his machine like a heathen idol to keep him alive in the clouds while I tighten every screw religiously. I can never tell him that. I don’t have the words for it, either. He will think me a hero-worshipping child. If I’m lucky, he’ll only laugh at me.
“Good night, Herr Leutnant.”
He glances at me over his shoulder. I have failed another test, but while I know what I did wrong when I failed the pilot test, I can’t for the life of me understand how I failed him.
“Go to bed, Felix. I will need you fresh and awake tomorrow.”
I stand to follow his order. He can’t mean what he said. It’s all the pilots who need me, and not just me, but the whole ground crew of six; mechanics, armourers, refuellers, two of each. With a glance, he has obliterated the others. I feel as if we are the only men alive this night, as if he is all pilots and I’m all black men. He shortens his stride, and we leave the hangar together; he’s not allowing me to trail in his wake. It’s almost like a conversation, walking together to the barracks. Then he separates and heads towards where the rest of his Staffel has to be sleeping, but stops along the way.
I pause and turn. He flicks his fingers, and I catch the bullet that comes to me in a high brass arc. His gaze is ironic, yet intent. I want to salute him, like the officer he is, although I should have done that ten minutes ago, and doing it now would be like locking the door after the burglars have walked away with the piano.
By the time I’ve made up my mind to pay him his due respect, he has nearly reached the barracks. I can’t exactly run after him, so I tighten my fingers around the bullet. It felt like I owned it when I pulled it from his seat, like that one polished stone amidst a million on a beach that catches your attention and feels like it’s meant for you alone.
# # #
He rises skyward again and again, leading one Schwarm of the squadron. The hour or so he spends up there on each mission, stalking, attacking, killing, protecting, draws out. He’s seventy, eighty kilometres away, patrolling the skies over Berlin like an eagle protecting his nest.
Rumours of the battles travel from the control centre. When they engage the enemy, my stomach plunges and my fingers tighten around the brass cylinder in my hand. More of these are seeking their targets, and there is nothing I can do. Leutnant Vogt will live and die by his wits, reflexes, and cold blood alone.
Then you are the lucky one, he said.
At least his time passes in a rush, while mine . . . doesn’t. An hour, sometimes more, recklessly more. Once, the squadron limped back on a breath of fumes. A few minutes longer, and they would have sailed in rather than flown. My task is to help turn the planes around as fast as possible. No time to waste as the battle goes on and command throws the fighters back into the sky in what we all know to be desperation.
This last flight is a close one. I know something is wrong from the sinking feeling in my stomach, and I know that the plane trailing smoke behind itself is Vogt’s before my mind can even form the concept or make out the markings. The landing is rocky, yet the wheels hold.
The Messerschmitt swerves wildly, and we all gasp as it threatens to hurtle off the airfield and maybe topple. But it doesn’t. Even with the black smoke rising from the engine, the canopy covered in oil and soot, Vogt manages to control his fate.
In my eagerness, I’m first when we rush forward to help him out of the plane. He’s coughing hard when I release him from his straps, take him under his shoulders, and help to lift him out. His clear blue eyes are watery, streaming, and the acrid smoke is robbing us both of words. He’s made it, and I have to let him go, care for the wounded bird, and help turn around the others.
Once this is done, I visit him in hospital. They are keeping him there just to watch him. He’s inhaled smoke, but on the bed, he looks less like a patient and more like a convalescent. I’m surprised his comrades are not clamouring for his attention—or maybe they did and were shooed out. Fighter pilots are a rowdy bunch, after all. Or they can’t find the time, busy as they are.
He looks up when I enter, and lowers a linen-bound green book. Herodotus’s Histories. I remember my school days, and how I slaved over the Battle of Thermopylae. Just when I expect him to ask me why I’m there, he simply says, “Felix. Hello.”
“Herr Leutnant,” I say with all the deference he didn’t get from me that first time.
He nods knowingly, then takes a postcard and marks his page with it before he closes the book. “Have a seat.”
There’s really only one, and I pull out the chair that occupies the space between his bed and the empty one on the other side. Sitting down, I notice him watching me. I need to speak now or I won’t. And that would look strange. “It’s good to see you are well.” Overly familiar, but I can’t hide my fear for him. He needs to know that I was worried.
Vogt nods. “The Amis are getting better all the time,” he says, voice smoke-rough. He suppresses a cough, lines appearing around his eyes as he fights the reflex for a few moments. I reach for the pitcher they’ve left him and pour water into a glass and offer it. I can’t help it—I’d look after the man with the same devotion I have for his plane. He takes it from my hand with a grateful nod and drinks down a deep gulp. His hair is dishevelled, blond on top, darker underneath. His expressive eyebrows curl with a frown as he concentrates on drinking.
“Are you very busy?” he asks, keeping the glass propped on his belly, supported with one hand. He’s making conversation.
“A fair bit.” I look down at my hands, scrubbed clean, rough from the coarse soap and working with iron, grease, and “the concentrated application of naked force,” as Christensen would say. “I’ve been working on yours.”
“How’s the old lady doing?” He seems livelier now.
“She’ll live,” I joke, and my throat tightens when he responds with a laugh. And then a wracking cough. Damn. He lifts a hand when I lean forward, then hits his chest lightly with a curled fist, trying to dislodge the cough. “I’m sorry.”
He shakes his head and rubs the water from his eyes. “Not your fault. I did down the Ami who did this.” He leans back, deflated. Every now and then, a breath catches and threatens to turn into another cough, but it doesn’t happen for a few moments. Maybe not because he’s silent.
“I just meant to check in, see . . .” I shrug instead of finishing the sentence. See how you are doing.
He nods. “Can’t wait to get back into the thick of it.”
I nod too, as if I understand why. Honour, maybe. Now, so close to the end, it can’t be orders. It’s more than that, but I wonder what drives him skywards. The need to protect, to fight, or simply to fly? I’ve overheard other pilots, and while they talk about many things, they don’t talk about this. Were I a pilot, what would drive me back up there?
“Where are you from?”
I blink, stutter, “Potsdam,” then hurry to add, “but my parents are staying with family near Fulda.” It’s much safer, nestled away in the forests and with farms so close. Surely, the enemy can’t bomb every single house in Germany. Surely?
“Neustadt,” he says, uninvited. “I’ll be going home for the weekend.” I glance at his fingers, but I’ve never seen him wear a ring. Maybe he’s not married for similar reasons as my friend Otto, the other mechanic. Who marries during war, with the rationing and shortages and most men serving in one way or another? Better to leave a grieving girl than a grieving widow.
“Just a couple of hours on the train,” I offer. Fulda is a lot further, so I’m not taking time off. It feels like such a waste of time to interrupt work that seems so necessary. No wonder I almost speak more to planes than to people.
He nods. “You could come with me.”
I stare at him, then shake my head. “That . . .”
“Gather strength before the end,” he says, voice hushed. “The end will be bad enough.”
I glance over my shoulder, worried sick that somebody heard that. Defeatism is sedition. Men get court-martialled and shot for that attitude.
His lips quirk. “You’re not going to denounce me, are you?”
“No, Herr Leutnant.” This daredevil. This maniac. “No.” No. Never.
He sighs and relaxes against his pillow, as if finally convinced he is in friendly company. “You should come with me. Get away for a few days.”
I’m about to protest or make excuses. I can’t simply go away with him and I can’t leave my post. What would people think? If I were a pilot, one of his comrades, it would be a different matter, but I’m a stranger to him, and he to me, though I can tell his style from every other pilot out there. The way he lands and takes off. I know exactly how he flies.
“I don’t think they’ll let me,” I say, to pass on the responsibility to the Powers that Be. I want him to go—he should have time to get the smoke out of his lungs, but he can do that on his own. I’ll look after the plane while he’s gone.
His lips curve again in that reckless expression. You’ll see, that smile says.