from No Man's Land
Arlund, April 1920
It seemed a shame to kill on such a fine, spring day. As the wind rose from the valley, so came the scents released by the melting snow—of leaves and grass and wood, of new life rising, resurrected.
Katharina steadied her aim on the hare and held her breath. Before the Italians confiscate our rifles again, her grandfather had said, go practice your shooting. Bring us some meat. The hare turned its head, haunches tensed, and Katharina squeezed the trigger. The animal fell but flailed on the ground.
Hund sprang up, but Katharina checked the dog with a hiss.
“Leave it be,” she muttered. She leaned the rifle against a stump before picking up the canvas sack and drawing her father’s knife from her boot.
As she approached, the hare jerked, trying to get on its legs, panic rolling with the whites of its eyes. Knife in hand, Katharina grabbed its scruff and drew the blade across the throat. Hund sniffed the ground where the work left its mark.
The sun reached over Graun’s Head, and Katharina rose, shading her eyes to look up the slope. To the right of the outcropping, where the summer hut still lay deep under snow, was the scar from a small avalanche. She slung the bagged hare over her shoulder, Hund panting next to her. Turning her back to the mountain, Katharina had a view of the valley below, revelling in April’s lustrous green, a contrast to the alpine path where the snow came over the tops of her boots.
She was glad she’d traded her smock for Papa’s britches. The villagers might look sideways when she wore them, but nobody ever said a word. She reckoned her father’s good standing in the community had something to do with that. Or because he had died fighting for them.
Only Opa and she were left of the Thaler family—a tragedy, possibly even a disgrace. The whispered predictions about what would happen to the once-prosperous dairy farm when Katharina’s grandfather should pass were audible enough. The thought of a future without Opa in it was devastating enough, but for what other purpose did her grandfather work her, teach her, as hard as he had any of his own sons if it weren’t to leave the farm in her capable hands?
She looked down at Hund, the bitch pup she’d saved years ago. “It would never cross their minds, would it? A woman running a farm.”
A soft wind rose, and she picked up the trail back to the main path, Hund next to her. The sunshine was already softening the snow for the worn soles of her boots.
No. They expected her to marry so that at least a man would be involved when the inheritance was necessary. But whom did they expect her to take as a husband? She was supposed to have studied in Innsbruck, at least that was what her parents had wanted for her. Six years ago she had planned to finish her schooling, travel north to her mother’s family in the fall, and become a teacher. Now she was learning to become a farmer.
The Great War, they were calling it; the war that had ended all wars. It had ended their country, in either case, killed many good men, and brought with it a plague of loneliness, an emptiness, a film of sadness that no spring could cleanse.
There were other men in the valley now: Italian guards patrolling the newly attained border. While their job was to keep Tyrol cut in two, they collected bribes from the smugglers. It was the only way for friends and relatives from the north to slip their contraband across, like lovers’ notes through prison bars.
* * *
On their way back to the main road, Hund, her nose to the ground, loped past and stopped some metres ahead. When Katharina reached her, the dog was scratching at something in the snow.
Katharina crouched to get a better look. Blood. It was blood. She straightened and looked around. Two sets of boot prints. No animal tracks.
Who else? Her heart pounded. Who else is out here?
A gust of wind rose from the valley, like the sound of rushing water. Stuck amongst the branches of a sapling, a scrap of paper flapped against the current. She caught one just as it freed itself. When the strip was in her hand, Katharina recognised the symbols and lines of a relief map, similar to her father’s before he’d marched off to Galicia. This one, however, showed the ridges and curves of her mountains. More paper summersaulted northwards on the wind. She looked at the kicked-about snow, and the back of her neck crawled.
Katharina returned to the tracks. One pair of footprints was much larger than the other. Up the trail, she found where the smaller person had fallen on all fours. More blood had pooled here. The tracks parted, the smaller footprints east, into the woods. The second pair led north. The border.
No animal but man, Opa had once said, would hunt down another man and leave him to die.
She called for Hund only to realise the dog was still at her side.
After she hitched the rifle over her shoulder, she felt for the handle of her father’s knife and looked back towards the valley. It would take too long to get Opa first. With a sharp whistle at Hund, she followed the trail into the woods, remembering the first time Opa had shown her how to track. She’d followed the signs of a fox and a hare, read the fox’s final pounce, found a tuft of fur and, finally, the telling red of a successful kill.
This trail came to an end outside Karl Spinner’s hut, and the latch to the front door was broken. Katharina’s heart tripped up against her chest. She had hardly ever spoken to the hunter, but Opa had never said a bad word about him. When no one answered her knock, she opened the door.
A few shafts of light came through the western window to reveal a dusty floor. There was a wooden table with a smeared oil lamp and four curved-back chairs under the window to the right. Hanging on the wall, and boiled of their skins, was a row of deer antlers and mountain goat skulls. A simple bed was in the far corner, with a red-and-white-checked quilt bunched at the foot of it. And someone lay on the floor in the middle of the room, his back to her, as if he had fallen off the bed and never stood back up. Over the sour, gamey odour of old animal fat, Katharina smelled iron.
“Mr Spinner?” Her voice cracked. “Are you all right?”
No answer. She lowered the canvas sack with the hare and took a step. Another. Katharina stopped just short of the body. The clothes were different. This man wasn’t dressed like anyone from the valley. This was not Karl Spinner.
She raised her rifle. “Sir? Are you well?” In her sights, the dark hair was matted with blood.
She knelt beside the body and lay the weapon off to the side. Carefully she rolled the man over, propping his head with her arm. His eyes were closed. Her fingers searched his damp neck until she felt the pulse. Faint. On his side, bloodstains and two cuts in the coat. She pulled at a wide black belt, unbuttoned the coat, and then lifted his shirt. Just below his ribs, two gashes. She leaned in close and listened. The breathing was shallow but clean. Clean was good. His left shirtsleeve was also soaked in blood, and when examining the cuts, she found a deep slash on the arm.
Looking around for something to stop the bleeding, she found only a canteen and a pair of field glasses. Near the edge of the bed, something gleamed, and she reached over the man to pick it up. A cross attached to a blue-and-white-striped ribbon—an Italian war medal—weighed heavily in her hand. She dropped it on the table, turned to the man on the floor again, and pulled out her father’s knife.
“There’s nothing for it, whoever you are.”
She leaned over him, knife poised, and sliced the cloth of his shirt until the upper body was free. The blood from his head and his arm had congealed, but the two slashes near his ribs still pumped thick and red. To bandage the man’s head and the arm, she could use his shirt, but she needed something denser for the punctures in his side. The canvas sacks in the corner looked dirty. The sheet on the bed mattress had certainly not seen the washing basin in months either. Her smock, she thought, would have been more practical now. She considered her woollen wrap. No. Jutta had made it for Katharina’s mother when nothing else seemed to keep the chill away.
Katharina listened to the stranger’s breathing. He was not apt to wake up, so she slipped off her waistcoat, then her flaxen blouse—heavier, thicker than his—put her waistcoat back on, and pressed the cloth against the wounds.
Hund sniffed around the stranger’s face.
“Lie down,” she ordered.
The dog obeyed.
She examined the man’s face. He had a straight nose and a dimpled chin. He was a little older than her. Maybe thirty. And his skin was darker than hers, darker than all of those in the valley. His clothes…definitely not local. So. This was the enemy.
Before she’d gone off to hunt this morning, Opa had called after her. “They can take your land, they can take your weapons, but they can’t take the fight out of you.” This man’s wounds were no accident. Maybe he’d even provoked his attacker.
Though the bleeding slowed with the pressure she was applying, he was likely to die if she did not get help. And if he died, and if he was really Italian, the carabinieri might blame her for his death. Or Karl Spinner.
She grabbed a dirty canvas bag, pressed it against the blouse, and took the two ends of the man’s belt and fastened it tightly around the bunched fabric. With the Italian covered and secured, she hurried to fetch her grandfather.