He saw it and knew it for what it was, remembered; he touched it, nodded, stationed men at each door, at each breach in the walls. He spoke with superiors, colleagues, acquaintances, anyone who might at some point be necessary, and returned each day to see it and touch it, to run a rag along its extremities and across its wide face, wiping away the dust, fallen plaster, creosote.
There were ghosts in the wires and he knew but didn’t care, assumed they could be assuaged, blood or cash or kindness, whatever they required. He would talk to them and they would listen.
Others came, looked in past the guards, stared. There was dust on their faces too, small cuts from broken glass, larger cuts from shrapnel, and they stared until he drove them off.
There were paintings on the walls of the room, portraits, maybe a dozen. Their eyes did not follow him but each night he dreamed that they did, that their fingers twitched, and he woke and dressed and returned, observed them and now was sure if only until the next time he slept that he had no need of them, and he left them askew and wanting, again, each night.
Shells hit to either side, and at times there were screams, and he ordered it covered with tarps and sandbagged. He doubled the guard and elsewhere skirmishes were lost for lack of men and he nodded, took blame, assured his superiors that all would be addressed, went back again to look, the mahogany now unseen, the form obscured but beneath the tarps the thing itself whole and waiting.
He made arrangements, assigned duties, paid bribes until the plan too was whole. The furniture had all been taken for firewood, the curtains ripped out for coats and shawls and bedding, the dishes shattered or stolen, silverware and candlesticks gone, and he hardly noticed except to wonder why no one touched the portraits.
Snow fell. Now he came three or four times each night to check, and onlookers were beaten, guards found asleep also beaten, berated, dismissed. He brushed dust from the tarps. The portraits stared.
At last all moments aligned and he brought the team in, the necessary ones, had the sandbags removed, the tarps drawn back, laid parachute silk, the tarps then put back in place and secured with ropes. On the perimeter there was movement and his men fell, a barrage and his men retreated, were caught in open spaces, dismembered.
It was loaded onto the truck and shells now ripping into the house, he jumped in alongside it and the truck fired up, slid through a closing gap, out to the airfield and up into the waiting transport plane, the wheels secured and back at the house there was no one left, no guards, no onlookers, all fallen, incoming fire now popping through the fuselage and no time to close the cargo doors, the aircraft edged down the runway, roared and lifted, the pilot hit and dying, the copilot keeping them in the air and below the town had fallen, its bridge lost, he knelt beside it, touched the tarps, leaned back and closed his eyes, the plane banked and the portraits blinked and the wires trilled, ropes hummed then snapped and he grabbed hold, would not let go, would not, the piano dragging him out and plunging down through the sky.