The Right Kind of Treason
I hated war. It tears people apart, or at least that's what I used to think. It scares me to think how empty my life would have been if there had been no war.
In 1944 I had my sixteenth birthday. I was living with my mother and my older sister Francie then in a small stone house in a village between Neustrelitz and Lake Müritz, about 100km from Berlin. My father had been killed in December 1940 in France and my older brother Ludovic had gone missing in action the year after.
Sometimes my mother's brother, Uncle Pieter, would come and stay for a few days every month to help mother when she sunk into a black depression as he lived in Berlin- a mere sixty kilometres away. My uncle was still a young man-he hadn't even reached his thirties when the war began- but he didn't see much action; he lost his sight to a grenade in 1938, rendering him 'useless' for the remainder of the war.
It was a month after my birthday and a month to Christmas when the news came through; five Russian prisoners of war had escaped from the camp at Neuruppin. Four of the five had been caught and shot on the spot only miles from the camp. The fifth was still on the run. Anyone found to be aiding the prisoner was to be shot without trial. My family heard the news from Uncle Pieter on his next visit. I was not quite sure what to make of it but I knew that I didn't agree with my mother. She made her views known as soon as Uncle told us. "Vermin," she spat. "Murdering bastards! They've killed my husband, they've killed my son and I shall kill them if I see them!" She had worked herself up so much that she was in danger of having a fit and I had to coax her to bed, promising her that I would look after uncle and cook the supper.
As the water boiled for the potatoes I pondered what I would do if I came across one of the Russians. I supposed that they weren't really at fault and it was either shoot or be killed. I knew that if my brother were in such a position as the escapees then I would want someone to help him.
In the summer I had gotten a job of sorts down at the hospital in Neugritz, as I couldn't stand to be at home. My mother cried down curses on the British, the Americans, the Russians, and the French-anyone on the opposite side of the battlefield. Francie would be grieving for her husband, Felix-a constant source of worry as he was in the thick of the fighting. She also had a little six-month-old baby, begot on Felix's time at home last year when he was recovering from a fist-sized hole in his chest.
I suppose I selfishly wanted to escape into another world where I realised how lucky I was to be a girl-not to be forced into taking up arms. I used to be able to retreat to the unused bunker in the woods where Ludovic, Francie and I used to play when we were little but I realised that my time could be better spent.
The Casualties were men who had been shoddily patched up before being sent on for treatment. Often wounds that had been bandaged had become gangrenous and more than often these poor soldiers ended up losing the limb if they weren't treated immediately. I applied for nursing training and certificates but I was told I was still too young to obtain them so my job was comforter and morale booster. When nurses were all rushed off their feet the Matron would ask me to administer morphine or change bandages or bedclothes but I usually sat by the rickety cold metal beds and talked with the soldiers in ward B-apparently the most suitable for a young girl like me according to matron. Sometimes I would read to them or write letters they'd dictate to me.
Some nights I would volunteer to stay for night duty as it was then when most comfort was needed. Screaming was a daily occurrence and sobbing was not uncommon. More than once someone had clung to me mistaking me though a haze of tears for his mother. I didn't disillusion them by telling them I wasn't.
One man always had my attention though for he would sit in his bed and stare at the peeling cream paint on opposite wall in silence. I had never heard him utter a single sound. At night he said not a thing, even when he woke up sweating and shaking. Not a sound passed his lips, the starched cotton sheets tangled around him.
He was patient thirty-two, ward B, twenty-four years of age, surname: Krauff, first name: unknown. I had never seen his face as it was always heavily swathed in stiff linen bandages. Only his dark blue eyes glittered in a slit in the material.
On the day everything changed I read to him. He was the last patient I spoke to, as he was at the far end of the ward. My fifteen minutes with him were up and it was time for me to get going; dark clouds laden with snow filled the sky and I wanted to get home before the storm started. I stood to take my leave when a dry whisper said, "Don't go yet."
I looked down at him in surprise. I was sure I was mistaken but when he said it again it removed any doubt. I sat back down. I was lost for words but he spoke again before the silence became too long.
"You are called Bianca Marie aren't you?" I nodded. "I'm Stefan Alec," he finished hoarsely. Suddenly I was bursting with a hundred questions but I was forestalled from asking them when Matron stuck her head around the door. "Bianca, you'd better be off; storm's approaching fast."
"I'll just finish this page Matron."
"Don't leave it too long then."
Before I could speak he spoke again to me. "You should go-I don't want you to be stuck out in a storm because of me." I opened my mouth to say that I was too curious to go now but he turned his head away from me in a dismissive gesture. Flustered I picked up my coat and scarf, almost knocking off the books I'd put back on the table next to him as I did so. I stammered my goodbye and almost ran from the building, jamming my hat on my head.
Setting a brisk pace I walked through the woods, so involved with my thoughts that I didn't see the stranger lying face down in the snow until I was about to trip over him. Stifling a gasp I knelt next to him, shaking his shoulders. He must have been there a while as a coating of snow had settled on his jacket like talcum powder. With effort I rolled him over onto his back. Leaning over him I could feel his weak breath against my cheek. Pulling off a glove I laid my hand on his forehead, recoiling quickly from the icy skin. I took one of his hands and rubbed it frantically between my own. "Hello? Can you hear me?" I called. His eyelids flickered open and I could see the tiny snow crystals caught in his dark eyelashes and the shining orbs of his emerald eyes.