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An unforgettable novel of men and war.
The year is 1944 - the final, agonizing months of the third Reich. Driven more by boredom than by patriotism for his shattered, despairing nation, former Hitler Youth Sebastian Westland joins the Waffen SS on the day after his seventeenth birthday. Surviving the unspeakable cruelties of training camp, he received his baptism of fire at the Battle of the Bulge -- and begins a shocking descent into depravity that will cost him his innocence, his humanity and, ultimately, his soul.
"You broke my heart and now I'm pissed."
"Is that all you came to say?" She stood in the doorway in a nightdress, hugging herself. Her hair was a mess.
"I hate you."
"No, you don't. Look, either go away or come in from the cold, will you?" She turned around and walked off into the kitchen, scratching and yawning.
I sat at the kitchen table and smoked a cigarette. She took it from my hand, inhaled, gave it back. She toasted some bread in the oven, her knees cracking as she bent down, then skidded a piece to me across the table.
We sat at the opposite ends, chewing the dry bread and looking at each other. When she swallowed, the bread went down her throat like a piece of slate.
"You are far too young for this. Pretty soon the whole town is going to find out. And I do have a husband. Go find yourself a sweet little milkmaid down the road."
"I will. That's just what I'll do. I'll do that right now." I stood up and started to walk out. I got to the kitchen door and a piece of toast hit me in the back of the head. Then more things started bouncing off the door and walls. A cream puff splatted on a calendar. I poked my head back into the kitchen and she threw a bottle of perfume, which missed and smashed somewhere in the hall.
"Get out. Go and find her then. Just look for someone with a cow-eyed idiot face and you've found her. And you just see if she doesn't have some kind of accident. She'll get run over by a truck. You can't leave me and you know it. You belong to me now. Besides, she'll smell us. She'll know. Don't worry. Girls can tell a thing like that. She'll know about you and me the minute she gets a look in your eyes."
She ran over to the mess of the perfume on the floor and splashed her hand in it. Then she ran at me and spread it on my coat. She grabbed me by the neck and wiped the smell of the perfume through my hair and across my face.
"She'll smell us. She'll smell us and she'll know. You belong to me." Then she was crying and we were back on the doorstep. Rain fell through the mist on the fields. "Come back inside. Come and lie in bed with me. Just for a little while."
I turned around and started walking for the gate at the end of her garden. She jumped, grabbing me by the throat, and we both fell into the vegetable patch, which was full of mud and cabbages.
"I'm not letting you go."
I lay on the ground with the bumps of cabbages underneath me, and for a second while she caught her breath I looked up at the egg-white sky and saw the blur of rain coming down.
"I thought you said we were finished."
"I was drunk." She blinked down at me.
"You were not. You were dead sober."
"I was stinking drunk and we're not finished." She grabbed a handful of cabbage leaves and jammed them down my shirt. Then she took some mud and slapped it on my head. "We're not finished."
But we were finished. I left, and she threw cabbages at me until I was out of range.
Benjamin was waiting at the edge of the woods, and I saw the burning end of his cigarette long before the rest of him as I walked through the wet grass, feeling the mud freeze in my hair. When I got close, he wheeled himself in his wheelchair out to the center of the path. He asked if he could come, so I let him. But only as far as the woods.
"What the hell did you do? Kill her and bury her in the backyard?"
"No. Give me a cigarette."
"So what happened?" He was looking straight ahead as he talked. I pushed the wheelchair over ruts in the hard earth pathway between the pine trees.
"She told me to go away, but when I went she started throwing things at me and told me to stay."
"Is that all? I don't believe that's everything."
"I told her she broke my heart."
"Aha." He put his head back so it was pressing into my stomach, looking up at me from the chair.
We stopped on a wooden bridge that ran over a stream, and I parked Benjamin on the hump in the middle. Then I leaned over the stream and spat. Benjamin wheeled up close and handed over a flask of cherry brandy.
"Don't go back. You would only make a fool of yourself if you did."
We stayed on the bridge until it was almost dark, throwing stones into the slow-running stream.
I almost never saw her after that except about a month later when I was coming home from school with some friends near the market. She was rummaging through a crate with tomatoes in it. She had one in her hand and was testing to see if it was ripe. I stopped to look, and my friends stopped, followed my stare to the woman, and for a second we were still, in the constant moving of the crooked-backed people in the market.
She looked up, and when she saw who it was, the tomato seemed suddenly to explode in her hand. She crushed it to juice in her fist, and my friends started laughing. I left before the expression on her face could change.
And I did what she'd told me to before she knocked me into the cabbage patch. I found a girl called Eva Weiden whom she would have called a milkmaid and idiot-faced. We went to dances and wrote notes to each other. We went out to dinner a couple of times to cheap restaurants and we stood holding hands on the walkway by the Rhine. Smiling. We smiled all the time.
But some nights I went home through the woods and felt the blood-shoving motor in my chest turned into a piece of rock.
The rock went away for a while, but when my father died the next year, the rock came back and stayed.
He was really too old to be enlisted, and he had a safe job at the munitions factory. They needed him enough at first not to let him go to the war. It was fine with him.
When Stalingrad fell, they put women to work in his place and the places of half the other people in the factory, including his best friend, Stein.
They both joined up in the Panzer Korps and were put in charge of an armored car.
He came home twice in the two months that his training lasted. He wore baggy black trousers and a wraparound tunic with piping and skulls on the collar. He scraped up the floor with his hobnailed boots, and he was always smoothing his shortcut hair back over his head.
He stayed awake fighting with Mother, and then, when it was past my bedtime, they went out to the woodshed and fought some more. I came downstairs one night to make myself some ersatz coffee and found them dancing in the living room.
Father was wearing a tuxedo and mother was in her wedding dress. No music. There was a bottle of something on the table. The stairs made too much noise for them not to have noticed me creeping back up to bed.
The last anybody at home ever saw of my father, he was leaning out of a train window waving good-bye. My little brother Walther and I stood with our hands in our pockets, up to our knees in steam from the train. Mother ran after my dad, then stood at the far end of the platform until the last carriage was out of sight.
I met Stein about a month later on my way back from school. At first in the distance I thought he was a Friesian cow which had gotten loose.
He flipped his cigarette into the ditch, and when he hugged me, I could tell he hadn't washed in a long time. His nose was dripping. Eyes red from a cold. He was a very tall man with a stupid Bavarian face, and his black boots were scuffed white.
His hands were in bandages, and the equipment hanging from his belt-water bottle, mess tin, bayonet was all old. It was worn-out and old like the rest of him.
He stood for a while saying nothing and did not take his eyes from staring at me even when he put his pack down on the side of the road.
"Where's your mother?"
"Still at home. She isn't going to the market until later. What's up? When did you get back?"
"I got in this morning. Aren't you going to ask me where your father is?"
"Yes. Where's my father?"
"He's dead. I came here to tell you myself." He crouched down on the ground and started to draw things out with a stick. "We stopped in a town, and we thought we'd pushed them back. But the fucking Reds came up behind us. I don't know. Maybe they were hiding in the sewers or something. Maybe there weren't even any sewers. I don't know. I went off to take a piss, and I came back, and I'm standing there doing up my fly next to the armored car. Then everything goes up in flames. Some Red snuck up and threw a grenade into the car. Look." He took off his jacket and dropped it on the grass. He pulled off his gray shirt, turned around, and showed me scars that made his back look as if it had been whipped with chains. "I heard your father when the grenade went into the car." He was staring off down the road and talking more slowly now. "He was in the car. He heard the grenade when it hit the floor, and he said, `What the fuck is this?' That's what he said."
Stein emptied his pack onto the grass beside the road. He was still half-naked, black cap jammed on his head. There were balls of filthy socks and underwear, cans of meat, and loose cigarettes, and, after everything had fallen out, a stream of fine dirt still poured from the side pockets. He unwrapped an undershirt, and in it was a gun, the handle cracked, with Russian writing printed along the side. He pulled out the magazine to show me there were still bullets in it, then handed it over.
"This is for you. It's a Tokarev. From the man who threw the grenade in. It's a good gun. You should keep it." His eyes were very wide. He bent down and put his pack back together.
I aimed the gun at a fence post that separated the road from a pasture, fired and missed, fired again and blew off the top of the fence post. Stein snatched the gun out of my hand and told me to be careful how I used it.
"I got him for you. I didn't let him get far." Stein did up the drawstring on his pack which was olive canvas with leather trim, eventually managed to get his shirt and jacket on, although his fingers were shaky and he couldn't do up the buttons. "These are for you, too." He pulled some buttons out of his pocket, brass with a hammer and sickle on the front and a brass and enamel Russian star. "Did you say your mother was home?"
"Going to school?"
Stein went away up the hill to Pech.
I walked around school feeling dizzy and sick. I sat in the schoolyard and ate my lunch from a paper bag, like a cow chewing grass. When the bell went for afternoon classes, I walked in through the doors of the main building, along the hall, and out the other door, which got me onto the main road leading down the hill into the town.
I sat on a bench outside the Bad Godesberg museum with a drunk who said he knew how I felt when I told him my father had been killed on the Russian front.
During the next few weeks almost everyone I knew said they knew how I felt when they found out my father was dead. And they never left it at that. Always they had to talk about someone they knew who had died, and after a while I would look at them, and it was as if they carried the gray shadows of the dead, like sacks of bones, wherever they went. And, when they could, they unloaded the sacks onto someone else for a while.
Mother dug her claws deep into Stein's shell-shocked head, and he couldn't take it. Told her everything. My father got blown to bits sitting in an armored car, and his last words were, "What the fuck is this?" And to my mother's demand that Stein tell whether or not her husband got a decent burial, Stein had to confess that there had been no burial. The car had burned, and there was nothing to bury. He didn't get a medal. Stein told her that, too.
Mother went out to the sink and began washing her hands. She washed them and scrubbed them until the bones of her knuckles were exposed. Then she took the bus to the clinic in Bad Godesberg, her hands wrapped in dish towels.
I had been in the Hitler Jugend two years and the Deutsche Jugend for five years before that. We had meetings three days a week, and there was usually some parade on the weekends. We wore black shorts, tan shirts, and black neck scarves. That was at the beginning. By age sixteen we were wearing all black with red armbands.
It used to be that from there you went straight into the Army, Navy, Air Force, or SS when you were eighteen. At the beginning of 1944 they lowered the age to seventeen.
The day after my seventeenth birthday, I went down the hill from the school to the recruiting office, which was in a small red-brick building next to the post office.
It was eight thirty in the morning, and I was the only one in the waiting room. The place smelled of cigarettes, old magazines, and the rain that fell down the chimney onto the iron logholders in the fireplace. The ends of the log-holders were shaped like dragon's heads, with rings held in their mouths.
There were posters on the walls:
A flaming background with a bullet-chipped eagle holding a swastika, and, also in chipped stone, the words, "Victory Will Be Ours."
A man, seen from the waist up, Waffen SS uniform, smiling, holding out his hand in greeting: "Your Comrades Wait for You in the Waffen SS."
A ship streaming a Navy flag, cutting through glass-like waves: "Fight with Us on the Sea."
A hand holding a sickle smashed through a wall, and, behind the hole, a sky full of fire: "Europe Has Been Invaded!"
There was no more Navy. No more Air Force either. Only the Army and SS were still recruiting. In Bad Godesberg the SS worked the office half the day, the Army the other half.
An SS man was standing behind the counter at the back of the room, looking into a little mirror fixed on a nail on the wall and cutting the hair out of his nose with a pair of nail scissors. He looked across, watched me shut the door, then slowly set down the scissors.
"Can't come in yet. Not open until eight thirty."
There was a telephone on a table at the back of the room, and a jar full of new, sharp pencils. The SS man was in full uniform: black with silver braid around the collar, shiny belt buckle, the toes of his boots reflecting all the light there was.
"It is eight thirty."
He frowned, looked at the watch on his wrist, shook it, then took it off and threw it away over his shoulder. He stood staring at me for a moment, then walked over to where the watch had fallen, picked it up and put it in his pocket.
"Busy in here." I went forward to the desk, down the twelve-pace aisle designed to make a person nervous. I knew these tricks. And the SS man couldn't have been more than five years older than me. I wasn't going to take any of his crap. I got to the desk, set my elbows on the counter, and stared at him. "So tell me why I should join the SS."
He looked down at a shelf set behind the counter that was piled with blank documents and extra pencils tied with rubber bands. He seemed to be searching for a piece of paper that might have the answer written on it.
"It's my first day here." He looked up and shrugged. "I only got out of the hospital yesterday. I'm supposed to be cleaning up until the captain arrives."
"Oh." I backed away from the counter and put my hands in my pockets. "Well, shit."
"He'll be here in a little while." The man took off his black side cap with the skull on the forehead, scratched his head. "I know where the papers are. You can sign up now if you want." He turned to the side and looked to see if the captain might be coming. His movements were slow and careful. His nose was dead straight. I had never seen a nose that straight before. He had eyes that were brown like gravy. "You get a free pencil if you sign up." He held up one of the pencils and laughed. Then he snapped it between his fingers and the two ends spiraled away onto the floor.
"Tell me why you joined the SS."
"You piddling with me?"
He chewed his lip for a while, looking down again at the counter shelf in case the answer might be there someplace. "If you have to go around asking people why you should join, then perhaps you shouldn't. If you don't see the need to join the SS, if you don't have that, then nothing anybody else says should be able to talk you into it. But if you can see the need, then nothing anybody says should be able to talk you out of it."
"I may as well join the Army then." I dragged a chair from the corner of the room and sat down on it. You'll have to do better than that, SS man, I was thinking. You can sweat for me before I sweat for you. I smiled at him like a cherub and said nothing.
He walked out from behind the counter and eased himself onto the floor, which was polished like his boots. "But the Army and the SS aren't the same, and you should know that."
"I know it." It was raining so hard on the roof I thought the ceiling would collapse.
"And you shouldn't be thinking you have to have an excuse to join. There may be some reason you don't even know yet. There isn't always an excuse. But there's always a reason. And no one's going to ask you, either. That's between you and yourself." He pressed his hands together as if to pray, then locked his fingers and pushed them out until the knuckles cracked.
"So if you felt all this need, why are you here and not up to your neck in some Bolshevik swamp?" I whipped out a handkerchief and honked my nose. I caught you, you fart-talking Nazi, and you blew it.
He shifted himself a little, unbuttoned his tunic, and pulled up his shirt. To the right of the place where his ribs formed an upside-down V, there was a spot that looked like an extra belly button that had filled itself in with shiny purple-pink skin. "It's still in there. They say if I move suddenly it will go into my heart or cut some artery that leads into it or something."
He sighed and looked at the filled-in hole. And we both sighed then and looked at the place as if it might move if we concentrated on it.
"It only happened about five weeks ago. Went through the cigarette case I had in my breast pocket. It's filled in very nicely, don't you think?" Then with his hands gone a little shaky, he fitted a cigarette into his mouth and lit it with a match he struck on the floor, leaving a blue line across the polish. "I want the war to end as much as any Heinrich that comes in here on any given day. I did before, and I do now. No more and no less. I look forward to the calm after the storm. Only the storm is now. And you're in it." He raised his eyebrows and hid himself in smoke.
After I had left the building, dodged out of the way of the captain as he ran past, doing up his belt, the neat half-moon of his untucked shirt showing from under the back of his tunic, it seemed to me that what I had done was inevitable. No reason or excuse. Sebastian Westland. Waffen SS. Black ink.
The rain had stopped. It was a pretty July morning.
Benjamin wanted to go to Königswinter for the day, so I wheeled him down to the ferryboat, which crossed the Rhine about once every half hour. There were cafes on the ferry landings, either side of the river. We had a beer on one side, then a beer on the other side, and instead of looking around Konigswinter, we spent the day going back and forth on the ferryboat, drinking beer each time we made the crossing.
Benjamin wheeled himself across the gridded metal floor of the ferry. It didn't take anything at all to get him soused. There was a warm breeze so we took our shirts off, and people stared at Benjamin, as if a boy in a wheelchair should never let the sun shine on his back.
It was an outdoor café in Königswinter with a lot of people walking up and down the boulevard. Others played chess and Skatcards at the white tables of the cafe while the waiter dodged between them, wearing his collarless shirt and apron, swinging the full glasses under their noses and lighting their cigarettes. His name was Stock, and he'd left school the year before I did, tried to join the Navy but they wouldn't accept him. Eventually no one would take him because he was blind as a bat. He saw everything through glasses that looked like ice cubes framed in gold.
When Benjamin and I were soused, Stock came and got soused with us. He had been taking slugs of aquavit behind the counter all day, and even his sweat, which he wiped on his starched white apron, smelled of alcohol.
"I shouldn't do this to myself." He took off his glasses, breathed on them, and then wiped them with his shirttail. "I'll be dropping beer all over the place next. Why do you two keep crossing the river? Can't you make up your minds where you want to be?"
"There's a good breeze when you get out there." I smelled flowers from the flower bed beside the cafe, and a faint breath of tobacco burning at the other tables.
"Is that se?"
"Yes, that's so. Can we have another beer?"
"In a minute. Let me sit for a while. So is there anything new besides school?"
"I signed up today."
Stock put his glasses on, hooking the wire sidepieces around his pink ears, and looked around as if he hadn't heard me. Then he said, "What for?"
"Because they told us in assembly that we had to."
"No, I mean what branch?"
Then Benjamin, as if he had known I was going to say it, moving so fast that I barely got the word out of my mouth, tipped his beer glass upside down on the table, so that half the beer stayed in the upside-down glass and a silver crack appeared along the length of it. Then he said very fast and quietly that I had done a stupid thing. A damn stupid thing.
"I wonder if I can do that." Stock turned his glass upside down, spilled beer all over the table, and smashed the glass into five or six pieces.
"Did you hear what he said?" Benjamin was looking at Stock.
"Yes. He joined the SS. The Waffen SS, no?"
"Mm." I nodded and wished I wasn't soused.
"Well, that's a damn stupid thing to do. That's all I can say."
Benjamin took some coins out of his pocket, dropped them in the spilled beer, and wheeled himself off toward the ferry landing.
"What's wrong with him?" Stock tried to put his glass back together. It balanced for a second, then fell apart again. His customers were calling for more beer. He stood up, and his thin body swayed in front of me as I leaned back and pulled the coins from my pocket to pay.
"I'd better go see about him."
"Work hard. Break your neck and legs."
"But of course."
I went over to Benjamin, and a dog had just peed on his wheelchair. The ferry was coming over from the other side. Before I even got to him he turned around and stared.
"You just don't know what you've done, do you, Westland?"
"Calm down, Benjamin, or I'll wheel you through every piece of dog shit in town."
"Let's just go home."
People gave me shifty eyes in school. They gave me shifty eyes when my father died, too, but that was different.
A boy called Draeger came up to me at lunch break and wanted to know if he'd heard the rumor correctly that I was joining the SS. I was sitting on a newspaper because the bench was wet from rain. Mother had given me chicken and lettuce sandwiches but had forgotten to put in the chicken. She was always doing that. Rye bread. Walther had mashed the plum I had for dessert.
"Yes, I joined the SS. Something wrong?" I forced the bread and flap of lettuce down my throat.
"I just wanted to wish you good-bye, since I know I'll never see you again." He held out his hand and gave me a short, sarcastic bow.
I guess he thought he was pretty funny. That afternoon I took the books out of his locker and threw them down the air-raid shelter steps. The shelter was always ankle-deep in water. Whenever there was an air-raid warning or a practice, half of us would run off into the park rather than go down there in the dark, where we all stood the chance of being electrocuted by wet cables. Sometimes the warnings went on for hours, while the RAF was flying over, bombing Cologne or something. And, of course, during that time everyone had to go to the bathroom. The only thing to go in was an oil drum, so there was a constant tinkling sound of people jangling their keys, trying to be polite and drown the noise, or the rumble of someone trying not to but farting into the drum.
This would be followed by swears or sighs from the person who farted at the thought of never living it down. These people would spend the rest of their lives with names like "Bugle Blower" or "Rolling Thunder."
I didn't get enough pleasure throwing Draeger's books away. When I saw him coming up the main stairway in school, in the slow snake of people returning from the midday lunch break, I drew a pair of fat SS lightning bolts backwards on my palm with my fountain pen. Before the ink was dry, I held out my hand for him to shake, which he did, looked down at me a few seconds later on his way upstairs, then at his palm, slowly pulled out a handkerchief and tried to wipe it off.
For a couple of days I went around with my penknife carving SS lightning bolts on everything, but I didn't get any pleasure out of that either.
"Do you know Mrs. Hammacher at all?" Mother put down her soup spoon and tore a piece of bread off the loaf on the table. Behind her, the face of the clock was shining with the light of the sunset, held in a bar through the window. I could see the strands of gray in her hair.
"It's funny. She keeps asking about you when I meet her in the marketplace. She doesn't ask about Walther. Just you."
"Why doesn't she ask about me, then?" Walther lifted his face out of his bowl of soup and blinked at us. His feet didn't touch the floor when he sat on his chair.
" 'Cause you're ugly, Walther." I fired a rubber band at him under the table.
"No. Really, Sebastian. Why does she ask about you?" Mother poured some milk out of the stone pitcher into her bowl and spooned it up.
"I'm handsome," said Walther.
"There must be a reason why she asks."
I kept my mouth shut. I got drunk on punch at the New Year's Eve party at her house, however long ago it was, and she took me upstairs to the attic, and we did it on a reindeer skin which she got when she went on holiday to Finland. Then she told me it was never going to happen again. Since I figured it was my fault and she would tell on me, I said that was fine. But she didn't tell anyone. About a week later she picked me up at school and said she was in the area and thought she'd save me the bus fare. We did it in the car parked in the woods near Remagen. She picked me up at school about once a week, and after every time, when she was pulling her sweater over her head to get dressed again and rummaging on the floor for her shoes, she would say this shouldn't happen anymore. She laughed when she said it. After a while she was picking me up at school every day. Lise Hammacher. Sharp-nosed and violent, her eyes always boring blue trails through my head. Smelling distantly of cologne. Telling me always good-bye forever.
She would cry for her husband while I sat next to her, staring at my shoes. Then she would yell at him that he was never around and he didn't love her, as we drove back to the place where she dropped me off. The times I slammed the door, the car left down the road, and I stood in the rain smelling the exhaust, her perfume vaguely on my clothes, then turned to walk home-I could not count them anymore.
There were rumors. She said so. I never heard any. Her husband came home more often from his business trips. She started telling me to go find someone else. Then there was the morning I wheeled Benjamin to the edge of the woods, walked across the field to her house, and came back with my hair full of mud, and cabbage leaves stuffed down my shirt.
She was thirty-two and I was seventeen.
"So you've no idea what her problem is, asking all the time about you?"
"None at all. Is there any more soup?"
I set the bowl down in the sink, went upstairs, and locked myself in my room.
"I'm so handsome, handsome, handsome," Walther was singing down below.
Late in the night I put on my clothes and ran through the woods, not feeling the cold, with energy to run for miles churning inside me. I stopped when I got to the middle of the field by her house. The only light was the one by the door. Nothing else. Cold. Wind. My breathing. I walked home, hearing strange sounds far away among the black pillars of pine.
"You have made a mistake and the mistake you have made is this." Benjamin and I were drunk again at the Drachenfels Café in Königswinter. Stock wasn't around today because he had a worse hangover than any of his customers. The boy who took his place was called Eschweiler, and we told him that Stock gave us free drinks, which he didn't, so now Eschweiler was giving us every third beer free.
Then with this clarity that never left me, the people at the bus stop began to move across the street toward the fruit stand. And I moved too, taking the time to pick a lump of the rock candy off the pavement and stuff it in my mouth.
There was a gathering around him, everyone opening and closing their mouths to shout orders to the person next to them, all trying to take charge, but I don't remember any sound. It was as if they were fish, sucking water in.
Traffic piled up in the street. Men got out of their cars and yelled for the jam to break up, and then when they saw what was going on, they ran to join the others. To add to the confusion. The clear balls of the apples were squashed into nothing under the feet of the crowd.
I got down on my hands and knees, and Benjamin was looking at me. He lay on the upturned cart and on the apples, head on the pavement with an expression that seemed to me quite calm. He blinked a couple of times a minute, slowly, the big lashes flickering on his eyes. He was bleeding from his ears and his nose and his mouth.
A policeman blew on his whistle, trying to make a path for the ambulance men who had arrived, but with the silence that had overtaken me it only looked as if he were trying to bite the whistle in half.
They took Benjamin away on a stretcher, and in ten minutes the street was tidy again, except for the squashed apples and the berries that birds from the rooftops came down and pecked at until there was nothing left.
When the bus dropped me off at home, I ran into the house and saw Mother making bread in the kitchen. The home smelled of baking, and she held up the bowl of flour so she could see the recipe book on the table.
I told her Benjamin was dead, and she dropped the bowl. First, when it hit the floor, it bounced, and the flour jumped in a mass but stayed in the bowl. Then when it hit the floor a second time, it exploded and blew white dust across the kitchen. Weeks later we were finding it under the stove and in corners.
Benjamin is dead.
It wasn't Benjamin who got hit.
Benjamin is dead and his father is out with an ax trying to find the driver so he can kill him.
There was no accident.
Lots of people died in the accident.
Benjamin is dead, and his ghost has contacted Mrs. Faulhaber, who lives up by the dairy.
I went to visit him in the hospital a few days after the truck ran over him. He was lying on his back, and the nurse was feeding him applesauce with a wooden spoon. I stayed for five minutes trying to remember all the things my mother had told me not to talk about. Nothing about his legs. Nothing about legs at all or anything you do with legs. LEGS. The word pumped electric red lines across my closed eyelids. I said nothing at all. Benjamin burst into tears. The nurse woofed at me to get out, and I was glad to be gone, hearing Benjamin wailing, "Why did you send him away?" as I shuffled down the rotten-smelling corridors.
Then there was panic for the first few days when he wheeled the bright chair around town. Not really a town, Pech. More of a Dorf., a village. He had offers from people to wheel him wherever he wanted to go. He had cakes and some chocolate. He had a crate of bottled cherries from the man at the fruit stand.
It was a panic made of women talking on the vegetable-strewn cobblestones of the market. Of old men rolling on the fat balls of their paunches and chatting in the bars. Then the panic stopped because they became bored with it, gradually at first but gathering speed until there was nothing left.
He started getting in the way. When he realized this, he shut himself up in his room and read books, and sat by himself.
He was able to think so clearly and carefully that whenever I spoke to him I went away afterwards feeling blind or deaf or with some other of my senses clogged and useless.
I wheeled him through the woods like a slave while he talked, staring straight ahead, about whatever occurred to him, and I only nodding and agreeing, whispering, "Yes, that's true. There's truth in that," until I kept quiet from the shame of repetition.
"Regret to inform . . . " This was the beginning of the telegram, written on something like toilet paper, delivered by the one-armed soldier from the depot in Bad Godesberg a month after Stein had brought home the news.
All that Stein had said about the death of my father did not convince my mother. But the telegram did. Everyone I knew was like that. People could listen to their best friends who had never lied to them before and not believe a word of what was said if they didn't want to. But if they got a toilet-paper telegram with an official stamp on it from someone in a uniform saying, "You are dead," they would probably curl up in a ball and stop breathing on the spot.
She lay on her face on their bed with her head in a pile of my father's old clothes, trying to pick up some trace of his sweat that might bring him back to life for the fragment of a second that she smelled him close by.
At first she wanted to keep the place exactly as it was before she received the telegram.
That all changed overnight. There was a purge, his clothes taken out and burned or given away, his smell scrubbed out of the sheets and the walls and the cupboards. The neighbors obliged, took the clothes away and never wore them, talked about anything, grinding their teeth to avoid the silence in which any of us might have heard an echo of my father's voice, some ghost-muttering of speech shuddering up through the ground, speaking from the fireplace or the woodshed in the garden.
I sat in the attic on a rocking horse that had been my grandfather's, and I listened for the echo. I rocked on the glass-eyed horse and kicked up dust while I waited.
Perhaps it was not even a sound that I waited for. There was no voice I heard. What went through me were the pictures and colors and sounds I remembered. And the way they faded was not with the babbling of the people in the town, but with the piling on of other dead, the obliging and frantic taken away themselves in uniforms and boots and killed, until to cover the echoes rattling down from all the attics, the rest would have had to live in a state of perpetual screaming.
During these months Mother received visitors in the kitchen and sat at the head of the table, where my father used to sit, and smoked, her legs pulled up onto the chair.
Some days I came home from school and saw the tracks of maybe twenty people on the kitchen floor, and Mother still at the table, puffing smoke rings at the ceiling. After a while there was a yellow stain on the plaster above her.
She used to let the visitors knock until they either went away or came in of their own accord. They set their offerings of jam or vegetables on the side counter. She let them make coffee or tea for themselves, if there was any, showing them the various things to eat or drink with quick flips of her wrist.
She let us do whatever we wanted.
An RAF bomber on a raid over Cologne was shot down and crashed in the woods of the Kottonforst. Soldiers went into the woods, following the great path of black smoke in the trees. They also stopped us from going in to have a look. A couple of hours later they brought out one man and said they'd found him swinging from the branches of a pine by the cords of his parachute. The rest were either dead or had jumped out earlier.
Mother came out of her house, stirring an egg into a big pottery bowl filled with oats.
The soldiers, all of them old reservists, wore civilian clothes with yellow armbands on which was written in black ink, "In the Service of the German Army." They had taken his sheepskin flying jacket and his fur-lined flying boots. The airman was wearing gray-blue trousers and a gray-blue shirt with a pair of wings sewn over the left breast pocket. He was walking in his socks, the ends of his trousers dragging on the ground. The reservists made him keep his hands in the air, and pushed him through the street with the butts of their rifles. The Englishman had dark hair and rosy cheeks, and tried to look bored by the whole business.
The street was crowded, crowded for the town of Pech, anyway. It was quiet, except for the two soldiers at the rear of the procession squabbling over who would get the jacket. It was a beautiful jacket with a big brass zipper down the front, and I wanted it. I sat on the wall of our garden and chewed a piece of licorice root.
Mother swung open the small iron gate at the start of the garden path, walked into the street in front of the pilot, smashed the bowl at his feet.
The procession stopped. The reservists peered around from behind the airman. I crouched down behind the wall and looked through the gooseberry bush. Mother stood back from the mess and put her hands on her hips, her lower lip curled out and making her ugly.
The airman narrowed his eyes, looked down at the broken bowl and up at my mother again. Then he walked on through the spilled oats and the shards, the reservists following behind. He left a single line of bloody footprints down to the truck that was waiting at the bottom of the hill.
Next week Mother applied to be the town air-raid warden. They gave her a black greatcoat, a nickel-plated whistle, and a strange helmet with a long, flared front and back and two semicircles cut out around the ears. It had a decal on it that said "AIR DEFENSE."
She made an oath to Adolf Hitler down at the post office and took a course in rifle shooting but gave up after the second day because she knocked out one of her front teeth. On the first day at the shooting range, she had only aimed through the front sight when she pulled the trigger, which made a ricochet off the back wall that sent the instructor running for cover. She gave up her pay to the Winter Relief Fund and borrowed a bicycle from Mrs. Muller down at the bakery.
Every night after sunset she cycled around town making sure all the blackout curtains were drawn so that none of the RAF bombers could use the town lights to guide themselves into Cologne. If someone's curtains weren't drawn, she wouldn't knock on the door and remind them. She'd stand in the street and blow a whistle until people started coming out of their houses to see what the matter was. Then when the offending family opened their door, usually having drawn their curtains and now faking innocence, Mother would say in a loud voice, "If Your Curtains Aren't Drawn The War Will Go On!" That was the slogan on the posters she was given to stick up, showing a giant black bomb heading toward a house with one window lit up.
She became the most unpopular woman in town after about a week of riding around town blowing her whistle. She came home at midnight, the greatcoat down to her ankles and torn from the times when she got the tail caught in the chain that locked the wheel and sent her off into a pasture or the ditch. And from wearing the helmet, her hair would be its normal curly self around the edges but molded like an egg on top where the helmet had been.
She started going out again after midnight and sometimes didn't come back until ten o'clock the next day. Then she'd sleep all afternoon and go out again after dark. She looked like a vampire, pale with purple blotches under her eyes.
I found out later that she used to catch a ride over to Remagen, flag down some car in her "AIR DEFENSE" helmet and say it was official business. She went to the antiaircraft battery, which had its guns set up on each of the black towers of the bridge over the Rhine. They let her sit in the control room and stare out the window at the tracers thrashing red lines across the sky. She liked the pom-pom sound of the guns when they fired for the half hour that the planes were overhead, fifteen minutes going one way and fifteen the other. Afterward she'd stand around with the gun crew, learning to smoke cigars, drinking apple schnapps, and eating cucumber sandwiches.
They played Mozart on a Gramophone to the whole of Remagen through a bullhorn. They never shot down a plane. Mother said they just pointed the gun barrels up in the air and fired off all the shells they had because no one could see the aircraft.
Walther and I used to sit at the breakfast table before school, while she was still over in Remagen, eating uncooked porridge and firing spoonloads of flour mixed with water at each other across the room. I told him that if we ate lots of uncooked porridge and then drank hot water, we'd pop.
When we came home late in the afternoon, she'd have cleaned up the mess and Walther would bounce on her bed until she woke up. Then she'd tell us about the firing the night before, fists clenched over her head like she was shooting the gun, loading the shells, shouting orders for better trajectory into an invisible telephone held to her ear. Sometimes she took her helmet off the bedpost and put it on her head to liven up the story.
The way it would go with the one Mrs. Hammacher called a milkmaid was that we would be introduced at a party. She wouldn't talk about true love, and I wouldn't mention guns or the coolness of the Messerschmitt. We would get along fine. She would be pretty. Round-faced and happy and shy. First she wouldn't say much, but after we had left the party or were back in her kitchen, she would talk all the time.
We'd meet after school, and I'd spend all my money in restaurants that looked nice but served bad food which she would be too polite to eat. She'd want to hold hands. She'd wear traces of makeup, but only traces, and no perfume. Sometimes we'd sit in a café, and she'd knit and I'd do my homework or read or get drunk with the waiters. She'd always be knitting me something, scarves mostly.
Soon she would start talking about true love. I would pretend to throw up, and she'd throw her knitting at me. Then when I wasn't concentrating and the names of a few gun calibers would fall out of my mouth, she would roll her eyes and go into a sulk.
She'd be afraid to kiss me because of the germs, so I'd pull all the money out of my wallet, wave it at the waiter, and tell him, please, please, to destroy me.
I would just stop being able to take it, and I'd find myself in the blackest part of the middle of the night standing in the field beside Lise Hammacher's house, staring at the windows for lights that were never on.
I had a lot of friends besides Benjamin, mostly from my Hitler Jugend Group. We heard a great deal about Brotherhood from the instructors. We heard as well the demand that we win. Every time we met up, there was always some kind of competition: obstacle courses, archery, shooting, singing. So some one was always the winner, and everyone else jealous of him, or the loser, who let the team down and was hated. If you stayed in the middle, no one noticed you, so it was always the way that we learned to win. It was winning by rules, with no lying or cheating, but winning by aggression against the enemy. So afterwards, going home through the streets, the instructors kept reminding us we were Brothers, but there were always hate and jealousy and pride and shame.
Benjamin used to listen to what I had to tell him about the Youth Group, and then he would get sad. He wheeled himself around in circles in his room, and after a while I would be quiet. Then he told me to keep talking.
Eventually he would start beating his legs with his fists and speaking in his own private language.
It was a warm summer. At the end of August I packed two changes of clothing, some books, and a bottle of apple schnapps and took the train south with about half a dozen others from my school. The journey took three days. Most of the first day I was drunk from the schnapps, and after that my memory of the trip was mostly of standing with my hands in my pockets in a line waiting to get stew from a portable kitchen set up at stations along the way. It was always stew, out of tin pots with aluminum spoons. Sometimes the stations were jammed with people saying good-bye, people crying and getting trodden on. Often there was no one. We gorged on stew and fell asleep for a while in the sun on the concrete platforms.
We arrived at Bad Tölz in Bavaria at one in the morning in the rain, and the six of us were the only ones to get off the train. We walked around in the dark looking for someone to give us directions, and then a truck without its headlights on drove into the station yard. An SS sergeant wearing a helmet got out and asked us if we were looking for him. We guessed so. From the light of a match we could tell there was someone else in the truck. He told us to get in, which we did, and bounced around on the metal floor while he drove, because there were no seats. The SS men spent the whole time laughing at jokes they told each other.