A short story by Rob Archer
Screams. Gunfire. Explosions. A smell of burning and death. Panic. Flight.
But all this was fading, an echo, the smoke from a dream dissolving upon waking. Not even a dream, the illusion of a dream.
Now, a beautiful sky was overhead. Hardly a cloud. And as the young man lay wearily among the patches of snow, he marveled that things could seem so peaceful, so serene, so still after the chaos of the last few days. Lying there, feeling the sun warming his weary, dirty body despite the cold air, it seemed like some distant nightmare. The screams and the noise were only dim echoes now. Hardly real at all.
Frank rolled over on his back to feel more of the sun. It was cold, but there was a promise of spring in the future, and the direct sunlight was warming. He had fallen here in this field, after running for what felt like hours. He wasn’t sure how long. He had simply run until he couldn’t anymore. He was in a field in between two spits of trees, a clearing in a forest, and he remembered he was running from one to the other when he fell here.
He turned his head and smiled when he saw that what grass there was after winter’s retreat was brown and brittle, but it was at least as tall as his body lying there. He would be harder to see. Patches of snow might camouflage him. He recalled that he was wearing white. Maybe he’d look like a patch of snow. He was safe so long as he stayed on the ground. Unless a plane flew over him. He looked but didn’t see any. He listened but didn’t hear any.
Surely, there was no more danger. He couldn’t recall why he’d been running, whether he was running from something or running to something, but it didn’t feel like a pressing matter now. He felt he had just escaped a life-or-death panic, a fight-or-flight madness that had gripped him. And in his panic, he failed to heed his body telling him to slow down, sit, and rest; he had kept running until he fell here, his legs and arms running out of fuel as suddenly as a popping balloon.
Even if he wanted to, he knew it was impossible to get up and move. He doubted he even had the strength to sit up. Maybe in a while.
That was okay. There was no danger now, he was sure of it. He could rest and regain his wind.
He opened his eyes and looked up into the sky. So blue. So clear. So untroubled. No planes. An insect buzzed nearby, and he turned to watch it. He had barely the strength to turn his head and focus his eyes on its path. He marveled at it, that it was out in such cold. The insect was joined by another, and then they began to flit about in a crisscrossing pattern, like lovers in some kind of dance.
And he thought of Greta, little blond Greta, his schoolboy crush back home. How he had loved her. But there was no time for that because there were more important things for him to learn. His school had undergone changes and now he was expected to ignore romance in favor of being as tough and manly as possible, and that meant running, jumping, playing with wooden guns, and boxing matches where his new teachers would berate him and sometimes beat him if he didn’t hit his friends hard enough, or they him. Little war games where he was judged on how merciless he could be.
There was less time for science, for reading, for thinking, for math. And less time for Greta. His love for her didn’t die, but he knew how important it was for his country that he master martial values because they would be needed. There was a great struggle coming.
And the struggle came, which is how Frank came to be in these patches of snow, watching insects on this bright, blue, cold, wonderful day.
But Greta. He still loved her. Perhaps when this war was done, he would go home again, find her, marry her, and make many babies with her. After all, that was important for the country, too. There would be a world to run, it would take the best of the best, and it was his lot to produce as many children as possible. Future soldiers to rule the world.
And then he remembered that it might be too late for Greta. He remembered that she was suddenly gone from school, and not just because the girls were often set apart from the boys to be taught the maternal values their great country required. He remembered how crushed he was when he heard the rumor that she was gone because she had gotten pregnant, pregnant at 15.
He was sure there would be hell to pay for the offending boy, and it seemed everyone knew who the father was. But nothing was done to him.
That didn’t stop his teachers from their constant harangues about moral purity and keeping one’s self undefiled. It seemed to be a double standard as they would wink and smile if unmarried boys and girls got together and “accidents” happened. Frank was almost sure that if he wanted, he could have forced himself on any girl in school, and nothing would be done to him so long as he got her pregnant. The need for future soldiers was greater than the need for purity. As the teachers beat it into their heads they had to be pure, girls were sent to work on farms where so many wound up pregnant. And that was always followed with, “Terrible, just terrible. On the other hand, the country needs babies!”
But no sooner had school ended than his country called him to exercise all those martial values on fields of battle. For real this time, not just to see if he could bloody the noses or break the ribs of his school chums. He was being called to fight people who wanted to destroy everything he held dear, everything he loved. He did all this, still a virgin.
He came to himself again in the grassy, snowy field. He turned his face to the sun, closing his eyes. Surely this was heaven. Surely all struggle and fear and fighting and panic were behind him now. He really couldn’t imagine there was more need for that. Not now.
Off in the distance, he heard thunder. He scanned the clouds but saw none that looked like rain. Was it warm enough for thunder or rain? He didn’t think so. Maybe it was off somewhere where he couldn’t turn his head to see. It didn’t matter. Even if it snowed on him here, that would be alright. It would still be heaven, cold as it was.
That was when he noticed that he felt dirty, grimy, and caked with icy mud. He looked down at his hands. Yes, they were nearly black. And they were holding something. It was his rifle. He was amazed at that for a moment and felt that he couldn’t imagine ever using it, but he knew he must have.
Then an unbidden thought came to him and gave him pleasure: “At least you didn’t throw your weapon down when you ran.” He knew that thought came from his own head, but it didn’t make sense to him. He couldn’t apply it to anything that he remembered, or any situation he could imagine. He was like his brain had become a blank slate, an erased blackboard.
But the erasure didn’t cover everything. There were ghosts of the things erased still there, but he couldn’t make them out.
Then something clicked, and he recalled that he had fallen here in this field, exhausted after running in a blind panic. Okay, now it made a little more sense. At least he didn’t throw his weapon down when he ran.
But why did he have a weapon?
That’s when he remembered he was a soldier.
And why did he run? That didn’t seem right for a soldier. A retreat? Retreat was forbidden. Generals were executed for giving up even an inch of ground, or so the orders had said.
Those thoughts led to places he didn’t want to go, so he stopped thinking them and went back to enjoying how peaceful this field was, how safe he felt now, how the sun was shining on him as if it had been created just for him.
And why not? He deserved it. He had answered his country’s call. All the brutality he’d been taught in school was being called up to save his country from the subhuman hordes that had infested it. The danger that came from without and within. And he had fought in many great battles and covered himself with glory, and that was why he was now in this field enjoying the sun. It was his reward. The sun was God saying, “Well done, good and faithful.”
But no, that wasn’t right either. He couldn’t remember any real battles, not on a battlefield anyway. Even though he had been part of an elite unit. Elite. That’s right. Yes, his privileged status had been drummed into him. Because of his family connections, he was able to join an elite squad and wear the best-looking uniform and was told that made him better than any run-of-the-mill soldier.
But there was something wrong with that because his elite unit hadn’t really been fighting. No, he had been given some mundane task.
He was a guard. A guard in some kind of camp. He couldn’t imagine why that made him better than soldiers who did real fighting, but he was sure it must have been true because that was what his leaders told him, that was what his commanding officers told him, and if there was anything he learned in school other than how to bloody the faces of his friends, it was that leaders and commanding officers could not be wrong and were not to be questioned. The leader principle, they called it.
Okay, so he was a guard. But why had he been running? Why had he been running for so long and so hard that his body suddenly shut down and he fell right here, like a dead man?
Wait. Was that it? Was he dead? Had he died for his country? That would explain the blue sky and the sun. This was heaven! This was Valhalla! Perhaps when his energy returned and he could get up to walk, he would see the gates before him and would walk through them and into glory.
He smiled. It was coming back to him now. Yes, he was a guard, but he was also elite. His job was to guard his country against the most terrible monsters, disease-ridden animals that would tear him apart at their first opportunity, and had he not been guarding them, they would have destroyed his country, raped his mother, murdered his father. He guarded those who had infected his culture, just as soldiers fought against those who invaded it. They were the danger from within. They had been there, waiting, plotting, planning, breeding, for generations in his homeland. They were responsible for defeats in the past. They were responsible for the invaders from without.
Sure, some of them, especially now, appeared sick and weak, but that was a lie. They acted that way to lull you into a false sense of security, to play on your pity and sympathy. How wise it was of his schoolteachers that they burned that out of him. Empathy was a dangerous thing to have when there were monsters waiting to kill you. They weren’t really human, after all.
He heard the far-off thunder then and wondered how far-off it was. He wondered that perhaps things were so quiet because he couldn’t hear very well. And then more memories of screaming and shouting and shooting came to him. And explosions. His ears were ringing. He heard it now.
And then the thunder wasn’t thunder anymore. It was the sound of far-off gunfire. The thunder became more distinct and resolved itself into pop pop popping. Small arms fire. And then bigger ones. Rifles, automatic weapons. But so far away. He was still safe here. The gunfire was sporadic. Almost casual.
But how could he be hearing these if he were dead? Maybe he was still alive. If so, that was okay, too. The sun was still warm on his skin in the cold air. The sky was still blue. The grass and patches of snow still covered him. He lifted his rifle off his chest and laid it on the ground next to him. He reached to his side to feel for his pistol, but it wasn’t there. His holster was gone. In fact, he didn’t seem to be wearing his usual uniform. It felt all wrong. He knew he should pick up his rifle in case he needed it, but that could wait. There was only the blue sky, the grass, and the sun with him now. The sun seemed to be recharging him somehow.
He couldn’t remember why he had his rifle but not his pistol, and why it felt like he wasn’t wearing his uniform. Another thought came unbidden to him: He should have dropped the rifle when he changed clothes and kept the pistol concealed. That’s right, he was wearing something white. Like a cook’s clothes. Kitchen clothes.
But why? Why any of that? He didn’t know.
Suddenly, he heard a footfall. With his ringing ears, he couldn’t tell how far away it was. He started to reach for his rifle but stopped, realizing he would make noise and be heard. He was sure he couldn’t be seen here in his camouflage, so it was imperative to be silent. He heard the feet, boots for sure, walking. Were they coming closer, or going away? He couldn’t tell.
Were they friendly boots? Were his fellow guards looking for him? Or were these enemy boots? It was better to stay silent still until he knew.
He listened for words but heard none. So, there was only one person, not two or a group. He thought of calling out to see if it was one of his friends, or perhaps a fellow countryman, a soldier, but that was madness. If it was an enemy, Frank would be dead for sure.
It wasn’t too hard to stay quiet. The buzzing lover insects were still flitting about him, perhaps drawn to his body heat. That was okay. Even though it might be an enemy out there, on patrol perhaps, he still felt quite wondrous. Had he ever seen a sky so blue? He couldn’t think of a time.
He knew then that God, disguised as the sun, was watching out for him. After all, he was doing God’s work in the world. The world must be remade the way God intended, with the people God chose to rule it. There would be so much glory and honor. His father would be proud and would understand the dirty work he had to do.
And then the images of that dirty work came to him. The thin, emaciated, weak, dying monsters he guarded. He didn’t just guard them. He was God’s finger, pointing them to their deaths. It wasn’t personal. They were an infection and had to be cleansed for the good of the world. The surgeon does not weep for the cancer he cuts out.
They were a threat to his country, so it was quite moral to punish them for it. It didn’t matter that they appeared weak and helpless. He did terrible things to them, but they deserved it because they had done terrible things to his country for so many years.
It didn’t matter they were sick and starved.
It didn’t matter they were old men and old women.
It didn’t matter that they were young girls and young boys.
It didn’t matter that they were mothers, shorn bald, holding mewling, skinny infants.
In any other world, in any other life, he would pity them. But this was this world, and they were not human. They were not like him. It was vitally necessary that they be gotten rid of. Yes, it was terrible work, and yes, it sometimes made him sick to his stomach, but it was to protect his country. To make the world cleaner. How little people understood that hygiene could make or break a whole culture.
So, they had to go into the chambers. And the gray dust and bits of bone that remained had to be shoveled out and buried.
But was it wrong? That thought troubled him. He didn’t think it was wrong at the time. But as enemy soldiers came closer, suddenly his commanders, who were supposed to be incapable of error or wrongdoing, seemed frantic to hide the evidence. If what they did was so pure, so moral, so necessary, why must it be hidden?
In those last days things had been so rushed that where before they had given the chamber an hour or so to do its work, to kill all those packed inside, now they pushed the clock, and opened the doors after 45 minutes. Sometimes barely over 30.
And one such shortened time released not only the stench of the bodies dying, the sweat, the foulness of their fear, but the sound of a voice. Then someone walked from the chamber – a miracle to be alive!
A little girl. Maybe 12 years old. Carrying an infant. The infant was still. Dead and blue. Somehow, she was still alive when the gas had killed everyone else. That’s what happened sometimes when they rushed the gassing.
She must have crawled over many dead bodies, or perhaps she had been close to the door. But out she walked, and wailed, and screamed.
Frank watched her, dumbfounded. What was she screaming? She kept screaming it over and over again. Finally, he could make it out. “I want my mommy! I want my mommy! I want my mommy!” she wailed again and again. It hurt Frank’s ears. Insanity circled overhead. Other guards began shouting. The insanity dove down, like some hawk, like some eagle, and clawed its way into Frank’s head, ripping out his brain tissue and leaving something else there in its place.
So, he raised his rifle and shot her. Her head disappeared. She stopped crying. Her mother wasn’t going to answer anyway.
But the hawk of insanity stayed in Frank’s head. He was infuriated that the girl made him shoot her with her shouting and crying. He was so angry he shot the infant’s body, too. That made him even angrier, that these subhumans made him do this, and so he shot the little girl’s headless body, and that disappeared, too.
It seemed not long after that word came down that the enemy had broken another line of defense, and they would be at the camp soon. Urgent orders were issued to erase, to cover, to hide, and then, if possible, to get away.
The insanity hawk in Frank’s head laid eggs. What was this? Was there shame? Had he been wrong? Had shooting that little girl been a crime? If it was, was shoving so many men, women, and children into the gas chamber a crime, too?
Could he have been on the wrong side all along? No. That went against everything he was taught. It was good they got to him when he was so young. He knew what to do with such thoughts. He wasn’t killing people. He was killing insects. He was stomping on ants. He was wiping away bacteria. Who feels shame at doing that? No one.
Shame. What was this shame? There was shouting and shooting as they killed as many prisoners as they could, and explosions as they blew up as many buildings as they could, to hide what they had done. They blew up the gas chambers first. That seemed most important. They stoked the fires in the pits where they threw the bodies, the ovens being overwhelmed. They buried all that they could.
He and his friends ripped off their insignia or changed their uniforms into whatever clothes they could find so they could disappear into the citizenry and refugees as the gunfire and tanks of the enemy came closer. He found what he thought was a cook’s coverall.
And when the enemy fighters with their rough, foreign, barbaric faces burst through, there was the sudden panic, the sudden madness to not be caught, to get away, to disappear into the countryside and pretend to be a civilian, someone not elite, someone who wasn’t doing God’s work.
But why do that if what he was doing wasn’t wrong?
And how could he be wrong if God was rewarding him with this glorious blue sky, this glorious sun shining just for him?
But no, it couldn’t be for him now. All his fanciful thoughts came crashing down as he remembered the awful, terrible truth. His friends had all run west. But he, panicked like a stupid schoolboy, had run the wrong way, east, and while running, realized his mistake, which only made the panic more blinding. He had run until he collapsed. Here. He was as good as dead. The sun wasn’t shining for him. It was accusing him. Pointing him out. The rays searched him out and saw that he was a coward, that he was stupid, that he was a killer. God had judged him. His sun was a fire set to burn the guilty.
That’s when he understood the fear of his commanders. “War crimes trials,” they had said. “Those vermin will see to it we’re hanged!”
And in one single moment, so piercing that it eradicated all that had come before and everything that would come after, he knew he was guilty. It was wrong what he had done. And the blazing, fiery, angry sun was pointing him out for judgment. But it wasn’t his fault. Not his fault. He had been taught wrongly. His teachers were to blame. His church was to blame. His government was to blame. His commanders were to blame. The leader was to blame. Not him. Not him. That’s what he would tell God. He had only done what they told him to do.
That was when boots stopped near his head. He opened his eyes and looked into the face of the enemy. The enemy wore a khaki greatcoat. His face was Slavic. He had a red star on his helmet. Strangely, there was a look on the soldier’s face that told Frank he understood, he understood panic, and wanting to flee, that he had faced those awful feelings, too. But there was no mercy there for it.
The Russian soldier raised his rifle. Frank, the young SS guard wearing a cook’s clothes, said only this to the man who seemed even younger than he: “Greta.” The name did not stop the soldier, did not cause him a second’s concern.
The Russian fired. Frank’s face and half of his head disappeared. The Russian made his way back to his patrol unit to clear out the concentration camp and wonder at the piles of dead bodies that hadn’t been burned. They took pictures of everything.