Nowak held up a hand and the squad stopped instantly. He wiped a drop of sweat that had trickled from under his helmet and waited, listening, looking. He had to be imagining things. It wasn't possible to smell cinnamon rolls in the Black Forest. He certainly couldn't be smelling his grandmother's cinnamon rolls with the caramel sauce.
"Petersen." Nowak glanced at the nineteen-year-old private crouching beside him.
"Do you smell that?"
The private, a Texas farm boy with red hair and freckles, lifted his nose and scented the wind like an Irish Setter. "Smells like pecan pie."
"It's something to eat, anyway," said Nowak, raising his head and trying to see over the undergrowth in front of him. "Which doesn't make any sense."
"I didn't think anybody lived here," said Petersen. "Not houses, I mean."
"I don't think anybody does live in this part of the forest," said Nowak, raising up a little more and peering through his field glasses.
"Do you see anything?" said Petersen. "They'd have to have a house with an oven to bake a pecan pie, wouldn't they? Anyway where would they get the pecans?"
"Off a dead hick Texan GI," said another private, hunkered down behind the Texan.
"Shut it, Rudolph," said Nowak. "Petersen, creep up beside me and see if you can see anything. I think I can make out a roof through those trees over there. Your eyes are better than mine. Here." Nowak passed the field glasses to Petersen.
"Funny looking roof," he whispered, handing the glasses back. "Looks like they patched it with caulk or something, but they did a really poor job."
"But there is a house there?" said Rudolph, glancing from one to the other. "You want us to check it out, Sarge?"
Nowak did not want to go check out the house. He was cold, and the dense forest and bad visibility gave him the creeps. He wanted to turn around, get through the mile back to the line, make his report, get some chow, and go to sleep. But the smell of cinnamon rolls or pecan pie or whatever it was meant that there were people out here, and the captain would want to know who they were. He sighed.
"Yeah," he said. "It's probably just a farmhouse or... something." He got a quizzical look from Petersen and knew what the boy was thinking. Nobody would put a farm smack in the middle of rocks and old-growth trees like this. "I'll take point," he said. "You two stay behind me, and the rest of you guys wait here--keep your rifles ready, and keep your eyes open. Just because we haven't seen any krauts yet doesn't mean they aren't here."
The three of them left the rest of the squad and moved through the undergrowth slowly. The new green leaves were flickering in the breeze that still smelled like a bakery. It was April, but still chilly. The forest floor was dark and crunched here and there with dead leaves. The sweet, doughy smell was getting stronger, and now they could see the white-edged brown peak of a roof, poking through the trees ahead of them.
Nowak stopped, just on the edge of the clearing where the little house stood, and tried to get his bearings. He could see the whole house now. He just didn't believe what he was seeing.
"Petersen," he whispered. "Tell me what you see."
Petersen was staring at the house, mouth open, and for once Rudolph had nothing to say, either. After a moment Petersen got his mouth closed.
"Sarge, it...it looks like it's... like it's made of..."
"...gingerbread," finished Nowak. Now that he had said the word, he could smell the ginger. It was impossible, but nevertheless in front of them stood a small, squat brown house, with walls that looked like fresh gingerbread. The shingles were some kind of cookie that Nowak had eaten but didn't know the name of. Instead of a foundation the house stood on three glossy yellow pillars.
Nowak found himself standing up straight, disregarding his cover, trying to make what he saw go away by sheer force of will. Was this how it happened when a guy's mind cracked during a war? But then Petersen saw it too, didn't he?
"Sarge." It was Rudolph, nudging him. "Look." The sergeant turned and saw her and jumped, startled.
He'd never seen anyone with truly black eyes before, or such black hair. She was wearing a dirndl, hair flowing loose to her waist, standing on the porch and holding a mixing bowl. She was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen, but he felt no lust. On the contrary, he suddenly felt so afraid he was sick to his stomach.
"Guten abend, Frau--uh, Fraulein," said Nowak, searching his mind for the rest of his limited stock of German. "Wir uh, won't Sie verletzt. Wir sahen Ihr Haus--"
"Do not distress yourself," she said, smiling. "I speak English and your German is very bad. Do you all come in and have something to eat."
Petersen took a step forward, his eyes glazed, absent.
"Petersen!" snapped Nowak. "Who told you to move?" Petersen halted and looked at him, confused.
"Why have you rebuked him?" said the woman, picking her way down the steps. There was some sort of dough in the mixing bowl, and her hands were covered in flour. "I asked him in, did I not?"
"Uh, ma'am, your house." Nowak gestured with the tip of his rifle toward the building. "It looks like it's made of gingerbread."
"It is made of gingerbread." The woman was staring at him. She was only ten feet away now.
"But that's... impossible," said Nowak. "The walls would be too heavy. It--"
"That need not concern you," she interrupted him, shifting the mixing bowl from hand to hand. "Come and have something to eat. I have just taken a pan of cinnamon rolls out of the oven, with..." she paused, brows wrinkled, and seemed to be stretching for the words. "With caramel sauce. And there is a pecan pie cooling on the table. And baklava. And coffee, and anything else you desire."
She was holding out a blue plate, smiling, to Rudolph. Nowak frowned. Where had she gotten that? Hadn't she been holding a bowl? Rudolph took two steps forward as though he was pulled with a string.
"Rudy," said Nowak.
Rudolph didn't appear to hear him, grinning back at the woman. Petersen had somehow gone to her, too, without Nowak noticing. They were both eating cookies.
"It's all right, Sarge," said Rudolph, around a mouthful of cookie. "They're great. You should have one."
"Come, please," said the woman. Nowak abruptly felt so tired he could hardly keep his eyes open. And he'd been hungry for hours. He hadn't smelled fresh cookies in four years, not since Ginny had baked for him just before he'd left for camp.
The thought of Ginny blew through his mind like a clean wind, and he took a step backward.
"Thanks, ma'am, but we have to be going. Privates, come on."
"Such a shame, when I have baked all day." She was still smiling at him. Her eyes seemed too big for her head now, and they were so black that Nowak couldn't tell where the iris ended and the pupil began. Both privates had shoved the last few bites of cookies in their mouths and come back to stand beside him. "And we are so grateful to our friends the English."
"We're not English, ma'am," said Petersen. "We're Americans." A glimmer of confusion sat on her face for just a minute, and then cleared into that smooth smile again.
"Of course. American as..." Once again she paused, seemed to be searching for the word. "Apple cake," she said, and frowned. "Pie." She turned to look at Petersen. "But not apples for you, pecans, yes?"
"Look, ma'am," said Nowak, but Petersen, the little idiot, was going toward her again. "Petersen, you halt! He can't go in your house, ma'am, and we're already overdue to get back."
"You are not going back," she said, turning back toward the house and snapping her fingers. A fine cloud of flour dust flew from her hand and caught in the wind. "You are going to come in my house and be something to eat."
Then Nowak knew he really was cracking up, because the house--the gingerbread house, mind you--stood up. What he had thought were yellow pillars began to take little hopping steps, and with an appalled sense of unreality he saw they had toes.
Chicken feet. A house with chicken feet.
It triggered something in his mind. His grandfather speaking Polish while they ate the cinnamon rolls in the kitchen, telling stories from the old country, stories about a witch and a house, with a rhyme at the end.
The shadows of the trees seemed to be pooling around her as she walked toward the house, the two privates in her wake, and Nowak had to squint to see them.
His gun was thick and heavy in his hands as he tried to raise it and take aim at her. He couldn't see well enough. But he could hear Petersen and Rudolph screaming. He could hear the creaking of the house as it walked. The gun was so heavy.
He got the gun up as his knees gave way under him, but then the sun went out.
* * *
Nowak woke, his head throbbing, sick to his stomach. He was still on his back in the clearing. He turned his head from side to side. There was no sign of Rudolph and Petersen. And the house was gone, too.
He sat up.
That couldn't have been real. Maybe there had been some new tank or something that looked like a house, or even some kind of gas sprayed to make them hallucinate, but this was 1945 and there were no such things as witches and gingerbread houses.
He stood, his joints aching like those of a very old man, and began patting his pockets to make sure everything was there. Cartridges. The grenade clipped on his belt. The dog tags around his neck, familiar and warm from contact with his body. Zippo lighter, but no cigarettes. Anything to delay thinking about the house, about her. He was checking the action on his rifle when he saw them.
Skipping across the forest floor were the three-toed tracks of what looked like nothing so much as a giant chicken. And, very faintly, the scent of cinnamon still hung in the air.
Nowak doubled over and threw up.
He wiped his mouth shakily. He needed to get back to the line. Maybe the two privates had gotten out. If so, they'd assume he was hurt and head back themselves. In any case, he needed to get back and report what had happened. He drew his map and compass out of his pocket. The sun seemed to be in the wrong place, and the trees were so thick that he couldn't take his direction from anything else.
The needle on the compass was spinning, resting now and then on a direction but never settling down.
This, thought Nowak bitterly, was why the Army wanted lieutenants to be in command of scouting squads. This was the kind of situation you should be a real officer to handle, not a dumb sergeant. He felt incredibly weary, and incredibly old. His nose was running, and when he swiped at it with his sleeve, the cloth came away red.
What was he going to do?
If the compass didn't work, it made no sense to go blundering around through the trees hoping to hit the line. He could still hear Rudy and Petersen's screams rattling around in his head. If he couldn't get back to the line, then there was nothing else to do but go forward.
The tracks were still there when he looked again.
Nowak advanced at a slow, careful walk, every sense straining. The monstrous tracks went in a straight line, with a broken branch or flattened tree here and there to show where something large had passed. The forest itself seemed to grow oppressive, dark tree trunks gathering too close around him. Nowak found himself thinking again about Ginny, about the way she'd looked on that last day. She'd had on a green dress because she knew it was his favorite, the one that cinched in so close around her tiny waist. He wondered if she still had that dress, if she still used the perfume that smelled like lilacs.
Something scuttled under a rock, just out of sight to his left. He stopped, his rifle up, listening. The wind muttered through the branches, chuckling and whispering around the new leaves. If he'd let himself, he could have believed there was a chanting voice on the wind.
Stop it. Think about Ginny.
The blood pulsed and roared through his ears, obscuring the sound exactly when he wanted most to listen. Whatever he had seen wasn't moving anymore. Another wave of nausea washed over him and he found himself going through his pockets again--cartridges, grenade, dog tags, lighter--and stopped, unable to remember why he'd started. Off to his left there were floating lights in groups of two, glimmering here and there among the more distant tree trunks.
Nowak deliberately turned his back on the lights and walked on, jerking his wandering mind back every time it strayed from Ginny or from following the tracks in front of him. He refused to think about the size of the tracks. He refused to remember his grandfather's voice, telling old stories in Polish. There was no need to be dealing in impossibilities yet. Time enough for that if he saw the house again.
Now he could smell...tobacco?
Nowak halted again and swore under his breath. Floating above a tree stump twenty feet ahead of him was a small human skull with some sort of phosphorescent material burning in the eye sockets. Sitting on the ground next to the stump and smoking a cigarette was a man wearing the gray uniform of an officer of the Wehrmacht. A rifle with a white handkerchief tied to the barrel was propped against the stump. The soldier rose to his feet as Nowak came into view, holding his hands up, the cigarette held between two fingers.
"What do you want?" said Nowak, keeping his rifle trained on the German. "Was willst Sie?"
"I want you to speak English, first," said the German, grimacing at Nowak's awkward translation. "My grandmother was English. I understand it quite well." He nodded at the skull. "It appears we have the same problem, you and I."
"I would think I," said Nowak, "was your problem. What are you doing here?"
"I do not say I am glad to be asking you for help," said the German. "My men and I were retreating. We have been going in circles for three days, trying to avoid her. We have gone nowhere. You have had trouble reaching your line, yes?"
"Where are your men?" said Nowak.
The German smiled, but his gray eyes were bloodshot and glazed with weariness. "Gone. She took some, and the rest ran away last night. Hexe said the Americans were shooting prisoners. I did not quite believe her, but they did." He paused. "I suspect she has them by now."
"Hexe?" said Nowak.
"I apologize. In English it is 'witch.' It is what we have called her, for lack of a better word."
"We don't shoot prisoners," said Nowak.
"My name is Hans Schneider," said the German. "May I take my hands down, please?"
Nowak nodded, but didn't lower his gun.
Schneider took another drag on his cigarette, and Nowak saw his fingers were shaking. "So you have seen her? The gingerbread house...was she still using a gingerbread house?"
"Yes," said Nowak. "Does it change?"
Schneider shrugged. "One of my men saw it as a thatched cottage. It still had the feet, though. I do not think she can hide them. I was in Russia. Stalingrad. You have heard about Stalingrad? About the dying there? There was a rumor..." Nowak saw him swallow. "I think it was the same creature, some kind of carrion."
"What is that?" said Nowak, pointing.
"The skull? I do not know, but they are hers. I have seen them here and there, especially last night, when we tried to walk around in the dark. They serve no purpose I know, except perhaps to make us more afraid."
"I still don't know why you're here," said Nowak.
"I lost four men," said Schneider. "I think you must have lost some as well. I want mine back. You want yours back." His cigarette was almost gone by now, the sweet yellow nicotine smell growing stronger. "We can help each other."
"You'll have to do better than that," said Nowak. "There's a war on, in case you haven't noticed, and you showing up is too convenient. Why wouldn't you run? How do I know this whole thing isn't something you Nazis cooked up?"
"I am not a Nazi." Schneider pulled himself a little taller. "The lunacy of the Volkskrieg sickens me. Hitler's Reich is not worth one drop of blood. And I do not run because I am a soldier, Sergeant. I have been all my life. I want to get my men out of the hands of the witch. I will die to accomplish it if necessary, because I am a soldier. It is what an officer does." His eyes were cold, almost contemptuous. "She wants you to be afraid, Sergeant. I am not afraid. If you choose not to help me, I will fight her alone. I have neither the time nor the English to try to convince you."
Nowak felt heat creep up his neck. "You think they're still alive, then?"
"I have heard them screaming," said Schneider.
There was a silence so complete that Nowak could hear his own rapid breathing. Schneider just stood there watching him, the cigarette burning down to ash between his trembling fingers.
"I always thought it was just a story," said Nowak. "My grandfather used to tell us about a witch who ate people like you'd eat chickens."
"In Russia we found men half-eaten," said Schneider. "I believe the official story was that it was a bear. I have been remembering Hansel and Gretel, and the witch fattening Hansel like a veal calf."
Slowly, Nowak sank down until he was sitting on the ground, dabbing at his nose with his sleeve. It had started to bleed again. The chanting was on the wind again, louder now, and the lights were growing thicker in the trees as the sun set.
"What am I going to do?" he whispered. "I've got to get them out of there. What am I going to do?"
Schneider flicked his cigarette down to the dirt and ground it out with the heel of his boot. He bent and dragged a heavy-looking knapsack from behind the stump.
"I have been thinking," he said. "Remembering. Hansel and Gretel pushed the witch into a furnace and defeated her."
"Yeah," said Nowak, "and in the Baba Jaga stories she has to be outwitted. So? I'm no genius and I don't have a furnace, do you?"
"Perhaps," said Schneider.
* * *
The house had settled into another small clearing, resting on its three yellow legs as if it had been there forever. It seemed larger now, and there was a fence surrounding it. As Nowak drew closer, he saw that what had looked like white stones in the fence were actually human bones. He'd come far enough since that morning that he merely nodded. The fence of bones had been part of the story. It was twilight now, and as he approached the skulls atop the fence posts burst into flame like torches.
The witch was sitting on the porch in a rocking chair. She smiled at Nowak as he opened the gate, which was hinged with femurs. Her smile had too many teeth.
"Welcome," she said, in her deep voice.
Nowak walked up the path as if he were wading through deep water. His nose was bleeding again and it tasted like pennies, but he didn't care.
"I suppose you came here to bargain for your men," said the witch. "It has happened before, though not often." She was regarding him with something like curiosity. "I will not return them."
Nowak swallowed and took a deep breath. "I know who you are. I was afraid of you before." His tongue felt thick. It was a struggle to get the words out, to keep his eyes on her face. "Maybe that's how you managed to put me to sleep. But now--"
The witch laughed.
"Do not try to tell me that you're not afraid of me. I can smell it on you, see it in your thinking. I have a hundred names in a hundred lands. I am Kali, and Baba Yaga, and Ceres, and Persephone, and always, always men have feared me. I eat fear."
Think nonsense. She can see your thinking. The farmer in the dell, the farmer in the dell...
She was growing taller as she spoke, and her dress was changing, lengthening into a long black robe girdled with silver. It might have been medieval, or it might have been Greek.
"But," she offered, "try and bargain with me if it pleases you. Explain to me why I should trade two men for one." She smiled again, slowly, her eyelids dropping to half open. "Perhaps if you ask me sweetly I shall even let you live in my service."
"No," said Nowak.
The farmer takes a wife, the farmer takes a wife...
"Then perhaps I will just take you." The smile dropped off her face like a curtain falling. By now she was nearly seven feet tall. "You think that because you refused my food that you will continue to be protected from me? You are afraid. This is the richest time I have ever hunted. All men have enough fear and desire in their hearts for me to bind them easily. Even you, worrying about a woman's dress."
A dagger of adrenaline arced through his chest. No. He couldn't let the witch use that. He had to think about something else, quickly.
Cartridges, dog tags, lighter--
He was patting his pockets again automatically as he went through the list and she watched with a faint frown between her eyebrows.
"I won't tell you I'm not afraid of you," said Nowak, keeping his hands moving so she would keep looking. "I am, in the same way I'm afraid of getting my head blown off." He kept his gaze fixed on her face as she stood and took three steps toward him, ignoring the movement he caught out of the corner of his eye. "You could enchant me again if you wanted to. But you couldn't enchant me at all if I wasn't afraid, could you?"
"Is it bargaining after all, then?"
The cat takes a rat, the cat takes a rat...
"Something like that," said Nowak. Her eyes widened.
The witch turned, a fraction of a second too late. Schneider was behind her.
He wore the knapsack slung over one shoulder. A trip wire was in his hand, with the pins of seven grenades dangling from it. He threw his arms around her waist and jerked her to him in a caricature of a lover's embrace.
Nowak was running. The shock of the explosion caught and threw him against the fence. There was a burst of agony as his left arm broke, and then the heat rolled over him, taking away the breath he needed to scream.
When he raised his head, there was nothing left but a few pieces of the witch's burned robe and about two thirds of Schneider. Nowak got to his feet and stood looking at the dead man for a moment.
After what seemed like a long time Nowak walked to the house, which was barely scorched. He clapped his right hand three times against his leg and recited a rhyme in Polish, and watched in a daze as the house turned on its squat legs and opened its door. One by one, Rudolph, Petersen, and four German soldiers stumbled out of the house. They blinked at the tiny flecks of blood and bone that speckled the green of his jacket. He didn't speak to them at first, cradling the elbow of his injured arm, checking his compass while they woke up. It pointed north.
"Come on," said Nowak, and they followed him, out through the gate and past the still-burning eyes of the skulls.
Breanna Teintze is a registered nurse, wife, and mother of two from Montana who writes when she ought to be cleaning or sleeping. Her work has also been accepted at The Absent Willow Review, where it will appear in December.
Published by permission of the author.