Our Man in No Man’s

No one had seen Denker for over a week. Such was the natural course of things, but it had hit the men especially hard. He went out for a night patrol with Erhard and Brender a few days after the 25th and had simply never come back. They were tasked with investigating a suspicious tree erected the day before in no man’s land, a suspected observer post. The last they had seen of him, he was climbing inside it when the English opened fire, forcing them back. The next patrols turned up nothing, and it really had been just a tree. But then, on the night of the 30th, Denker’s cigarette lighter was found just a few yards from our parapet, wedged between two sandbags as if deliberately placed there. There was no mistaking the engraved D.D., a gift from his mother.

 

“You know, Theodor,” I said to my valet over tea the next morning, “if anyone would suddenly turn up again, it would be Denker.”

“That’s absolutely right, Oberleutnant. Do you remember—“ he could barely stifle his laughter—“when he dressed up Bruno in his kit? Even got another pair of boots for his back paws. Ran out of his tent ass-naked, screaming for his rifle. And Bruno howling and trying to run after—after—“

We both had to stop. Denker aside, we had to professional. But the truth was, what he took away from the gravity of this situation, he was perhaps as large a source of morale as the idea of going home itself. There were the vivid fireside descriptions of his mother’s roast, enough to make any man’s mouth water and the company to ask him to tell it again and again; the episode of the black-market tinned peaches and Major Echter, who had it been anyone else, would have landed themselves in a court-martial; the great “offsides incident” that almost ended the truce a few days before (and only, of course, because he’d insisted our match even needed a referee in the first place), and now, his lighter mysteriously showing up days after his disappearance. If this turned out to be another one of his antics, none of us would have been much surprised.

On the night of the 3rd, inexplicably, Denker’s lighter again, exactly one meter tree-ward. The patrolmen swore up and down that nobody had placed it there, no one had seen Denker, and no one was in cahoots with him. This time, I relinquished it from them and stowed it in my footlocker to put the matter to rest.

The next night, I couldn’t find my snuffbox. It is less surprising now, but it was spotted even closer to the tree that time. There was no doubt about it—Denker was alive, and he was trying to tell us something. On the 5th, I took it upon myself to lead another patrol to investigate.

The English opened fire once again, but with much more spirit and vigor than usually applied to a mere night patrol. We could only get within a few meters, and with no response calling out Denker’s name. A Mills bomb exploded nearby us, and we hied back.

Come the 6th, nothing out of the ordinary. It seems that Denker knew we were on to him. We devised three patrol groups this time, the other two potentially distracting the English just enough until we could get to the tree. It had been over a week now, and almost unbelievable that he could be holding out for this long, even if he had for some reason brought rations with him that night. This time, however, the English had their Vickers specifically covering the tree. We lost Erhard, shot through the head, and again, no response from Denker. It was, however, one of our most successful trips yet; the left patrol had managed to reach as far as the English line and brought back some important documents. Nevertheless, losing one man for another, one whom seemed to have every capacity to make it back by himself, was unacceptable. I decided to call off the search for Denker entirely, to devote all future night patrols to other aims, and that should Denker finally find himself back on our side he will certainly not escape a court-martial this time. His lighter was still safely stowed away.

 

“I’m terribly sorry for the trouble.”

I had never been so shocked since the war had started. There Denker was, in the flesh, inexplicably standing over my cot.

“Where in the hell have you been, Denker? We lost Erhard last night. Why did you not respond? Did you not notice anything?”

Denker stewed over this awhile. “I had no idea. I’m sorry again. But Ober—“

“This isn’t peaches, Gefreiter. You could very well be shot for your conduct.”

“Oberleutnant,” he lowered his voice to a whisper. “You have to see what I’ve found.”

 

Denker had promised the English would not bother tonight, and somehow he was right. We’d reached the tree, and on its side was a hole just big enough for a man to crawl into. I went in after him.

It wasn’t a listening post at all. It was blindingly bright inside. I was so disoriented that I had to sit down. The walls were not at all like wood. Before I could say anything else, Denker stuck a cigarette in my mouth. He produced his lighter, the lighter. As he did, the lights turned down.

“Does this not explain everything, Oberleutnant?”

I looked around. And my God, Denker had done it again.

 

 

Originally “published” February 29, 2020.

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