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As Twilight Tide Draws Nigh...Part 1

A story of love and loss in the last days of the Third Reich.

Josef awoke, and soon realized that it was early and that today he was on duty. Already bright sunlight was streaming in through his window. He loved this time of day; so fresh, so full of opportunity and promise. As he lay there he caught the faint smell of lavender coming from somewhere.

Was it aftershave? he wondered. Perhaps one of the officers from a nearby room had received a gift from a sweetheart of from his family. It was possible, although such a gift would be very difficult to come by these days.

Ah lavender! His mind wandered back to his mother’s garden. Fragrant and welcoming, it had always been an oasis of calm. He remembered his mother’s outdoor dinner parties in summer and the delicious laughter of the girls, their neighbor’s daughters as they frolicked with him through the summer blooms. Oh, how they played hide-and-seek amongst the trees - the oaks, the olive, the birch and the laurel. He smiled as he thought of the laurel, for it was behind that noble, sweetly scented tree that he had tasted his first kiss and tentatively found the objects comprising that central and unfathomable mystery of the universe – woman.

Had it all been a dream? Those far off, half forgotten days of his youth and those carefree nights, perhaps so. He remembered winter evenings by the fire, his little brother reading Goethe to his mother. He struggled to recall his brother’s favorite lines and after some effort they came bouncing back to him, just as he had once bounced his happy little brother on his knee.

Peace, in twilight’s whispered sighs, cradles human cares away, and upon these weary eyes closes soft the gates of day. Deep the falling of the night, star holds sacred rank with star, lordly beams and twinklings bright glitter near and shine afar, glitter mirrored in the lake, gleam in cloudless night on high. Bringing stillness in her wake, Moon in splendour rules the sky. Now the heavy hours have vanished, joys and pains are passed away. Breathe new faith, your ills are banished; trust the newborn break of day. 

Yes, prophetic words those. The new faith had indeed banished all ills and the whole of the fatherland was at last awakened. Just then the next few lines came back to him and he spoke them out aloud, “Green the vales and hills, displaying wealth of shade in peaceful morn, seed now seen in silvery swaying gives the promise of the corn. And he yearned for peace, but when have revolutions ever been peaceful? It just does not happen. Expelling these thoughts from his mind, he threw back the blankets and sprang out of bed. The rug beneath his feet had miraculously become a stage. The walls melted away to be replaced by row upon row of spectators. With a hand outstretched, he addressed his rapt audience, “Yet, what’s this? ‘T was surely here, in a bygone anxious year, tongue-tied and in troubled state, I as undergraduate sat and trusted graybeards’ art, and took their gabble so to heart. From the crusted books in college lies they told and called it knowledge, self-mistrusting doubt was rife!” Shaking his fist at the audience, he added, “Robbing them and me of life!” The audience went wild with applause. They loved him, they adored him, girls spurned the attentions of their lovers to applaud him, mothers glowed with admiration and wished that he were their son and even the stern old burghers swelled their chests with pride that they had witnessed such a sublime performance. Sated with the approbation of his public, he sank backwards onto the bed laughing. Incongruously the alarm clock rang just then and he gave it a disapproving glance. The applause had hardly died away and this ridiculous machine decides to make its absurd noise while moving sideways like some monstrous wind-up crustacean.

He picked the clock up and turned the alarm off. It was eight a.m. He looked up at the train timetable on the wall. He had two hours before the train was due to arrive. All thoughts of Goethe and the theatre receded, vanishing back into the past along with his mother’s garden.

Strange, he mused, how often a single word, a sound or an aroma can initiate in the mind an entire sequence of memories, thoughts and reminiscences. Plato believed that the mind contained deep within it, shrouded wisdom that the soul had gathered in previous existences and at certain random instances, fragments of this knowledge would come to the surface. Perhaps he had lived before; perhaps he had been an artist or an actor. It was an intriguing idea.

With this thought growing more and more fanciful, Josef opened his wardrobe. There hung a pristine gray uniform. He reached for it then stopped. Upon the collar, right next to his rank patch, was a hair. He carefully lifted it off and examined it closely. It was thirty or so centimeters long and gloriously blonde, no split at the tip and of a hue so golden that it seemed to catch the sunlight as he moved closer to the window.

Yes, he thought, a truly Nordic hair. But from which fair head had it come?

He tried to think but could come up with no likely candidate. He would simply have to have a word with the staff. He had set the hair down upon his bedside table and proceeded to pull his pants and boots on when there came a timid knock at the door.

“Come.”

The door opened slowly and he saw standing there an orderly with eyes downcast, carrying a steaming kettle.

“Good morning Herr Doctor,” said the man quietly, clicking his heels. Josef had seen this man once before and now struggled to recall his name.

“Kessel…isn’t it?”

The man winced and with his eyes still firmly planted on the floor gently answered, “Kassel, Herr Doctor.”

Josef looked down to see what the man might be looking at. Seeing nothing he said, “Do forgive me my dear fellow. You’re new here are you not?”

“Yes, Herr Doctor. We’ve been here a little over a week.”

“Ah, very good.”

Josef then reached for his silver shaving mug and positioned it within Kassel’s line of sight. Kassel proceeded to fill it, pouring more and more water in until the mug was in danger of overflowing.

“Stop, stop, that’s plenty,” Joseph said, beginning to relish the man’s nervousness.

“I’m sorry sir… Herr Doctor. May I get you anything else sir?”

“No thank you Kassel. You might let me know when breakfast is served though.”

Kassel rapidly checked his wrist- watch.

“Er…I believe we have been ready for fifteen minutes sir.”

“Splendid. That will be all.”

Kassel again clicked his heels and was about to make a hasty departure when Josef said, “Oh Kassel, one moment.”

“Yes, Herr Doctor.”

“I wonder if you might be able to tell me who pressed my uniform yesterday afternoon?”

“I believe it was Sophia…er, frauline Kassel, my daughter Herr Doctor.”

“Has you daughter got shoulder length blonde hair?”

The despondent look in the man’s eyes as he looked up made Josef smile inwardly again.

“Is there any thing wrong with the uniform Herr Doctor? For if there is I can assure you that I will reprimand her.”

Josef softened his tone, deciding that the man had suffered enough.

“No, there’s nothing wrong. I was merely curious that’s all.”

Kassel exhaled audibly and with visible strain repeated his earlier question, “May I get you anything else sir?”

“No thank you, you may go.”

Kassel nodded without clicking his heels and departed leaving the door open and leaving Josef with a mug full of hot water. He carefully stepped over to the window, deftly opened it and tipped some of the scalding water out. He then set the mug down and went out into the corridor sniffing. Any trace of lavender that might have been there before was now gone. Shaking his head he stepped back into the room shut the door and proceeded to shave. Of all his daily rituals, this was the one that he disliked the most. Still, standards had to be maintained. Having finished, he put on a shirt and buttoned up his tunic, half hoping to find more luxuriant golden hairs from the crown of the mysterious and no doubt alluring Sophie. Of course there were no more. He had this one strand of evidence to verify her existence. He sighed and thought, Oh well, she’s probably some staid old spinster if her father was anything to go by.

Returning to his bedside, he splashed on a little cologne, taking care not to spill any. The liquid had the paradoxical quality of burning and cooling his face at the same time. Its scent was strong and heavy, cheap, in a word. He would have to get something subtler he decided, citrus scented possibly. But the likelihood of obtaining something half decent these days was slim at best.

Putting on his cap and stepping out into the corridor, he headed towards the officer’s mess. The corridor was empty but as he approached his destination, the door opened and out stepped an officer wearing a uniform identical to his own but with slightly wrinkled sleeves. The officer smiled.

“Good morning Josef.” He then screwed up his face, “Urh, what’s this, you smell like a whore’s boudoir I once used to frequent.”

“Rudi, please, at least have the common courtesy to address me by my rank when you insult me. That, at least, I am due.” Rudi clicked his heels and bowed ostentatiously.

“ Begging the major’s pardon. Will the major be requiring one or two lackeys to kiss his royal backside this morning?” Josef laughed loudly whereupon Rudi raised a hand to hush him and pointed down the corridor,

“Be quiet, or the old man will hear you. Apparently he’s just received a letter from the wife informing him that she’s going to leave him and run off with another woman. Needless to say, he’s hopping mad.” Josef fought hard to restrain himself.

“Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind. Are you going to join me for breakfast?”

“No thanks. I’ve just had some and I’ve got a consignment of construction material to sort out. They’ve sent us too little timber and steel again and the wrong damn rivets.”

“Are you surprised? Materials are hard to come by these days.”

“ I know, but don’t forget, we are constantly told to build, to expand and to improve efficiency at all levels. But how the hell are we supposed to do it without materials?”

Josef nodded. He knew the demands of headquarters well. He was about to speak when they both heard the distant sound of a plane engine. Both men glanced up at the ceiling for a long moment until the sound had faded away.

“One of ours?” offered Rudi with a tone of mock hope in his voice that Josef didn’t notice.

“I very much doubt it.”

“Oh well, at least we’re not a strategic target for the Bolsheviks just yet.”

Rudi turned to leave when Josef asked, “Rudi, who pressed your uniform?”

Rudi looked down at his tunic, found nothing wrong with it and said, “Theresa always does it, like a good little wife. Why?”

“Oh, nothing. It’s just that the old man has hired some new domestics that’s all.” Rudi’s eyes narrowed and he gave Josef a sly smile.

“See you later. Oh and don’t forget, I’ve still got that bottle of Tokay.” With that he strode off whistling tunelessly. Josef stared after him for a few seconds then turned and pushed open the mess door.

Inside the ambiance was wonderful. There was a fine bar from which the comforting, sweet and varied smell of beer and other beverages emanated and the room had space enough for one to either sit in a quiet corner or socialize. Josef was delighted to see that someone had gathered flowers and placed them in a vase upon the bar. The supply of drinks had dwindled somewhat in recent months and Josef made a mental note to speak again to the Commandant; who had already assured him on a number of occasions that he had sent strongly worded requests for re-supply to the appropriate office in Berlin. Their reply was eagerly awaited.

He sat down at his usual place near the window and looked out at the garden – not much of one he always thought but pleasantly green nonetheless. Glancing around the room, he noted that the tables had been set neatly and correctly. He picked up a knife and tilted it towards the window looking for water stains or fingerprints. Finding none, he thought, I will have to commend Kassel and his family. They are obviously professionals. Next he picked up a fork but this time discovered the print of a slender finger half way up the handle. He smiled as he examined the print’s maze of lines for a moment then became self-conscious and looked around him.

The room was virtually deserted save for a group of five men, all junior officers, that he didn’t know at a far table who were engrossed in the study of statistical charts and dad not noticed his presence much less his inspection of the cutlery.

What barbarians, he thought. Only the uncouth mix work with pleasure. And he congratulated himself that he never discussed work related issues at the dining table no matter how pressing they were. In an attempt to annoy the ill-mannered louts he began to whistle. Quietly at first, then louder and louder he performed the badinerie, that wonderful concluding movement from Bach’s second orchestral suite. At first he whistled the original then introduced subtle variations of his own. Bach, he felt sure, would have approved. One of the philistines glanced in his direction for an instant before his attention was refocused on a particularly troubling set of figures pointed out to him by one of his less easily distracted companions.

Staying with the estimable Johann Sebastian, Josef had just begun the opening movement of the third Brandenburg Concerto when he noticed that a girl was standing next to him. Unused to surprise, he looked up at her with a hint of annoyance creeping into his eyes. Something about her looked familiar then he noticed her hair. She smiled down at him,

“Good morning, Herr Doctor. I’m sorry to interrupt you, but are you ready to order?”

His face cleared. “Yes, I’ll have oats, with honey and apricots. Toast, three slices. Coffee and warm milk.”

The girl smiled and nodded confidently as she wrote the order down in a small notebook.

“Would you like something to spread on your toast?”

“Yes, do we have any butter?”

“I think I can find a little for you but I must apologise Herr Doctor, we don’t have apricots. Would you like prunes instead?”

“Very well.” This time she curtsied and turned towards the kitchen.

“Just a minute please.”

The girl turned. “Yes, sir?”

“Is your name Sophie?”

She smiled again and replied, “Yes, Herr Doctor, Sophia Kassel.”

Josef studied her face. She was very attractive, wore no makeup but clearly didn’t need it and she was making eye contact with him, showing that she had a bit more backbone that her father. She carried herself proudly and she had the most beautiful blonde hair that he had ever seen. Might Aphrodite’s golden tresses have looked like that, he wondered.

“Will that be all sir…?”

“Yes, Sophia, thank you.”

He watched her as she strode towards the kitchen. She had a nice figure, tall like her father but totally different in attitude. His reflections were suddenly interrupted by a furious barrage of laughter coming from the bureaucrats, those puny sons of Goliath, seated at the far end of the room, so he diverted his attention to the window. It was a beautiful, clear summer day, warm and intoxicating. He wished he could go fishing or on a picnic or, if he had a bicycle, he would ride and keep riding down to the sea, no matter where it lay. He would take Sophia along and they would pick wild flowers in the fields and listen to the shrill song of the cicadas – the original voice of summer, was that not Plato’s phrase? His mind now took him back to one glorious summer when, as a seventeen-year-old, he had visited Athens in July. The whole city was bustling with activity, alive with music and redolent of rosemary, basil, thyme and roast lamb. But most of all he remembered how he had sat atop the Agoraios hill in the shade of the columns of the Hephaistion and imagined himself back in the age of Pericles, listening to the tireless drone of the cicadas. He sighed and thought, what a waste it all was, to be stuck here with the small men, the underlings, the rubber-stamp wielders and the paper priests.

He was about to turn from the window and cast another dark glance at the minions at the far able, when a dull thud caught his attention. Something had evidently hit the window. He got up, looked down at the ground outside and noticed a swallow. The small bird was mildly dazed but otherwise appeared unharmed. He smiled at it and whispered, “You’ll have a sore head for a while, my fine brave fellow.”

He turned just as Sophia emerged from the kitchen expertly carrying a tray upon which, in sumptuous array, was his breakfast. He smiled appreciatively at her and sat down.

“Here you are, Herr Doctor.”

“Thank you, Sophia.”

“Not at all, sir.”

She set the tray down and was about to depart again when he asked, “Sophia, would you do me the honor of joining me?”

“Thank you sir, but I’ve eaten already.”

“Well then, what about a cup of coffee, since you don’t seem to be too busy at the moment?’

She looked around unsure for a moment then said, “All right, thank you.”

He got up and pulled out a chair for her next to him. Amiably he said, “Please sit down.”

He then noticed that there was only one cup. Sophia realized this too and was about to get up when Josef raised a hand causing her to relax and sit back. He then strode briskly into the kitchen, startling Kassel in the process who was stirring a pot of goulash. He smiled at the man without saying anything, found a cup and saucer and exited.

“Now, how do you like your coffee?” he asked.

“White, without sugar please, sir.”

“Splendid.”

He made the coffee as she looked on, handed it to her and she accepted it with a slightly unsteady hand. He then poured himself a cup and said, “Here’s to your health.”

“And to yours, sir.”

“Please, let’s dispense with the sir. My name is Josef.”

“I’m sorry.”

“That’s all right. I can understand that this uniform can be intimidating.”

“I must apologise …Josef, but we’re new here and still under probation.”

“I understand. I’m sure it’s just a formality. I met your father earlier. Where are you from?”

“Magdeburg originally. We lived in Berlin for a while until we were posted here. What about you?”

“Oh I’m from Vienna but I lived in Berlin for a few years too.”

“You’re Austrian…like the Fuhrer.”

“Yes indeed.” He nodded at a loss for what else to say. She looked at him, her face passive and took a sip of coffee.

“How is it?” he asked.

“Fine, thank you.”

He took a gulp of his own, found it too hot, swallowed uncomfortably and then proceeded to pour in too much milk. He took stock of himself. Was he nervous, he asked himself? Were her beauty and charm intimidating him? Surely not.

“Well, what do you think of the facilities here?”

“Oh, they’re fine, although the last cook left the kitchen in rather a muddle. It took us a while to get it back in order.”

“I’m sure you and your parents will do a splendid job.”

“Actually it’s just my father and I.”

“Oh, I apologise, I thought…”

She cast her eyes down and quietly said, “It’s all right, we lost my mother over a year ago in an air raid. That was one reason why we wanted to leave Berlin.”

Josef stared at her silently; he rarely felt anxiety and was seldom at a loss for words. At last he said, “I’m sorry, Sophie, that’s terrible. Please accept my sincerest condolences.”

“That’s all right. You’re very kind Herr…Josef.”

“Do you have any siblings?”

“No, it’s just me and Papa. Do you?”

“I only have my mother. I had a younger brother but he was killed at Stalingrad.”

She said nothing but looked at him with such compassion that it made him sigh. They both sipped their coffee in silence and Josef ate a few spoonfuls of oats. The paper brigade had departed and they now had the whole room to themselves. As he noticed the muted notes of birdsong filtering in, Josef nodded towards the window and said, “It’s such a beautiful day outside.”

“Yes, it certainly is. I love this time of year don’t you?”

He nodded, then, dragging his eyes away from her face, noticed a brooch that she wore just below her collar.

“That’s a lovely piece.”

She reached up and touched it.

“Oh, thank you. It was my grandmother’s.”

She unpinned it as though to examine it closer but instead handed it to him. This demonstration of trust surprised and pleased him and he accepted the brooch with interest. It was beautiful; an oval amethyst set in a finely granulated spiral band of gold. But it was what was carved on the amethyst that most impressed him. There an ancient master lapidary had cut a wonderful representation of a naked girl holding an ear of wheat in one hand and a pomegranate in the other. He looked up at her. “Persephone.”

She looked back at him with puzzlement and asked, “Do you like it?”

“It’s marvelous, probably late Hellenistic Greek or Augustan.”

She knitted her brow. He smiled and said, “I’m sorry. Late centuries B.C. or early centuries A.D. I would say.”

“Really, I had no idea.”

“Oh, the setting is modern but the stone is certainly ancient and a beautiful example too. It depicts Persephone the goddess of the underworld, the Queen of the Dead.”

“You are a connoisseur, Herr Doctor.”

“No, no but I’ve studied a little.”

“You’re too modest Josef. My grandmother had this all her life. She gave it to me three years ago on my thirtieth birthday. I’m willing to wager she had no idea how old it was.”

He looked up to find her draining her cup. Quietly he said, “We are the same age,” and reached for the coffee pot, half expecting her to protest. Instead she smiled as he poured her another cup then handed the brooch back. He then said, “You’re very fortunate to own something like that,” and again glanced at the tranquil scene outside. He wondered, - had the birdsong become sweeter?

“Is it worth a lot of money, do you think?”

A pale shadow of annoyance crept into his mind; the girl had clearly missed the point.

“It most certainly is but I meant that since it’s an heirloom it may have a great history and has something of who knows how many owners about it. I mean that each of the people who owned this, going back into antiquity, has left a part of themselves here. Just as this was a part of them, so too they have become a part of it.”

He looked into her eyes for a hint that she understood but found much more, behind her sweet smile lay the glimmer of fascination. He boldly took the brooch from her and pinned it back onto her shirt, ensuring that he used the existing pinholes. Noting with satisfaction that he encountered no resistance from her, she didn’t even lean back or look away.

“There, that’s splendid.”

“Thank you, Josef.”

She was about to take another sip of coffee when he asked, “What time do you finish work today?”

“I have the afternoon off. My father is going into the town for a few fresh supplies but it’s nothing he can’t manage.”

“Wonderful, would you do me the honor of joining me for a drive?”

She hesitated for a moment then said awkwardly, “I would love to, when would…” and she suddenly looked up. A young officer had entered silently and he was standing right next to Josef who was looking at her so intently that he hadn’t noticed the younger man’s presence.

The young man glanced at the barely eaten breakfast, saluted and said, “Major, I’m sorry to disturb you but the transport is due to arrive in twenty minutes.”

Josef struggled to contain his annoyance. “Yes, thank you Zimmermann.”

As the young officer saluted and left, Josef looked apologetically at Sophie but now her smile was gone, replaced by an odd expression and she was holding her breath.

“Where can I find you this afternoon?” he asked dryly.

“Here at two,” she replied quietly.

He hesitated, trying vainly to read her mind then said, “Two o’clock then.” Then, somewhat relieved he added, “Have a good morning.”

Almost inaudibly she replied, “And you.”

Her reply had the affect of hastening his departure. He left without looking back, more certain than he had ever been of anything before in his life, that her eyes were at that moment fixed upon him.

“Damn trains,” he muttered, “Always on time.”

This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than storiesspace.com with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

Copyright © Copyright, Peter Karargiris.

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