In celebration of reaching the halfway point of my novel, I am sharing a scene from it with you, Dear Readers. However, I will warn you in advance, the scene may be disturbing to some readers as I attempt to graphically depict a small slice of the horror and absurdity seen in the aftermath of a devastating air raid. Each vignette contained herein really happened in various raids as described to me by those who lived through them. I see no reason to clean it up or sanitize it for the purposes of my novel. So with that caveat in mind, it is as follows:
A young girl sat on a pile of rubble clutching a kitten, eyes wide with terror, under one arm and a stuffed bear under the other. Soot stained her face, except for a thin, pale line under each eye washed clean by her tears. Four teenage Luftschutz boys in helmets too big for their heads and eyes far too old for their young faces stood over the charred remains of two victims, one a baby. Cigarettes dangled from their mouths as they used a shovel to scoop the shrunken bodies from the pavement. They tossed them in the bed of a truck and moved on down the street. The whole area stank from a mixture of sulfur and the sweetened odor of roasted flesh. A line of people shuffled past. Most were either elderly or young women with children. Some clutched suitcases which held the only possessions they had left. No one cried. No one shook an angry fist at the sky. Their faces bore the expressions of a dog that’s just been whipped and doesn’t know why. The stunned silence which accompanied them was deafening. Large fires still burned in the distance, and some of the refugees cast anxious glances over their shoulders to check its progress before they moved on. None took notice of the child, who continued to stare into the sky with blank, hollow eyes. Finally, an elderly woman stepped out from the line and took the girl’s hand. After a brief exchange of words, the girl joined the rest as they moved away to some unknown destination. As she walked away, the bear fell out from under her arm. She continued to walk and did not look back.
Further down the block, a group of uniformed men, some policemen, some firemen, and some military, attacked a smoldering pile of brick and stone with their bare hands. A tall man in the green uniform of a policeman yelled for quiet. He tapped on a pipe which rose from the rubble. It pointed at the sky like an accusing finger. After a moment, the man pressed his ear down to the mound of debris. After a minute of listening, the officer stood and yelled for someone named Fritz. A young boy in a Hitler Youth uniform ran forward. The firemen sprayed his clothing down with water before he wormed his way into the rubble. He emerged five minutes later with a baby in his arms. Dead. One of the soldiers took the tiny victim in his arms and walked across the street. He gently placed the baby on the ground, as though it were a crib, alongside the bodies of ten other people. Some bore obvious signs of trauma, limbs askew, open wounds. Others looked as though they might have been sleeping and bore no outward marks of the savage pressure of a bomb blast which collapsed their lungs. Two had the rosy cheeks consistent with carbon monoxide poisoning. The soldier’s hands shook as he fumbled in his pocket for a cigarette. After several attempts to light it with a match, he flung it away and sank to the ground. His shoulders shook as he buried his face in his hands.
A dog whimpered as it limped down the street. Its ribs showed and the dog kept its tail tucked under his body. Music drifted from one of the buildings. A man sat at a piano on the ground floor, visible to the street after a bomb ripped the façade away. His fingers moved deftly over the keys and a Beethoven melody hung in the air. Nearby, a man sat on the ground with his arms wrapped around a large suitcase. He laughed as he rocked back and forth. A soldier detached himself from rescue work and asked the man if he needed any help. ‘No,’ the man said. ‘I’m taking my wife away from here.’ The soldier asked where the man’s wife was and he opened the suitcase to reveal a charred, shrunken corpse. The soldier tried to take the suitcase away and a brief struggle ensued. The man stood up and when he did, his wife’s corpse fell out of the suitcase and onto the street. ‘Now look what you’ve done,’ he said. ‘I hope you didn’t hurt her! I’ll talk to your commanding officer if you did!’ The soldier shook his head and walked away as the man gathered the corpse and put it back in his suitcase. He staggered down the street. His deep, guttural laughs echoed off the buildings.
Against the wall of a ruined drugstore, a teenage couple copulated furiously as the line of refugees moved past. The girl had her legs around the boy’s waist, her skirt hiked up far enough to expose the tops of her pale thighs. Her ankles were locked around the boy’s waist. She had her eyes closed. The ash and smoke turned her blonde hair a shade of gray. The boy wore the uniform of a Luftschutz worker, baggy dark blue coveralls with an arm band which marked him as a Hitler Youth volunteer. His helmet slid back and forth on his head as he thrust his hips towards the girl. The refugees averted their eyes as they walked past.
Further on, a man clad only in his underwear ran up to each refugee that passed and grabbed them by the arm. ‘Have you seen Ilse?’ he asked. ‘I can’t find Ilse! Please help me find Ilse!’ No one answered. He grew more frantic and ran to a fireman who stood over the body of a badly burned woman. She was alive and screaming. ‘Help me find my wife!’ the man yelled over the sound of the stricken woman’s cries. ‘Get away from me,’ the fireman growled. ‘Your wife is probably dead, like this woman will be if you don’t get away and let me work.’ The man ran down the street, still calling for his wife, as the fireman knelt beside the woman. His hand trembled as he smoothed a few strands of what little hair remained on her head. ‘There, there,’ he said. ‘You’ll be alright.’ Her chest rose as she drew a ragged breath. It escaped her chest with a sigh, and then she was still. The fireman drew the back of his forearm across his eyes and then walked away, his head hung low with fists clenched at his side.
Screams echoed from deep within a collapsed apartment building. Smoke drifted from the stones as a fire burned inside. Two firemen sprayed a single, impotent hose on the debris. ‘Can’t you do something?’ a civilian asked. ‘Listen to them! They are going to burn alive. Get them out!’ One of the firemen turned to him and said ‘With what? We barely have any water pressure. There’s no way to get to them. Don’t blame us. We didn’t drop the bombs.’ The man tried to grab the hose and the firemen felled him with one punch. The other fireman pulled a piece of chalk out of his pocket and walked over to the one remaining wall. He shook his head as he scrawled ’20 Tot’ on the gray surface and the firemen moved on. When the man who’d been knocked down regained his senses, he began to shift bricks around to make an opening to squeeze through. Satisfied he could make it, the man wormed his torso into the hole and yelled to the trapped people that help would arrive soon. No sooner had the words left his mouth than the rubble shifted and heavy blocks collapsed into the hole and left only his legs visible. They kicked once as blood began to seep from under the fallen bricks.