Shadows: A Danse Macabre in the African Desert
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An Excerpt from "Shadows":
It is the third day. Today, I am assigned to the western, or forward, antiaircraft battery. Hans has the eastern gun. Almost every third day the British have sent a reconnaissance plane toward us: our lives have become patterned around that fact. But we look ready each day.
At least, we are told it is a recon plane. Before he died, Herr Dietrich told us, "If it is a recon plane, we must do our best to knock them out of the skies. Our appearance of bloodthirsty determination will help the Britishers' report of us." So we wait.
The land here is mostly flat, unlike the steep hills and valleys of home, and it is also dead, unlike home when I was last there. I do not like to think of the green and slate colors all black, burnt and scarred by the Allied bombs. When the sun rises here, it sends the light running ahead of it, like pouring golden water on a dark tabletop. The nights are cold, the sunrise cool, and the largest part of the day is hot.
I wear an old Luftwaffe jacket, gloves on my hands as I sit at the controls. The leather jacket has ragged holes down one side. Within hours of the sun's rise, I'll be stripped to my undershirt.
Stretching night-stiffened limbs, I catch my leg against the metal frame. It is only a glancing blow, but the pain flies up through me like the red streaks radiating from my wound.
"Scheisse!" I mutter.
Gingerly, I move my leg aside. The seat of the gun is rough, better used on a farm tractor than for a weapon. Even so, to recline invites sleep. Instead, I look back over my shoulder at the camp.
The 10 or more cooking fires are lit, and Johann's most important duty for the day has been performed. Prometheus--I call him that for the fire he brings to the British--huddles inside what would be the kitchen tent. He is wearing his cook's uniform, easily seen from the air. He waits, as we all do, for the sound of the aeroplane. The serving tables are set; the containers half full of something like food. The wind shifts the smaller pots a bit. The occasional tinny clank carries across the empty field between us.
The massed trucks, the personnel carriers. All of this is for them alone. The tents, the fires, even the camouflage thrown over our weapon emplacements. It is for them.
I can hear it. Almost all of the noise from the engine, I was told, so little from the propeller. Sound travels as quickly as dawn sunlight in the desert, but deceives about the direction.
There it is...too distant to make out the details. But even were I to see them, I would not be able to correctly identify the craft. The type has ceased to be important. Only the circle within a circle of the British emblem interests me. It is a good target at which to aim.
High and fast it comes, staying hidden in the sky-filling explosion of the morning sun. The flight goes as others before it; we fire, the plane circles, we fire again, the sentries on the ground move about, and the English fly away with their photographs.