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. I was so distraught and exhausted last night, I couldn’t remember falling asleep. All I remembered was that I was barely standing when I got back home. It wasn’t much different now anyway, ten hours later. My bones were still aching, my stomach. I was dead hungry. More so, as I looked into the furnace I noticed the fire was just about dying away now, 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 entire 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 last. I calmed my breathing, watching the chunks of wood lit up. Fire catching all but in a flash. Rich resinous timber flaming 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 immediately made my life 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. 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 a burst of pain that radiated all over, triggering further the inner damage covered from the eye. 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 get back in shape. 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 spread mouth to mouth like wildfire among anti-fascism upholders. There was a small matter of over a hundred and fifty kilometers standing between where I was 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 German soldiers. 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 that 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 foolish. 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 ducking 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, in a situation like that, I 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 was, by happy chance, fully intact. 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 immediately. 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 could 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 the 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 soldier without getting a bullet to your head first. My head. 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 tree 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. 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. I watched him get pillowed in the face by the gush of heated air escaping the room. It was obvious someone had been there, stoking up a fire quite recently. But the soldier was unperturbed. He walked in, making a beeline for the window. He surveyed the woods outside, for no reason I could comprehend. I wondered why. 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 belt. 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 new best friend at anyone who might come in. There wasn’t anyone 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, less 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 the voices in the distance, other soldiers chattering among each other, and it tensed me up. But, at least, I’d bought myself time to get 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 against me. My only advantage was that I was in hiding and they had no idea that I was there beneath the window frame of that tumbledown burnt house, ducking, hugging their pal’s rifle as I was 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 shaking fingers, having little idea of what to do with it. For the lack of experience though I made up with the perfect motivation; as my mother, God bless her soul, always told me I needed to have motivation. And I had the motivation alright. It was that I damn much wanted to live.
As I looked out, carefully from behind the corner of the iced window glass, I spotted the Unit commander as he was looking my way. My heart leaped in my chest when I saw him point his glowed black-leather finger directly at me. Well, not me per se, the house. But my heart was in my throat anyway. It was as close to dying I ever gotten. There was one other time with the bear actually, but the memory rubbed off substantially against the curves and crooks of my brain, for it happened years ago, when I was a child. I suppressed the urge to run. He didn’t see me, the Commander. There wasn’t any alertness in his gesture, which would have been there if he did. Several of the soldiers picked up on where the 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 wouldn’t be able to take out all of them, but at least these two I could take my chances on. And then it was up to luck how many more.
I readied myself to open fire just as soon as one of them got closer to the house. I actually wasn’t sure about the range my metal friend was serviceable at. The only practice I had with guns was shooting ducks at the lake with my uncle’s bulky hunting rifle. And if the German creation was anything like that old thing, I needed to allow the soldiers pretty damn close so not to mess up my aim. I did hit a drake or two in my time. So at least, it wasn’t hopeless. I squeezed the gun’s cold metal handle, already warming in my hands, and put a finger against the trigger. I pulled it somewhat and felt it give before there was tension. From that I knew once I pulled it further, even a little bit, the thing would fire. I steadied the muzzle against the edge of the window frame and took the aim. I could see the soldiers approaching but wasn’t sure they were close enough.
I had a second or two left to consider the fact that I was going to take somebody’s life now. I never killed anyone before. I watched plenty of people die by the hands of others, but never by my hand. I always thought when it came to it I’d do it, to protect myself. It wasn’t a debate, not really. I knew I was going to pull the trigger anyway. There was just no compromise. But it wasn’t something I ever wanted to do. I wondered if that even mattered.
I pulled the trigger. I was boggled by the bang that left my ears ringing. But I let it be, already taking another aim. As I did, I watched the soldier I just shot fall on the ground with my side vision. It was a blur but not enough not to see snow turning rapidly red the place he fell. He wasn’t moving. It was the head I was aiming for. I had no doubt he’d never move again. A pang of remorse hit me, at once. But I was already pulling the trigger the second time, not allowing any room for uncertainty. It was a horrible thing to do and I had no excuse doing it. But I was doing it anyway.
Another bang and the ringing in my ears doubled. I could hear shouts faintly but nothing that I could actually understand. As I looked out, I saw, to my terror, that the second soldier was still alive, still standing and still armed. I missed. The man was disoriented but alive, trying to figure out which way the bullets came from so that he’d run the other direction. I guess it wasn’t obvious, not at the moment.
I scrambled to make another shot, at least try. I was going to reveal my location, certainly now. But I wasn’t thinking straight. There was no time for strategy. I was desperate. And then there was one of those moments in life when you’re desperate and something happens that you didn’t expect, something that saves you, something that spares you, something that comes as close to God’s provision as it can.
The soldier froze in the air. Having not yet decided which way to run, he was stopped dead in his tracks regardless. His eyes glassed as a large blood stain started to spread over his uniform. I heard a bang, but it was fainter than mine. Somebody else made the shot this time and this time they got him. There was somebody else in the village opening fire besides me. I never stopped to think there might have been other villagers who survived the bombing. To my surprise, there was. I looked out.
The Commander and three of the remaining soldiers took cover, hiding behind the ruins of a nearby house. They looked around frantically, trying to determine where the bullets were coming from exactly. No doubt it seemed like the firing was coming from several different locations. Bang, bang, another bang. One of those bullets hit a soldier straight in the head, just like one of mine did before; a quick splatter of blood and he was falling, staining the snow red.
The ones who remained spotted the shooter now, his shadowy figure looming in one of the house windows across the street as he was recharging his weapon. I spotted him too, a middle-aged man, hiding under the window frame, just like I was. I knew him. I knew I knew him but I couldn’t remember the name. I’ve seen him around the village, many times, and two of his daughters, and a wife. I couldn’t remember his name though. I wanted to. The man was saving my life.
I watched him stick the muzzle of his gun out of the window and the banging continued. The 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. The gunshots only shattered 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 momentary pause. And one of the soldiers used the opportunity to fire back at him. But, unfortunately for him, he got a bullet in the head after a single try. The shooter guy wasn’t joking, and he must have had shot more than a single drake in his life. 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 then the commander started shooting in the air, for distraction, while the signaler took off and ran an intricate lapse among the trees towards the house of the shooter. I thought about trying to take him down but he was out of range, I was certain; just too damn far away from me. He was not noticed at first, not right away, not before he had a chance to throw a pack of grenades in the window. And then it was too late. He did catch a bullet in his leg a second later, and then another one in his chest. He tumbled but the grenades were already in the house.
Before I even had a chance to blink, I heard a roar. I watched the remaining window glass being blasted outwards, away from the house, and then a cloud of black smoke followed, and then fire, everywhere. The structure of the house shattered under the explosion and the walls kneeled, collapsing upon themselves. And then the ruins caught fire, flames billowing from what once were windows and doors. The whole thing was swallowed by glow and then the fire started dying down, replaced with smoke and dust clouds surrounding the area.
The commander was watching it too. Certain nobody survived, he got up from his knees, straightened 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.
He took a minute to see if the signaler was still alive, which he wasn’t of course, not after the kind of shot that he took. The late shooter certainly knew what he was doing. The commander forced a puff of air out of his lungs angrily, in a gesture of despair, but then he got up and collected himself. He wasn’t made a commander at such a young age for nothing. He lost his unit, but he remained alive.
He collected signaler’s bangs and started away from the village, not even giving it a second glance. It was getting colder now and the wind was howling. I could understand him wanting to get the hell out of here. And the dead, let them freeze into the ground or be taken care of by the wild dogs. I was sure he didn’t care which one was it.
I watched him leave the village and then I got up.
Only when he was no longer in sight I let my fingers unclench. I was clamping the gun this whole time. I breathed out, not with anger like he did, but with relief. I had no sense of victory or defeat, because it wasn’t either. I watched the steamy cloud of my breath disperse in the air as I counted the dead. It was horrific what just happened and there was not really a reason why. I didn’t know what the reason was anyway. I realized then that among the five fallen solders only four were actually dead. One was only presumed dead but was still alive, unconscious on the floor of my master bedroom.
I hopped to my feet and ran there. I entered the room carefully, muzzle of my rifle coming in first, as I fully expected for the soldier to have regained consciousness by now, at least partially. But he was still there on the floor and he wasn’t moving. A small pool of blood had spread from the wound at the back of his head. I wondered if I hit him so hard he had actually died. I never intended to kill him but who knows. There was so much adrenaline pumping in my veins I might just have.
To be continued...
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