The Lorelei Signal
From the Journal of
Dr. Alyaksandr Novikova
Written by Douglas Kolacki / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow
We, the peasantry of Belarus, tended our quiet farms until June 1941. Then we heard the invasion: the distant rumbles of engines, the booms of artillery, the airplanes streaking through the skies.
Most of all, we heard about the Valkyries. Those who had sighted them—always after a battle—said it was like staring into flames.
~ * ~
The Germans had moved on at last, leaving the earth gouged with tank tracks, craters and scattered dirt. The air smelled of smoke and gunpowder. What Russian troops survived soon scattered and fled, tossing aside their weapons.
Casualties in German gray and Soviet green littered the field, ragged and sprawled in all sorts of positions. My older brother Daniil and I ran to them with the eagerness of boys. Whoever they belonged to made no difference; we cared little about Stalin, or Moscow which was some thousand kilometers away. We were farmers, my father and mother and Daniil and I, living in a two-room cabin. My parents slept on our stovetop for every possible bit of warmth. Our purpose was to stay alive.
"Faster, Daniil!" I sprinted past my lumbering, panting older brother, cuffing him and knocking his worker's cap off. He stooped to recover it and I laughed. I had only my left arm, but it twitched with all the energy of two: I'd had no trouble stealing an ax from a neighboring farm when Daniil lost our own, and using that same ax on a dog's skull when it came sniffing around our cabin. I even buried it in the woods all by myself. My family never found out, nor did the dog's owner when he came around and asked.
And I quickly got good at stripping dead soldiers of everything useful: water bottles, tins of meat, hard bread, soup pellets. My empty right sleeve flapped free as I jumped from man to man. I found a round tin that said Scho-Ka-Kola on it, that contained chocolate. Socks, and a pair of boots that might fit me; Daniil helped me tug them off. Reichsmarks could be useful for when the Germans were ruling us. We honed a smooth efficiency, myself going through pockets, dropping the pickings on the grass and darting to the next corpse as Daniil lumbered behind me, cap shading his eyes, breathing heavily as he did all day long when working, gathering everything into a rucksack taken from still another German soldier. He hugged the sack to his side with one arm while tossing in loot with the other. Bodies that were too bloody or in pieces, we avoided. It was all the more tragic, that there was such an abundance of the dead we could afford to pick and choose.
Somehow we had forgotten about the Valkyries. We should have known better, for a battleground of this size positively invited them.
I was between soldiers when the morning brightened from dawn to noon in an instant. Daniil cried out. I thrust my hand behind my back, as if hiding it would somehow conceal my whole self from her view. I did not think Oh no, they're here! or This can't really be, as if confronted with an angel or ghost. My only thought (after cursing under my breath) was that I would never get to try on my new boots.
Glancing to the right, I got my first look at a Valkyrie.
I had envisioned a supernatural avenger, sword raised to strike the looters—but incredibly, she did not even seem to notice us. She was bent over a German soldier three bodies away, her hand stroking his face. The soldier was still alive—that had never occurred to me either, that anyone might still be clinging to life—and was talking to her; I caught a few words in his language. My whole body hummed with her presence. She never completely stopped moving, somehow, her lightning-white hair ruffled by some invisible breeze.
I jumped at Daniil hissing my name over my shoulder. "Let's run for it," he whispered.
But by then I knew she had noticed us. Myself at least. She still attended the German, and he still spoke to her with words like Engel and bitte, but somehow I had her undivided attention, too. And while I did, there was no possibility of fleeing.
I half-turned my head. "Maybe if you distract her, I can get away." I could see my brother's fuzzy face beneath his cap, wide-eyed and white as my own.
He hesitated. "I've got the rucksack—"
"I'll take it." I reached for the sack, but Daniil yanked it away and lurched off. Twice he stopped and started again, as if wondering if the Valkyrie would call down fire from heaven when he tried to escape with soldiers' goods. Finally he bolted, although I heard a few thumps along the way; perhaps he threw out a meat tin here, a water bottle there, in an attempt to placate her. But she took no notice. Her attention was still on the German, and on me.
By now I was standing with them. The soldier was a sandy-haired fellow around my age, not yet twenty. Bare-headed, he had lost his helmet, his square-jawed face smudged but otherwise unharmed. On his chest, however, was a small hole leaking blood, staining his shirt dark. I would remember it during my university years when reading Romeo and Juliet, a wound barely large enough to put your finger into but 'tis enough, 'twill serve! He had not much longer.
As for the bright creature that overshadowed us, I recall little of her appearance. Mortal memory of limited capacity cannot hold such a sight. There was the white hair, eyes like the flashes made by artillery, a breastplate, feathered wings spread at least two meters each way. She wore no helmet nor bore any weapons. But the fact is, what you are imagining now from these scant details bears as much resemblance to her as a peasant cabin does to the Taj Mahal.
"Sprechen sie Deutsch?"
I jolted at the weak voice. The soldier was looking at me. This was a language I had never even heard before, yet I understood him. Do you speak German? The Valkyrie, still cradling him, must have somehow brought that about.
He closed his eyes, opened them again. "I asked her…to bring you."
I stiffened. "You are all dead, you don't need these things anymore. We're the ones who need them, you're invading our land, why should you care?"
To my surprise, he snorted out a laugh. "I envy you, my friend. I wish…looting soldiers…was all I had done."
Suddenly I wanted to bolt, to get away from this German. Stories of what they had done in Poland reached even to us. But with the Valkyrie beside me, there was no following Daniil and our loot out of here.
"I have not much more time…" (Good, I thought. The sooner he died, the sooner I might have a chance of getting home.)
"Like other Germans," he went on, "I believed our leader. He said conscience was a Jewish invention…a blemish, like circumcision. I wanted to help redeem our nation after the last war, and so I believed my leaders about other peoples being…inferior…the Jews, a parasitic race…it seemed to make our redemption a simple task. Easy to understand."
He reached up at me. I drew back. Lowering his arm again, he flexed his fingers, watching them. "If you knew what these hands have done…"
"In nineteen thirty-eight, in Leipzig…I threw newspapers on a synagogue, to help it burn…"
How old was he then? I shrugged. "Not a good thing, maybe. But why should that worry you now?"
He did not seem to hear me. "The crowd, and I with them…we smashed shops, homes, and drove the residents into the park…into a stream, and…spat at them, threw mud on them. And in nineteen thirty-nine…!"
He spoke as if trying to shout the year, but it sort of dribbled out his mouth instead, so I barely heard the 9 at the end. "I was part of the Ninety-Seventh Regiment in Częstochowa, Poland. Some fool accidentally fired a machine gun at a prisoner column, and they panicked…scattered. I was frightened and inexperienced. Before I knew it, I was shooting at them. I saw a man fall, but do not know how many prisoners I killed or wounded.
"Afterward, we claimed partisans fired upon us. And so our superiors rounded up thousands of citizens…children and the elderly too, it made no difference…marched them to the cathedral…and showed these inferior Poles the meaning of massacre."
His eyes had an urgency, and he would not take them off me. "I could tell you of others, but…" He faltered. "I am ashamed to ask you to take it, but…"
"It's my only chance…"
"What do you mean, take it?"
The Valkyrie touched his brow with the palm of her hand. His eyes flashed blue, renewed with life at least for the moment. "I saw you…and I asked her, really just thinking aloud. I never expected…but she is able. Do you agree?"
Now this really felt unreal, more than when the Valkyrie first appeared. For it was true. I don't know how I knew, but by some miraculous means, she could accomplish what the German was saying.
I shrugged. "Well, if you…I mean, if it means that much to you, then—well, sure—!"
"Listen to me." He spoke hurriedly, the rattle now in his voice. "There is a condition. You cannot do harm, as I have done. You may not use my arm to steal anyone's ax."
My jaw dropped. "What?"
"Nor throw stones at anyone, or throw anyone's furniture out their window, or set a building on fire. You may not raise a fist or a weapon against any person. You may not ravish a woman against her will, should you ever get such a thought, and such thoughts are common in war."
I bristled. "I'm a peasant." Not part of an invading horde like you, I thought but did not say.
He settled back, seeming to deflate. The being's hand still braced his head, but the light was fading from his eyes. More quietly he said, "I have told you…what you cannot do. What you do instead, you must decide. Make the…most…of this chance. I would give all I own for it. My arm will be the only part of me still alive in this world…use it to make amends. That is the price."
Shut up! I thought, only because I was feverish with thoughts of what this all meant. Two working arms, like other people? Could it really be?
"I need your answer," he said. "She will not wait…much longer."
I hesitated. I stood, he lay in the radiance of the Valkyrie, on the ground and yet far from Earth. "Why," I heard myself ask, "should I do you any favors at all?"
He said nothing.
"If your luck hadn't run out, would you feel so badly now? You would have gone right on killing and causing misery and thinking nothing of it. Isn't that true?"
"She has other soldiers…to attend."
"I ought to strip you bare, and leave you naked for the crows and the maggots."
A moment passed. I heard my breath rushing in and out, in and out, as the soldier's eyes fell. The Valkyrie still braced his head. Then he returned his gaze to me. "Perhaps the first thing you should do…is find a new dog for your neighbor."
My face did not change, but I felt a little prick inside. After a few moments, my shoulders slumped.
Both the human and supernatural beings were waiting. I bit my lip and nodded: Yes.
Lie down beside him.
It was the first speech from the Valkyrie. I did not move, still wondering if I was dreaming all this, could it really be? Heat flooded my shoulder, I fell flat and realized she had touched me—touched my shoulder that would soon, believe it or not, have an arm joined to it for the first time in my sixteen years of life.
I rolled on my back and struggled to remove my shirt, thinking, When I put this back on it will be with two hands.
~ * ~
My next memory is Daniil gawking at me, mouth and eyes wide. We were still among the corpses, and I was on my feet, bare-chested. He pointed at my new limb, but I was tottering about trying to balance myself, my center of gravity having changed with three and a half kilograms now added to my right side.
It was easy to see it had belonged to another man. The arm was lighter in color, thicker and more solid than my left arm, and not joined with perfect evenness to my shoulder. But there were no stitches or scars, no soreness, and every joint and finger responded instantly to my thoughts. Once I gained my balance, I simply stared at it for a long time. I patted and felt over it. I bent it, straightened it, rotated it, flexed the wrist, opened the hand, clenched it into a fist, flexed and wiggled the fingers.
"Alyaksandr!" Daniil grabbed it. I yanked it away as if he might damage it. He went on yelling. "Let's go home, show mother and father! What happened?"
~ * ~
That night, and for three nights afterward, I tried not to sleep because of a foolish dread I would wake up to find the miracle undone.
Daniil wanted to go loot the rest of the dead, but I talked him out of it. "We have enough," I said. He gave me a look I had never seen before.
There was no dog to be found for my neighbor, so I offered to chop firewood for him instead, although I did not confess why. He accepted.
The Germans buried the soldier and the other dead sometime afterwards—simple tree-branch crosses, topped with their helmets, marked their graves—so I did not get the additional unreality of seeing him with his arm missing.
When the Germans occupied our area, we hid a Jewish family from a nearby farm in our cellar. It was the same family I had stolen the ax from, and it was my idea to hide them. Why? I was not sure, but what the soldier had told me of 1938 never completely left my mind.
Later, when the Red Army drove back the Germans, I sought out a general and joined his staff as an orderly. I'm not sure why I did this either, but when I said goodbye to my family, Daniil jokingly thanked me for not cuffing him since gaining my new limb. I hadn't noticed.
In the end we got to Berlin, where I did what I could for the bereft citizens, although I could not stop the raping by our soldiers. I could only refuse to participate myself, voice my objections to the commanders, and do whatever I could for the women.
The general lived in Moscow and took me home with him, as he had never had a son. He sent me to university, and eventually I became a doctor. I returned to Berlin, where I practiced in the Jüdisches Krankenhaus Berlin, the Jewish hospital, and did so until my retirement.
Douglas Kolacki began writing while stationed with the Navy in Naples, Italy. Since then he has placed fiction in such publications as Weird Tales, Liquid Imagination Online and The Fifth Dimension.
He currently haunts Providence, Rhode Island.