They filled the graves they had been forced to dig, the snow was red with their blood. Eric Hoffman watched as the soldiers shoveled beneath the gray winter sky. Death was no novelty; the prisoners witnessed its gluttony daily. Its breath was the infernal stench issuing from the crematories.
The fireplace crackled behind Eric, but his heart was as cold as a deserted house. His office provided all the comforts of his rank; his window, all the horrors of war. Today the conscience he crucified, resurrected.
Eric sat behind his desk and stared into the nose of the bullet he rolled between his fingers. It beckoned as his last comforter, to quench his seething pain. He slid it into the chamber of his gun, and set the hammer.
He set the gun down and lifted a pile of forms, each bearing his signature. The war had taught him to see people as numbers in an equation; a means to be manipulated and erased at will. The sunlight of conscience vaporized this fog. The numbers regained their faces.
"Hoffman, Frederick," the first form read. "Age: 52; Height: 5'9. . . Pastor of Jubilee Church. Convicted of treason in aiding enemies of the Führer. Sentenced to death by order of. . . ." He set the form down. As a soldier, Eric had pursued and executed this man; but now he grieved as a son.
"The Jews!" He groaned. "You were warned not to come to their aide." Eric searched for any memory of a fault he could hold against his father, to lessen the pain.
"He devoted too much time to the church," he accused. "Every tithe was given back to some old widow. The church starved him, while he fed them -- fool. Who had time for me?" The next form answered with the sting of a slap.
"Willham, Amos. . . Jew." His ancestry was his death sentence; nothing else was needed. The name pierced his heart like a knife. Eric tried to hate, but his efforts boomeranged.
He had practically been raised beneath the Willham's roof. Old Amos drank and polkaed like a German. During the Great War he had saved Eric's father and was wounded as a German. All but Amos's heart was German.
"Hoffman, Eileen; Age: 49. . ." What madness, what demon could drive a man to murder -- with a pen -- his own mother? It was for Germany that he slew Germans. To cut away the cancer that the "super-race" might live.
"Mother always wanted me to be as my father," he whispered wistfully. "I should of stayed in seminary. What am I saying? They were blind to the truth. That is why they're dead, and I'm alive -- but is this life?
"To everyone a sacrifice. My soul for. . ." He weighed his mother's cross in his right hand, his uniform swastika in his left. ". . .a better Germany?" He remembered laughter and summer picnics in the verdant mountains.
His father refused to admit poverty. He always said, "We're not generous. We're selfish! Every pfennig we give puts a gold shingle on our mansions." What good did the fairy-tale of the cross do him?
Eric closed his right fist, and opened his left. The swastika, a twisted cross casting the shadow of fear. Beneath it, no one trusted their neighbors. Hearts were frostbitten with the winter of war. Children feared to play in the streets, and few could sleep at peace.
"If only they knew why they suffered. Then they would thank me." He vindicated. Eric scanned the final forms.
"Willham, Lisa. . . Willham, Robert. . . Willham, Rachel. . . Jews." Hitler's venom had decomposed his love for Rachel. Childhood sweet-heats, engaged; but the world had changed. With her, he kissed his humanity good-bye. In his lust for his own humanity, he cherished that first and final kiss.
"Why did they flee to Poland? Why did they join the Underground?" Like a hound in pursuit of swine, he had hunted the Jews, and the mastermind that covered them. If he had known, he might have sent warning, but the mouse outwitted the cat.
Eric remembered his father's final words on the night of their capture. "Remember, in everything God has purpose. . ." To the very end his father had stayed faithful to the unfaithful.
Eric watched as the fire consumed his contract with death; then raised the gun to his temple and squeezed. . .
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