The German soldier stepped away from the house and toward the wooden fence that surrounded it. The moon was full, and the shadows longer and crisper now. He loosened his ragged muffler. The wind had stopped blowing. It was good not to feel the hard snow tearing at his face.
He placed his gloved hands on the pickets of the fence.
The world was quiet, the sounds frozen in the cold air.
A man could think in a world like this, but did he want to? Thinking was remembering, and there was little that Hans wanted to remember about this village. The skinny man with the moustache that Grass stabbed in the chest with his bayonet? The grandfather Weitz had killed? That old man’s crab-like scurrying across the floor? His gray stubbled throat? His curse about fucking your mother? Did Hans want to remember almost strangling him?
He had known men who looked him in the eye and told him that it was hard to kill another person. They told him about the laws of church and country, about what the priests and teachers talk about, and what his mother and his father taught him about being good when he was a child, a boy. They told him about how God had put something in him that let him know what was good and right, and what was bad and wrong. Man had that knowledge in his blood and his heart and his soul, and he was born to listen to it.
They told him this, but it was a lie. No one had told him the truth. Killing was easy. Any man could kill any other man. Any man could do it to any woman. Hans had even seen women who could do it. They had done it and gone back to stirring their laundry or breastfeeding their babies.
The moment came, and someone looked at you, and you were hungry or tired or stupid with alcohol or fear, or you were bored; and you killed the man with your gun or your knife if you had one, with your hands if you didn’t.
Hans could have killed the old man like that, just like that, with his hands. He could have done it with his rifle too. Shot the man quick and easy from a meter or two away, just the way Weitz did with his Luger when Hans stopped himself from strangling the old man. There had been a flash from the pistol, a short puff of smoke, and a loud explosion, and it was over within a second.
Hans could have done it himself simply. He had already beaten the man down, driven him to the floor with his greater weight and strength. He had the old man’s yellow throat with its loose, gray, ugly stubbled skin under his fingers and palms.
And then Hans had done the harder thing. He had not killed the man. He had stopped himself and stood up.
A scream exploded through the cold air in the log house behind him.
Hans wasn’t startled. He knew whose voice it was; it was the skinny peasant’s wife. And Hans knew what was happening to her. Weitz and Grass and the Hungarian and even Hans’s friend Didi. All of them raping the peasant’s wife. Taking turns like children playing a simple game.
What was happening in the peasant’s house was what Hans expected when he left it.
He put his hands on the gate of the fence and tried to remember the Hungarian soldier’s name. It was something that sounded strange, almost Asiatic. Hans tried to recall it, but it wouldn’t come, and he slowly turned back around and looked toward the window. Someone must have lit a lantern in the big room, or some candles. Light was falling from the window onto the snow, forming a square divided into smaller squares. The strips of wood holding the panes in place formed the shadow of a cross on top of the crusted snow. Hans stared at the cross, wondered at a world full of symbols that meant nothing. He wondered if this were an omen of bad luck or good.
There was another scream from the house, and then some laughing. High-pitched laughter. Like a woman’s, but it wasn’t. Maybe it was the tall Berliner, Grass, acting out a silly part, mocking the woman he was raping. Hans had seen men do that before. They would try at first to cover the bad thing they were doing with a lie or a joke, like little boys caught by their mothers in some misstep. Later, they would repent, plead their tears and temporary foolishness.
Inside the house, someone started singing a tango about black leather boots and a hard wooden floor, a night as black as the boots, as hard as the floor. Hans knew the song. The summer he turned seventeen they were all dancing that tango in his village, and singing it too, sweating and twirling in the moonlight on the flagstones in front of the barn. He remembered the name of the girl he danced with so often that summer. Anna. She lived in a nearby village, Lanser See, the one near the pond where the water was always cold, even on the hottest August afternoon. Dancing the tango with her, Hans pretended he was the gaucho in the song, she his lover, a woman who held dark mysteries and promised so much.
Now all of that seemed foolish, and it was.
Hans pushed the gate open and crossed the snow-crusted street. The dry snow crunched beneath his rag-bound boots.
The four or five houses on the other side of the lane were dark. In fact, all of the houses in the village were without light except the one he was walking away from. The dark log house he was walking toward seemed larger, richer somehow than the house he had just left. Maybe this was the rich side of town, the side where the peasant gentry lived with their fine dirty linen that was a centimeter better than the dirty linen of the peasants on the poor side of the street. Even the Communists, for all their talk of Bolshevik equality, had their bourgeois distinctions, their classes, castes, and ranks.
He passed the gate and came to the door of the house. Leaning into the window to the right of the door, he pressed his cheek against the frosted windowpane. He tried to see in, but couldn’t see anything inside but the darkness. Stepping away from the window, he noticed the ice had etched a picture on the glass. The frost formed what looked like palm trees layered over palm trees, palm trees echoing palm trees in an infinite regression. They reminded him of the Easter season, the palm leaves distributed by the priest in his stiff white gown on Palm Sunday. Hans placed his hand on the glass and wondered why he was thinking about religious things. First, he saw the cross in the snow; now he saw Easter palms. He must be feeling guilty for wanting to kill the old man, and then doing nothing when Weitz finally shot him in the face, but Hans wasn’t worried. The feeling of guilt would pass. He knew it.
He remembered how the Jews had welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem. Triumphant, He rode on a donkey’s back while crowds waved dried, yellow palm leaves above His head and shouted, “Hosanna, hosanna!” What did that word mean? Rescue us? Save us? Then a week later the Jews killed Jesus. They wouldn’t save him. Instead, they nailed him with square wooden nails to a wooden cross like he was some beggar caught with his hand in another man’s pocket. One day the Jews were kind, another day they were murderers, Christ killers. Hans knew that all men were like that, Jew or Aryan, underman or superman. Killing one day and forgetting it the next. Fuck death. Fuck salvation too.
Hans tried the door to the dark house. He expected it to be bolted like the shack across the lane had been, but it wasn’t. He pushed down hard on the latch with his thumb and gently shoved his shoulder against the door. It opened.
He stood in a square of cold, dim light from the door behind him. Everything in the large room was quiet. On either side of him, light filtered in through the frosted windows flanking the door. He didn’t need much more light. He didn’t even need the light he had. He could see what there was to see without it.
The dead were everywhere. On the floor, some lay where they had been killed, their bodies tangled together like arthritic fingers. It would be hard to walk around this room without stepping on a hand or foot or face. There were four chairs placed around a table near the stove, a man with his hands behind his back was strapped to each. Maybe the men who killed them had tortured them, tried to get some kind of information from them; or maybe the men just tortured and killed them because they could. Hans saw that the big bed in the corner had bodies scattered across it too.
He looked at the dead. The dead looked at him.
What did they see?
Along the wall opposite where Hans stood, three women and a man had been hanged. Their necks had been broken by the rope, and their heads jutted at odd angles. Hans thought about a movie he had seen once, an old film, one of the first he had ever seen, a film without sound. It was called the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. He was a child when he saw it, and it frightened him. His memory was fragmentary, but he was almost sure that it was about a monster that was a murderer. Hans seemed to recall that the creature carried his head the way these hanged women held theirs, held it like it was broken. The murderer’s mouth gaped open, and his lips were twisted. His face was the color of the faces of these corpses hanging on the wall, gray, a dirty white.
From where he stood, Hans could see that each hanging body had its hands and legs tied. One of the women was wearing a silver high-heeled shoe with a jeweled strap. It was beautiful, but there was only one. Her other foot was bare. Hans wondered about this. Why was she wearing such a shoe? No peasant woman in a village like this would wear such a shoe. Probably no peasant woman would have ever seen such a shoe. Was there even another such shoe in Russia? Most of the peasants he had seen wore birch-bark shoes that they had made themselves as they sat in their dark kitchens late at night. Some of the peasants, a few, wore high leather boots, but these were the commissars and headmen, the men who ran the villages and told the peasants what to do and think.
It was not easy walking on the bodies. Hans realized this at once. A man could not do it quickly. The bodies were frozen or nearly frozen, but they were not neatly piled, not stacked by a careful hand. Legs stuck out. Hands did too. A fearful man would be thinking that the hands were extending toward him, trying to pull him down to death. But Hans wasn’t a fearful man. He kept moving slowly toward the wooden wall. There was some snow and a hard frost on the bodies. Some of the dead were bloated and dark. They looked like fat people, sausages too tightly packed by a generous butcher. They were firm. Some of the dead had died before they froze. Others appeared to have frozen to death after being shot or bayoneted.
Hans stepped on the chest of a man whose hands gripped at his own shirt collar. It looked like he was trying to rip it off. He must have frozen in the moment when he was struggling to tear the shirt off his body. Hans had seen this before. Dying in the snow, a man would sometimes try to rip his clothes off as he froze. Hans didn’t know why a freezing man would try to rip his clothes off. That act made no sense. Hans walked carefully over the layers of bodies on the floor toward the wall and the hanging corpses.
The woman with only one high heel had been beaten before she was hanged. He could see that even in the thin light of the log house. Bruises darkened her face. Her swollen eyelids were split, cut perhaps. Her broken nose had bled on her white blouse, and some of the blood had splattered onto her brown, pleated-wool skirt. Even though she had been beaten, she still fought back when they tied the rope around her neck. He took off his glove and touched the skin beneath the rope. Some of the blood on her clothes must have come from her neck. Her struggling had ripped the skin off from under the rope. Maybe she and the other three hanging here were Ukrainian partisans that his own countrymen had tortured for information.
But why was she wearing high heels?
The partisans lived and hid in the woods. High heels were useless in a forest. Maybe the Germans beat her to find out why she was wearing such useless shoes.
Hans looked at her face. She had been beautiful. The bones beneath her bruises gave her face definition and character, and her hair was a bright, warm yellow, almost white.
Maybe this woman was an actress brought out here to entertain the soldiers. Maybe very far behind the lines there were still some safe places where actresses came and sang songs about home and told stories about mothers feeding their children rich soups of pork and cabbage, feasts of potatoes and venison. Anything was possible in this war. But more likely, the woman in front of him was a prostitute or a sex slave from one of the Wehrmacht brothels, a girl from Poland or Hungary, maybe even Germany, shipped out here to sleep with his officers, comfort them when they felt cold or lonely, tell them they were doing the necessary work that would make them all heroes and assure them a high place in Heaven. Tell them the lies all men want to hear.
Hans had heard about such women, had even seen one once east of Kiev stepping slowly and elegantly out of a long, dark Mercedes. He had been a sentry at a railroad station when it happened. A hard, black rain was falling that night, and he stood in the dark rain and fog and watched a car pull up to the station’s wooden stairs and stop. The light in the car was softened, filtered by curtains. A captain in an elegant, dress uniform opened the car door and held an umbrella over the woman and escorted her into the station’s canteen. Hans remembered the way she clutched her white leather coat to her breasts, so tight he had to hold his breath. He knew the leather must have been soft, the way it shaped itself around her breasts. She looked like someone who had tap-danced out of an American motion picture, a musical comedy. Her hair was beautiful, a blonde that gave off so much sunlight that her mother and father must have cherished every lock.
Hans felt the hair of the dead woman in front of him. He rubbed it between his fingers. The room was so still he could hear the friction between his fingers and the blonde white hair. It was still beautiful, but it felt like nothing, felt like it had never been alive, had never flowed in the wind. Maybe this woman hanging before him with the beautiful hair and the broken, torn neck had been captured by the partisans and tortured to get information out of her about the German retreat and what the officers were planning. It didn’t matter finally. She was dead.
Turning his eyes toward the floor again, Hans tried to find her other high heel. He knew this was stupid. Even if he found it, what could he do with it? He couldn’t place it on her foot. If it had swollen, the shoe wouldn’t fit; and if her foot had stiffened with cold and death, nothing could bend that foot back into a shoe. Not even a fire. He looked anyway. What else was there for him to do? Think about the peasant’s house he had just left? What was happening there? Which of the other Germans was raping the wife of the skinny peasant?
He imagined if he found her other high-heeled shoe she would thank him.
There was a soft, rubbing noise behind him, and Hans swiveled quickly, his rifle aimed at the door. A shadow stood there. The gray cold light from outside framed a body and made it impossible for Hans to see who it was. Squinting, he shouted a warning in Russian, “Ruki vverkh!”
The shadow didn’t put its hands up and was silent for a moment. Hans placed a little more pressure on the trigger. He waited.
“It’s me. I’ve been searching for you, my friend,” Didi said. “The other houses appear empty. Everybody who was alive in this shit-hole little village must have been brought here to die.”
Standing up, Hans let his Mauser go slack in his hands. “Maybe the others escaped into the wood,” he said.
“Hmm? You are an optimistic. What are you doing?”
“I’m looking for a woman’s shoe.”
“Ah! You’re a joker like me.”
“No, it’s the truth. Look. See? She has only one. A high heel. No one should die with only one high heel.”
Didi laughed, “Tonight all over Russia, we and our friends and our enemies are dying without shoes and without socks. Without our pants and without our heads! And some of us are even dying without eyes and tongues. And you’re the only one worried about such things. The last good Samaritan in this hell.”
“The last good Samaritan? I almost killed that old man back in the other house for no reason. He wasn’t threatening me. He was too old, too weak to really hurt me.”
“Well, but you didn’t kill him. You let Weitz do that,” Didi said and bent down. He placed the palm of his hand softly alongside the cheek of a dead boy who lay on the floor beneath the window. Light reflected in from the outside and made the boy’s skin look grayer and colder, like heavy, damaged paper. Didi turned the boy’s face toward the light.
“Look at this face,” he said. “This child must have been twelve, maybe ten. But stupid already. Look at his eyes. No intelligence. I doubt that he even knew when he was hungry or thirsty. He needed his mother to tell him when to eat his pieroski or drink his morning shot of vodka. A boy like that doesn’t deserve to live unless he’s working for my pleasure and benefit.”
Hans looked at Didi’s hand. “What happened back there in the other shack?”
“What you’d expect. We fucked her, raped her if you prefer. First our new leader, Corporal Weitz, and then the rest of us. She started bleeding down there before I even had my poke. But I’m not complaining. She got weaker and weaker. That was good because she was making too much noise. Weeping. Finally, she passed out. When that happened, we threw her in the little side room with her daughter. A good child. Quiet like a nun in a convent.”
On his knees, Didi left the boy and moved on to a corpse nearby in a brown-quilted coat. He began searching through the man’s pockets.
“You know,” Didi said, “Some of these peasants have gold teeth. I’m not kidding you. Gold teeth! I’ve seen it. Their big smiles wrapped around those good teeth. They look like angels. Maybe they bought them before the Reds came in and took everything over in 1917.”
Didi stopped going through the man’s pockets and put his hands on the face, on the stiff lips, cheeks, and jaw. Then he pried open the dead man’s black lips and tried to examine his teeth.
Digging under his coat, Hans felt for the bayonet on his belt. He pulled it out of its metal sheath and began cutting the rope that still held the dead woman up.
Still on his knees, Didi looked up from the man’s face. “Hans, why are you sawing at that?”
“I want to release her. Why should she hang? Why should any of them?”
“Why? Because it was probably our boys who did it. And maybe they’ll come back and see what you’ve done and wonder why you cut the rope, and maybe they’ll think you’re a Red like the other Reds here, the dead ones on the floor. Our high command isn’t giving out Iron Crosses and furloughs to soldiers cutting down these fucking partisans. So stop cutting, my friend, and help me look through their mouths for gold.”
Hans ignored Didi and kept cutting. He held the long bayonet in both hands, one on the hilt and one on the blade, and pressed the edge against the rope. The rope was thick, the blade dull, the cutting slow. He wondered why he was doing this. Didi was right. It didn’t make sense.
But finally, the blade sliced through the rope, and the dead woman slumped into his arms. For a moment, he held her and tried to draw her scent into his nose. He wanted to smell perfume and clean clothes and a woman who was young and beautiful. But there was no scent of perfume or beauty, just the smell of cold iron and frayed rope. The dead woman was heavy, the way the dead are always heavy, and he eased her down onto the floor. She came to rest with her crooked head against another woman’s chest, her left shoulder pressed against the wall.
Hans turned his bayonet to the others who had been hanged in this house, and he began cutting the ropes that held them against the wall. They weren’t young and beautiful like the first woman; they didn’t seem like exotic creatures from some Hollywood spectacle. The two other women were middle-aged. They wore flowered dark scarves around their heads, heavy, rough-cloth skirts around their legs. They seemed like mothers or grandmothers. What they called “Babushkas.”
Hans couldn’t understand why they had been singled out for hanging.
The man hanging there was older. His hollow cheeks and lips, collapsed in upon themselves, suggested he was toothless. Didi wouldn’t find any gold in this mouth. Most likely, this peasant was around the age of the one Hans had started to strangle. They probably knew each other, grew up in this village, played, and went to school together. They probably had the same last name. These small villages were like that. One family living here for a hundred years, maybe two hundred years. This old man and the old man Hans had started to kill had probably dreamed about the same things when they were boys working in the orchards and fields. Dreamed about being brave soldiers and powerful lovers. Dreamed about some war that would give them an excuse to leave this village behind.
After he lowered the old man to the floor, Hans turned to Didi. He was pulling back the lips of a dead woman, and Hans said to him, “I’m done here.”
“Then you can help me with the teeth. There must be thirty people dead in this house. Not only in this room but in the others, too.”
“Did you find anything?” Hans asked.
“Not a bite yet!” Didi laughed. “This is slow, hard work, but I’ll find something.” He lifted another man’s head and pulled back the lips and looked at his teeth. There was nothing there either, and Didi let the head drop and moved on to the next body.
Hans walked over the corpses toward the stove. Above it, there was a shelf with two lanterns. He thought the owners must have truly been rich. He took the lanterns and shook them lightly to see if there was kerosene inside them. There was still some in each. He threw one of the lanterns where the woman with one shoe had been hanging. The glass smashed against the log wall, and the fluid exploded over it, glistening wet in the scant, cold light. Hans took the other lantern and poured the kerosene over the bodies on the bed.
“Got a match, Didi?”
“Of course.” He dug for a moment inside the deep pockets of his greatcoat for a matchbox. “Here, don’t burn yourself.”
Hans struck the wooden, sulfur-headed match on the side of his rifle butt, made sure the flame was steady and growing, and then flicked the match toward the wall where he had smashed the lantern. Red and yellow flames slowly spread across the frozen logs that formed the wall, then licked toward the high, peaked ceiling. He took a towel from the stove, lit a match to it, and carried it to the bed where he had emptied the rest of the kerosene. He threw the cloth into the bed and watched flames gradually covering the bodies. Their frozen white faces and black faces started thawing. He could see the ice and frost turning into mist and moisture. It was like the dead were sweating, as if they belonged to some African world of steaming rain forests and sunburst-colored flamingos, cockatoos, and rainbow birds.
The fire crackled, and the smell of the dead rose from the bodies with the smoke. Hans moved to the doorway to get away from it. He stood where Didi stood earlier, in shadows framed by the light behind him. As the fire grew larger and louder, Hans watched his friend put his index fingers into the mouth of a dead peasant and stretch the mouth into a wide grin. Without turning from his work, Didi shouted, “Hans, my friend, have you heard the joke about why our blitzkrieg in 1939 was able to steamroll Poland so fast?”
Hans looked away, watched the flames advance up the wall instead. A framed picture or some kind of decorative cloth was fastened to it. He couldn’t tell what the picture represented. Maybe it was just a pattern and some color, a light shade of blue. The fire took the corner of the picture, and flames and smoke slowly rolled over it toward the ceiling.
“Our panzers drove in backwards, and the Poles thought we were leaving.” Didi laughed and looked up at Hans. “You’re not laughing. How about this one? Do you know how to sink a Russian battleship? No? Well, I’ll tell you. You just put it in the water.”
Hans said, “We have to leave. There’s too much smoke here.”
“Really, we have time. The logs and the bodies are frozen. Just a few more mouths and one more joke,” Didi said as he put his face close to the large hole he had cut in a man’s bearded face. He looked in and then reached his thumb and index finger into the hole and grabbed a tooth. He wiggled it, but it wouldn’t come loose. “Ach!’
“Use the butt of your bayonet,” Hans suggested.
“You’re such a baby. That will just shatter the tooth. This calls for cleverness and mature reasoning.” Didi lifted up his bayonet and examined its point in the light of the fire that was spreading to the other walls. Then he slowly positioned the steel tip in the man’s jaw above the tooth and applied a light, careful pressure. He cranked the knife twice like a pry bar, and the tooth was loose at once. Didi smiled, “Got it.”
“Good. Let’s leave.”
“So impatient! I’m almost done, and then one last joke.”
Flames had spread across two of the walls. Some of the bodies were burning already, the smoke gathering under the building’s peaked roof. He watched the flames, their transparent colors. More intense reds and yellows and some blues. A world of colors different from the white of the snow or the gray and green blackness of this Russian war. The body of the woman with one high heel didn’t look as if it were burning; she just seemed to be getting darker, the color of old leather, the color of charcoal, of dark night.
Her blonde white hair was gone in a moment. It burned like straw in a dry autumn.
The heat felt good on his face. Hans tried to remember when he had been this warm before. He couldn’t remember any heat before this heat. The flames sucked all his memories out of his heart. He couldn’t remember any fire, not even the ones he knew as a boy when his father let him poke a long stick into the flames of a rubbish burn in the spring. And Hans couldn’t remember sitting around a fire with his fellow soldiers either, warming last night’s coffee in the morning or burning potatoes in the evening for supper. It was like this was the first fire he had ever seen. Like it was the first fire any man had ever seen. He felt like that old Greek warrior who they say stole the first flame from the gods on Mount Olympus and brought it down to the people on the plain so they could mask their hunger, silence all their longings.
Hans stared at the fire that was burning the walls. It was something brand new, original, the only one of its kind. Taking off his gloves, he dropped them on one of the bodies lying on the floor in front of him. He stood facing the flames thawing and then burning the dead. His hands were positioned out in front of him with the palms facing the fire. He didn’t know what he wanted, but he hoped that the fire would give it to him. Some warmth, maybe.
Didi watched, still squatting on the floor. “My friend, you look like one of those Russian saints in the icons, like you’re praying for something. Deliverance from this snowy paradise? Forgiveness for your vengeful acts? Say some prayers for me, too, brother. I need forgiveness more than you.”
Hans didn’t want to hear him. Standing amid the corpses, he turned his palms so that he could see them, rubbed the fingers of his right hand across the palm of the left. He pulled his muffler away from his lips and spit into his palm. With his other hand, he rubbed the spit into the palm. He looked for dirt, found it, and tried to rub it away. Then he spit in his hand again.
Didi stood up and came toward Hans.
“You’re thinking too much, Hans. My father used to tell me it’s not good to think so much. You’ll break your brain, especially with the heat in here. Soon I’ll be seeing your gray matter leaking through your nose, dripping from your eyes and ears. You don’t have to pray for forgiveness, beg for it. You didn’t do anything that the Russians wouldn’t have done to you or your mother or your father. You think when these fuckers get to Berlin they won’t be choking the old guys and fucking their daughters?
“You’ve seen what they’ve done to their own women. I passed through one village where they shot a woman in the face so many times you couldn’t make out her eyes or mouth, and then they raped and killed her two daughters. They killed the grandmother too. Old toothless woman, dark yellow skin and bald. Must’ve been a hundred, that one, a real witch. They hung her up on a hook in the kitchen and did her with a bayonet, over and over. That’s the kind they are.”
Hans said nothing. He stood there watching the flames for a moment; then he closed his eyes. The smoke was no friend, but the heat was so nice on his face. He could feel it on his eyelids and his beard. The heat was better than food, better than love, better than forgiveness. He knew Didi was right. When the Russians got to Poland, they would be a glacier of killing and raping that nothing could stop. They probably had started already, here in the Ukraine. These dead here, around him, were their people, but the Russians were probably the ones who killed them, fucked them too. He had seen it before in some of the villages that the Germans had captured at the start of the war, that first July. They came into them and found rooms like this room. Rooms full of bodies. Dead men, dead girls, dead children. Who could have done it? Not the Germans. The only Germans were behind him, not in front of him. Only the Reds were in front of him, and they were killing and raping their own as they pulled back.
Or maybe not.
Hans looked at the bodies on the floor, melting into rags and bones, blood and piss. It was what it was.
He took his helmet off and rubbed his hand back and forth across the top of his head. His hair felt greasy and hard. It was dirty, and there was no softness to it. He turned to Didi and put his helmet back on, “I think the partisans will see the house burning from the forest. They’re going to come down to see what’s happening once it starts getting light.”
“Yeah, I’m done here,” Didi said as he rolled two gold teeth into his handkerchief. “We got to get out of here.”
Hans looked at the beautiful woman with one high heel. She was beginning to burn now. The flames licking her brown wool skirt, the smoke hiding it. He could smell the offal.
The shit world, the shit war, the shit man.