The age of a thing is in the feel of it. Secrets are locked in the fingerprints of cracked porcelain and the bloom of rust on metal. You’ve just got to pick up a dusty artifact in both hands and squeeze your eyelids shut. With a little thought, the mind-reeling eons of time will stretch out before you like a star-filled sky.
I didn’t learn this feeling in a classroom. No scientist does.
My grandfather, my dedushka . . . he taught me this awe for the forgotten past.
When I was sixteen, Vasily Stefanov caught me hiding in his toolshed, rummaging through his war souvenirs and trying to open the brass padlock on a battered green ammunition box with a screwdriver. He whistled low, like a cuckoo. This was how he’d gotten my attention since I was a little girl, and I froze in embarrassment.
Instead of punishing me, he told me a story.
“You are so curious,” he said, words soaked in the heavy Russian accent he brought to the United States from another life. “What are you looking for?”
“I’m sorry, Dedushka,” I stuttered. “Nothing. I only wanted to—”
He waved me off with a callused palm.
“It’s okay. Curious people learn things,” he said.
My grandfather took the ammunition box from me and set it clattering on his workbench. He unlocked the padlock and opened the dented lid, revealing a few faded photographs, an old pocket watch, and scattered medals. Then, he lifted out an oily cloth with something heavy wrapped in it. Without a word, he dropped the shrouded bundle across my palms.
Inside, I found something metallic and dense, something so intricate and alien that my breath caught in my throat. Etched into a crescent-shaped slice of metal the size of a seashell, I saw a labyrinthine pattern of grooves—a language of bizarre angles.
“This thing,” he said. “This incredible thing. I always meant to share it, you understand? But the years march.”
“It’s heavy,” I said.
“It is a relic from a war. With a story I have never told anyone.”
I remember his face now so clearly, lined with wrinkles that could be scary until the old man smiled and you saw where they came from.
“Do you believe in angels, June?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I responded. “No.”
“Perhaps you should,” he said.
Grandfather cleared his throat, leaned against a creaking workbench.
“I was barely a teenager, same as you, when the second world war came. My family lived in a village near the Ural Mountains. The Germans stormed onto Russian soil and it was decided I was old enough to journey to the front. All the boys in the village were sent. We were excited. Excited.”
He shook his head at the memory.
“Stalingrad. Winter,” he said. “Early in the battle. We were already starving. Frozen. The Germans had pushed a million Soviet soldiers nearly to the banks of the Volga. The women and children and wounded who were left in the city . . . they finally tried to escape across the icy black river. All hope was gone. It was only survival then.
“The Volga was choked with great green military tankers, filthy fishing rigs, civilian yachts, and human beings, thousands of them, a—a . . . mass of them, clinging to anything that would float. And the low gray clouds over the river were screaming with Nazi warplanes. The sky was weeping tears of fire onto the backs of those women and children. Oil and gas had spilled on the water. The river herself was burning.
“I and the other scouts were on the near bank, covering the retreat. Stalingrad itself was already bombed to oblivion. You can’t understand . . . it was a moonscape. Another world. A place of shattered brick and wood. Crumbling walls sagging in fields that were once neighborhoods, empty windows like open mouths, vomiting dust. The fallen froze where they lay and were not buried.
“We boys survived like rodents, climbing through the remains of collapsed basements or abandoned trenches. Nothing aboveground was left. We lived this horror for months . . . months that went on for eternity. Frostbite and thirst and snipers. Early on we had trained our dogs to wear explosives and run under the German tanks. Later, we ate them. And I do not know how to explain to you, vnuchka . . . but over time . . . in that strange cold world, the memory of my life faded to gray ash.
“Foolishly, I came to believe there was nothing left that could horrify me.”
Grandfather blinked, gazing at the open ammunition box and its dangling brass padlock. Lost in the act of remembering, he would not look at me while he spoke.
“A Nazi plane must have called out our position. One minute the other boys and I were lined up in our greatcoats, rifles snapping bullets, stocks laid over a wall of rubble. ‘Not one step back,’ was the saying. Those who ran were shot. We pulled our triggers when forms appeared in the smoke and held our ground. No matter how many German helmets appeared . . . we were ready to make the sacrifice.
“And then our hillside turned to chaos. A German tank had zeroed in on us. It was as if a giant had put his fist into the hill and we were thrown, flung into the sky like rag dolls, helmets rolling. A hunchbacked panzer crawled out of the mist, painted yellow and gray, like a sick tiger, the black eye of its turret searching for us. Lying on my stomach, breathing dust, eyes not focusing . . . I could hear the German crew shouting to each other. Like demons made of smoke and dust, calling out from hell.
“June, please understand. What happened next . . . it is terrible. But you must know. Someday, it may help you make sense of what you hold in your hands.”
My eyes dropped from Grandfather’s face to the sliver of metal lying across my fingers. I couldn’t recognize the symbols etched in its surface. They looked like warped letters, mixed with geometrical shapes, lines and dots. The metal felt strangely warm, the finely carved edges dissolving into fractal curls. In each crescent tip was a small hole, as if the artifact were a small part of something bigger.
“After the shell hit, all the other boys were gone—wiped out. My side was numb, torn by shrapnel and rock. But I could still move. Ears ringing, I rolled onto my back. And by a stroke of luck, I was alive to see what came next.
“A tall man in a Soviet greatcoat and hat came staggering over the broken hillside. His face was in anguish, his movements almost blind. But he had spotted the Germans before they saw him. He dove forward and snatched the sidearm away from one soldier and fired it into his torso until there were no more bullets. In another stride, he grabbed two more soldiers in a bear hug. Then he smashed their heads together—shattered their helmets. The men fell dead. And finally, the Russian turned. I felt his gaze upon me.
“We had been eating rats, June. We were weak. But this man was strong. He was holy. My eyes filled with tears because I knew then he was an avenging angel, righteous, stalking the mists of battle.
“And I remember that I smiled, my cracked lips bleeding. I felt I was somehow witnessing the truth. The very incarnation of justice.
“A hatch on the panzer opened and the Nazi tank commander emerged, firing his tommy gun. Bullets spat right into the angel’s back. He stumbled and fell, like a man, and lay crumpled among the bodies of my friends.
“The commander climbed off the tank, cautious. Trying to look every direction at once. This man had seen the furious vengeance of God and knew he had been judged. I lay still, my breath shallow, watching from beneath the turned‑up brim of my ushanka hat and trying not to shiver.
“The doomed man leaned over to inspect the body. I do not know what he saw, but I will never forget his face as he saw it. His eyes went wide in shock. He spun, coat flapping, and screamed a command to his driver inside the tank, looking away for one second . . . it was enough. The angel rose, taking the man by the face. Those gloved fingers nearly reached around the back of the man’s head, lifting him off the ground. With one squeeze—”
My grandfather yanked his thumb across his throat.
“The tank was still idling, waiting. Then the hatch on top clanged shut and the panzer engine began to rumble. Running away. Imagine. The might of a tank, invincible and armored, fleeing from one man.
“The angel stood up and shook out his tattered coat. Then the thing leaped onto the side of the tank. With one hand, he tore the hatch right off the turret. Reaching inside, he dragged the shrieking German driver out by his collar, thumped his face against the metal, and rolled his body onto the ground. Like it was nothing. Like he was slapping a fish against a rock.
“The angel stood for a moment, head down in despair. Something fell from his hands. Then he walked away, disappearing into the mist. The tank kept rolling toward the river. After some time, I heard a splash. The sting of my injury was growing, but even then, curiosity had not left me. So I dragged myself over rubble and death until I reached the spot where the angel had stood.
“I saw the bullets go into him. But on the ground, instead of blood, I found shards of metal. Bits of leather. Bullet fragments and something else. An object, very old I think, yet more modern than any machinery in that battle.
“That is what you hold in your hands, June . . . this relic is what the angel of vengeance left behind.”
My grandfather stopped speaking. He finally looked up at me, watching as I traced my fingers over the curves of the artifact.
“There are strange things in the world, June. Things older than we know. Walking with the faces of men . . . there are angels among us. Sometimes they will judge. And sometimes they will exact punishment.
“What you hold belongs to their world. Not to ours.”
Under his stern gaze, I understood his message.
Tell no one.
“Most people don’t want to see a hidden world. They are content to live in ignorance. Others are more curious. What kind of person are you, June?”
“I don’t know, Grandfather,” I said truthfully.
With that, he carefully took the relic from me, wrapped it back in its oily cloth, and placed it inside the ammunition box. He pushed the old brass padlock back through the ring and, with a click, he locked it tight.
“Can I see it again, sometime?” I asked.
Grandfather looked at me for a long moment.
“Someday you will,” he said, nodding.
Two years later, at his funeral, my grandmother handed me a sealed envelope. My name was scrawled on it in my grandfather’s rough handwriting. Inside, I found a small thing that changed the course of my life.
A brass key.
Copyright © 2017 by Daniel H. Wilson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.