The First and Last

Karl shuffled his feet impatiently on the sparse grass. Once again he checked his watch. Time seemed to have stopped. Where was she? But of course, she wouldn’t have a watch. She’d have to guess the time. Thirty minutes after lights out. Was she huddled in her hut, counting down the seconds like he was? Probably not. After all, she was a goddess, and he was merely Karl. The best he could hope for was gratitude. He would take what he could get. If he hadn’t offered her escape, would she even have noticed him? But he’d noticed her, all right, from the very first day.

+++

They shuffled off the cattle truck like sheep. No, more like goats, ripe with several days unsanitary travel. They stank of urine, faeces and sweat. God, they were disgusting, even the ones dressed in expensive coats. How could they live like that? How could they bear to take one more breath of fetid air? Had they no pride?

Then he saw her. She was tall for a Jew, tall even for a German, and she held her head high. A tangle of light brown hair escaped the confines of her scarf. Most of the herd either looked to and fro like trapped animals, or stared at the ground with lifeless eyes. Not her. She looked over the heads of her people and took in the buildings, the guards, the fences and towers, as though she were alighting in a new town to shop for clothes.

They walked the gauntlet of senior guards, surrendering what meagre treasures they had at the mere threat of a gun butt or back of a hand. Catcalls and ribald comments flew over the heads of the younger women. There were precious few perks to this job, and men would be men, stationed miles away from wives and girlfriends.

Karl pushed forward to the edge of the phalanx of prisoners, so close he felt soiled by their proximity.

“You!” He pointed to the girl. She tried to avoid his eye. “Yes, you, Come here. Come!”

A path opened between them, as prisoners tried to disassociate themselves from her. She stood before him, eyes staring defiantly into his. He felt his stomach lurch. They never stared back. They always stared at the ground, or closed their eyes and muttered some heathen prayer to their god. But she stood before him as though she were an equal, as the filthy crowd pushed past her.

“What’s your name?”

“Esther.”

Karl heard the snigger and knew what his men were thinking. Let them. If they thought he was marking out his property, then they would leave her alone.

“I am Leutnant Wittwer. Why are you here?”

She looked around her, eyebrows raised, then faced him again. “You think I chose to be here?”

One of the guards stepped forward, rifle raised. Karl stepped between them and slapped her face hard. He cupped his hand, trying to take the sting out of it, but still the blow wounded him deep inside.

“You need to be taught manners.” He turned to the guard. “Escort her to Interrogation.” He grabbed the soldier’s arm and leant close. “I want her in pristine condition, understand? Unbruised and unsullied.” The guard leered and saluted.

“Yes, Sir.”

Karl made a show of overseeing the shepherding of the new intake into the processing sheds, but he was sick with anticipation. How soon could he see her without it seeming obvious? After twenty minutes he marched to the interrogation block.

Esther sat at the table in the windowless cell, frightened, of course, but still defiant. Such pride, such courage. He dismissed the guard then sat opposite her. He played with his cap on the table, at a loss. How many times had he sat here, in perfect mastery of the situation? How many prisoners had wept with fear before he had said a word? Yet here he was, unable to look a young Jewess in the eye.

“You must learn to be more respectful,” he said.

“Why?”

“Because otherwise my men will teach you respect with their fists and boots, and that would be a shame.”

“You can’t teach respect like that.”

“Maybe not, but your face would be ruined just the same. I’m asking you to just be a little more…” Karl waved his hand, looking for the right word.

“Subservient? Cowed?” she said.

“Respectful. You have no rights here. We can do whatever we want to you. Anything. To survive, you must not attract their anger.”

She sat back and subjected him to a long stare.

“And why are you telling me this, Herr Wittwer?” she asked.

“Because I don’t want you hurt. I can order my men, but they are uneducated and coarse. Their restraint will only go so far.”

“And why don’t you want me hurt?” Then she looked up at him with eyes like molten chocolate.

+++

It was overcast. That was good. If she were careful no-one would spot her slipping across the yard from the huts. If they did, then it would all be over. Could he bear to see her arch in pain as bullets ripped through her perfect body and she fell, broken and lifeless, onto the ground?

What if Zimmerman disobeyed? He wasn’t very bright; none of them were, which was why they were here. A soldier’s first loyalty was to his comrades, and then to his immediate superior, but what if Zimmerman checked his orders with the commandant? No, he was too stupid to have that much initiative. He would do as he was ordered.

But what if he didn’t?

There! A patch of grey detached itself from the shadows and ran towards him.

+++

“It’s salt beef,” Karl said, as she looked suspiciously at the sandwich. “That’s all right, isn’t it? You’re allowed to eat beef, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” She lifted the top slice of bread and sniffed the meat, then bit into it, such a big bite for such a dainty mouth.

“Are you all right? I mean, my men, they leave you alone, yes?”

She nodded, chewing hungrily. She swallowed hard.

“They are asking why you keep interrogating me. The elders, I mean.”

“What do you say?” An unaccustomed fear grabbed at his stomach.

She shrugged. “I told them you thought I knew something about the resistance. I don’t think they believed me, but they leave me alone.”

Karl nodded. “Good. Yes, tell them that.”

“What do you tell your men?”

“I’m an officer. I don’t need to tell them anything. Are you sure… you don’t look like them. Are you sure you’re Jewish? I mean, you didn’t marry into them, or were adopted, or anything?” It was a plea more than a question.

She shook her head as she finished the sandwich. “No. Jewish parents, Jewish grandparents, Jewish brothers and sisters, not that it matters.” She looked down at her hands. “I’m the only one left now.”

+++

“Stop!” Karl hissed urgently, holding his hand up as though he were directing traffic. Esther stopped a foot short of the fence. Karl pointed his torch towards the guardhouse and flashed it twice. After a few seconds a torch blinked back in reply. Karl removed his glove and tentatively reached out towards the wire, knuckle first. The theory was, if the wire was still live, the jolt would cause his hand to ball into a fist, jerking it away from the wire.

That was the theory.

The back of his hand touched the wire. No spark. Zimmerman had done what he was told. Karl grabbed the bottom of the fence and heaved.

“Under,” he grunted.

Esther dropped to her stomach and wriggled her painfully thin body under the wire. When she was clear Karl dropped the fence, stamping it down so it looked undisturbed. Then he flashed his torch at Zimmerman again. He fancied he could hear the slight buzz as the wire became live once more.

Esther stood, then threw herself forward, hugging him close. Karl gasped at the ferociousness of it, but didn’t dare say anything in case she stopped. He bent his head down and breathed in the closeness of her hair.

“I have a house, down in the village,” he said quietly. “You can tell people you are my cousin.”

She slackened her grip just enough to be able to look up at his face.

“How many?” she said.

“How many what?”

“How many have you done this for?”

“This? Are you crazy? You are the first, my love. Only you. I swear you are the first.”

She buried her head in his chest, hugging him tight again.

“And the last,” she said, her voice muffled by the uniform.

Then she leant back, legs tangling with his, hugging him tight as she fell backwards towards the electrified fence.

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About snodlander
Snodlander is the nom de plume of Bob Simms. He is an IT trainer, but it's not as glamourous as it sounds. When he's not enthralling classes with adventures through SQL Server, he writes, draws and drinks his own home-brew. Buy his novel on Amazon Kindle at The Young Demon Keeper, It's 74p, for crying out loud!

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