Bones of Spring – Preview – Chapter 27

Dinner had been a very strange form of torture. Jeanette, clearly sensing the tension between them, struck up a conversation recounting her past adventures with a young Kat, whom she referred to by the nickname chaton — kitten — which was clearly intended to be an ironic diminutive. Augustin listened intently to this while Kat ate in nettled silence. He was interested in her martial education, of course, but now found his interest heightened even further by the knowledge that he was supposed to have known something of this version of her.

He was tempted to raise the question of Frühlingsmorgen with Jeanette to see if she had any further knowledge on it, because he was certain Kat wasn’t going to tell him more. He understood her reasons, because the word prompted a hint of familiarity, but he couldn’t determine if it was the function of true recollection, or if Kat’s mention of it had planted the idea in his mind.

His mind so often denied him clarity that he sometimes had to seek outside help to understand the things that Adrian Wehnert, his lost original, had experienced. It was rarely possible, as there were very few people in his acquaintance who could now testify on that man’s behalf. None ready to hand, and none, he was sure, who could untangle the web this woman was spinning around him. 

He paid attention to Jeanette as she told him how she herself had taught Kat to shoot straight, how Kat was the best shot in the camp, how Kat had taken command of the sharpshooters while still a teenager, how Kat had killed a room full of SS on her first mission, how she was the best saboteur of the lot —

“That’s enough,” Kat said finally, her voice harsh. Then she took a deep breath. “Please, Jeanette. I’m sure Augustin is tired of hearing about me.” 

“Not at all,” he said, giving her a smile that would have been warm if he hadn’t been enjoying her discomfort.

“Yes, do let’s not pretend to be modest,” Jeanette huffed. “The man ought to know what he’s getting into with you.”

“I’m fascinated, really,” Augustin said, watching Kat as she hunched up her shoulders, turning her gaze down into her wine. “So much history between you. I’ve enjoyed it immensely, hearing about you, France. About Jerome.”

He was being cruel, he knew, allowing their host to know he was aware of this detail. Then Jeanette looked at him with that witchy, milky eye, the eyebrow above it raised, and he felt a slight dread as he recalled that he only had part of the story, and had no idea what Kat was keeping back about her old lover.

Later, when the old lady had retired to her room with the rest of the bottle and the newspaper they’d brought her, he followed Kat out on to the patio. June twilight lingered, fireflies winking over the lawn as the blue deepened above. He hovered at the door as she made her way to one of the old deck chairs and lowered herself into it, her eyes moving over the clearing, seeing something that was, like so much about her, opaque to him. 

“She talks too much,” she said finally, pulling her pipe out, and a tobacco pouch. “I was honestly an incompetent soldier for most of the war.” 

“I find that difficult to believe.”

“You could take the car, you know,” she said, looking at him with a raised eyebrow. “I couldn’t catch you. You could’ve taken it before, after you found the passports. The key’s in the ignition.”

“You’re asking why didn’t I.”

“In a roundabout way, I suppose I am.”

“Or are you making the point that when presented with evidence that endangers me, I appear to be unable to resist the confrontation?”

“Is that your answer?”

“More of an observation,” he reflected, going to stand beside her. “I have not, so far, behaved like a rational man. Believe me, I’m not naive about the world we live in. I know more than you’d think about the unpleasant things that humans do to each other.” 

“You know something about what I’ve done to other humans,” she pointed out. “So why not run?”

He shrugged. “I’m not entirely certain. Maybe it’s because there’s something damned uncanny about you, and the fact that however sinister your intentions appear to be, you are not of this place. You are not a function of any bureaucracy. You’re dangerous, but something apart from this maudlin little hell.”

“For all you know,” she teased, but he could tell her heart wasn’t in it. “Anyway, it’s beside the point. Maybe you’re right, but I wasn’t untruthful with you when I said that I don’t fit anywhere else. I came here ten years ago to get lost. It was an accident that I saw you in Berlin, the first day of the winter semester. I didn’t plan any of this.”

“But you have a plan now.” 

“Probably not a very good one.”

He looked out on the lawn, the fireflies intensifying in the velvety darkness. “Are you going to kill me?”

“Unlikely.”

“Interrogate me? Torture me?”

She exhaled smoke. “Not my style.”

“Are you going to throw me in prison?”

“That depends,” she tapped the ash out of the pipe, then looked at him. “Have you done something to deserve it?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?” she mocked quietly. “Nothing you’ve missed or mislaid from your past?”

He met her eyes. “Is that what I did to you? Is that what I’m missing, some harm I caused you personally?”

She contemplated him for a long moment, her expression difficult to read. She was not angry, but focused, trying to see through the fog of time to something he himself had no access to. She rose from her chair, limped the few steps to him, then laid her hands on his chest, her cool palms penetrating his shirt and raising goosebumps on his skin. He suppressed a shiver, his nostrils filling with the fragrances of smoke and wine. 

“I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of. Things that I consider…” she bit her lip, stopping herself from expressing some regret, something Augustin sensed was some kind of terrible burden for her. He wanted to press, to find out what truly actuated her bitter rage, that made her function in this mechanical nation state with no place for her asymmetry in its endless churning gears. She looked up at him. “I can’t speak for the intervening years. But if you had done something to me personally when I was a sixteen year old girl, I would never have physically involved myself with you.”

“And yet.” He took gently took her shoulders and moved her carefully back from him. “You’ll punish me for those intervening years, my years, without even having claim to any knowledge of them. There’s nothing there you need from my life, Kat. Nothing to do with you.”

He waited. When she said nothing, he walked away, turning down to the drive. He didn’t hear anything behind him, no movement, no sound indicative of an intention of stopping him. Fireflies winked around him as he made sure to stay on the gravel road, catching the faint gleam of the Alfa Romeo waiting near the tree line.

The keys, as she had said, were in the ignition. He opened the driver’s side and sat down in it, but did not start it, or even trouble to close the door. He wasn’t yet prepared to think ahead to the drive back, to the practical details. To the idea that this surreal adventure was now finished, and that the mercurial woman he had found so alluring would not figure in his life. 

Perhaps it wasn’t over. Perhaps whatever conspiracy she had built around him would capture him and subject him to some kind of enforced participation. That seemed only slightly less real to him from this vantage point. Deciding he’d be better off if he turned his focus to something more practical, he opened the glove box and pulled the marked map from it. As he did so, something else caught on the corner of the folded map, and fell into the passenger’s seat. 

There was enough light from the little bulb in the glovebox to see by, so he left it open. The item in question was a stiff beige envelope with the words Foxglove & Kobalt written in a tight, artistic hand. Augustin bent it open and allowed the stack of photographs to slide into his hand. 

He riffled through them quickly to see if there was any other paper documents he’d missed, but there were only photos. They were, for the most part, black and white, but there were a few faded colour shots. Checking over his shoulder to ensure he was still alone, he began to examine them more carefully.

They appeared, on the face of it, to be wedding photos. Katerina Bergmann, apparently in her mid twenties, stood in a pale pencil skirted suit dress next to a young man dressed in what might have been a grey or navy suit. He was smiling, but the snap was too far away from the subject to capture the details of his likeness. There were a few variants of this shot, a few with an assembly of relatives that did not, he thought, resemble either of the newlyweds. 

As he thumbed through the photos, they became more intimate. The young man came into clearer focus as he uncovered a shot of him in an US Army captain’s dress uniform. The subject had strong cheekbones and bright eyes that looked directly into the camera with an intensity that made him appear as though trying not to laugh at a joke the photographer had just told him. The name on his nametape, Fisher, meant nothing to Augustin, but it evidently had meant something to Kat. 

There were more photos, some of them taken of each by the other: photos of Cpt. Fisher stretched out on a deck chair on some large cruise liner ship, with a mop of black curls blowing away from his forehead. Another, a shot of Kat in a similar pose, limbs tight together in a graceless huddle, her smiling face hidden behind her knees. Her injured foot, he noticed, was braced in some kind of laced leather support.

In addition, there were several snaps of the kind one asks strangers to take — images of the couple standing together at the railing, and another of them seated in a busy dining room. He found several that were even more interesting and unexpected — photos of the two of them dancing together. One shot showed them engaged in a vigorous swing dance, Kat dressed in a devastatingly low cut satin dress with full skirts, her face full of a smiling laughter he had never seen before. Here too, her damaged foot was braced, but she seemed to have full control over her movements.

The other photo set showed the couple nose to nose, eyes on each other with the full concentration of unadulterated love. The adoration was almost painful to look at because it was so real, so intimate. Captain Fisher’s head was ducked slightly so as to meet her eyes, his smile confident and a little mischievous. Kat’s face was clearly visible, her eyes fixed on him, lips parted in an expression so vulnerable that Augustin felt pierced by it. She’d never looked at him like this, and he doubted she ever would. It hurt, he realized. Like a dull sinking in his chest.  

He set this one aside, turning his attention to the last images. If the others were intimate, these were explicitly so, depicting the same subjects in a well appointed ship’s cabin. Each in varying states of undress. Kat’s body was, of course, familiar to him in these contexts, though not quite as unencumbered by inhibition. The photographer, presumably Captain Fisher, had captured his naked wife in recumbent recline, propped up on one elbow, gazing into the camera — or at him — with a fully perceptible sexual invitation. 

There were images that had obviously been taken mid-coitus, and there were images of a relaxed nature where one or the other of them was photographing their subject at a less intimate distance. Two of the images struck him — one was Kat, smoking a cigarette by the open French doors, her naked body draped over a chair, her eyes looking out on the vast whiteness as her shoulder-length blonde curls were lifted in a stationary breeze. 

The other, oddly, struck him even more. It was the same little shipboard balcony, only this time it was Fisher enjoying a cigarette. Kat had photographed him from the waist up, backlit by the huge mid-day sky. He grinned into the camera, his cigarette hanging from his lip like a gangster, his fit body relaxed as he leaned back against the railing. The contrast was well balanced enough for Augustin to get a clear view of the young man’s torso. As he looked closer, he felt a little shiver go through him. On Fisher’s left pectoral muscle was a series of faded, slightly stretched numerals tattooed into his skin, forming a short sequence: 106-311.

Augustin did not need to be told what this signified, nor did he need insights to tell him when or why this man had been marked this way, because he was aware of the vogue for positioning such a tattoo on that part of the human anatomy, and when that would have occurred. There was something uncanny about juxtaposition of the sinister markings and the playful, sexually confident expression on the young man’s face. Something defiant in him that he, Augustin, had never possessed. 

He looked through the photos once more, searching for dates or notations, but except for the courthouse wedding photos there were no further indicators. Even these read only “The Fishers”. They had not included the man’s given name, or any further details. 

Augustin returned the photos to the envelope, taking care to ensure they were still in their original order. It was a long time before he could make himself get out of the Romeo. He’d lost complete interest in driving away in it now that the soul of its former owner seemed to be so present with him. Was he alive? Kat had referred to the vehicle as being “an inheritance” but that wasn’t necessarily indicative of his passing. It also wasn’t necessarily true that the car had belonged to this Fisher, though that hardly seemed likely. It felt suited to the man’s taste and attitude, and it would be a strange place to keep photos of that nature if the car belonged to someone else.

He thought about bringing them back with him to the house, but decided to leave them where he’d found them. He vacated the driver’s seat, leaving it to the smiling ghost of Captain Fisher, and headed back towards the house. 

On approaching, he noticed Jeanette slouching in the bay doorway, a cigarette in one hand, and a shotgun tucked under her arm. She appraised him cooly, evidently deciding for herself whether he would be permitted to re-enter her home. Her milky eye glinted in the dim moonlight, but he felt it watching him.

“I wouldn’t have gotten very far, would I,” he said, giving the old partisan a smile. 

“No,” she said, dragging on the smoke and then tossing it into the wet grass. “Not very far at all.”