"No, no, no! The chorus does not start launching into Horst Wessel Song until the Hero of Aryan Purity is above the Threshold of the Fatherland! Above!"
Max von Gruben barked directions at the assembled stagehands, who were too busy pulling ropes and straightening pulleys to pay much attention. If they faltered, the lucky soul who was cast to play the Hero of Aryan Purity would fall about fifteen meters onto the stage. Aldon imagined Hitler in the harness, dangling in the air, and wondered if he would die upon hitting the wooden stage, or merely be horribly crippled for the rest of his life. She tried not to dwell too much upon this thought, lest her grip on the rope slacken.
"Ach, these people are impossible. Why, why did they send me such uninspired theater folk?" Gruben, as was his habit in staging this production, expressed his frustration by languidly batting his ever-present assistant, Sergeant Freudenberger, about the face with a limp white glove. "Why do they vex me so, Freudenberger?"
The Sergeant took several deep breaths after the latest half-hearted assault upon his face, composing himself and hobbling after the director. "They are staging a production at gunpoint, Herr Gruben. Surely they are doing a fine job under such circumstances."
Gruben batted the Sergeant once more with the pristine white glove. "Feh. Feh! I give them the most inspirational material the world has to offer, and I get mediocrity. Günter!" The tuxedo clad director called up to a single SS man sitting in a specially constructed balcony. "Günter, do you find yourself, moved, by this performance?"
The square-faced, black uniformed guard furrowed his single eyebrow, pondering the question with genuine thought. He took a surveying glance at the stage with a set of ornate opera glasses. He scratched his chin, and then slowly shook his head.
"Do you see?" Gruben lectured the assembled chorus members. "Günter should be weeping at the beauty of this performance! I see no tears! If you cannot budge the soft heart of a beauteous creature like Günter, how will we impress the Führer when he visits? Hmmm?"
Aldon suppressed the stupid grin that appeared on her face at the latest mention of Der Führer's Visit. When they had heard that Hitler himself was to attend their performance, the Young Artisans could barely contain their glee. They were going to put on a show all right.
"I tell you, the miracles I must work." Gruben collapsed into his folding director's chair. "Let's see that cow Riefenstahl crack wise when the world sees this production. Now, once more, from the top!"
O'Reilly, still dressed in her lederhosen from the earlier rehearsal, leaned out from the doorway of Tent 48 and scanned the night. No guards in her sector. She gave a thumbs-up signal to another lookout posted at a corner about thirty meters away, easily recognizable despite the darkness due to the oversized papier-mâché Wagner head that was part of his costume. Wagner returned the thumbs up, the encouraging gesture an odd juxtaposition with the sneering face sculpted onto the prop head.
"Coast is clear, no one in sight."
Aldon gathered her conspirators. From the shadows immediately outside, eight of the chorus members filed into the room, along with the actors portraying Young Hitler, Wicked Jew #6, the Ghost of Goethe, Otto von Bismarck and The Krampus. They joined Aldon, Werner, the now-infamous Mysterious Heckler, and the rest of the production crew, crowding into the rickety plywood and canvas cabin. Zanzibar O'Reilly came in and shut the door behind her. Aldon surveyed her crew and unrolled a large sheet of scavenged paper, produced from underneath a loose floorboard.
"Okay gang. Two days until showtime. How are we coming on the offering for the Library?"
A young woman with a green writer's uniform snapped to attention. "We'll be done in time. The gold leaf for the illuminated manuscript was a nice touch."
"Ah, that guard wasn't using his teeth anyway," replied Aldon. "Our gift for Der Führer?"
O'Reilly carefully reached into her lederhosen and produced a small package wrapped in oilcloth. She gingerly unwrapped it, revealing a plain pair of reading glasses. Delicately picking it up with thumb and forefinger, she held it up to the light of the single bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. The Young Artisans' resident fashion designer had completed her contribution. She raised a painted eyebrow. "Anyone care to demonstrate?"
The heckler spoke up. "I'll do it. I need a new prescription after looking at that stage. A sore sight for four eyes."
"Mmm, no. They won't produce the…desired effect with your face." O'Reilly smiled.
"My face effects all kinds of desire, lady. Or is that leaves much to be desired? I can never remember."
"All right, all right." Aldon intervened. "Marta, would you do the honors? Seems appropriate."
The slightly-built actor dressed in the schoolboy outfit with the painted rosy cheeks and pencil mustache stepped forward. Young Hitler carefully took the glasses, easing them onto her face. The effect was immediate. The room was filled with gasps, approving murmurs and laughs.
"Wunderbar," said Werner as he smiled.
"Aww, you shouldn't have," said the heckler. "I mean really, you shouldn't have."
Aldon peeked out the door briefly, then came back inside. "Great work. Now, everyone's familiar with their alternate staging directions?"
The chorus members nodded. They had practiced extensively under cover of darkness. One of the chorus members cracked his knuckles in anticipation.
Nodding, Aldon frowned as she came to the last detail. "Now, Bartleby. Has anyone figured that one out yet?"
Werner shook his head. "We know where they've got him, but there's at least four guards posted at all times. This guy here seems to have the best idea of the camp layout." He nodded towards the heckler.
"You have any ideas on this one?" asked Aldon.
"Sure," said the heckler, "let's quiz this German fellow hiding under the window."
The occupants of the room suddenly looked alarmed, as the heckler calmly opened the window he was sitting next to, reached out his hand, and quickly tapped out the familiar refrain of "shave and a haircut" on a hard metal surface.
"Ouch ouch!" called a voice from outside.
A man in a German uniform slowly rose from where he must have been crouching the entire time. It was Sergeant Freudenberger. He groaned as he clutched his bad leg.
"What's the big idea? Can't a man concentrate in peace around here?" The heckler glowered at the red-faced sergeant.
"I'm dreadfully sorry. I don't mean to eavesdrop, I really don't! I just…overheard, and, well, well, I…"
"Quick, grab him! Maybe we can escape in his uniform! Or just his skin!" Aldon sprang to her feet.
"Oh, oh my! Look, your friend doesn't have long, and I know how to help him!" Sergeant Freudenberger unconsciously wrapped his arms around himself, concerned by the threat to his hide.
"Huh? You mean you're not going to turn us in?"
Sergeant Freudenberger adjusted his now-tilted helmet. "Certainly not. This camp is a dreadful business. And if someone can manage to escape it, well," the sergeant said. He smiled. "When the commandant asks, I know nothing."
Werner shook his head. "How do we know you're on the level?"
The sergeant leaned into the window, poking his head conspiratorially into the room from outside. "You are correct that there are always four guards at the holding area. But tonight, the Indentured Servant Mandatory Good Time Polka Association is playing at the officer's club. No one will want to miss it! So they've only stationed one guard for the evening, a gentleman on loan from Signore Mussolini's government. This is the best opportunity you'll have! When you see the number of guards, you'll know I'm telling the truth!"
Aldon stroked her chin. "Couldn't hurt to send someone to check it out at least. If they're just going to kill us either way. We'll need to send our best person to-"
The leader of the Young Artisans looked up. The heckler was suddenly gone.
"Nuts. I should go after him." Aldon looked at her blue inmate's uniform. "I'll need something a little more stealthy. Hey, you, let's switch."
In front of Stalag IV-MB, a single man napped on his feet beside the locked iron door, swaying slightly from side to side, the Tyrolean hat perched on his head constantly threatening to slide off, but never quite making it. An unloaded rifle lay beside him, propped against the wall.
The heckler approached the front entrance of the holding cell, having somehow acquired a dark suit on his way over, his greasepaint mustache and eyebrows reapplied in the interim. Quietly, he made his way to the vicinity of the guard. He then snapped his fingers next to the sleeping man's ear.
"Hey, buddy, wake up!"
The guard suddenly snapped to attention as he suddenly awoke. "Huh? No, I wasn't sleeping," he said with a thick Italian accent. "I had a dream that I was guarding this place. You can't fool me!"
The heckler fetched a cigar from inside his coat pocket and lit it. "A fine joint this is. World class service. I could be escaping right now!"
"Ohhh no. Impossible. I never let anyone escape. If you're escaping, I must be dreaming!"
"Well, while you're in dreamland, mind fetching me something out of there?" The heckler pointed at the door with his cigar.
"Not without the password. I only open the door when I hear the password."
"I would prefer not to," echoed Bartleby's voice from behind the door.
"That's pretty close, but no cigar" replied the guard.
"Oh, well allow me then." The heckler handed the remaining half of his cigar to the guard. The guard accepted graciously.
"Thanks for the cigar, but no dice."
"A fine way to treat a guest," grumbled the heckler.
Footsteps approached the pair as they talked. Aldon joined them, attired in a fine black suit with resplendent brass buttons, wearng a monocle and carrying an ornate walking cane.
"Gentlemen." Aldon adjusted her monocle.
The guard immediately stood at complete attention, fumbling for the unloaded rifle by his side. After a short struggle, he gained control of the weapon, holding it upside down. "Chancellor von Bismarck!"
The heckler snatched his cigar back from the guard and stuck it back in his mouth. "I gave Bismarck a chance once. Coldest winter I ever had in June."
Aldon had studied the exchange from the shadows for some time. The rules of this place were becoming a little clearer. "I'll be taking custody of this prisoner, soldier."
The guard lifted his rumpled hat and scratched his head. "Hey, wait a minute. Chancellor Bismarck is not a woman. Also not alive."
Aldon continued, undeterred. "What do you expect? This place is all backwards."
The guard's confusion deepened. "Huh?"
She snatched the cigar away from the heckler and jabbed the air with it for additional emphasis. "This is an open-air camp, right?"
"Yes, that is right."
"And all the people in the camp, except the guards, are prisoners, right?"
Aldon puffed on the cigar. "That means all the prisoners are outside."
The guard stared back blankly. Silence.
Aldon returned the stare. She puffed one more time. "Then why in the name of the Empire are you just standing there while your prisoner is inside, soldier?" she suddenly bellowed.
The sudden outburst made both men jump. "Hey, that's right, you should be outside, you tricky rascal!" said the guard. He began scrambling for his key to unlock the door.
"I would prefer not to," said the voice behind the door.
"Oh no, you won't trick me with that one this time!" The guard located the correct key, turned the lock, flung open the door, and grabbed Bartleby. He roughly pushed him out of the cell, then planted himself squarely on the other side of the door.
"There!" said the guard. "Now don't you get any more ideas! Nothing gets past me!" At this, he slammed the door shut, the lock ratcheting back into place as it closed, securing the iron portal once more.
Bartleby, Aldon and the heckler now stood together, eyed warily by the guard as he peered out from the cell between the small, barred throughway.
Aldon saluted the guard with her cane. "As you were, soldier."
Immediately, the trio heard a thump from the other side of the door, followed by light snoring.
Aldon dusted off some stray dirt from Bartleby's lapels, then she turned on her heel to face her compatriots. "All right men. The gang's all here. Let's get to work."
"I would prefer not to."
"Oh, shut up."
The Führer took his place behind the podium as he readied his speech to the assembled denizens of the Koblach Artistic Rehabilitation Camp.
Gruben had spent the entire night making sure all of the camera equipment was positioned in just the right places to ensure that both his production and the Führer's speech preceding it would be filmed in the best possible light. That idiot Freudenberger had been bumbling into the props on the stage all morning. What he was playing at was anyone's guess, and he had finally sent the Sergeant away, before he could embarass Gruben further in front of the Führer's security detail. If he didn't know any better, he would almost have thought that Freudenberger was relieved to not be present for the grand spectacle. Gruben shrugged. His loss. At least that idiot had remembered the Führer's reading glasses.
He admired the handiwork of his repurposed artists as he surveyed the stage. Imposing, dark trees of the Black Forest flanked the sides of the now-fully decorated set. Bunches of freshly-picked edelweiss were strewn hither and yon, giving his vision the bucolic feel that he so desired. Dominating the center was a stark, unadorned marble obelisk, topped by a swastika. Now this, he thought to himself, was art.
Gruben looked up to Günter as he took his seat in the balcony, the designated Camp Critic settling in and adjusting his opera glasses. Gruben waved politely to him from the orchestra pit. Günter scratched himself.
Behind the stage, Aldon conferred with Werner and the heckler as the event approached.
"Right, the trucks are gassed up, Freudenberger's got the goods, and Zanzibar's scouted our route. Let's just hope your ritual works."
Werner nodded. "We've got the man of foreign land. And he's about to have the marks of our enemies. We're as good as in Geneva."
The heckler started to say something. Aldon glowered. He put his cigar back in his mouth.
"Let's just hope we get enough of a ruckus out of it that we can get the twenty kilos to the border."
Despite the risk, the presence of entirely too many Nazis, and the overall shoddy plan, Aldon was unable to suppress her smile.
"Ladies and gentlemen, on with the show."
The crowd went silent as Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of the Third Reich, Leader of the Fatherland and Führer of the Glorious Germanic Peoples, put on his reading glasses and began to read from his prepared speech.
He looked up from his notes. The Führer's reading glasses were somehow nowhere in evidence now. Instead, upon his face was a pair of thick, black-framed glasses, attached to which were two thick, bushy eyebrows, and a fuzzy black mustache, which obscured his entire lip for a change of pace. All of which surrounded a giant, bulbous false nose. The Führer frowned, summoning all of his intensity.
"This, is the reforging of a new nation, and the art which was the province of our decadent enemies, shall be put to use in the glory of the Aryan Race!"
With each syllable, the mustache attached to the Führer's glasses appeared to waggle.
Gruben went rigid. How? How could he not notice what had just happened? Someone must tell the Führer immediately!
"Against our superior arms, our iron will, and our dominant culture, the degraded Communists and their allies stand no chance!"
Hitler's eyes seemed somehow whiter and more pronounched as they peeked through the dark frames of the ridiculous glasses.
"Now, we stand at the threshold of history, taking our rightful place as the leaders of the world!" Hitler pounded the podium with his fist at the end of his sentence. The false nose bounced up and down on his face from the force, ever so slightly.
This last remark was punctuated with a sudden change to the set decorations. Somehow, as the Führer had pounded his fist, the swastika topping the column behind him had disappeared, somehow replaced by a giant, painted wooden sign, displaying a fist with an upraised middle finger. Gruben had not seen anyone move behind the podium; how did this happen? Suddenly, he noted with horror that the cameras were rolling. No one had given the order to turn them off. This was being recorded.
"Their bombs, their tanks, their planes, no force of arms can stop our implacable advance! We will crush the Russians, the British, the Americans, and their hated Jewish collaborators!"
Images had started moving across the white backdrop of the stage. Gruben squinted. Was that…was that Mickey Mouse? Riding a cartoon Heinrich Himmler like a horse? Why did Mickey Mouse now have penises for ears? Where were the projectors coming from? He could find no words. He could not break the paralysis that had gripped him. What was the Führer going to do when he found out? How was he going to stop this? He was gripped with mortal terror, tinged slightly by befuddlement at the acts that a caricature that looked an awful lot like Joseph Goebbels was now apparently perpetrating on Himmler.
Hitler moved to the big finish. "A thousand years! A thousand years this glorious Reich shall endure! And the great work begins here, in this place, today!" He lifted his right hand high in the air, giving the crowd his trademark salute, his hateful visage burning beneath the novelty brows and facial hair.
The entire camp was completely silent. Not a single word, utterance or reaction escaped any of those present. The sound of the cameras rolling was audible to all.
From the balcony, the sound of a single man clapping could now be heard. Günter had risen to his feet, applauding ecstatically, tears streaming down his swollen, brutish face. He wiped the tears with his sleeve as he applauded, hooting and heiling his approval for his dearest leader.
The Führer had never seen this before, in all of his speeches, all of the rallies and demonstrations. He glanced up briefly to the black-uniformed lummox in the balcony, seized with paroxysms of joy.
"Th-…thank you?" was all the great leader of the German people could manage at the inexplicable scene before him. He removed his reading glasses, putting the now-ordinary appearing spectacles back on the podium.
Aldon listened as Hitler concluded his remarks. She began planning how she would get a hold of the footage of what had just transpired outside, when she pushed the thought aside. She looked to Werner. They nodded. The two Young Artisans began lowering the ropes in their hands, the harness meant for the Hero of Aryan Purity now descending with its payload down to the center of the stage.
Confusion, rage, and even fear roiled within the Führer. Why weren't they doing anything? What was going on here? He heard the sounds of pulleys creaking and ropes stretching above him, and looked skywards towards the beams of the stage overhead. A man in a harness was being slowly lowered down towards him, stopping only a few meters over his head.
There, at center stage in the middle of the Koblach Artistic Rehabilitation Camp, surrounded by one thousand degenerate artists and fifty Shutzstaffel, Adolf Hitler and Groucho Marx regarded one another. A world of possibilities existed there in the minds of the two men as each considered the next possible move.
From backstage, Werner stage-whispered to the heckler.
"The words of power! Say the words of power!"
Groucho puffed thoughtfully on his cigar. He flicked the ash expertly onto the top of Hitler's head. His expression remained unreadable behind his theatrical war paint.
As the words left his lips, a blinding white flash suddenly enveloped the stage, accompanied by a teeth-rattling booming noise. Stage props were scattered, edelweiss flew through the air, and Hitler was thrown into the orchestra pit. The audience, including the guards, were stunned back into inaction and silence by the spectacle now unfolding before them.
As their vision returned, they now saw a man, bathed in gold light, his physique that of a Greek god, at least ten feet tall. The magnificent being had lightly-colored curls of hair adorning his head, ablaze like a halo of fire wreathing his face. In his hand, he had a bicycle horn.
Werner had now run onto the stage, Aldon, Zanzibar, and Bartleby in tow. Groucho had freed himself from the harness, and dusted the remains of the stage props from his suit coat.
"It worked! I knew it would work!"
The towering, golden man looked down upon the Young Artisans on the stage. From the vicinity of the audience, numerous clicking noises could now be heard. The SS guards, recovering enough of their senses to determine that something seemed to have gone wrong, had drawn their weapons and were attempting to fire at the being on the stage. In their polka-induced haze of the previous evening, they had failed to notice the camp's ammunition supplies being loaded into a truck by their former colleague, Sergeant Freudenberger. Their weapons continued to click ineffectually, bullets being steadily replaced with bewildered curses.
The being lifted his bicycle horn high into the air. He looked at Aldon. He squeezed the horn, a mighty beep emanating therefrom.
Groucho's ears perked up. "He says he's come to grant you a boon."
Aldon tried to make sense of the scene before her. "How do you know what he's saying?"
"Well…okay, tell him that yes, we need his assistance."
The erstwhile heckler made a series of exaggerated hand motions, then proceeded to duck-walk around in a circle several times. The being responded with two squeezes of its bicycle horn.
Groucho translated. "He asks what you offer."
Aldon lifted the book that she had carried with her. "I bring you this, a true and accurate account of the time that Hitler addressed a crowd to no applause or accolades in his own empire, illuminated and illustrated, to be housed eternally within the annals of the Wanderer's Library!"
The stern, distant look on the being's face suddenly changed to what Aldon could only determine to be goofy delight. The golden figure squeezed its bicycle horn repeatedly.
"He says that'll do. And to hold on a second, your boon is coming."
The towering figure appeared to produce from thin air a giant bag, its countenance now one of unrestrained mirth and mischief. It unzipped the bag, revealing a yawning, dark, empty space. It seemed to grow wider by the second, easily large enough to fit a car through.
Gruben had finally dug his way out from under the rubble of the collapsed balcony, still shell-shocked from the scene that had unfolded before him. He saw the Führer sprawled across some upended chairs, a tuba lodged on his head. An inexplicable golden man was now on the stage, opening a gigantic bag of some sort. What was happening. My play, he thought ruefully, the only comprehensible thought that he could muster at the moment. This was supposed to be a play.
Then, the birds came.
The Young Artisans watched raptly as the entity's bag had now fully opened. Groucho produced another cigar and noted the scene with some interest. The golden being now raised both hands, his arms outstretched, as though a great proclamation were now about to be delivered. He honked his bicycle horn.
A tide of ostriches poured forth from the bag, dashing madly forth from a different plane of existence. The experience had apparently made them quite agitated, as they furiously beat their wings as they ran at full speed out into the crowd, knocking into chairs, upsetting tables, and unleashing yet more chaos onto the scene before them. An endless stream, it seemed, of agitated avians streamed forth from this eldritch portal.
Zanzibar O'Reilly shook her head. "Why ostriches?"
Groucho straightened his glasses. "We are in Österreich, lady."
The ostriches seemed to be gravitating to where Hitler had landed. The Führer had managed to dislodge himself from the tuba just in time to see the storm of bipedal birds descend upon him. A number of guards looked on in panic.
"Protect the Führer! Protect the Führer!" one cried out. The guards rushed to the scene now, their focus singular.
"Good enough distraction?" Werner smiled.
Aldon was beaming. "Good enough. Let's get everyone to the trucks!"
The Young Artisans, Groucho in tow, leaped down into the fray, and begin directing all of the artists they could to the line of commandeered supply trucks that had been prepared during the Führer's speech. The lines of former prisoners began streaming past the ostrich-induced fracas, the guards too involved in the logistical challenges of fighting giant birds without the aid of firearms.
The express line to Switzerland awaited.
Finnegan looked at his wrinkled shirt in the mirror. "I thought you didn't need to iron these!"
Jakeob Aldon studied the chessboard in front of her. Boron wasn't a bad player. The small golem tapped its tiny foot insistently as it waited for her to make a move. Everett chirped quizzically.
"What do I know about dress shirts? Why are you doing this, anyway?"
Finnegan hastily tucked his shirttails into his pants. "I'm hoping the NEA will finally give us some grant funding. My next project is called, 'A Slightly Less Starving Artist'. Maybe this time they'll come through."
"Yeah, that's nice. Okay." Aldon moved her bishop. Boron's shoulders heaved. Was that a sigh? Everett chirped again, somewhat more downcast.
"Everyone's a critic."
Finnegan came out in a dash, running late for the downtown bus. Along with his bag, he had a pair of reading glasses in hand. Aldon sat up.
"Whatcha need those for?"
Finnegan put the glasses on. "I thought I'd need to fill out a bunch of forms and stuff. You know, paperwork." His concern at the thought of bureaucracy was evident through the bushy eyebrows and fake mustache.
Aldon tried her best to maintain her poker face. Or her chess face. Or whichever face it was. "Where…where did you get those?"
"I just grabbed them off your dresser. Why, do you need them?"
Aldon turned away. "Hrm- no, no. You take them. Just, you know, be careful, priceless -pffft- priceless family heirloom."
Finnegan rolled his eyes. "That's what you said about the lint brush and the pair of socks that I borrowed. Anyway. Wish me luck."
"Good luck," Aldon replied, her face turned resolutely to the chess board. Finnegan left in a rush. Boron checkmated her.
For once, losing a game of chess had lost its sting, as Aldon peered down from the window and doubled over laughing at Finnegan's intent expression behind the anomalous Groucho Glasses. Sometimes, she thought to herself, all other needs had to be set aside in the name of silliness.