It’s dusk, the sky still light, but the sand at their feet in shadow. It slides away as they descend the dune, and ahead of him Karsten sees Wolf stumble, struggling to keep his balance with his hands up.
They’d been squatting in the lee of the sea wall, hands on heads, for what seemed like hours before Karsten felt the stiff tap of a muzzle on his shoulder. He’d looked up, opening his arms, which had been pressed to his ears, and realized the bombardment had stopped.
No, not stopped—he could still make out the sizzle of shells high overhead—but the targets were more distant. Retreating, he thought. Nearer, there came the thin chatter of small arms fire, then nothing. He heard his knees crack as he stood, his shoulders pop.
“Do you think they mean to shoot us?” Wolf had hissed as they moved out, and young Heino muttered, “We deserve it.” Karsten told them both to shut up.
Now, as they round the bluff and see the makeshift stockade before them, he notices their pace pick up almost imperceptibly, Heino’s bandaged right hand glowing like a lantern held up before them.
From a distance, the stockade looks as if it’s built from driftwood, the barbed wire laced around it like seaweed, but close-up Karsten recognizes the fence posts as the blackened stumps of their own shore defenses, shattered in the bombardment. Inside, he slowly lowers his arms, feeling the tight ache in them, the unaccustomed muscle strain.
For a moment it feels like freedom just to put his hands down.
He stays close to the wire, walking the perimeter until he’s at the eastern end of the enclosure, nearest the sea. Between the hulks of beached landing craft, he watches the white lines of surf advancing, one after another, listens to the gravelly draw of the tide on the sand. The squad swam out there only last week, draping their uniforms over the tank traps and wire like so much washing on a line. He shouldn’t have let them, they were late back to barracks, but it was the first truly hot day of the year, and now he’s glad. It had been his first time in the sea.
When he turns back into the stockade, he sees what’s wrong at once. He, the boy, and Wolf are the only ones here. They’re the first, Karsten thinks, sinking down. The sand when he touches it still holds the silken warmth of the long summer day, but when he pushes his fingers below the surface, the grains are chill and coarse.
He had thought himself such a good soldier these past three months, had taken to the army as if his whole life had been leading up to this. Eighteen years old, eighteen years and one week to be precise, and already in their first days of basic training he knew he could carry more, march further and faster than the rest. He’d been working as a guide for hunters and hikers in the Harz mountains since the age of fourteen, and once he’d mastered the cadence of drill, the rest came easy. He’d hauled heavier loads—yards of coiled rope, ice axes in April—for dilettante hikers, and once two years earlier he’d carried the head of a buck out of the forest for a hunter’s trophy, the antlers gripped over each shoulder and the neck dripping blood down his back with each step. And he’d still hurried back alone before nightfall to skin the carcass and bring home forty pounds of venison for his mother.
Even the petty disciplines of army life came naturally to him. He’d been helping his mother run her pension in Torfhaus, at the foot of the Brocken, since his father died ten years earlier, so he was used to taking orders. Officers, to him, were just demanding guests to be placated with good service. The pension was small and poor, the furnishings more threadbare each season, but it was always his mother’s proud conviction that so long as they were sticklers for cleanliness and neatness, the place could preserve a kind of rustic charm. She taught him to polish the silver, and then to iron and make beds with starched precision, all before he was ten, and he thanked her silently each morning at inspection.
He’d feared it might make him enemies, how easy it all came to him, but in fact it made him friends, admirers. It helped that he was generous with his comrades, teaching them his mother’s tricks: dipping a rag in hot water before polishing shoes, kneeling rather than bending over to make a bed, ironing only the inside of a shirt. They told him he should be an officer, and he smiled shyly, though in truth he lacked the arrogance for command, was a natural NCO, the kind who fiercely mothers his men. They even took to calling him “mutti” for a time, and he told them, in return, they’d all make excellent chambermaids.
But even if he hadn’t helped them, they would have gravitated towards him anyway as the best among them.
“You have charisma,” Wolf told him. They were sharing a last smoke—a last gasp, as Wolf called it—before lights-out, a couple of weeks into basic. “Besides, who wouldn’t want to be friends with the best soldier in the unit. Who would you prefer to share a foxhole with—you or me?”
“It was a rhetorical question,” Wolf said dryly, passing him the cigarette.
But Karsten had meant it. If he shared a foxhole with himself, after all, he’d be alone, and after leaving school at thirteen, an only child and fatherless to boot, he found the camaraderie of the unit intoxicating to him.
“Knowing my luck,” Wolf was saying, “I’ll end up in a trench next to Voller.”
Voller was the fat boy among them, the broad arse of the platoon, always bringing up the rear.
Karsten had laughed, looking at Wolf’s narrow shoulders, pigeon chest, picturing him alongside Voller. “You’d look like a double act—one fat, one thin.”
But Wolf shook his head, took a drag on the cigarette.
“We’re more alike than you think, him and me. A matching pair. Fat boy and specs.” He crossed his eyes behind his round glasses. “Spotty and swatty, if you prefer. Trust me, I had plenty of friends like him at the Gymnasium—runts, bed-wetters. Even once in kindergarten,” he whispered, smokily, “a Jew. A specky grind like me, a bookworm, I fit right in. And Voller knew it. I saw his piggy eyes fix on me that first night in barracks. He recognized me. Only I wasn’t going along, I tell you. I’d made up my mind.” He rubbed out the cigarette on the door frame. “What was good enough in school could get me killed in the army.”
“So you made friends with me?”
Wolf put a hand on his heart and winked. “Friends for life, you might say.”
As the dusk deepens, Karsten watches a line of British troops file up the beach into the darkness of the dunes. The column bunches near their stockade, those in front slowing to stare, those behind bumping into them. There’s some pointing, some laughter at their expense, some whispered name-calling. Karsten rouses the other two, rises, dusts the sand from his uniform, and steps close to the wire. Several of the men glance away quickly, as if suddenly shy, and it gratifies him, this flinch. At his shoulder, Wolf whispers some poetry, something about a panther in a cage—Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe / Und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt—and Karsten suddenly wants to roar at them, these fearful Englanders. Yet almost at once he feels a sudden tide of pity for them sweep over him. We’re safe, after all; we’re out of it. Amid all the hundreds of men on the beach, only the three of them are no longer in the war. They, and the dead, gently nodding in the surf. He looks down the column of pale faces, counting heads. Every fifth man, he wonders. Every fourth? Every third? He’s a prisoner, their prisoner, yet for a moment he’s filled with an almost god-like sense of superiority. Of immortality.
He glances around guiltily, wondering if the other two feel this. Heino is still slumped on the sand, cradling his hand, his back to Karsten and the British. Ignoring us both.
The boy is underage, signed up at a recruiting station by some myopic or cynical veteran. There’s not much more than eighteen months between them, yet Karsten still sees him as a child, divided from the men not least by the virginity they’d guessed at and made fun of when he joined them in France as a replacement. They’d teased him so mercilessly he’d finally screamed at them that he was only sixteen, and then immediately pleaded with them not to tell. He was the second of three sons, and he’d joined up the day he heard that his older brother was dead, killed by partisans in Yugoslavia, enlisting under a false name so that his family couldn’t find him. Karsten had taken him under his wing, reasoning that by the time the boy was shipped back, it would only be a matter of months, after all, before he could enlist again. But he did make Heino write home (on a promise to get him laid on leave), even adding a note, at the boy’s bashful begging, promising his mother to look out for him. Heino had become something of the unit mascot, though Wolf had never warmed to him, calling him the Wunderkind.
Karsten might even have partly owed his recently bestowed corporal’s stripe to his superiors’ noticing how he’d taken the youngster in hand. He’d only sewn it on the week before, tongue tip pressed to the corner of his mouth. The men had given him a little cheer, and when he’d shrugged and told them it was only one stripe, Spitz had reminded him it was Hitler’s rank—”Next stop: Leader!”—and so he’d posed for them, flexing, as if showing off a new muscle. Now as he crosses his arms, he lays a hand over it, fingers the stitching.
They never did get the boy laid, it occurs to him. And he hopes this is what Heino is brooding on.
He’d like to ask Wolf what he thinks, but beside him he sees that the other has lowered himself to the sand again. Leaning back on a fence post, he folds his arms and legs and closes his eyes. Karsten wonders what he’s thinking behind those lids. Envying Voller perhaps.
The tub-of-guts had been transferred to the rear by his own request on some kind of cushy guard duty. There’d been grumbling among the men, but Karsten had simply been glad to see the back of him. He’d tried to help Voller, shooting alongside him on the range, putting a couple of his own shots in Voller’s bull’s-eye to raise his score, but the fat man had only resented it, as if he were being made fun of. “It’s for the best,” Karsten told the others when Voller was gone. “You wouldn’t put a fellow like that in the front rank of a parade any more than you’d put him in the front lines. You wouldn’t want our country judged by the likes of him. Stick him in the rear, where he can’t do any harm, where he’ll be invisible.”
“You make it sound as if he’s done us a favor,” Wolf said, but he’d been embarrassed when his own transfer came through the following week, said his father had pulled strings to have him reassigned near home. “He’s a great believer in racial purity, but he’s afraid he won’t be able to make much of a contribution to it if his only heir is dead.” Wolf had been back with them in a month, though, by his own request, apparently, and Karsten had clapped him on the back and admired his dressy new watch—a gift from his old man, Wolf told them.
Wolf was the son of a teacher, he’d told them at first; the Herr Doktor Professor of Germanic Languages at Gottingen, as he later confessed to Karsten. That was after Karsten told them all where he was from, and Wolf sought him out, asked him the name of his mother’s pension. “I thought I knew you,” he declared. “We must have stayed there, my father and I.” The Herr Doktor Professor was a Goethe scholar—”Hence Wolfgang”—and every year on Walpurgisnacht he liked to make a pilgrimage to the Brocken. “We’d climb it by torchlight while he recited Faust from memory. Fucking mortifying, it was!” Wolf caught himself. “But you don’t remember us.”
Karsten frowned. “I think so.”
“You must. It was a few years ago, but no one forgets my father. He likes to affect a cloak, a felt bonnet—with feather, no less, all the better for doffing to passersby on the climb. I tell him he only likes to flourish it to give himself a breather—he’s a little stout—but he says even in hiking Goethe had it right: ohne hast, ohne rast.”
“That was you?” Karsten said, slowly, shaking his head, and Wolf gave a slight bow.
In truth, Karsten didn’t remember, but then there had been so many guests over the years, and he’d long ago learned to flatter those who returned by pretending to recall them. So he lied and was glad to. It was a relief to find someone who knew Torfhaus, even as a tourist. For all the unlooked-for satisfactions of army life, Karsten was heimweh, homesick, missing his mother especially, and Wolf was someone he could talk of home with. After serving so many visitors over the years, it was a small wonder to Karsten, too, to have befriended one of them, especially a professor’s son.
He was no fool himself. Some of the others thought of him as a gentle giant, on account of his size and kindness, but he wasn’t slow. He’d left school early and still only read or wrote painstakingly, but he was quick after his own fashion. At ten, for instance, he taught himself a small repertoire of magic tricks, not enough to entertain his barracks mates for more than a night or two, but sufficient to amuse guests during a short stay and earn himself some handy tips. He even picked up a serviceable smattering of French and English before the war from skiers staying at his mother’s place, and kept up the latter by watching American movies—Dietrich’s especially—until the ban in ‘40. If asked about his ambitions, he might have admitted to hopes of a modest extension to the old pension, perhaps a bar so that they might call themselves an inn. But privately he dreamed of managing a grand hotel, after the war, with liveried staff and a ballroom. The whole world would come together under his roof, and he’d slip suavely from German to French to English, debonair as a diplomat.
Of course, when his barracks mates found out about these hidden skills, all they wanted was for him to teach them a little French—France was where they longed to be posted—in order to “meet the mademoiselles.”
Blushing, he taught them what little he could, and afterwards shrugged it off to Wolf. “I only know so much.”
“More than me,” Wolf told him, and Karsten felt a flush of pride to know more than the professor’s son. “My father knows both, but he refused to teach me, said they were the languages of our enemies after the Great War.”
“He was in the last war?”
“He wanted to be. But he was a worse specimen than me”—Wolf tapped one pane of his eyeglasses—”or they had higher standards back then. They stuck him in the government printing office. That’s where he came up with his big idea.”
The Herr Doktor Professor’s idea, Wolf explained, was printing cheap copies of classic German literature for enlisted men. “To remind them of what they were fighting for, their German culture.” His father’s doctoral thesis had been on the novella—”the German art form, don’t you know”—and he persuaded his superiors that copies of Tieck and Kleist would make perfect reading for the troops in the trenches; not so bulky as a novel, nor so engrossing that they might be too distracting, but just long enough to provide some relief from the fighting. “He might have added, just long enough to read during the average life expectancy at the front.” He had written the introduction to the Goethe volume, The Sorrows of Young Werther, himself, Wolf said. “Think of that: hundreds of thousands of men being introduced to Goethe through my father. No wonder he got his professorship after the war.” He leaned in close. “They all read him, all the higher-ups. He has a framed letter from Hess on his study wall saying how much he enjoyed the volume, and Goebbels himself called to tell him that the army wanted to reprint it.” And here Wolf reached into his footlocker and pulled out a thin volume with a plain brown cover.
“Can I have it?”
“If you want. I’ve read it. There’s boxes of them at the quartermaster’s.”
Karsten turned the pages carefully, marvelling at Wolf’s name, Wunderlich, in heavy print, until he came to the introduction.
“One Authentic Unheard-of Event,’” he read, carefully.
“Goethe’s definition of the novella,” Wolf explained, bored. “That was the title of the old man’s dissertation, too.”
Karsten tried to read it over the next few nights, but he could never get past the introduction and didn’t feel right skipping it. Still, he kept the copy in his pack until it was bent and dog-eared, as if it had been read a dozen times, and he even requisitioned another copy from stores and sent it to his mother with a neatly printed note: This is what we’re fighting for.
He wonders where the book is now. It had been in his pack in the pillbox, but by now he thought some Tommy was probably wiping his arse on it.
Or more likely fondling it as a cherished souvenir.
Even among the faces of the men passing the stockade, he can see it. Amid the fear and the hatred, every so often an eager, smiling face, as if pleased to see them. We’re the first Germans they’ve ever seen, Karsten thinks. An odd notoriety. Even at the sea wall, stray Tommies had drifted up to gawk at them, as if they were a sight to see, a small wonder. He remembers one fellow especially, in the immediate aftermath of their capture. He’d been watching them for a while, squatting in the prickly dune grass, his rifle cradled in his arms, sucking intently on a cigarette, lingering until his sergeant had been called away. Then he’d hurried up to them and thrust a fist under Wolf’s nose, opened it to reveal a cigarette.
“What’s he fucking want?” Wolf muttered from the side of his mouth.
The Tommy proffered his hand again, more urgently, and Wolf tentatively started to reach for the smoke, before the Tommy closed his fist and jerked it back.
“Shit! He’s crazy.”
The Tommy had whispered something then, pointed at Wolf.
“What’s he saying?” He turned to Karsten with wide, staring eyes. “What the fuck’s he saying? What’s he want with me?”
“Trade,” Karsten told him. “He wants to trade you for the cigarette.”
“He wants it for a souvenir,” Karsten said, looking at his feet. “To remember this by.” You’re going to get a medal, he wanted to shout in the Tommy’s face, stabbed with sudden envy. Instead he hissed at Wolf, “Don’t do it.”
But Wolf was already pulling out the cap folded under his epaulet and handing it over.
He offered to share the cigarette. “Go on. That was a good deal. A souvenir. Who’d want to remember this fucking shambles?”
The victors, Karsten thought, but after a second he took the cigarette, and later held it out to Heino. “Take it,” he barked, when the boy hesitated. “You don’t know when you’ll see another.” And the boy had reached out his good hand.
He’d thought the Tommy crazy, himself, but now, standing in the almost empty stockade, he understands him. They’re a novelty. The first prisoners. We’re what they’re fighting for, he thinks hollowly.
He’s actually relieved when, with the darkness finally closing in, he sees two more men brought over the dune towards them, their hands silhouetted against the flashing sky. They’re led down past the British column—so many going one way, Karsten thinks, just a trickle coming the other—and finally pushed into the stockade. It takes them a moment to recognize Enckleman and Rahn, from the pillbox to the north, and then they’re pumping hands, the five of them, as if they haven’t seen each other for years. But as soon as it’s full dark they drift apart, settle in the sand, grateful not to have to look each other in the eye. It’s the first night of the invasion, Karsten thinks, and he’s been a prisoner of war for a little more than eight hours, longer already than he was ever in combat.
It had begun before dawn with the naval bombardment, the shells flung from somewhere over the grey horizon, missing them mercifully but spitting gouts of sand through their firing slits with enough force to sting their faces. They’d crouched beneath their tripods, cradling the guns, emptying their canteens overhead to clear their eyes, while the explosions “walked” overhead, white cement dust jumping out of the low ceiling, sifting down on them, until they looked like bakers. Then came the planes, tearing overhead, so loud he’d thought the noise alone might kill them, rip them to shreds. Finally, the landing craft, a long line of them, pressing through the surf, throwing themselves onto the beach like exhausted swimmers at the end of a race.
It wasn’t hard to kill the men in them, Karsten found. It was easy, in fact. He’d been hungry for action, desperate for it after all the weeks of training. When they’d met other units on maneuvers or on leave, he looked at the older men and wondered if they’d seen action, if they’d killed. Once in a bar in Paris he’d approached a pair of sergeants. They’d been toasting fallen comrades and, shyly, he asked them what battle was like, but they just clinked their glasses—”To virginity!”—and he shrank from them, feeling like a boy, unmanned, even though he’d slept with a woman for the first time a month before. Perhaps it was why he’d always been kind to Heino when the others taunted him about sex. Afterwards, he’d actually hoped for an invasion, worried he’d missed his chance. And here it was, and he felt, more than anything, relieved as he gunned down the distant figures, relieved and vindicated, jerking his sights from target to target in his excitement, clutching at the trigger. He couldn’t miss. Beside him, Heino, feeding him the ammunition, was frowning with concentration, his fingers dancing over the belt as if over a piano keyboard. Karsten felt a sudden uproarious pity for him, wanted to yell at him to look—Look!—out the firing slit. You’re missing it!
At least Wolf was getting into the spirit of things, after his own fashion, shouting about how mediaeval it all was. “Why, they’re like ancient siege engines!” he cried, pointing to the landing craft as they dropped their heavy ramps to the sand, the dull boom reaching them even over the guns. “They might as well be trying to beat us with longbows and lances. Bring on the catapults!”
Even Sergeant Spitz, Wolf’s gunner, old man Spitz, who’d never shown enthusiasm for anything except finding fault and cribbage (nagging them to play, gloating when he won, nagging them again when they quit in disgust), had been roaring with excitement. “Fuck you! And you! And fuck you, too!” Spitz had always been grudgingly admiring of Karsten’s soldiering, even using him at times as an example for the others, but Karsten knew the others feared and detested the sergeant. And yet, he could see Wolf sheltering now behind Spitz’s fury, taking comfort in it. He looked as if he might drive the British off the beach with his contempt alone.
But they’d kept coming, of course. More and more of them, wave after wave, too many for him or Spitz to keep up with. Karsten’s arms had begun to ache, a dull pain spreading from his hands, gripping the juddering gun, to his wrists, his forearms, and all the way into his shoulders. It was hard work, this slaughter. He began to feel an odd sympathy for the exhausted men slogging through the sand, envied them as they lay themselves down before his fire. He’d almost been grateful for the jolt when his fingers slipped and he burned himself on the hot barrel.
And then Spitz had been hit, his slack face suddenly looking young. Wolf had knelt beside him, and in quick glances Karsten watched him apply a tourniquet to Spitz’s arm, stab him with the ampoule of morphine. It was a neat job, Karsten thought, even the sergeant would have approved, and only when Wolf looked up at him, proud of his first field dressing, did he lift his feet from the oily pool spreading from behind Spitz’s head.
The end had come quickly then, the brief slackening in fire when Spitz went down—even though Heino had leapt to his gun—enough to let the British close to within grenade-throwing distance. Karsten recalls the sound of them hitting the walls of the bunker—he’d thought, for a moment, they were throwing rocks—and then one had flown through the slit and Wolf and Heino had chased it around the concrete floor like a mouse. They’d heaved two more back, while Karsten wrestled with a jam in the breech, before the first bright spear of the flamethrower had lanced through the firing slit, boiling across the ceiling.
A moment later a second shoot unfurled down the passageway to the rear of the bunker. Karsten heard the breathy roar of it first, felt the warm gust of oily fumes, and just had time to push Heino aside and knock Wolf down before the flower of flame had bloomed in their midst. He and Wolf had lain there for a second, one atop the other, even after the fire had washed back down the corridor, watching the flames dance on Spitz’s head. They looked so lively, licking his ears and temples, it was hard to believe he was dead, until they smelt the stench of singed hair.
Wolf had clutched him then, started screaming. Karsten stared at his lips, trying to make out what he was saying, so deafened had he been by the guns. He’d been shouting down the field telephone for reinforcements since the first bombardment, but he’d no idea if anyone had heard him, couldn’t have made out a voice even if there had been one at the other end. And then Wolf had hugged him tight and put his lips to Karsten’s ear, and his voice had seemed to come from inside Karsten’s own head. “You have to tell them. You’re the only one. With your English. You have to tell them we surrender.”
Karsten had shoved him away when he understood, but Wolf had grappled with him, pressing his lips close as if he meant to kiss him.
“If not for me, then for the boy.”
Heino was huddled in the far corner, shaking. Karsten thought he was wounded, crawled to him. “Where is it? Where is it?” He tried to pull apart the boy’s arms, wrapped tight around his knees, and then he saw he’d soiled himself. Heino’s face was dark with smoke below his close-cropped fair hair; the tears rolling down his blackened cheeks looked like oil.
In his deafness, he heard the thought sharply: I can save him.
There seemed to be a lull outside; maybe the enemy thought the last burst of flame had killed them all; maybe they were summoning up their nerve to rush the bunker. Climbing to his feet, sagging against the blackened doorway, he tried to call out but broke down coughing in the stink of gasoline from the charred walls. Wolf was there at once, pushing their last canteen on him with fumbling hands, making him gulp it down. He tried again, hanging his head a little further into the passage this time, the English thick as paste on his tongue. “Can anyone hear me?” But there was nothing, no reply, though no flame either, and Karsten knew he was going to have to go down the passage to make himself heard, down the narrow concrete tunnel in which there’d be no way to dodge the flames.
He put a hand out against one of the walls to steady himself and jerked it back sharply. The walls were hot, and when he sucked his fingers he tasted soot. He looked back at Wolf, saw he was gripping his rifle, and for a second thought he was going to force him out at gunpoint, but Wolf shook his head, a sick expression on his face. “For me,” he mouthed, and Karsten knew he meant to kill himself rather than face the flames.
He stumbled down the passage then, every second expecting the rush and flood of flame to wash over him, calling out as he went, wondering if they could understand his accent. Finally, he thought he heard something from the end of the tunnel: “Come on then, if you’re coming!” And it seemed suddenly miraculous to be understood, to be speaking the same language as men he had been trying to kill moments earlier, who might kill him any second, the words passing between them faster than bullets. “Coming!” he called back, almost eagerly.
He hurried the last few steps into the light, remembering at the last moment to raise his hands.
It was so bright after the dimness of the bunker. It made him think of those rare afternoons when he’d slipped into a matinee at the cinema and come out at the end of the show shocked to find the day still bright. The light made his eyeballs feel swollen and raw, and he blinked and squinted until he could make out half a dozen men, rifles trained on him, and in their midst before him, a burly fellow in motorcyclist’s goggles with a tank on his back, and before him the blunt, black muzzle of the flamethrower, with the tiny blue bud of its ignition flame at its tip.
There was a long moment of silence. He must have imagined it, but even in his deafness, he could have sworn it was possible to make out the hiss of gas, even the ticking of the fuel cylinders. As they cooled? he found himself wondering absently, or as the condensation dripped from them? Standing, swaying slightly in the scarred portal, it suddenly seemed as if something more were required of him, something more formal. But under the scrutiny of the several pairs of eyes trained on him, he found himself tongue-tied. It made him think of those times, in front of class, when he’d forgotten the lesson he was supposed to have by heart. He felt himself grow hot, and he realized that beneath the sweat and grime, he was blushing. And then it came to him, the correct phrase, rising out of memory.
“How do you do?” he asked, and the rifle barrels trained on him began to bob and weave, and he saw the men were laughing, shaking with it.
“Oh, that’s a good one, Jerry! That’s priceless, that is. How do you fucking do, yourself?”
He had had to lean back into the entry and call the others out. Wolf fell into his arms, thanking him over and over, but Karsten had to order Heino out when he hung back—ashamed of having shat himself, Karsten thought. The boy appeared at last with his hands up, his right raw and bleeding. He’d tried to beat out the flames on Spitz’s head.
It’s lightening faintly on the beach, the posts of the stockade becoming visible against the sky, and just for a second Karsten thinks it must be dawn. But then he realizes that the red glow to the east is fire. Somewhere nearby a man urinates through the fence. “Don’t get it snagged on the barbed wire,” Wolf whispers hoarsely, and there’s a little laughter, swiftly followed by silence.
Through the night, they’re visited by more “souvenir hunters.” Rahn gives up his prized pack of dirty playing cards for a couple of squares of chocolate that he gobbles down at once. Enckleman trades his silver lighter for a cigarette and then waits stonily for the Tommy to light it through the fence for him. Karsten doesn’t try to stop them. What’s the point? he thinks. They’ll run out of things to offer before long. But he’s wrong. The Tommies want everything and anything—epaulets, belts, even buttons, boots—and when the prisoners shake their heads, the Tommies stop asking, stop bartering, start demanding at gunpoint.
Karsten tries to intervene when a nervous-looking corporal starts jabbing Wolf with his muzzle while he fumbles with his watch strap.
“We’ve all been disarmed,” Karsten calls, hoping his English might calm the man. “Very thoroughly,” he adds with a half smile, pulling his pockets inside out.
But the Tommy just looks him up and down with disdain.
“Ask me what time it is, Jerry.”
“What time?” Karsten begins, puzzled.
“Time to shut the fuck up, all right?” He shoots out an arm, laughs when Karsten flinches, and pushes back the sleeve to reveal watch after watch after watch winking in the starlight. “And they didn’t all come off prisoners, mind, if you get my drift.”
Wolf doesn’t need to follow the conversation. He holds up the watch, dangling it by its strap, like a fish by the tail.
“It wasn’t worth it,” he tells Karsten later, though it had been a beauty. White gold with a crocodile-skin strap. “Spoils of war.”
“It was your father’s,” Karsten says softly. He has almost nothing of his own father’s.
“You should have buried it in the sand,” Heino says.
“It would have been ruined.”
“At least the Tommies wouldn’t have got it.”
“That’s easy for you to say, you little shit,” Wolf hisses. “All you’ve got to lose is your fucking virginity.”
“Enough,” Karsten tells them, though privately he agrees with Wolf. The boy’s bravado rankles with him.
But Heino does have something more to lose, it turns out. Later, when they’re told to turn out their pockets by yet another “collector,” the boy balks at undoing the button on his breast pocket. The Tommy stands over him, nudging him first with the flat of his bayonet, and when the boy bats it away, with the point, pressing it to his chest until Heino gradually lies back in the sand under the force. Karsten waits until he sees the boy is holding his breath, nostrils flared, eyes staring, before he reaches across him gently. “It’s just me,” he says softly. The bayonet point picks at the brass button then withdraws with a scrape and Karsten undoes it, pulls out a couple of sheets of folded paper, hands them up.
“A letter,” Wolf says afterwards, shaking his head.
“It was to my mother,” Heino cries.
“And that’s worth dying for? How many times do you want us to save your life today?”
“Don’t use me as an excuse!” He pulls away from them then, shoulders hunched and, after a moment, shaking.
Wolf rolls his eyes, but Karsten lets the boy cry and then, when he is quiet, goes over and lays a hand on his shoulder.
“I just never thought I’d surrender,” the boy murmurs. “Killed maybe, wounded, but never that I’d surrender. I wasn’t even afraid of that.”
“Well, you didn’t, did you?” Karsten tells him softly. He takes a deep breath. “You were just following orders.” It occurs to him suddenly it’s almost the first order he’s given since his promotion.
The boy glances over quickly, then away, but nods to himself.
A little later, he looks over at the guards beyond the stockade.
“You don’t think they know German, do you?”
“I doubt it.”
“Only,” he whispers, “there was some, you know, soppy stuff in my letter. I wouldn’t like them to laugh at it.”
“They won’t,” Karsten tells him.
“We killed loads of them, didn’t we?” the boy asks, brightening suddenly. “How many do you think?”
But Karsten is thinking of his own letters from home, the bundle of them tied together in his locker at the barracks. She’s proud of him, his mother has written. She’s told the neighbors about his prowess on the range, showed them all the Goethe volume. She’s nagged him for photos and when he sends them, tells him how smart he looks, how handsome. She has them all lined up along the mantel, as if on parade. Good for business, she’s written, if there were any business. He’d been embarrassed at first—she’s never been much of a one for praise, saying he’d get a swelled head—and even a little hurt that she’s never written to say she’s missing him, or worried for him. But gradually, as he’s thought about them, her letters have filled him with pride, pride in her.
He wonders how she’ll feel when she hears he’s a prisoner, what she’ll tell the neighbors then. And then he wonders when she’ll even be notified, and he quails at the thought of what she’ll think in the meantime.
His own turn to be fleeced comes a little later. He’d already given up his folded postcard of Torfhaus, even the scallop-edged photo of the French whore, Françoise, the men liked to say he was in love with. “Who’s this fraulein, then?” the sergeant who’d taken it had asked. “Look forward to making ‘er acquaintance, I will.” But Karsten had kept his head, not rising to the bait, submitting to it all calmly, with dignity, he hoped, locking his eyes on Heino’s, showing he could take it.
But then the sergeant returns, moving among them by the flame of a cigarette lighter, until he finds Karsten, pulls him to his feet, makes him stand in profile, while he picks the stitches of his corporal’s stripes with a bayonet. Karsten tolerates it as if the man were a doctor administering a shot, even talking to him as he works.
“That for your wall, then,” he asks wryly. “Like a hunter’s trophy?”
“Oh, it ain’t for me,” the sergeant says. “It’s for them at home, the ones abed in England,’ you might say. They’re all gonna want to have been here after this, ain’t they? And they’ll pay a pretty penny to look like heroes to the ladies.”
Karsten jerks back then and gets a knot on his head with the bayonet hilt for his trouble.
Wolf tends to him afterwards, calling him a fool. “You’ve no more sense than the boy.” But Heino is lost in wonder. “A sergeant wanting corporal’s stripes,” he says, shaking his head.
It seems to Karsten suddenly as if their surrender isn’t that one moment, already past at the mouth of the bunker, but somehow will go on and on. The thought fills him with despair, and he wonders what more they’ll have to give up before it’s over. Everything but their lives, he guesses bleakly.
They’re silent after that, the five of them, pretending to sleep in the darkness, though Karsten knows none of them are. They’re still, but it’s not the stillness of sleepers—he’s come to recognize the slow, flaring sighs of sleeping men after three months in barracks—but of listeners, their breaths shallow, punctuated by sniffs. The stillness of sentries, he thinks bitterly.
He wonders what they’re waiting for, what they’re hoping to hear. Still, he listens with them, straining to catch the sounds of battle, of a counterattack perhaps, but as far as he can tell, the rattle and crump of battle is growing more distant, faint beneath the lap and suck of the tide. What he hears instead are the sounds the sand makes—the creaking near the waterline where it’s densest, the soft patter of the dunes where it’s finest—and the heavy breathing of the columns of men slogging through it, their occasional scuffs and curses. Even now, every few minutes he’ll hear the dull clout and scrape of a landing craft door slamming the wet sand, catch the hooded green glow of muster lamps. If he listens hard enough, he can make out the slight sleigh-bell jingling of dog tags, of pack straps, of belt buckles.
He wonders if the others hear it too, or if perhaps they’re just attending to the faint sounds of themselves, their hearts, their stomachs, their throats, listening to their own breaths and feeling grateful for them.
And then in the watery half-light of dawn, with the salt rime already beginning to crust their uniforms, they see what they’ve been waiting for all along—a line of men, hands raised, coming towards them over the flattened dune grass. They hurry to the fence, straining to recognize faces from their own unit. There’s a sense of security, safety, if not strength, in numbers, Karsten supposes, and despite himself he feels his spirits rise. It’s as if they’ve been marooned, the five of them, and now glimpse a sail in the distance. Even another wreck is to be welcomed, apparently. But as he watches, the line keeps coming, and he begins to wonder how far back it stretches. It seems a skinny, ragged parody of the British column moving the other way.
Heino starts to wave his bandaged hand, but after a second Karsten pulls it down. There are no familiar faces that he can see, and beyond even the gnawing disappointment of that, he’s suddenly wary of these strangers, the way they eye him stonily as they file in—thirty or more in the end—and gather in the far corner of the stockade. Several of them fall to the sand, exhausted. The British pass in canteens, though no food, and Karsten and the others sling them over their shoulders, pass them out among the new men.
“It’s not so bad, mates,” Wolf tells them.
“That so?” A burly figure detaches himself from the crowd and faces them. “Maybe we wouldn’t be here at all if not for you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Heino asks, a little shrilly.
“Leave it,” Karsten whispers, taking his arm. There are no officers, he sees suddenly—they must be being held separately—and the crowd has the listless surliness of enlisted men when no higher ranks are present.
“It means,” the fellow says, setting himself, “if you hadn’t saved your own skins, we’d have had a better chance.”
The boy makes to lunge at the man, but Karsten and Wolf hold him between them.
“Leave it!” Karsten repeats, and then more loudly: “These will be answering the same question soon enough to the next bunch.”
“Defeatist!” the burly man spits. “That’s the kind of talk put us all here.”
Karsten feels a stray grain of sand grind between his molars, tastes salt. He wants to spit but doesn’t. Instead, he and Wolf pull the struggling boy away, withdrawing to the far side of the stockade, the man’s voice following them, taunting: “How much ammunition did you have left, you shits? How many bullets, how many grenades?”
“Let me go!” Heino hisses, and when at last they do, he pulls away roughly, glares at them as if he’d strike out, but finally throws himself on the sand.
Karsten feels the heavy burden settling over them then. They are the first, after all, and all the rest can blame them. And they, he thinks, can blame him, who led them in surrender. When he looks for Enckleman and Rahn, they won’t meet his eyes. Even Wolf looks away, raising his arm to glance at his bare wrist before letting it fall. And then Karsten sees Heino edging away in the sand. He whispers the boy’s name, but he won’t look at him, and eventually Karsten stops, not sure if he or the boy is more ashamed.
Over and over he pushes his hands into the sand, makes fists of them, and pulls them out, watches the sand drain from them however hard he squeezes.
Finally, at full dawn, he notices the guard being changed and, jumping to his feet, hurries along the fence after a lieutenant and his sergeant, his boots sinking in the light sand. “Sir! Excuse me. Excuse me, Sir.”
Without breaking stride, the ruddy-faced lieutenant looks over at his sergeant wearily, “What’s he want, sergeant?”
“What do you want?”
“The men could use some food,” Karsten tells him uncertainly, adding a “Sir” in the direction of the lieutenant. “Some of us haven’t eaten since breakfast yesterday.”
“Jerry’s a mite peckish, Sir.”
“Really.” He looks thoughtful. “And what does Jerry eat, do you think? What do you think he’d fancy, Sergeant. Humble pie?”
“Or a nice bit of crow, Sir.”
Karsten pulls up and watches them go, kicking up sand, knowing by their laughter that he’s failed.
When he slumps down beside Wolf, the other tells him softly, “I don’t have any English, my friend, but if you want to talk to their officers, do me a favor: do it far away from me.”
Karsten turns to stare at him, and Wolf glances away over his shoulder. Karsten waits until he looks at him again.
“You were happy enough I spoke English when it saved your neck,” he says tightly.
“I’m still thinking of my neck,” Wolf tells him.
He keeps to himself after that, though in truth none of them talk much that morning, just watch the long columns of Allied troops march past them, the second and third waves of the invasion. The enemy are so many, Karsten thinks, through the night and now the morning, still marching out of the sweeping surf. There’s a brief stir in the stockade when they see wounded pass the other way, and the stretchers of the dead, but the new men keep coming. The prisoners drowse and wake and drowse and wake, and no matter when they wake, no matter how many hours have passed, there is the enemy column moving up the beach. And offshore, the smoke of countless ships; overhead, hour after hour, the drone of planes. It’s astonishing, Karsten thinks, a staggering sight, the kind of manpower that built the pyramids or the Great Wall, the wonders of the world. But what amazes him more than anything is that such a thing could have been kept a secret. He, like the rest, has heard the rumors of invasion all spring, and yet still he can’t fathom it. How has this time, this place been kept so close? How have these hundreds, thousands of men been kept secret, training at bases, massing in camps? He suddenly imagines the whole of Britain—not just the leaders, the soldiers, but the civilians, the families with sons and husbands and fathers in uniform—knowing, or at least suspecting, and yet somehow keeping quiet, not breathing a word. A million people keeping a secret. It’s almost more astounding than the sheer force of arms, that force of will. He wants to ask someone about it, but around him the men don’t breathe a word about the invasion to each other, just stare out through the wire as if it isn’t happening, as if they can’t see it, as if it’s invisible. And yet there’s nothing else to talk about. It’s as if, he thinks, they’re keeping the secret themselves.
He watches yet another landing craft disgorge its men and follows them up the beach, past the stockade, towards the dunes. He focuses on the small white cross of a priest’s helmet as it bobs along in the column, coming closer and closer, and then as it passes he sees the man’s pale face, the fear on it, and something about a priest’s fear moves him. He wishes he could comfort him somehow. He’d offer tips—tell him about the baker in the next village who sells passable wine from the back of his shop. He’d tell him not to worry, Father, that he’ll make it, that he’ll live. You’re going to win, he wants to cry, and immediately recoils at the thought, looks over his shoulder. When he turns back, he’s lost the priest in the crowd.
He feels an odd pull, himself, a tug towards the horizon. All those men flowing in one direction. He yearns to look over the dunes, as if he has no idea, no recollection of what’s there. It was German territory, and now British, and he can’t imagine how it’s changed. He pictures the maps he’s seen, imagines the fields tinged with the faint pink of empire. And he wishes suddenly he could go with them, feels powerfully as if he’s falling behind, he who could march faster and further than anyone.