I am using November (National Novel Writing Month) to finish a project I’ve been working on for a while now, namely finishing my novel. It’s divided into 32 chapters. I’ve written 24. It should be finished within the next two weeks. What happens after that? Well, I don’t know. I have a Civil War novel to finish too. I’ll probably tackle that over Christmas Break, then return and work on revisions to this one. Or not. Who knows. Anyway, I’m sharing an excerpt with you in today’s post. I’ve partially shared it before, but it has been slightly revised, expanded, and edited a bit (thanks to a wise English professor friend, though if it sucks, it is my fault, not his). So this gives you a sneak peak. Or advanced look. Or whatever the hell you want to call it.
WARNING: This excerpt graphically describes the aftermath of an air raid on a nameless German city. Every vignette in this scene is as described to me by people who lived through it. All I did was collect them all and place them on the same street for dramatic purposes, but they actually happened. War is hell, and trying to sanitize it does no justice to the past. So if you are squeamish, you might want to give it a pass.
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 an infant. Cigarettes dangled from the boys’ mouths as they used a shovel to scoop the shrunken bodies from the pavement, tossing them in the bed of a truck before they 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 the girl. 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 expression 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 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 copper 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 baby from Fritz and cradled it in arms streaked with dirt and blood as he walked across the street. He gently placed the tiny child on the pavement, as though the street 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, bearing no outward marks of the savage pressure of a bomb blast which collapsed their lungs. Two had the rosy cheeks of a victim of carbon monoxide. The soldier’s hands shook as he stood over the tiny body he’d just placed in the street and 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, tail kept tucked beneath its body. The dog’s ribs were visible, ripples through skin stretched tight across its shoulders. 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 floated through 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. His guttural laugh echoed from the shattered buildings as he staggered down the street.
Against the wall of a ruined drugstore, a teenage couple copulated furiously as the line of refugees moved past. The girl’s legs were wrapped around the boy’s waist, her skirt hiked up far enough to expose the tops of her garters. Her ankles were locked behind him, and her eyes closed. The ash and smoke turned her blonde hair a shade of gray as though it were the color of a corpse. The boy also wore the uniform of a Luftschutz worker, baggy dark blue coveralls with an arm band which marked him as a Hitler Youth volunteer. The refugees averted their eyes as they filed by.
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 in pain and fear. ‘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. The air left her body 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 and his 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 fireman 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 and scrawled ’20 Tot’ on the gray surface, and the men moved on. When the man who had 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. As he said the words, the rubble shifted and heavy blocks collapsed into the hole, leaving only his legs visible. They kicked once as blood began to seep from under the fallen bricks.