Read The Devil's Blessing Online
Authors: Tony Hernandez
While lost in those and other thoughts, it came as an abrupt surprise to him that there was a small group of men up ahead.
From what he could see, there were about three to four men, nearly all of them smoking cigarettes.
Otto had decided to take the main road to Nuremberg since there seemed to be no other choice. There was no vegetation or anything else to hide under. The road was just a dirt path that could be made out from a few feet away. The land seemed nearly barren, only the odd field of this plant and that strewn around here and there. If he got off the road, it would be too hard to find. The good news was that there was no one around to see him as he travelled.
So he thought. His thoughts had betrayed him. Lost in another world he was just walking, looking but not seeing the things around him. By then, it was too late.
For a moment, he relaxed and told himself it might just be villagers. There were still more common Germans than there were those in uniform, even if it didn't feel that way on most days.
But that moment passed as quickly as it came. He could see the helmets, the telltale sign of Nazis soldiers. And more than that, he saw the BMW R75 motorcycle with the sidecar next to it. This was a German checkpoint, and there would be no way around it. If he ran now, they would fire. He knew this. They knew this. Everyone had a quiet, distant understanding that Otto would come to them.
With that common deceiving smile that had now infiltrated all branches and levels of the German military, one man asked, "Where are you going?"
Otto said nothing, and kept walking towards the men. He wasn't sure why, but that's all he did, kept walking and not saying anything.
At first, the patrol didn't seem too alarmed. He was still a few yards away, and perhaps he hadn't heard them. As he got closer, however, at the point where each man could make out the others' eye colors, the same man asked again, with the same smile, a little louder and with a bit more force behind his words, "Where are you going, soldier?"
Even though he had grown out facial hair and was now wearing his military uniform in an unkempt manner, he was still wearing the same boots, pants, and jacket that belonged to most low-level infantrymen. He was still a Nazi, appearance-wise, and the world would still treat him as much, even though he was a man on the run.
As Otto neared the men, he just kept doing what he had been doing, marching one foot in front of the other, looking at a horizon that wasn't there. His shoulder brushed another soldier's shoulder. It wasn't forceful, but it wasn't passive, either. It was as if he was a man who didn't know that there was a world around him.
What Otto was doing even he wasn't sure. On the outside if his mind, the part that controlled nearly everything he did, he was still a man who was afraid of everything. His outer actions were just a manifestation of those cowardly inner feelings, or so he thought. Had he changed in the inside as well? He knew what he was supposed to do.
He was supposed to tell the German checkpoint that he was a soldier without his men.
On a mission to either this town or that.
That his dying commanding officer had failed to give him the proper papers, since there was no more paper or ink these days.
But he just kept on walking. Because that's what felt right.
It wasn't so much that he didn't care. He did care—he thought he did, anyway. No, he had become a man resigned to death. He wasn't sure if it was because he was tired of running, or if he had realized that there was no use in running anymore. His days were numbered. He would die a physical death, or live the life of a prisoner, awaiting the death that the British or Soviet forces had waiting for him.
"Hey! Stop!" the voice, now behind him, yelled. "Stop!"
But Otto did not stop. He kept going, waiting for the bullets to riddle his back. As he awaited for his death to come, he did feel one pang of guilt—guilt that he wouldn't be able to find Richard Wolter, Ulrich's son, and give him his medicine. He was, in a sense, sentencing himself and a young man to death because of his final act of resiliency. Maybe he was being selfish. But he was tired of being a coward, too. At least this way he'd die standing up, in stark contrast to the life he lived crawling.
But the bullets never came. Maybe a tackle would come from the men arresting him, he thought—but that didn't come, either.
Another yell for him to stop came, maybe two, he wasn't sure. He just kept walking and looking forward.
After about a half hour's walk, Otto did give himself a moment to turn around and look at the checkpoint he had passed. They were now more far away than they had been when he first saw them. They just looked on, not sure what to do.
Maybe they saw the look of a determined man that wasn't going to budge. Maybe they saw themselves and the incoming fight and the change that would be in store for them all.
Whatever they saw, they let him through, probably more stunned by his defiance than anything.
As Otto turned his head and continued his walk west, he noticed something odd.
He was smiling.
Part IV of IV
Week № 16 of 1945
16th April through 22nd April
It was a stroke of pure luck.
Otto was sure that the road to the town just outside Schwaig would be more convoluted. He thought it would have to be off the main road, on a tributary that itself would split off into another road. He had convinced himself that finding the town would be anything but easy, because, if the history of his trek had taught him anything, it was that nothing was easy.
But there it was, a simple sign.
Schwaig 10 km
The walk there was easy enough. He wasn't sure why, but he felt safe.
Maybe it was because he was now off of the main road.
Maybe it was because it hadn’t rained in days. Whatever it was, it felt almost as if he was coming home, even though his real home was far away from this place.
But it did have the comforts of his home. He walked along a road that was flanked by two steep hillsides. The trees and shrubbery spilled from the ridges and came down, nearly touching the road. It was a battle of colors and textures, the green moist walls trying to reach down to the dry, brown road.
There wasn't a single road like this back home, but the feeling of walking down the road did make it feel like a small homecoming. Maybe it was the end of something. Perhaps that something was his life. More than likely, he thought, it was that he was close to finishing his objective. That he was finally close to doing something good, something right. He was smiling.
Soon, the green walls split and a small village came to view. Schwaig. He had made it.
Schwaig was a beautiful village, but it was still quite large. Otto knew that the neighborhood that housed Richard was not in the town itself, but right next to it, near the forest; so that’s where he went.
He saw a group of homes near the edge of the forest. There was life that he could see there. There was a large pen filled with sheep, and at least one of the small white homes had chimney smoke coming from it.
Otto made his way to the small neighborhood, roughly a dozen or so homes and buildings, when he came across the first person he had seen: a man who was tending the sheep.
"Good morning, good sir."
"Good morning," the old man replied, in a suspicious manner.
"I am looking for Richard Wolter."
"Richard Wolter? There is no one here by that name."
"Are you sure?" Otto asked. "His father, Ulrich Wolter, told me I could find him here."
"Ah!" the man said, as if realizing something had just hit him. "Yes. Richard Wolter. I'll take you to him."
Otto was a bit annoyed, but he also realized that, in times like these, no one was to be trusted.
As if on cue, the old man stopped after taking two steps, and asked Otto, "What business do you have with young Richard?"
Inside, Otto was ready to tell the old man that it was none of his business. But instead, to his surprise, his mouth just said the simple truth. "I am bringing him medicine."
And without another word, the old man put an extra hop in his step and moved along through the narrow houses.
They finally made their way to a small house, very similar to the rest. The houses were all white with wood beams that held them up, painted black. The white was probably some type of plaster. The roofs were made of what looked like layered, long-dead grass. It was like something Otto had never seen before. The look and feel was sturdy, but he was sure one errant flame was all that it would take to burn the entire place down.
None of the homes were numbered, and there weren't any roads—only walkways. The old man banged on a door—rather hard, to Otto’s dismay. He wanted to announce himself as a friend, not like some type of secret German police.
Nearly as quickly as he had knocked, the door opened to an--unsurprisingly--startled woman. She gave the man a questioning look and then saw Otto behind him.
"What is it?" she asked.
"This man claims to know Richard."
"Who? Him? Richard?"
She was beautiful. It had been a long time since Otto had seen a lovely woman.
Her hair was a light brown that matched her eyes, but what really stood out to him was her skin. It was white, like bone. It looked clean, something he had thought he would never see again. It was the type that hadn't seen the sun in months, not even the rays that would sneak through the clouds. Her face said that she had been indoors for what seemed like years. It wasn't just that her skin looked clean; it just looked to him that her entire being was
. Clean from the horror of war. Clean from seeing the horrors. Clean of having a sullied soul.
Her hazel eyes looked right at him.
"How do you know Richard? No one knows him. Get out."
She must be Ulrich's daughter
, Otto thought. She had his spirit.
"No. I don't know who Richard is, personally," he said, "but I do know his father. Ulrich."
"You know Ulrich?" she asked. Her body relaxed, and the door eased a little more open as she let go of the handle. The old man smiled and stepped aside, knowing that this had become a welcome introduction.
"Where is he? How is he?"
"Can I come inside?" Otto asked.
And with that, she raised her head in a defiant gesture. Not against Otto, but against the tears that were trying to form behind her eyes. She knew. She knew that her Ulrich Wolter was dead. As soon as a man asked if he could come inside and talk to her about his wellbeing, the news was written on the wall.
"Of course," she said, "come in."
Inside, the home was nothing more than one large room. There were no glass windows, but just small doors on the walls to let the air in. Since it was still cold, there was no reason to have them open.
The cracks in them did provide some light, though most of it came from the table in the middle filled with candles.
"How did he die?" she asked as she readied the table. She asked so nonchalantly that he thought he had misheard her.
"Ulrich," she said, this time stopping and turning towards him. "How did he die?"
"I..." Otto was at a loss for words. This wasn't how this was supposed to happen. This wasn't how anything was supposed to happen.
This young lady—Ulrich's daughter, he presumed—was simply supposed to ask for her brother's medicine. She was supposed to thank him for saving his life. He hadn't thought about someone inquiring into Ulrich's death. That was his mistake.
"He..." Again, Otto paused to find the right words, to find the right lie that would make his daughter happy. He instead went with the truth. "Died in landmine field." He didn't know what else to add. He was searching for something, anything, to fill in the horrible silence that was making it hard to breathe in the room.
Thankfully, she ended the silence for him.
"Oh," she said, as if learning the news about something as irrelevant as who had won the year's flower festival. "Was it painful?"
"Was what painful?" As soon as he asked, he regretted making her ask the obvious question.
"His death," she said. "Was it painful? Did he die instantly?"
"Yes," he said. "I mean, yes, he did die instantly. He felt no pain." He said the last lie with a smile. Partly to sell the lie; partly because he was happy that he could still lie. He was starting to worry that he was becoming too honest to the point of being improper. He was happy he still had a small bit of common courtesy.
"Good," she said. "Would you like some water?" she asked, gesturing to a chair for him to sit down.
He agreed to both and took his seat, happy to sit on real chair. The relief that came over his feet and back were only outdone by the relief of finding a wooden cup in front of him, filled with water. He drank the contents in a near single gulp and loudly slammed the cup back down, so relieved was he that he forgot where he was and who he was with. Without being asked, she poured him another cup, only this time, he made sure not to make a fool of himself, and only sipped the water this time around. Even if he did want to drink as quickly as the last.
"Richard?" Otto asked. "Where is he?"
"Sleeping," she said. "Getting to sleep has been so difficult with the White Plague that I thought I wouldn't wake him. Even if you do have his medicine," she said. "You do have his medicine, yes?"
"Yes!" Otto said, relieved that he could finally bring her good news. Without even thinking, he pulled off the sack that was filled with medicine, and handed it over to Ulrich's daughter.
She opened one of the brown boxes and looked inside. "Penicillin," she said, starting to cry.
"It is good, yes?"
"Perfect," she said, and finally looked at him with a smile that was brighter than any candle inside that room.
Even though the room was just one big space, it was divided up nicely by some different things, such as furniture and drapes. Behind one of those drapes was where the young woman took Otto.