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.
Nov 29, 1944
I thought I heard noises outside, machine gunfire…Made me wake up all at once. I strained to listen and there was nothing. Just an echo of my dreams maybe. Good, for I was ready to start running.
I was dazed by the light, not expecting to have slept so long, hours past dawning. Moving my limbs was a sting, ache spreading all over. Bruises, frostbites, strains, you name it. I had it all. But at least I was alive, in one piece, a perfectly mendable human being. Not so much for the others though. So many had died during the bombing last night, I lost count. Died permanently. Unrepairably. Irreversibly. Lives were being taken from people in the blink of an eye, left and right, no matter where you’d look. They were your neighbors one minute, your friends, your family, and then they were gone. They suddenly stopped living, they stopped breathing, and their hearts stopped beating, and the flesh of their bodies was evaporated into thin air, as if it never belonged to them at all. I wish there were something I could do to change that, bring them back somehow, if only there was a way.
It was warm in the room but it did nothing for my soggy clothes. All the snow that clung to it last night melted and soaked under. There was a blizzard in the woods. We were all running from the onslaught of Nazi bombers, an aerial attack we’d all been dreading for months. They got most of us in a heartbeat. I survived somehow. I didn’t think I’d make it through, back to the village, the house that was mostly in ruins now. My chances were slim but I guess I persevered. I watched so many die that day I had little desire to be one of them. And I was desperate about it, in the most radical sense of the word. So I clawed my way back, like an animal.
The snow melted and wet my undergarments. When I got home last night I was so distraught and exhausted, I couldn’t remember how I fell asleep. All I remembered was that I could barely keep myself on my feet. It wasn’t much different now anyway, ten hours later. My bones were still aching, my stomach. I was dead hungry. And to top it off, the fire in the furnace was going to die away, lest I gave it some fuel. I already philandered with cold temperatures last night, all but freezing to death. I wasn’t ready to let the warmth in the room slip and scatter. So I made myself get up, lifting myself to my feet limply. I nearly screamed, so unbearable was the pain, and sudden, the sores on my feet getting tender under the weight of my body. I ambled to the fireplace somehow, my legs shaking as if I were a paralytic. I threw some wood into the furnace and then I absolutely had to plump down again, putting the stress off my feet at once. I calmed my breathing, watching the chunks of wood lit up. Fire catching all but in a flash. Rich resinous timber flamed up like gunpowder. My uncle chopped it, the wood, 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. My aunt and uncle were now among those unrecognizable scorched bodies up there in the woods, breathless and cold. And they were alive, here in that house just yesterday morning. In my memory, they were still alive. But it all changed now.
I’d need to go out and get more wood later during the day but not now. Before all, I needed to tend to the pressing matters. I peed in a bucket while still sitting down and it made things just so much better. It was a handful though, trying to pee off the edge of the bed without even getting my pants down. I didn’t want to put stress on my legs unless I absolutely had to. So I improvised with the angle of my stream instead, early morning urinal gymnastics, and it worked, thank God. Later, feeling more confident about my legs, I made myself stand up again to scoop a mugful of hot water from the aluminum pail I had sitting at the hearth of the fireplace. I left it there purposefully so close to the fire so that the water remained warm. I sipped it, thinking what a blessing it was having warm water to drink at your disposal. There would have been none of that have the Nazis succeeded in destroying the house heart and soul. That was the plan. But they misfired, bringing down only half of it. Even though my lips had cracked from cold and were still sore to the touch, I relished it, the water. I’d have a bite of something too afterward, but not now.
I shed my clothes first, all of it. It was all dank anyway: My fat close-fitting woolen coat, threadbare and beat at the most inopportune places. My thick flannel shirts, which I always wore in layers, disregarding the color mismatch. My yellowed linen underclothing. I hung it all out to dry on a makeshift line I had strung up neighboring the fireplace. It would take a minute. I, myself, stood exposed, taking in the warmth of the fire. Examining the bruising I had on my skin, to fritter away time. It was like a minefield. As I ran my fingers down my body I triggered more and more to explode, in the bursts of pain like machine gun fire. I had never seen myself in such bad shape before. But it was all reversible. It’d all heal. Like those bomb craters outside would get overgrown eventually, coated with fresh greens come spring. Having wrapped myself in a blanket, I sat at the edge of the bed for a little while, pondering over the plan of action.
I was probably safe there in the house, but not more than for a couple of days. God willing, that’d be enough for me to recover. Anything longer than that and I’d be snowed in by the storm, having cut myself off from the outside world completely. And I could not allow that. I had to start south passing ahead of another blizzard. Staying there in the village was a Russian roulette, and I’ve gambled enough with my fate already. The German infantry units were going to invade the land now that the bombers were done with it. And I’d hate to become an unintentional witness to that: 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. The Polish underground resistance liberated Warsaw from Nazis. The news of it spread mouth to mouth like wildfire among anti-fascism upholders. There was a small matter of over a hundred and fifty kilometers standing between me and Warsaw, but I’d still go for it. If I made it to the allies-controlled lands, I’d be taken in as a war refugee. I still had my passport. The idea was tempting. I might die on my way over there, but at least I wouldn’t die in vain. Having abandoned hope. Everything to the west was already taken by Nazis: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and now they invaded Hungary. There was nowhere else to go for me. And I couldn’t stay either.
The weather though, it was going to be against me in this. But if I was prepared, if I readied myself for the trip properly, I might just cut it. If I stayed in the village, on the other hand, I’d be shot at sight by an occasional German soldier. Or deported to one of Hitler’s concentration camps to perish there slowly instead. There was plenty to choose from inside the Reich. They’d have me lodged in a cell, wasted, exterminated. They’d do the same thing to me they did to Calev. My poor Calev…
There was suddenly racket outside. It disturbed my train of thought. I heard commotion somewhere in the distance, probably at the village’s purlieu. If it were Nazis, they beat me to it. I did not expect them to have come just yet. With my heart sinking all the way into my leather boots, I bolted upward, dropping the blanket. My privates rattled, sore and exposed. I was utterly bare. But it was the least of my worries now. I ducked under the frame of a broken window. The engines! I could hear them clearly now, unmistakably. The rumble I heard earlier must have been the engines of the military trucks.
There was no time to spare now. I had to clothe promptly, even though my garments hadn’t fully dried yet. Well, at least the fabric soaked in some of the warmth coming from the fire. The fire! Damn it! The fire was blazing inside the stove, producing smoke as a by-product, which was then further propelled up the chimney and out into the open air for everyone else to see. God, I was a fool. I immediately felt more exposed than I was when I was stark-naked. The smoke might have been already spotted. I scrambled towards the smokeshaft, pushing the damper in and shutting out the smoke’s passage. To top it off, I snatched a rag from the floor and wrapped it around the burning-hot handle of the aluminum pail, so not to burn my fingers as I was grabbing it. Without hesitation, I drove a bucketful of water into the furnace and it sizzled with a ruddy splash. A wave of blackish goo and dying embers poured to my feet, hissing at me. Smoke billowed and clouded the room, as was expected. At least it wasn’t going up the chimney anymore. Coughing, I ducked under the window frame and listened.
I could hear trucks clearer now, 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 maybe? Both things were supposable. I couldn’t tell because I couldn’t see any of them directly, not from the window I was cowering at. It was mostly looking out into the forest, a beautiful but worthless view. What I needed was a clear shot of the village. The only place that offered that, within the house, was my own former bedroom, pre-attack, pre-bombing bedroom. There was about half of it left standing after. I needed to get there.
Carefully, trying not to make a sound, I slunk in. Not that I could be heard at such a distance, but I much preferred to be safe than sorry. So I minded my steps, tip-toeing around, not to accidentally unseat any of the uprooted crooked planks or the odd-coupled bricks torn from the wall, that lay strewn around now settled capriciously between the semi-split clapboard floor and the ripped-open basement two and a half meters below. I wedged myself close to the window. The part of the wall with the window in it was, by a happy chance, fully intact, shielding me from the rest of the world. The others were mostly brought down. I looked out. I saw men coming in, entering the village, men who wore 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 seven entered the village with what looked like every intention to raid the premises house by house. Several of them were carrying HIW VSK rifles. I knew those from the war bulletins. Chambered for the 8 mm bullets, 5-round stripper clips to pack the magazine. It had the capacity to pack my guts with metal alright. I gulped at the thought nervously, my stomach churning. 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 them was a Unit commander, which I guessed from the particular headgear he wore. A light-haired, stumpy man, younger than me from the looks of it. He charged through heavy snowdrifts with ease, not troubled in the slightest, his chin up at all times. A particular poise all Nazi commanders tended to have, a certain pride if you will, comes with the job. Cleaning out the population must feel like a calling, a mission, or else how do you sleep at night unburdened. A commander at his young age though? What was it that he’d done, I wondered, to prove his worth before the higher ranks? What accomplishments? I knew what it was, of course: He’d killed off, decimated a certain number of the…the unworthy. A big number. A notable number. A superb killing skill which ultimately deemed him befitting to the position. Nothing else mattered really.
The other men were all Schütze (Riflemen), except for one, who was a signaler. They were dropped off to raid the circumference, comb through whatever remained of the unhostile, residential villages that were wiped out almost entirely the night before. From what I could gather, the general understanding among the men was that the village was by now empty. They were going to make sure, however. That was the order from the higher command. They’d loot, of course, on top of that.
I thought about it quick. I had several options pop up in my head. Like those leaping popcorn seeds on an oiled surface of a hot frying pan my mom used to make. None of them were good seeds. I could corner myself, deliberately, hiding out in the most darkest part of the house I could find. There were places in the house like that, especially past-explosion, bits and pieces of the former structure in shambles now. It would have been uncomplicated for me to hide among the disarray, in the dark deep cranny somewhere within the house’s hollows. But if I were still noticed or found, that’d be the end of it. There’d be no running away from a Nazi bullet. That was worrisome.
Or else, I could flee into the woods instead. If I started running right that moment, I could have covered enough distance to get myself lost among the trees, snow-coated and bare but plentiful, before any of the soldiers ever had a chance to notice. Even if they did notice me, by the time they’d start the fire, I’d be too far gone. And then if they’d come after me, following me into the woods, they’d never catch up. I had a tactical advantage of actually knowing the place. I was a local here. I roamed these woods long since I was an adolescent boy. And they just came.
But there was still a problem with that plan, rather substantial. It worked great in a short term, but in the long term, it’d dud. I had no time to adequately equip myself for the trip in such extreme conditions. If it were summertime, sure, it’d be a piece of cake. I’d find water and food along the way, eat fucking berries and fruit from the trees if I had to, sleep in the shelter of the tangling trees, under the stars. But now, late November…I wouldn’t survive a day if I didn’t bring it all along with me: water, food, shelter, God knows what else. And hell, I didn’t even have time to pocket a flask of water. I had enough time to start running and that was about it, unfortunately.
I was running out of options. I decided, predictably, that I was going to stay in the village. I didn’t want to leave in a rush. It’d equal death anyway. A slow death too. And, if I had to die, I’d rather it was quick and easy. Getting a bullet to your head easy. Instead of slowly freezing to death, getting in and out of consciousness, feeling your limbs getting stiffer every time, tissue turning to ice, blood congealed permanently in your extremities. And then your lungs turning to fire with inflammation, extreme hypothermia, prompting you to suffocate. I had a taste of that just the night before. Not for me. I’d rather stay in the house, where it was at least warm, whatever the outcome may be. It wasn’t going to be long before I’d find out anyway.
I sneaked a glance at the village 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, a couple of big worthwhile-looking houses to the left, completely untouched by the bombing, the newly-refreshed whitewash over the clay coating still looking pristine. One of the soldiers though headed my way. My stomach turned when I watched him come, drifting toward my humdrum mediocre house, a tall lanky soldier with a load-bearing rifle clasped in his hands. His gaze was rambled though as he walked, scattered, lacking the usual determined glare expected of the soldier on the loot. His stance screamed disorientation as he seemed troubled, turbulenced by every step. And that was something my hope suddenly stemmed off of, unexpected in a desperate place. I knew exactly what I needed to do right then.
He entered the house from the side of the collapsed living room, formerly the most spacious in the house. There was nothing but a gaping crater in its place now, under the open sky, and a splatter of fragmentalized debris piercing through the snow blanket. He circled it, delicately, and then entered what was left of the house through the cramped intestine corridor that was only partially destroyed. The door to the master bedroom I occupied recently was at the end of it, which he soon stumbled upon. It was the only part of the house that remained fully erect and was of any interest to him. Everything else lay in ruins. There was also a doorway to his left, which he only regarded half-mindedly, giving it a quick glance before moving on, just as I hoped he would, for the room behind it was tiny and unremarkable. Little did he know that I was there, ambushed among the ruins, watching him. I wouldn’t blame him for not thinking of that. The house looked, by far, abandoned. He then stopped at the door to the master bedroom, maybe for the first time considering if the house was indeed abandoned or if it was a wrong impression on his part. The door was closed. Which looked odd, considering the condition of the house. I watched him hesitate for a moment before he finally lowered his rifle and reached for the doorknob. If I were him, I’d hold on tightly to that rifle. Then, without thinking twice, he worked the door open and made a step in.
It was warm inside, warmer than it should have been. It was obvious someone had been there, stoking up a fire not long ago. But the soldier was unperturbed. He walked in, making a beeline for the window. He surveyed the woods outside, for no visible reason. I wondered why he did that. It was peculiar of him. If anything, I expected him to be interested in whatever riches remained in the house. After all, people who lived here left in a rush. They could have left valuable things behind them, like jewelry, gold even. But he kept looking out the window instead, disinterested in the burglary opportunities. Whatever reason though, it was going to remain a mystery to me, because I wasn’t going to bother him with conversation. On the contrary, what I wanted was to knock him out.
The soldier looked preoccupied, as he was gazing out the window, his very back to me, his rifle hanging limply on a cordage sling. Which I decided was the perfect time for me to strike. Literally. I sneaked behind him and 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 in the slightest. Indeed, he thought the house was vacated. His knees buckled, and he fell prone with a low-pitched thump.
I snatched the rifle off of his body, first thing right after. That was the most valuable thing about him, after all. I turned to the door, aiming the muzzle of my gun, my new best friend, at anyone who might come in. Nobody did though. I was expecting others to get alarmed, but the whole skit didn’t make noise enough for them to hear it. I was lucky, again. But the one lying unconscious on the floor was an easy one. I could tell now, just by looking at his face, that he was the youngest in the group, less trained, lesser experienced. He was no match to others. I was lucky to get him walking into my house first, before others did. But that was where the luck was going to end for me. I could hear voices in the distance, other soldiers chattering among each other, and it tensed me up. But, at least, I’d bought myself time to make ready. And I got a rifle! That was a nice gain. I could make do with those.
I needed to pace myself precisely now, for the odds were not in my favor. My only advantage was, against those men, that I was in hiding. They had no idea I was there beneath the window frame of that gutted wreckage of a house, sneaking glances at them while hugging their pal’s rifle, sizing them, soldiers, up for a series of deadly shots I was going to exact on them. And they were out in the open, in the day light, available to receive it. On the other hand, they were all trained recruits, making their living by killing, and I was only a one scared schumck clutching to a cold and rusty rifle with my frozen fingers, having little idea of what to do with it. For the lack of experience though I made up with the superb motivation; as my mother, God bless her soul, always told me I needed to have motivation. And I had motivation alright. It was that I damn much wanted to live.
As I looked out, carefully from behind the corner of the ice-tainted window glass, I spotted the Unit commander. Our eyes met for a second, suddenly, or so it seemed, making my heart leap in my chest. He pointed his glowed black-leather finger in my direction. I knew he wasn’t pointing at me per se, rather the house. But my heart was in my throat anyways. It was as close to dying I ever gotten. There was one other time with the bear, but the memory of it rubbed off over time. It happened years ago, when I was a boy. I guess I was equally frightened back then as I was now. I suppressed the urge to run. I knew he didn’t see me, the commander. Our eyes didn’t really meet. His gesture wasn’t sudden or alarmed. He was pointing at the house indifferently, clearly not aware there was somebody in it, sending men to have a look at it, just in case. Two of them parted the group, having picked up on where his finger was pointing, and started leisurely in that direction. Now was the only chance to act I was going to get with that rifle. I didn’t expect to take out all of them necessarily, but at least these two I could take my chances on. And then we’d see how many more.
I readied myself to open fire just as soon as one of them got closer. I had to guess whatever the range would be of that gun, having only practiced with my uncle’s bulky hunting rifle before, shooting wild ducks with him at the freshwater lake in the valley. And if the German creation was anything like that old thing, I needed to allow the soldiers dangerously close to me to make a hit. I squeezed the gun’s forearm, dead-cold metal getting warmer in my hands by then, and put a finger against a thin hangnail of a trigger. I pulled it somewhat and felt it give before there was tension. From that I knew once I pulled it further, even a tiny bit, it’d fire. I steadied the barrel against the edge of the window frame and took the aim.
Looking through the needle eye of the gun’s sights, one at the far end of the barrel and another one right near my face, I saw the soldiers. The two sights co-aligned when I picked one of them randomly to be the first target. He was a thickset, stumpy man with a shock of grizzled black hair and a fatigued pinched expression. He had his lips pressed into a thin line while his disproportionate lower jaw jutted out angrily. A pair of small piggish eyes was glaring almost right at me as he trudged slowly through the snow. Just by looking at him I could tell how much hatred he had in him, being thrown to this cold God-forsaken land nobody cared about, the land of those whom he despised. And the only thing that fueled him was hate. He wanted to kill those people, kill them all off, just so he’d be done with it, go some other place, some place warmer, where he could kill more of the same people. And the most infuriating thing in all of it was that the hate didn’t even belong with him. It was infused on him by his command. Artificially. The command that was feeding the likes of him lies. And he ate the lies, greedily. They all ate it, internalizing and welcoming the hate, letting it burn in their chests, letting the upper ranks turn them into mindless machines, much like those abominable inhumane Nazi gas chambers. The thought enraged me. I sighted on the man’s forehead. That was the perfect time to pull the trigger.
But before I did pull the trigger, I dawdled in hesitation. It dawned on me almost out of a blue that I was going to kill the man now, that angry hate-driven middle-aged soldier. I never considered myself a killer. I never killed before. I watched plenty of people die, but I never killed one. I thought about it, of course, many times through the course of the war. I always thought, if it should come to it, I’d do it, if I needed to protect myself. It wasn’t a debate in my head, whether or not I should do it. I knew I was going to. There was just no compromise. It was either me or him. Someone was going to die today, one way or the other. But it wasn’t something I ever wanted to do. If it was any excuse. I never wanted to pull that trigger. I never thought I would.
I pulled the trigger, and was boggled by the bang that left my ears ringing. But I let them ring, ignoring the pain, taking another aim already, no dawdling this time. With my side vision, I watched the soldier fall on the ground, the snow under him turning red instantly. He wasn’t moving, not anymore. I got him right in the head where I intended to. He was dead. A pang of remorse hit me. But there was no time for that. I was hurried to pull the trigger the second time, having sighted the gun on the dead man’s companion. It was a horrible thing to do and I had no excuse doing it. But I was doing it anyways.
Another bang and the ringing in my ears doubled. I could hear shouts faintly in the distance. The others were alarmed now. They now knew I was there. There was no going back to playing hide and seek with them. I pretty much revealed my own location. I looked out, expecting to see other soldiers coming my way. I hoped I had enough time to reload and take the aim. But it wasn’t others that I saw. To my terror, I saw that the last one wasn’t dead. The bullet must have missed him completely. And to think I had counted him off in my head already. He was disoriented but alive. Lucky son of a bitch!
I scrambled to make another shot, or at least try, but it was impossible now. My location was revealed. Others opened fire back at me. I ducked down, searching desperately my brain for ideas. But there were none. All I got was an acute throbbing in my temples as the enemy ammunition battered the wall. The bullets shattered the window above my head and the rain of glass shards and ice chips showered over me. It was one of those moments in life when the brain activity intensifies to the extreme. Time slowed down. I knew I was going to die now. There was no way out of it. I’d done exactly what I feared most, I pushed myself into a deadly corner and there was no way out. I breathed, wondering which one of those breathes I draw was going to be my last.
But then something unexpected happened. Something extraordinary. Something that saved my life just then, against all odds. Something that came as close to God’s provision, in my head, as it possibly ever could. They ceased fire, the other soldiers. Or at least it seemed so. The pounding stopped but the shooting continued, bullets zip-zapping through the air. Although none of them were coming through my wall anymore. I heard commotion outside and was tempted to take a peek. And I would, just as soon as I regained control over my body, utterly paralyzed with terror now. When I peeked out finally, I saw that the dead man’s companion, the lucky son of a bitch, I didn’t know his name, was still there, standing not far away from my house just as he was a few seconds ago, before the fire started. But he wasn’t moving as much this time and his eyes were getting foggy and glazed. A large streak of blood was spreading across his uniform, deepening dark color that soon enveloped the man whole. He received multiple shots in his chest and was bleeding severely. At first I thought it was a friendly fire that got him. After all, he was standing between me and the other soldiers shooting. But it didn’t seem like it, him catching a random bullet, by mistake or an unlucky happenstance. He was being targeted on purpose. When I watched him fall dead on the ground I realized…somebody else got him. There was somebody else in the village with a gun. I never once stopped to think there might have been others who survived the bombing.
Seeing their pal dead, the commander and three of the remaining soldiers holed up behind the ruins of a nearby building as the shooting continued. This time it was them under fire. Their eyes darted around and their necks kept spinning frantically as they were trying to find where the bullets were coming from. No doubt it seemed confusing, like the shooting was coming from several different places. One moment the gunshots were coming from my house, the next from a different place entirely. Bang, bang…bang. One of those hit a soldier straight in the head as he was trying to peek out from behind the covers. He was unlucky to do so. A quick splatter of blood and he was down, staining the snow red once again.
Fortunately for the others, it helped them finally spot the shooter, his shadowy silhouette looming in one of the gutted torn-down houses across the street. Now I could see him too, a middle-aged man recharging his weapon, hiding behind the window frame, much like I was. I knew him. I knew I knew him but I couldn’t remember the name. I’d seen him around the village definitely, many times, and two of his daughters, and a wife. I couldn’t remember his name still. I wanted to. The man was saving my life.
I watched him stick the muzzle of his gun out of the broken window and the banging continued. The remaining Nazis ducked out, sheltered behind the wedge of an old brick wall jutting out of the ground seemingly out of nowhere. But there was a house there once, laid flat to the ground after the bombing. Now it was shielding the Nazis from the fire. The gunshots were shattering bricks above their heads, showering them with debris and dust, not doing any real damage. Then the man had to recharge again, which created a pause. One of the soldiers tried to return the fire, but caught a bullet to the head as well. The shooter wasn’t joking. He was good at that. His aim was good.
The remaining two, the Unit commander and the signaler, dove down, ducking behind the wall. They were both armed. They conversed briefly and the commander started shooting, in the air, for distraction. The banging intensified for a moment and then stopped. One of them ran out of ammunition. It wasn’t the commander. He started fire again, shooting in the air as he did before, while the signaler took off, using the moment to run an intricate lapse among the trees towards the house of the shooter. I thought about trying to take him down while he was running, but he was out of range, I was pretty sure, just too damn far away from me. He was not noticed at first, not right away, as the shooter was busy scraping for extra bullets and reloading the gun. And then it was too late. By the time he spotted the running signaler, he was throwing a pack of grenades in the window. He shot him down in the end, hitting his leg first, and then delivering a decent blow to his chest. The man tumbled off but the grenades were already in the house.
Before I even blinked, the roar of exploding grenades hit me. I watched from the distance with horror how window glass was being blasted out and away from the house, and then a cloud of black smoke followed it, and then fire, everywhere. The structure of the house shattered from the blast and the walls kneeled, collapsing upon themselves. And then the walls caught fire themselves, the wood in them, what once were windows and doors, the ceiling rafters, hardwood flooring, wooden furniture, it all ignited in a flash. The whole house soon succumbed to the flames and the glow, and then the fire started to die down slowly, being gradually replaced by the smoke and the clouds of dust escaping the blackened bowels of the building.
The commander was watching it too. Assured nobody survived it, he got up from his knees, straightened up his garments and started unhurriedly towards the inferno. His face was a mask of disgust as he walked. He stopped, taking the spectacle in, and then he spat at the snow in the direction of the burning house.
The stiff unmoving body of the signaler was sprawled in a few yards from him, a dirty splash of gray on top of the pristine snow blanket. He approached it, checked his pulse to see if he was really dead. He was. There was no surviving the kind of shot he took in his chest. The commander forced a puff of air out of his lungs angrily, in a gesture of despair, but then got up and collected himself. He wasn’t made a commander at such a young age for nothing. He lost his unit, but he, himself, survived, as was expected, having sacrificed lower ranks in order to save his own life. As was expected.
He collected signaler’s bangs, one of which had a portable radio for communication, and started away from the village, not even giving it a second glance. It was getting colder now and the wind was howling. It started to snow. I could understand him wanting to get out of here. He probably wasn’t eager to get here in the first place. And the dead, let them freeze into the ground for all he cared. Or let them be taken care of by the wild dogs. I was sure it didn’t matter for him whichever it was. I met the likes of him before, back in Germany, the perfect embodiment of what the new regime wanted, a man without a soul.
I watched him leave, clear the perimeter of the village, and only then I got up, only then my fingers unclenched, having been clasping the gun this whole time. I breathed out, not with anger like he did, but with relief. My legs trembled, barely holding my weight. I had no sense of victory or defeat, because it wasn’t either. I counted the dead in my head. It was horrific what happened here today and there was not really a reason for that. I didn’t know what the reason was anyways. The same thing was happening all over country, the entire world as well, Nazism spreading like cancer. I felt completely and utterly impotent, powerless to do anything about it. All I managed to do today was save my own life. And I wasn’t sure it was that valuable to begin with. Innocent people died, my neighbor…His wife was probably there too, among the burning ruins of the house…The children. I counted the fallen soldiers as well. However cruel their intentions were, they joined the list of casualties of the war still, in death. I realized then that among the five of them only four were actually dead. There was another one who was presumed dead by the unit, but was actually still alive, sprawled unconscious on the floor of my master bedroom.
I entered the room carefully (the muzzle of my rifle coming in first) as I fully expected the only surviving Nazi soldier to have regained consciousness by now, at least partially so. But he was still there on the floor where I left him, having not moved an inch since. Only a small pool of blood had spread from the wound at the back of his head and darkened the dusty floor boards. I wondered if I hit him too hard, so hard he’d actually died? I never intended to kill him God knows. But there was so much adrenaline pumping through my veins I might just have, accidentally.
I approached him cautiously, focused on his chest more than anything, which was heaving up and down, slowly, shallowly, up and down. He wasn’t dead. Not yet anyway. His breathing was steady. My gaze shifted involuntarily from his body to the gun I was holding in my hands, like a logical progression of thoughts. Body…gun. It was like a problem and the solution, as blunt as it was. I might as well have shot him while he was out. I reasoned with myself. It wasn’t half as horrible as it sounded. He wasn’t going to feel any pain. It was going to be rather an easy, anesthetized passing. It was a courtesy from my part really, more than what was offered to my neighbor and his wife (and children), or my parents for that matter, or Calev. I let my hands hold the aim at his head while I pondered. It was easy, just a matter of pulling the trigger, that’s all. And I’d be done with it. I killed a man today, another soldier just like him. What was the point pretending I was above doing it? False pangs of conscience? Whatever it was, I already went down that road; I might as well go all the way. It was stupid of me thinking about it, wasting time. If I was made a soldier in that war, I might as well be one. Shoot the enemy.
It was getting cold. I left the door open as I came in, allowing myself a quick exit, just in case. But now as I’d unexpectedly taken a minute to think, the cold was becoming an issue. The adrenaline in my blood was running dry now. I was beginning to freeze. I debated (in my head) whether or not I should just shut the door close. But it was not going to be as easy as it sounded. It’d take me a minute to push the door properly into its frame and make it latch. I’d need both of my hands as well, since both hinges were twisted. Not to mention I’d need to put down the gun in order to do everything properly. There was a chance, a slim chance he’d wake up while I was latching the door, my back to him, unarmed and unaware, and then who knows what’d happen. I wasn’t ready to fight him by hand. And I wasn’t ready to let go of the gun just yet anyway.
So I took the aim instead and steadied my hands as best I could. I took a deep breath and readied myself to pull the trigger. I knew from the previous experience there was going to be a nasty pushback as I fired it. Thus, I made the gun’s stock counterpoise against the soft of my shoulder. It was not going to be pleasant. Even less pleasant for the soldier. But that was what I was going to do. I had to! It was going to happen. I closed my eyes not to see it. Just pull the trigger and be done with it!
I didn’t pull the trigger. I opened my eyes instead, looked at him. My gaze shifted to his face involuntarily and lingered there. He looked so innocent sleeping. He didn’t look like someone you’d think would hurt you if woken up. Really hurt you. I exhaled, letting my muscles relax. My hands began to quiver again, from cold, from exhaustion, and the aim sagged. Not that I cared much more about the aim (idiot!) as I was ogling the soldier.
To be continued...
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