“Last warnin’, to the pair of ya. Git out’n here now fore I let loose. Emsie, you come first, girl. I ain’t meaning’ to shoot ya, but I sure am itchin’ with this trigger.”
I will not coerce you on the matter. You can believe what you want about things that happened back in 1944, in that far off other century. But Willie Kriegsburnd, of course, never existed, never made love more than a dozen times in a secret cave in Maine with a 17-year old farmer’s daughter whose name was Emsie Burton (that stuff’s never supposed to happen); never escaped from the POW camp near Houlton (that either), never served with distinction in the 90 Leichten Afrika-Abteilung des Deutschen Afrikakorps (90 Light Africa Division of the German Africa Corps) in the Sahara Desert during World War II; never contemplated murder or marriage. You can believe all that, if you want. But I wouldn’t. Take it from me.
All that said, love was afoot, loose as the phantom salmon tossing the barb from its mouth at East River Lake only a short way from Houlton or a phantom trout in a Bavarian stream near Willie’s home.
In the dead of silence it happened, at the hour before the false dawn, the sky still bristling with stars, a low moon heating up memories, when a voice from outside echoed through the cave. For the third time of this late night encounter, Emsie had borne Willie’s weight, fearful each coupling might be the last, her grasp telling him so.
Movies had done this to her, and stage plays, and everyday drama crawling through or exploding on those otherwise common days, all exposed to her by her mother who could have been imprisoned by the farm and its insistent, laborious demands. But wasn’t. Nor would her daughter be so shackled when it began to matter with her.
And the young German prisoner helped with his part.
With Willie there were moments, such as this interruption, when Emsie thought not a breath was left in her lungs, the way wind left her, with a rushing noise and added expectation, like parts of an orchestra coming and going, the brass horns ringing, the violins lingering. Willie had accomplished that from the first encounter. And all of it now erupting simultaneously behind her eyeballs, seeing things that did not exist, not as yet, images of the future carved by her mind and frozen in place—just when the harsh voice rocked through the cave on the far edge of the Burton farm. The voice was raucous and metallic and she immediately recalled a King Lear play in Boston and a stagehand, a musical stagehand she supposed, beating a large sheet metal plate hanging from the rafters with a huge rubber mallet. In row three, at her mother’s treat, she had shivered away any disbelief of the spectacle.
This night of the cave was in late August of 1944. The invasion of Europe had begun two months earlier, with measurable noise and thrust, on the coast of France, the German campaign in Africa having been shut down fifteen months earlier, and the world going topsy-turvy once again. Most of the potato crop had been picked and packed off and cellar barrels in many parts of Maine stacked with taters and salted cod. A minor chill slipped in from the northwest sly as an infiltrator, winter’s hello fully presumed, its signs known quietly. The days, one at a time, came differently, making announcements on their own selection, nature assisting, demands being made. A few of them were subtle for starters, as high-based color turned with a slow, tempered ignition. Early daylight sky behind familiar silhouettes became, by degrees, a hard blue, stark and clean-edged, as if cut deeply into cerulean ice. And pinnacled. Singular pine trees, at a glance, stretched the Earth for all it was worth, lifting selves mightily. Mountains appeared proud as a woman’s morning breasts matching her hipline, blankets astray on the far side of sleep, night tossed aside, messages rampant and understood.
Only Emsie and her brother, who had suddenly moved to California, knew about the cave on the edge of the family farm. Nobody else had ever visited there, she was sure. But Willie had found it.
The cave, hidden by the tangle of old trees, was on the side of a hilly ledge, and tipped slightly downward toward the entrance providing quick release for rain or ground water. This made the cave habitable though small; and good for drying out, for secrets, for love making its way at the edge of Willie’s escape. Granite reaches seemed spawned from the cave itself, great slabs this end of the earth openly wore as signatures of another era. The cave, calved by a glacier instead of by fire in an earlier millennium, had been formed out of huge slabs, but was no longer a significantly cool place.
Willie was an amateur spelunker, and Emsie believed he was born for this cave, though few people knew about it. But now, before the dawn flash, someone else knew: Elwood Burton, the owner of the threatening, baritone voice, a voice loaded with hate, had barbs buried in each consonant, bringing bait loaded with vitriol and hate. “Whomsoever’s in that damned hole better get their frigging ass out of there right now else I’ll fill it with enough buckshot to make ‘em a decent and heavy burial.”
His voice was louder than any Panzer sergeant’s, and Willie Kriegsburnd stiffened in place. Burton continued: “I’m a town constable and can shoot any escaped POW prisoner, and I suspect you’re the one they’ve been looking for. You don’t fool me none. I had my fill of you guys in World War One and I ain’t taking any more of it. Not on my property. Not by a whisker. Not on these days. You hear me, boy? Not by a whisker.”
The silence did not last long. “I don’t know how you got out of there, but I sure can show you the way back in.” A sense of joy ran full tilt with his words, a hard joy, celebratory, as if he was also saying to a ranking officer at the POW camp, “Here’s your escaped prisoner, Sir, returned at my hand.” With that said, he might even salute.
Burton’s daughter, Emsie, 17, bordering on lovely, blue-eyed and blonde, curved galore, dreamy but spontaneous, thrill still random in her, quickly draped her hand over Willie’s mouth. “Don’t say anything, Willie. That’s my father out there. I’ll go. If he beats me, don’t hurt him, promise me that. Don’t try to kill like you did in the desert. I remember what you said about Gazala and Tobruk and El Alamein. How you were captured. I know you’re glad it’s over. We’re both out of the war now. Promise not to hurt him. He doesn’t know any better.”
Willie’s English was imperfect, but she could understand him, piece it together with apparent ease, smile continuously, touch back. He said, “No officer ever told me I’d meet a girl like you. I am filled. I do not want not to release the riches in my hand. But that voice out there is more than a threat. It tells me I might never touch you again. God forbid that, no, not ever again.” Such thoughts rushed him quicker than any image of the prison camp and what was promised him anew because of this aborted escape.
Emsie, even at hearing her father’s voice and ever at control, guided his hands in a last pass at mystery. “Whatever happens, Willie, don’t you forget me. Don’t you dare. Not ever.”
They had enjoyed two weeks of being lovers, two weeks of tempest and tribulation, two weeks of discovery, the old and the new. She had been told everything: Willie had escaped from the POW camp when he followed, at a discreet distance, a Kommando officer who had fooled the Americans into thinking he was only a dumb foot soldier. All through his young war, Willie had been led by such men. For the early years in the army the future was always with the man leading him in battle. Supposedly, that future had changed.
Willie kissed her one last time and saw the whole movie developing right in front of his eyes. It was all black and white and ran quickly, in a newsreel fashion, with scenes leaping place to place.
Emsie, in her own rush at recapture, saw again the flash of her own recent history, her angled views of Willie Kriegsburnd from the first moment he had dropped off the tail end of the army truck weeks earlier in her father’s yard. She felt all the righteous signals the moment her eyes drew level to this young prisoner brought to the farm on the large truck, along with other German prisoners, to bring in the potato crop. All the commanding parts of her body had been screaming for something like this for months on end. The other parts did not count. Reality, at length, stood on its hind legs, breathed, moved as graciously as a dancer, understood what was about him. This handsome blond with the wide shoulders began to play the rhythms in her bloodstream. Announcements leaped out of her. She saw where they landed, down in the fishing hole depths of his eyes where something frolicked, counted hours, played back a chorus of answers no other soul in the universe was privy to. Knowledge leaped upon her, found its way home to belief.
The prisoners had climbed down from the tail end of the truck, mostly looking like roustabouts from fairs or carnivals. And there stood blond and wide-shouldered Willie Kriegsburnd, young POW, starkly blue-eyed and yet somehow innocent in what mild measurement she could muster, it being enough for her. The only place of comfort for her in this whole terrible world, now hurling pieces of hot metal at each other from one end of the planet to the next, was contemplating a handsome German war prisoner, looking lost in the depths of Maine. A handsome boy, indeed, extracted from the hell of his war.
Her heart leaped, a bit in sympathy, a bit in lust, a bit of curiosity riding her for the next few days. As Emsie might have said to anybody who’d listen to her, she was ready for Willie who, obvious to her, was appointed at this time to come into her life, safely and wholly extracted from the war.
Elwood Burton, scene stealer, yelled again; “I ain’t gonna say it again, mister. Git’n your ass outta there is the best part of advice you can expect, ‘cause there ain’t gonna be no more.” Buckshot burst off a rock outside the cave, and the noisy blast bounced into the cave, ricocheting off granite surfaces worn smooth by a hundred millenniums. “I knowed you was in there last night. I just waited up for day comin’.”
Emsie whispered in Willie’s ear, “We’re not done yet, Willie. I’ll see that true.” She moved against his hand and then guided it in a last touch. “You remember me, Willie, no matter how long it takes. You remember me.”
Rolling away from her lover, she sat up and yelled out. “Don’t shoot any more, Pa. I’m coming out. Willie and I are friends.” She could have sung those words, but her father would certainly be tone deaf to their meaning.
When Willie Kriegsburnd followed Jaeger Traklet out of the POW camp at Houlton, by less than a half hour, he was, for all his intents, the dumbest of the POWs in the camp. The main thing Willie had in his favor was he knew who Jaeger Traklet was, the Kommando colonel in masquerade, who had completely fooled his American captors into believing he was nothing but another dumb soldier, unaware of the big picture. The Kommando Traklet was the ace up Willie’s sleeve.
Traklet had no idea Willie was following him and had generally ignored the comrade who openly admitted, to anyone who was listening, that he was just a dog soldier, a foot slogger only obeying directions of his officers. Back in Edenkoben in the Rhineland, Willie’s father was a mere cobbler, struggling in that small town, living veritably from foot to mouth. Willie, at an early age, knew he was destined for the same task; the only other choice was to break out and work in the vineyards. Oftentimes looking at his future, he fostered a joy in hunting and fishing and was comfortable in the forests and in mysterious caves and by the water. All these provided escape for him, never dreaming of being a soldier, until the army pulled him into the ranks. From then on he followed where he was pointed. Now, at a distance, in all the stealth imaginable, he had followed the Kommando officer, who had carefully planned every step of his escape from the POW camp, through the broken fence, the twisted wires, and the open culvert under the last barrier.
All Willie carried with him was a batch of pepper wrapped in a handkerchief and carried in a paper bag. During his potato picking that August, on various farms in the Houlton area, Willie had found the hidden cave at the edge of the Burton place, and had stashed stolen supplies during a month of odd labor, potato picking and daily intrigue. First he placed water in odd containers in the cave, and scrounged food from farmer’s wives or daughters that would last at least a week, perhaps time enough for any concentrated pursuit to slacken. One old map of the state of Maine came into his hands at the back of a barn, and that too rested in the cave.
The pepper was for the dogs that would follow them. He had seen Traklet for weeks take away from meals every bit of pepper he could manage. And Willie followed suit, knowing what the pepper was for. Let the dogs come; all he had to do was to get to the cave, live on his stored supplies, move on later when the pepper did the trick on the dogs, the chase cooled, and the Americans went back to their laid-back ways.
During the escape he dwelled at times on the daughter at the Burton farm who smiled at him once or twice, as if a message was being sent. Emsie was one of prettiest girls he’d seen in America, and she had a good shape, worked hard and was only seventeen. He admired all that in her, and her smile. It was evident to him very early that she turned her back when he was busy at secret things, as if she was eager to help him, or at least averting her eyes; she’d not be a good witness if he fled. With no young men on the farm, Willie was sure he was attractive to her, as she was attracted to him. He began to think about her in that way. Once, when he went into the barn and stayed there for ten minutes, she had casually walked in and began to talk to him. Willie’s English was good enough to be understood, and his leanings for her were clearly pronounced. When she stood close enough for him to kiss her, as if daring him, he did. Her arms wrapped about him and she pressed herself against him. “Willie,” she said, “you are the strongest one ever to work here. I like that. I like you, but we have to be careful. My father would beat me if he saw me. He wouldn’t understand. He never does.”
“You make me dream about you,” Willie said, as he hugged her tightly. “I dream about you every night back at the camp. When can I be with you? I do not want you to get into any trouble, because I am meaning to escape from the camp and hide out in the woods.”
There was no argument that she’d be in good hands with Willie Kriegsburnd. The thought went through her sure as a vow and as solid. This early in life, she had found her man. Revelations come to the young too, she thought. And she swore she could see the future, could touch it, taste it, and bring it to bed with her every night. She hugged him again, in the barn, out of sight of the entire universe itself. She also swore the yellow-green eyes of two horses in separate stalls were looking at her sadly.
In the cave, dark as any night cell and no hope for starlight, Willie imagined what lurked around him. He conjured up a vast array of shapes and shadows in the corners of his eyes.
The odd apparitions of youth came back with their opaque being; he saw things that were not there. Emsie, of course, began her intrusions, three nights in a row assailing him with her trim body, the smell of her skin even in the field under the sun. He would know her anyplace, could smell her on the thinnest sheet of air. It was the third night, the farm quiet, no stars because of cloud cover, that Willie dared to think about leaving the cave. The little bag of pepper, which had come in so handy with the dogs in chase, was as good as a weapon. He kept it in a pocket of his pants and could smell the aroma once in a while. As he was making a decision to at least get some exercise, he heard the first odd noise, first of rock against rock, slight, secretive, then a rustle of clothes.
“Willie,” she said, “it’s me, Emsie. I’m coming in.” Now he caught her scent on a small draft of air, as if she had sent it on to him, to tease him or find acceptance.
“I know you’ve been hiding here. I’m the only one who knows this place, besides my brother, and he’s in California now, working on planes. Even my father doesn’t know. He’d skin me alive if he knew I was in here. Would have done it years ago, too. I haven’t been in here since my brother Jimmy left. He had to go. My father kept after him forever. Jimmy was never going to be like him. I stayed for my mother or I would have followed Jimmy to the West Coast. I could be making planes that are fighting your army, your friends. I hate war. We should all be friends, but we can’t be friends with Hitler. Even some of your own army officers tried to kill him.”
“Can you stay with me?
“Only until three in the morning or about then. He’s always up by 5; hard work is all he knows.”
“Do you want to stay?”
“That’s why I came. I’ve been dreaming about you every night. I don’t think of you as an enemy. I can’t explain it all, but I had to come. I knew you were here the first night, but I didn’t want you to get caught. There have been soldiers everywhere, even dogs sniffing around, but they didn’t come near this cave. They went on past the end of the wall and into the woods at the end of the field.”
Then she was in his arms.
“Last warnin’, to the pair of ya. Git out’n here now fore I let loose. Emsie, you come first, girl. I ain’t meaning’ to shoot ya, but I sure am itchin’ with this trigger.”
“Pa, we’re coming together. Don’t dare shoot. I’m not letting go of him. I love him, Pa; I don’t care if he is a German. He’s the man I want to marry some day.”
“And let me be the laughin’ stock of the whole town? Not on your bottom dollar.”
“You use their muscle to get your potatoes, and you’ll spend the earnings, but you won’t listen to what fits me.”
Emsie came out of the cave first and she pulled Willie along behind her. She stood up, shielding Willie from the shotgun. “I love him, Pa. Don’t make any mistake about that. I’ve spent near a week with him, right here. Don’t spoil anything, Pa.”
“I’m a lawman. He’s an escaped prisoner of war.” As he yelled at her, he took one hand off the gun and slapped her hard on the face. Willie leaped at him. The shotgun went off and Willie, wounded for the first time since entering the army, screamed in pain. He fell to the ground. Emsie screeched at her father and then pulled the gun out of his hands. He had never shot a man before, not even in France in that long-ago war.
Shouts came from at them from the farmhouse and barn. Dogs barked. An engine, loud in the pre-dawn, roared down on them from a service road.
Soldiers came. They put Willie in the back of the truck. Emsie kissed him goodbye as three soldiers laughed at her. “He’s the goods, is he? Ya ought to know better. They’ll take care of him now; probably knock a rape charge against him.”
The talker, a sergeant, looked at Emsie’s father. “How’s that sit with you, sir, a rape charge? We’ll make it tight. Make it stick. Me and these others practically came right up on them, him, in the act. In a dark cave to boot. Be a piece of cake making it stick. It might be a little easier for you around here, knowing what the neighbors’ll make of all this, a loose farm girl you know.”
“Go to hell with your rape charge,” said Emsie, “and your noise about a loose farm girl. I’ll bet you weren’t so lucky, not around here anyway. I love him. He’s going to be my husband some day when the war is over.” For one bare moment, she was an historian looking down the road in front of her. “All wars get over, and friends get made up again. You’ll see.” She stared at Willie leaning out of the back of the truck. “Willie, I’ll love you all the way until this war gets over. You remember where I am. I’ll be here. If they try to charge you with rape, I’ll go to the newspapers myself, or I’ll go down to the camp and make hell for them. You’re going to be my husband someday.”
“Not going to be no husband, not on my farm, he ain’t,” her father said.
The sergeant added his own forecast, “We’ll ship him so far from here, he’ll never find his way back. Does that suit you, sir? That make it up to you for what’s happened here?”
Resolute, a small storm riding her backside, anger making way its entry, Emsie turned her back on the sergeant and leveled another broadside at her father. “Then, I’ll just have to go off like my brother did, drive off to the other side of the country just because he didn’t see things the way you did.”
Her father saw his daughter at that instant as solid as the rocks about them. Emsie turned to her lover, hope more alive on her face than ever before, eyes vibrant and reaching, casting a sense of ownership, and yet accompanied by an oath in her words. That’s when Elwood Burton saw the second materialization of his wife for the first time in years, when Emsie said, “If I ain’t here when you come back, Willie, I’ll be in Orinda, California, with my brother Jimmy. Jimmy Burton, Orinda, California, so far from here nobody else can get there but you, and nobody else wanted there but you.” She nodded at the sergeant, “Let this man make a liar out of the truth and see where it gets him before I get done with all this.”
She threw Willie a kiss.
In the pale remnants of early morning Emsie was an upright sign of the new day, and over one shoulder, as if called on for dual announcement, the dawn flash leaped up over a crowned hill and stressed her singularity. Emsie Burton was, without sergeant stripes or parental authority, in charge of the future looming in front of them, and the escaped and recaptured German prisoner of war, staring at her over the tailgate of an army truck, believed he was seeing life already unfolding for him from where it had been sent off by another smaller god of the universe. He had met so few of them.