The nuns had told Klaus that if he prayed in earnest, his prayers would be answered and he would feel the grace of God in his heart.
He was certain he was earnest, but he hadn't felt it yet. Perhaps he needed to try harder. He was twelve years old.
"Lord, I don't wish to be… like that," he whispered to the crucifix above him. The students weren't really supposed to be here in the chapel during the afternoon, but Klaus always did have trouble following regulations. "Please, make it go away. Make the sinful thoughts go away."
He waited, trying to keep still on the cold stone floor, trying not to shift his weight to ease the discomfort. Surely a prayer said in comfort would be considered insincere.
"I don't mean to sin in my heart," he whispered. "Truly I don't. But the dreams… I can't help having them. And then when I wake, I can't think of anything else. And whenever I see Erwin…. Please, Lord, make me pure. Take those thoughts out of my head."
He paused, closing his eyes, his hands still tightly clasped on his rosary. It had belonged to his mother, who he had never known. He introspected, waiting for that blissful light inside the nuns and priests had promised him. But he must not have been doing it right, for all he felt was bleakness.
"I know Erwin is innocent of my sin. He doesn't know what I'm thinking. Please, Lord, make me as innocent as he is."
Klaus waited, but still felt no reassurance inside.
"Please, I will perform any penance, just purge this vileness from my soul…."
A youthful voice shattered the stillness of the chapel. "Klaus! There you are!"
Klaus's whole body stiffened, then he turned slowly. "Erwin. Hello."
Erwin smiled at him. He was a handsome boy, his form slim and toned, his hair a short mop of yellow curls, his face like that of an angel in a painting. He smiled at Klaus in trusting friendliness. "Klaus, we need you at practice! Are you planning on becoming a monk? Come on!"
"Amen," Klaus muttered before rising and following his classmate, experimentally studying the graceful lines of the boy's athletic legs to see if his prayers had had any effect.
They hadn't. Klaus hurriedly turned his thoughts to iceburgs.
There were many emotions in his heart at that moment, but divine grace was not among them.
Sixteen years old, Klaus sat in the Eberbach library, his knuckles turning white and his stomach knotting. His father sat across from him, barricaded behind the enormous oak desk, giving him the sort of look one gives to germ-bearing insects.
"Of course I joined," the Graf said testily, as if Klaus were wasting his time with silly questions. "Everyone joined. You have no idea what Germany was like then."
"But… didn't you realize…." Klaus was beginning to wish he hadn't brought it up, but he still had to know.
"No one realized. Politicians always make extravagant promises and indulge in exciting rhetoric. Providing entertainment is half their job," he said with cold disdain.
"Didn't you read his book? He came right out and said-"
"Nobody read that book," his father snorted. "There were copies everywhere, virtually falling from the sky, and nobody could get through the first chapter. He made that first chapter so deadly dull for a reason, you know. Even his cronies found it to be an embarrassment. Besides, do you think that every starry-eyed, snot-nosed university brat who memorized the words of Marx and Engels can be held responsible for the deeds of Stalin?"
"You were a Colonel…."
"The Army didn't run the country. More's the pity. That man was no soldier, he was a rabid dog. Do you know we in the Army tried to assassinate him more than a dozen times?"
Klaus swallowed. "But, with your military rank and title, you must have been able to find out more about what was really going on…."
His father's expression grew acid. "Just what are you accusing me of, Klaus? Just what do you think I did?"
"I didn't mean that!" his son cried. "I merely…." He stopped, groping for words. What words were adequate?
His father's eyes were stony. "Do you really think that, if you had been a member of my generation, you would have done any differently?"
At that, Klaus turned very cold. Because he saw at once that that was what he had been trying to find out.
"Perhaps not," he whispered. And realized, with a sudden panicked clarity, that he was never going to be certain one way or the other, for as long as he lived.
He noticed that his father had fallen silent, and looked up. The older man was no longer angry, but pitying and only too comprehending.
"And now you see," the Graf said quietly. "Go to your room now. We shall discuss this more later."
But somehow, they never did.
At 25, Lieutenant Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach was the youngest soldier ever to be selected for Germany's most elite commando squad. He was expected to rise quickly through the ranks and distinguish himself time and again, if he could stay out of trouble. His superiors were divided between those who considered him the most promising young officer they had ever seen and those who considered him an insubordinate menace who needed to be reminded that the days of landed gentry were over - and a few who believed both at the same time.
"Schnell!" At the Captain's command, they all picked up their pace, racing to beat death - not their own, but that of the people who were awaiting them, full of trust - each with a weapon at the ready and emergency supplies strapped to their backs. This was demanding, grueling work, the sort only soldiers of young Eberbach's caliber could do. It took a tall, strong body and a particular sort of spirit, combined with years of rigorous training. It was what Klaus had always wanted to do, for as long as he could remember.
They reached the building, little more than a cottage, and without further orders being needed, silently surrounded it. Klaus and one of his comrades took up position not far from the door, weapons ready to cover the two men who then kicked the door in and stormed inside.
Klaus was ready for a firefight, but nothing happened. No shouts, no shots, only booted feet stomping in and pausing.
A moment later, Klaus heard, "We're too late. Secure the building. Find the papers, if they're still there."
They ran in, knowing there would be little to do but make certain of what they already knew, that the enemy was already gone, and then call the morgue. But they kept their weapons ready, because it was procedure, and reconnoitered all three rooms before entering, even though the only people in them were dead.
With one exception, a man who it seemed had been in the bathtub at the time of the attack - less than half an hour ago - and the men who'd gunned down the eight or nine other civilians in the cottage hadn't been thorough enough to check the bath. The Captain was now trying to soothe the survivor into coming out of the little room that had served as his sanctuary.
"No other survivors, sir," Lt. Braun reported. "And no sign of the papers. They must have taken them."
The survivor, shaking, looked around at the carnage, and then began praying aloud, thanking God for having saved his life.
Lt. Eberbach, glancing down, noticed that the dead woman on the floor by his boots was clutching a rosary in hands already stiff with rigor mortis.
He wanted to tell the survivor to shut up, but he didn't have the rank for it.
"You're saying they've started bombing each other's mosques?" the Major demanded, throwing his cigarette to the ground and jumping up.
"The charges will go off in less than ten minutes, sir," A confirmed, hurrying to keep up with his superior's long strides.
"Scheisse. Is anyone inside?"
"When I left, B and Z were evacuating. Everyone should be out by now."
Nearing the mosque, Klaus stopped and looked around at the quickly gathering crowd. He didn't have to understand their words to recognize despair when he saw it. Several women and even men were openly weeping, and not a few had their hands raised in prayer. Over the course of his career Klaus had seen enough people praying that he knew it wouldn't do them any good, but he couldn't have explained that to them even if he had spoken the language.
It's just a fucking building. You can make a new one, Klaus wanted to say, but he knew it wouldn't matter to them.
An old woman noticed him, glared at him and said something he was certain was an insult of the first order, as if any of this were his doing.
"We'll never get them to tell us where the training camp is now," A said in dismay.
He was right, Klaus realized. To most of these people, there was no difference between NATO's allies and the Soviets who wanted to conquer and enslave them. Just aliens, hostile to their ways, further complicating the troubles they constantly caused each other.
Klaus made up his mind.
"How many bombs are there? What kind?"
"We think only two, sir." A quickly rattled off what he knew about them. Klaus nodded curtly.
"Gut. Don't let anyone inside." And the Major elbowed his way through the crowd and past the astonished alphabets who were standing guard at the doors, inside the mosque.
"What - Major! No!"
Klaus ignored his subordinate's protests. Swiftly he found the first bomb. It was the work of two minutes to disable it. The second one took longer. In his intense concentration, Klaus didn't realize it, but he had broken a sweat. The back of his shirt was damp, sticking to his shoulderblades. And for a minute there, he thought he might have gambled too much this time.
But he hadn't, and before the timer was done the second bomb was a pile of harmless junk too. He let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding in, gathered both useless bombs into his arms, and stepped out the front entrance of the mosque.
When he appeared, things got very silent. He tossed the remains of the bombs to the ground, causing everyone to back away, but held the timer aloft in one hand. Everyone watched as the last several seconds ticked away. When it reached zero, confirming that the danger was past, the cheer that rose up threatened to knock him over. People poured into the mosque, and to his chagrin, several spectators insisted upon embracing him. He endured it as amiably as he could, because he would bet a Leopard tank that somebody would tell him where that infernal training camp was now. They would be his best friends now - for the next couple of days.
Some people wouldn't let you do them a favor unless they saw you walk on water.
Klaus had stopped believing before his first shave, and yet, he still felt more peaceful in a church than anywhere else. Indeed, so peaceful were they to him that he was seldom able to stay awake in them. Ironic, considering the turmoil of the prayers of his youth, prayers which never had been answered.
He believed in none of it, not the Creator or the Redeemer whose Name the priest was praising, not the reward promised to the righteous to even the scales so woefully unbalanced in this world, nor that the wine and wafer he dutifully consumed were anything but that. And yet he attended the services faithfully, and made generous donations. It was nothing to do with anything supernatural, but merely a matter of proper behavior. Besides, ritual was soothing. That must be why it survived, century after century. It was why Klaus adhered to it, decade after decade. He preferred not to recall how old he was, but the grey in his hair was spreading at an alarming pace, and his joints were beginning to ache in a way he refused to acknowledge. He knew it would not be much longer before the aches would no longer tolerate being ignored.
If he was lucky, memory would be the first faculty to go. There were many things he wished he could forget, things he had seen, things he had done, people whose very existence pained him, and one steady wish that had never been - could never be - fulfilled. But he had never been lucky. He fully expected that when he was confined to a bed, unable to perform the smallest function for himself, he would still recall every regret with crystal clarity, even on the day when he heard the priest reciting over him for the last time. Perhaps he would at least be lucky enough to be unconscious for that bit; certainly hearing the last rites would bring him no comfort.
As he had hundreds of times before in his life, he filed with the other congregants to the front of the chapel and knelt to receive the sacrament. He wondered, not for the first time, if it weren't as obvious to everyone else as it was to him that this was merely a survival of barbaric ritual cannibalism of old, retained symbolically to placate heathens who would not give up old habits, overlaid with the thinnest layer of ethical monotheism. Ethical monotheism - proof that most members of his species were far more optimistic than he was. Not that it had really made that great a difference; over the centuries, thousands of people had been tortured and put to death on dubious charges of desecrating wafers like these.
The priest recited the centuries-old liturgy, and Klaus properly closed his eyes as he swallowed the wine - the blood of Christ, he had been told and never really believed, even as a child. He parted his lips and allowed the Eucharist to be placed upon his tongue.
And at that moment, for the first time in his near half-century of life, he felt it.
The love of God, just as the nuns had told him. Divine grace, flowing into his heart for no reason that he could see. And every bit as blissful as he had always been assured, loving and warm and very, very good to feel, after so many years of his heart being barren and cold and desolate.
And definitely real. Even as he still knelt, trembling slightly and trying to keep his composure, he knew that this was the real article, powerful far beyond his ability to explain away. Whatever happened, he could never again doubt that this was real.
The man next to him - a neighbor, a man he had known by sight for all of his life - was looking at him, mildly confused. Klaus realized that he had been kneeling too long. He quickly stood, as if he had merely been distracted, and went back to his pew, the Eucharist just beginning to dissolve on his tongue, still filled with the grace that stunned him with its warmth, its purity. This was pure, unadulterated love, purer than anything a human could feel for another, and clearly coming from a source outside himself, a source to which he could only give one possible name.
I have been wrong, all of these years, he thought in a sort of mental whisper. And for a moment, he feared he might actually weep, so great was the relief from his decades of despair.
But the memory of those decades remained clear in his mind, along with every single cause of despair, gleaned from newspapers or history books or, in too many cases, from the evidence of his own eyes. Every tragedy, every failure, and every unguarded moment when he had wondered how the hell he had stood it up till now and how on earth he was going to stand it for another twenty-four hours, never mind the twenty-four after that.
Why didn't I feel this ever before? Klaus wondered, even as he was still immersed and drowning in the blissful feeling. What have I done to be so deserving now, and what of those who never received it?
And what do I do now?
The service was over, and people were filing out, exchanging pleasantries, moving gradually in the directions of their cars, their homes. Klaus wished that all of them were already gone; he could not endure to talk to anyone, not now, not even if he did not still have the wafer on his tongue. The emotion that gripped him was too precious to be expressed and too strong to conceal. He stayed where he was until almost everyone else had left, and then he hurried out while the last few stragglers were talking to the priest, before anyone could try to speak to him.
The sunlight seemed brighter than usual, the sky a more vivid blue. Klaus walked slowly, thinking, feeling. Still the all-encompassing love filled his heart. And he thought of how it would be to go back to the barrenness of his life till now. He thought of everything he knew. He thought about everything that he wished he did not know. And within him, what he felt and what he knew both refused to be denied, and neither could mold itself to the other.
He stopped and spat the wafer onto the grass. And then walked to his Benz, without looking back at the cathedral.
He wouldn't be back.