Daniel remembered fishing with his father just four months earlier at a small lake near the Czech border. It had been a tradition for years, but Daniel knew now that it couldn't continue. His father had never been a patient man, but he possessed a strong attention to detail, which only grew stronger over the years. Making sure the fishing pole had no scratches, ensuring that the line wasn't about to wear out. And worms, always a full box of writhing earthworms. Blind and senseless creatures. His father could spend a full minute hooking just one worm, and he insisted on preparing both poles. Daniel always ignored it. Instead he sat by the lake in those twilight hours, his eyes following the line out into the hidden world beneath the water's surface. He used to marvel when thinking about what could be down there and what they might haul out of that water if they tried. His father's love, though, was one thing that could never be hauled away.
All traces of those days and that tradition had left him by now, scurried away into small corners and cracks in the earth. Now, from the cover of a barn, he looked across a field in harsh, ghoulish moonlight as three figures staggered closer. Behind him, Daniel could hear the breathing of the sleeping platoon of soldiers. They were mostly young men and he shared many things with them. Their hardships, their joys and the difficulty in keeping the nether impulses at bay. With his rifle he took aim at the three men, but he sincerely hoped they would lose their way and wander away. He trembled when imagining what would happen, if any of the men behind him awoke.
The three figures suddenly stopped some fifty meters away. They turned and looked at the forest they had just walked out of and then each raised a hand in what looked like a salute. Daniel imagined some obscure ritual, a praise to the sun to help it clear the horizon for another day. He could hear the muffled voices of the three as they shouted something, a prayer no doubt. Maybe they were pleading for the night to last a bit longer, so they could venture on a bit farther. Before someone, one of the immense number of soldiers roaming the countryside these days, would find them and butcher them. Then they walked on, northward, away from Daniel and the soldiers slumbered behind him. Like ghosts they passed on. He lowered his rifle and calmly continued his waiting. He wanted to remember the day he fished with his father, but it seemed the three figures had stolen that remembrance.
The invasion of Russia was barely a month old, and yet it seemed they had advanced so far that the maps had become useless. The fields behind them was nothing compared to what was in front of them. The vastness of the land was growing, it seemed. Each time they took a piece of land there appeared to be more of it.
An hour passed, and the sun rose. The light hurt Daniel's eyes as he peered out across the field and into the woods. He felt the warm putrid breath of the morning heat on him. This dawn promised another sweltering day. His eyes were heavy yet alert as he watched the brightening expanses. He could feel himself slipping further away. Instead he thought of the word “prophet” and remembered yesterday morning and the Russian soldiers they killed.
It was in the afternoon. The predawn air bombardment had made capturing the small supply depot easy. There was not much in the way of resistance. When it was over, Daniel sat and stared at the dismembered body of a boy on the ground. The charred flesh and the protruding bones made the corpse look unearthly, as if it was not supposed to be there.
He heard a cheer and saw a small gathering next to a burning car. Making his way into the crowd, he saw Herman kneeling at the center of it. He was carving a swastika into the chest of a moaning enemy soldier and feebly tried to fend off Herman's knife. Blood gushed from the deep cuts, and Daniel watched life slowly depart the young man despite his efforts. Daniel was no longer surprised, or even outraged, at scenes like this. He looked at the group of soldiers watching. He knew all of them expected a man quite a bit older than the rest. Daniel couldn't remember seeing him before but it didn't surprise him. With the number of troops taking part in the invasion, there would be new faces. Daniel looked at him, watching the horizon.
“Here comes the prophet.”
The soldier spoke in a grisly voice. Daniel thought the madness of his words should have been explained. The soldier's eyes scanned the horizon, and then he walked away. Someone should pardon him for his words. The whole scene seemed to breed monsters. The crowd slowly disbanded but Herman didn't seem to notice, he was far too preoccupied with the precision of his mutilation. There was very little remarkable about that yesterday afternoon.
Daniel now watched the drowsy soldiers step out of the barn he had been guarding, carelessly stretching and moaning, trying to expel sleep from their bodies. Small sighs of fatigue crept into Daniel's bones as the platoon commander knelt down next to him.
“Did you spot anything in the night?”
He considered which answer would cause the least trouble.
“We have no orders at the moment. I expect we'll stay put until noon. Get some sleep.”
Daniel nodded and then rose and walked away. He had fallen asleep several times during the night but didn't feel the need to share that fact. Each time he had awoken to the sound of a heavy heartbeat. He was beginning to pull his dreams into the world only to watch them crumble soon after. He stopped under a tree and took a deep and unsupervised breath. The winds were picking up, driven onward by the sun. Daniel closed his eyes, thinking of the night. A dark so deep it could swallow and keep everything, even memories from ever being seen again. He wondered if blind prophets had ever seen what they prophesied. The winds stopped for a moment and he could smell the scent of decay in the ground. As if he were standing beside an open grave, watching it become ever wider and deeper.
He noticed a truck coming closer. It was an army truck, but Daniel thought it looked wayward coming down the road. He walked inside the barn and found a dim corner. Putting his head on the ground, he prayed for a sleep free of dreams. He would have no such luck. Distorted images instantly preyed on him. He felt like a crow flying just below the clouds.
The fields stretched out to the north and south. The woods lay to the east and the village farther back to the west. Strewn across the earth where all the corpses he had seen so far, and even those he had preyed on. The first one was there too, the old woman sitting by the apple tree, still bleeding from her shredded shoulder and what was left of her face. Her body sat in perfect peace, speaking not a single word of the violence it had suffered. Then there were the others, soldiers mostly. The one rotting in a swamp. He had died defending his dog, it seemed. Then the priest. Rasputin, the other soldiers named him, as they nailed him to a large pine tree. His screams were high-pitched at first and then turned guttural. The school they burned was no more than two days travel west. The teacher pleaded until she seemed to cry blood. She didn't make a sound as she was raped, though.
Daniel opened his eyes and knew that he hadn't slept. The dreams had refused it. He rose to his knees and suddenly noticed the silence. Nothing moved. Daniel waited a moment for something to happen, but nothing did. The silence settled heavily upon the ground. There was suddenly nothing in the world except possibilities and Daniel relished the unknown of it all.
A loud and garish voice shot the silence dead. Daniel knew it was Gunther, a simpleton wrapped in the clothes of a massive figure. Daniel spotted him at the barn entrance.
“Good job yesterday, Daniel, didn’t know you were that good with a rifle.”
Daniel remained sitting and silent, and Gunther quickly lost interest. He turned and walked away. Daniel then rose and joined the others outside in the now harsh sunlight.
The rest of the 253rd Infantry division was still pouring in from the west. A lot more had arrived since the morning. Soldiers clustered around the barn, the only structure on the field while the officers held court near the remnants of a horse carriage.
Daniel made his way to the supply depot to get some water. He drank and looked beyond the soldiers at the corn swaying in the wind. The sun had begun its descent, but only just.
Half the soldiers suddenly began walking. Daniel hadn't heard any orders shouted but noticed they were each carrying a shovel.
Suddenly, the barn started to burn. The fire almost instantly engulfed the old wood. The sound of the flames seemed senseless and ever repeating.
The sound of the other soldiers digging next to the fire was almost mute, as if happening in a different time. He remembered himself digging a hole a week ago.
The ground had been soft, fertile, and he could easily imagine so many things living in it and off it. He remembered the bodies. They dumped them from the trucks and onto the ground. He remembered the muted noises from shoving his shovel into the corpses on the ground, then hauling them into the pit. The faces were lost to him, but he still remembered the corpse of an old man when it clung onto his shovel, pleading, with the whole history of human dignity in a single look.
Daniel looked at the soldiers digging in the sunlight. He toyed, as he had done more and more frequently, with the idea of his being here in some other time. In five years, maybe, or ten, when the sacred work had been completed and the land had been cleansed. Then he could be here. With everyone gone and only the descendants of the people from back home. He had read about the Americans doing the same going west, so why should the east be any different? He would enjoy the warm days and marvel, and he would not feel the nausea he did now.
He heard footsteps and they made him turn. He saw Herman approach.
“There you are, Daniel. Here’s some coffee.”
“Did you sleep well?”
“Good to hear. Any bad dreams?”
He thought for a moment before answering, recalling the ghosts he had seen in the moonlight. The ghosts with the bloodshot eyes.
“No, no dreams. Time just stopped, or moved on without me, you know. Whatever, I was gone. What about you?”
“Not really. But we did have a little chat about when we might see any more Russians, even if only their backs as they run away.”
“What's the word from High Command?”
“Nothing too specific, but apparently the Russians are fleeing east like crazy.”
“As they should, if they have any sense.”
“Exactly, Daniel! Well, they are pulling us off the line.”
“All of us?”
“No, just the two of us. We are escorting a prisoner back to division for interrogation and then maybe they'll send him back home. A local, apparently.”
“He fought with the Russians?”
“No, he's a descendant of the old German settlers, so there is some doubt about him. Or so I've been told. You know how serious these things are, Daniel. They've got to get his lineage right. That's what's important. We leave in ten minutes.”
Herman left, making his way to the truck. Daniel wondered if anyone had bothered to confirm the lineage of the family of five they burned alive three days ago.
He picked up his rifle and followed Herman.
The skeleton of the burning barn broke and collapsed in on itself in a large breath of flames. By the end, only the ashes could tell what had been here. A new barn would be built upon the cinders and it would look the same, exactly the same. For all intents and purposes, it would be the same, only it won't be the same.
Daniel caught sight of a massive smoke column on the horizon to the south. The dark cloud rose silently as it reached towards the sun.
“Yes, there is some real fighting happening. Shame we can't be there. Anyway, come on Daniel, we have to go,” Herman said.
Daniel hesitated, imagining the conflagration at the feet of that dark and terrible cloud. Kiev was ahead, somewhere to the east. The soldiers around him were preparing to move. He thought of a massive beast crawling across a map, and he felt left behind. It was as if time were moving away from him at greater speed. Maybe it would soon be lost over the horizon. He thought about Hitler, back west, setting this whole thing in motion, but then he noticed that that was wrong. Inside and underneath all of this, there was something moving forward on its own accord. His thinking failed him, and he was left with nothing but a feeling. He turned and abandoned his thoughts in the meadow at his feet.
The truck was parked in the shadow of the burning barn. In the back sat Herman with an older man. Daniel jumped on and they drove off.
“Daniel, meet Artur.”
The old man extended his hand. Daniel was suspicious and it wasn't until he noticed that Herman’s rifle was on the floor that he shook Artur's hand. They were back on the road, driving over a hill with the sun on their right, complacently watching and going about its business.
They passed a vehicle burnt beyond recognition, with three corpses next to it. Two of them were bloated, the last one was shredded and in pieces. Daniel wondered why there were no scavengers feeding on the carrion.
Artur suddenly said, “I have been watching you since you got here. All of you. I heard your tanks role into the main square. It was quite a thing to see. Inevitable, I suppose.”
Herman smiled and said, “Where do you live?”
“Just north of here, the town with the twin church spires.”
“Haven't been there. One of the old settlements?”
“Exactly. My family came here in the 1835 and settled here. They were rich too, marrying into the founding family in 1905.”
“I guess you are pretty lucky they didn't marry into any of the Jewish families, huh?” Herman spat the words out of his mouth.
“I guess so, yes. There weren't any laws back then, you see. Where are you from?”
“I grew up in Berlin, Daniel here is from Munich.”
“I have never been to Germany. I couldn’t find the time to visit and now the Germans are coming to take me there. Its uncanny, really.”
“You are in for a treat, Artur. Everything is much, much better. The system works now that the right man is leading the way. Make sure you visit Nuremburg, too.”
“Yes, I have heard a lot of talk these last few years. I've been expecting you. But not like this. You see, my wife died not long ago. She was close with God, especially at the end. She began preaching . . . oh, I won't bore you with that. Going by what I have seen this past week or so, I believe she was right. First the Russians and now this. No, this time it is the end of a way of life.”
The truck suddenly stopped. Daniel leaned out and saw the driver get out and talk to a group of soldiers standing by a half track. He could just make out a large group of civilians standing farther back.
A family lay in a watery ditch next to the road, looking like tossed ragdolls. The father had a hole in his skull the size of an apple. His wife and young daughter lay close to him; their clothes were missing.
Artur kept talking. “It won't be long now. Time has stopped. You can almost see it, just down the road. I don’t know if we are moving closer to it or if it moves closer to us, but the time is now.”
Daniel looked back down the road. The pillars of ash and ruin were still rising. Herman had stopped paying attention, but Daniel kept listening.
“You see, movement is everything, it makes the world go forward. Time is not something we move through. It's not some river we sail on. No, time moves forward. The past is dead, as is history. Relics of a motion that can only flow one direction. It pushes us, we push back and together reality moves forward.”
Large crows were pecking at the girl in the water. The spine was peering out of the girl's back.
“You've rolled in with your trucks, your tanks, your boots and you have left more bodies strewn across the ground than I thought there were people in the world. This is truly the end.”
The crows screamed as the truck started moving again. They flew just off the ground and landing again when the truck had passed, as if barely noticing the inconvenience.
Artur looked at Daniel. “Behold, that I am its prophet as I march. They want to know about the Jews hiding in the area, or what families they should be looking at. It won't matter. Time has stopped. Just down the road, time waits for us to join it at the end.”
“Where on earth did you hear such nonsense?”
Daniel hadn't noticed Herman was paying attention again, until he spoke.
“We need to know about those people, Artur. The process is easier with help from the locals. And you, certainly, should help us carry out the work.”
“Time will stop. It will cease moving. The very essence of time and memory is its sequence. One thing follows another. No reason or explanation is needed. It just does. And without it, absurdity will take over. Storytelling, memory, remembrance and even language itself will freeze to death. Imagine a story where the first sentence, the last sentence and every word in between is read at the same time. Nonsense!”
“Don't listen to him, Daniel. He's been a little too close a friend of the local vodka provider, obviously. A friend of mine told me about this yesterday when they brought in the mongrels from the south.”
Arthur continued, seemingly ignoring Herman. “Down the road, a bit farther on, that’s the place. Time has sensed the motion of history and soon there will be no more. Nothing. These crows will fall from the sky. The songs of the wind will be replaced by a numbing silence. Hollow men with burning, bloodshot eyes will wander the steppes, collecting peoples different from themselves and extinguishing them.”
The truck rolled on down the bumpy road, pausing every so often to navigate around the water pools that persisted. The body of a young boy lay beached with his legs still floating. His skull had been stumped beyond recognition.
Herman rolled his eyes and chuckled. “You hear that Daniel, now he's talking about ghosts walking around out here. I mean— “
“No. No, you're wrong, Herman. Not ghosts, there are no such things. Where is your reason, young man? And there, right there, we will be. Bathed in blood, walking towards the end.”
The truck slowed to allow a larger group of prisoners to pass. Daniel looked for a moment, but once he recognized what they were, he turned away.
Artur fell silent, straightened his back and put his hands on his knees. His eyes lost focus and veered off into some unseen world. Daniel caught sight of the five or six bodies on the ground just beyond the road. They were in a pile, partly covered by the tall grass. The ones at the bottom looked like a big bundle of discarded clothes. On top were two men lying on their backs. The first one was a foreign soldier, a wrinkled uniform with both his hands missing at the elbows. The throat of the second one was laid open, and a large gash ripped across his face, flaying the skin from his left cheek, his nose, eyes and forehead. Both his eyes were missing.
Artur mumbled under his breath, “Whatever is not becoming has ended.”
Herman feigned a wave as the last row of prisoners walked past and cleared the road ahead for the truck. Daniel watched the column of prisoners walk away. He knew they were marching into oblivion, the sound of their boots being their only eulogy.
Looking ahead, he thought of the fishing lake again. His father's face was gone but he could make out his figure, sitting by the water's edge. He thought of the girl he brought to the lake some time ago. Even now, he smiled when thinking about what it felt like to have her. Her face and appearance had both been completely erased from his memory, but the feeling remained. A perfect wholeness that had been theirs, and yet strangely completely his alone. A moment of unknowable joy and peace.
After reaching the top of another hill, a small town on the fringe of a forest came into view. Watching the town through the noise, it seemed suddenly possible that the world was still unscathed, somehow. The road curved a bit to the right and the noise seemed suddenly replaced by a heavy silence.
When he had left the town two days ago, coming east, Daniel hadn't noticed the four hanged Russian soldiers dangling from the line of oak trees. He watched them closely this time. The faces were flat and stone-like. It was then that he noticed the ropes they hung by. They had not used a slipknot. Each man had died by the simplest knot imaginable.
They arrived at the prisoner deportation site at the center of town. Three soldiers met them at the gate. Daniel looked intently at them, each in turn. He was stunned to find that he couldn't tell them apart.
Herman said, “Hello boys, here's your prisoner.”
Two of the soldiers escorted Artur through the barricades and into the town hall which the army had appropriated. The third soldier remained, squinting at the sky. The town hall had a clock tower. The hands had stopped moving.
Herman said to the remaining soldier, “It looks like you have been busy here.”
They chatted while Daniel looked around. The town was old but not as old as the ground it stood on. The masonry buildings were worn but not damaged. Even the small garden at the center of the square looked well. None of the windows displayed the flickering of candle lights. Instead they appeared as black holes in the masonry walls, masked only by thin curtains. He heard fragments of their conversation before he stepped away.
“. . . at one point we ran out of bullets and had to use our bayonets for almost an hour. That was a long night, let me tell you. Each of them grabbed hold of the rifle as if trying to hold on to life just for a minute longer. It was pathetic, really. There was nowhere to go . . .”
Long before it had been the center of a small community, the town had been a camping ground for travelers leaving the east for the west, or the opposite. The nearby river had good clean mountain water and the forest, though smaller now, provided the rest. He could see the black grave again, widening further, and he could feel himself slipping further away.
“. . . didn't scream at all, even when we shot the parents, so they came last. . .”
Daniel head Herman and the soldier still talking, and the conversation pulled him back into his body. He felt his soul being lacerated as he again saw the world. He spotted three old men walking by. They avoided his eyes as if they were trying not to look at the nightmare that had crept up, as the sun was coming down.
“Alright, have a good night.” Herman stepped away from the entrance and joined Daniel.
“Come on Daniel, let's get out of here.”
Herman slapped Daniel's back, and they both crossed the square. When they reached the opposite corner, they saw two girls approaching the square. Herman brushed against Daniel's shoulder and said, “Hey Daniel, that’s the girl I was telling you about the other day. Give me a minute. Wait here.”
Daniel saw the two girls but didn't know which one Herman was going to talk to. The girls froze when they saw Herman coming their way. They quickly exchanged a glance and the blond one hurried away. The girl left standing had chestnut hair and brown eyes to match. She looked like she didn't belong, her regal profile putting her at odds with the buildings around her. Daniel couldn’t hear the conversation, so he watched the girl instead. Her delicate hands were pulled to her chest and her body moved in small quakes whenever Herman tried to touch her, yet she never lost her regal appearance and concealed pride. The eyes alone contained her anger.
Herman turned and walked back to Daniel. “That's her, Daniel. Just look at her, I've always wanted to try a Slav. What do you think?”
Herman's tone implied that he needed a response.
“I think she's beautiful.”
They started walking out of the town.
“Yeah. I think she is pregnant with another guy's kid but you know, whatever. Maybe I can knock that loose and give her a proper human child, you know. Hey, did you hear they shot 5000 yesterday? I saw it. Or maybe I dreamt it. I told you about that, the things that you can only imagine because you can't believe such a thing. Your mind can't conceive of it. So, it must be true.”
The masonry buildings quickly gave way to wooden houses and the sounds of the cobblestones were replaced by the mute mud. The sun's last light lit the path from the town toward the woods.
“Where are we going, Herman? I have been thinking about that nonsense Artur said. About time stopping or whatever. I have figured it out. Fear. It makes people do or say the strangest things.”
Herman looked at Daniel. “It feels good, doesn't it. To have them bowing and hearing them talk nonsense. Now that's real power.”
Daniel nodded in reply. Just before leaving the town outskirts they came to the remnants of a barn. Only two of the walls remained.
“Now, what's this?”
The light was fading but not fast enough.
The two bodies strung up on it were dressed in typical rural clothes. The man had on a grey woolen overcoat. His head had been taken by somebody. The woman wore a black jacket and blouse. The jacket was open and the blouse was torn, baring her chest and stomach. Her pants were torn as well. Some blood had run down onto her breasts. Her beautiful brown eyes, encased in a lifeless white matter, gazed at the ground.
“Well, that guard wasn't kidding, they really have been busy out here.”
Daniel's jaw became lax and he let out an inaudible breath of sour air. He could see her cry for mercy when they had put her up on that wall.
“Just look at her.”
Herman began fidgeting with his pants. “She even reminds me of some of the girls back home. Gorgeous, I mean really.”
Daniel heard a shuffle, then Herman's breathing grew heavier.
“Would you mind walking a little bit ahead, Daniel, I'll catch up soon. There is a tavern just beyond the trees, you'll see.”
Daniel walked away. He was growing ever more afraid. Afraid of opening his eyes and seeing what was everywhere that he looked. Afraid of what would happen if he simply stopped thinking and joined the ranks, if he just let go and slipped away altogether. He wept when thinking he had to watch yet another dream collapse. He resolved not to dream again. Just ignore the impulse and if he ever needed respite again, he would settle for the darkness behind his closed eyes.
Soon he could make out the tavern through the trees. The image in the dark calmed him, shielding his eyes. He stopped and looked. Four windows with light pouring out. Almost like a small row of markers, promising comforts and forgetfulness. Faintly, he could hear Herman running towards him and then catching up.
“Now, the power of fear is nothing new, obviously, but just think of the freedom it gives us. We can just run wild.”
Suddenly, Artur's words shot through Daniel's mind. Behold, that I am its prophet as I march…
They arrived at the tavern and stepped inside. Making their way to the bar, Daniel noticed it was empty except for a short man sitting at a table. He was talking to himself.
“I tell you, it's the most uncanny thing I ever did see.”
Miroslaw looked about him and realized he was talking to no one. He watched the two soldiers walk to the bar, their rifles slung over their shoulders, their footsteps soft. They sat down at the bar and ordered two beers. Miroslaw looked at their backs. “The word here is that the invasion is exceeding all expectations. Is that what it looks like to you?”
Herman finished his gulp and said, “In a word; fantastic. The forward troops are breaking their way across the land. They are taking some casualties but nothing to be concerned about. Moscow won't be standing by the time we salute the new year. It'll be a flat piece of land. Erased.”
Miroslaw kept staring at the three men as he spoke. A strange chuckle crept into his voice as he continued. “All of them have stopped, every single one. How is that even possible? This has to be a sign of something. I went to talk with Ishmael about it, he has the shop next to mine, but he was gone. I couldn't find him anywhere, gone. His wife, too.”
The bartender scoffed. “Meet Miroslaw. He makes clocks in a shop behind city hall. A great shame, he says, that he can't see the town clock from his window.”
“All the clocks in my shop have stopped! All of them.”
Daniel turned and looked at Miroslaw. He wondered how this person could have survived here for so long. “Really? When was this?”
“I woke up this morning and none of the hands were moving.”
Herman smirked. “Don't worry about it, my friend. With all the changes we are making here you'll need new clocks anyway.”
“But I do worry, soldier. I do. Just as I worry about the holes you have dug in the forest to the north. I used to take walks in those woods.” Miroslaw fervently scratched his right cheek and continued. “Not after what I saw today. No… No, no! No, the clocks have all stopped.”
The four men fell silent, only the creaking of the wooden stools continued. Then Daniel said, “Can you fix them, make them move again?”
The hope in Daniel's voice was misplaced, and he knew it, but somehow, he couldn’t help himself.
“Who… Who's going to do all that work? I tell you, it's much too much.”
Herman finished his beer and looked at the barkeep. “My good sir, would you happen to have accommodation for two weary warriors who feel like indulging in some luxury away from the garrison?”
“Yes, I believe so. If you'll follow me.”
Herman followed the barkeep through the door behind the bar. Daniel watched them and was surprised when suddenly Miroslaw was standing next to him.
“I don't know what to do when time no longer moves forward.”
Daniel looked at the man and saw that he had been wrong. This man was here to bear witness, not take part. The door opened again, and the barkeep said, “Let's go, soldier. I have found you a bed for the night.”
Daniel nodded and turned back to Miroslaw as he rose from the barstool.
He towered over the little man but he felt no inkling of power, as he had expected. Instead he thought of Artur again and felt there was nothing he could say. Neither horror nor redemption would offer this man anything.
Daniel followed the barkeep and left the clockmaker alone in an empty room. He wanted to lie down and close his eyes.
Daniel awoke instinctively, doubting that the day had moved further. He watched Herman shoulder his rifle and leave the room. He didn't remember falling asleep and was unsure if he had slept at all. He was still unbearably tired. In the few moments before the world fully invaded his mind, he enjoyed a blissful oblivion that didn't take something from him, one way or another. His dreams had to be left alone. Daniel didn’t want them destroyed, as if the weight of his gaze upon them would undo them. And the world, he simply didn't want to see it anymore, if he had any choice in the matter.
He thought about this as he sat up on the bed, looked outside, and saw four or five soldiers dragging bodies across the small meadow. He then heard a truck approach, though he couldn't see it. The window frame captured a blue sky and a serene sun-lit field of tall leaves swaying in the gentle wind. Daniel kept looking as the last soldiers dragging the warm remains slid out of view. The truck, too, was out of frame when the engine was turned off.
It was as if the very notion that these things had ever existed became absurd. Daniel froze when he realized this, keeping only the empty frame in view. The warm day was rising, and Daniel desperately wanted to preserve this pleasant silence. In his mind he would sit in that meadow and just watch the sun wander across the sky and know that the day was moving forward. He would see his father again. Sitting by the cold lake. And there would be a merciful silence. He would have her again. Tender, consuming moments blotting out the leering face of time. Making it carry on its business.
“Hey, Daniel, let's go.”
Herman's voice murdered the moving sun and everything else Daniel could think of in the moment. Suddenly, there was an intense hatred for the man. A hatred that couldn't bear its own weight and then fell away. He then collected his things and walked outside. He saw Herman standing next to a group of five soldiers and the truck he heard before. Herman spotted him and waved him over. Herman explained what had happened.
“As these guys were just telling me they got four of them. Russian soldiers that had escaped from detention sometime in the night. Looks like they chose the wrong road out.”
Daniel stared at it, blood dripping from the back of the truck onto the ground. It resembled nothing at all. It brought no images to Daniel's mind, only the unwanted knowledge that the world he had seen through the window frame was lost forever. It was nothing but blood cooling in the warm sunlight.
“Daniel, what's the matter?”
Daniel looked at Herman, wishing himself to be someone else, anywhere else in the world.
“Get your stuff and let's get back to town. They need a few bodies at the detention center, so we'll head there now.”
They left the tavern grounds and had just cleared the trees when they spotted Miroslaw standing in the road next to the strung-up bodies they had seen yesterday. Miroslaw was looking at the corpses and sobbing.
Herman spoke harshly but nothing happened. The sobbing continued, and Miroslaw’s tears soaked his shirt. They kept looking at him, as if trying to read something on his skin. Some indication of when he might stop or speak. A minute passed but nothing changed. Herman's face soon lost its otherwise blank expression and then looked uncomfortably strained.
Daniel stepped in front of Miroslaw and looked into his eyes. The steady stream of tears persisted, but there was nothing left. It was as if he were almost hollow, and the tears were emptying him.
They were about to leave when they happened to look at the wall. Someone had scribbled on it during the night, in blood.
No mercy for vultures and beasts.
The sobbing suddenly stopped.
“Time has ended, my friends. And those words will be the last utterance.”
The silence Daniel and Herman walked through on their way back to the town was ominous. Daniel looked at Herman and noticed his hands. With the fingers on his right hand he was fingering the palm of the left. It was a tender motion but the dirt on his skin remained. Daniel looked at the man and could finally see the animal, utterly seduced by horror and viciousness.
When they reached the town square, life seemed to exist around them again. The local commander at the internment camp put them both on yard patrol since he was missing three soldiers that had deserted two days earlier.
“I was born in a house by the lake, just south of here. Have you been there? My mother was fond of saying I was born in the middle of the night, the same time the wolf delivers her pups. Fewer dangers, you understand. My mother wrapped me and held me through that first night of my life. I am not fierce like the wolf, but I am a survivor, until now it would seem. My grandfather made that table on which I was born. He made it from a huge oak tree. Where were you born?”
Daniel looked at the old woman but couldn’t find the proper expression. A group of six prisoners in tattered cloths caught his eye. They gazed at him with terror and boundless fury, in equal measure. The sun was almost down. It had been a long day sitting in the prisoner yard, watching living ghosts and warding off pleasant memories.
Daniel said, “I was born in Nuremburg.”
The old woman pondered this a bit. “Is that near the ocean? I have always wanted to see the ocean.”
“No, it's not.” He looked at the fence sealing the internment camp, then back at the old woman sitting on the ground next to him. She was about to be called in for questioning, and he wished they would be quicker about it.
“Shame. Have you ever seen the ocean?” She smiled at him. The white scarf covering the old mother's head came loose from the wind, exposing her colorless hair which fluttered subtlety.
“No, I haven't.”
“No, I haven't.”
She repeated his words back to him, to make sure he had heard them.
“You haven't seen much of anything, have you, friend? How long have you been here?”
“Some weeks now, I guess.”
She looked up at the single cloud in the sky like she was reading a secret and then said, “That town I was born in is gone now, that house is gone. I have never seen a map, so I can't say how far you have come, but I can tell you that you have come too far.”
She looked back at him and continued. “I was never born. My birthplace has been erased. I don’t know where my husband is. I don’t know where my sons and daughters are. I don’t know where my neighbor is. I don't know where the warm days have gone. I don't know where I am.”
“You are where you shouldn't be!” Daniel's attempt at anger fell far short of what he felt.
“I don't know what time means anymore.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Isn't there supposed to be a time coming? Even after we die there will be a time to come, for those surviving us. Tomorrow, that's what we say, isn't it? Yes, everything will look better in the morning. That’s what we say. All those tomorrows to look forward to. Soon, there won't be any. Not for you, either.”
Daniel rose from his chair and towered over her, but she was not cowed. “Whatever are you saying?”
“The world will stop. It will end, even before it has time to end you. I am sure strangers have told you, no doubt. They mourn the world even while they are still in it. Such inventions. Look about you.”
The door leading inside to the interrogation barrack opened.
“Get moving, old bitch!”
The last word tore at his throat as it came out. She trotted inside. Just before reaching the door she turned to Daniel again.
“Families are hugging trees instead of each other because they are confused which is which. Children who can't understand why their parents are lying dead in the open graves in the pines forest. They uncoil from what they see and then they hug the trees. They do, until death welds them together. I know all of this. And . . . and, I want to be someone else.”
Daniel looked at the prisoners looking at her, until he heard the door close. Their attention scattered with the metallic sound, and they resumed their torpor. The world froze as he wandered through his memory library. He saw his father again by the lake he knew. Only the water had been drained and replaced by a black crater. His father stood upon a rock, elevated. A blind and silent prophet with nothing left to say.
Daniel walked down the length of the camp, stopping at the last corner, hoping to have lost some of the nausea and pain he felt. He hadn't.
In trying to steady his breath he spotted a couple inside the camp. A man and a woman were on their knees, digging a small hole in the ground. They paused and looked at each other. There was a silent exchange, but Daniel felt certain it was a game of some sort, meant to keep them occupied until they were released. Then he saw them lift a small bundle from the ground and put it in the hole.
Daniel almost buckled as all energy and air were snapped away from him. His mind radiated pain his body had no choice but to take. He hobbled on, feeling the sight and the smells as so very many memories forced their way through him. There was no order and there was nothing he could do. There was no escaping what he had become; alone.
Alone and mad.
Time stopped and when it started again it was dark. He was walking out of the prison yard, next to Herman. Walking to the square they spotted the girl again. As if it were meant to be.
“There she is. Come on, Daniel.”
Daniel was barely able to remember how one thing followed another. The vomit was searing. He couldn't expel it, the corrosion inside wouldn't fade.
Herman led the way across the square toward the girl. Daniel followed but his mind was reeling. He saw the girl walking away, turning to see if they were coming towards her. He noticed the round belly, and he saw in her face the face of absolute horror. Her regal features remained, and a subtle beauty radiated from her. Daniel's body kept moving but his soul wanted to escape. Or to have time stop right there. Perhaps a plea would make time itself stop and not have the world endure anymore.
She left the square by a small street leading nowhere, and they followed.
Herman shouted just as he broke into a run. “Hey! Hey, wait!”
The street was deserted, and it looked like it always had been. Daniel kept walking and soon lost sight of the two as they disappeared behind a large tree. The hands responsible for the laying of the last stretch of cobblestone were long gone, and there were no voices left to tell of them. The sky was nothing but the ugliest shade of grey as the last light was leaving.
Daniel stood alone in the dirt road at the edge of some hidden wilderness. Behind him the town loomed like a memory. He listened to the noises coming from behind the tree. There was nothing but muffled speech.
I know, and I want to be someone else.
The words kept spinning around his head, and pain tremored through his soul, until he had to say them aloud.
“I know…. I know, and I want to be someone else.”
Daniel listened intently and looked around, but nothing seemed changed. He remembered Miroslaw and now suddenly felt his despair. His certainty that all was about to come to an end.
The dreadful noises in the dark became louder, an invisible struggle. The sound of shrubbery giving way under a weight of some kind. A visceral knowledge cracked open within him and once again Daniel could feel himself slipping away.
He could hear painful whimpers coming from behind the tree. Her unborn child will die. She would live on but scarred too deeply, so her lineage would stop here. Her most private moments would forever be poisoned, and the scars would be visible as well as deep. She would join the countless others he had seen on his way. A would-be mother thrown into the dirt. Daniel rubbed his bloodshot eyes and began walking back to the village.
With each step he felt in danger of shedding his human form and exposing something terrible underneath. The few people he met in the town recoiled from him, as if they could see something different in him and it made them shudder. He walked through the town and kept going until it was a distant sight on the horizon. Daniel kept walking.
It was day again.
He passed a large house and a barn, both on fire, with a group of soldiers standing next to it. The screams of the people trapped inside could only just be heard over the sound of the soldier's laughing. Still walking, he looked at them. One soldier spotted him and smiled in salute. There was nothing in his eyes but black blood.
Daniel kept walking.
Behold, that I am its prophet as I march to the end of time.
An empty sky presided over the quiet countryside. Off to his left Daniel could see a group of people, a bulldozer and a truck. They all stood still, inanimate in the calmly passing winds. Most of the group then fell to the ground. He heard small popping sounds, and then nothing. Daniel felt he had been nullified and pushed out of history. He began to wonder if the world had stopped. There were no clouds, no leaves on the trees, nothing to tell of movement. Then, looking ahead, he saw something he couldn't describe. It made him run.
And there it was, just down the road, time had stopped.