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An Invitation to a Beheading

Chapter Text

 

 

     “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[1].” 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[2]. 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.”

    Eren hesitated.

    “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.”

    “‘Was’?”

    “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[3]?”

    “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[4]. 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…

    “Sir?”

    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?”

    “Nothing…Get away!”

    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.”

 

 

 

 

TBC.

 

[1] Nördlingen: A town in Germany. It is said the scenery of Nördlingen is the inspiration of city design in Attach on Titan.

[2] The longer lasts the war, the younger are the new recruits: Should be a quoting but for now I can’t remember the source.

[3] twenty years before: WWI.

[4] had already been devastated once by Soviets: In 1939 Soviet Union occupied east Poland according to Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 2. Kruger

 

 

    “Turn back.”said Kruger.

    Eren did so, his face being even paler in the cyan morning light, eyes widened, looking at Kruger. The cat in his arms looked at Kruger in a same manner without a blink.

     “Hands up.”

    Eren dropped the cat and followed the order. The cat meowed again hesitantly and somehow sensed the change of atmosphere here, then turned around towards the woods and disappeared.

    “Smart for you to carry everything about the army with yourself.”said Kruger, “Also good at lying. But you really shouldn’t leave that cat bowl. Who are you?”

    “…A deserter.”Eren was still calm when he admitted, but his expression became solemn like a cat, or more accurately, a leopard in alarm.

    “‘Coz a deserter sounds better than a spy, just like a lost soldier than a deserter?”

    “Don’t alarm yourself. You said it yourself that you have met a Jäger doctor.”

    “How long since your defection?” Kruger focused on Eren. He noticed that when Eren looked sullen he tended to bit his lips a little, which made the line of his lips tense. Yet for some unknown reason his shoulders seemed more relaxed than yesterday. When he spoke, his voice was displeased, but perfectly frank.

    “From about a month ago. Worker bees like us were sent to dig ditches. Funny, huh? Dig ditches on soil ground in rainy season…A tank had a shot there. I know Soviets would give a guarantee shot on the heads of those falling down, since we do the same thing when we still have plenty supply of bullets. But they forgot me. Then I woke up, then I walked away.”

    “And hide here?”

    “Yes.”

    “Why didn’t you make attempt to rejoin your troop?”

    “If I’m not misunderstanding, are you asking why a deserter becomes a deserter?”

    His tone suddenly became top-level respectful, full of sarcasm. Kruger ignored it.

    “I’ll ask again: Why didn’t you make attempt to rejoin your troop?”

    Eren paused for seconds. Then even his unpleased looking disappeared. He was like stating a well-known truth patiently. “‘Coz’ I won’t give my life to a slaveholder and all his made-up lies.”

    This was somehow literary. Kruger might unconsciously raised his eyebrows a little, but in Eren’s perspective which must have totally different meanings, for he rose his chin provocatively.

    “The war will soon end. We lose. Those who disagree are lying to themselves. All we’ve done, from the beginning to the end, mean nothing other than feeding many bloody insects. Would you like to execute me right now?”

     Peculiar. At this time Kruger recalled for no reason the expression of Eren’s, refreshed and curiously confused, when he washed up the dust on his face by the river yesterday. It was like when a man woke up from a dream, whose content he could not remember, but was vaguely lingering in it. At the present, although the situation was on the verse, Eren seemed refreshed. Maybe confession really reduced pressure, maybe some thing else was peeking out from his body that had been closed and polluted by the war, like a fish under a iced river.

    Kruger lowed his rifle down.

    “You are not executing me? A deserter, a defeatist, insulting the Führer?” asked Eren.

    The only reply was: “Watch your mouth. Officers in the deserter’s camp won’t be so easy as me.”

    Eren’s pale face betrayed a touch of colour, but which had nothing to do with emotions like happiness. He didn’t make any sound, but very swift in his movement: He rushed suddenly, jumped towards Kruger with his arms open, using all his weight and impact to dash Kruger down. He’s so fast, that Kruger had no time to rise his gun again but to fall down on the river bank. Kruger managed to lift his head to protect his hindbrain, and his back hurt like hell when he fell on the large cobbles. That dull pain, together with his lack of sleep and some other annoying secrets messed up altogether in his head. He struggled, but Eren pressed on him with all he had, carrying off his rifle and throwing it away. How strange for such a slim young man to have such strength. Eren gritted his teeth and produced words resembling the hiss of a beast.

    “I—won’t go to—the deserter’s camp— ! Deserter’s camp? Better call it death camp—I can’t get killed—I have to come back, to Germany—I have to come back to Germany alive—”

    Now his face came near to Kruger’s. So Kruger banged on his forehead with his own, struggled and freed his hands when Eren lost control for a moment. He tried to get up and threw Eren away, but Eren had quick responses. Eren managed to hold Kruger’s right wrist before Kruger could reach him, and pressed his knee on Kruger’ lad to prevent him from getting rid. After all this young man had his agility which Kruger in his age could never match. Eren tried to hit Kruger’s head with his left fist but failed as Kruger turned his head to dodge; he tried again, but halted halfway. Kruger had successfully reached for his pistol with his free left hand. His left arm nearly seemed to be hugging Eren, with the elbow on his back and the muzzle near his spine.

    “A permanent paraplegic is also alive. All right for you?”

    Eren became quiet. His expression like a fighting beast cooled down and retreated into the emotionless face as when Kruger met him yesterday. He loosed his fist and put down his arm, but didn’t get up. Kruger also stayed stable, partly because he was still suffering the pain, partly because the excess of adrenaline made him dizzy and he needed time to deal with it. They maintained the position for a while.

    “Why don’t you fire?” finally asked Eren quietly.

    “Why didn’t you fire?”

    Eren blanked for a second before he understood.

    “…So you were awake.”

    “I took it as a dream.” said Kruger. The dizziness caused by adrenaline declined. He could again see other things beside Eren’s body: The swinging branches, the dark clouds, the morning sky. “Get up. We shall leave.”

    “I won’t go to the deserter’s camp.”

    Kruger again ignored him, only urging him to get up already, then he added, “I also have my reason to come back to Berlin.”

    Eren slowly loosed his hand that held Kruger’s wrist. He was silent now. Kruger’s pistol still pointed at him, but he gave no attention and walked towards the river, squatting down and wash his face, regardless of a possible pistol pointing at his back.

 

    Their trek today was even more silent than yesterday. They still walked along the river, but no longer shoulder-to-shoulder. Eren walked in front of Kruger, keeping a distance of 3-5 meters where Kruger could shot him anytime he sensed any incident. When it came to the noon, there was the first signal of danger. A corpse appeared on the river bank. Should be falling into—or more possibly, be thrown into—the river, then half struggling, half being carried by the flow, and finally stranded on the bank. This man didn’t wear coat. Couldn’t check his identify since his face was destroyed. Insects sucking his blood climbed on his swollen body.

    People in a peaceful area might be startled by this scene and probably would vomit. But Kruger had seen similar things countless times. Judging from Eren’s expressionless face when he looked down to examine the body, so had he.

    “Guerrilla nearby.” Eren said in a way as taking to himself, “They peeled the skin of his face. No clue whether it’s a Polish traitor or a German captive.”

    Then he raised his head to look at Kruger, “Sir, if the Guerrilla took you away, or had you killed, can I take your dog tag?”

    He’s still talking the rebellious shit. So he did have some childish traits conforming to his actual age. But he could also be pragmatic right now. He could be deliberately enraging Kruger in order to set off another conflict. Once he had the chance to grab Kruger’s gun, once they were both unarmed, Kruger had little hope to win over him.

    Certainly Kruger wouldn’t let him. He replied, “Fine.”

    It’s impossible to tell what Eren was thinking about when his expressionless face didn’t change. Kruger ordered him to keep walking, and he did so.

 

    After a few miles of walk, the surface of the river widened, the bank narrower, and the slope towards the woods becoming steeper. At last there was no longer a bank. The river resembled a ribbon carved into the forest, accompanied by low cliffs of 2-3 meters high. They tried to walk near the cliff, but found it difficult, for plants there were dense with twisted roots and gnarled branches. Besides, the soil ground after the rainy season implied potential risks of slipping into the river. Therefore they had to change their route a bit, checking the flowing direction of the river by the sound or an occasional glimpse through the bushes.

    They’d find the forest at this time was a pleasant place only if they were not in such a difficult situation. Splashes of green in various shades surrounded them. The dust on leaves had been washed up. Small red fruits appeared among the branches and bushes. Yet these walking men should not enjoy the peace here; they were doomed to eternal turbulence. These walking men once brought about death, disaster and curse, and now they became the cursed themselves, Death watching them from behind and ready to yield. They were under the shadow of the black cloak of Death, outside which life began to merge again.

    For a long time there seemed to be only the sounds of leaves and birds, but Eren suddenly stopped. He turned back his head in alarm, but wasn’t watching Kruger. Eren searched in some direction, as vigilant as his name indicated. There’s something he noticed.

    No need to explain. Kruger sensed it too. Just now, a short whistle, mixed into the birds’ sounds.

    For several seconds Kruger didn’t risk moving. He slowly bowed and picked up a small branch, ready to throw it into the bushes in another direction. But as he divided some of his attention to his left hand reaching for the branch, Eren suddenly moved. Again, swift, agile, even undoubtable movement. Again, Eren dashed towards him. Was his alarming position just now a facade of another intended fight? One second more and Kruger would pull the trigger, but fortunately he caught the expression on Eren’s face, which was no way similar to an attacking attempt.

    So Kruger let him and fell down by the strength Eren cast on him into a piece of bush. Exactly at the moment they moved, a bullet flied across where Kruger was standing before. Kruger found balance in the bushes and immediately jumped up to hide another tree in the opposite direction to the sound of gunshot. Then, human voices came out from their guise of bird’s song. Hoarse voices came from the depth of the forest, male, many, calling each other, coming nearer. Polish, Kruger recognised. “Hurry up”, “Surround” “Two men”… Kruger threw the branch towards a clump of bush nearby, making a loud noise, followed by bullets. Now it’s possible to trace the curve. Kruger changed his position to another tree while shooting in between.

    A Polish speaker cursed. But it’s hard to confirm whether Kruger had got him. Kruger and Eren were in great disadvantage: only two men, a rifle and a pistol whose range was too limited to use here, and most importantly, only a dozen bullets left.

    No new gunshot for a while. It’s only the short silence when beasts in the forest were trying to identify each other’s location. Sounds everywhere: the leaves, the wind, the muddy ground. Kruger hesitated and thought over about handing the pistol to Eren, but didn’t find him when he turned his head. Meanwhile a few leaves fell down. Kruger raised his head and found Eren climbed up onto the strong branches of this tree, possibly under the cover of his gunshot just now. He’s wearing green uniform, serving as a fair guise. Yet he still risked a lot since he could no longer move from the height.

    Height had its own advantages. Kruger heard Eren’s lowed, hoarse voice, “Eight o’clock!” Relying on the reaction instinct of those who lived, Kruger shot there before Eren finished. A bird was startled to fly away and a shouting swearing came. Kruger changed his cover.

    “Eleven!”

    “Go, go! Avoid four o’clock!”

    “Lie down!”

    “Twelve! Fire there!”

    He’s going to use up his bullets. How many were they?

    “Twelve! Keep firing and run that way!”

    The Polish was approaching. The Polish were shouting. They shouted in Polish, and also ungrammatical and weird German they learnt from nowhere. “It’s time for you Nazis mice pay back! You deserve it, right? You die a thousand times and you cannot pay back what you did. But we will kill you still, coz’ you deserve it!”

    Eren’s shouting too. He’s no longer whispering.

    “Go! That direction and we can break through! Go! Go already!”

    Eren’s ready to jump off the tree. He didn’t look at Kruger, but focused on that direction he said they could try. Once he jumped down, he would run there without any looking back. Whether he or Kruger could break through was sheerly a lucky game. The moment he jumped down, however, he unconsciously checked Kruger’s location, and Eren shouted again urgently.

    “Go! Go! Kruger!”

    When the last word came to him, Kruger blanked his mind for a moment. Then, a huge wave of pain on his left leg consumed everything shortly. When he realised he had kneeled on the ground with another knee and could barely hold tight his rifle. He took a glimpse. A bullet hole on his left leg, bleeding and reddening his uniform bit by bit.

    Eren had get off the tree, but not headed to the breaking through direction. He landed near Kruger and took his rifle to some bushes nearby, and received a screech. Then Eren dropped the gun and tried to drag Kruger, rolling down towards the cliff near the river, during which Kruger felt as if one of his ribs had stuck into his lung. Then there was the coldness of water, overwhelming his head. His wound on the leg hurt so much that even a part of his brain was burning. But even in the dizziness mixed by suffocation and agony, he still felt a pair of arms holding him, one dragging his belt and another holding his shoulder. When the Polish guerrilla came to the riverside two minutes later, they could find nothing more than a trace of blood on the slope, its end disappearing in the water.

 

    Kruger woke up because of the pain, as if his nerves were being torn apart and thrown to the fire. He suddenly widened his eyes and cramped once, but didn’t scream, which made Eren give him a look for an instant. Eren said nothing neither, but focused on his work. The tip of the dagger moved a little, Kruger’s eyes narrowing once, then Eren used his scarlet coloured fingertips to pick up the bullet he dragged out from Kruger’s leg. He showed it to Kruger, who smelled his own blood.

    “Wanna keep it as a souvenir?” He asked, but not much like a real question. His voice was as usual, clam and emotionless, only betraying some tiredness. He didn’t wait for Kruger to reply. Eren stood up, swung his arm and throw it faraway. Kruger heard the water. He must have dropped the bullet into the river.

    They were still on the river bank. This was an isolated area, crescent-shaped, not bad as a temporary shelter. Obviously they landed here from the river, since the back of this land was surrounded by low cliffs. Kruger’s coat had been taken off and served as a pillow. Shirt was wet, which made him uncomfortable. But luckily they could receive some sunlight from here, reducing the discomfort.

    Eren squatted near him again and used the knife to tear a piece of cloth into smaller pieces and used them as bandage to deal with Kruger’s wound. Green, thick cloth. Kruger realised Eren had cut off part of the pants of his wounded leg. Clever. Eren didn’t say anything or responded to Kruger’s gaze when he bound him up. Later, he took off his wet and therefore heavy coat too, and put it aside, then rubbed his wet hair, shook his head like a fluffing cat. The river was cold. Eren sneezed and felt the warmth of the cobblestones with his hand. They were fairly warm after a whole day’s sunlight. So he lay down not far away from Kruger, drying his clothing by the cobblestones.

    “I remembered something.” said Eren, staring at the sky as if he’s talking to a bird, “You said before the war you lived in Bonn.”

    Kruger didn’t respond. Eren didn’t looked at him.

    “Later you said, you have to come back to Berlin.” Eren raised an arm as stretching himself, or trying to touch the clouds, “Berlin? Why Berlin?”

    Kruger was still quiet. Eren waited, until the birds in the sky disappeared at the other end of his sight. Then he spoke again:

    “Ok, talk about me first. Nothing special actually. I don’t have real novel reason why I won’t go to the deserter’s camp or die here. My mother’s still waiting for me in my hometown, and all she had is me after my father died. So I have to come back to Germany alive to see her. Nothing special, right? I suppose every soldier has a similar reason… Common though, it works as long as it drives us to live longer. After all I don’t wanna die for shit like this…”

    He paused, then, as if deciding it’s no longer important now, he spoke again in calmness. “There was a friend of mine, Armin. He’s a nice guy, clever, kind, telling and teaching me many things. We were like brothers. He and his family were all nice, hard-working people. … Well, of course, they are Jewish.”

    Kruger blinked but Eren didn’t notice.

    “He rarely came to see me after Crystal Night, neither when I came for him. He said that my relationship with his family would bring troubles to me. Later, some time in 1940 I guess, one day I saw they arrested Jews on the streets. Take them and thrust them into the car and go. So simple, so openly. Funny that we Germans call our Fatherland a civilised nation…I rushed to Armin’s place immediately, but there’s no one, only dust on the furniture. I wish that they’d run away, to Britain, to America. But…actually I think I know, they were more likely to…to be in the camps.”

    His voice is soft, still containing nothing concerning happiness or sorrow. One couldn’t tell whether his coldness was innate or a souvenir from the war.

    “So no matter how many times the Führer boosts about the nobility of Aryans or how our nation will have a bright future, I cannot really put my faith into it. Is it really so different? If I meet a Jew who doesn’t tell me his race, I probably can’t distinguish. But later I killed a lot of Jews myself.” He said the word “kill” in a same tone as saying words like “kiss”, “And more Soviets. You must know, that war will force us to become our worst form[1]. Sometimes when I hold guns, facing the Jews to be executed, an officer stands behind me with his gun on my head, so I pull the trigger. Gradually I get very skilful. I can even use a rifle as a sniper, so no matter how fast they run, it’s of no use. And for the most time I kill simply because they’d kill me if I don’t do it first, like what happened just now.”

    Eren examined his palm under the sunlight. He had a beautiful hand. Long fingers, elegant shape, even the few calluses caused by using guns years could not diminish the beauty. But now blood of Kruger was still on it, nearly dried up. Eren was too tired to wash it up now. Besides, it made no difference he washed or not. This beautiful hand had been soaked in blood, like wearing a glove made of dried crust of blood.

    “…Huh…Turned into a devil completely.” Eren’s volume was close to whispering. He laughed lightly in self-mockery. “Can’t get it right why it comes to be like this. What happened to me, to Armin, to Germany. I have yet the chance to go to the university. Actually I didn’t finish middle school. So I really don’t know much about history or philosophy, neither do I understand why this comes to what we see today. … But I don’t have time for these now. In order to understand one day, I have to live…I have to keep shooting bullets into other’s head, and come back, back to Germany…”

    Rustling. Eren sat up and turned to Kruger. Now it’s Kruger who stared at the sky as if communicating with the clouds.

    “What about you? You also wish to meet your family one more time, so you wanna come back alive, isn’t it?”

    Eren waited for about half a minute. At last Kruger gave responses: he slowly shook his head.

    “…Do you still have families left?”

    Shook.

    “Then why should you go to Berlin?”

    It was nearly at dusk. Sunset glows in golden and pink gently spread over the sky and created a texture similar to a oil painting. The warm sunlight glittered on the river, and cast a shade of peaceful colour among the trees on the other side of the shore, making the river one of the waters in a Renaissance painting, where fairies and Nymphs played, where treasures slept. Clouds after clouds piled up and carved a trace of sea waves, through which the birds flied as grey sails on Aegean.

 

    Kruger finally opened his mouth.

    “I have to go to Berlin, to receive my trial.”

    Eren blinked in surprise. And before he could talk, Kruger continued.

    “As you can guess, I killed Jews, and ordered others to kill them. My own grandfather, however, is one of them. So by definition, I’m also a Jew.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

TBC.

 

[1] War will force us to become our worst form: A quotation from Unsere Mutters, Unsere Vaters. The original line is in German.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3. The Erens

 

Their first luck lay in the fact that the wound didn’t dehisce again when he swallowed the pain and tried to climbed the short cliff.

The cold air near the river during the night had made their bodies slightly shake. Sleep in such a freezing night was too luxurious for them, so they decided to set off before the dawn. They found a spot where the height of the cliff was about three meters, with rugged rocks serving as steps. Eren, as swift as a panther, climbed on without any trouble, followed by Kruger, whose hands had reached the top of the cliff. All he needed was a mere push by his legs and then he would have himself on. But the pain was penetrating, restraining much of his strength. He bit his teeth in silence and forced himself the strength he needed and came up. The coldness had sharpened his nerves to feel the fresh pain.

Kruger lowed down to check his left leg. A splash of dark red, set off by deep green clothing, just like some Japanese painting. Gloomy bright colours. It’s good, though, that the wound didn’t dehisce.

Eren also gave a glance at Kruger’s leg but looked away immediately, towards the front. He made no comment, silent as he always was, as if he was thinking about something he had no intention to share; as if the talkativeness he showed at last dusk was mere an impulse, or an illusion. After that conversation on the riverbank, their talking voice fell as the the sun fell into the ground. They retreated into their shells and kept their mouths shut.

Kruger had no idea why he decided to betray his biggest secret to this young man. Later he didn’t add up more details, nor did Eren keep asking. Still, he had no idea why Eren decided to keep trekking with him. After all, he’d got no guns anymore, so Eren was free to walk away, maybe back to the hut he once hid himself in, maybe into the retreating troops after robing his dog tag. Whichever, his wounded, unarmed senior could by no means stop him.

Yet Eren was just here, stepping icky noise on the moist moss. He walked in a low speed in consideration of Kruger’s wound, and picked up raspberries from the bushes they passed by.

Another walk along the river, then slightly brightened was the dark sky, giving a little dim light. Trees decreased in number. Now it was Kruger walking in the front and Eren following him, cautious, bewaring of any threat possible. Kruger gave a glance at the square-shaped sky among the branches. Seemed today there’s no sight of sun. The sky was in a light greyish colour, you might describe it as gloomy but peculiarly sexy. On the ground walked the targets of Death. Silently they passed a small swamp who might contained something like a piece of dirty clothing, but neither of them spared their attention to it. Kruger felt a little dizzy because of the blood loss.
It was very quiet. Only the sound of the river and their steps on the moist mud. Until some time when Eren’s voice suddenly appeared from his behind. Not very loud, but no longer as calm as it was before.

“Halt. No moving.”

Kruger halted. He tried to turn back and check Eren. He tried to pull his shoes out from the sticky muddy ground.

“DON’T MOVE!”

Shouted Eren.

Kruger stayed still where he was. He could peep at Eren whose face was now completely pale, eyes widening, with an expression mixed of surprise and sorrowful and maybe a little panic. As a survived-so-far soldier, Kruger at once realised what had happened. His legs froze.
Then, Eren opened his mouth, lips trembling for one second, and spoke out that word.

“Landmine.” He said.

 

It’s so clear to hear the sound of the river. As the arrival of the day, the woods began to breathe again. Kruger took his breath. So the air here was so sweet, why didn’t he notice before?

So the Death had caught up with him at this point, right? Death was such a master, much more accurate than any hunters in partisan troops, that it could easily dodged the youth behind although he’s as alert as a panther. It could easily prepared Kruger’s grave at certain point on the ground and waited for him to just lie down. Now, with a simple act of pulling out his leg, the local landmine would take him.

“Jäger,” He heard himself saying. Strange, as if hearing others talking, as if he had already been floating through the air and looking down to these confounded, failed soldiers. Was he so eager already? “Leave here now.”

Eren, who had stepped back to keep a relatively safe distance but still lingered around, bit his lips and betrayed a trace of hesitation.

“What now? You wanna cry for me?” said Kruger. He had never played joke for several years but somehow found the interest at this point, although he might have lost most of his capability to joke. Eren produced a few meaningless sounds. What should he say? Both of them had seen countless times of what would happen next, and fully aware that there’s no longer any chance and no need for any naive delusion. What should he say? This particular hesitation of Eren might indicate that something alive was still looking through his polluted shell of body. After all, he was not a puppet who couldn’t react to even death.

Kruger knew why he hesitated. As a routine, Eren should ask where the rest of his family were, so if he could manage to Germany, he could take his last words to them. But the conversation had done yesterday; last word had no meaning to people like Kruger, people who were on their own.

“Go now.” Kruger said again in a soft sound, “I deserve it. Go now and live. Leave the main road. Might be more forwards. Go through the slope there, or swim along the river. Won’t be too far away. Go.”

Eren drew back and took another look at Kruger. There was some feeling inside his eyes, but you still couldn’t exactly tell his emotion. This boy’s worldview about death seemed to be rebuilt into an eccentric shape by the war, thought Kruger. But Eren finally gave a quick nod and muttered an “Auf Wiedersehen”, climbed on the slope nearby and disappeared among the trees.

 

So here it was.

Kruger looked up to the sky again. Light grey colour, gloomy but sexy. Wind floated around, rustling the leaves. His body was quite warm due to previous walking. The only discomfort came out from the pain of his wound. Except that, he felt quite at ease, both physically and mentally. He felt much better than the night when he was at Russian’s border.

Their troops were retreating. That day they were stationed at an empty concentration camp at the border between Poland and Russia, where the local residents had been given proper Final Solution. So resided there were only the biting wind and bitter cold. The office building had been emptied, leaving only a bunch of mouldy archives rooms. Kruger leaned against the back of the door and lit up his cigarette when the lieutenant in charge of this camp said in a tired voice, that it should be burned tomorrow after they departed.

“These archives?” asked someone.

“No, no; those are unimportant. Name, age, photo. Most of the camps in the east have a copy of data here, but once information about people pile up to a certain quantity, it becomes mere data. Data ain’t important. I mean the stuff near the mountain. God, lucky it’s winter now. If it were summer, you could by no means bear the smell if you don’t bury or burn them for so many days.”

Silence in the room. Now everyone knows what were the things to be burn.

“I’ll take a visit to these.” said Kruger, who finished his cigarette and walked into the archives rooms.

He had no idea why he came to search it, nor did he know where came the sudden instinct. Maybe he had always been sober to that fact. Maybe this piece of consciousness had long been planted into his memory and fermented into a secret. He only pretended he wasn’t aware of it so he could keep moving forward. Now, however, they were failing and retreating, and had become devils anyway.

Kruger walked across lines of mouldy, grim shelves. Dust bothered his eyes so he closed them for a while, but on the darkness inside floated up that word.

That was the Jewish surname of his grandfather, before he changed that to “Kruger”. He heard about it only once, when he was very young. Only once, but he had heard.

The word disappeared when he again opened his eyes, but its first letter remained. Leaden colour, printed on one of the lines of the shelves, glaring at him. Kruger walked into there. Before long the later letters would come out as well. He squatted and fetched the file, then opened it. Nothing surprising actually. After all, he was always aware of the truth.

And at present Kruger stood in a forest of Eastern Europe, looking up to the grim sky. Up there resided impressive stars, thoughts, and sorrow; down here was benighted ignorance. These clouds recalled the turbulent fate used as a metaphor by Baudelaire. That’s a French poem, while in his Fatherland there’re also poems. Don’t worry, it’s all right; Goethe and Schiller shall live on, same shall Lorelei, Bach and Mozart also. It’s only him who’s going to die and who must go to die.

But he had no clue why he remained still for so long. He just stood there, eyes closed. The wind traveled through the woods and past his face, leaving a gentle touch on his solemn facial lines. The heat brought by previous walking had been run out, so he began to feel cold; the wind was just like someone was kissing him, but the kiss was indeed ice-cold. Scenery would to be, after you’d gone. The explode might affect the few trees nearby, while the insects beneath the mud had no idea apocalypse would arrive on this day. But no worry; it only took a mere month for this place to recover. Everything would revive. The livings would once again wander here.

His leg going numb, Kruger wanted to move it. But at this point he recalled some other things. It’s probably just human nature to remember boring trifles on occasions like this. He remembered him marching across a stretch of moor when they invaded Russia years ago. They pushed aside a cloth of reeds, then saw birds swirly flying away. Feathers in ivory colour. Feathers in light greyish colour. They formed an upside-down pyramid, then it broke. What’s the name of those birds? Kruger frowned and searched his memory. He did hear somebody else mention the name. But what is it?

Long had he thought, thus long had he stood still there. Then, suddenly, he realised something far more important than the name of those birds. He kept his movement to the minimum and checked the stuff inside his shirt. He touched his dog tag.

He should have given this to Eren so the boy can sneak into the troops without much trouble. The boy should return to Germany, to the place under the protection of Goethe and Bach.

Has he gone far? How much time has passed? Can he make it?

“Jäger?” he made the sound. First his voice was toneless and numb, then he cleared his throat and tried again in a higher volume, “Eren Jäger?”

The sound of a bird taking off. Beside that, silence. Kruger was losing his tenseness.

A pity. But fine anyway, Eren can manage it.

So, what is exactly the name of those birds in that moor?

…Trifles. Trifles only.

His legs and his wound were in agony. He could lose control and fell down at any moment. Kruger didn’t want himself being passive. He’d like to go at his will.

So he took the last breath, and raised his leg from the mud.

 

Nothing happened.

Kruger opened his eyes. The peace he felt at the last moment vanished.

 

“Stand for nearly an hour with a bad limb, good for you.” a calm voice came from the woods on the slope. Eren walked out casually, his left hand holding some red berries and right hand feeding them to himself one by one. The way he looked at Kruger was as usual, calm and indifferent. Kruger, however, started to restrain his impulse to punch at that beautiful face.

“Landmine, huh?” finally he chose language. He’s 20 years older, after all.

“Nah, just kidding.” Eren admitted rather openly. He was just frank and placid without the wicked ecstasy for a successful mischief, “You just believe it without any doubt. So funny. Why did you call my name back then? I thought you’d found out and almost came out. But luckily I took a second look at your legs. They’re like being soldered.”

Kruger changed his mind. Now that teenagers could legally go to the battlefield, it shouldn’t be a big matter to beat an adolescent.

And Eren dodged his fist as if he knew it’s coming.

“Why are you angry.” he said in the tone of a declarative sentence and threw the last one of the berries into his mouth, “It’s fair, see? Now we’re even. And what I did was just to scare you a bit, you are the worse one.”

Kruger glared at him. “What are you talking about?”

“Yesterday with those guerrillas. You should have had the time to break through to the direction I told you. Why didn’t you go.”

Kruger’s glare turned into a stare. So Eren did notice.

“’Cause you don’t wanna run. You just wanna die there.” Eren continued without pauses, “I’ve been thinking about it the whole night, about your reason. And I got it this morning. As you said, you’d go back to Berlin to your trial. But honestly speaking, your rank means what you did was most likely to be receiving the orders and carrying them out. There are so many of you. Unless Ivan was desperate to kill every German, I don’t think they’d set a trial for you. That’s why you wanna die here, killed by the guerrilla. Am I right?”

Kruger said nothing. Eren took this as a nod.

“And you have me involved in order to achieve your wish to die?”

“You could run away by your own.” said Kruger.

Eren’s eyebrows twisted together. “I saved your life, and now I’m the busybody?”

“No; I should express my gratitude. You’re very brave.”

Now it’s Eren glaring at Kruger. He thought for several seconds and decided to not get angry.

“Look, I’ve met lots of people who cannot endure these and decide to die. But the war is going to end, it’s not the high time to die. And I don’t see you that kind of person who wishes to die with the Führer. Besides, you stood still for an hour just now. So I assume you don’t really wanna die, but…Well, I minded your business. Why do you still thank me?”

Kruger couldn’t help but conjure a bitter smile. Well, Eren really didn’t understand, right? The nature of a soldier required him to die either on the battlefield or the execution serving as the result of a trial. There’s no third way. It was solidified in their veins. As for the reason why he must die… Kruger sighed. People who receive orders and carry them out are not really more innocent than those who give orders. Eren still didn’t understand this, right?

Then he recalled the fact that Eren didn’t even finish his middle school when he came to the front line. So maybe he really didn’t know.

“You are right; I don’t desire death. I just have to be sentenced to death. I won’t commit suicide. …Well, now that I survived here in Poland, I may keep going until I come back to Germany.”

“…” Eren frowned at him for a while, and had his conclusion. He’s no longer annoyed. “You’re really strange, you know that?”

Maybe he really didn’t know. The shadows of the trees around were swinging under the brighter daylight, but failed to add more splashes of colour to the pale face of the youth. It looked like he had been frozen in a black-and-white film, with some parts of him polluted into solid black and other still white, like those white birds flying off the moor. The colours abided by their border.

 

Their second luck lay in the fact that they were much nearer the border of the forest than what they thought before. After another trek, wide and gentle slopes replaced most of the trees. Weeds grew to the height to their chest. Across a muddy lane was a deserted field of farm, where scattered a few plants of wheat. Eren turned back and saw the shape of the mountains. He and Kruger had trekked through them during the past few days, and now it seemed they had reached plains. God blessed Poland with black soil and great farms, yet they were always being contended as a trophy by people. It should be busy season if there’s no war; they might be able to sow seeds next year.

Eren walked and constantly looked around. He was swinging a reed he plucked out. You could easily recognise him as an ordinary country boy living on this land if only he wasn’t wearing German uniform. Kruger knew by a mere glance that those blackened parts of Eren were still in there. When he played the reed he always had another hand free and near his thigh, where he kept the knife, their last weapon, in his pocket.

Kruger noticed Eren’s frequent looking back. “What’s up?”

Eren shrugged his shoulders.

“I was quite disappointed when I knew that there’s no witch in the forest of Sachsen.”

That was an unexpected answer.

“I heard about the stories of witches and witch hunters when I was a child. They’re quite romantic. I was excited, and wanted to be a witch hunter myself, maybe later.” Eren continued, whipping the weeds with his reed, “But forest has no witch at all. Isn’t it disappointing?”

“What a witch can do is limited to child kidnapping or poisoning a well; there are other kind of witchcrafts far more efficient.” replied Kruger. Eren seemed unexpected to his response and peeped at him for once, “You’ve seen tons of times; wizards fire incantation behind the trees and bury amulets under the ground. Their mounts are invulnerable, and can kill a hundred in a single minute.”

“Not funny for me.”

“You are now one of the hunters for these wizards, and also one of the wizards yourself. How do you feel when you feed bullets into their mouths?”

“… What should I feel?” asked Eren, in a frank tone, “One can’t survive the war if he’s too sentimental.”

“You are right.” said Kruger, “Yet the war is coming to an end.”

Followed was a long silence. Eren’s hair swept his back neck, hiding and revealing his light skin.

They walked rather slowly, but even at this speed Kruger still suffered the pressure produced by his wounded leg. Besides, they’re not in their best body conditions: not lucky enough to catch any fish yesterday, so they only ate a few berries Eren found, coldness plus insomnia. Gradually he began to limp, and gradually even limping made him sweat. He gave his best to keep the speed, but Eren soon understood after a mere turning back.

 

Their third luck lay in the fact that the door of this barn didn’t make any noise when they entered.

Kruger sat down in the corner, leaning against a bale of straws. It’s a blind angle. If someone opened the door, he wouldn’t notice him at his first sight. Followed by the comeback of the pain and numbness of his limbs which were previously covered by adrenaline. Fortunately the straws were far more comfortable than those cobbles on the riverbank. Kruger finally had the time to check his wound. The piece of cloth there was dirty, with the scarlet colour already oxidised into black.

“You'll get infection.” Eren said quietly. He didn’t show the tendency to sit down, “You’ll need at least a clean piece of cloth if no disinfection is available. But sorry, I don’t wanna share my coat. Evenings of this place are quite freezing, you know.” The true reason he swallowed was that his own coat was as dirty as Kruger’s, probably containing quite the similar quantity of bacteria.

Kruger nodded and added, “You could keep going on your own.”

“And you are capable of staying here alone? Our observation on that hill does suggest that only old, women and children live in this village. But you can’t run fast
now, they could still kill you if you’re found.”

“I can speak Polish and Russian. I could disguise.”

“OK, put off all your uniform first, then freeze to death tonight.” Eren nailed it immediately in a mocking way. He wasn’t really concentrating when he answered. He faced the direction of the door and seemed to be thinking about something.

“You could keep going on your own.” Kruger repeated, “Why’d you bother to tend me?”

And this question got Eren there. He again looked at Kruger’s face, at those tired and solemn lines of his senior namesake, in confusion, as if he’d never thought the question before. After a long pause, he slightly opened his mouth and uttered a quiet answer.

“It has been long since I heard someone speak human language…and particularly Deutsch.”

Kruger was a little surprised.

“…Well. No need for you to speak Polish or Russian stuff. Just keep with Deutsch. I wanna listen more.” he muttered very quickly and vaguely, then returned to his normal speaking pace, “Just wait here. I’ll go out and search around, trying to steal some cloth or anything. Just keep silence if others come in. No need for you to speak Polish.”

He said, while taking off his uniform coat and boots for their obvious military style. By chance if people saw him from a long distance, they couldn’t distinguish whether he spoke Polish or German.

Kruger focused on him until he disappeared outside the door. He’s swift and silent, like a cat, like a phantom. Then Kruger lowered his head and rubbed his temple. This young man has been polished into the perfect shape for the battlefield. He thought. And it’s our fault, us adults, who manipulated assembly lines, of which we Germany is so proud. Standard manufactory process—first, put all the youths on the conveyor belt; next, the drills will utter the voice of Himmler; lastly, carve them. Some of the shells were broken, so discarded were they, while some became standard components, efficient, safe, high profited components, Eren Jäger being one of them. But there do exist differences. There’s something alive inside his shell, still growing. A criminal like me must be sentenced to an execution, but Eren Jäger may live. Let him grow freely and maybe one day the carved shell will crack.

 

Twenty minutes later, the door again opened in silence. Eren sneaked in and approached Kruger’s corner. He became a little cheerful when he saw Kruger, and showed off to him the stuff he brought with: a long piece of cloth looking like a scarf, and a bottle of alcohol. The liquid smelled terrible like diesel, but it’s alcohol after all. So Kruger’s wound received a fair care. The scent of blood was mingled with alcohol and the musty scent of the barn, and maybe a little fresh air from outside. They echoed to each other. The gentle rain. Flowery morning. Somewhere in Kruger’s chest began to read these phrases. Emerging from the woods, as emerging from warm skin. A splash of red. Floods of blood arise[1]. …

He squinted his eyes, feeling a bit released now. Those verses were like echoes from ancient eras, like sea waves, and could somehow summon the merit of Hypnos[2].

 

Minutes later, the echoing vanished. Kruger captured other noise.

So did Eren; he had sat down and rested with his eyes closed, and now he jumped up in alert like a wild animal. Steps. Gasps. Approaching. Eren observed his surroundings. He couldn’t hide along with Kruger since the cover of straws was limited. He waited against the wall near the door, his hand holding the knife in the pocket. They waited breathlessly.

A voice of a woman, hoarse, vague, muttering something. Then the door was opened a little. The muscles on Eren’s arm were waiting for a simple order.

The Polish woman didn’t walk into the barn. She only peeped through the crack. Kruger’s perspective provided him nothing, so it’s just Eren who had seen her appearance: swollen body damaged by heavy work, sorrowful wrinkles, a pair of sad apricot eyes. She could also see Eren. A face young but exhausted, alarmed position, covered with dirt and mud. She held a fire poker as means to defend, but she hesitated, as if she didn’t expect so young a face.

She said something, then something else. Eren didn’t understand, but he could see her sigh heavily. Her expression resembled those he’d seen countless times on other civilian of Poland and Russia—a calm numbness—yet somehow different. You might say she’s enduring curious sadness. At last she fell back to silence, turned back. Eren knew this would be his last chance if he should do it.

But he glanced at Kruger at the corner. Kruger slowly shook his head.

 

“She saw you entering here; she thought you’re a German.”

“I see.”

“She asks, ‘So they really send kids of your age to battlefields?’”

“Well, yes.”

“And she mentioned she has a son of your age herself.”

“…”

“She says tonight will be rainy and you may stay for the night. But must leave tomorrow. Germans are not welcomed on this land. She tells you to come back home quickly.”

Eren lay down on a bale of straws, seemingly upset. When he finally decided to speak, he directly called Kruger’s surname without any title, “Would she let me go if the situation changed…I mean, if we’re not retreating?”

“No.” answered Kruger. A short pause and he added, “Let alone seventeen-year-olds, even if you’re fifteen, or twelve, she’d not spare you. And honestly speaking I’m surprised by her choice…seems since we’re doomed to fail, it’s unnecessary to hunt one more of us.”

“OK. …But I was on the verge of killing her.” Eren quietly said, “Killing her and depart at once, that is the most practical choice. That’s my judgement. I almost do it.”

“Well then, knowing a little Polish does help.” said Kruger, whose tone was still as serious as usual so that it took Eren several seconds to realise that he was joking.

“As a soldier, your judgement is correct.” then Kruger added in a light voice, “You should leave now.”

“…You said the war is coming to an end. And I’d better to learn how to follow the judgement of a person, rather than a soldier.”
Eren replied, then refused to talk again. He closed his eyes, capturing the dripping sound of the rain and smelling humid air. At least that woman was right about this, it’s raining now. He tried to convince himself by considering that if they kept marching on a rainy night, their weak bodies could easily got fever, which only worsened the situation.

It rained the whole night. Evenings in this village were dead silence. Eren found a small boiled potato just outside the door of the barn. Someone had put it there.

 

When the rain stopped, sky in the east had already showed a few traces of light behind the clouds. When they were awakened by the approaching steps of multiple number, it was already too late. Eren jumped up again, drawing out his knife instead of holding it in his pocket.

But soon, his hand with the knife relaxed, for it’s no longer of any use. A strong thrust destroyed the door and half a dozen guns pointed at him. Men, wearing leather jackets, traces of wild life and fights, grenades on their belts.

Throw your knife. The leading man spoke to Eren in ungrammatical German.

Eren’s shoulders fell. He bit his lips sullenly and did as he was told. A man approached and tied his hands up. Sullenly, he didn’t resist. Then, the guerrilla dragged him towards the outside, towards the small hill near the village. The last of the line was that swollen Polish woman. Vicissitudes and sufferings carved her face like winter wind, her expression cold, everlasting ice in her eyes.

Nobody had noticed Kruger.

 

 

 

TBC.

 

 

[1] Quoting from Untergrundbahn (Underground Tram) by Gottfried Benn. Translate it myself.

[2] The god of sleep.

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 4. Wizard Hunting

 

      Men stepped icky noise on the moist moss. A quiet parade it was. Hours before a lad arrived at their own telling the news of a wizard appearing in his village. Then a ride through the midnight; and as the result, every wizard hunter was tired now. The pray they captured walked in the front without a word, his steps betraying unwillingness. So one of the gun holders thrusted his shoulders. The wizard halted for a second and resumed the walk. Vague humming of birds nearby. The drifting mist, the veil of cloud, are touched by dawning day now; Leaves rustle, and the reeds are stirred—And all is blown away now[1].

      They reached an open space on the hill among the trees, from where a view of one part of the village could be captured. When villagers were still able to keep cattle, they would slaughter some on occasions like festivals. The rain had stopped. Clouds, in the shape of smoke and mist, were turbulent far in the sky.

      The leading man kicked on one of the knees of the wizard, who tumbled but managed to find a balance; so he tried again. His deputy man held the gun for him. This time the wizard fell down. No order needed. Other men came up and made him on his knees with his back leaning against one of the trees, his hand tying up on the trunk.

      “How’d we do this time?” a rude voice asked, “No need for more information now. Shot or beheading?”

      The leading man didn’t give quick answers. He’s a man of his middle age, having obtained the unique alert and wildness due to endless times of risking life and surviving in the wild. He turned back to the Polish woman, for whom it’s of difficulty to follow these men with her clumsy body and thus just arrived, taking breathes on one side.

      “Thanks for informing, Aunt Karina.” said him to that woman. She slightly nodded her head and tightened her scarf, then had the kneeling wizard into her sight. The others, again, turned to him and found him rising his head and looked directly into the eyes of the woman. They realised at this very moment that the captured wizard was still young. Dust and mud filled the small carves and scars on his young face, his lips dry and grey. But he’d got a pair of beautiful eyes in light grey. He had the shape as one of the typical Aryan Germans, of whom the little beard man would be proud, and was even qualified to be captured by camera and posted on a recruiting posters of the Third Emperor. Now he sullenly gazed at Karina, complex feelings in his eyes.

      Karina glared back without any shrink.

      “I spoke to you, talking about my son to confuse you,” she said in Polish. She had no idea whether this young wizard understood her, but she didn’t care anyway, “I didn’t lie; I do have a son of the similar age of yours. And the thought of him being killed by a random bullet on the land of enemies will torture me to the hell. I just didn’t talk to you about what he had already gone through.”

      All the other men in the partisan troop were silent. Obviously they’d heard the story before.

      “He set up landmines, delaying your tank troops for about a week. So when you caught him and other lads, girls included, kids who’d never done anything included, you forced them to walk in front of you as baits, and to be killed by the landmines they prepared themselves. When one got blown up, the following one filled in the blank. My son stepped on the bones and blood of his friends forwards, toward his own death.”

      Coldly said she, like singing a mysterious song with her hoarse voice. Yet she’s tough, she didn’t spread tears when talking this.

      “I prayed to God everyday that he shall not be killed by bullets. Father answered me and my boy didn’t die from bullets. He died a cursed death, much more horrible than I could imagined. And what now? You are losing! Where are your pride you showed off years ago? You may also have a mother waiting for you at home, but you’ve turned to a devil, and devils deserve a fire place rather than a fireplace. I ask you, gentlemen, to cut off the devil’s head as a comfort to my son.” She lowered her head and nearly took a slight bow.

      The wizards seemed to be numb and didn’t give any response to her words, which assured them that he didn’t understand their language. A man knowing a little German translated a few sentences for him.

      “There, there.” spoke out another man. He’s young, having bandages on his head and had been rubbed on the ground with the tip of his feet, “Do our jobs quick. They said Germans will retreat passing the nearby. We can just peel his skins and used his blood to write something on a board hanging on him, and put him near the main road. He could be a fair bait.” and he glanced at the wizard again, “A fuckin’ good face. What a pity.”

      And he was opposed immediately.

      “Retreating troops in a large scale? Our men stand little chance to win, nor is it a necessary act. Head has said, right? We are now protecting the villages and get rid of bugs.”

      Others seemed to have no interest in the argue.

      “How old are you?” someone asked. The translator said again in German.

      The wizards moved a bit. He bit his lips and answered a number. There’s no trembles of fear in his voice, surprisingly.

      That man nodded, “You’ve said what you’re not supposed to[2].” said he, “Which means you are either a terrible soldier or unfaithful to your military rules. Am I right?”

      The wizards stared at his face in nervousness. Seconds later he let out words, “I don’t know.”

      “Why do you join the army?”

      “I don’t know.”

      They could not tell his expression because of some of his long hair had covered part of his face. So the speaking man suddenly approached him very, very closely, examining his expressions in his eyes. He lowered his voice into a terrifying sound.

      “Why do you come to our land?”

      “I don’t know.”

      The wizard repeated, but the man could see his expression this time. Maybe it’s truth. Later he took a step back and resumed to the exhausted state of the previous him, “Just a kid, knows nothing.” he said to the others with a wave of hand, “No need to kill.”

      The young man who had put forward the motion before shouted.

      “Why’re you so naive? This is war!”

      “The war will soon end. We can’t kill people for the rest of lives.”

      “But our brothers are still getting pain! You know well that just days before there’re still Germans wandering in the woods and shot—”

 

      He stopped for a sudden realisation. The same thing bumped into other people’s minds nearly simultaneously, and they once again all focused on the silent wizard. He had to lower his head time for time in order to ease the pain of rising head in this position, his laps trembling because of sourness. People switched expressions, which was actually unnecessary, but it seemed they all forgot the fact that he didn’t understand Polish. No; maybe it’s just yet another facade.

      The leading man nodded to another gun holder, who turned around and ran away down the hill. Hearing the sound, the wizard suddenly rose his head while the leader of the partisan squatted in front of him.

      “One day before, our squad in that woods of the mountains,” said he in German. He pointed at a direction, “met two Germans. Soldiers with guns. They hurt my men. Bullet in right arm. Alex, bullet in his lung, lying in hospital now, in coma. Don’t know if he’ll make it. Do these things ring any bell in you?”

      He was asking a question he already knew the answer. The boy took back his attention from the direction down the hill. Some of the lights had slipped away from that beautiful light grey colour. He’s silent, maybe too much silent, that someone decided to give him a kick. But the leading man gestured and stopped his follower.

      Then, after another century of silence, the wizard nodded.

      “Was that you shooting? Nice shot, actually. You must’ve practised a lot.”

      He didn’t reply, and closed his eyes. This time the leader didn’t interfere when the kick came at his ribs. He groaned but said nothing.

      Again appeared the icky noise of people stepping on the mud. The leader stood up. The same man came up, alone.

      “No sight.” he said, “Searched around, no sight of other wizards.”

      “Where is the other soldier going with you?”

      For another small period of time the wizard remained silent, but this time his expression seemed to be a little provoking.

      “Bump into a mine, dead.” At last he said while glancing at that woman standing aside, as if feeling some ironic pleasure. His lips even twisted into something that might be analogised as a smile. Was here anything amusing? Surely he was a devil, completely polluted, that even the death of his own people added nothing but a splash of amusement to his heart.

      The man who spoke to him before held his collar.

      “I’ll ask again. Why do you come to our land? Why do you kill all the Jews?”

      And the wizard only shook his head, “I don’t know,” he said, “I don’t know.”

      “Say it! Say it like a proud, brave German, will you? Say to us how glorious your race is! You are all praising your dignified people and cursing us even when we kill your kind. What now? You are losing, so you can’t even die with your pride any longer?”

      “I don’t know.”

      “Well, we can begin from what you do know. Why did you shoot us in the woods?”

      “’Coz you’ll shoot me otherwise and I wish to live.”

      “We wouldn’t shoot you if you didn’t come to our land. Why did you?”

      “Forced recruit.”

      “Why?”

      “’Coz the front line’s in danger…’Coz we have to win the war.”

      “Why did your Führer start it?”

      Again the wizard fell silence, but not long for this time. He rose his head high and gazed directly into the eyes of his interrogator, no shrink in his own eyes. “I don’t know.”

      Then he looked one by one at the face of everyone here, “Any of you knowing why can judge me as you want. I won’t complain. I’m aware of my transformation into the devil, but I don’t know what exact is the law I’ve broken…I think none of you know.” He looked back and forth at the people, those people who were just normal farmers in the countryside. God blessed Poland with black soil and great farms, where these people used to walk on and work, “You just woke one day, finding outlanders coming…First Russians, then Germans. Devils came, surely you’d be pissed off, surely you want to peel skins from their face…But is there someone able to tell me, what exactly is the thing that turning me into a devil? What kind of law are you using now in my trial?”

      No one translated for him, but everyone remained still in silence. A person pointed him with a rifle. Grim clouds wandered in the sky. Rain drops fell from leaves.

      Then, the leading man said a sentence. After that, the wizard widened his eyes in surprise, but just for one moment. Soon all the lights in those eyes vanished, leaving just endless exhaustion. Now he looked just like as helpless as a teenage boy, but somehow he was more at ease. His shoulders relaxed, he smiled in self-mockery.

 

      “We judge you with our hatred.”

 

      The man drew out a dagger long and thin.

      “You’ve been polluted throughly. Every soldier of yours yelled the title of Hitler, and believe your mere sacrifice is yet another brick to the greatness of your holy race.”

      He squatted and pinched the boy’s jaws with his left hand.

      “But at last, what your belief brings is your failure.”

      His right hand put the dagger on the exquisite throat of the wizard.

      “And destruction…Destruction of our homes, and your homes. You people are the first victim of Nazis. …You’re still a kid, being forced to listen to their propaganda, to believe in what they taught you, to come here, to become devils. This is not your fault. We’ll leave you on the main road so that they can pick you up and take you back.”

      The dagger left where it was. There was unbelievable lights in the eyes of the wizard.”

      “But, you shall never, never, pollute the rest any more.”

      With the end of his words the man made the boy open his mouth and stabbed the dagger into his throat. There was no screaming at all, not because of the enduring of the convict, but the fact that he could no longer do so. His vocal cords had been cut off.

      The dagger retreated from the bloody throat. Not a word. People formed a circle and witnessed this ritual in pure silence. They could see the wizard breathe, breasts up and down, and vomited scarlet liquid. People were like crows.

 

      Left leg one step forward. Slowly. Then another by right leg. Repeat. Dizziness attacked Kruger again. Certainly could Eren hear his approaching, but Eren didn’t move a bit, nor did he raise his head. Perhaps he’s in coma, perhaps he’s totally out of strength.

      “Jäger, Jäger,” one step and another, Kruger walked, Kruger called him, syllable by syllable, “Eren, —”

      He paused. He didn’t know what reaction he should have now. He had slipped out from the barn and climbed on this hill, where the sparse distribution of the trees wasted him too much time to take cover, and arrived when Eren received his final pronounce. Kruger witnessed it from far behind.

      He kneeled down before Eren, whose body were bent forwards because of the lack of strength, wrists bleeding because of the rough ropes. Kruger held his upper body and made Eren leaning against him to reduce the pain. Eren trembled slightly, and produced a hollow sound from the depth of his throat. Then he coughed, and closed his eyes as the pain attacked. He coughed out another few drops of blood and a pink bubble.

      He was finally able to look at Kruger. Eyes wet, but he wasn’t weeping. He opened his mouth but could utter nothing. That throat of his which could produce beautiful voice before was now forever ruined. He had lost his language in a foreign land[3].

      “They shall cut my head off, they can, I deserve punishments, not you…” whispered Kruger. He tried to ease Eren from the ropes, but Eren refused. Eren’s lips trembled and opened a little, obviously making an attempt to speak with their shapes, but he could do nothing better than what looked like a twisted smile[4]. It’s impossible to discern his words. Eren gave up and shook head, pointing at the direction of the village with his jaws.

      Kruger understood. Those people had said that Eren could be taken back to Germany, and they might come up to fetch him any moment… If they kept the promise, then Eren could have a much more reliable and fast way to a proper treatment than keep wandering in the wilds like lost flies.

      They didn’t have much time. From here they could capture some of the human voice down from the village. A few throats were indeed vibrating down there, indicating people were coming outdoors.

      “Listen, Eren,” so Kruger said. It’s curiously difficult to focus on what he’s going to say, since his mind was uncontrollably occupied with scatted pieces of letters, forming words and phrases, floating in his head. So, now go tell, an if thy tongue can speak, Who’t was that  cut cut thy tongue and ravished thee. Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so, And, if thy stumps will let thee, play the scribe…[5] “Listen… You have the right to speak. You have to speak it out. We will lose it, but the idea that winners tell the history is a mistake. Devastate the voice of the lost, stifle the breathe of the lost…It’s wrong. Shouldn’t be like that. Otherwise once we disappear from the world people will forget everything, they will forget why all these happened, and the history will repeat itself, again and again. Speak, speak out everything you experienced. Write down if you can’t say. Everything you’ve seen, everything you’ve thought about, you have the right to speak them out…”

      Eren turned to Kruger’s eyes. At this moment tears appeared in those light grey eyes.

      He watched Kruger in hesitation, in sorrow. Then, again, he slowly twisted his lips: bit them, then open his mouth; he curled his tongue, then closed his mouth.

      Eren asked, “Warum? (Why?)”

      Kruger halted in surprise.

      “…Why you have the right to speak?”

      Violently Eren shook his head. More tears went down his face, but he didn’t blink even once. Kruger watched this face, this weary, suffering, and incredibly young face, then he knew.

      Of course. Of course, as he had already realised, Eren knew nothing. He didn’t know why he needed to speak at all, because he himself didn’t have any clue why all these would happen at the first place. A child of 15 came into the front line, his fatherland only taught him how rather than why. Those judges, their actions were purely unnecessary; he could never speak anything even if his voice were untouched: he didn’t know what to say.

      Eren asked again in his everlasting silence.

      Warum?

      Plaster figures appeared in Kruger’s mind visual. Nietzsche. Frederick. Followed by Starling, Napoleon, Hegel, Jesus Christ, Judas… The past and present of Vaterland flashed in front of him just as he was watching a river running. Why this war happened at all? Why were people always fighting each other? He did know. He did know why, at least he did know more than Eren. But how could he tell this boy? It’s so complicated. Noise from down the hill, louder and louder, seemed somebody had already begun to climb the hill. How could he teach Eren now? Those grey eyes of Eren’s, wet, silent, were searching for answers, were burning with fear of Kruger being caught. Kruger closed his own eyes for one moment, when he realised a new type of trial, that was much more meaningful for him than being killed by partisans.

      So he opened his mouth. “…If we, with our cursed fates, still have the chance to sit down and talk through the night in the future, I’ll teach you everything I know. Politics, history, philosophy. I’ll let you know. I promise you I’ll live on, and will return to not Berlin but Bonn; I shall live until I tell you everything and until what we have done gets itself paid.”

      Meanwhile he took off his name tag and put it on around Eren’s neck, carefully hiding it behind his shirt, “You can have this now that you want it all the way. I spare you from the trip to deserter’s camp, soldier.”

      It’s already a certain thing now that someone was approaching here. Eren closed his eyes and relaxed himself. He slightly nodded on Kruger’s shoulder. Then, right before Kruger’s about to stand and leave, Eren turned to him. His lips were dry and cracked, but soaked with fresh blood. With those lips Eren gently kissed him on the cheek.

      He wouldn’t allow Kruger any time to give any response, but to hit Kruger with his head, urging him to leave. Kruger took his last looking back before he disappeared among the trees. The boy was silent, as a wanderer lost in the wilds but finally knew what was the direction he should head for. He was all dirty, but simultaneously as pure as had just been born. Filth and pureness were all originated from us, all belonged to us. Being cast away by mysterious beliefs, being ruined by bloody rituals… This was how he looked like at this moment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

END.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] The last few lines in A Walpurgis Night’s Dream in Faust. After these lines, the witch’s carnival ends.

[2] Armies usually require their soldier to only give their name and ID when being captured.

[3] Quoting from Mnemosyne, Friedrich Hölderlin: …und haben fast/ Die Sprache in der Fremde verloren.

[4] Eren’s trying to say “Geh” (“Go”).

[5] Quoting from Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare.