I thought Dondy was just joking until the night he showed up in the Bees, holding a Turkish baby in his arms and carrying a rucksack on his back. The “Bees” were what we called the barracks. They were high-ceilinged rococo fortresses that reminded me of something higher-ranking Nazis might have retreated to when it became apparent that the war was lost. Sometimes I swore I could feel the ghosts of Death’s Head Hussars wandering the halls where drunken American GIs now roamed.
“I’m not doing it,” I said, but I let Dondy and the baby enter my room. It was a Saturday night. I liked to spend my weekends reading a book and burning Nag Champa incense, unlike most of the other soldiers, who much preferred drinking their paychecks and contracting a host of venereal diseases.
Dondy brought the baby over to my bed. He sat on the edge of the mattress and hoisted the rucksack off his shoulders. He unzipped the main pouch and searched inside. He extracted a glass bottle filled with milk. He inserted the rubber nipple into the Turkish little one’s mouth. A wisp of sweaty black hair was matted to the babe’s fontanel.
“Just humor me,” Dondy said. “I’ll give you fifty Euro.”
I walked over to the shared kitchenette and selected a cup of Ramen. I had eaten all of the shrimp-flavored soup and I was down to the plain chicken variety. I peeled the lid and filled the cup with tap water and then I put it in the microwave for one minute, on high. I walked back into my room, where Dondy was bouncing the baby on his knee. I said, “You still haven’t paid me for Dee-Deeing you to the Palace two weeks ago.”
I made pretty good money as a designated driver, since everyone liked to drink (except me). I also didn’t mind Dee-Deeing Dondy since it meant I got to drive the car of whatever Turkish girl he was screwing at the time. This current one, Shaeda, had plucked eyebrows, bee-sting fat lips, and the figure of the most beautiful belly dancer in a shah’s harem. She also had a brand-new Mercedes with heated seats, wood-grain steering wheel, and a helpful female GPS voice that liked to give directions in either Turkish or German, but never in English.
I pointed at the child. “The baby Shaeda’s?”
“Her sister’s,” Dondy said. “I got him for the night.”
“Shaeda and her sister cool with you turning their baby into a goblin?” I meant it as a joke, but Dondy didn’t smile. I could see that he was taking this crap seriously.
Let me explain-Awhile back Dondy had gone to an old bookseller’s shop in the Luisenplatz. The Luisenplatz was the main square of the city of Darmstadt, a small town in the German province of Hessen. There was a giant mall there, several restaurants, as well as butcher shops, head shops, a gelato parlor, and a few other apothecaries and sundry kiosks and stands, the cobblestone streets crisscrossed by city Strasse tracks. I had come perilously close to being killed by one of those trains on several occasions.
One afternoon Dondy came barging into my room holding this ancient volume bound in calfskin or Moroccan leather. It was a picaresque tale written (or rather carved, since it consisted mainly of woodcuts) by a veteran of the Thirty Years War who claimed there was a Hessen village that contained a forest, Engelwald, whose vegetative life was supposed to be imbued with evil powers. This author (Wilhelm Mackesburg) claimed to have met a frau who warned him never to enter the forest with a child in his haversack, for (claimed the girl) anyone who carried a child in a sack to the far edge of Engelwald would discover their swaddling babe transformed into a Kobold (that is a goblin).
The child (it was claimed) could return to its human form, but only if it were brought back out of the mouth of the forest by generally the same route through which it had been carried in.
I’d known what a Kobold was since my first day in Germany. I had discovered a Wörterbuch in the hallways of the transitional barracks where I was staying, shortly after transferring from Fort Benning, Georgia to the Darmstadt Kaserne. I knew I stood no chance of learning enough German to do so much as hail a cab in the time between now and my first exposure to Darmstadt’s streets, but since I was curious I quickly scanned through the fat book’s pages, anyway.
I turned to the “O” section, where I discovered Onanieren, which meant “to masturbate.” Flipping back in the direction of the leathered cover, my finger landed on the “K” section, where my eyes scanned the pages and found the word Kobold. Later that night, blind drunk at my first “Heinerfest,” I had struggled to stand upright beneath the shifting lysergic contours of a Ferris wheel, while also attempting to hold in the schnitzel and brezel batter lurching around in my uneasy stomach.
A beautiful Deutsch Mädchen, a brown-haired, brown-eyed elf of a creature came walking past me. She wore an evergreen Dirndl patterned with holly and her wooden shoes gave her calves the shape of graceful swans’ necks. I looked at her and said the only German words I knew. “Onanieren der Kobold.”
Her nose scrunched up, as if she could already smell the vomit I was struggling to suppress in my stomach. She responded in English that, while heavily-accented, was better than my German. “You want to jack off the monster?”
There was no Engelwald forest in our town, but there was an Ingolwald, a series of enchanted German hills, so emerald that, much like the rollicking terrain in Kentucky or Ireland, the green became blue through the haze of a midday sun’s rays. The area was a favorite with our hard-charging First Sergeant because of its challenging topography, since he lived primarily for intense Espirit De Corps runs.
Ingolwald was foreboding even during the day, a coniferous and alpine repository of fairytales, the essence of an old Germania that remained locked in its own dark and secret history, whether the Americans or the Turks or the European Union tried to claim the land as their own. I could feel centuries of residual pastoral village life as I ran through those muddy dales and cragged defilades on battalion runs. I imagined smiths in their aprons, wives doing their washing in smocks, silent deer bounding over frosted heather.
I respected that forest, and it was for just that reason that I had no desire to go there at night with Dondy and the baby.
I wasn’t even sure that our Ingolwald had anything to do with the Engelwald in the soldier’s picaresque tale, but Dondy, after purchasing the book, had arranged with the bookseller to call in a cartographer buddy to either confirm or deny that the forest featured in the story was the same forest where our unit now did their morning runs.
The cartographer, a one Ernst Bädendorfer, thought it was possible that Ingolwald could have been a bastardization of the Hoch Deutsch name that Mackesburg had given the woodlands. The cartographer also thought the intricate woodcut bore more than a passing resemblance to the forest where he had been sent to survey some land for purchase on behalf of the Bayer Corporation during the Wirtschaftwunder years.
Dondy of course treated the man’s “maybe” as a “yes,” and the only thing that remained was for him to secure a child, which he had done.
My Ramen dinged in the microwave and I went to retrieve it. I made a poor man’s potholder from a bundled wad of paper towels and I grabbed a Spork from the torn plastic pack. I blew on my noodles and walked back into the bedroom, where Dondy bounced the baby on his knee.
“Alright,” I said. “I’ll go with you, but you have to shut up about that book after tonight. When that baby doesn’t turn into a goblin, you leave me to have my Saturday nights in peace, unless you need a designated driver.” I spooned some noodles, as well as a couple of peas swimming in the broth, into my mouth. “And you’ve got to pay me the Euro you owe me.”
I hated the damn European currency. It wasn’t practical to make one and two dollar coin denominations the standard. In America, I might lose five dollars in quarters to my couch cushions and the undersides of my car seats. In Germany, it wasn’t uncommon for me to go scrounging and to then come up with close to one-hundred dollars in coinage, especially when the Euro was beating American specie almost two-to-one, as it was at this time. I could only imagine how much money I lost due to carelessness.
“Fair’s fair,” Dondy said, and he dug a bill from his pocket. He handed me a crumpled, yellow watermarked fifty.
“Danke,” I said.
“Bitte.” He shifted the baby to his left arm and he pointed with a finger of his right hand. “And you’ve got to promise that if I turn him into a goblin and I turn him back, that you won’t tell Shaeda.”
“As long as I turn him back into a human, there’s no harm done.”
Dondy lifted the baby underneath his armpits and he slid him into the back of his ruck. We headed out into the hall, where Ski was walking, naked except for flip-flops and a towel wrapped around his waist.
“Locked myself out,” he said. “You mind if I stay in your room for a while?”
I sighed, handed him the key and the dog tags to which it was chained. “Just be here when I get back.”
“Can I have some of your Ramen?”
I didn’t answer him, because I knew he would eat it no matter what I said.
We walked out into the night. The neon over at the Trop glowed and threw vaporized incandescence over the people eating pizza at outdoor tables in front of the trattoria. White Christmas lights were strung across the green awning of the building.
The sweet smell of molting leaves carried on the wind, the abrasive German chill making me feel alive, the undisguised scent of sewage also strangely wakening all of my senses. Dondy hit the alarm on Shaeda’s Benz. He opened the back door and slid the rucksack with the baby in it inside.
“He’s pretty calm for a baby.” I said. “I thought they always cry.”
“No, just some of them. He’s a trooper.”
Dondy hopped in on the driver’s side and I climbed into the passenger seat. The heated leather warmed my rear like a shiatsu masseuse’s hot stone therapy. I had an ancient Volkswagen that had a rolled-up garbage bag for a gas cap.
Dondy cut the wheel and sparked a Gauloises blond. Then he held the pack out to me. I took one. I had discovered Gauloises shortly after getting to Germany. They were perfect for me, lighter than most American cigarettes, with a richer taste and an undercurrent of something earthy, like chamomile.
“She lets you smoke?”
He popped out the dash console lighter, held it to his cigarette and then held the glowing coal end out to me. “There is no ‘let’ with me and women. The legend of Dondy’s ten-incher is true, mein Freund. Women let me do as I please, and beg me to return when I leave.”
I looked back to the baby in the backseat, thinking that he shouldn’t hear this, even if he didn’t understand English. I was hoping that we wouldn’t stop at the Tankstelle or anywhere else. Turkish men who saw Dondy or me were most likely to be reminded of Abu Ghuraib, monstrous, oil-thirsty conquistadors forcing their naked Muslim kinsmen to form dog-piles while we photographed it and laughed. They also would probably not be favorably disposed to seeing two off-duty GIs with a Turkish baby in their possession.
The baby cooed, his pink lips crooked lines of liverish flesh. He held out his fingers, performing some gibberish counting routine. I looked back toward Dondy, and the dark road ahead of us. Small European cars ripped along the thoroughfare, Peugeots and Citroens, Smart Cars and VWs, steel gray and silvery blue hatchbacks, efficient little insects conserving fuel to avoid the kinds of onerous wars we needed to keep our monstrous fleet fed back in America.
I sighed again. I thought Germany was beautiful, and I yearned to experience it the way other young people did. I imagined that it would have been a joyful experience to be a young, long-haired backpacker, getting lost in the hills like a naked Wander Vogel, or maybe as an exchange student, living with a uniformly cheerful blond family with rosy cheeks in a quant fachwerk paradise.
Being a soldier here was an altogether different experience, hostility or indifference being the usual reception we got from the natives, sometimes both reactions combined in one exchange. Not that the negative stares and murmurs weren’t sometimes warranted, as drunken, ugly Americans did occasionally clash with the Polizei or the citizens, on the cobblestone streets or on trains.
Dondy peeled past the Imbiss stand, the Kebab König shop, where a massive shank of spit-roasted schwarma meat turned throughout the day, its shredded innards shaved from the greasy hock ending up compacted into pita bread and sold hot and fresh from the cart. We passed Bahnhöfe A, the nightclub where I had been dragged to Dee-Dee one night, and where I had made the mistake of stepping inside to use the restroom.
It was Goth night when I drove there, and as the lights began to strobe over the graffiti and dry-ice slicked walls, I struggled to find the door marked Herren, my eardrums blasted, punctured by vintage Skinny Puppy or Ministry, someone urging the woman he loved to drive nails into his eyes to show him the strength of her devotion. I spotted the crudely-drawn man above the bathroom door and I was about to step inside, when a bald cretin with powder-white skin and a floor-length PVC jacket covered in brass buckles threw himself into my path and squirted a baster of (probably) human blood onto my shirt for reasons he didn’t disclose before he disappeared back into the crowd.
“Alright,” Dondy said, throwing the Benz into park. He killed the engine, and got out. I remained sunken in the embracing leather, its heated pads soothing my back muscles. Dondy went into the back and extracted the Turkish baby. I snagged another Gauloises from the pack, and I lit it with the cherry from the short I was smoking. I tossed my mostly-smoked cigarette onto the concrete and I got out, puffing away on my second blond.
“Any weird incantations we have to do?” I asked. “Something in Latin, maybe?”
Dondy adjusted the straps on his green canvas rucksack. “Mackesburg didn’t say anything about that. He said the young maiden told him not to take a baby into Engelwald at night in a sack, especially on a full moon.”
I looked up. Granite-colored clouds poured in an idle diaphanous haze across a moon with the full, rounded dimensions of a saucer, its rocky surface the color of a dove flitting about in one of Mad Ludwig’s Bavarian gardens.
There were several massive stones at the entrance to the woods, their placement perhaps accidental, or maybe some kind of runic assignation best interpreted by Guido Von List, a Futhark message from some ancient Germanic pagans to their god hidden up in the sun. I looked toward the trees, their bark the color of stale pimpernel. A fogbank broke through the stilts formed by their trunks and spread outward in a film of wintery lattice.
“Alright,” I said, and shivered. “Let’s do this.”
Rocks crunched underfoot as we headed up the hill. The baby clapped his sticky hands together. I began my muttering litany, like the passive-aggressive yet reliable friend I was. “Got me out here on a Saturday night, when I should be eating Ramen and watching a DVD on my computer.”
“Shut up,” Dondy said. “Free exercise. Breathe in that German air.”
I inhaled the biting air. The trees hovered above us like wooden giants waiting for their druidic masters to spring them to life. I thought of the Germans annihilating the Romans at Teutoburg, the godlike Caesar finally humiliated. The wind picked up, shrieked through the tree hollows. I walked faster, until I was alongside Dondy. My lips quivered and I bit them in order to warm them inside my mouth. I glanced at the Turkish baby and Dondy smiled, showing white eyeteeth.
“You’re checking to see if he’s a goblin yet.”
“I am not.”
He laughed. “What happened, man? You thought I was full of crap, and all of a sudden you’re scared.”
“Let’s just hurry up.”
We were cresting the hill. This was the part on the Espirit De Corps runs when someone would invariably pull off to the side and puke their guts out into the leaves and moss at their feet. The First Sergeant would take us back down to the bottom of the hill, and then back up again, several times, until most of our company had fallen out and only he and Quintana with the guide-on flag were still out in front.
A cloud shaped like one of Wagner’s Valkyries appeared over the moon, crowding Luna out like a second, now triumphant celestial body. The baby cried.
“See?” I said. “It’s cold out. Daddy Long Dick or no, Shaeda has her limits. She finds you brought her sister’s baby out here because of what some paladin in the Thirty Years War scribbled and she’s going to cut off all ten inch-”
The baby shrieked and sat up in the rucksack. It opened its mouth and screamed, revealing hollow viperish fangs where before it had displayed only cooing fleshy gums, empty of teeth. The bones of his skull bulged hideously as if buck antlers were attempting to sprout from his forehead, the hardened points causing new ridges to protrude under the bones.
Horns ripped through the baby flesh and the white luminescence of the moon showed his previously brown skin to be a bilious green.
“Chuck it!” I shouted. “Get rid of the thing before it kills us!”
Sharpened claws the length of steak knives and the color of tarry pitch reached out of the green rucksack and slashed the air, barely grazing Dondy’s neck. He bounded down the hill, shouting back at me as I chased his shadowy form. “I can’t pitch him! It’s my girl’s sister’s kid! We just have to get him back to the mouth of the forest and everything’s copase- ouch! Shit!”
His form threw a ghostly shadow across the fogged spaces between the trees, snaking bands of darkness splitting left and right, refracting like candlelight in the gloaming hour.
I ran, my chest burning, heart thudding against the ribs that caged it. “I’m coming, Dondy!”
My foot hit a root on my way down the hill, and I spilled, rolling end over end, bumping my elbow hard against an outcropping log, cutting my face on a branch as I landed at the entrance to the forest, where the strange formation of giant slate boulders was piled up, a short distance from the lot where the shiny Benz sat, waiting for us.
I stood up and looked down at Dondy and the baby. My comrade was face-down, the tike slowly crawling out of his satchel. I looked behind me, saw a felled trunk covered with spindly, sharp branches. I planted my foot against the base of one of the quarterstaff-sized bits of wood, and I tugged until the pressure forced the limb to crack asunder.
I spun around, ready to bash the goblin until its brains were pudding and its soul was consigned to the hell from whence it came. It crawled toward me, and then stopped. Shaeda’s niece’s kid smiled at me and stuck a thumb and one finger in its mouth, sucking the makeshift pacifier and drooling around the digits.
Dondy rolled over, his face slicked with purplish oozing blood.
“You alright?” I asked.
He sat up, touched a hand to his cheek. “Yeah. He scratched me pretty good with his claws, though.”
Dondy wiped the blood away from the ribbons of flesh, which formed a slit set of lips just below his cheekbone. I could tell he was already thinking about how the scar might affect his looks, and what excuse he would proffer to Shaeda when she asked him about it.
He finally stood up and limped over to the baby, picking him up and cradling him in his arms. Dondy carefully deposited the child back into the rucksack, cinching the top closed around the canvas papoose.
He hoisted the bag onto his back, looked at me, and said, “Okay, we’re in agreement, then. Ingolwald used to be Engelwald, right?”