She had been hanging there for a day when they found her. She was young and lithe from what they could tell, with pure pale skin that had started to turn grey. They all agreed that she had once radiated a real beauty. A beauty that had, perhaps, shone brightly in the empty town they now walked through.
It was dark when they found her, her silhouette dangling lightly beneath the lamppost where she was tied. The soft orange glow that the lamp emitted fell directly onto the crown of her head, as if she was on show. Like an angel coming down to earth, or maybe going up to heaven, some of them said. They couldn’t decide which but they agreed she was like Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story—beautiful and unattainable.
Hoisted fourteen feet off the ground, she was, even by the capacities of the tallest men, out of reach. No one could tell how she’d got there. Maybe she really was an angel. She had tousled black hair that shimmered in the lamplight and cascaded over a white linen dress. Her head hung low, but if you looked carefully, you could see the remains of thick black make-up that flicked away from the outer corners of her eyes: a modern Cleopatra. She could have been a picture in a gallery, they said.
But her bare feet—dirtied by the mud, the same mud the men trampled through day after day—brought the muse away from the canvas and back down to earth. This detail disturbed the men, but, like lots of other details in their lives, it remained unspoken. Yet it was there, like a tapeworm that eats away at you until its presence is as clear as day.
It was the feet that led them to look to the rest of her body for other disturbances. Hung around her neck was a wooden sign, inscribed with delicate white lettering, which read: ‘Ich wollte meine Kinder nicht kämpfen lassen.’
None of them understood what it meant, and none of them wanted to, for panic of making Katharine less beautiful than she was. So after much discussion they decided it said: ‘Will my kind night campers listen.’ They couldn’t decide what ‘Ich’ was—though they’d heard it spoken, they’d never seen it written down—but it was the shortest word in the sentence so it didn’t matter. What mattered was Katharine.
The men had time to get to know her for they were waiting rather than fighting. It was the start of May 1945. Berlin was encircled, Hitler dead. The Allies were happy and expectant. So too, it seemed, were the men. But the war had been long and hard.
Katharine offered something different to each of them, at different moments of the day. For Jackson, she was an audience as he oiled the parts of his Jungle Carbine in the midday sun. He would tell her jokes, which he enjoyed, as Katharine always found them funny. Found them funnier than any girl he’d ever met. And she would never stop him telling jokes either, which was even better. She would not order him to straighten up or shout and leave the room. He could stop talking when he wanted to, when his gun was clean.
For Blake, Katharine reinvigorated a more base pleasure. The well-thumbed pin-ups that he carried in his pack had lately provoked a listlessness within him. He was numb to his stained spread of Rita Hayworth, the same spread that every soldier used to escape into the night. The same war, the same guns, the same cigarettes, food and clothes. The same girl. He wanted more than the negligée and the silk sheets, the push-up bra and the fuck-me-eyes. He craved something pure. He wanted to know someone.
Katharine was pure for others too. She was the purest thing McConville had experienced since killing his first animal on the farm. It was a piglet, he remembered, a small thing that squealed that he was told needed to go. He remembered the colours: the pink on top of the white snow that had settled across the field that morning. How cold his hands were against the knife. How red the blood was that ran into the white. He remembered the piercing scream that followed a few hours later from inside the barn, of his mother trying to reach his sister. That dangling rope. He remembered this now with such clarity. A divine icon—a resurrection, maybe—had finally appeared. So it was Katharine that McConville would kneel before when saying his Hail Marys in the morning.
These times of quiet companionship were important for the men. They became the night campers and the empty town became known as Katharine. Katharine, herself, quickly became one of their group. The nights were long so they sat around a bonfire for hours on end, constructed not for warmth but so they could be close to her. McConville liked the way the flames lit Katharine up. The men would bicker over who would tell her the best anecdotes of war. The funny ones, the masculine ones, the stupid ones—never the scary ones.
Telling stories about home often eluded the men, but Katharine opened them up.
‘I was a teacher, a real good one. I’ve always liked children. And the school was nice, too. I remember…’
But when they tried, they only got so far. Details, like names and faces, were not always remembered. Some of the men couldn’t quite get their mouths around their memories. Jackson, the teacher, stopped and felt his head like he’d lost something. Then he stared into the fire.
When it got too late to sit around her, they let the fire burn out and walked to a small beer hall, abandoned like the rest of the town. They had to light candles as there was no electricity. It was a tired room, veiled in dust, but some details of its former life still remained. A newspaper lay folded on a table, and a smart hat hung on a stand by the door. The bar was a long wooden one, worn down by the arms of phantom revelers. The beer—the sweet smell of which stained the air—was stale. But they drank it anyway until they felt heavy and foolish.
It was then that they changed, like werewolves in thrall to moonlight. The tables and chairs were cleared to make way for a hazy square outlined by hazy men. Their noises became angry. They removed their shirts and then they fought, one on one, until life got beaten back into them.
‘Go on you fuck, give him one.’
‘What are you waiting for, beat the cunt!’
‘Fuck him up! Fuck him up!’
You couldn’t tell who was saying what. More beer flowed and so did blood. Sometimes teeth rolled, catching the dust. When someone was badly beaten, a man or two cast an eye upwards and some guilt escaped towards the ceiling. But Katharine was not there, so they quickly recast their eyes to the fight, hoping no one had spotted their flickering gaze.
Without Katharine’s presence, the night did not end until it ended. Only the light that streamed through the window at five revealed the traces of blood and bone and ennui that told the men it was time to sleep.
These rituals of day and night became their routine; it was therapeutic, they told themselves.
McConville never slept, really. He hadn’t really slept for the entire war. So he liked spending time with Katharine in the early morning, when the rest of the men were sleeping and the sun didn’t beat down on his pale skin. It was because of this that he noticed it first. Something had changed since the men said goodbye to her the night before. From afar, it looked like Katharine had done something to her hair, maybe, or had removed her eye make-up, but as McConville got closer, he realised the difference. Her right eye was gone. His gait slowed and the world zeroed in on the hole. A solar eclipse, big in the sky. He didn’t want to go closer but he did, too. As he did, his stare lost focus and his soul unravelled.
She had developed a belly that made her dress bulge, and her skin glistened with welts. From her left eye, a protracted tear of yellow-red fluid trailed her cheek. Flies buzzed. She had acquired the smell of a wet foot left too long in a boot. The smell was all over her and the heat had made it into something intoxicating, a sick sour perfume. She hung heavily, wanting to fall.
As McConville adjusted to the view, his knees quivered. Not with fear—that would come later—but anger. He lit a cigarette, his last one, and blew the smoke directly at Katharine in an attempt to deny her. He blew and blew until only the end remained, but as the smoke lifted, it distilled the new vision. She was an ungodly bitch.
It was a betrayal, the men agreed once they woke. She was fucking ugly now. What did she think she was doing? She couldn’t walk away from them. She couldn’t change like this. What was Blake meant to do? Who was Jackson going to tell his jokes to?
Speaking about Katharine pulled the men close together again, not as brothers in arms but as a pack of wolves. They’d escaped through the bar door and into the light.
That afternoon they acted in utter unison. They would ignore her for a while, to teach her a lesson. So they shouted songs until hoarse and sprayed bullets into grey streets. They tore up their uniforms. They painted their faces and wrestled in the mud. They jeered and grimaced all as one, away from Katharine, but they had lost any sense of reality. Speech was too conscious, laughter too premature, and they wrestled like they couldn’t let go. They were too in need of the human touch. The tapeworm began to exact its presence. You’d look into their eyes and they simply weren’t there.
As dusk settled, so did the urge for the routine of the recent past. They wouldn’t admit it but they missed her, desperately needed her, in the way that McConville’s knees still quivered and Blake’s pupils bulged out of his eyes and Jackson’s teeth chattered in the heat. They were a soldier who had held his breath too long, veins popping. So they turned and ran to her. They were coming home. They gathered around the ashes of last night’s bonfire and sang another song. This time with her included, but they didn’t notice whether she joined in as they were singing so loudly. They lit a fire and piled on more wood. They didn’t notice the missing eye or the welts or the sick sour smell. None of that mattered anymore—they were on the far side of themselves.
As the wood began to burn, they settled into conversations. They were talking and talking but words—or at least the right ones—weren’t coming out. It was all gobbledygook, like the white lettering on the sign that hung round Katharine’s neck.They realised that she wasn’t there for them like she used to be. She wasn’t listening at all. They got on their feet and they screamed at her but she wasn’t pulling them back into the world. She had set sail with it across a void that was ever increasing.
‘Maybe we need to be closer?’ a voice called out.
The men shouted in approval. Without waiting, Jackson raced through the fire and sprang onto the post. He climbed like a monkey, his knife gripped between his teeth. After every metre he turned around to them with a look that cut through the flames and gave the men a wild hope. Once he reached the top, he took the knife into his hand and banged the hollow pipe. They were closer now. They shrieked as he began to cut the rope. He shredded it and as he did so Katharine began to sway, as if he was reanimating her. The men roared when Jackson finished. Katharine fell hard into the mud and they rushed to her like bees protecting their queen. They held onto her as tight as they could. Their nails dug deep. They still didn’t notice the missing eye or the welts or the sick sour smell. They just needed to be held but she wasn’t holding them back. Her body started to judder: an arm was punching her. Then all the men felt themselves punching her, uncontrollably, in unison. And then they heard a shot.
Blake had pulled the trigger. He pulled again, and again, and once more for luck. In that moment, they couldn’t sense her anymore; she had gone beyond the horizon. She was dead and so were they. Dead beyond doubt, and they had enjoyed killing her. It felt so good.
Blake grabbed her arms and Jackson took her legs. No one stopped them. They began swinging her up and down as if playing with a child. The perfect mix of fear and fun, though they didn’t need to stop at fun. They could continue. They could really go for it.
They let go of her. Her rotting weight meant she did not fly high like a child can, but collapsed onto the fire like a sack of shit. Silence. Her distended belly popped like a balloon. Jackson sniggered.
As the flames enveloped the body, the fallen world they found themselves in became clearer. Clearer with every shout, with every laugh and stare, until they realised that they too had fallen.
There was no affirmation of what they had done, no post-match team talk. Just stillness, and then, like spectres in the moonlight, the men melted away until only McConville remained.
He laughed, a quiet chuckle. He wasn’t sure what to do. So he began speaking, anything that would come out. He blabbered a bit but then found his stride: ‘Hail… Hail Mary full of grace The Lord is with thee Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus Holy Mary Mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death Amen.’ He said it again and again, faster each time. Then slowed down. Then stopped altogether.
As he kissed the crucifix that dangled from his neck, he turned away from the disintegrating figure into the blackness. He howled into it. For the emptiness, the loss of beauty. He thumped his head and stomped hard on the mud.
He felt nothing, nothing but the irregular beating of his heart, a gift from his father.
After a while, he turned back to the fire for light, almost forgetting that he had company. But there she was, it was undeniable. She was so radiant without the men, so McConville sat back down and watched her. He watched her burn, crackle, explode for their sins, like a Roman candle into the night.