Hans returned from the Great War, haunted. Not only by the horrors of the trenches, but haunted by visions of a more terrifying war to come. Would the parties and parades of Carnival 1919 offer him love and hope? Or doom him and his country to the devastation he foresaw? Find out in this atmospheric, unsettling historical Mardi Gras dark fantasy short story.
Sample of “Carnival in Sorgenbach”
Carnival in Sorgenbach
by Raymund Eich
Hans lifted the beer mug to his mouth when the vision hit.
The rabble-rouser, lank strand of hair falling down his apoplectic face. The hooked cross, black on white on red. The rumble of engines high above, from aircraft far larger than the Fokkers and Sopwiths of the war. A rubblescape stretching for miles, punctuated by skeletal walls and smothered with the stench of innumerable corpses.
Hans’ awareness returned to the beer hall. The glass mug lay sideways on the wooden table. Lager pooled on the tabletop and dripped down the edges. It soaked the thighs of his best pair of pants.
He stood up and brushed at the sodden line across his thighs. A fool’s task, it would not dry them in time. Why had a vision struck him now? He’d ordered a beer to keep the visions away during the job interview, not bring them on.
He caught his breath, then remembered the other people in the tavern.
The women and the old men looked wary. A few glanced searchingly around, hoping someone else would have an explanation. In a corner, Schmidt came closest to showing understanding, through eyes too old for his youthful face, and jacket cuff pinned to his shoulder. Yet even Schmidt wouldn’t know. He would assume Hans had been plunged into memories of the year before, not into premonitions of greater horrors in the years to come.
The bartender came out with a rag and a pail. “Hans, let me help you.” He sopped up beer along the table’s edge.
Hans stared glumly. Part of his dwindling money wasted, when he needed a job and every penny was precious. “I hadn’t even taken a sip.”
“As I said, I’ll clean it.” The bartender wrung beer into the pail. “You fought hard for us. You deserved better than getting stabbed in the back.”
A never-ending supply of fresh-faced doughboys, joining British and French soldiers reinvigorated with American munitions and tins of bully beef, had done a good job stabbing the army in the front. The emptiness of his pockets returned to Hans. “I mean, all that beer, wasted.”
The bartender paused his motion of the rag. “Times are tough for all of us, with the British keeping up the blockade. But you’ll find some free beer in a few days, once Carnival starts.”
Hans trudged toward the door. Out of habit, he reached into his jacket for his notebook and fountain pen. If he recorded every detail of each vision, perhaps he could understand the future they predicted and, Mary full of grace, keep it from coming true.
But a glance at his wristwatch told him he had to leave now for his interview. Understanding the visions would not fill his belly. He took his overcoat and hat from their racks and hurried out.
Clouds clotted the late-morning sky. Hans’ breath steamed as he walked from the tavern toward the town’s market plaza. The St. Boniface Church, clad in brick and rough stone, stood near the half-timbered, half-plastered face of the town hall. A cart pulled by two blinkered horses waited, as workmen off-loaded bunting and effigies of springtime spirits to dress the town hall for Carnival.
Hans took the shortest route to Müller’s watch factory, straight down toward the Rhine and then along the street serving its docks. The river’s gray-green presence buoyed him. It would flow on, even if all the disasters he foresaw would come about, and Sorgenbach joined the weed-covered Roman ruins on nearby hilltops.
The watch factory looked alive. Its beige brick face bore rounded windows, and whiplash curves of wrought iron moldings. Hans took firmer steps as he approached the factory. Müller would not notice the spilled beer on his pants, nor the visions sometimes gripping him. Müller would give him a job.
A rumbling sound came up the street behind him. Hans stepped aside and glanced over his shoulder. A large truck with a tarpaulin stretched above the cargo area, and the French army’s tricolor roundel on the side. A driver in a horizon-blue greatcoat and Adrian helmet, next to an officer wearing a visor crusted with braid. The driver glowered at Hans as the truck passed.
In the cargo area, colonial soldiers huddled for warmth. Their dark faces contrasted with their greatcoats and the orange-red tips of cigarettes. One stared at Hans with an unreadable look while the truck faded into the distance.
Hans resumed his earlier pace and soon reached the watch factory. Inside, the tick of a large clock echoed off the brick and tile of the main reception room. A few minutes before eleven, he’d made it on time.
A receptionist, with a long gray dress and a careworn face, spoke. “Herr Müller is ready for you.” Time and sorrows sapped her voice. He wondered how many of her sons had been plowed into French soil. “Please follow me.”
The only sound came from her heels clacking the tile. It echoed down underused hallways as they went to Müller’s office. She announced Hans, then withdrew.
Müller had a ruddy face and a firm handshake. “Hans, it’s an honor to meet you. You are one of our heroes, undefeated on the battlefield.” He gestured at a chair facing his desk.
Hans sat. “I don’t consider myself a hero, but thank you, Herr Müller.”
“I regret I must be curt. The French have sent a squad of Negroes and I can only stall them a few minutes.”
The truck overtaking him on the street. “Why?”
“We served the war effort by making shell fuses,” Müller said. “When the French occupiers first arrived in town, they confiscated every fuse remaining in the warehouse. Now, though we have retooled the factory to manufacture watches, they think we still have fuses hidden away.”
Desperation and hope leaked into Hans’ voice. “Your watch business is growing, then.”
Müller looked pained. “I wish it were. You see, our best suppliers are outside the Rhineland. When shipments meant for us reach the French checkpoints, they delay them until they get their bribes. If they don’t steal them outright. The same happens when we ship finished product out.”
Müller sighed. “I don’t have enough work for the men already on the payroll. I cannot add a bookkeeper. Not even one as heroic as you.”
Hans sloughed out a breath. “I see. Thank you for your time, Herr Müller.” He rose from his chair.
“Wait, please. Though times are dour now, they will change someday. Carnival is a harbinger of that change. It is a season when the dark spirits of winter are expelled and the fertile ones of spring are admitted. I am the president of the Fools’ Republic, the Sorgenbach Old Carnival Club. Most of the leading businessmen in town are members. We are looking for new blood, younger men of merit. Younger men such as you. Would you join us?”
Businessmen who might be hiring. The company of other men without thunderclouds of steel rumbling at the horizon. Raucous laughter, foolish costumes, and flowing beer to push the visions away. “You flatter me, Herr Müller, but I have little to offer. I can’t afford—”
Müller came closer. “We’ll provide you a costume for our parade. Don’t worry about that. Hans, please, join us.”
“Thank you. I will.”
Müller beamed. “Wonderful. Meet me in the market plaza on Thursday at noon to watch the women seize the town hall. After that, our club gathers on Sunday night for a final meeting before we march in the Rose Monday parade. We tell our wives we’re putting the final decorations on the wagons, but—” His eye twinkled. “—mostly we’ll be drinking.”
The twinkle faded. “I must go deal with my unwelcome guests. Can you find your way out?”
Hans had navigated zigzag trenches in darkness. “Yes.”
“Till Thursday!” Müller held his office door for Hans, then hurried toward the factory’s rear.
Hans headed toward the reception area. Or thought he did—unmarked cross-corridors and unfamiliar stairs led him on a meandering course past empty offices. Relief touched him when brightness at the end of a hallway indicated a side door. Not ideal, but it would get him out of