"Blast it! I've lost the confounded thing."
The young man in the corner of the library put his book away and glanced up at the speaker.
"What is it, Uncle?"
"Hmm? Oh, sorry, Philip, I didn't see you there."
Philip rose from his chair and walked over to stand by the fireplace. In the light, it could be seen that he was still more a boy than a man: while the hair on his head was thick and dark, his cheeks were barely touched with fuzz. He raised brown eyes to his uncle and, with a serious expression, repeated his question.
"What is it you've lost, Uncle Edwin?"
"Oh. A Victory medal. I could have sworn I had it right here."
"A Victoria Cross?"
"Heavens, no." Edwin chuckled dryly. "That would be disastrous! No, this is much more common, and less costly."
"What does it look like?"
"Circular, copper lacquered in bronze. There's a winged Victory on one side. The other reads: ‘The Great War for Civilization, 1914-1919'. As I've said, it's fairly common, but it was only issued with a Star or a War Medal," Edwin continued, gesturing to the medals in question where they lay encased in glass, "and I hate to see the set incomplete."
"Well, Uncle Edwin, I promise to keep a lookout. You do have an impressive collection."
Edwin smiled. "Thank you, m'boy. I've always been interested in this period of history. I like to think I'm preserving something important."
"I should say so." Philip waxed enthusiastic. "The rewards of combat in those days must have been marvelous. All those medals, the adulation, the parades..."
"Not so marvelous for those poor blighters in the trenches," responded Edwin. "The mustard gas, the loss of life and limb. And who's to say which was worse, eh?"
"Oh, Uncle." Philip refused to let Edwin's words bother him. "What about the flyers, then? Weren't they called Knights of the Air?"
"That's right. The flyers were above the real warfare...in the public’s eye as well as literally. Besides, the airplane was a new invention, and they were doing something for the first time: using the plane as a weapon."
"I wish I'd been there," mused Philip wistfully.
Edwin gave him a severe look. "War in the air is still war. But enough of this talk. It's late, and your old uncle is going to bed."
"Old! Hmmph." Philip smiled. "I think I'll stay up a bit, if you don't mind. My visit will be over soon, and I don't want to waste a minute of it. Maybe I could take a walk in the gardens."
"Bit chilly for that, isn't it?"
"It's April. Anyway, I'll wear a sweater."
Edwin clapped his nephew on the shoulder. "Enjoy yourself, then," he said indulgently. "See you in the morning."
When his uncle had gone, Philip grabbed a pullover from the closet. He walked to the French doors and opened them onto a stone terrace. The air was redolent with lilac, and Philip took a deep breath before stepping outside. A large yellow moon lit his way down the path.
Philip strolled into the garden, noting how the moonlight touched the plants with silver. He walked the length of the main path, taking his time, gleaning the maximum enjoyment from the song of the nightingale somewhere high in a tree. There really was nothing like an English garden!
Water trilled over the large stone fountain at one end of the path. Philip noted its shadow over a bed of crocuses. When the shadow moved, he started and looked up.
A man stood by the fountain. The moon had disappeared behind a bank of clouds, making it difficult for Philip to see the stranger's face, but the impression was of youth. There was something about the set of the shoulders that spoke, however, of extreme weariness.
It struck Philip that the man was trespassing.
"Excuse me," he said. "Have you lost your way?"
The man turned. In the shifting light from the clouded moon, Philip saw that he was indeed young, and blonde. He wore a sweater with a rolled neck over tan slacks.
"I believe I have," the man said, his voice as pale as his appearance.
Philip noted that the man had the suggestion of an accent, although he couldn't quite place its origin. There was something familiar about him as well.
"Have we met?" he asked.
The stranger inclined his head. "In a sense, Philip."
"You know my name!" Philip started.
Now the man smiled.
"I've been observing you for some time. Please forgive my presumptuousness. But I haven't introduced myself."
He turned away as he spoke, and Philip caught only a portion of his next sentence.
"I beg your pardon. Did you say your name was Fred?"
The man turned back. He smiled again, and Philip thought he detected sadness there.
"Yes. Fred is fine."
It was an odd response, but Philip let it pass. He was curious about this man who had appeared in his uncle's garden and seemed to know him.
"So have you met my uncle?"
"We have an acquaintance in common. It was a long time ago." Fred gazed off into the distance. "Come, walk with me," he said finally.
Fred strode off down the path, not looking back. Philip felt compelled to follow. Whoever Fred was to the family, he commanded respect, if only by his bearing.
An idea struck Philip, and he decided to voice it.
"May I ask you something?" When Fred paused in his stride, Philip plunged ahead. "Are you in the military?"
"I was, once. No longer."
"Ah. I want to join, you know, but my parents are against it."
"I see. And how do you imagine serving, Philip?"
"I want to fly airplanes." Philip held his head up. "There's nothing more glorious than seeing the world from the sky!"
"There's something to be said for that. Philip, how old are you?"
Startled, Philip blurted out, "Eighteen, Sir."
Fred looked at him sternly, until Philip had to glance away.
"Seventeen," he corrected himself, then added: "But I'll be eighteen at the end of the summer."
"I became a cadet at age eleven," stated Fred. "When I was twenty-two, we went to war. By the time I turned twenty-three I was learning to fly, and only a few months later I brought down my first plane."
Philip stared in awe. "That's fantastic, Sir! You must have been a great fighter."
"So I was told, often enough," responded Fred, a wry note in his voice.
"You said you went to war," asked Philip, puzzled. "We've been at peace for some time now."
"Yes. It was, as I said, a long time ago. In another country."
But you can't be that old, thought Philip. "What was it like?" he asked aloud.
Fred turned sharply on his heel and gave Philip a severe look. "You really want to know, Philip?"
"Well, yes," Philip responded, trying not to shrink before Fred's expression. The other man's blue eyes had taken on an icy cast in the moonlight, and at that moment, he was every inch the warrior.
"It was glorious, at first. I reveled in the chase, and like any born hunter, I kept souvenirs: patches of fabric with the serial numbers of airplanes I'd shot down, flare pistols, machine guns. Anything I could carry away. Once I was even given a photograph of a pilot I'd killed. It wasn't something I especially wanted, but I sent it home with the rest of the souvenirs.
"Of course there were many medals, and much publicity. All the admiration you could ask for, Philip. I could no longer walk down the street without being recognized. I was the subject of speeches, accolades and propaganda. My men looked up to me, and I did my best not to let them down.
"But every aviator's luck runs out, even mine. I sustained a head wound, and it very nearly killed me."
Fred turned and walked half the length of the flower bed, then back again. He seemed to have forgotten Philip's presence in reliving the past.
"I have heard that blows or wounds to the head can change the personality. That's possible, I suppose. It's also possible that I just became sick of war. I did return to the front, but everything had changed. Now, when I shot a man down, I saw the man, not just the plane he flew. When I brought my plane down next to my victim's wreckage, I saw the results of my efforts up close.
"I saw what happens to a man when he is killed by a machine gun. I saw men without arms, legs, faces...and I saw those same limbs scattered about the ground. There was one man I shot down who was still alive when I came down by his plane. He was holding his hands over his stomach, and he looked at me when I walked up to him...then he took away his hands...
"That was the last time I retrieved a souvenir."
Philip swallowed, hard. This wasn't what he wanted to hear at all. He managed to blurt out a question.
Fred looked Philip straight in the eye.
"Too many," he said. "Officially, I was credited with eighty kills. There may have been more." Fred's voice softened. "For me, the war was over. I went on fighting, but only because I had to. You see, it wasn't just the carnage that sickened me, it was the realization that these men had families-wives, children.”
Fred turned back to him. "But, enough of this talk, yes?" He gestured towards the gardens. "Do you understand yet, Philip? Every war starts for idealistic reasons, and ends in blood and sorrow...and we make promises to each other not to do it again. Yet we forget, and the old cycle starts up."
"Yes," said Philip. "I think I do understand."
Fred nodded. "War is ultimately foolish. The poets are right: love is the only thing that matters." He glanced up at the sky. "It's getting late, my friend. Let's walk awhile. I'd like to see more of your beautiful gardens."
He started down the path, with Philip behind him. The moon was almost down now. Fred seemed to blend into the darker shadows, making it difficult to see him at times. In fact, Philip lost sight of him entirely when he reached the end of the walk.
A large elm grew over the flowerbeds. Philip felt weary, and leaned against it for support.
"Fred?" he called quietly.
"Here." The blonde man stepped out from behind the elm. He smiled at Philip. "You're tired. Sit, please."
Philip obeyed with a sigh, easing himself down against the tree. Fred joined him. They sat a few minutes in friendly silence. Philip felt his eyes closing. He opened them quickly, afraid of appearing rude, but Fred just smiled back.
"Rest, Philip. Close your eyes, if you like.” Fred’s voice took on a soothing, hypnotic quality. “Try to imagine my world...as seen from the sky.”
Images began to form behind Philip’s eyelids. On either side of his vision, he saw stretched canvas wings and wires. The cockpit held unfamiliar gauges and levers. Philip looked straight ahead and saw nothing but blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds.
A moment of panic seized him before he realized the plane was flying itself. Philip relaxed. It was a dream, of course. He enjoyed the dip and roll of the small plane, the steady hum of the engines, and the wind in his hair as he soared over the countryside.
Philip glanced down at his hands on the controls; except they were not his hands at all. The hands were gloved, and they adjusted and balanced the plane with experienced ease. Philip reminded himself it was a dream, and looked off to his left.
The countryside below was dotted with trees and a few small houses. A narrow river divided the green landscape. Philip looked ahead again, and another plane came into view. The gloved hands tightened. The plane accelerated, giving chase.
Above him, Philip heard yet another engine. He glanced up to see a third airplane bearing down upon him. Yet he--or, rather, the pilot--ignored the danger and plunged ahead through the sky in pursuit of the other flyer.
Machine gun fire erupted from somewhere below. The pilot’s body jerked in response. Philip could only watch amazed at the pilot’s skill as, with his remaining strength, he brought the plane in for a landing. Philip’s vision dimmed, and he spun helplessly away from the wreckage, until the plane and the men running towards it vanished in a haze, and he saw no more.
Philip opened his eyes to find himself alone. Fighting fatigue, he stumbled back through the garden to the house and up to his room, where he threw himself upon the bed and spent the rest of the night tossing fitfully.
* * * * *
Edwin was just finishing breakfast when Philip came downstairs. The young man had thrown a robe on over a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. His hair was tousled, and he appeared to have slept little, if at all.
"There's just enough tea left," said Edwin, getting up to pour.
"Thanks." Philip yawned widely. "I need a bath."
"Plenty of hot water," remarked Edwin, as he brought the kettle to the table and filled his nephew's cup. "How did you sleep?"
"Restlessly," was the response. "Strange dreams all night. I stayed out rather later in the garden than I had planned. Good thing you left the side door open."
"We don't have to worry much about burglars this far from town. Not another neighbor for miles."
Philip frowned. "But...I met one of your neighbors. Last night, in the garden." Edwin raised an eyebrow, and Philip plunged ahead. "He said you were acquaintances...no, wait, that's not quite it. You both knew somebody in common."
"Did this person give a name?"
"Well, of course. It was Fred."
Edwin's eyebrow lifted slightly higher. "Just Fred?"
"Yes, just Fred. I never did catch his last name. He was a pilot, Uncle Edwin. We talked about the reality of war...you know, I believe I'm going to train for a commercial airline, after all, Uncle."
"Your parents will like that, Philip. I've been thinking of donating my collection to the War Museum."
"I think that's where war belongs. In a museum," murmured Philip. He shifted in his chair, and winced when something pinched him. Puzzled, he dug into the jeans and brought out a circular metal object, thickly encrusted with dirt.
"What's that you have?" asked Edwin, from across the table.
Philip peered at it, and tried to scrape off the grime.
"A medal, I think.” He frowned. “Fred must have left it with me...I’d nearly forgotten it." Philip closed his eyes a moment. "Wait...he said I was to give it to someone. Parkins? Pipkin? No, it was Popkin. Yes, that's it, I remember now. Bit of an odd name. Do we know anyone named Popkin, Uncle?"
"Yes, in a manner of speaking." It was Edwin's turn to frown. "But since the only Popkin I know died in 1968, it can hardly be him."
"I know that's what Fred told me. Sergeant Popkin, that was it."
Edwin stood up abruptly. "Come with me, Philip. I want to look for something in the library."
Philip trailed behind his uncle, puzzled. He leaned against the fireplace as Edwin searched the bookshelves.
"Ah. Here it is." Edwin pulled out a slim volume bound in dark leather and leafed through the pages. "Australian gunner Cedric Popkin. There is a connection to the family, you know," said Edwin, looking up at Philip. "My grandfather fought alongside Popkin. Maybe your Fred meant to pass the medal along to one of Cedric's descendants."
"I remember something else, Uncle. Fred told me that this Popkin ‘deserved the medal more than I'. Something like that, anyhow."
"Hmmm. Okay, let's see...Popkin was a gunner in the twenty-fourth Machine Gun Company. He was stationed in the Somme Valley, France, in April 1918. His crowning achievement took place on April twenty-first."
"April twenty-first? That was just yesterday, wasn't it?" Philip moved closer to Edwin to get a look at the book he held. A photograph caught his eye. "Why, that's Fred!" he exclaimed.
Edwin looked at the picture, then back up at Philip. "I hardly think so, nephew."
"It is, Uncle! I recognize his eyes. They were very distinctive."
Edwin gazed at his nephew a moment longer, then returned his attention to the book. He began to read:
"Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, German fighter pilot popularly known as the Red Baron. He was the most successful flying ace of World War I, being officially credited with eighty confirmed air combat victories. He won a number of medals, including the coveted "Blue Max", the highest military honor in Germany at that time. He kept souvenirs from his kills, most often the serial number of the plane he had downed...he was wounded in July of 1917, and it was said his personality changed after that...his death in April 1918 has been credited to several people, but Cedric Popkin is most often cited...Philip? Philip! What is it--?"
Philip, his face devoid of color, staggered back against a lamp and nearly overturned it. The words he'd heard last night echoed shrilly through his head.
"...it was a long time ago...in another country..."
"...I kept souvenirs..."
"...I was credited with eighty kills...eighty kills...eighty..."
The forgotten medal in Philip's hand slipped from nerveless fingers. It landed on the table next to the lamp, knocking the last bit of dirt from its surface. Now Philip and Edwin both could see the shiny blue enamel with its background of golden eagles, and the light picked out the writing inscribed on the Maltese Cross:
Pour le Mérite.
Author's Note: It is not my intention to start yet another debate on who killed the Red Baron. Cedric Popkin was simply the best fit for this particular story. Anyhow, I was elsewhere at the time, and Richthofen isn't talking.
Author Notes: Would love to know how soon the reader catches on to Fred's true identity. At any rate, hope everyone enjoys!