A soldier awakens.
Surrounded and suffocated, entombed by the collapsing rubble of a thousand year Reich. He chokes and gasps, his throat burning from the minute particles of soot and brick assaulting his airway in such an enclosed space. Claustrophobia works poisonous tendrils as he realises his situation, drowning beneath unknown fathoms of twisted iron and shattered concrete, most likely running out of oxygen.
Years of training kick in, panic being the deadliest enemy on any battlefield, as he slowly calms his fluttering heartbeat. Next he pushes outwards with his arms and legs, then his back and neck, no movement. His concrete mausoleum remains, and panic again threatens to overcome him. Each dry, painful breath comes harder now, His eyes see only the black of the grave whilst his ears are overwhelmed by the erratic pounding in his chest and the ragged gasp of his lungs.
Escape has to come soon, he knows all too well that there’s only so much trauma and suffocation a human body can take. Thinking quickly he reaches for the luger at his belt, rusty metal and what feels like shards of concrete tear at his arms as he pulls the pistol free, as if his sarcophagus refuses to let him leave. He angles the pistol towards where the sky should be.
He hesitates. Deliberating for a matter of seconds which lasts an eternity, he weighs up the risk of a collapse with potential escape. Escape is the main priority, better a quick death crushed beneath untold tons of rubble than a slow asphyxiation.
He fires. Two shots. Two shafts of light immediately spill forth, revealing the dusty grey of his chest and lighting up the entirety of his erstwhile cairn. Sweet daylight and delicious fresh air reveal that escape is only a matter of yards away. Desperate with the promise of freedom he rages, clawing and tearing at the rubble above him.
Like a cruel mockery of a caesarean, he bursts forth from the belly of earth, coughing and bloody, his own midwife. His world spins, refusing to stay still as he tries to make sense of his surroundings. His brain deprived of oxygen and his body exhausted from the exertions of escape, he passes out…
Swiftly and with purpose, toward a known destination, He has been here before.
A distant booming can be heard, felt as much as heard, followed by a faint clatter of gunfire. Neither noise phases him, as his knee high boots grind and crush the twisted asphalt of a ruined road. Smoke winds its way between devastated buildings, its thick black plumes propelled by a faint wind, the death rattle of his dying city.
After an unknown time the heavily cratered street fades away, and he walks in the smoky ether that follows him, clinging to his shoulders and obscuring his path, yet still he walks, the crack of his boot heels loud in his ears despite no road being visible. This does not matter to him, He has been here before.
Faint shapes can now be seen at the periphery of his vision. He keeps his eyes fixed ahead into the murk as he knows looking to either side will cause him to falter. He picks up his stride as a wind that can’t be felt starts to clear the smoke from the path in front of him. On both sides, the faint shapes coalesce into tangible figures of people, all calling to him in imperceptible voices from beyond his sight. Still he moves forward, as he knows stopping to engage one of his shades will not end well, he has been here before.
Out of the gloom a door can be seen, slowly opening as he makes his way swiftly through the remaining smoke. A small girl stands in the portal, no more than four years old, her black hair hanging loosely around her olive face. Finally, he reaches the girl, and in one smooth motion picks her up and holds her to him. They stay like this, in the threshold of a house he hasn’t seen for months, until shrill laughter is heard from upstairs. The small girl lifts her head and looks at him with those striking emerald orbs, so different from the pale blue of his own eyes, made resplendent by fresh tears forming as the laughter continues. The girl in his arms, they make their way into the house, up a curving, ornate staircase to find the source of the laughter that so haunts them both. They step off the staircase and look into the only room open to them. Inside, a dark figure of a man reclines on an old sofa, his tanned face looking away from the door towards the source of the laughter that captivates and torments; A woman, golden haired and blue eyed, laughs again as she pours wine from an all too familiar carafe. The little girl renews her silent tears, as the golden woman moves languidly towards the dark man on the sofa. On cue, as he knew it would, the door swings shut on the pair, and all sounds of laughter are gone. He has seen this before.
Suddenly air raid sirens sound, panic grips the little girl in his arms and she buries her fear and her silent tears in his chest. He rushes back to the staircase he knows so well, his free hand gripping the bannister as hard as the tide of fear in turn grips him. Taking the stairs as fast as possible with this precious child, he flees down a hallway towards safety. He runs, sirens blearing as loud in his ears as the beating heart in his chest, past a painful kaleidoscope of memories hanging in frames from the walls.
Through this place he rushes, like he did in another life, until he reaches a set of ornate French windows leading to a garden. With his free hand he throws the doors apart, as he did countless times on hot summers days to let breeze inside, however now the air is filled with the clamouring of sirens and the distant but recognisable hum of Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. As one, a soldier and the girl clutched in his arms look towards the sky. Overhead, sporadically illuminated by hastily assembled spotlight teams, pass legions upon legions of armoured Valkyries, the source of the sirens ire. Their multitudes staggers him, and he, fully absorbed by the synchronised apocalypse passing overhead, only regains his wits when the little girl’s composure breaks in his arms, and she starts to weep aloud.
Acting now on instinct, he surges forward from the small patio, striding past neat rows of flowers and a small line of fruit trees. Swiftly, he reaches the bottom of the garden where lies an earthen covered air raid shelter, and fumbling with the handle and the little girl, opens the low entrance hatch. Urgently he ushers the little girl inside before slamming the heavy hatch shut, at last in safety.
They take refuge in their subterranean sanctuary, buried under a paltry few feet of earth. He writes and she draws to pass the time in this place, safe from the cruelties of the house and the world outside; where Avro Vakyries decide who lives and who dies.
With a heavy heart he looks up; across the shelter, dimly lit by a solitary light bulb flickering in time to the concussive impacts miles and miles away, sits the little girl arranging her drawings on the camp bed in front of her. One depicting the little girl herself, drawn with the simplistic yet incisive observations of a child, holding hands with a father figure, evidently a role he is expected to play. The second drawing shows her golden mother and the dark man from the house. ”Gretta this is wonderful, you are the next Picasso!” She smiles and goes back to her Guernican depiction of family life. They fall asleep to the drone of bombers.
They awake to a heart-breaking sunrise and a silent sky devoid of death. The little girl happily runs ahead, through the garden into the house. He smiles at her contentment, as she no doubt hurries to her bedroom to proudly display her art on her wall, though it only gives bitterness to his remaining time at the house. He enters the house and climbs the stairs, where he finds the golden woman alone in the room he has left her in many times.
“You can’t leave her like this” he says softly.
She turns, shocked at his presence, “It’s no longer your concern what I do with my daughter.”
“It is a concern of mine whilst my blood runs through her veins.” He insists, she remains silent and looks away.
“You shouldn’t be here…there’s someone else.”
His temper flares, “There’s only me, her and a mother who cares nothing for her safety. There’s a war going on outside, yet you lounge about inside your little fortress entertaining stra…”
Her beautiful face contorts with anger and she cuts him off with a finger to his chest, “These barbarians will not take the city, they are still miles and miles away! You are losing your resolve like you lost me…”
He ignores her taunt and turns, “there’s only one thing I’m scared of losing” he says, doing his best to remain calm. Months of absence revealing wounds barely beginning to heal and others are made worse. A car horn sounds from outside, a sinking dread fills his stomach as he looks outside through a bedroom window.
A large black Mercedes can be seen pulling up, decorated with red and white flags that flutter ominously. It sounds its horn again, a summons to join in the final futile defence of this doomed city. ’Those simple barbarians’ were the start, she might not recognise it but he knew. A powerful enemy stood poised to bring ruin and fire and death to a land and life for which he had fought for nearly six long years. Six years of uncertainty, six years of sending men to slaughter, six years of desert abattoirs and lush green charnel houses. Six years which for him had been worth it if only to return to his wife whom loved him and his child whose birth and upbringing he had missed. He leaves the golden woman and stalks the house to find the little girl, whom he finds in her room. He kneels in front of her and explains he has to go and that she must get to the shelter if she hears the sirens. He holds her once again, letting go only at the insistence of the Mercedes outside, its call an impatient harbinger of horrors to come. They have had many partings, but none with the finality of this one. He collects his things and is greeted with a salute at the car, while the little girl watches from a window…
He awakes with mocking laughter echoing in his ears. Looking up, he is mere yards from where he had escaped his concrete prison. His head spins as he surveys the scene around him, appalled at what little is left of his patrol. Diesel fumes hang thick in the air, along with a distinctive cloying odour which he notices as he glances toward the inferno enveloping the cabin of their patrol vehicle. He forces the bile down as he recognises the smell for what it is; it reminds him of El Alamein.
Embers fall, glowing remnants of the wooden flatbed of the truck and its contents dancing through the smoky evening air. He watches one of the hellish snowflakes as it plays on the zephyr that drifts between buildings, it comes to rest on his arm and the sharp burn jolts him into action.
He rolls himself forward onto his haunches, his ears still ringing from the explosion. They had barely any time to react to the bomber, the roar of its engines betraying its presence moments before the bomb struck. He had been leading a patrol through the outskirts of his city, fortifying redoubts and anti-aircraft positions, preparing it for the Armageddon that would soon be camped outside the city gates. The futility and desperation of their situation was weighing heavily on the minds of his men as they had left the final defensive position manned by old men and boys that were the last hope of his doomed fatherland.
Now rising to his feet he staggers towards the heart of carnage. The truck lies on its side, half buried by the same cascade of concrete that nearly drowned him. Its battered wheels still creaking with movement from the impact as it bares its blazing underbelly, leaking fluid like some mortal wound. He needn’t look for any of his men in the cabin, the intensity of the fire coupled with the nauseating smell betrays a grisly fate.
Looking across the rubble-strewn road he locates the rest of his comrades. Scattered, torn and broken, nothing more than ragdolls, they lie in the road. One by one he drags them to the side of the road, taking weapons, food and other useful items that they no longer need. Blood and viscera mar the faces of men he had known and fought beside, for days or years it matters not, they were his men. Where possible he closes their eyes for the last time, before covering the pile of bodies with a salvaged tarpaulin and lighting it. He knows he should leave, but he also knows what is about to happen to his city and his country, he cannot leave his fallen brothers to an underserved desecration.
By the light of the funeral pyre he gathers what little supplies he could save, along with the only intact StG44 and a bandolier of ammunition. With a look to the sky, both to get his bearing and to steel himself, he sets off into suburban ruin.
He walks once again between broken buildings that reach toward the sky, the open rib cage of this carcass city. Obscure figures ghost between doorways and spy from windows high to either side, but the presence of an armed soldier is enough to make them keep to their shadowy refuge. Those weary eyes watch as he approaches a large square with a battle scarred palace lying gutted at one end, he recognises this place, the Schlossplatz. The evening closes in as he starts across the deserted square but the pale light from a grey sun still illuminates the fountain at the centre of the square. Exhausted with his ears still ringing, he walks around the Neptunbrunnen, locking stony gazes with a bullet riddled Neptune…
…He walks the square as a heavy snow falls, Neptune’s face set in its stern grimace as he wrestles some titanic sea-monster. On his arm saying nothing walks the golden woman, her squeeze felt through the thick fur of her coat and the hard leather of his trench. Ahead plays the little girl, chasing snowflakes on uncertain feet. The city palace lies at the end of the square, windows and domes blazing, looking every inch the fairy tale palace. He gently disengages from the lady on his arm and plucks the little girl up.
“Look Gretta” he says pointing her attention to the fountain, “who are these beautiful ladies?”
At each corner of the fountain stands four beautiful statues, the water pouring from their urns frozen in time like the rest of the fountain. The little girls babbles gleefully at them.
“Let me introduce you to Elbe…the lovely Vistula…” he walks around the fountain once more, snowflakes brushing snow from the face of the little eskimo in his arms. “…this is Oder…and this is the beautiful Rhine…”
The sound once again of air raid sirens pulls him from the vision. On the western horizon a squadron of Valkyries swarm angrily. So far inside the city limits and no opposition, he thinks to himself, this must be the end.
He rushes toward the refuge of ruined buildings up ahead, getting away from the deserted square. His legs however do not obey properly, revealing how little energy he has left. He tries to think back to his last meal, but it is an unfathomable memory…“Deliria” he realises, before forcing himself into a final run for cover.
The bombers bellow their bloodlust to him as they pass overhead. Over 40 of them glide through the iron sky before he loses his count from his hiding place in the shadow of a collapsed apartment balcony. Toward the east they start to drop their load only a matter of miles away. He urgently slings his rifle over his shoulder and presses on eastward.
He finds himself facing the remnants of a house. Knees that so far have borne him halfway across this vast city now buckle.
The entire street lies in waste, ploughed from the air by the Valkyrie horde. He collapses to his knees as the home he had fought for burns. Only the door frames and staircase show any semblance of what lay here before, whilst the charred remains of furniture and collapsed brick and plaster offer the only clues as to where rooms had been.
He rises to his feet now, grief and shock paralyse any immediate emotions. He walks the house, alive in a world of death. He knows first-hand that the firestorm from these attacks leaves no chance of survival and the ruins lie empty.
A timber falls behind him, crashing on top of an old stove, on the floor of what was once a kitchen. Amidst a shower of sparks his attention is drawn outside. Fatigue forgotten in the face of new hope he rushes toward the kitchen, passing underneath the smouldering beam and out into the garden.
His trousers and sleeves snare on the barbs of scorched rose bushes as he stumbles through rows of skeletal fire-scoured flower beds. He trips and falls, once, twice, exhaustion beginning to shut down his body, yet from within he calls upon one last surge of energy and throws himself at the shelter door. His breath now coming in ragged gasps he opens the door.
“Gretta” he breathes.