You whom the kings saluted;
who refused not
The one great pleasure of ignoble days,
Fame without name
and glory without gossip,
Whom no biographer befouls with praise.
Who said of you "Defeated"?
- "To The Unknown Warrior" G.
Vogel shivered slightly as he stepped off the train out into the congested station. It was cold, it was always cold in November in Munich, but it was warmer here then it was any place in Rumania. A slight chill curled its frigid fingers through the spaces in his jacket. Occasionally, a gust would howl its way through the train station and hit him full on like the upside of a rifle hilt, the same shock would cause the red of his blood to rush to his otherwise pale cheeks. His skin was raw and his thin lips were cracked; they had felt such torment up in the mountains and it happened often that he awoke with a film of bloody saliva clinging to the front of his teeth. How he hated the cold wind and its teasing breath. All that he could do was pull the overcoat tighter around himself, the worn fabric of his gloves threatening to tear soon. The air within the train had been stagnant and almost suffocating, but that did not prepare him for the air that hung over his head now. Despite the normal commotion of a crowded train station, there was something else plaguing the atmosphere. He could feel it.
He moved out onto the platform and to the side as to let others behind him pass. The bustle of the crowd was almost strained, like it was part of some affront attached to each and every man. There were young ladies waiting in anticipation for their brave lovers to appear. Some warriors were greeted with the warm embrace, their tired arms wrapping tightly around their fiancées. Some of their hardened eyes wept; still others found no ways within themselves to make the tears come forth. Vogel asked himself as he waited for his friend from the train, if he would have been able to cry for his own fiancée, where ever she was. Would he have been able to finally let go of those inner torments of the things he had seen out on the front? There had been a few days spread over those years slogging through the trenches where his body had just refused to work. He had felt the warmth of his own tears sting his eyes as the cold of the rain drive and bite his bare face.
Unfeeling were those days that he had resigned himself to huddling in trenches that reeked of pestilence and death. The smell of smoke and rotting flesh washed over him as he waited for the Allied bombardment to stop its hell fire rain from on high. His eyes were as dry as the smoke filled air that would catch in the back of his throat and cause him to cough and sputter. The flying dirt would catch in his uniform and hair and the mud coagulated around his boots and cause his feet to remain almost forever wet. He had been tormented by calluses, sores and infection, but only the ones on his body were visible. There were the sores that formed upon his brain, the sores that opened when he first had to look upon his fellow man and had to point his gun right at his heart and pull the trigger. The sores grew more frequent as the war progressed, sores on his psyche, on his conscience, on his soul.
Then the calluses came, they hardened until the sight of those getting mowed down by machine gun fire and the sound of those anguished cries of the dying did nothing to him. No longer did that pang in the base of his heart stir, he made no move to run and try and help them as if he could save a man whose chest had been laced by bullet fire. He found himself almost sadistically invigorated by the gentle caress of blood upon his fingers as he leaned to check if the downed man in front of him had any socks or bullets on him to spare. That tickle of remorse was only replaced by a strange void. The look in those eyes would stare at him from the dark recesses of his mind, the glazed searching glance seemed to reach right into his very soul and drive a small pin into it. At first the mere shock prevented the register of pain, but the more he looked upon those eyes within this dreams, the more that pin dug in. The more it dug in the more it picked at the calluses, causing them to bleed once again.
Weeks upon Weeks of constant grinding between bare flesh and the pins would start the infection. The infection spread quickly and sometimes it killed just as quickly. Vogel had seen it often in France. One man who had succumbed to the infection would run over the top of the trench toward the enemy, his insane screaming would split the waning night before it was chocked out by the single crack of an enemy rifle. The sound after would be deafening in its silence. His illness came back to haunt him in the dark; terrible, terrible dreams he had. Vogel shivered again as a couple right beside him was reunited, he merely looked to the man with odd contemplation, his mind not comprehending anymore what it felt like to be held by someone of the softer gender. This other soldier no longer had his left leg below his femur and his face was by a terrible great gash that tore through the gentle skin of his cheek. There were no longer tears within him to be shed, war scarring them from his eyes like it had scarred the earth.
The steam of the engine rose from its breaks and swirled about him, clinging tightly to his overcoat. Vogel hoped that the three cigarettes that he had kept since his last rations would help clear his crowded head for a few moments. He pulled forth one of his cigarettes and put it to his mouth. His shaking hands lit it, the embers gently casting a pallid light upon his sickly features. The reflection of the glow in his otherwise dull blue eyes was a sad excuse for the flames of idealism and heroism that once glistened in them. The shadows hung under his sunken cheek bones. Vogel inhaled deeply, the crackled taste of it filling the back of his throat and his lungs in an almost warm embrace. The smoke he exhaled became the arms of his absent lover slowly wrapping themselves around his shoulders in that tender touch. So inviting was that soft brush upon his neck that if he closed his eyes he swore it was the caress of his Adele's embroidered lace sleeves. He reached a hand and put it to his neck to feel nothing but his own skin.
The smoke fingers took hold of the cold, steel at his neck, the Pour-le-Merite held firmly to his throat. Its glory shone dimly in the watery sun, the gold clung to that fading light like the fading honor it so embellished. He felt trampled upon by the feet of those who held power greater then his own. The entente had said that the army was to be decreased and Leutenants Albert Vogel and Paul Braun had to be discharged. He could not go home as he was no longer welcome, and he did not want to be a burden for his older siblings. Vogel had comrades that were in the military and probably were struggling the same as him. Braun did not have any place to go either except back to the stables which he had worked before enlisting and he had already made that clear upon the train that there was no way in heaven or hell that he was going to be doing that. He had no home beyond the single scrap of paper in his tunic pocket. The paper held the last address that Adele had contacted him.
"Albie," came a voice from his left and he turned to see a man with his arm in a sling step from the train.
Vogel pulled the cigarette from his mouth, "Finally... it took you long enough," he snorted with impatience.
"Oh, don't huff at me... I was being held up because the man wouldn't give me my bag."
"Typical... did you loose your tag again?"
The man paused and then broke into a sheepish smile, "Of course I didn't, I merely put it some place that I didn't intend to." With a defiant nod, he strolled over to his friend, a heavy limp evident in his stance.
Vogel held out his hand, "Let me take your bag before you hurt yourself even more."
"Go right on ahead."
Leutenant Paul Braun was a very tall fellow. Standing almost six and a half feet, he stood taller then Vogel and most of the people in the station by a good few inches. His face was long, horse-like almost. The nose being the only sharp feature on him as it suddenly dropped from his forehead in a very Grecian fashion and slid back sharply just above his mouth. Despite the same wind beaten appearance of his cheeks, part of their pink color was still due to the natural cheeriness that seemed to emanate from him. His cracked lips still held that typical amiable smile that was very signature of his character. His normally slicked back brown hair was frazzled, but Braun had skillfully hid that underneath his had. Despite almost four years of constant fighting, the shimmer in his muddy brown eyes had yet to disappear. Braun, opposite to Vogel's slight build, was heavier set then the average gentleman soldier; despite his height, there was no escaping the fact that he carried a bit of extra weight around his middle.
"Of course," Vogel said bemused slightly, although his hardened and cold expression barely changed, "Make me your slave labor because you are injured."
Braun snorted, "How about I skewer your shoulder?"
"No thank you, I don't need another wounded badge this far after the war has ended."
"Damn... I just got off the mountains and I'm still freezing," Braun chortled as his smile. "To the building, my boy, I'm freezing my tail off standing here," he looked to Albert.
Vogel shook his head.
Braun chuckled, "And we have to grab a cab to the hospital like I'm supposed to do, according to the doctors back there." He motioned with his good arm over his shoulder to the train.
"Yes." Albert dropped the cigarette from his hand and put it out with his boot.
He almost cursed at himself for wasting an almost complete cigarette, but he knew that if he did not put it out now he would have to later. Vogel led the way to the safety of the station building from the chilly November wind. However, his plan of walking into the building was sorely compromised as he attempted to navigate through the crowd without having anyone bump into him. He hated crowds, he hated being touched by strangers in crowds and he felt the pang of not being able to find his way out starting to rise in the back of his throat like bile. His body stiffened when a man in a hurry to catch his train clashed into his shoulder as he pushed by. Not even that medal around his neck would make people move for him. Half of them did not even take the time to look at it being as these two men were just two more soldiers in a hoard of those coming home, just two more discharged from a loosing war. Breathing hard through his nose, he shifted his weight as his mind went reeling. What if there was someone that wanted him dead? He was completely exposed in all directions and carrying these bags only would inhibit his ability to fight back should someone come at him with a gun and bayonet bared.
But why would someone do that? It was the end of the war was it not?
No, he was a career soldier as he had been fated to be all those years ago by family pressure, legacy and by his own choice to prove something to himself. To him, war was never over; there were only continuous breaks in long stretches of conflict. There would never be an end. To Vogel war was merely like running a business and this untimely defeat which Germany had so humiliatingly suffered in front of the Entente was only a mere down turn in business sales. The time would come when the profits would return back up and until that time Vogel would have to wait. When they entered the station, he reached up to remove his hat, his silver blonde hair was held tightly against his head. The lights overhead cast a white ring glistening upon his head, like some twisted halo upon him, as though the angels had thought it humorous to it into his skull like the crown of thorns.
The inside of the building was even more crowded then the outside was, except the surge forward of returning soldiers had not really started to trickle into the confines of the station. The people here were civilians dressed in the heavy overcoats. The men with their rightly brushed moustaches and the women with their curls pinned up around their heads dotted the area. The children held their mitten clad hands with their parents. Vogel looked upon all of them almost with a touch of envy in his eyes; they had not been to war. Because they had not been to war did not mean war had not reached them. He had heard of the blockades. He had heard of the strikes. He had heard of the riots.
Vogel moved through another knot of people. His breath was starting to shorten, all these people breathing his air. How did they manage to live like this in this bustle? The city has been portrayed as a lonely place in all the literature he had read from Britain and America, but the vast amount of people crammed into this station made him have his doubts. Indeed, a city could be a lonely place mentally, but one was never truly devoid from the human interaction. Taking a few more steps before he was stopped again by another man cutting in front of his path, he went up upon his toes to attempt to see over the heads of the people in the crowd. He caught a glimpse of the arched glass door of the entry way. Vogel grumbled to himself. How rude of this man, could he not see that Vogel had been attempting to get through the crowd?
"Albie..." Braun said sternly, "Let the poor man alone…this way."
Vogel grumbled again as he was pulled along by Braun. The mumble of the crowd grew and fell in intensity and it only caused Vogel to grow more nervous. Closer and closer, anyone of them could have some sort of weapon. Dying was not on Vogel's agenda anytime soon, by God in heaven he had just survived four years of almost constant frontline action and he was not going to be taking any type of bullet for his country now when there was a supposed peace going on. Braun hurried along. Vogel strode behind him.
"Are you alright?"
Vogel looked up to Braun, his eyebrow cocking up a bit in a questioning glance. "Was?"
Braun chuckled a bit, completely untroubled by the amount of people that had crammed themselves into this miniscule amount of space, "I don't know, I was just wondering. You had this look on your face like you were about to kill someone."
Shaking his head, Vogel mumbled out, "There are too many people in here, one might kill us."
Paul laughed, "Oh goodness, Albie, the mountains have made you paranoid. No one is going to kill us, these are all Germans as far as I know, and there aren't any Germans that are going to pull a gun on another German they don't know just because they saw them strolling through a train station."
Vogel snorted as he was dragged through another flock of potential train passengers, "Fine, when your little trip of trusting everyone around you goes sour, do not say that I didn't warn you."
Braun patted Vogel's cheek with his bad hand, swallowing the wince, "Tsk, Tsk, whatever you will, dear." He teased, referring to Vogel as though they were married..
Vogel moved his face away, "Oh, come off it."
When they reached the door, Paul turned to him, "See, Albie," He looked right at Vogel, "have you died yet?"
"Stop mocking me,"
Braun chuckled again, "I'm not-" His eyes suddenly went wide, his entire being freezing up as he focused upon something seemingly just behind Vogel's left shoulder.
"What is it?" Vogel's voice in an instant became strained and dry as newspaper, his whole body tensing. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end as he snapped his head around. There was nothing, there was nothing out of the ordinary but that did not mean something was wrong. Almost instantly, Vogel's eyes narrowed as he quickly took a sweeping glance of the area, probing for anything that could be wrong. A gun, the flash of a sword, perhaps even the glint of a knife, anything, what on earth had Paul seen? Suddenly something grabbed his sides. In shock Vogel dropped the bags he was carrying. He could have sworn that he jolted several feet off the ground before he instantly went into attack mode, flying at the thing that had grabbed him from behind, only to have his wrists skillfully caught and pulled down in submission. The sound of Braun's laughing echoed within his ears.
"I got you!" Braun chortled triumphantly.
Vogel felt as though he had been slapped in the face when he realized the truth. "Paul!" he shouted angrily, perhaps just a little too loudly, "You son of a bitch, that was not amusing!"
Braun was still laughing at him but he kept him still as he continued talking, "Aww, Albie... don't be mad... it was just a little fun."
"Hell, at my expense. I almost had a heart attack!"
"You were being too tense..." he grinned his broad grin again and spoke softly like he was speaking childish promises to his best friend from his youth. "I was just trying to loosen you up, you don't need to worry about death anymore, old friend... we're safe at home..."
Those last words came to Vogel and he looked to the ground, frowning deeply. He exhaled through his nose to calm himself, this was impossible. He could not be mad at Paul. It was completely against his nature to not be angry and hold grudges against people, but Paul was the one person that he found himself incapable of remaining mad with for extended periods of time. Sure, he could be ruffled, but never had he remained furious at his one friend and comrade.
"Dammit, Paul, damn you and my inability hold you accountable for anything."
"I appreciate your words of kindness," laughing, Braun strolled forward towards the door and reached out to push it open for his friend. Albert picked up the bags he had dropped and followed in procession.
The sound that washed over him as soon as he hit the outside world leading into the city was staggering. So many noises and such loud sounds, his ears almost instantly started ringing. For a second the thought crossed Vogel's mind how he much would have preferred the empty space in front of the door back in the station to the dull roar of the mid day crowd, at least the train station was mildly quiet compared to this. Every backfire of an engine caused his knees to shake, the gun fire from his time on the front still pounded maniacally in the dark recess of his subconscious. For once, the perpetual smile that usual found itself upon Braun's face had fallen slightly.
"You feeling the same, Paul?" He did not elaborate; instead he just turned to look at his friend, the questioning glint playing across his blue eyes.
"A little," Braun mused, "I don't like it... but I just keep telling myself that I am safe here at home."
"Sure... home... such an inviting word." Vogel said quietly.
"Don't be such a rain cloud, Albie." He gently nudged him before reaching to pull his friend out of the way of the door so that he would not have to worry about getting struck by it. "I'm the one with a wounded shoulder and I'm much peppier then you are."
"Just because you were skewered in the shoulder doesn't give you the right to gloat."
Braun gave him a good natured shrug and then reached to flick his ear affectionately, "At least I didn't get my face rearranged like poor Reinhold's did." He frowned slightly at the mention of their mutual friend who lost his nose to a shrapnel piece.
"At least," Vogel nodded solemnly, "Shall we get you to a hospital?"
"Yes, please... before I fall into a faint standing here"
"Don't be so dramatic"
Braun nudged Vogel, "Says the man who almost went into shell shock in the station..."
"Go to hell."
They both jumped again at the back fire from another passing car. Vogel could never get used to that. The loud noises that suddenly would cut into him like a blade to bare flesh was something that he would forever be fearful of. He had always been taught that fear is for the weak, those who let fear grip them in any moment were weak. That frameset having been beat into him by an iron fist when he was younger and the notion of fear was almost a mortal enemy of his. The noises, his jolting, all of them signs of his fear and thus his weakness. Vogel sniffed and then tried to steel himself. The orchestra of war would ever be playing for him and there was nothing that he could do about the chosen song.
"Now, let's get the hell out of here..." Braun smirked and with that he limped towards the curb leaving Vogel there with the bags.
Naturally if it had been anyone but Paul, Albert might have simply placed their bag on the ground or told them to carry it themselves, but he did not for Paul. He watched with rapt concentration as his friend tried to get a cab, however he was constantly either completely ignored or happened to get someone else who needed it more right behind him. Curses at Paul's bleeding heart. For him, his nature in the field and his personality out of it were two different entities. Vogel frowned deeply when yet another cab passed over him.