“Udo my dear?”
“Yes, Herr Oberst?”
“Do you even know what month it is?”
“How the hell would I know? Why would I know? They're all the same in this sandtrap. Hot, dry, and bright. Never changes.”
“Huh. Interesting.” Udo's tone conveyed his impression that, in his opinion, this fact was anything but that.
“Advent has already begun,” came Pfirsich's voice, an umistakeable (and rather thickly-laden) tone of wistful melancholy laid over his voice, and his faint Swabian accent ever so slightly stronger. Had Udo dared to glance for more than an instant at his officer's pale blue eyes, he might have seen something almost like the glimmering of tears, though nothing that would cause unsightly redness. “I'm sure Erwin must be thinking of it too. Our dear mother would have started cooking a week ago, and the kitchen would never be cool until Three Kings' Day. The scents, Udo. The spätzle, the cakes, the apple wine....and the excitement. Oh, I know Christmas is really for children mostly, but...I suppose I'm still a child at heart. I miss it so.”
“Are you trying to make me homesick?”
“That would be cruel of me, wouldn't it? But I suppose misery loves company.” Pfirsich rested his chin on his hands. “And I can't be the only one longing for some Christmas cheer.”
Udo could already see where this was heading, and try as he might, he saw no way of deflecting it. He only hoped he might escape a grilling about his own family's--
“And did your family, er, observe the season?” Pfirsich asked with a painfully obvious delicacy.
“We never made a big deal about it,” Udo said, quite honestly. “Though we did have a tree. Later on. You know.”
“Well, we had to put on a good show for the neighbors. We got a great big one. Huge. Had to be trimmed half to pieces to fit in the house, and Papa still had to knock part of the door frame out. The fucking thing dripped so much sap the dog stuck to the floor for a week and the candles once set my little sister on fire.”
“Halfway measures wouldn't do for your family, would they?”
“You should have heard what he called the grocer who tried to sell us mealy oranges.”
“If you won't repeat it, then it must have been unspeakable. But I'm glad you have some good Christmas memories, my dear.”
“Who said they were good?”
“Well then, we'll just have to make some good memories, won't we? Christmas is for children, and we're all little children inside, somewhere. Especially this unit. Try to organize something nice for the boys, will you, dear?”
If Udo had had a literal, rather than only metaphorical bullet to bite, he'd have snapped his teeth clean through it. “Mein Herr,” he said wearily. “You are asking me to organize a Christmas party?”
“I can't think of anyone I'd rather have doing it, my dear.”
That's the worst failure of imagination you've ever had, Udo thought. But, trying to keep the deer-in-the-tanklights glow to a minimum, he simply nodded and said, “Jawohl, Mein Herr,” as if he'd been tasked with event planning for fussy socialites every day of his life.
He left the Colonel's tent with a long list of absolute requirements, virtually none of which were likely to be easy to come by in North Africa. Obviously the pork roast and sausage gravy were almost certainly not happening. Sauerkraut? Goose? Stollen? Adventszopf?
That's not to say that Udo had no options to explore. The 469th Halftrack, Gravedigging, and Support Unit of the Afrika Korps had always been an island of misfit toys. Wherever you go, whenever in time, it's always the rejects, the damaged, and the odd lots who become the most clever and resourceful, particularly in situations where it's a survival requirement. Udo Schmidt (formerly Isador Gulphstein, a matter which is not discussed), for all his grousing, was rather proud to be orderly to Colonel Pfirsich Rommel, whose outrageous effeminacy was not the veil, but the source of an especially complex and impressive form of courage. As far as Schmidt was concerned, what Herr Oberst wants, Herr Oberst gets—even if in a rather mutated form.
“I dunno,” slurred Dobermann, shrugging, when Udo came to him to vent and whine and huff and stress the fuck out. “If I was a married man, and I had t' plan a dinner party, I'd ask my wife. Women are like that. They can get food anywhere and they can make food out of stuff that wasn't food before.
“Falila won't get us the pork roast, that's for sure.”
“Maybe they got a fat camel. After Krüger's done with it, who could tell?”
“I like you, Dobi. Even with your brains all scrambled up, you're still the third or fourth smartest man here.”
Udo thought perhaps the camp's token Americans could be of help.
“So Arnold. Chief. What do the Red Indians do for Christmas?”
“We make heap big feast. How. Eat many buffalo.”
“Since when do you talk like that?”
“Since you decided to start off with the stereotypes from Square One, you greasy little dago.”
“Seriously. We have Feats of Strength. And Airing of Grievances. And an insult contest. We shouldn't do that here because you'll probably win, and it'll end in tears.”
Jeff, the prisoner from Milwaukee who speaks better German than many Germans, wasn't much more helpful. “Beer. You'll need lots of beer. And a really big ditch to piss in. You'll also need a reading of 'A Visit From St. Nicholas,' by Clement Clarke Moore, probably, though it was first published anonymously in 1823...”
“I'll put you in charge of that, then,” Udo sighed. “The poem and the ditch.”
“I wouldn't get your hopes up about the beer. I don't think there's enough water in North Africa to brew it all.”
Feldbischoff Stange was a little more of a help. “I do think you should involve your dear wife's people, Udo. There's nothing to fear. They already seem quite accepting, as they should considering that you're a---”
“I am NOT!”
“I seem to have a vivid memory of you saying the shahadah, in front of a large number of witnesses. No take-backsies with that one, I don't think.”
“Do you realize how much you sounded like the Old Man right now? Just needs a little more swish. So I'm supposed to ask a bunch of Muslims to help me get stuff for a fucking Christmas party?”
“People of the Book and all, Corporal Schmidt. I think they'd be respectful of your background. After all, they may not believe in Christ's divinity, but they do honor him as a great prophet. You probably will have to settle for goat or beef or mutton, though.”
“I've already accepted that,” Udo grumbled.
In the end, of course, it was the eminently generous and pragmatic ladies of The Cedars who came through. After all, even if the members of the 469th never quite seemed to settle their tabs completely, they were, as a general rule, very pleasant customers. And though Madame would never say so openly, she believed this was not all completely due to the civilizing influence of the brothers Rommel, but also partly attributable to a principle that would be articulated by an American songwriter some decades later as, “To live outside the law, you must be honest.”
The 469th also never, ever failed to be entertaining, and the girls could always use a good laugh.
Which is not to say that Falila's tribe was not also a huge help. The ladies of the tribe who had been giving the Cedars girls belly-dancing lessons and selling them kayf since Udo's wedding contrived to procure a great number of goats and lambs to eat, and huge quantities of couscous and hummus and tabouli and other things that Germans turn up their noses at until they're really hungry, and then continue to crave for the rest of their lives.
It was Falila's proud father Nagouna who outdid himself—his sense of honor demanded nothing less than an extravagant gift, once the bizarre custom had been explained to him (several times by Udo, without success) by his daughter, whispering in his ear that no, really, it was very important, and the feast would be a failure without it. “They believe it's a powerful blessing to have it, Father. For the whole year. Where they come from, no household is without one. They'd be shamed if we can't get them one.”
Christmas Eve dawned clear and dark, and the men approached The Cedars with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, not least because Madame put her foot down on the matter of a private party. “Much too important an evening,” she’d sniffed, in a tone that suggested there was not enough money in the whole Afrikakorps to offset the business and goodwill she’d lose if she told the English and the Aussies and the Amis that they weren’t welcome.
It took four camels to haul the massive Atlas cedar Nagouna had demanded for his in-laws. Even the great entrance hall of the elegant brothel could barely contain it, and even so, the great swinging doors had to be removed from the hinges.
And it must be reported that when Pfirsich saw it, his eyes lit up like a child's, and he ran to embrace it around the trunk. “Oh, it's lovely,” he gasped. “It even smells almost right. I never imagined you could find--” Further words were muffled as he pressed his face to the rough bark.
“Hmph,” snorted one of Madame's girls. “He doesn't like women, but he'll hump a tree.”
“Perhaps I should hire some,” said Madame.
The evening, it had to be said, was a success, even if Udo had to say so himself, which he did. The candle-lighting on the tree hadn’t set anything or anyone on fire (for very long, anyway) the food and liquor (to which a number of surprisingly generous Allied forces had contributed stores) seemed to last forever and replenish itself. Udo smiled warmly at his commanding officer, who had first busied himself with fussing over countless little details of redecorating the decorations (perhaps to hide his grateful blush and sentimental tears), and was now sitting like a lady all pink-faced and glowing next to dear Babette, who held their little son Mani in swaddling clothes like the earthy mixed-blood, all too French, Madonna that she was. His conception was nearly as miraculous as the Christ child’s, Udo thought. Maybe more so. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I’d sooner believe it if Babette said God did it.
It all made Udo feel a little verklempt. And what would a holiday be without a little Nazi-needling?
“It's...it's kind of glorious, isn't it? Like the 1914 Christmas truce, but with more--” Udo made the universal hand gesture for feminine pulchitrude.
Winzig's lips pursed unpleasantly. “You are aware that the Führer denounced--”
“FUCK THE FUCKING FÜHRER TO FUCKING FUCK!”
Winzig went white. Whiter than he was normally, which was hardly thought possible until that moment.
Udo turned and pointed right at him with a grubby, slightly burnt finger. “That was my goddamn Christmas present right now. I've always wanted to say that, and I got to say it for Christmas. Would you really report a man for enjoying his fucking Christmas present? That'd be lower than a goddamn latrine-bottom-living shitworm, and if you do it, I hope you step on a tank mine and get your balls blown out your nose. I'd even wish you a merry fucking Christmas if you could just keep your Heil-happy mouth shut for one fucking holiday.”
Seeing Winzig gape like a beached carp was never not funny, even if it was starting to pall a bit in its frequency. Still, this was one of the most spectacular versions of it yet, and Udo just had to stand back a little and admire his artistry.
“Kjars, darling,” came a melodious, slightly brandy-softened voice. “Don't forget, playing the piano does calm you down so. It would be lovely to hear some of our Christmas favorites from back home, wouldn't it?”
No SS commando ever issued an order less open to refusal. Even Winzig could recognize that. And there was very little that could disrupt the rapturous attention he wisely chose to give to “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” and “O Tannenbaum,” the loving attention he gave each melodious blue-note and fanciful fill, the genuine warmth with which the men chimed in singing, voices roughly gang-fondling every trite known-by-heart word, even the verses no one ever remembers (for it is amazing what a deprived memory can do.)
Not even the instruments of Falila's tribe, the keening anzad and the throbbing tende, quickly learning the simple melodies and expanding upon them in ways that Charlie Parker was just beginning to think about trying, half a world away—and just slightly more than loud enough to drown out Winzig's reflexive inner monologue on degeneracy. Not even a polite, if rather slurred, British request for “'Hark the Herald Angels Sing,' that's a nice tune.”
Winzig bit his lip, a gesture almost winsome. “But the Mendelssohn melody...that's banned...”
“Maybe in Berlin. Not here,” came a decisive voice from the corner.
General Rommel certainly knew how to make an entrance, and he was going to bask in the few moments of collective awe before his lanky brother ruined his dignity with joy.
Even the splashy fraternal reunion could make only a temporary interruption in Winzig's playing, for the sense of rage and indignity that seethed under his skin was providing a fire to his soul and a fuel to his fingers. Granted, he did stop for a moment when some overexuberant Tommies with handmade Christmas crackers that were just a bit too explosively potent sent Dobermann first crawling between Winzig's legs under the piano and then right up into Udo's arms.
“There there,” Udo said, petting Dobermann uncomfortably and petting Fridl even more so.
As the evening wore on, Falila's people's potent kayf threatened to bring a quieter, more reflective sort of feeling to the party, especially as the last of the brandy and beer started to fade.
Until the sound of the low ominous roar overhead. Men looked at each other in panic – completely unexpected, the sound of the plane, completely unfair, and completely against all carefully negotiated agreements.
“I know that plane!” Pfirsich giggled. Of course. The only thing missing to make his Christmas Eve flawless. “Someone send a car, please - he likes to land by that field east of the gate.”
“So that’s what the kids are calling it these days,” Udo muttered.
It took a surprisingly long time to bring the jeep there and back again, for reasons that became clear when the still-thirsty men laid eyes on the massive quantities of cases of schnapps that dragged the jeep’s chassis nearly to the ground. “There’s more coming on the donkeys,” smiled Arnold, precariously perched on a crate.
Oberleutnant Rosen Kavalier’s unofficial, off-the-record, declared-invisible Stuka had been shockingly visible in the sky, decked out as it was in flashlight bulbs and olive branches. The dashing Luftwaffe pilot himself had managed to acquire a ragged scarlet coat that beautifully set off his dark hair and lean body, and a ridiculous fake beard that did him no favors at all.
He barely nodded at the men toasting his health and strode through the hall to give his fiancé a lascivious kiss. “I’m the Weihnachtsmann,” he leered into Pfirsich’s ear. “I brought the traditional staff and nuts just for you.”
“Oh, Rosen, please.”
Holidays in wartime can’t help but be bittersweet, but no one in the 469th stayed sober, or clothed, or alone enough to feel too much of the bitter, at least until the hangovers kicked in, but for now, that reckoning is far, far away.
And if anyone noticed that Pfirsich during his redecorating fit, had rearranged the lighting so that the mantelpiece held precisely eight candles, well---as the Tommies would say if they spoke any French, honi soit qui mal y pense.