Falling Blind: The Bombs of Saint Lô
E. Nagle, 10th - Singapore
July, 7 1944.
The sky is crying.
Bombs bleed from the arc of heaven, shattering the steeples and smothering the rooftops of Saint Lô.
The earth groans above our heads as we crouch in the earthen cave of a bomb shelter. The men sing, or pretend to, a plea cloaked in the disguise of patriotic words. Useless. Song will not stop the Americans.
Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, über alles in der Welt...
My eyes find my watch, which is strapped tightly to my wrist, afraid to let go. Tumbledown and tired, it had once belonged to my father. My eyelids flutter shut, and the singing shifts, the sound rearranging into the ticking of Klaus’clocks. There is the cuckoo above the window, the grandfather in the corner, and shelves upon shelves of overcrowded timekeepers, jostling for room to tick and breathe, tick and breathe. An army of wooden bombs, sickeningly synchronized. One can almost hear the footsteps of Father Time pass fleetingly by, the seconds trotting at his heels.
Above my head, American bombers raze the clouds.
The men sing.
Miles away, the Americans prepare to march.
Karin, last night, I dreamt of you.
I dreamt of your windy caramel hair, wrestled into a knot; the eyes that saw nothing yet held a whole world; your slim figure, graceful, despite the awkwardness of a white cane.
September 5, 1935. I had risen with the sun and crept past my uncle, who lay grumbling on the sofa, empty bottle still clinging to his acquiescing fingers.
Once outside in the earl gray dawn, I journeyed onto Main Street and swiped a newspaper from a lonely bin. Scanning the columns of staling ink, I decided to try my luck with the one that read: Day Labor: Help Wanted - Lorenz Grocery - 9, Engel Straße. The good part of town.
What did I have to lose?
Your father’s crinkled eyes and bristling whiskers met me at the door. All around me were bubbles of dreams: crimson and maple apples flickered from a wicker basket; flour and sugar gloated at me from a high shelf.
“What I need you to do, son... Antoni was it? Peter Antoni?”
“Well, what I need you to do is separate the rotten produce from the good. See those shelves over there?”
The crinkled eyes smiled. “Well, go on then.”
I combed through countless heads of lettuce, tomatoes and onions, as customers sauntered in and out. Old women and young. Housewives and their lists of worries, which fell in heaps on the wooden floor.
I felt you before I heard the crunch of the apple. “Would you like some?”
There they were, the first words, chasmed out in front of me like a dare.
I wavered at the brink of leaping. “I shouldn’t. But thank you.”
You understood at once. “Oh, don’t worry. I asked Papa just now if I could give you some. He said yes.”
I glanced up at Mr. Lorenz. The crinkled eyes smiled. “Well, in that case…” I leapt, the apple in my hand before I could hesitate again. “Thank you.”
It was your eyes that ensnared me. Oh, those eyes. They would be the death of you.
So, we sat there on the Engel Street floor, the afternoon cushioning itself around us, and I learnt of the joy that can be found in the simple eating of a caramel russet fruit and the company of one willing to share it.
Later, while your father stayed to lock up shop, I walked you home through tendrils of dwindling sunset, atop cement ready to crack under the strain of the Earth, uninterrupted but for the occasional brave daisy, who dared peek her sunny face above the soot. Clouds that had slipped through the seams of heaven sloped above our heads.
I wondered if you knew what you were surrounded by, the beauty and the ugliness that made up our corner of the universe. But now I recognize that you knew better than most the strangeness of our world.
Our footsteps halted in front of a cream home trimmed with ivy shutters.
“Auf wiedersehen, Peter.” You winked. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Only half joking, I replied, “How do you know I will be back tomorrow?”
“I don’t.” And with that, you turned around and entered the house, leaving me marooned on the sidewalk.
Auf wiedersehen, Peter…
You were right. I would be back tomorrow. And the day after.
I had fallen for you like a bomb, falling freely through the sky only to create a pit of love and war. How was I supposed to know that misery alone lay in wait at the bottom?
But even if I did know, if I had the chance to live my life over and over again, I would still fall.
Every single time.
Saint Lô has been crucified. It has been damned and splintered and spun, until at last, it stands, shivering in the bliss of abandonment.
Lone paperdoll houses that can be tipped at the nod of a child’s wayward finger fringe rubbled and decaying street. The rooftops that remain drip with invisible weight atop walls that lean into each other for support. Their windows have long-since vaporized into a malignant glass mist, leaving empty holes that stare down upon the martyred city...
...and its people.
Those who have something worth living for search, staggering among the ruins. Some have tears perched on the tip of escape. Others, screams. All are set free once a discovery is made, along with a prayer.
The question is whether it is a hallelujah to the heavens or a prayer overwhelmed by agony and grief.
I stand at attention in front of Generalleutnant Richard Schimf along with the rest of the Third Fallschirmjäger Division. Both Schimf’s face and uniform have been starched: his uniform to minimize creases and his face to remain perpetually folded and stiff.
“Attention! Leutnant Bauer, you are to take a squad of men for anti-reconnaissance. Don’t take on anything you can’t handle, but if you can, I would like at least one American taken as prisoner. Send back for help if necessary.”
I fall in line behind Lieutenant Bauer as we set off down a road leading out of town. The clash of our boots with the grimy dirt raises dust that hovers in the still summer air, mingling with our breath, tickling us until we cough.
On either side of us, the hedgerows of Normandy ramble on for miles, guardians of the paler fields they surrounded. It’s the best defensive terrain we can ask for: densely grown trees and shrubs capable of stopping a rifle bullet. The leafy sealant is embedded in ancient, irregular mounds of dirt, fortified by stones placed there by local peasants hundreds of years prior.
“Hurry up, trottel!” The voice seems to thrust itself out of the soldiers’ metrical shuffling.
It is met with a solid rebuttal. “Back off, Schwartz! Leave him alone and stick to the back of the group. You okay, Beute?”
“Uh, yes, Lieutenant Bauer, thank you. I’m all right.”
“Good, we need you to be sharp.” Bauer directs a glance over his shoulder and lowers his voice. “And don’t mind Schwartz. Both of his brothers were at Omaha Beach. Neither made it, not many did.”
Beute doesn’t respond but follows Bauer as he steps off the road toward the north. The hedgerows quickly engulf us. Nothing moves except Bauer’s eyebrows, which gather together in a furrowed line. “Do you smell smoke?”
Schwartz’s nose is in the air; he, too, has caught a scent.
“Gluck!” Look! I point to the sky, where a teepee of smoke stands black and smoldering even against the background of the air’s dust.
“Come on!” Bauer is already running, Schwartz at his heels.
Backs bent, we wade through several fields and silently claw our way through a final hedgerow. There, reposing on the mangled earth, is a downed airplane. An American airplane.
Half immersed in dislodged dirt, the shredded metal carcass lies disheveled and maimed, with one of its wings grated off and abandoned several yards away. The engine, aflame, coughs smoke into a bruised French sky. Glass lies scattered like evidence, leaving the metal structure of the aircraft canopy exposed. The cockpit is empty.
“He must have escaped by parachute.” Schwartz had already turned away. “We should spread out and search.”
“No, look.” Bauer had moved closer. “It’s hard to tell because the glass is all shattered, but the canopy is closed.”
“Maybe the canopy’s stuck so he shattered the glass while the plane was still in the air so he could jump out.”
“Yes, but look at the glass around us. The windows definitely shattered when the plane landed. See the blood stains on the seat and the redness of the dirt and grass. I think he is alive and close by. We have to hurry, he’ll be heading for the American lines, but if we track his blood, we’ll find him soon enough.”
No words follow Bauer’s pronouncement, just covert eye contact and the dubious rustle of army-issued boots. Schwartz, wasting no time on such semblances, spares not even a pretense of respect in his response: “No way in hell anyone who crashes his plane this badly just gets up and walks away. Jesus, he’d be lucky even to survive.”
“Schwartz! That will be the last time you disrespect a superior again. If I wanted the men to ‘spread out and search’, I would have told them. It is not your place to give orders, private, and it is certainly not your place to contradict my orders.”
“My apologies, sir.”
Bauer shakes his head. “Come on.”
We follow him through the grass, whose green tips echo in the wake of American blood. It only takes us two fields to find the source.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph…”
A whole squad of Germans watch as their American quarry limps along with futile hope and purposefulness. The sun casts down on him in such a way that he is more of a shadow than a man, his dark outline contrasting sharply with the white wildflowers surrounding him. I pause to stare, we all do, and his panting rings more pointedly in our ears. Nothing is ever quite so beautiful as those last, unseeing moments.
Schwartz snarls and pounces, the führer ablaze in his pupils.
It’s all his fault, really.
His fault, that the American looks up and, knowing that death awaits him in the bullets of Heinrich Schwarz, chooses to take out as many of us as he possibly can before that moment arrives.
At a speed only a desperate man can achieve, he draws a pistol and fires.
He misses. The bullet whizzes past Schwarz and hits Bauer. Human, innocent Bauer, who had flung himself after Schwarz in an attempt to prevent him from killing the American. The same American who had just shot Bauer in the chest.
I seize Schwarz’s meaty arm as Bauer crumples, jerking his gun upward just as it fires. Next, the American. This is somewhat easier. I knock the pistol away and catch his wrists in a tight embrace.
“You trottel! What did you do that for?” Schwarz is back on his feet.
“This way we can question him.”
“Bullshit! We know the Allies need Saint Lô and the only way they can get here is through these damn hedges.”
“Go tell that to the Lieutenant General. Listen, we have to get out of here. Every American from here to England probably heard the gunshots.”
The rest of the squad simply stands, their heads teetering between me and Schwarz, me and Schwarz. At last, a nameless young soldier steps forward and helps me truss the American’s wrists.
Schwartz scowls, unveiling teeth stained the color of rot. “Come on,” he snarls, turning back to the hedgerows, “Let’s go.”
The men follow, the American in tow. Two of them drag Bauer by the arms. His boots linger behind him, scarring the soil and mixing American blood with German.
Stillness envelops me once more as I am left alone.
Adrift on my side of the hedgerow.
The field brimmed with the wildflowers’ whispering sighs and chimes. Blonde blossoms flaunted heads of blushing wreaths, their flickering beauty echoed back at them in the light of the evening sun.
Altweibersommer. What Germans call the fleeting days of summer-like fall before the chill of winter conquers the wind and sky.
“Is it beautiful?” Your fingertips skimmed blades of untamed grass.
How strange, that seven years later, I still hear your voice.
“It’s stunning.” I plucked sprigs of blue and white and handed them to you.
A smile graced your lashes as you shrouded your face in the nosegay. “Oh,... anemone… how sweet. You know, Emerson once wrote that the Earth laughs in flowers.”
“Did he now?”
“Yes, you can imagine how my imagination practically imploded upon first hearing those words.” Your smile glistened more plainly now.
“I suppose I’ve never thought of flowers that way before. It makes them seem all the more beautiful. To be honest, I’ve always wondered why people pluck flowers.”
“Oh? And why do we?”
“Well, that’s just it, isn’t it? We kill flowers because we think they are beautiful.”
Somehow, your eyes managed to stare straight through me, in a way no seeing eye could. “You plucked flowers just now, did you not?”
“Yes, I did.”
No one spoke for a while. We just breathed in time to the thrumming life of the field. At last, you picked up your cane. “Come. There’s something -- no someplace -- I want to show you.”
We walked with mirrored steps and tangled fingers back into town and along Abschied Straße, whose sidewalks were lined with trees. The slight breeze, having strengthened, caused the lucid autumn leaves to laugh, evidently indifferent to what the coming season had in store.
At last, we stood together on the doorstep of Klaus’s Uhrenladen - Klaus’s Clock Shop - a tidy, humble Tudor with a frank, unpretentious exterior that seemed strangely familiar, as if I had visited Klaus’ obscure shop in times long gone by and since forgotten, except for a few threads of memory, stranded on the edges of my conscience.
“Well, be a gentleman, open the door.” The smile strayed back onto your lips.
“M’lady,” I bowed you through the threshold.
I had never before heard lifeless objects produce so guttural and blinding a noise. Yet, it would be untrue to say that the array of clocks marshaled before me were entirely “lifeless.” Their very bodies pulsed with a hypotonic rhythm and the ticking was such that, for a brief moment, I could have sworn I felt the earth shudder beneath my feet and saw the walls begin to rotate, like so many grinding gears and winding wheels.
Lost in the midst of this ticking army, was a man, red aproned and whiskered, bent over a wounded cuckoo clock.
“Good afternoon, Klaus!”
Klaus raised his head, blinking through hazy glasses.
“Ah, Karin. And who is this?”
Klaus picked up the cuckoo, evidently cured, and hung it on a nail just above the window, through which trickled shafts of ebbing light.
“I’m Peter Antoni. It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.”
“Peter, of course, of course… Karin has told me all about you. Welcome, welcome…” Klaus raised a woolen arm. “And no ‘sirs’ around here I’m afraid. Being called sir makes me uncomfortable. I keep thinking there is somebody standing behind me! Ha! Just call me Klaus, my boy, just call me Klaus.”
Chortling, Klaus clapped a hand to his substantial middle.
“Klaus tells the best stories, don’t you Klaus?” You settled yourself down on a cushioned stool, and patted the one beside it.
I sat down as Klaus responded, “Oh, yes, naturally I do.” He winked at me. “Life is just trying to find the ending to your own story, is it not? And I know all the stories, just as well as I know the back of my hand. Say, Peter, my boy, that’s a fine wristwatch you’ve got there. Mind if I take a look?”
“Of course not.” I removed it and passed it to Klaus, who removed the back and inspected the watch under a magnifying glass.
“This is a very old watch, is it not, Peter?”
“It was my father’s.”
“Ah, I see. Good, sturdy watch this, but it's nearing the end of its life. It will need frequent checkups if you want it to last more than a couple of years or so. Just bring it by Klaus’ Uhrenladen whenever you’ve got time, and I’ll see if I can save it for you.”
As it turned out, Klaus never did save my watch. He never had a chance. Yes, you and I did pay Klaus several more laughter-filled visits, but by November of the next year, Klaus’ Uhrenladen was just another smoking blight on a seething German street glinting in shattered glass.
I never saw Klaus again.
You did not smile for weeks afterward. Once, I heard you mumble something about a field. Something about flowers.
I did not press the point. I was distracted by the stars. Six-pointed and yellow, they were pinned limply on even limper chests.
Maybe, I was blind. Maybe, we were all blind. But, a gear had shifted, a wheel had turned. Time was ticking, things were changing, and I never even had a chance to say goodbye.
The American has been crucified. He has been damned and splintered and spun, until at last, he stands, shivering in the bliss of abandonment, in a corner of the town square. Almost the entire left side of his uniform had been stained brown, a sickening mixture of blood and olive wool, torn in places by the hedgerow to reveal skin burned scarlet.
We are standing before town hall, as Schimpf had instructed us several hours earlier. Schwartz’s eyes have yet to stray from the sorry figure. His lips trace curses in the air’s still dust.
“Antoni. Schwartz.” Schimpf had opened the door. “Well, don’t just stand there. Come in.”
Our footsteps clatter on the hostile stone floor, unwarmed by the sunlight loitering through the open door. Several lieutenants marshal papers into piles at a round table.
Schimpf doesn’t bother moving from behind the open door. His face is crimped into wrinkles. “Shouldn’t you be done by now? I don’t have all day.”
The lieutenants leave, and with a click of a latch, the room pales as half its light retires behind shadows.
Schimpf seats himself and gestures for us to do the same. Somehow, he manages to make himself head of the circular table.
“Go on, one of you. This story is not going to tell itself. ”
I let Schwartz repaint our journey. The facts are true enough. The opinions, of course, reflect his mind, and his mind is a mirror: red and white, complete with black swastika.
“You see, sir, I was trying to serve my country by doing away with the American scum, but Antoni here thought the American might serve other uses.” Schwartz scowles as he finishes his summary. “Though I have no idea what those uses might be.”
The Lieutenant General rose and clapped his hands together. “And he is quite right. Come, both of you.”
“But, Sir! We know the Allies are coming, and a simple airman like him will hardly know the battle plans of the American infantry. Not that they are capable of having much of a plan, what with those hedgerows every hundred or so yards.”
“You are correct as well, Schwartz. Just wait. Wait and see. I give my instructions for a reason.”
Schimpf pushes open the doors once more and addresses the sentry stationed outside. “Private Botin, tell the lieutenants to assemble the men on cleanup. Immediately.”
I see the American still in his corner. His hallowed eyes reflect no gratitude, no hatred, no stir of emotion. All he is capable of is not wilting under the weight of his uniform.
Schimpf’s smile lands on me.
Even though I had done my duty and done it well, I feel a kind of guilty stupidity rise in me. I should be getting chastised. When Schimpf had given his order for a captured American, he had probably meant an American with most of his blood still in his body. What kind of fool saves a corrupt, impure enemy who will be dead in several hours anyway?
But Schimpf’s starched lips yield no words.
Instead, I hear the grate of boots on cobbles and the desolate cry of German breath. Soldiers, their uniforms dusted with the rubble of the broken city around them, form rows and then columns in front of town hall.
When Schimpf speaks, he addresses me and Schwartz, yet his voice can be heard by everyone in the courtyard . “Behold, brave soldiers, men who have not seen home in years. These men dream of the embrace of a lover, the whisper of a familiar voice, but wake each morning to the same endless blood-bath. They spent this entire day toiling under the ruthless sun, who beat down upon their backs as they cleared the evidence of last night’s bombing from the roads. Thanks to their hours of labor, our men, ammunition and tanks will be able to successfully march in and out of town, surrounding and defending Saint Lô from the American enemy.” He raises his voice. “An enemy who marches ever nearer. An enemy who seeks to end the German ideal, starting with the murder of everyone here, just like this piece of American filth before me…”
Schimpf gestures towards the puddle of American uniform, and the soldiers’ eyes snap onto it. When Schimpf begins to speak again, their eyes do not leave.
“So, fellow soldiers, there are still several hours before dinner. It’s about time we have some fun.”
I close my eyes.
Flowers… A field…
My eyes open but do not see.
Good. I do not want them to.
Just ignore. I am good at ignoring, been practicing it for years
Even the sounds are dimming, fading into some lost place. I do not follow. Maybe I can’t, maybe I do not want to.
A face, but not Bauer’s. Not this time.
Schimpf stands, seemingly over me. His very person is excited and quivering. “You helped find the American, it seems only fair you should have a turn. What do you say?”
And just like that, the world turns back on.
The soldiers are flocked in a ring; their caterwauls mask the wail of wood on flesh, flesh on flesh, but I can see the blood, slowly leaking and staining the dust filled air. Somewhere, in the midst of the German throng, lies an American uniform, and under the uniform, a heart beats like a betrayal.
I had done this, damned a man into continued life by stopping the bullet meant for his heart.
Schimpf clapps me on the back, claws grasping my shoulders, but I shrug him off and stride into the crowd of soldiers. Only one notices me. He freezes mid-action, comically suspended: arm propped behind him, opposite knee raised for power. Instead of firing, he holds out his rotting ammunition. I ignore the apple poised on his palm.
They are all watching now. They see what I have drawn from my holster, what I hold in my hand.
I kneel beside the American.
I look into his eyes and I answer his prayer.
I pull the trigger.
I’m sinking. My feet lull my floating body downwards with the assurance of something better, tomorrow’s future promise for which my fingers are always reaching.
The coldness is fiery and the nothingness so oppressive it itches, laughing at me from behind a voidless veil. But then, the world focuses and suddenly charges, murderous, at my throat, ready to shroud me in its billowing folds until I am a whisper, less substantial than the faintest memory.
The stumble of fingers and a quelling grasp. I’m not sinking anymore, I’m floating. Hand in hand, we walk to our castle in the air, leaving footprints on the clouds. We paint each morning sky with a sunrise, and each evening, we bring the sun to its knees. You smile, and I smile, and we are happy. Then, the monsters come knocking, and, oh, how loudly they knock.
Northeast of Saint Lô, the convergence of hedgerows on comparatively high ground results in a forested junction dubbed in proper warfare detachment as Hill 192. Invisible on the slope are German nests of two MG 42s and five machine pistols each. Behind lies Saint Lô’s roads and strategic importance.
1130 hours, June 12 - present time. Werner Jung stands waist-deep in the French hill, just one foxhole away. His face, blackened with dirt, refuses to answer the twinkle of the moon and stars. Silently, his hands thread signals through the sullen night
Translation: at precisely 0110 hours on June 13, we begin our counterattack.
0540 hours, June 12 - almost 18 hours ago: bursts of American artillery pounded the hillside. We men sat, breath laced with prayer, enclosed by the walls of the foxhole, but with only wooden limbs and leaves above our heads. My watch tugged at my wrist and I lost myself in the sureness of its circling hands, ignoring the untrustworthy sporadicity of the explosions. Still, I could not help but wonder, if the artillery struck true, would the watch and I draw our last breaths together? Or would it simply tick decisively on without me?
When the American artillery was replaced by American soldiers, I fed Lehmann and his machine gun 0.50-caliber rounds. All around me, I could hear soldiers shooting and reloading, shooting and reloading their machine pistols with the steadiness of breathing. German bullets showered the night and the Americans fell like droplets, plucked off their feet. Nearer the base of the hill, anti tank weaponry restrained the off-balanced, unpoised Shermans.
Eventually, the battle moved eastward, and, soon, we received word of an enemy retreat. Cigarettes and decks of cards emerged from pockets as medics made their way from foxhole to foxhole to repair the moaning aftershocks.
I sat beside Lehmann as he traded jokes with the rest of the soldiers. How odd, that my murder of the American pilot caused me more distress than my continued sustainment of Lehmann’s MG 42. Yes, my hands had been coated in layers of my own sweat as I handled the bullets, but the image of that pale, disconsolate face was ten-fold as haunting as the imprints of American GIs falling on the horizon. Some flowers simply get trampled on.
2030 hours, June 12 - three hours ago: we listened to the last huffing retort of fuming American aircraft punishing the slope with their ordnance. The men retaliated with a hearty rendition of Deutschland Über Alles. I had to admit, they had gotten better.
0110 hours, June 13 - present time: the hill looks just like it did before the battle began – the leaves hushing the darkened hill with their murmuring static – the only difference being the haphazard helmet, the glimpse of army wool and the cavities left by guessing bombs.
Backs bent, we follow a hedgerow northeast, the war settling itself in around us until the noises of gunfire and shouting are only several fields away. Our wave is not the first of the counterattack.
I stare at nothing but the back of Lehmann’s Luftwaffe uniform, trying to distract myself from the remains of what the American tide brought in. His shoulders sway with his crouching stride. One foot, then another. Right, then left. Right. Left. Right. Left.
I throw myself in the hedgerow’s rut, just as the artillery starts to arc its way downward. In a brief moment of anticipation, I close my eyes. How have I never noticed the dramatic rise and fall of my own chest? Maybe one needs to be lying face down on an exploding battlefield to truly understand. Such a simple and obvious thing: breathing. Beautiful.
The earth pitches beneath me with a resounding blast that lingers unwelcome in my ears. I wait a moment for the aftershock to clear then open my eyes.
The German squad is not the only one in the hedgerow’s rut. The dead American’s green eyes go straight through me, wiped clean of life and blinded as a last gift from death probably no more than ten hours ago.
He can’t be any older than 15. Just like some of the more fanatical Hitler Youths, he had probably lied about his age and enlisted, defending his country by leaving his family and coming to this French town. All just to fight me.
I almost ask him if it was worth it, but there is no need. On a battlefield, it is only the living who have regrets.
“Antoni! Get up! We have to keep moving!” Lehmann hovers over me, pausing only long enough to take the American’s rifle and feel his pockets for grenades before running off.
Rushing guilt and the need to explain overwhelms me. My mouth opens, and I find myself talking to the dead man like a crazy one about to join him.
“I know your friend. He’s back in town, lying across a rubble pile with a bullet through his heart. I put it there.
But was I his savior or his final antagonizer?
I’ve never killed a man before. I’m so sorry, so very sorry. I wonder if he understands if he forgives me. I wonder if his mother forgives me, his best friend, or his sweetheart. I wonder what difference their forgiveness would make.
God, you look just like this kid I know from school, Arv Vergessener. His eyes were the same green as yours.
I fought him once, you know, over some second-grade stupidity. But with onlookers all around, chanting tends to overpower reason.”
My fingertips reach out to pull down the soldier’s eyelids. The green vanishes, just as movement appears on the surface of my watch.
Transfixed, I watch as the round glass face echoes back the image of the bomb falling towards me.
Not even now does the ticking stop.
The sky stooped in obedience the day you were taken away. Awake at last from their reverie, clouds obediently emptied their burden on sleeping German streets. Flakes born of the bitter winter cold were amassed shamelessly at my feet and draped themselves obediently over the rooftops and chimneys.
I remember standing in the midst of ’39’s first snowfall, catching the crystals on my fingertips and shaking my head at their dainty complexity: so daring, falling freely and unencumbered, yet star-crossed and frail. I wondered until my breath melted the flakes away, leaving the wool of my gloves damp and remembering.
I was on my way back from the Hitler Youth, walking to your home for dinner, listening to fate’s laugh in the tree’s aching boughs. Around me, darkness claimed a world abandoned by the winter sun.
By the time I paused on your porch, the sound of Nazi footsteps had long since faded but something invisible had been left behind, treading softly on the brittle air.
When I opened the door, the smell of rationed chicken burning in the oven hit me in the face. A crooked vase lay fractured on the floor.
Your father sat in the kitchen, head in hands, but looked up when I approached. Suddenly, I was glad my uniform was hidden beneath my coat.
“Gone… They took her… They took my baby…”
And, all at once, I saw what had been left behind on the porch: it was the imprint of a girl, silhouetted by the light of the doorway behind her. I heard the Nazi footfalls, the echo of their stone voices, carved into the harshness of the kitchen light.
Only later would I hear the whispers.
“Did you hear? Deaf Opfer Fiend is gone. So is Hiob Gegner, you know, the one with the twitch who used to work downtown.”
“No one’s seen hide nor hair of them for months now…”
“Mercy killings, they call ’em…”
“Some kind of operation, I think. Top secret.”
How ironic: we kill flowers because we think they are beautiful, and we kill each other because we think we are not.
To think that, just the other day, we had been sitting on the grocery’s countertop, singing “Horch, Was Kommt Von Draußen Rein”, while your father clapped and laughed behind the cashier. Sunlight sifted through the shop, brightening each customer’s smiling face. Perhaps, had I looked a bit harder, I would have noticed the looks they sent you, ranging from concerned to fearful to angry, even.
How many signs did I need?
I spent my eighteenth birthday working behind the same countertop. Your father refused to leave the house and, a few months later, I also bade him goodbye. A letter had arrived stating that I had been conscripted and was to spend eight weeks in basic training. The letter did not elaborate on what was to happen after that.
During those eight weeks, German troops swept through France, Belgium, Luxemburg, and the Netherlands. “Blitzkrieg”, they called it – lightning war. Wait a few moments and everything is different.
In October of ’43, I was put on a train to Reims, France, and told that I was now a paratrooper: Third Fallschirmjäger Division. Apparently, my performances so far in service of the Third Reich had been “excellent”, good enough that I was to become part of such an “elite” unit. I thought of the years worth of days I had played hooky, carrying boxes around town and painting fences under a furious sun – hours of work that equated only to meals and a few meager savings. I could only shake my head.
The world had left me lonely until the day I found you, and after that, everybody seemed too busy picking sides to remember me. Until now, at least.
Stationed at Brest in Brittany, we practiced being released from airplanes like breathing bombs and trained in hedgerow warfare. On June 10, 1944, the entire division, which numbered almost 16000 soldiers and officers, was driven by truck to Normandy under the muzzle of night. For four hours, I listened to the same promise that if the Third Fallschirmjäger Division had been at Utah or Omaha beach on the sixth of June, there would be no need for the reinforcements of towns as far inland as Saint-Lô.
We were greeted by air raid sirens and hustled into the bomb shelter. Like the others, I wanted to fight. I wanted to fight the monsters.
But who would I fight? My neighbor? My teacher? Klaus’ furiously ticking clocks? Myself?
By that time, the monsters were all around me. Some wore masks and illusions. Others had fangs that were all too real. I had looked the other way too long, and now it is all too late. Now, I’m just another monster.
The sirens of war have been muted for my last moments. The night shines its spotlight.
Just one more second.
Just one more tick.
I can almost hear the bomadeer’s crow.
Where did all the flowers come from? When did the field appear? How are you here, with your song-like smile? Was it always snowing?
The world is retreating now, Karin, and it’s taking me with it.
Just don’t let go of my hand.
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Students 6th-12th Grades