Loss of the Last
In the cradle of the German nation, a weary veteran reflects on the totality of what has been lost and the emptiness of the world to come.
Heaven was falling on
They had been watching the rain for long, so long that the rain had rinsed away measure and counting. They watched the rain like they might a dangerous animal, and behind the rain they watched as American artillery ate up the limits of their vision, chewing them into wads of smoke. Then they blinked, turned away to call out.
Coming in, said the German Sergeant at the window. His southern drawl moved with the rain. Coming in fast, and they look friendly.
The door was opened and two privates rushed in, carrying a wailing man. The assemblage of German troops and staff officers gathered in the nave parted for them, as if the rain sluicing off their bodies was deadly to the touch. They moved up to the cluster of radios and flimsy pre-fabricated tables where the General sat with his hands folded into a steeple. The wailing man, an American Major, cried louder as they set him down.
They tucked up
their coats collars and shivered off the rain. Found
this guy layin in the
Hes done for soon, said the other, pointing to a blossom of blood coming out of a rip in the Americans uniform, stretching from chest to groin.
Cant make a word hes saying, said the first. Thought you might
Hes singing, said the General. He stood up, pulling himself erect like an archaeologist would fit a statue of Mars back together from ruins, piece by shattered piece. One of the radios crackled at him and he snapped it up.
A-m I born to die? To la-y sang the American.
Thought you might patch him up better. The German private shuffled uncomfortably.
Weve got nothing here, said the General, his hand over the radio transmitter. We went through the last of the altar cloth before dawn. When he finally turned his eyes back to the two men, they were hard, balled up like fists, showing only knuckle. Get back to your units, he said. Ill interrogate him myself.
And wi-ll my tre-mbling spirit fly
Lieutenant Kitzler? Siegfried here, the General yelled into the radio, jumping his voice above the Americans. Are we ready for the counterattack?
In-to the wo-rld unknown?
Siegfried couldnt bring himself to frown at the bad news that came in over the radio. Frowning was years in his past; back when there seemed some actual cause for disappointment, when the war had such high, shining, medal-decked expectations. Then had come his tour in the East, and then the slow starvation of Afrika, and during those times hed come to see himself as merely a clerk struggling to fill a butchers bill. That was two years ago. Not two years of victories and long rests, not even two years seeded with light glimmers of intermittent leave, but two years sending people to die every day. Two years had gone by, he realized, to bring him here, to this place where he felt as powerful and helpless as the rain. The words to Kitzler, a man hed known for six years, came out like a stale piano lesson.
all of the replacements are gone out of Richter and Noltes squads, then have the old
boys withdraw under Robbes gun and get them out. Then came the moment, the
dreaded moment that seemed to come more regularly than breathing the moment he had
to decide who to send in to fill their place in the line.
Such notions as the line were ridiculous at this point;
ridiculous and hateful. Trying to organize and
command house to house fighting in a city like
The drear-y re-gions of the dead. The American was turning white, wadding up in the wet shadows of the floor. He smiled sadly up at Siegfried. Where all things are for-got
Send them anyway. Siegfried clenched his hand against his stomach, hoping none of the staff officers clustered around could see. Each of them sat like he wished he was sitting, head down in a nest of warm cigarette smoke. He shuttled through the images he had of the men in Kitzlers last squad, noting how random each scenario he remembered them from was, feeling the sick marvel of circumstance. Schüpe, the squads sergeant, drinking beer out of his boot in a purple Polish October forest, the occasion of his promotion six years ago; Schüpe, who he had caught leaving the pictures of his fat wife, his lean, staring children, like death cards on British bodies just this June, dropping each over a set of blank eyes until hed run out of photos. And under Schüpe, there was Toppert, who had always rolled dice before a battle until he rolled two sevens in a row, until he lost the dice at Cagny, and had slunk off to sit alone on a well, and hadnt talked for days, and had never looked anyone in the eyes again. There was the kid with Live to Lose on his helmet, who chewed tobacco but hid the habit. There was the boy with marigold hair, a living youth club poster, always lunging to the next challenge, stretching for the horizon. And there were the old men, still younger than the youngest of his veterans, with their houses and families and tired, civilian habits still fresh enough to put dew and morning mildness into everything they did. More and more, the old men and the boys, dying in greater numbers than his veterans but, he was sure, to be outliving them all. Send Schüpes squad.
Kitzler began to rattle off his protests, fast, trying to outrun the machinegun in the background. Siegfried found himself frowning down at the American, whod gone silent. He hadnt stopped singing, but the words couldnt find breath to carry them.
We need that place for a counter attack, send them. He hung up the radio fast. He felt too young for it, even though hed held his Generalship for nearly a year now. But the radio was a hard, final thing of plastic, and its lack of a pulse offended him.
Siegfried knelt by the American and touched his neck. It was the pulse of the injured birds hed nursed back to health, hidden from his father in the wide armoire next to his bed. He couldnt remember the last time hed felt a pulse like that and had found it to be a message of hope. He couldnt remember the last time hed strained to believe in renewal, a principle that had always been wet and sweet behind his secret smile as a child. Now all he wanted on his tongue was the taste of smoke.
Hey, he said in English, adding the lilt of a Georgian accent to the words to imitate the mans own. He read the Majors name patch. Hey, Trochy, how you doing?
Better than you, Trochy said. Im going to Jesus.
Siegfried suppressed a sneer. Hed only come to hate religion since the cruel miracles of the battlefield had carved a huge space inside him around its absence. These careless, reflexive people, he thought, were no different than the tiny invertebrates that lived in the warm rifts of the oceans depths, taking on light only when a divers lamp shined it on them, twisting through colors pathetically until their small systems burned away from the exposure. The same education that had taught him English in every cultural dance step it knew had taught him that on lifes most basic level, particles couldnt help but split and move when under the light of observation. All the same, hed too often seen what ten days rot could do to a human face to believe in Gods image on this earth. Death was the ultimate practicality, and Siegfried had too many practical matters than he could hope to hold.
How many are you, Major?
F-four, the man stuttered. J-jude, the youngest. An S-s-sarah, got sick when she was little, an my wife, Rae
How many men, damn you?
N-no, said Trochy. Going to Christ now. m leaving this awful world of mens deeds and mine.
How many men in your Battalion? Siegfried crushed his collar tight, relaxing it when he realized it was his own, and not the Majors. He was furious, doubly furious with his fascination with the man. How many men are you sending against us?
Cold. Trochy shivered. His hands seeped around the tear in his uniform, plucking at it as if gingerly rearranging his wedding tux. So cold, and its late you got to, got to get the girls out of the field, get em in the house where its warm.
How many of you do we have to kill? Siegfrieds teeth clicked as he spoke; he felt his jaw working around, sidestepping the question he wanted to put to the wild lights in the mans eyes. He knew these men his men his vets and old men and boys knew them better than he wanted to know himself. He had knew the taste of their kitchens off of the wooden serving spoons; he knew what the light in their dens looked like after the fireplace had gone out. He could see Live to Loses mothers handwriting in the lines of the stones behind Trochys head, and he knew that in the scars on his back he could find the pattern of Marigolds couch without having to look. He was too old, wore too much of other peoples honor to ask, but he had to know: How many of us have to die before you stop coming?
It dont matter. Trochy said. He began to weep, the tears taking the last of the color out of his face, until they ran down clay. The killing I done, all the boys
The Americans eyes dipped, lids running down with the crackle of the radio rain. Siegfried couldnt turn away to answer it. Its answer would be meaningless; but inside the mans eyes
Were coming in. Coming in to where its warm, an all things are forgot.
Trochy relaxed, muscles and words drifting away. What lay on the cathedral floor looked as if it had already begun to melt. Siegfried leaned in, wanting to sink there. The radio tugged at him in a crisp gray line.
He lifted it,
sad to think how easy such a difficult thing had become.
Outside, the American guns had begun eating up
Siegfried stared into where the cathedral dark folded over the shape of Charlemagnes tomb.
No, theres nowhere to withdraw to. Hold.
All contents copyright © Matthew Funk 2007, all rights reserved.