Author's note: This story borrows from Markus Zusak's novel The Book Thief, though you don't have to have read the book to understand this story. I'm presuming no knowledge of the novel or even interest in it. (But, by way of a brief introduction, it is a novel set in World War II Germany, in a small fictional town outside Munich.) I'm not using any of its characters other than its narrator, on whom I have modeled mine. Death tells that tale, as he does this short story, and I've done my best to capture in my story the tone and flavor of his voice in that novel.
But rest easy: this is not a story in which any of the Heroes die. They're all alive and well at the end, okay?
I will warn you, though, that Death is kept busy at his job. You're already aware of most of his work that we see in this story, if you know anything about World War II or if you've watched the Hogan's Heroes TV series. No one dies in this story except those who already have. But if that bothers you, you're now warned.
The story may fit the Halloween/Day of the Dead season we're in. It's not cheerful. However, I think it's not unhopeful, either. See for yourself. – Goldleaf
I have loved Hogan's Heroes since the 1970s, but none of its characters are mine; they were created by Bernard Fein and Albert S. Ruddy. I acknowledge their ownership and that of Bing Crosby Productions and intend no copyright infringement. At no point will I or others profit monetarily on this story.
I run across all kinds of human beings in my work. In fact, eventually I meet everyone.
A few people, though, I run into more than once. We have a glancing acquaintance, you might say. They usually realize that we have crossed paths. Generally, they seem relieved to postpone our final, intimate encounter – though sometimes a few seem to regret having just missed me.
Every once in a while, as I collect a soul cleanly released from the mire of its body, I notice someone nearby whom I graze past. There are a very few who appear to have a charmed life, who come near me time and again yet remain out of arm's reach. Not that it bothers me. We'll meet eventually, and I'll gather them tenderly into my arms then.
An American colonel, Robert Hogan, is one of those that I've skimmed past on multiple occasions. I believe we came close to meeting a few times while he was younger, yet we never quite connected. I hadn't noticed him then, though. Not until a couple of years ago.
I was very busy in the early summer of 1942. Yes, Hitler had seen to it that I had plenty of work. For several years at that point, in fact.
By that point, the Allies were giving me substantial employment as well.
The flow of souls in the 1940s had swelled from the previous decade, from its usual constant trickle to a full stream with a strong current. That year it flooded to estuary river proportions. There was no stemming that tide, and I was kept busy ferrying souls.
This night I remember was early summer. It was hot on the ground, hotter still where fires burned, candled by bombs. High up in the air, though, it was cold. The sky was wet blueberry black, dotted with chocolate flak smoke. Diving planes flambéd some of the men up there, who cooled down permanently, right in the midst of the fires.
Curious, isn't it? Just fifty years earlier I'd never swept souls from the sky, not in all the centuries I've been on the job. So much progress humans make. It always amazes me.
So the war was keeping me busy that night, on the ground and in the sky. Nonetheless, for some reason I lingered in the cockpit of one of those planes. I had known I'd be needed there: the German fighters kept aiming for this one, attacking it over and over. I had already lightly lifted out the souls of the ball turret and tail turret gunners. Now as the co-pilot breathed his soul out through his mouth in a sudden rush, into my embrace, I glanced at the other man at the controls, to see if he needed a pick up as well. He was fully occupied with the unresponsive controls of the plane and ringing an alarm bell.
With blood staining his right temple and rage in his dark eyes, he looked full at me as I hovered astride his co-pilot holding the souls of three of his crew gently in my arms, then he shook his head. Did he see me? Or was he just responding to my presence obliquely, as most people do?
Curious, I followed him as he lurched back through the plane and leaped out into the flak-filled sky, following the six other men who had deserted the dying plane.
One of them floated gently into my arms on the way down to earth. I plucked another like a ripe plum from near the top of a tall tree shortly afterwards.
The plane, though, died without me. Airplanes have no souls: they only carry them. Perhaps in that small way, we are alike.
I was needed elsewhere. As I ferried away the five souls gleaned from that particular wreck, I left behind the American colonel, who had stared at me with such fury. But for some reason, out of all the humans I brushed past that night, he stuck in my memory.
Perhaps he stayed vivid in my mind because I saw him again several weeks later. I had stopped by to pick up the soul of a man in the cell next to his. That man was relieved to see me; the soul rose up eagerly to leave the wreckage of his body behind, eased by the passage, snuggling into my embrace. Having tucked him in securely, I felt from next door a ghost of the tug that often summons me and checked out the man lying crumpled and still on the floor there. His breathing was so light I thought his soul might puff out with the next breath, so I loitered a few minutes. Somewhere among the bruises and dirt, I recognized the furious colonel from the plane several weeks back. But as I ran my hand lightly over his mouth, he shuddered and turned from me. Not time after all. Not yet.
I began seeing the American colonel on frequent occasions a few months after that, though usually at a distance. Most frequently I saw him lit up by flames as I reaped a few souls from them: at bridges, munitions trains, factories, gun emplacements, ammunition dumps, all of which tended to blow up when in near proximity to him.
A number of the souls I scythed when he was nearby were heavy and muddy and hung damply in my arms. But there's no shirking my work, even when the souls are distasteful.
I particularly remember gathering up a Gestapo major named Hegel outside a barn; I'd seen him earlier that day as I'd plucked up the soul of a lovely young woman he had stood over with his knife, surprise written all over her dead face. Her soul had been none too clean either, a notable contrast to her golden hair and fine features. As he passed by the major's corpse a few minutes later, the American colonel looked somber, not vengeful. I wondered if he regretted the man's meeting with me.
I also recall the time I harvested many spilt souls from a war game turned real, wondering at their need to play war when soldiers that year had so many opportunities for the real thing. That was the day I had to drag out from under his command post the soul of Colonel Deutsch. It was corpulent, foul, and stinking: he was responsible for too much of the work I'd had to do over the last several years. I held that soul as far from me as I could. The world felt to me a cleaner place now I had yanked him out of it. I suspected the American colonel a few miles away thought so too.
Occasionally, the American colonel hovered close by those I swept up. Once I took the soul of a British soldier right out of the colonel's own quarters. Just after I softly encircled that brightly burning soul and it nestled into my arms, the colonel stepped into the room. Unlike in the plane, this time he did not look at me. But he sat down next to the soldier, staring hard at the body of the younger man that rested so still in his bed, his mouth drawn into a thin-lipped straight line, a brown leather briefcase resting between his feet. The colonel was still sitting there motionless when I left, gently clasping the ardent soul of the Englishman to my breast.
Despite the American colonel's proximity on so many occasions when I was mustering souls from his vicinity, there were even more occasions when he lightened my load, when I passed lightly over those I would otherwise have drawn along with me.
Perhaps you would think that in the midst of 1943 and 1944, when I shoveled souls by the truckload from bombing raids all over Europe, by the trainload from extermination camps in Poland, and in uncountable numbers on the eastern front, not to mention the Pacific theater of the war, that I would scarcely have been aware of those souls I was spared from hauling.
But I was.
Even as I loped through cities and farmland and camps, forests and jungles, deep turquoise seas and deeper sapphire skies on my daily rounds, I could feel the spaces where my presence was not required. Because of this American colonel and the men who worked with him, there were planes that didn't fall out of the sky and weapons that weren't built. Soldiers and civilians, who would have been executed or died imprisoned, instead went free, smuggled out of Germany and delivered from danger. Thus many men, some women, and even a few children remained embodied, my meeting with them delayed for a future none of us could yet see. I appreciated those chances the American colonel gave me to catch my breath.
Insofar as I have it.
So Robert Hogan and I have continued to brush elbows. A number of Germans long to deliver him to me, particularly a muddy-souled Gestapo major who often lurks in the same vicinity as my American colonel. So far the colonel eludes him, and thus myself as well.
Quite frankly, I am not anxious for our final meeting; the occasional glimpses that I get of Colonel Hogan interest me and I am curious to see what he continues to do.
Today, though, I hover close by him in the compound at the prison camp where he lives, while he works to disarm a bomb that has fallen but not exploded. I wonder if I will be taking four souls with me: the American colonel and the German one, the soft German sergeant above ground and the scrawny American one down in the cavern underneath, nearly encased in the dirt. I hang over Colonel Hogan's hand; he feels my breath down his neck. I do this deliberately, hoping it will caution him; I have enough work to do this day already.
When he cuts the black wire and the bomb ceases ticking, the three of them above ground relax and sigh in simultaneous relief, as do I.
I rise and step away. Once again, today is not the time for us to finally meet face to face and embrace. Not yet. I hope that it will be a long time yet before Robert Hogan and I come to know each other in that way. For now, our nodding acquaintance suits us both.
Specific episodes referred to, in order:
"Diamonds in the Rough"
"Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition"
"A Klink, a Bomb, and a Short Fuse"