The Man Who Feeds the Swans
This is a long novel which I have been working on some years. I doubt whether anyone would publish this, yet I'd like to share the work with anyone interested enough to take time to read this in instalments. I aim to download a chapter or two every couple of days. I hope you find saga of a German winemaking family, the Reisemanns, from 1929 to 1989, to be of interest. I've enjoyed the research and the writing. But having no idea if it's any good, then its over to you. If the number of hits is so low after a couple of weeks, I'll simply delete it all.
"If there is a sin superior to every other,
it is that of wilful and offensive war. . .
He who is the author of a war
lets loose the whole contagion of hell,
and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death."
P R O L O G U E:
Since the day they had taken the oath, they always thought, and they were usually correct, that the wave of death and destruction they generated encompassed every living enemy. They were the blowtorch battalion, and did not fire consume everything? So it seemed. Fire could scorch out the past and obliterate the future.
To them, their victims were simple entities, biologically the same as the animals they kept, of scant use to this coveted landscape. Their houses were considered as little more than highly inflammable pig-stys. The bloody conflict of winter had been hard, with death-dealing, frost-bitten cruelty, but now in the summer, between the pitched battles, it was an easy prospect; day after long, hot day, rolling forward across the ocean of rippling, endless corn, through dark woods, forging streams and rivers, scorching, destroying. The smell of burning petrol, the crackle of blazing thatch, the smoke, the hot, comforting barrels of their guns, the joy, the close camaraderie as night fell, sharing a mess tin, smoking a cigarette, ignoring the twisted, blackened cadavers of the vaguely human entities on the side of the road.
There had, of course, been some stiff resistance. Some comrades had died. The enemy had an army of sorts, yet it was ill-led, its ranks filled with the same sub-species of homo sapiens which seemed to occupy every hovel they had torched. Yet the creatures were retreating, dispirited, stunned by the ultra-efficient bulldozer of death which crushed them like ants.
In the first faltering hours of their historic mission their task had sent a shock through their own ranks, perhaps, in those youngsters who still harboured a pale, illicit trace of conscience, even a glimmer of shame or discomfort, but this would pass. Killing was undemanding, and as the glorious, victorious days turned into weeks, their training and indoctrination triumphed. Conquest was easier without pity. They would survive and those in their path would not. It was a simple rule. They were fire, they were steel, and fire destroyed, steel dealt death. Was there an easier, more primeval and joyous way to spend one’s young manhood than this? They did not seek love. They sought fear, and the more they had it, the headier a brew it became.
On the fifteenth day, in a village of about twenty dwellings called Kharitzelov, after an early muster and breakfast they began their work again. The air was sweet and dry after the cold night and insects danced between the floating specks of dust in the sharp, cheering shafts of sunlight. They joked and laughed above the clinking of their mess tins and the soft thud of their boots on the sandy roadway. It was the last house they planned to burn, a more distinguished, sturdier, stone-built, edifice than usual, yet it would be the exception to the rule of destruction. They felt no pity as they shot the old woman, her stout daughters, their father, the two pigs and three bullocks. They took the chickens and rang their necks – a treat for the camp fire that night. But as they ranged confidently through what they imagined might be the home of the village elder, they heard the murmur of children and entered a darkened room where two small boys, possibly under five, and a girl of around 8 years old, were cowering beneath a tiny window by the side of a tall, wide wardrobe. It was a fine piece of furniture which seemed incongruous in this primitive peasant world. It had a misplaced grandeur and elegance, made before anyone in that house on that summer day had ever been born.
For the quartet of young conquerors who faced these innocent infants, this was a test of nerve. Their superior pointed to the whimpering trio, then looked at his men. He spoke their names, one by one, thorough, clear and deliberate.
“Well? You know the orders.”
The invaders’ superior could see the slight flicker of indecision on his younger comrades’ faces. This was obviously to be a re-evaluation of their courage. They had been mainly used to killing at a distance. Yet this was close-up, a scenario where the true horror of their presence was reflected back at them in the faces of their victims. The superior steeled himself, the dark, wide innocent eyes of the children blinking in terrified anticipation. They might be sub-humans, but they were still kids. It wasn’t their fault that they had been marked down by history for extermination. He raised his MP-40 machine gun, pressed the trigger and although used to such a noise, still gasped in shock as the shattering rattle filled the room, the bullets raking across the children’s chests, blood gushing through their cotton shirts.
The quartet stood back from their handiwork; three crushed, crimson-spattered broken dolls, lying in a heap like a trio of ragged, collapsed puppets. In silence they left the house. Outside, the warm June sunlight sliced through the smoke and dust. Flies were already swarming around the corpses on the dry earth road. Their unit was in motion, moving on. Why no-one had torched the house, or thrown a grenade inside, did not concern the young victors. They were making history, moving like laughing, chattering gods across their imagined pages of glory. Nothing before this mattered, nothing this day, or tomorrow; they revelled in the moment, in each new progressive, promising day. As they marched away from the stone house, how could they ever realise that this lapse in total destructive thoroughness, this strategic error, had been such a bad mistake?
When darkness fell, the summer heat had given way to the chill blanket of night, and the mechanised, clattering rumble of the conquerors had subsided. They were now another five miles to the east of smouldering, destroyed Kharitzelov. As the bitter moon rose over the silent remains, in the stone house of the murdered children something moved. It was hard for Andrey Shiropilov, pushing the wardrobe door open. His limbs ached and he was exhausted, his mouth and lips dry with dehydration. In that dark, polished wooden box, constructed with pride by an unknown craftsman, perhaps a century earlier in some unfamiliar city many miles away, breathless terror had ruled for several hours, a dread so great as to prompt involuntary urination and defecation. As he pushed yet harder, something was blocking the way. Summoning up what strength he had, he shoved firmly and then stepped out in the darkness onto the lifeless head of Josef, his youngest son. Stiff and short of breath from their cramped confinement, Andrey’s wife Natasha unwound herself from her constricted, agonising posture. She tumbled out through the wardrobe door, falling onto her husband’s arched back.
They lit a candle, and threw caution to the wind. Their sobs of abject grief could well be heard miles away, yet they no longer cared. Perhaps death would be a relief. Their shame was part of their tragedy; why had they not had time to try and cram the children into the wardrobe? Why had they survived? Yet Andrey had been convinced that they’d be safe, that true men at arms would never harm tiny children. This would now be a stupidity he would have to live with for the rest of his bitter days. It seemed as if their instinct for survival had also made them into cowards.
Natasha sat by the wardrobe, cradling her dead son’s head in her lap. Andrey held the candle over his crumpled daughter’s face. To his utter amazement, her eyes flickered.
“Katya? Katya? - Natasha – she’s alive!”
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The swan, like the soul of the poet,
by the dull world is ill understood.
Heinrich Heine (1797-1856)
Markenburg sits on the north bank of the Mosel River between Koblenz in the north and the ancient city of Trier in the south. There is a special quality to the climate here, its soothing warmth trapped above the flowing river, pleasingly imprisoned in this deep, abundant valley. Here the lush vineyards stretch up the lofty hillsides, various shades of vibrant green, clinging in the genial sunlight to patches of fertile soil which nestle between the rugged, dark brown outcrops of rock. The wine comes late in its Reisling autumn from tight, hard tiny grapes, their eventual essence bursting with floral flavour.
In such a place of natural beauty the rigours of history and mechanical advance can sometimes seem irrelevant. Perhaps it is only electricity and traffic which separate Markenburg from its simple past. Where horses and coaches once clattered along the black cobbles, sleek Mercedes, Audis and BMWs are parked. The dark green, art-deco metal street lamps are ornate, Parisian in style, and along the promenade red and white banners bearing the town’s crest flutter in the balmy breeze. Markenburg is a tourist postcard, a colourful rectangle of pastoral German beauty to send around the world.
Below the tranquil, bee-buzzing verdant vineyards, the town trades on its medieval memory, a magnet for visitors who arrive each summer in their thousands to stroll down narrow, cool cobbled streets shaded by towering timbered houses. The brochures tell no lies; this is, indeed, a classic Mosel wine town, and has probably looked this way for centuries. As summer turns to autumn the annual wine harvest is celebrated with a week-long festival, a noisy riot of brassy, oompah-driven music and ceremonial parades wherein this year’s Wine Queen is elected, forever a pretty young Teuton, not necessarily catwalk thin, more of child-bearing hips, fresh of face and bright in personality. On the afternoon of the last Saturday in August, preceded by lofty proclamations by the Burgomeister, her appearance is heralded by the primeval drumbeats of a troop of guards bearing lances, their red and green 17th century costumes all adding to the colour of the spectacle. Following behind, like ageing vestal virgins in flowing white gowns, come the wine queens of previous years, from the still attractive twenty-somethings to those, now matronly, who had once matched their beauty, now portly mothers or ancient grandmothers. After toasting the crowds with her green wine glass, the fulsome Wine Queen stands behind the microphone on the bandstand and impresses everyone by making her inaugural speech in German, French and English. It has been this way in Markenburg for as long as anyone can remember.
High on the hills above the town stands the castle, from which Markenburg takes its name. It was in this towering, turreted monument that ancient kings and Teuton knights fought and squabbled over blood-stained local valleys. Today, with its silent cannons, colourful flags and reproduction suits of armour, it exists to prove to tourists that when it comes to elaborate, embellished history, Germany has the real thing – no-one needs the ersatz Disneyland pastiche.
A popular highway, the B49, runs from the town of Wittlich all the way north to Koblenz, hugging the banks of the Mosel for almost 70km. As it passes through Markenburg, it comes closer to the river bank than anywhere else along the route. Along this 2km promenade the Mosel pleasure boat jetties jut out into the placid water upon which hundreds of pleasure seekers will cruise on the numerous triple-decked boats. On board they are served good, cold German beer, bottles of fine Rhine and Mosel wine to accompany their schnitzel, wurst, frites and sauerkraut. On the larger boats, at night, beneath festoons of multi-coloured, twinkling light bulbs, the river revellers will be regaled with musical selections provided by a variety of live acts, some young and disco-flavoured, others specialising in that peculiar middle-aged brand of German popular music, a mix of thigh-slapping, stein-raising jollity and sentimental ballads about sailors missing their loved ones. These ships of sheer delight share the ancient waterway with long, low and slow cargo vessels plying their trade from Trier all the way to the mighty Rhine and beyond. This is a waterway where pleasure and profit cruise side by side.
However, there is one small Markenburg jetty, which the boats no longer call at. At nine in the morning and around seven at night, a broad assortment of river fowl, ducks and swans, assemble here. They know that at these times someone will appear at the end of the old, rusting pier with two large paper bags of bread. He is an old man. His hair is thick and white with the odd streak of blonde, a reminder of his youthful days.
Over the years he has become such a regular fixture that local people no longer notice him. In fact, according to some of the much older Markenburgers, this aquatic wildfowl attendant is simply part of a ritual which goes back further than they can remember. Someone has always fed the swans. The legend is that the custom was initiated by some kind of mythical river maiden, her identity lost in the mists of time. Although slightly stooped, his frame bears a hint of a once powerful body. His eyes are icy blue, his jaw square, and his face ruddy from an outdoor life. Morning and evening, he is there. He may be seen occasionally in one of Markenburg’s shops, yet he rarely speaks. Sometimes, on summer afternoons, he can be spied half way up the hill in his quiet corner of the castle’s beer garden, enjoying a cold Bitburger pils and smoking a cigarette. Only a few people know his name, yet they never engage him in conversation. He is known only as ‘the man who feeds the swans’.
Tourists staying in the nearby Promenade hotels often come out onto their balconies when the old man appears. The swans lead the charge, surrounded by a flotilla of noisy ducks. The elegant, snowy beauty of the swans with their long, undulating necks is contrasted by the scurrying, busy brown flock of raucous mallards as they dip, dive and fight for tasty, man-made morsels. The old man plunges his strong hand into his carrier bags and spreads the carefully portioned bread far and wide around the pier with a gentle wave of his arm, reminiscent of a man sowing seed in a field. The tourists, shielding their eyes against the low rays of the setting sun, holding their glasses of chilled wine, make comments.
“Ah … how nice …” and “Oh ... look at that kind old man …” Whether or not they ever stop to wonder if there is anything beyond a love of wildlife or kindness in this continuing convention seems immaterial. Like a carving, a statue, a famous waterfall or any other tourist attraction, the man who feeds the swans is simply … there.
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