The Gendarmerie inspector arrived at the military hospital thirty minutes after noon. So far, it had been a good war for the Bohemian. No trenches, no guns, no artillery, and best of all, no rationing. He enjoyed plump and fully fried sausages while others dined on Carpathian dirt. Every day he got to enjoy his precious beer. The others had to make do with chicory masquerading as the best Viennese brews. The poor bastards. Did the inspector feel sorry for them? Hell no. It wasn’t his fault that he had played things smart. Why should he care about the failings of a bunch of Krauts and Mongolians from the Danube?
He made an exception for Private Wallner.
The inspector found the frightened and emaciated infantryman in his bed. His well-shorn head barely peaked out above the wool covers. A crinkled newspaper lay at his feet. Wallner’s skin was a shade somewhere between milk and phlegm. Remnants of wounds decorated his forehead, and the young Austrian had deep purple circles underneath his blue eyes. The intelligence file said that he was a suspected radical and the author of a degenerate book of verse, but he looked more like a scared rabbit to the inspector.
“Are you able to speak?” the inspector asked in German. Wallner replied in the affirmative.
“I want to talk to you about what happened to your company.”
“Does that mean we are winning the war?” Wallner’s voice was barely above a whisper.
“If the monarchy has the time to worry about a single company, then doesn’t that suggest we are winning the war?”
The question managed to confuse the inspector. Yes, all reports indicated that they were winning the war. This was especially true in Romania, whose government had collapsed following the successful capture of Bucharest. Still, the inspector found it hard to believe that Wallner, confined as he was to a hospital bed in Hermannstadt, cared at all, especially given the circumstances.
“Let us start with basic information. You were a member of the 4th Company of the 45th Landwehr, is that correct?”
“Yes. That company no longer exists…” Wallner’s voice trailed off as he turned his head towards the window. “The sun is beautiful, no? I love when the sun is high and bright in the sky. Don’t you?”
The inspector ignored the question. He instead asked one of his own: “4th Company had, shall we say, a poor reputation?”
“That’s true, I suppose. We were the runts of the litter. Half the men were older reservists well past their prime as fighters. The others were an assortment of criminals, café loafers, and minorities whose abominable German hurt my ears.”
“Given that formula, how would you classify yourself?”
“Oh, I’m a dreamer. Have been my whole life.”
The inspector made a note of Wallner’s confession. It was evidence in favor of the military’s theory that the poet Wallner had made the whole story up. The inspector continued:
“To the best of your knowledge, what was 4th Company’s mission on October 31, 1916?”
“You know that Americans celebrate Halloween on that day. A night when ghosts and goblins roam the earth, they say. The idea is that the soil coughs up its dead. The earth’s foulness is liberated once a year before returning to stasis. Quite picturesque.”
“Indeed, but what about your mission?”
Wallner turned his head away from the sun. His haunted eyes made contact with the inspector for the first time. “We had sat out the war up until that point. The chain of command distrusted our abilities, so we mostly maintained guard in the rear. However, our commanding officer, the Oberstleutnant, desired medals. He wanted to fill up his thin chest with gold and silver. He wanted to go back to Vienna and show all the fine society ladies his spoils. So, he had us follow in the wake of the rest of the 1st Army. After the real fighters defended Transylvania and sent the Romanians back down the mountains, he volunteered our company for anti-bandit duty. The Oberstleutnant believed that the hills were alive with saboteurs. He was right in a way.”
Wallner’s voice trailed off. He maintained a contemplative silence until he spoke up again.
“Hunting down Romanian nationalists was considered good enough work for us. The idea was to ransack a few villages and Orthodox churches. Maybe steal some food and valuables, too. After a month, we’d be back to guarding latrines. Mission complete.”
“And the mission began on the 31st?”
“Yes. We left at dawn. We carried everything on our backs because the army did not want to waste horses or mules on us. I can still feel the crunch of hard Carpathian soil under my toes. Walking. Endless walking for hours. We walked until we developed blisters. We did not stop until suppertime. We’d eat and then sleep. The next day, we did it all again. So monotonous. Give me a cigarette, will you?” Wallner held out his hand. The inspector reached into his tunic and produced a pack of Turkish cigarettes. He gave one to Wallner. The wounded private smoked it greedily. He blew ever-widening rings of smoke, each time trying to make them as big as possible.
“These are good smokes. Did the army give these to you, or did you buy them?”
“I bought them in Prague,” said the inspector.
“There’s a major war going on, with thousands dying daily, and you have time to buy smokes in Prague.” Wallner smiled. The smile was hungry and full of malice. It was a smile the inspector had seen before. All the infantrymen sent back home had it, even the ones with half a face smiled like that. The inspector hated the smile but let Wallner have it.
“Anyway,” Wallner continued, “we did not meet any bandits. We came across a few villages, but they were all Hungarian. No point in abusing a friendly population. Besides, they treated us well. Gave us wine and cheese and sausages. That was good enough for me. Some of the others, though, they wanted action.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that. There were men in 4th Company who did not want to go an entire war without killing something.”
“Were these men the criminals you spoke of?”
“Probably. It certainly wasn’t the old men clamoring for blood, I can tell you that.”
“So did they have a plan?”
Wallner turned his face back to the sun. “Yes. The thirsty ones suggested that we journey over Burgó.”
The inspector leaned close to Wallner’s bed. “What’s Burgó?”
“It’s the name of a mountain pass. Transylvanians have used it since the time of Trajan’s conquest. It connects them with the peoples of Bukovina and Moldavia. The thirsty ones wanted to reach Moldavia because they had heard that the people there were pro-Russian. The thirsty ones figured that they could get their kills there. Brutal, but simple logic.”
“You keep saying ‘thirsty ones.’ What do you mean?”
“I’m talking about the bloodthirsty soldiers of 4th Company, of course. They wanted us to march over the toughest country in the world just so they could sip claret. Oh, the sweet, sweet irony. Haha!” Wallner’s mocking laugh elicited a few groans from the other patients. He made to say something to the hecklers, but the inspector stopped him.
“And you reached the pass?”
“Yes. Don’t ask me the exact date, for I do not know. It was sometime in November. It was so cold in those mountains. I remember wearing all my clothes at once just to feel chilly as I slept. It was miserable. We all hated it. But I’d trade the cold for what came next.”
Realizing that Wallner was finally getting to the story, the inspector handed him a fresh cigarette. Wallner thanked him.
“We made camp that first night at the base of the Burgó. A desolate land to be sure. Nothing but frozen grass interspersed with lonely trees and boulders. One could feel its potency as a gateway to Asia and all the terrors living there. Some of those terrors visited us on that first night, but nobody noticed until the morning.” Wallner blew several lethargic smoke rings before continuing.
“One of the company sergeants found the missing men during roll call the next morning. I say ‘found’ but nobody was found. I just mean that it was learned that we had somehow lost two men during the night without hearing a sound.”
“Do you know who they were? The missing men, I mean.”
“I cannot remember. I recall one being a country bumpkin from Styria. Older with a big mustache, I think.”
“Any ideas about what happened to them?”
“Sure. The common rumor around camp was that cutthroats had visited us during the nights. Romanian bandits with curved blades seized the men and dragged them off to their cave hideouts. Or something like that. Soldiers can tell fanciful tales. You should know that by now.”
“Are you telling me a fanciful tale, Private Wallner?” The inspector flashed a grin in an attempt to show off his sly intelligence. Wallner flashed his own right back.
“I am confined to a hospital bed in this God-forsaken country. I could sing a different tune right now and maybe catch a train to a proper hospital back in Vienna. The fact that I keep telling you lot the same story, which means the army keeps me here, should be all the verification you need.”
The inspector saw the logic. He asked Wallner to continue.
“It happened again the next night. Instead of two, we lost just one. Huber from Salzburg. Again, we heard and saw nothing. One of the thirsty ones, this plug ugly who talked out of the side of his mouth because of a huge facial scar that bisected his lips, convinced us to take a terrible vengeance. He said we should burn the next village we found. We crossed the Burgó and found that small village. Dolingen. That was the name. A beautiful village, really. All those clean and white houses with flowerbeds in the windows. A pretty church too, although any fool could tell that it was fortified. Dolingen, you see, was a Saxon settlement. The people came out of their houses and greeted us in Soxisch. One old biddy gave me a loaf of bread and cheese. Some of the others got brandy. Pleasant, yes?”
The inspector shook his head in the affirmative. “So, you did not ransack that village. What did you do instead?”
“You’re wrong. The scar-faced man found the headman and beat him until his brains oozed out of his ears. Accused him of hiding bandits. Accused the others of being Romanians masquerading as Saxons. He and some others lined the whole village up. They pointed their rifles at the frightened villagers, and one by one took everything out of their pockets. The thirsty ones made off with armfuls of watches, coins, combs, and other odds and ends, most of little monetary value. Money was secondary, you see. The point was to scare the peasants into never messing with the 45th or any other Austrian unit. The scar-faced man went even further than robbery too. Two pretty maidens and one ugly one were plucked from the firing squad lineup and made to lay down with us soldiers.”
“Did you partake?”
“Yes, I did.” Wallner never dropped his gaze. The inspector could see that although not proud of his actions, Wallner did not regret them either.
“You just confessed to capital crime, Private Wallner.”
“I know.” More smoke rings lifted into the air. “I have no hope of ever leaving this place. Truly. I know that my fate is blacker than the darkest night. So what? What’s true should not be hidden.”
“A respectable position,” the inspector said.
“The problem with our raid on Dolingen,” Wallner continued, “was that it accomplished nothing. We lost three men that night.”
“No.” Wallner grabbed a fresh cigarette. “It was a man. I saw him lingering around the camp while the others slept. I do not know why I woke up suddenly that night. Perhaps God wanted me to witness; wanted me to see that beast.”
“Yes. One man. A dark man. Tall, slim, and wearing black clothing. Or what I assumed was black clothing. Could not tell for sure, but knew that all I could see in the night were his hands and eyes. Those awful eyes. They burned with hatred and malice. I will never forget those eyes for as long as I live. They were like coal.”
“And they were not the eyes of a villager?”
“No. Of that, I am positive. I do not know where he came from. Maybe he sprouted from that damnable soil like an infernal weed. He might have come from Hell itself.”
“Do you know who he was?”
“It’s funny,” Wallner jabbed his cigarette at the inspector. The first man who came here, that intelligence officer, said something about a Hungarian deserter with barrels full of bodies. He said that it was possible that the deserter had gone into hiding among the Hungarians of Transylvania. Said that he was a murderer, and therefore likely to kill again.”
“But he killed women,” the inspector said.
“Oh, so you know.”
“The whole government knows that man. There’s an entire division of the Gendarmerie assigned to him. If you want my opinion,” the inspector said while lighting his own cigarette, “he’s already dead. The Russian Front chewed him up. Or he killed himself. Either way, they cannot find him because he changed his name, and they will never find him because he died horribly. He died in such a way that identification is impossible.”
“As he should,” Wallner said. “That’s justice.”
“Do you think he was the one killing off your men?”
“No. I know who killed everyone in 4th Company. I saw him.”
“Who?” The inspector leaned his heavy girth across the Wallner’s bed. His shadow covered the wounded private’s face.
“At the end, we were reduced to a small, demoralized squad. The others were either dead or had fled. I could have left. I should have left. But where to go? I belong in Vienna. I know nothing about the country. I found it more logical to take my chances with the group than set out alone. You understand?”
The inspector nodded.
“We had our rifles still, and plenty of ammunition. We decided to backtrack the next morning. Unfortunately, all we could do that final night was build a camp in a small hillside thicket and wait for the dawn. I huddled next to this foul-smelling private. I can’t remember his name, but I recall his stench. He smelled like spoiled milk and meat with a whiff of piss. He must have soiled himself multiple times out there in the pass lands. I probably did too. We were that scared. We had good reason to be.”
“What did you see that last night?”
Wallner turned his head away. He looked out the window again. The sun was starting to sink. “I already told that intelligence officer. Why tell it again?” Traces of panic had entered his voice.
“Come, come, private. What did you see?”
Wallner raised his body from the bed. His darkened brow with eyes the size of pins bore holes into the fat, complacent inspector. “Wolves,” he intoned as if it were the finale to a sermon. “Wolves. I saw wolves, some white and some black, ripping at the throats of sleeping soldiers.”
“A pack of wolves destroyed 4th company? But how? You had rifles.”
“And we used them, bless us. I fired an entire magazine at those devils, but it did no good. I saw one of the white ones take a round to the stomach. I saw the blood pour out of the wound, but still the beast chewed on.”
“You must be mistaken. No wolf can take such a round and live.”
The inspector raised an eyebrow to show his confusion. “I am right. There was no wolf, or did you kill one?”
“Oh, there were wolves alright, but they were not wolves.”
The inspector struck his knees in exasperated confusion. “Are you playing a game, Wallner? If you are, then I can play a game too. I can say you confessed. Would you like to be known as a killer?”
“Stop and listen to me!” Wallner’s reply caused the others in the ward to look at him. Some of the more shellshocked patients made ready for renewed battle.
“They had the appearance of wolves, but they were not wolves. They moved liked wolves, and they ate like wolves, but the hunger was different. They were intelligent. They attacked the throat and only the throat. I saw them lap up throat blood like water or wine. It was by the throat that they drug the odorous private deep into the woods.”
“Did you follow them?”
“Yes. I ran and fired. I aimed to at least kill one of them. Shoot it in the head!” Wallner smashed his right fist into his left palm. His eyes never broke with the inspector’s. “I fired all my magazines. Every single bullet. And you know what? They led me by the nose. While I thought of myself as the hunter, I was prey. Their prey. His prey.”
“Who are you talking about?”
“Him. The man from the earth.”
Wallner reached for yet another cigarette. The inspector pulled away before realizing that he had a gambit to play.
“Who was the man?” he said while holding a fresh cigarette before Wallner’s nose.
“The man with the white hair. A white mustache. White teeth. Long white teeth.”
The inspector placed a hand on Wallner’s shoulder. It was tense, almost as if the poet was readying himself to spring out of the bed and throttle the Gendarmerie officer. “Make sense,” he said.
“Look. I followed those damned wolves deep into the woods. They wanted me to follow them because they wanted me to see him. The man from the earth. He was there—buried in the soil.”
“I don’t know. It looked like a ruins of some kind, but I could not tell. Only weird fairy lights, some blue and some green, illuminated anything. There was no moon. But the wolves howled. My God, how they howled. They sung loud and proud and happily, for the blood flowed so easily. Don’t you see?”
The inspector shook his head. No, he did not see.
“The other man, the man who smelled like death, died and his blood seeped into the earth. The wolves, they gathered around in a circle and howled. It was a ceremony.”
“And what happened?”
“Damn you!” Wallner snapped at the inspector. “The blood made him rise. The man with the white hair and teeth rose from the ground. I watched the flesh form on his living skeleton. He was dead, practically dust, until the blood. He came out of the ground!” Wallner was close to hysterical. A pair of nurses arrived out of nowhere and restrained him.
“No, dammit, no. It’s getting dark. It’s getting dark. It’s getting dark.”
“Why did he let you live?” the inspector asked.
“He wants my mind! He wants my fucking mind!” Wallner started screaming incoherently. A syringe was produced. The needle entered his arm. Before the drug took hold, and before the inspector stood up to walk away, Wallner pleaded with him.
“Please. Please take me back to Vienna. Don’t let him take my mind.”
The inspector said nothing. He left and let the nurses sedate Wallner. The Bohemian policeman sighed and finished off his pack of cigarettes. The day had indeed turned to night by the time he emerged on the streets of Hermannstadt. The air was cool and crisp. It felt good on his face and hands. The inspector took his time in enjoying his smoke. When it was done, he flung it into a nearby sewer.
“I don’t believe a word of it,” he said to himself. The inspector made notes in his head about his forthcoming report. He drafted the whole thing in his head as he walked back to his hotel room. It would say that Private Wallner was a hopeless case of shellshock. The inspector would recommend involuntary commitment to a mental hospital for several years. The only sticking point was the explanation. Who, after all, was responsible for the death and disappearances of 4th company?
The inspector decided that it was best to blame Romanian bandits. The military was already hunting them down in the mountains. Why not provide them with a fresh excuse to exterminate the whole lot? The inspector did not care one bit about the Romanians. So long as there was beer and dumplings, the inspector would be happy.
“Good evening,” a voice said in German. The accent was distinctly Hungarian. It was also regal, with luxuriated syllables.
“Good evening,” the inspector replied. The man appeared from the shadows and became visible underneath a streetlamp. His hair was white, and long, with a dropping mustache, also white, that hid his upper lip. He wore spotless evening clothes from an older generation.
“There is supposed to be a hospital around here, yes? I want to see my grandson. He was wounded.”
“Yes. It is here.” The inspector pointed towards the military hospital. The older gentleman thanked the inspector. Rather than walk, he practically floated. The shadows obscured his footfalls. The inspector admitted to himself that it was an eerie scene, but thought no more about it until the following morning. A telephone call at the hotel told him to return to Wallner’s bedside.
That morning, he found a pale, anemic corpse where once had been a poet.
“The man from the earth,” the inspector whispered.
— Arbogast is a poet with a blog. He is the author of, most recently, The Shanghai Horror.