THE BURNING LAND
In a war of hate, would love matter?
This is a story of an unlikely romance that sparks between a Nazi infantryman, Bruno, and a Jewish runaway, David. In the intimate setting of a ruinous Hungarian village, in a country engulfed in flames, two mortal enemies must find peace as in an ironic twist of fate, the Nazi finds himself taken prisoner by the Jew and chained down in an empty house. With nobody else in the world but the two of them, together under one roof, the rules of the game must change forever.
It was warm in the room. But my clothes were still wet from the ice and the snow I brought in on myself last night. It all melted and wet my undergarments.
I slept past dawn, my whole body aching, aching for rest, aching for food, aching for warmth. I was too exhausted after what happened. The fire was dying down in the furnace. I made myself get up and added more wood. Even a trip to the fireplace was an endeavor. My legs were shaking as if I were a paralytic. I sat down. I watched the wood lit up, the fire catching all but in a flash. It was the chunks my uncle chopped, back in the summer, had it stowed away in the shed at the rear the house for when the winter came. Winters were brutal here in the mounts. The rich resinous timber got so dried it was flaming up like gunpowder now.
I’d need to go out and get two or three stacks more sometime during the day. But not now! I needed to take care of other pressing matters first. I stretched. I yawned. I peed. I scooped out a mugful of hot water from the metal bucket I had sitting at the hearth of the fireplace, nearly kissing the fire, just so that the water in it remained warmed. I sipped it. Even though my lips have cracked from the cold and were sore to the touch, it was still nice, sipping warm water. I’d have a bite too later on, but not now.
I took my clothes off first, all of it. It was all wet anyway. I removed my overcoat. Woolen, it hardened with time and got fat and heavy. I hung it by the fireplace. It would take a minute to dry. My shirt and my pants went off too. I hung them all in a line. I placed my boots up on the mantel. I removed my underwear last, exposing myself completely, only briefly though, having wrapped myself immediately in a blanket. It touched roughly against the sores on my skin, but it got warmer at least. I sat at the edge of the bed for a little while, pondering what I needed to do next.
I was probably safe there in the house, but not more than for a couple of days. Anything longer than that and I’d get snowed in by the storm. And I could not allow that. I had to start south. Make it through the woods and over the mountains. Staying there in the village was not a good idea at all. The German army was going to follow the bombers at some point, invading the land to make a claim over it. It was no secret. They’d raid. They’d rape. They’d kill.
I needed to flee the country altogether, make it to the border of Czechoslovakia. And then hit Poland. The allied forces had gained the eastern regions of the country over the summer of 1944. I might die in the snow on my way there (over a 150 kilometers) but that was my only choice. Everything to the west was already taken by Nazis: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and now they’ve invaded Hungary. There was nowhere else to go for me.
If I make it to the allies-controlled lands, I’d be taken in as a war refugee. I still had my passport. The weather was going to be against me though in this. But if I was prepared, I might just cut it. If I stayed in the village, on the other hand, I’d be captured for a fact. German soldiers would kill me at sight. Or if I’m lucky, they’d deport me to a concentration camp. They’d have me killed there, just like Calev, killed, exterminated. Calev…
My inner monologue was disturbed as I heard rumble outside. I heard commotion somewhere in the distance, probably at the village’s purlieu. My heart dropped. I bolted up, dropping the blanket, abandoning the sweet warmth, and dashed to the window, my privates dangling between my legs violently. I was still utterly bare. The engines! I could hear them now, unmistakably. Military trucks!
There was no time to spare. I got dressed rapidly, overpowering the grody sensation of putting on wet clothes. Well, at least they were warm. Frantic, my gaze stumbled onto the stove, the fire still blazing inside. The fire! The smoke! It was going up the chimney and out into the open air for everyone else to see. I scrambled towards it, pushing the damper close with my shaking fingers, my heart beating so fast I could feel its erratic palpitations in my throat, like a burst of sub-machine gun fire. Then I snatched a rag from the floor and wrapped it around the scorched metallic handle of the water bucket, so not to burn my hands as I was grabbing it and throwing the bucketful of water right into the furnace, putting the fire out all at once. Smoke billowed from it and filled the room just as quickly. Coughing, I ran up to the window again, and ducked there, listening, praying none of the soldiers had noticed.
I could hear trucks clearer now, listening in through the cracks of the broken window, and people, and voices. Were they the Germans though? Were they Nazi trucks, and people, and voices? Or were they Hungarian militiamen coming in for the rescue? Both things were supposable, in my mind. I couldn’t pick one over the other, not on the spot. I needed to make sure it was the latter. My life pretty much depended on it.
The master bedroom’s windows were mostly looking out into the woods. Outstanding view, but there wasn’t much of the village I could see from there, rather hear. What I needed was a change of a standpoint. The window that had a better view of the village was the one in my bedroom, my former bedroom, pre-attack, pre-bombing, pre-destruction. There was about half of the room left standing after. I needed to get there.
Carefully, trying not to make a sound, I slunk in. I got chilled, instantly and sensibly, because I only wore half my clothes and even that was wet. It was freezing outside. And the wind was gusty and crisp, which I guess was fortunate for it blew the smoke off the chimney, without letting it stack up to a thick black colonnade in the air above my house, that would have been spotted for sure. It was blown away and scattered instead, for my luck. I ducked under the window (that part of the wall still standing, the other walls mostly brought down) and looked out. I saw men coming in, entering the village, men in the unmistakable grey Nazi uniforms. I recognized the garments at once. It was the Nazis, after all, the soldiers who were there to kill me.
A group of six entered the village with what looked like every intention to search every house. Several of them were carrying HIW VSK rifles. I knew those from the newspapers my uncle read. Chambered for the 8 mm bullets, 5-round stripper clips to fill the magazine. They’d fill my guts with metal alright. The others were either unarmed or carrying pistols; most likely the latter. I strained to catch bits and pieces of their conversation.
It was a reconnaissance unit, as part of the Heer, German Army forces. One of the six was a Unit commander, which I guessed from the particular headgear, a light-haired, stumpy man, younger than me from the looks of it, but stronger, a lot stronger. Even his stride was heavy, as he stomped through the snow, without minding his steps, his chin up, his eyes glued to whatever target. A commander at his young age? I wondered what his accomplishments were that proved his worth before the Command. What cruelties had he committed, the upper ranks thought him befitting? I knew what it must have been, of course: he had to have decimated a certain number of the…the unworthy, a big number at that, a notable number, a superb killing skill. I wasn’t going to be on his list.
The other men were all Schütze (Riflemen), except for one, who was a signaler. They were dropped off to raid the circumference, whatever remained of the villages that were bombed and destroyed in spite of them being unhostile, residential. From what I could gather, the general understanding among the men was that the village was empty. They were going to make sure, however. That was the order. On top of that, they had a chance to loot and they were not passing on that chance.
I thought about it quick. I actually had several options. They were not great options, but at least they were options. Option one: me putting myself into a corner, a dark corner at that, the darkest, deliberately. There were still places in the house where I could hide at, especially past-explosion, bits and pieces of the former structure in shambles now; it would have been easy for me to hide among the disarray. Problem: being noticed in spite of my trying not to equaled being caught. There wasn’t going to be a chance to run without getting a bullet to my head first. And that was something to be considered.
Option two: fleeing into the woods. If I started running at the moment of the thought, I could have covered enough distance to get myself lost in the trees before any of the soldiers had spotted me. Even if they had, and at some point, they might have, none of their bullets would have had the range to catch up with me. By the time they had started the fire, I’d be too far gone into the woods. Furthermore, I had an advantage over them of actually knowing the area. I was a local. I roamed these woods since I was ten. And they just came.
But there was still a problem with that plan. What next? Once I had successfully made it into the woods, even if completely unnoticed, what next? There was no time before I started running to adequately equip myself for the trip. There was no time to collect necessities. There was no time to fill a flask of water and pack it in my coat pocket. I had enough time to start running and that was about it. And then what’d I do in the woods without even a flask of water, I’d freeze to death, and starve, or die of thirst, whichever was likely to come first. Any of it was likely. Death was likely in these conditions, one way or the other.
That was it for the options. I quickly decided I couldn’t leave the village like that, in such a rush. Leaving now equaled death anyway. It wasn’t going to worth it. So I had to stay.
I sneaked a glance out the window again. The unit was beginning to feel at home. The commander ordered several of the Schütze to check (loot) the houses. Two of them started in the direction of my neighbors. One–headed straight for me. My heart scampered, and so did my thoughts as I watched a tall lanky soldier drift my way, towards my house. In his hands, he was clutching his HIW VSK, the very same that I could picture so vividly packing my gut with a load of bullets. His gaze was rambled though as he walked, scattered, lacking the usual imperious glare the German soldiers tended to have. His stance screamed disorientation as he seemed troubled, turbulenced by every step he made towards me. I knew right then what I needed to do.
The soldier entered the house through the gap of the collapsed living room, formerly the most spacious and beautiful room in the house, but now was nothing more but a pile of consolidated old bricks and leftover debris. He made a few uncertain steps and entered the adjacent corridor that was only partially destroyed. His gaze landed eventually upon the door of the master bedroom, the only remaining part of the house still erect. He started there, naturally, making it past my bedroom, the room to his left, empty-mindedly, not noticing it. And it was hard to blame him for not noticing it. The room was tiny and unremarkable, and there wasn’t much of it left standing anyway. Well, except for one thing. I was standing there, hiding in the only remaining corner of the room, in a cozy little nook the collapsed ceiling had so graciously created. The soldier didn’t even glance my way. His eyes were solely on the door before him and his mind was on the room behind it, shut close from the stranger’s eyes. He lowered his rifle, which wasn’t something I’d advise him to do. Then, without thinking twice, he worked the door open and made a step in.
It was warm inside. He must have been pillowed in the face by the gush of warm air making its way out as he was making his way in. It was obvious someone’s been there, stoking up a fire not so long ago. But the fact didn’t seem to strike the soldier as particularly unusual. He must not have been so bright, to my luck. I seemed to get the dumbest one in the pack. If only he looked in the furnace he’d notice a puddle of water and I was sure a few embers were still glowing there in the dark. But he didn’t look there. Instead, he bolted straight for the window. The woods outside seemed to be more of an interest for him than anything else. I wondered why that was. It was peculiar. Whatever reason though, it was going to remain a mystery.
The soldier seemed preoccupied and confused, which I decided was the perfect time to strike. And I mean “strike” literally. I whacked the fool in the back of his head with the heaviest truncheon I could find in the rubble. I swung and delivered a decent blow to the base of his skull. He yelped, not expecting this. His knees buckled, and he fell prone with a low-pitched thump.
The first thing I did was snatch the rifle off of his body. Then I turned to the door, aiming the muzzle at anyone who might, even if theoretically, burst into view. There was no one though. The whole skit didn’t make noise enough for the others to hear it. I was lucky, again. I could hear their voices in the distance though. They were still here, of course. But I’ve bought myself some extra time, at least, and a rifle. I could make do with those.
To be continued...
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