“No moving.” said Kruger, with his rifle pointing at the back neck of the man standing forward.
That man obeyed and raised both hands. He’s a slim-build teenager boy. No sight of weapon. Dirty clothing, army uniform coat. German uniform.
“Jew?” asked Kruger. The boy shook his head. Then Kruger asked again, in Russian, “Where did you get the coat?”
He didn’t move, no answering neither. Kruger turned into Polish, then finally German. The boy raised one of his eyebrows. He’s quite calm although being very pale.
“It’s mine, sir.” He responded in fluent German.
Kruger didn’t low down his rifle. It had been the fourth year of the war, enabling many Soviets to learn German. Among them there were quite a few spies.
“Where’d you come from? Why’re you here?”
“From Germany, from Nördlingen.” replied the boy, “Unterfeldwebel Eren Jäger. Dropped out and got lost. Had lost my dog tag. Sorry, sir.”
Kruger gave a glance at the shoes the boy was wearing. It was almost impossible to recognise their original colours since wet mud had painted them through, yet indeed some rivets revealed their identity as military boots. Kruger then lowed down his gun and raised his eyebrow with surprise, “How old are you?”
“Seventeen, sir.” But he looked younger. He was thin and tall, with typical face features of Aryans, but meanwhile his face was quite exquisite. You could say he had the looking of a girl. He sounded low like a youth, though. Unterfeldwebel Eren Jäger looked into Kruger’s eyes as if knowing his thoughts, and spoke again in sarcasm, “The longer lasts the war, the younger are the new recruits. It’s been way normal for teenagers to appear in the front line. I suppose you know it.”
Kruger didn’t. He never bothered himself to remember the faces and names of recruits, neither ages. Remember all and all dead one day later, you were wasting your brain. As for those who lived, they’d also find names and ages unimportant soon. Kruger took back his gun.
“Hauptmann Eren Kruger.” he introduced himself. The younger Eren didn’t show any interest in the coincidence of their names. Surely had he passed the stage of remembering names.
The war was coming to the end. Any soldier in the front line could tell that, but no one dared to speak out. The war of East Line was coming to the end, coming to their failure. The fact that Kruger had to trek in this forest with a younger namesake was one of the proofs of their coming failure. Kruger was once in Moscow, three years before; now Moscow lay hundreds of kilometres away, farther from them than Berlin. Poland, thought Kruger, they must be in some forest of Poland. Four years before if any soldier got lost here, he should head east and soon caught up with the marching army. But now, they had to go west.
The younger Eren walked in front of him, stepped carefully on the wet ground. He behaved like an experienced soldier, checking every step he made for the sight of possible mines. Kruger followed him, asked, “How long have you been in the front line?”
“Two years.” Eren answered without looking back. Kruger stared at his movement for a while.
“Ever seen people blown up by mines?”
“Yes, sir.” Eren replied in a still voice, as if saying he had seen certain weather, “Loud.”
Loud—so that was what a seventeen-year-old thought about people getting blown up.
Kruger didn’t ask more. Later, Eren took the turn of talk.
“Why are you here, sir, alone?”
“A task.” Kruger responded in a plain voice, “Guard a bridge entering the forest.”
Instead of keeping asking, Eren gave a quick glance at Kruger. Of course there’s nothing left to explain. Kruger knew how was he looked like. Maybe still stern and cold in expression, but dust had conquered him. He tried best to keep his uniform in shape, but inevitably lost his hat. Stains of blood were on his coat and pants. His boots were as filthy as Eren’s. As for weapon, only one rifle and one pistol, very limited bullets. He appeared just as a failing soldier.
“Where are your men?” minutes later asked Eren again, still calm in tone as if he knew the answer already. Kruger was silent. The boy nodded and answered for him:
“All dead. So the Soviets’ been here.”
It wasn’t a question, so Kruger didn’t have to respond.
East European forest of this season would be more pleasant if you didn’t have to walk it through. The bright colours around them failed to recall any slice of happiness of them. The birdsongs among the trees meant nothing for them unless there’s whistling of guerrilla among. They had to stare at the muddy ground, for they were not going on a built road where ambushes might wait.
“Stop.” said Kruger and obeyed Eren. Kruger put one hand near his ear, focusing on some other sound besides the breeze.
“Water nearby.” said he, “Go and follow the water. They all go west.”
“Might be dangerous, sir.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, for example, the Soviets may…”
“They won’t march this way. No space for tanks.”
“Then if they also have soldiers dropping out—”
“Won’t be a big number. We have the chance.”
“Then if the guerrilla—”
Kruger stared at Eren’s face, feel surprised. This boy was always betraying a temperament that was the gift from the long time drowning in the war, in another word, being polluted by the war, just as himself. Kruger didn’t assume him being a coward. Only seventeen, though.
“Unterfeldwebel Jäger, are you saying it is more dangerous to walk near a right direction than wandering in a wood with mines? Explain yourself if you insist.”
“…” For a moment Eren frowned and squinted. Then soon he returned into his numb calm. “No, sir. No. Of course we will find the water.”
Thus solved the issue. The creek was larger than Kruger’s prediction, and was almost a river, surface as wide as five metres. Large white cobbles covered both banks. It was great since mines wouldn’t appear in this kind of ground. The banks were long, but not wide, meaning they could immediately run into the forest for cover if danger approached.
Eren washed his face by the river. His face seemed even more delicate as dust was driven out. The colour of his eyes were grey, same as Kruger’s; but not dim and dying grey, bright and light instead. Obviously he had no chance to cut his hair for a while, so it grows to a length enabling the hair tail to swing on his neck, making him more like a girl by hiding the angle of his jaw.
Kruger spoke out casually. “What were you doing before the war?”
“Studying in a middle school. My father was a doctor. He wanted me to study medicine in a university in the future.”
“He joined the army as a doctor. Died last year. Air attack.” said Eren. Astonishing. He could say things like this in such a mild, calm way, exactly the tone as before when he said the mines were “loud”. For sure he was utterly polluted by the war, thought Kruger, just as myself.
“I may have met a doctor called Jäger. Sometime during 1942 in Stalingrad.”
“Should be him.” Eren responded casually, “I was there, too. First time participating. Bad luck. Got shot in my left leg one hour later and had to visit dad in the hospital. Good thing is nothing more than the flesh is damaged.” Now they were not walking in a line. The bank was wide enough for them to walk shoulder by shoulder, Eren near the river, Kruger holding his rifle towards the direction of the forest. Eren took a look at Kruger. “Your first time was in Poland? Or twenty years ago?”
“Poland. I was a recruit, too.”
“Before that, what were you doing?”
That’s too far. Questions before this could be considered as small talks to distract them from nervousness, but this went too far for a soldier towards his superior. Kruger could of course refused to answer, but he didn’t.
“Running a bookstore in Bonn.”
No evidence showing whether Eren was interested in this fact or not. He gave a casual response, then fell into silence, let the sound of river and their steps accompanying them. For no reason should a young person like him be interested in selling books, thought Kruger. Kids of this generation grew up playing soldier games, their eyes shining when hearing the name of the Führer. People didn’t value Goethe and Heine anymore.
Two hours for them to walk along the river. After they turned around by an ancon, a cabin near the woods appeared in near front.
Kruger gestured to Eren and held his gun towards the cabin. They slowly approached it with the minimum of stepping sound possible. There was a wood board on the bank near the water, smelling fishy, pieces of scales and slight signs of blood on it. Kruger rapidly glanced at it. The traces of fish blood were not utterly dried up. However, when they peeped from the dusty back window of the cabin, no one was there. It was a tiny cabin, only one room, decorated as a normal cabin for hunting seasons: a wood bed, several cabinets, a stove, and some other simple furnitures. Everything told that it was merely a cabin for local hunters to rest. The front door was closed, but it took no more than a strong rush to open since the lock was already broken. Kruger entered, pistol in hand. Indeed no one was inside, neither was there enough space to hide one. Dust fell on the stove, nearby seemed to be a bowl for animals. A blanket was on the bed. Kruger shook it. There was some dust, but not very much.
Eren came in.
“Someone’s lived here.” reported Eren, “Traces of fire. Firewood beside the wall. We’d better leave now.”
But Kruger said, “We stay here tonight.”
Eren widened his eyes.
“What? What if the person living here comes back?”
“We have weapons.”
“He may also have. It may be the guerrilla.”
“Impossible, coz’ it’s only one person.” Kruger said. Eren frowned and again betrayed the suspending look which surprised Kruger before. Kruger didn’t wait for his questioning: “Or you wanna keep in hurries all the night? Starving? No sleep? You think you can rejoin the army as soon as tomorrow? A soldier has to learn how to rest and reserve. Sometimes taking a rest requires fortune just as launching an attack. If you can’t get it, it means you’re still a rookie, however many enemies you’ve wiped out.”
“I understand the importance of rest, but—” Eren still squinted. Kruger waited, but Eren didn’t continue. Again, he gradually returned to his normal expression. “No. You are right. We have to take the bet.”
Whoever living in this cabin had undoubtably found a cosy place. Here the river bend, the current rapid. They could make a net using the cloths inside the cabin and tried to catch fishes, surprisingly by which Eren had for real caught some fishes. Kruger prepared the firewood and set fire on the stone bank. There’s no seasoning of food, but still, it was almost a feast. The tongue of a soldier could not be too picky. Soldiers had to be prepared, to consider every meal as their last supper. If his last supper was as well as this, Kruger wouldn’t complain much.
They put out the fire after the night fell. No more small talks. Seemed Eren was still unsatisfactory to his decision, thus behaving cold to Kruger. Yet Kruger was not offended. For every reason that Eren could and could not tell, he had the right to be cold towards Kruger. Finishing cleaning up the fire, Kruger told Eren to sleep first, and then sat into meditation in front of the cabin door with rifle in his arms.
No sight of the horizon. The deep green shadows of mountains faraway were holding breathes. Nearby, there’s black shadows of trees swing forth and back. Some dim light was hung over the sky, also dim was the star appearing through the sky segmented by branches and leave. Now even this was different from that four years ago. Seemed even star light can be weakened by the smoke of gunpowder.
The starry night four years ago was brighter, or it was simply because people were more confident that time. The Great Purge had wiped most experienced military officers of Soviet, thus those old Ivans defending East Poland were nothing more than ants. As for the locals, they were unable to resist, especially because they had already been devastated once by Soviets. Therefore, at that time, they were free to smoke during the night. No need to beware the possible air attack summoned by the light on the cigarettes. Maybe Kruger mistook. Maybe stars were always so dim. It was the cigarette that shined.
Kruger remembered one night in the year of attacking, when they were almost entering Soviet. They stayed for the night in a village near the boarder. The villagers were not welcoming, but in general there’s no major conflicts. Old men walked through shrinking their necks, women held tight their scarves nervously. They didn’t like to look at Germans, Germans at them neither. At that time Kruger was not an officer and he also smoked outside. All seemed to be as usual until Kruger overheard villagers whispering. They might thought that Germans would at most understand some Russian, but except for specialised interpreters who were inside, no one would understand Polish. So they sneaked out and discussed in their respectful local accent, that they should place a bomb on the vehicles of goddamn Nazis rats. Also, there was a Jew family in the village, they should warn them to stay home until Germans left. How noble was it, for common villagers in such a rural, undeveloped area. Yet Kruger overheard. What happened then? Ah, then…
Kruger tightened the hand holding the rifle. But he’s already an experienced officer and wouldn’t be startled by Eren walking out of the cabin.
“Time for shifting. Get some sleep please.” said the boy.
The sleep was short and in chaos, mixed up with different dreams. Kruger dreamt of shrapnels, rubbles, and the fire when a whole village got burnt; he dreamt of ditches, snow, and the petrol frozen into solid in the engine of vehicles; he dreamt of his squad, stinky bodies, and clouds of blood-sucking insects climbing on the dead. He also dreamt of Jews, all standing in a line, each facing a soldier with a rifle. An officer shouted, Achtung! and the soldiers held the rifles in uniform. The officer shouted, Feiren! and Jews, tall or short, old or young, fell down like bowling. Sometimes Kruger dreamt himself being one of the soldiers, sometimes the officer giving orders. Would he one day dream himself as one of people being shot? Couldn’t tell.
Kruger had already dreamt similar things over and over. The real new thing came later. He dreamt the boy he just met today, that namesake. Kruger dreamt that Eren walked inside without a sound; dreamt him reaching out for the pistol under the pillow, pulled out the lock, and pointed at him. Also he dreamt, in such gloom darkness he couldn’t identify Eren’s expressions or anything, except a blur of Eren’s pinched lips. Eren was holding the gun still, no trembling at all for both his arm and finger. Everything for an experienced, polluted soldier. Usually people would wake up with a start at this time, bot Kruger somehow didn’t. In a curiously peaceful mood, far more peaceful than that in previous dreams, Kruger waited for Eren’s shot.
But Eren didn’t. He pointed at Kruger’s forehead for a long time, but at last, he touched his right arm with his left arm and pushed it down. Eren locked the gun again, stared at Kruger for a while, then disappeared to the outside silently. Then, again, shrapnels, rubbles, fire, ditches, snow, petrol, insects, Jews…
Kruger opened his eyes some time around 4 a.m. He reached for the pistol under the pillow. It was there.
The sun had yet to rise, the surroundings were encompassed by blue light. Kruger didn’t see Eren soon after he walked out. He searched for seconds, and spotted him near a tree behind. Eren was hissing something, turning his back to Kruger.
“Hiss! Hiss! Go, go away!”
Kruger soundlessly stepped closer and found Eren confronting a cat. A spotted cat, common in this area. She stood half a metre away from Eren with its tail hanging high. She realised Kruger soon and stepped back. Eren turned his head.
“You’ve already woken up? The sun has yet risen…”
“What are you doing?”
The last phrase was for the cat. She meowed long and sad when Eren talked to Kruger, and, when Eren was distracted, she jumped into Eren’s arms. She wanted to lie down, but the arms holding her were too stiff. Similarly was the chest she lay against. So she meowed again in complaint, but Eren had no attention spared for her, because he could hear the sound of bullet loaded behind him.
“Now I understand why you resist going along the river and staying for the night.” said Kruger, “Coz’ the one living in this cabin is you.”
 Nördlingen: A town in Germany. It is said the scenery of Nördlingen is the inspiration of city design in Attach on Titan.
 The longer lasts the war, the younger are the new recruits: Should be a quoting but for now I can’t remember the source.
 twenty years before: WWI.
 had already been devastated once by Soviets: In 1939 Soviet Union occupied east Poland according to Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.