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The Road Beyond Ruin
Author:Gemma Liviero

The Road Beyond Ruin

Gemma Liviero



MAY 1945





CHAPTER 1





ERICH


The color of Erich’s hair was scarcely visible amid a field of yellow wildflowers. He lay very still on his stomach, one eye closed, the other trained on the muzzle of his rifle pointed toward the people at the base of the hill. An older man and a female of indeterminable age walked slowly, their pace encumbered by the failing legs of the man, with his uneven gait.

Erich’s finger pressed lightly against the trigger, testing the weight of its resistance. No one would miss them, he thought before movement off to the side distracted him. He changed his aim to his originally intended target, saw the grasses quiver. When he caught a glimpse of the rabbit’s gray-brown legs disappearing beneath its tenuous cover, he pulled the trigger, and the sound of the small explosion traveled far across the valley. All movement in the grass ahead ceased, and he stood up to mark the spot, shirtless, his narrow torso suntanned, red in places, his browned face burned and peeling. He walked to claim his quarry, enjoying the temporary freedom that had been afforded him.

The people on the road had quickly disappeared from view. It mattered not to Erich that the sound of gunshots was a recurring nightmare for them. Like so many others, he assumed, the pair traveled the roads to reach a home that was repossessed or no longer standing. He picked up the rabbit by the legs and set off toward his two-story weatherworn house that in recent times had lost its self-respect, with mold under the eaves and shingles missing from its roof. The quaint storybook windows that had once been open to possibilities were kept shut against a hostile present. And the building that had once been beautiful, with its milky walls and chocolate gables, had become little more than a temporary refuge.

Erich squinted toward the sun and a powdery gust from the east, which carried a familiar yet vastly different smell from that of the acrid fumes and smoke he had grown used to elsewhere. Something was stirring up the dirt in the far paddocks, and the scent triggered memories of his sister, Claudine, running wild, uncaring about punishment and consequence, hands covered with dirt to smear the faces of the younger ones.

On the far side of the paddocks, he could see a haze of dust and hear the groan of several engines, and a sense of urgency replaced the feeling of freedom.

He turned and ran through the front door.

“Mother, trucks! Russian!”

His mother shoved the plates she was holding down hard so that they rattled together on the table.

“Get the matches. Hurry!” she said.

While Erich followed this instruction, she hurried into her bedroom and returned, carrying a wooden box. During Erich’s childhood the box had been untouchable, something that held secrets shared only between parents. As an adult he had learned the value of its contents, and more recently it had become a threat to their survival.

His mother withdrew from the box letters, photos, and papers and threw them into the fireplace. Erich struck a match and held it to the pile, which quickly caught the flame. It was their names, their past lives they were burning, but Erich, born to survive, felt only a sense of relief watching them shrink and blacken as he fanned them into charcoal ash.

“They might not stop here,” said Erich.

At the bottom of the box were several other documents that consisted of both drawings and text. His mother examined them carefully, lovingly almost, as he had seen her do many times before.

“Keep them with you,” she said to Erich, shoving the papers into his hands. “You must not let people forget your father, forget what he did.”

Erich looked at the papers, then at his two younger brothers at the dining table, serious faces, their hands in their laps, the middle brother on the threshold of manhood. They were growing used to these moments when they had to wait and hope. The empty chairs at the table said much about their family. The space told of change—how much they had lost.

Erich watched his mother’s familiar stoic and unchangeable expression. He had absorbed much of her strength. She had given so much of it to all of them over the years. Though the resilience had remained unshakable, her body was not coping with their change in fortune. She had lost weight. The flesh around her jawline had melted away, her chin becoming more prominent, and a purple tinge to her hands stubbornly remained after a long winter without coal.

“Is the war over, Mutti?” asked the middle brother.

His mother held his gaze, but there were no secret messages, no more plans. Nothing to suggest they could do anything more. Those times had gone. Then her eyes drifted toward the window to the trucks now coming up the hill, along the dirt track that led to their door.

“No,” said his mother.





AUGUST 1945





CHAPTER 2

STEFANO

Berlin is underwhelming. The city described by Germans as the most progressive in the world, occupied by intelligentsia, superior order, and robust architecture, is little more than a puzzle now, what remains of it, slowly being pieced together. Buildings, unusable, with their insides garishly hollowed, mock the crushed regime. Windows, from where Germans stretched their arms to salute their führer, to clap the soldiers in the street, are now empty, elitist dreams.

There is an absence of men of working age here, men who were killed or imprisoned, along with many too young to wear a uniform and too old to shoulder such loads. The Third Reich no longer had age restrictions in the final days.

Beige women, in belted dresses and headscarves, walk in groups along the pavement of streets cleared of debris, clutching handbags as if they have somewhere important to be. They appear to acknowledge Stefano as he passes, but they don’t consider him for any length of time. It isn’t from fear or guilt that most avert their eyes; Berliners no longer care about the people who walk their streets. They have thrown away caution and replaced it with apathy. Without the Nazi symbols of false superiority, there is nothing to measure themselves against. Among the debris and the shards of a broken city, they, too, are free.

Stefano was stopped earlier by British soldiers to show the mark on his arm. It is as good as an identity card. In fact, it is better; the mark means that one is no longer answerable. He is left alone, unquestioned. The Russian soldiers ignore him. The British soldiers nod formally. The Americans stare longer, curious. Stefano is thin, worn, gaunt, haggard, all the words that his mother would have used to describe his condition. She would be horrified by the state of him, but he has seen others in worse condition. He is a survivor—one of the lucky ones who ordinarily wouldn’t consider themselves lucky.

Tall, muscled, he was once a swimmer, a student of languages. Stefano’s family had used words like “tender” and “loving” to describe him after he left them the first time. Then more words the second, then no words on the last trip, because, by then, as war raged with a new sense of recklessness, thoughts of inevitability had replaced any promises of return. He is twenty-three, but his experiences make him twice as old.