Ashes are all thats left inside a
concentration camp guard soul, until
Hans Pembröke paced, beating a path
in the snow thick mist of the morning, beating it over and over again. In his mind a similar path was being beaten for an
immeasurable time. He was not a man to do anything idly; he had few wonders. Those he had were precious to him. This one in particular, this one he held onto like
a miser, finding comfort in its privacy and preciousness. This one was about the woman
Hans Pembröke often wondered if the
woman was an angel or a devil; her attire gave no indication. He had spent several minutes
considering this while the morning bit at his aching muscles. This had become a tradition of sorts, a cleansing
ritual to void his brains of the gooey detritus of dreams, just as essential and natural
as brushing his teeth or polishing his boots. He
no longer expected an answer to the questionlengthy and complex contemplation had
not been able to see any deeper than the surface of the matter. He nevertheless rose to
its challenge every time he rose from his cot, eager and excited by the engagement.
It was not so unusual an experience
for him, to be elated by a predictable yet overwhelming joy of his own creation. When he
had been a notable on the Munich Track and Field Team, he had become well acquainted with
the sudden transmutation of his blood into fire that occurred whenever the alchemy of
twenty minutes straight run had done its work on him.
After a mere month of training, his keen and hungry mind had been able to
anticipate this exhilarating transformation with almost mathematic precision, the way
freedom-starved children expect a days end bell.
It was this kind of acquaintance Hans enjoyed with the question of the womans
nature enthusiasm hardly described the elation he felt when he awoke to its
romance. Considering how every days
training sowed lead into his bones by the evenings end, he was more than grateful
for the weightlessness that accompanied that euphoria.
It was far too easy to imagine the alternativesheer paralysis by way of
exhaustionbut he would never countenance it. Why should he when the embrace of that
seductive conundrum, with her black leather jacket and glove, would conduct him through
life, easy or uneven?
This particular morning, this
particular moment, pacing this otherwise familiar path, he was nearly given occasion to
think on knocking aside that embrace and taking flight into the merciful emptiness of
existence without it. This morning had been
the first instance that his fantasy had inflicted injury on him.
It had been about three minutes ago,
by his reckoninghe couldnt be sure. Since that moment events had been weak and
disjointed, as if the world itself shared his injury. He was certain of the instance,
though. It had been while shaving.
Hans opened the spigot on the faucet,
chiding it for the rusty wail it emitted. It
reminded him too much of the moans his little brother had made every time Hans had been
commissioned to wake him for churcha petulant, martyrs moan. The association
brought a cringe up from where years of experience building his own formidable life had
buried his childhood. He resolved to make Johann, whose responsibility in the Regiment was
to attend to the plumbing on odd numbered Wednesdays and Catholic holidays, pay for
raising that spirit. The checklist in his
mindevery good Corporal had one, he reminded himselfgot another red slash next
to Pvt. Johanns name. Business taken
care of, he eagerly turned his attention to the task at hand. It was almost too easy for the sight of the glint
to steal his fancy away.
It was a shimmer, a splash of light
in the slope of the sinks porcelain basin, captured by the current of water and
dissolving. A shimmer not unlike the skin of a
swimmer, quite like the oil on a gun. Just like polish on a black luxury car, in black
sunglasses, on black leather. Just like her.
Doggedly, his body resisted his minds wandering with the only tool it had at its disposal, the instrument that customarily held in check his apoplectic imagination. Reflex followed the path of ritual that had been cleaved through the wilderness of his intellect by repetition. Thoughtlessly, he rolled his brush through the shaving soap, over his cheek, set it down and collected his razor. It glinted in anticipation as it approached the raw peach of his throat.It glinted much like black leather. But it was too shapeless to be an adequate replica of the womans own luster. It was only sharp light bouncing off of sharp metal, impressive by its nature but empty of the beauty that can only be invested into something formed by care. There was no doubt in Hans mind that the legs, the arms, the gait that shaped the ebony leather of her coat had themselves been shaped by an artistry and attention greater than the elegant coat itself. He lifted the razor. His hands were unaware that the sweeping motion of the blade, the subtle panache characterized by the turn of his wrist, was an homage. As Hans scraped away the first swath of white foam, directly below his chin, he appreciated its finishing flick as a monk would appreciate the sweeping calligraphic finale of an illuminated manuscript. It had all the flourish an emulation of her casual majesty required. He rinsed the razor.
The coat had been made at
Schüllemann und Hoche, a specialty leatherworker and tailor renown for their skill at
making Hamburgs and gloves, located in the Central District of
It was the thought of that form that
led Hans to visualize the delectable antelope sweep of the legs beneath that coat. The best feature of the coat was how it every so
often clung to them, clutching briefly like oil poured down her body, how a lake clutches .
How it must feel at that moment, the sleek leather rippling with the suggestion of her
body; how it would feel under his hand.
Following this fantasy, his hand
swept in the design of its need. Sweeping, the
razor in that hand opened his cheek. A curtain
of red ribbons spilled out.
Warm water, insulating soap and the
easy nature of razor wounds contributed to Hans failure to notice the cut. It would have taken far more than the slim
discomfort he felt to get through to him. He
had cut himself, yes, but he had done so in a world away from the one he inhabited. Whatever hint of pain there might have immediately
been simply couldnt translate through the layers of fixed attention separating the
world of wooden barracks ridden with ticks and stink from the world of equine legs and
Still following the sublime curve of
that unseen flesh, Hans paid little attention to his own.
He even managed to go so far on rote repetition alone as to raise the blade and
scoop off another swath of soap before realizing the spread red stain leaking from his
cheek. The response that came to mind as the
proper reaction was almost embarrassing given the delay.
Nonetheless, his upset, somewhat unsurprised body demanded some measure of
recompense and compassion from his mind. Obeying
decorum, Hans belatedly jumped, dropping the razor, and exclaiming loudly,
Few were around to reactnone
who were cared to do so. Corporal Pembröke hardly blamed them, reserving the fanged
glower for his reflection in the mirror. Even
he hardly noticed the pensive look on his face, the way his fingers delayed as if always
just remembering they should be doing something else, as he cleaned the razor and set to
work finishing the shave quickly. The conditions made such things as independent
interaction a luxury long ago abandoned. What communication there was between the men of
the Regimentat least on basewas the result of direct orders from a superior
officer. So it was that all dialogue had
her as its nucleus.
Between the polar forces of
exhausting training and exhilarating exposure to their mysterious, long-legged commandant,
the men were pulled so thin as to be transparent. Ones own emotions were maintained
with much the same defiance as one might maintain a small herb garden in the window box of
a major metropolitan apartment. It was useless indulgence to waste time thinking about
others. And time was even more rare a treat
than hot meals.
Hans, however, did not need time to thinknot when thinking was inspired by anger, shame or terror. Years of service in the glorious enterprise of small unit tank warfare had taught him such lessons in the way only fear and fire can teach. Burned into him was a reflex as sure as any flight or fight, as essential as the gag, one that allowed him the ability to function as a complex animal under incomprehensible circumstances. Leaping from burning tanks, crawling through mud, loading a cannon with seventy-two moving parts while ones best friends fell apart around one, these were hard enough experiences to have segmented Hans Pembrökes intellect into crisp, clean parts. One, the revolted, apoplectic animal pushed to the brink of spontaneous self-destruction by something raw and desperate inside himself. The other as clinically detached as a math teacher in a room of ostensibly invisible students.
One part of Hans Pembröke channeled
the anger over his humiliating wound into a solid foundation. The other began steadily assembling an
ever-ascending construct to express that anger. A hard-born veteran at the fine art of
functional psychosis, he seethed and schemed at the same time. Ever the good soldier, he
continued to groom himself, assemble his kit, and generally hustle towards morning call.
On went a plaster the shape and girth of a good-sized pudding.
It swallowed the wounded cheek, did nothing to improve his frown, and gave his already
poorly hewn features an injured look that made it all the more terrifying somehow. Through
his hair, what there was of it, went the comb he had taken from the girl from Lugaa
souvenir from the special moment she had shared with he and his platoon, he
had actually forgotten where it came from. This
was not easily done, perhaps impossible for most men. Hans was also an artist at
neglecting memories in much the same way people neglect cleaning places of their house not
readily seen. He had buried hundreds of atrocities under nothing more than dust; they were
catalogued like yearbooks, abandoned. On went the coal bin helmet, on went the field
blouse, on went the grinning skull cufflinks. Hans kept his appearance impeccable, or so
he liked to think. In the end, of course, appearance was everything. Out the door, another pair of jackboots trying to
make as much noise as all the others.
Hans Pembröke was a Lance
Corporalit was his duty, express privilege and exclusive ability to make far more
noise than anyone else in the platoon. Consequently,
they came to order, the sturdy backhand bellows out of his aching mouth bringing them
under his command as surely as a bullwhip would trained lions. And Hans, a big cat
himself, would have enjoyed preening before them in his barrel-chested way, surveying the
troops like a latter-day Richard the Crusader, strutting like the impressive predator he
knew he was. Would have, but for the plaster. It
spoiled everything. It was an abscess into
which his entire happily menacing world was threatening to fall. It would only do to give in kindto distract
the attention of the men from it by inflicting far more misery on them. He wrung his claws
as he paced before them, the steam from his lungs cutting the mountain air, a razor
through a knife blade. The men could see as much, could feel those claws as he dragged
them over the review with his eyes.
Dieter. Shirker who cant dig a
damn hole to save his life, or the lives of his squad. Holdt. Slow on the shells, steady
or notnot fit to be a munitions plant worker, let alone a combat loader. Brandt.
Cheat at cards and a piss-poor sentry. Krantz. Too ready with the pistol. Schaeche. Too
slow on forced march. Bohn. Eats too much. Lempke. Doesnt clean his plate. Who to
sink the claws into? Who to bleed to hide his own blood behind? Who gets cut in the way of
permanent pass revocation, permanent motor pool, or, best yet, who gets a cane? Who to hit
and hit and hit until the fear and meanness stiffening inside him breaks into bits he can
digest, or until they break? Where will the claws in those eyes settle? On who?
They felt on her, going from bone to
butter. And the question on who
now answered, Pembröke now wondered, on what?
On what? Was she Heavens gift
to a world sodden on its own wickedness or was she Hells just reward for fine work
done? Angel or demon? He lost time entirely when he stared at her; an eternity later, he
still couldnt figure it out. Not that he needed to.
Not that he wanted to.
His eyes lay on her, soft as paws, where she had materialized from the thick, pale morning. They lay on the coat. They lay there and stuck in the tar. They slid over onyx and opal. And under it all, sleek shapes made love to him with shifting hints of their protean perfection. One such shape was soft, fluid as the cream Hans knew its skin would look and taste like. This was as she walked; when she stood, it was different and distinct. When she stood, surveying the black rows of SS men before her, it was taut as hanging rope. It was equine. This shape stiffened and winced, unnoticed, on his cheek. It was neither the shape of a Demons faun-like legs, nor that of a lion-footed Seraph. Under the expanse of black leather, even hugged so intimately by the tailoring, it was uncertain.
His eyes lingered on her, on his
Commander; they continued to decipher the curves they traced, trying to discover if they
spelled sin or salvation. Her attire gave no indication.
With the sight of her filling him, he called the men to stiff attention.
It was as it should be.
All contents copyright © Matthew Funk 2007, all rights reserved.