Bobby Ulili, Digital Sketch, 11.7” x 16.5”

Through the window of the inn, Mathew could see the shadow of Rheinsberg Palace over the lake and a purple ribbon of sky dusted with stars. He drank a weissbier from a tall glass and ate blood sausage with sauerkraut. The piano man stopped playing; he sat at the keys with a glass of wine resting on the lid, his tired face fat and full. By the fireplace, a sheepdog slept. Up at the bar, soldiers with short, wheat-colored hair sat shoulder to shoulder, laughing loudly and rocking back on their stools.

“Don’t worry about them,” the landlord said, nodding to the soldiers. He placed another bier in front of Mathew and sat opposite. “You’re a student?”

“Yes, in London,” said Mathew, placing his pen inside his notebook and closing it.

“What are you writing?”

“A play.”

“Like Shakespeare? Macbeth? King Lear?” The landlord’s face was ruddy and inquisitive.

“Not like Shakespeare,” said Mathew. He pulled out his pipe.

“Let me.” The landlord struck a match against his boot and lit the pipe; both of their chins glowed for a moment like dim fires in a cave. “Who wouldn’t want to be like Shakespeare?”

“You can’t get paid for being a romantic anymore.”

The landlord laughed until his face was red and his chest sounded like the iron wheels of a train. “And what is good for a writer about Rheinsberg?”

“Quieter than home at least. My father thinks it will be better for my studies. My friends have gone to Paris—for the scene. But I’ve been before, and, well, once you’ve done it, it’s done, you know?” He took another swig of bier.

The landlord nodded.

“You don’t have many visitors this time of year?” Mathew asked.

“No. Soon the lake will freeze. Then no fishing or boat trips for three months.” The landlord turned and pointed out the window to the quiet lake and its many islands scattered under a fishhook moon that cast its glow on the craggy banks. Down in the valley, lantern light of some other town glowed, and scarecrows jittered in the fields, and the crisp smell of coming autumn blew on the wind through the open window. “What do you study?”

“The classics,” said Mathew. He pulled a book out of his bag and laid it on the table.

“Hesiod,” said the landlord, tapping the book.

“You’re familiar with the Theogony?”

“Yes. Prometheus stole the fire from the gods so that we may have knowledge. Long time ago, I was a student at a university in Poland—ancient history and theology. Not so safe here in Germany for academics. That’s why I’m a landlord,” he said, eyeing the drunk soldiers at the bar. He got up and poured them all another bier, then came back and placed one before Mathew.

Planes flew overhead. The dog whimpered.

“More and more every day,” said the landlord, looking up to the wooden rafters as the low drone faded into the west.

“The Führer is just strong-arming us and the French.”

“Maybe. But it is dangerous when a strong man has no one to tell him no.” The landlord’s voice was a whisper.

“What do you mean?” Mathew sipped at his bier. He could feel the heat of drunkenness slip over his cheeks. He thought of the small, cozy café on the corner of King’s Cross where he and Giles would laugh about the undergrads. He suddenly missed it desperately.

“Only so long before a strong man decides he isn’t just strong but the strongest. What then?”

“There won’t be another war. We’ll figure things out,” said Mathew. “Back home, everyone knows talking is what works now. Discussion, you know? Nobody wants to fight a bloody ground war.”

The young soldiers stumbled from the bar and flung open the front door. Cool wind rushed in. The embers in the fireplace jumped, lightening the inn and then darkening it. When the door closed, it was warm again.

The landlord frowned. “Some of us are old enough to remember the Great War.”

“I can remember it,” said Mathew, swigging his bier. He wondered what sort of witty remark Giles would have made and hated himself for being so drunk.

“Maybe it was better if we didn’t know.”

“Didn’t know what?”

“Better to live without knowledge. Pre-fire. Think of trees. They grow, they drink, they die. They don’t need the fire. The fire burns them. If Prometheus had not stolen the fire, then strong men wouldn’t have the fire also. Maybe we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“I do understand, you know,” said Mathew, pursing his lips.

The landlord smiled. He stood and refilled Mathew’s bier, leaving him beside the fire and the whimpering dog.


In the morning, Mathew felt hungover. He sat up in his bed. Frost coated the grass outside, and the windows had fogged. When he was washed and dressed, he went downstairs.

The landlord stood behind the bar, reading the paper and listening to the radio. Sunlight fell through the window in a warm square. The dog slept in its glow.

“You need something to eat.” The landlord smiled. “Salts and sugars. This is the best cure for too much bier.” He turned to a stovetop, where coffee was cooking in a cast-iron pan.

They ate scrambled eggs and leberwurst spread over warm, fresh bread. When they finished, the landlord fetched them both another cup of black coffee and two slices of butter cake.


Mathew smiled, savoring the rich warmness of the coffee as it sank into his bones. “Yes, thank you.”

“Would you like to go for a walk? I’ll show you my favorite place to read. It may help with your writing. The play.”

“I would like that.”

“Best to wrap up warm. It will be cold on the hills.”


They walked on a gravel path beside the lake. Mist wrapped itself around the trees and sat over the water like a dragon’s breath. Far back on the opposite side, Rheinsberg Palace sat lonely and quiet; its stone bricks were the color of clotted cream, and its high domed towers were clay red. A score of geese flew over the parapets and dipped toward the lake, tracing their webbed feet through the surface of the water. Two farmers led their cows down the dirt path of a hill.

They hiked at an incline for an hour, stopping once so Mathew could vomit up his breakfast and most of last night’s bier. When they arrived at the grove, Mathew sat down, his head throbbing. A cold sweat that smelled of alcohol rolled down the back of his neck and the sides of his face.

Through a clearing in the trees on the hillside, the branches of two pines stretched toward each other, framing the view from the grove like a picture hung on a wall. Along the rolling countryside, village houses puffed smoke from their chimneys and cattle grazed. A red and white lighthouse stood by the water with its spotlight rusted brown. Islands were lost in the mist. The palace itself looked larger and longer than first perceived, and khaki buildings of the barracks sat on the outskirts of town.

A thin black road curved in from somewhere beyond the trees where, in the summer, cars filled with families would filter down to holiday. Now, only trucks, officers’ cars, and sometimes great Panzer tanks drove by.

“Good, huh?” The landlord reached into his bag and took out a thermos of hot chocolate. When he removed the lid, steam curled into the chill air. He took a long sip, then passed it to Mathew.

“Is there alcohol in it?” asked Mathew, sniffing the drink.

“An Irishman taught me this back in Poland when I was a student.”

Mathew took a long swig. The brandy fused with the rich chocolate brought fresh color to his face. “It’s delicious.”

The landlord produced two sandwiches wrapped in butcher paper and tied with string. “Left over from breakfast. Sausage always tastes best in the cold.”

They ate and drank their lunch in the grove, looking out to the countryside, which was like a diorama of the land. They shared a pipe and spoke about Shakespeare, Ovid, and Virgil. Mathew found himself thinking less about home. He thought himself lucky, in the company of the landlord, smoking on the hillside, as if he’d found something his father and Giles would not ever understand nor care for. It made him feel good, that it was his alone. When the moon came into the sky beside the failing light in the west, they packed up their things and started down toward the inn.


That evening, they drank some more and ate good, hearty countryside food. A few of the local farmers brought their wives and children. Mathew poured the drinks behind the bar himself and brought them over to the piano player between songs. The children chased the dog and fed him scraps until he was bloated and happy, sitting beside Mathew, who rubbed his white belly. Mathew danced with one of the farmers’ wives, his face red and his arms stiff. The farmer and his friends laughed, slapping their knees. Soon Mathew laughed too, and they took turns dancing with each other, men and women alike, linking their arms, spilling bier, and laughing. The landlord brought out a dusty bottle of wine and filled all their glasses. Good cheer rang through the warm room, wine turning their faces ruddy with life.


It was September 1. Rain drove against the side of the building in sheets, tapping against the window of his room. Mathew rolled onto his side and watched the gray light throw the shape of the rain-covered window onto the floor. He had slept well—a deep, unbroken sleep, the kind children have after playing by the sea in July. Last night had been a jolly time, although he was somewhat crestfallen to be leaving. The lonesome whistle of the morning train broke over the drumming of the rain.

When he came down the stairs to the bar, he stopped. He held the banister with a stiff hand. The bar was empty. The fire had not been lit. None of the lamps were burning. Empty bottles lay on the floor. He could hear his heartbeat in the small, dark room. The sheepdog sat under a table, licking sauce from a plate and whimpering, his sad, bloodshot eyes turning to Mathew. From behind the bar, the radio squawked and crackled.

He came fully down the wooden steps, the boards creaking under his weight. There was no one. The radio continued to jibber. Static rolled over it as the rainfall thickened. He could not understand what they were saying, but his heart sank.

Mathew ran outside, rain battering him sideways. He crested the dirt path beside the lake, heading into the trees. Halfway up the hillside, he turned. Many soldiers, dressed in gray uniforms, were leaving the barracks and climbing into the backs of trucks. Their red armbands stuck out like poppies in a dark field. He watched their cars roll onto the wet road out of town, exhaust fumes pluming out behind the muddy wheels.

He slogged through the mud, and he fell, and the wet earth clung to his palms as he pushed himself to his knees. He lost his shoe and his sock as it was pulled from his foot like a sodden leaf. The rain rifled in his face. He thought he heard a distant thunder bellowing up in the dark clouds, but the sound kept on and on as if it were rushing toward him, and there was no flash of lightning to answer it. The dread never left his heart.


Not long after, he found the landlord sitting in the grove, hunched over. More rumbling broke across the sky, and Mathew looked up. Huge bombers flew overhead. He followed them with his gaze, their reflections on the lake’s surface like moss-covered skipping stones. Then they were over the distant hills and lost in cloud.

“Where are they going?”

“Warsaw, Kraków. They’ve been flying all night.” The landlord’s voice was small.

Mathew’s mouth grew dry. He sat on the wet ground. When the rain slackened and the clouds parted, the sunrise burned away the morning mist. Amber light fell over the grove like fire. In the shadow of the trees, he wished he were one of them.

Joshua Nagle

Joshua lives in a small river town with his partner and is currently seeking representation for his first novel. His short stories have appeared in Savage Realms Monthly, The Masters Review, Consequence, Litro Magazine, Cerasus, Underwood Press, and BULL.

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