Talking to the Enemy
Someone told me once that there was going to be sunny skies every day. It was so long ago, it seems like ages. I still remember my brother's laughter, his hands scratched by the thorns of roses... oh, our house always had smelled of roses. My name is Ludwig... Ludwig Beilschmidt... and I am a sinner. The malison of this town, this country, this world, decayed flesh feeding worms. My father was the devil and my mother a witch. My life was never easy. Since I can remember, since my very childhood, I wondered about whom I was, where my life would lead me. My brother worried about my soul, that the hopelessness would eat it. I fought every goddamn day, even Sunday, after the mass. Oh, I do believe in God, he's like a blind driver behind the wheel.
Once, my brother told me that God had a bigger plan for me... that eventually, I would find sense in my life. Oh, the irony, oh, how I see it now! Perhaps he was right in the end. Because one day, one ugly freezing day, I found my purpose, I found my reason to live.
It is... as if the polar night has finally ended and the sun would have come out of the storm clouds. We arrive in a town, which name I don't know. There are only tall and strong-built blokes in my company. We sit down in the middle of the market square in our ragged uniforms. People surround us, I don't understand a word that they are saying; they speak some kind of a Slavic language. This scene reminds me of how the army drafted me...
… on a similar place like that one. Their shoes and noses were high and their uniforms clean. The drafting officer, an overweight pimple, agitated about how our beloved country had to suffer the humiliation and mockery and withstand the abasement by the disgusting frog eaters and the scabby pommy bastards. He spoke of the future, of better times, the leadership, the power, predestination, of the role which our mother country was about to play in the world's theater. And we were the tools to make that happen.
“I love my country! I love our leader!” I shouted in absolute excitement “I love our God!” who, supposedly, was on our side at those times. Because we were different from the others, our nation, our race had been chosen by God. We had the means; we had the power to make a change. We wanted to change that rotten world we were living in. We were the superior race, and there would be order at last! That is how I joined Deutsches Heer; young, keen and full of rage, and believing in every word, whether it was true or false.
I sit 'till the evening downs, with my back against the fountain's stone statue of a lion. The unmoving beast is missing half of its face; the fountain is dry and stinking. The ground is cold, but as if by a miracle, it doesn't cool me down. My body is in fever, shaking in throes… or in anticipation… I do not know. I am sick of the weather, sick of the army... why did I have to sign up for life? But at the same moment I am thinking of nothing else than about my comrades, about my homeland, about my rifle, and how I murdered those pasta-guzzling mother fuckers in their sleep last night… with a smile on my face.
I swore to God that I would hang in tight, never letting go of my flesh, even if someone would try to pull it out of my stone-cold fingers.
I am possessed by that thought. Often, I dream about my soul, hovering above my dead body…still smiling… no, smirking and waving a hand in goodbye.
We had got into action the next morning. Believe it or not, we could sense it. Beautiful, unbelievable; the feelings, the smells, the sounds, the experience, no one can replace that and no one can imagine that. I think, I will not be able to describe that to you properly either. But I'll try anyway. You run, you run, and you run. While dashing for your life you hear all kinds of sounds, shouts, curses, rifle fire, mortar fire, falling grit. You get separated; you always get separated, until you're alone with your rifle. A sense lingers above your sorry existence like an ominous ghost from the past. It is the feeling that this could be it; that this could be the last day of your life. That feeling is like opium, it's intoxicating, better than cigarettes, better than sex. Nothing in the world can serve as a replacement for the odor of death in your nose and the power over one's life in your own hands: to give it, to take it, whatever you wish. The veins in your body pump adrenaline like an engine. Tiredness, hunger, thirst don't exist, you even stop thinking. Only the basic instinct propels you...
… to survive...
… to kill.
I didn't have to think anymore, it was so deliberating; my army did that for me. Oh, God, yes, I had been waiting for that! Thank you! I didn't have to get carved up by thoughts of every day's being, didn't have to think, where to gain food and water, where to sleep, who made me and why, was this my purpose, my destiny?
But you know what? Curse them… curse them all. After so many years, this is the first time I cannot feel their eyes on me. This is the first time I am truly happy, I am a soldier, and I am needed. I belong to my company, it’s my family now.
I fought for my fatherland, I had a purpose. Finally I had a purpose: I had work, the reason to wake up in the morning, to eat, to live for! It was wonderful. I interacted with people, I talked to them and they talked back to me, they saw me! They looked at me with reverence and awe, because I was better than them. And because I was better than them and I knew it, I wanted to be even better. I have always listened to my superiors and never disobeyed an order. When they said 'do two hundred handles', I did two hundred handles. When they said 'make your gear', I made my gear. When they said 'polish your boots', I polished my boots. And if they said 'win a battle', oh well, I won a battle, without murmuring, without hesitation, without questions. I was a machine... a machine of German Reich.
Then the one battle came. I was 26. It was the third year of the Great War, on a Godforsaken place somewhere in Alps, where my commanding officer transferred me to join my Austrian brothers. I felt so old when I entered the camp with so many victories and so many friends left behind. I was a young and talented leader. Anyone would follow me to hell and back.
We have fallen into five lines on the temporary airfield. The Kaiser comes for a short inspection; I am lucky, very lucky. His Majesty enters our camp, he walks around the tents. Suddenly, he gestures towards me and says something to my commander, who bows, nods, withdraws about three steps and whispers into the fox ears of his adjutant. The young Austrian lieutenant knocks his heels together and salutes. His Majesty turns around and walks out of my sight. And my commander comes to me. My heart beats wildly and pumps boiling-hot blood into my ears. I have hoped very much that he'd come to me and trembled with fear in the same time.
„Soldier! Yes! You! Follow me!" My heels knock together, my right hand salutes. „Jawohl, Herr Kommandant!"
At a swift pace, I followed my commanding officer into his tent. I had to restrain myself from running, from leaping over the fencing and vanishing into the mists. I was so scared. Now, after seeing death so many times, I am not scared anymore. If death should come, it'll come as an old friend of mine. But on that day... it was different on that day. I really thought I could run. Just like that. I must have been sick and hallucinating. Yes, that had to be it, and I hadn't slept well for a month.
I walk into the tent. My commander is standing with his back to me. How dramatic! How theatrical! His empty eyes gaze on a faded photograph of his deceased Hungarian wife. What a surprise, civilians are dying too. „Close the gap behind you, soldier."
I sheet the entrance of the green military tent. My commander faces me with his red eyes. I feel the blood draining from my face. I would hang myself if I had the guts. „I've heard," he continues, „about the victory upon that hill. Your strategy was… flawless."
„Sir! Only through our German discipline! Sir!" It's true, the drill and the books – only thanks to them I am… what I am.
„Right, right," he rubs his chin and pulls out the Luger from his leather holster. It's black and polished. Then he approaches me. I can feel his breath, I watch his eyes narrowing, he whispers: „This pistol was given to me by my father. He told me: ´Son, you can achieve great things, great…'," he pats the gun. „He said that as long as there is one round in that chamber, the hope of the German nation will never die and the world will be ours. We are the supreme race, Ludwig, the chosen one."
„Yes, Gilbert, we are." There is no need for formalities anymore.
„You, my brother, you are perfect. You are the most perfect human I have ever met. You are the ideal. That is how I have been imagining a man belonging to the supreme race. You are our hope." Gil whispers fervently, almost passionately. He takes my right hand and puts the gun in it. „As our father had given this pistol to me, I'm giving it to you now. You will continue in what I've started. Do you understand?" My brother takes my face into his both pale hands firmly, unconditionally. „And in order to do that, you are going to let go of your past. Are you? Answer me!"
„Sir… yes Sir!" I manage to yelp out.
„You will relinquish your life for me!"
„Sir! Yes Sir!"
„You will relinquish your soul!"
„Sir! Yes Sir!"
„You will renounce your name!"
„Sir! Yes Sir!"
„And you'll give that all to me… to Old Germany."
„Yes," I whisper, „yes Sir."
„From now on… you're not Ludwig anymore, you are New Germany."
...and I was.
There is one thing I know for sure: how to control myself in front of my brother, my commander. Gil gives me an envelope at our meeting, sealed with a familiar signet. My eyes set upon the mark and everything clears up like the sky after the rain: the emperor's ring. I tear apart the paraffin seal and gulp a few times. I'm a fast reader; I'll go through the order in seconds. One time is enough. Looks like I'm going into battle. I rebuke myself for my stupid remark instantly. I am a soldier damn it! I ought to go to battle! But none of my commander's orders is a regular order. Nine out of ten are suicidal ones. My face remains blank, drained of all emotions. After I memorize the order, I destroy the piece of silky paper in a camp fire. We are forbidden to lay camp fires, enemy's eyes are everywhere. Fuck them. The freezing cold is far worse than a few lazy Italians. The paper burns with a crisping sound. There will be no sleep tonight. I take my rifle and my horse, and I ride off into the dark.
We were lucky. The night was calm; we galloped through conquered grounds without any problems. We arrived at our destination right on time, but at the expense of our horses. When morning came, I was ready to fulfill my order. The wind got stronger. It started to blow downhill. I waited in my hideout under an overhang formed out of frozen snow. I gave the orders to screen the ramparts.
Seconds before the sunrise, I hear screams; the hill is shaking like in an earthquake. The dawn comes, I'm not sure if it is a good thing or a bad one. If I can see them, they could spot me. Roderick, Gilbert's adjutant, shouts something towards me. Suddenly, all noises die down. The rumble is no more, only a single gun-shot, nothing else. Before Roderick can repeat what he was yelling, an iron bullet shoots through his forehead, right between his eyes and blows his cortex apart. Another soldier standing behind him is smeared by the waste of blood and brain. The battle goes on; nothing has changed, except for one thing. Roderick falls down to his knees; his dead eyes are still fixed on me, red from his own blood running down his face freely. I let go of my gun and rush to him.
A grenade explosion threw me two meters away like a rag-doll. Smoke and grit were stinging in my eyes, my vision blurred, and I couldn't breathe properly.
A hand attacks me from behind, deviously; I grab it and throw the lithe owner of that hand over my shoulders. I withdraw my trench knife and stab – one time – two times – three times where the spleen should be, just like the drill instructor taught me. I hiss quietly and grab the Italian by the neck. He is so close. A gurgling whisper comes out of his strangulated throat. I let him go.
Why am I doing this? Any other day I would slice him open. Or torture him to tell me the truth… What truth? I don't know really.
The enemy soldier is a medium high, brown-haired man. The sun rises finally; the golden rays splice around his body and blind me for a moment. Despite lying here on the foothill, he casts his shadow upon me, shrouds me and clouds the sun, so it doesn't shine into my eyes anymore.
But it isn't the sun that blinds me, it's something else, something I'm not familiar with, something beautiful, pure, untainted and innocent, a young man, but fragile and vulnerable. His eyes... those beautiful brown eyes… no, not brown... amber... amber-brown, yes, that's it. Amber is a magnificent color, my favorite actually.
... I remembered, ha.
Why does it occur to me just now? Maybe because I haven't thought about it. Is it a good thought or a bad one? I have to ask him... later. Somehow I get the feeling that I am allowed to and that he'll answer me. I don't want this to be the question I should have asked, but I didn't.
Was it essential? For me, it was; for my country? Hardly... did it matter? Back then, I didn't know. I'd gotten lost in his scared eyes. Maybe, maybe it did matter; I was Germany, after all.
My wistful gaze didn't betray me; it hid my personal inner battle thoroughly. In my mind, I returned to my childhood. Panic had stricken me. I hadn't felt like that since I was eight and the old bald baker with Kaiser Wilhelm's mustache found out that I was stealing his bread. On a wooden bridge, he caught up with me; he beat me up badly and threw me into the river. I could have drowned, I should have in fact. I desired it. But the natural instinct prevented me from being stupid and I swam to the bank, and I went home.
„Parli Italiano? English?"
I hear his voice, low and peaceful. „Yes, I do speak English."
„Te… ah, tell me... what is... easier? To... sur… surrender... or to lose?"
I spot a white sheet behind his belt. I want to scream and cry at the same time. Instead I reply: „Surrender."
„So... you see," he raises the corners of his lips, „that's... why... this white... fl... flag," the Italian looks at that piece of cloth on his knees, it starts to draw red. „This must end... as soon... hah," he coughs out some blood. „Look… around you, German. What... do you see?"
I lifted my eyes and I saw…
Hundreds of dead bodies surround me, the lifeless shapes, stripes of green and blue and red on the white snow, screams of hatred and gore and fire. It is filth. I fight the nausea starting in my abdomen and shoving up my throat.
A smaller hand than mine touches my chest where my heart should be and then it travels up to my left cheek. „German," the Italian whispers, the smile never waning from his lips.
I embrace him in my arms.
Sounds of the fading battle protrude into the cave sporadically. It's a rough day, today. But it could be much more difficult without finding this place. If the battle wouldn't be the death of me, the snow storm would. I have spent my blanket on the enemy soldier. So the worst part comes when I patch him up and lie down to the rocky ground with nothing underneath my body that could make it more comfortable for my hurting muscles and bones. The Italian tries to fall asleep and I should do the same.
I can imagine how it must feel like to be cornered, with no friends around you, no relatives, only the enemy. What are you doing here in this war, in this world?
„Thank you," the Italian says.
„I beg your pardon?"
„Thank you," he repeats and smiles, shyly, gently.
„Don't mention it… Ever." I bark out coldly. My feet react faster than my brain. I stand up and hurry away. Where? To the furthest and darkest corner of the cave, before he... What? Starts to speak again? I fear that voice and long to hear the sound of it.
The graceful Italian accent could be heard between those rough English tones, the singing sound of his voice has thumped against my heart more than a hand grenade... landing in front of the cave entrance. It brought me back to reality. The blast was breath-taking. The stalagmites shook in their roots. The echo resonated long after the ball of fire disintegrated into thin air.
I threw myself to the side. Another body lands next to me in a second. A pair of amber-brown eyes is watching every move I make. Is he afraid? Is he a coward? I give it a thought and immediately focus back on the action. A ground-shaking rumble penetrates from outside, reverberates across the cave's walls and hits my ear drums. Someone blew up that fucking hill. Again, our eyes meet. I exhale and wipe sweat off my forehead. Why am I still here? Is it because I'm afraid? Or because of that small trembling body beside mine? I should be outside, fighting. Two armies engage each other in a battle that will make history. I have to get out there before the end. I shake my head and shove the Italian off.
„Get yourself together, you weakling!" I shout at the shivering shape in the dirt. God, you're so impossible! Why are you in this war when you shake like a leaf in the breeze? You could die...
You could die...
…so what? People die, deal with it. Why should one more matter? I shake my head once twice… This is not the moment.
„It'll be alright," there comes a whisper, out of the dark.
I wake up from the lethargy. I'm startled, even frightened when a hand is placed on my shoulder, gently.
„You're a good soldier, German."
Bullshit, I'm so scared that I could leap over this fucking hill.
„Easy, it's me, Italy."
„Yes, if you're Germany, then I am Italy."
„It's okay, we'll be saved," he assures me.
„How would you know?"
„I know... I know many things."
„Who are you?"
„My name is Feliciano... I am Italy."
I was puzzled. But I'd lie if I told you that I wasn't intrigued… a little bit at least.
„So, are you not going to ask me?"
„Ask you what?" I shrug.
„Anything you want," Feliciano suggests, „straight from your heart."
„What's your favorite color?"
„Because I see it in your eyes."
It was easy and deliberating. I felt natural, not embarrassed because I was asking stupid questions and gave away even more stupid answers. With nothing to lose, nothing to prove, we talked for hours. The fatigue, the restlessness, the dirt all around us... everything vanished; only we remained, me and him, whispering in the dark.
„Is this war justified?" Feliciano asks me.
„I think it is."
I froze momentarily. Normally, I would have answered: 'Because owe know what is right and through victory we will achieve peace for the entire world. Because we are the chosen race and we will establish order.' But I couldn't, it seemed so wrong and cruel. I began to see with my own eyes that I was wrong in my words. Also our leaders were wrong. All people leading these fucking wars were wrong.
„No, no it isn't, you're right," I confess humbly.
„Who said that your answer was wrong?"
I am surprised. „Isn't it?"
„You think it is?"
„Because war is wrong, war is cruel." I repeat my thoughts aloud. What do you want to hear?
„It's wrong and cruel against whom?"
„Against all the people; they fight and they die every day, they feel pain." Oh, Ludwig, I say to myself, you blind, blind fool. „Am I a bad person?"
„No, you're not, you've had only a hard life," he smiles silently, sadly.„Don't be afraid, be strong, Ludwig."
My name… coming from his lips… sounds unearthly beautiful. My heart beats faster when these amber-brown eyes fix on me with understanding. Ah, yes, I've got a heart. Who knew? Is this where it begins? Is this... love?
„I need some advice." I'm not afraid. I close my eyes. „How will it end?"
A moment of hesitation.„Well. It always ends well. If we don´t end up well, it'll mean this is not the ending yet."
People have an annoying habit. They intervene, they want to lead you back to yourself. But I didn't want to be myself anymore. I yearned for another life, for an experience I found privileged. I longed for light, for the sun to shine in my darkest days as it did in the brightest.
Alright then, I open my eyes. Turns out, it's a good decision; I can see his charming smile. So I smile back. And all those chains spanning my existence break apart.
„You see, Ludwig? You are a good person. If lovers were flowers, I would pick you."
The weariness comes as fast as the night outside. I surrender. I feel his soft hand on mine and his tender lips on my forehead. „Good night," Feliciano whispers into my ear.
Palms pressing on my heavy eyelids, I sit up on my bed abruptly. Berlin. Still in Berlin. My head is throbbing with each heartbeat. There's a mirror on the wall in my office. I don't recognize the person staring back at me. I run a hand through my messy blond hair and turn to my desk and start to write... like I always do when I get the feeling that I should.
Tonight, I had an awkward dream. I hadn't dreamed about this person for a very long time. He was here; waving and smiling and beautiful. I opened the door of my office and walked outside... and found myself on a white sandy beach; green palms, blue sea, golden sun, so warm… As he came running to me, his smile grew bigger and brighter. We walked hand in hand. I remember talking to him, laughing and kicking the waves...
A loud detonation behind the massive steel door brings me out of my reverie. The plaster is strewing down in streams. I have to hurry up and burn all documents before the enemy arrives victorious and grinning.
I wake up to a flicker of light. Feliciano lies next to me with eyes wide open. We draw closer together. His hands are so cold, his forehead is burning. I have to keep him warm. "What's wrong?"
"Lu… Ludwig," he says through clenched teeth.
It alarms me. "Hey," I get up in a split second, "let me see it," and inspect the stab wound. The gauze sits tight, no fresh blood anywhere, but he is in pain.
"Ludwig." Feliciano whispers into my cheek. His breath is warm from fever and smells of death.
"I'm right here, don't give in, please…" I embrace him and feel how his body is losing the battle for life.
"It's okay… It doesn't even hurt anymore…" Feliciano smiles, he always smiles. "Will you hold me? Hold me."
My embrace on him tightens, I bring our foreheads together and breathe in the scent of despair. Suddenly, his chest starts to rise and fall rapidly and his dull eyes focus on some distant point. "Ludwig? Where have you gone, Ludwig?"
"I'm right here, Feliciano, I'll be right here." Tears are streaming down both mine and his face. "Please, don't go. I'm so, so sorry… I never meant to… I thought you're going to kill me..."
We lie in this embrace. I cry, I cry while my enemy is smiling lovingly. We do not let go of each other right down to our last goodbye. But despite that, we are the best we'll ever be in this life, in that one last moment together.
"Ludwig, I forgive you."
I fought many battles after that one. It was sometime in November 1918 at Buzancy in France. My career of a soldier was… suspended through a blow of the butt of a rifle. It belonged to a blond American with a big grin on his cherubic face. Perhaps he thought that it would hurt more than a loss. No, he couldn't hurt me, nobody could. I was intrepid. Unbreakable. Somehow, I didn't consider the American to be cruel nor evil, not like those on the war posters. He was just the way I have imagined my enemy to be.
There are no allies and enemies, we're different, yes, but we're all people, even if we don't always behave like that.
I thought I'd rot in that POW-camp, but many beatings and hearings later, I was released and went home. I felt like a traitor, a jerk, an idiot. I could have strangled that insolent, cocky Kirkland, that bastard-interrogator if I had the chance. When I finally lied down on my bed... imagine... a real bed with a wooden headboard, sheets, pillows and covers, I closed my eyes and I heard a whisper. „You're a good person, Ludwig, I love you." It was the last time that I heard him.
Years passed, and I've never left the army. In 1933, after the administration... changed, they made me a general. What can I say? I have been always lucky, very lucky. I am our Führer's right hand... or the left one? I forgot. I've been looking after our soldiers, preparing strategies... and refused to see the truth. I've chosen to be blind and deaf. 'Are we losing the war? No, that can't be the truth.' I didn't believe that. Still don't. I served our Kaiser and I'm serving our Führer. A moment ago, I was sitting behind my desk in my clean office, stamping and signing the documents and I found out that I was not happy anymore. This confession washed over me like a tide does across the sandy banks, I almost drowned. Suddenly, I felt a stinging in my eyes and a strange moistness. What was that? Aah, that should be the tears, I've heard about them. I was missing the action, the battle; I wanted to feel my rifle in my hands again, even if for one last time. I couldn't stand it in my stinking office any longer. So after all my documents had been burned down to ashes, I took the gun and ran out into the streets of Berlin...
... and ended up here, lying on the sidewalk ten meters away from my office. One bullet stuck in my chest and another one in my left thigh, making me realize that I'm not much of a fighter anymore. My burning lungs are gasping for every molecule of air and my head is reminiscing. But my heart is calm; I can feel it humming against my palm. And the diary in my left jacket pocket. Come to think of it, maybe I should have let it burn like the rest. But I wanted to keep it. What would be the point of writing, if my words were to be burned to ashes in the end?
With a hand smeared with my own blood and trembling from effort, I open my jacket pocket, only slightly, so my fingers can reach the diary. I cannot understand why this feeling remains the same. Everything from that one night, the smells, the senses, and the noises, everything we learnt about each other. Even if I have written a thousand poems about how I miss him and tried to ventilate everything that was hidden in my heart for so long, the feeling still remains.
I had known Feliciano for only one day. One day and he gave me more than I could ask, more that I have received in my whole life. He saved my soul from the never-ending hell and misery. I felt him; I saw his smile long after he was gone. I found out for what purpose I have that muscle in my chest, my heart.
I've heard so much about
love. Maybe it's because I don't believe in it or because nothing
stays in my head for too long. I'll tell you my secret. These are the
times when being different means being repulsed. And being repulsed
means being shot dead. But I'm not afraid. Why should I be, now that
I found something I was only hearing about. Something that, until
now, was only an empty word to me. Why should I be afraid to tell the
truth? It's the only thing worth dying for.
Death smiles upon me and I smile back. Chains are worse than bayonets. I'm glad, truthfully, so glad that I have found love in such a hopeless place like the battlefield.
Es war so still... dass niemand von uns ahnte... nur wir... wir wussten, dass das hier ist… für immer und ewig und für ein Leben lang.
Where you used to be, there's a hole in my world, I missed you so, so much. Feliciano... wait for me now…