Sunday, 17 April 2011

The Mask in the Snow - Part II

Thiess briefly came to; around him another snowstorm howled; he was lying on a sledge being pulled through the snow by two men. He guessed by their uniforms that they were Russians serving in the German army as HiWis - volunteer assistants. They spoke Russian between themselves and marched on at at solid tempo. Thiess could not feel his feet, he did not know whether they'd been amputated or were about to be amputated; he soon passed out.

He remembered those two Russians - they'd saved his life, getting him to the airfield at Zverevo. By some miracle he'd been loaded onto one of the last transport aircraft to fly wounded soldiers out of the Stalingrad encirclement. He remembered that flight too; watching another lumbering transport plane shot down by a Soviet fighter, and knowing that it would soon turn to attack his aircraft, and the relief he felt when some Messerschmitts appeared from the west to chase the Soviet marauder back towards his own lines. And he remembered waking up from the operation in a field hospital during which he'd had his gangrenous right foot amputated along with all five toes on his left foot. His first thoughts were a mixture of relief - he'd not return to the front line; his fingers were spared - and regret at knowing that one day he'd not be able to dance at his own wedding.

Yes, thought Werner Thiess, he'd been damned lucky at Stalingrad. He looked out of the first-floor window of his newly-built house in a respectable suburb of Mainz. Parked outside was his brand new Ford Taunus 17M; beige with a black roof. A two-door limousine. His wife had wanted the four-door version, so their children could easily get in and out; but he insisted on the two-door model - it looked so much sportier. It was a warm June morning, and suddenly, unbidden, Werner realised that it must be the 20th anniversary of Operation Barbarossa coming up; yes, in two days' time.

No one talked about the War. Certainly he didn't. Not to his wife, not to his little son or daughter. Nor to any of his contemporaries with whom he worked at the glassworks. There was a consensus of silence. This war did not leave warriors, brothers-in-arms, proudly swapping tales, but washed up a cowed people, beaten into guilt. The Americans' denazification had been intended to ensure that the Federal Republic was run by Germans who had hated Hitler - that but that would have left the country in the charge of a handful of timid clerics and hidden homosexuals, so many men with much more on their conscience than he were now in power, and not keen to reminisce about the old days.

When Werner wanted to be alone with his thoughts, he'd take his car and he'd drive through the re-built city centre, with its neons and half-timbered buildings. In those days, traffic flowed freely, you could smoke where you wanted and there were hardly any immigrants.

Yes, he remembered the 1960s as the golden years of his life; the children growing up, the economic miracle in full flood... but the War kept nagging him. The nurse woke him for his medicine. He was having a lucid moment; the cancer had got to his liver and he could not focus his mind for long. "Nurse... I want to hear Liebestod by Wagner, you know, from Tristan und Isolde... Mild und liese..." He started softly singing. He knew the nurse liked classical music and had a large amount on her MP3 player. "Herr Thiess", she replied kindly, "As a matter of fact, I do. Please, take your medicine, and I'll find it for you..." She flicked through the track listing and plugged in the earphones. Propping him up on his pillows, she let the music play.

A smile crossed his lips as the soprano's voice began quietly to sing the first words of the aria. He was transported back to that dugout beneath the snowy steppe and wondered... did he really see that mask, or had he invented it? These were his last thoughts before he slipped into unconsciousness, half an hour later he was pronounced dead.

2 comments:

scatts said...

I think there's a blog post, or face to face discussion to be had about the role of short stories in blogs (that are not aimed at providing short stories).

Reaction, I've found, tends to be rather poor. Not because of the quality of the story but rather that the story finds itself to be a pork chop at a Jewish wedding.

Michael Dembinski said...

Let's discuss over a beer.

After publishing this one, I got three e-mails and two phone calls; it's a more personal thing than for comments.