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People always get the wrong end of the stick when I tell them that my grandad was a Nazi. I mean, of course he was in the Leipzig branch of the Hitler Youth as a teen, joined the party when old enough and, in December of 1943, was drafted into the army to fight in the dying years of the war. That said though, he was never really committed to all the anti-Semitic, fascist ideology. In fact, just three years after the war, he married my grandmother Rokhl, a Polish Jew, in the same church hall that years earlier had hosted the Hitler Youth meetings, before crossing the border into British Germany and, then, across the sea to a new life in London. That said, he did have some great stories from what I grew up thinking of as “the other side”.
He fought on the Eastern Front mainly. Though never sent to the worst conflicts of the region, battles like those at Stalingrad, Kursk, and Kharkov, he met many soldiers both in the standard army and the Waffen-SS who had fought there, who told him their stories. Years later, he would tell these stories to an impressionable young child on his knee who would listen, enrapt in the story, sitting on the floor of the little apartment that smelled of wood smoke and cigarettes.
Grandad passed away early last year, surrounded by his closest family. I’ll always miss him. In memory, I’m going to pass on a story he himself passed on from a wounded soldier, who himself heard it from a Waffen-SS friend of him. The story of Die Teufelsbrücke.
The camp lay quiet as the snows fell that night. The canvas of the tent bulged inwards, pregnant, as four men talked angrily over a table smothered in sepia brown maps and charts, pins marking the path they should have taken days ago. The only heat and light in the room came from a spitting naphtha lamp in the corner that cast long, dark shadows over everything. One of the men was talking with ice in his voice.
“Look! I don’t care about the fucking mission right now! If we don’t move on tomorrow, we are all going to die. We need help!”
The officer was young, too young perhaps to have been promoted to Scharführer. Exasperated, he ripped off his hat and ran a hand through his blonde hair. The older men noticed this lapse in discipline.
“We have our orders,” one of them replied, his voice a flat monotone. “We are to hold the bridge until further orders are given. We cannot give in to the Bolsheviks!” As he spoke the pasty skin of his jowls quivered. One lock of the greying hair stuck out from under the brim of his cap.
“What bridge?” the Scharführer cried, ignoring the man’s higher rank of Standartenjunker. “Look at it!”
He strode across the tent and threw the flap open. A blast of horrifyingly cold air forced its way into the room, but the officers did not react. The snow had paused for the moment, and through the thinning clouds a half moon shone fiercely. The undisturbed snow reflected the light into a pale blue sheen across the land.
Just beyond the perimeter of the camp, the once lazy river was now frozen, a thin crust of ice and snow separating the air from the rushing waters beneath. Jutting up from the bright expanse were shattered pieces of masonry, charred and humbled.
“For three hundred years that bridge stood tall, but all it took was one Petlyakov to flatten it and kill half our god-damn section as well! Look, we can’t cross here, but there’s another bridge just a day’s travel south of here, day and a night tops in this weather.”
“When they know of our situation, they will send engineers to rebuild the bridge,” another man said, his skin pale white from the days of cold, and the oncoming illness that would be his death. He was also higher rank than the youth.
“And just when will they know of our situation, Sturmführer? We haven’t had radio contact in days, have we? We are on our own here! It is time to take action!”
“Steurmannsmatt, how long will our provisions last?” the pasty-skinned Standartenjunker asked, ignoring the Scharführer. The timid, diminutive quartermaster looked up from the corner where he had been sitting quietly. He spoke with a mild, stuttering shiver.
“We have food for four days, six if we start seriously rationing. Ammunition is fine, we haven’t fired a single shot in weeks. The petrol is frozen solid in the trucks, though, and as for the naphtha,” he gestured at the spitting flame, “the tanks ran dry this evening. What is currently in the furnaces is all we have.”
“What about water?” the pale Sturmführer asked.
The Steurmannsmatt shrugged, his unornamented lapels lifting and dropping with a futile little rustle of fabric. “I couldn’t say. Until now we’ve been melting snow with the naphtha, but I guess we’ll have to start drawing dirty water from the river. We have no chance of digging a well in these conditions.”
The Scharführer quietly looked out of the flap at the heap on the camp’s edge. Wells weren’t the only thing that they were having difficulty with digging into the frozen, hard ground, and the pile of preserved, ice-white bodies had been steadily growing over the past few weeks. Unable to rot in the cold, their gleaming pale skin was naked where people had harvested their clothes in an attempt to stay warm. As the steadily increasing mortality rates showed, it was a tactic that seldom worked.
“We have enough to survive for at least a week then. Make sure we do, Steurmannsmatt. Oh, and Scharführer?” the Standartenjunker called. The Scharführer turned to face him.
“You’re dismissed. Be sure to close the tent on your way out, won’t you?” he said mockingly, tossing the cap to the youth. Glaring at the older man, he firmly forced it onto his head and stamped out into the snow, purposefully leaving the door open.
With each step, his leather boots crunched knee-deep into the icy crust. The clouds had gone now, blown away by the same fierce wind that now rattled the tent poles and sucked at the canvas, bringing a thousand diamonds of ice stinging into his cheek with each raging gust.
“Scharführer, the officers are arschlochs, no?”
The youth stopped walking, glancing up from the snow-bound path ahead of him, searching for the source of the voice. He didn’t recognise it. Most of his men were from bigger cities, harsh in voice and temperament. The voice he had heard, though, was sophisticated, cultured. Carefully, the officer readied his pistol.
“Behind you, Scharführer.”
He turned and saw a dark form standing in the shadow of a tent. Slowly, he walked towards the figure.
“Identify yourself, soldier.
The man stepped forwards into the light of the moon and, for a second, the young officer was unable to believe his eyes. With shaking, numb fingers he struck a match and, by the wavering, long yellow flame, looked upon the face of a dead man.
“Rottenführer Pfeiffer? I saw the bombs fall! I saw them drag you out of the water, lungs full of water and a belly full of shrapnel! You’re dead! You can’t be here!”
“A temporary setback,” the man drawled in his aristocratic tongue. “Touch me, Scharführer, and you will see that I am here.”
The dead man held out one hand and, tentatively, the officer took it.
The corpse was warm. Not just warm, really, but hot, near painfully so. His skin felt like as if fires were raging beneath the surface, only just held at bay by the Scaphian Bull of the man’s skin. Terrified, the youth tore his hand away from the cadaver’s grip, and noticed that the ground around the two of them was steaming, snow melting and leaving the floor a shiny quagmire of new, saturated mud.
“You… you’re not real!” the officer exclaimed.
“And yet I am,” the dead man replied. His eyes still looked glassy and blind, on the edge of rotting.
The Scharführer looked over to the towering pyramid of unburied bodies. Was it his imagination? Or did it look like a couple were missing? The glassy, dead eyes followed his gaze.
“I am flesh, like you, Scharführer. If you look at the heap, you will not find me there.”
“What… what are you?” he gasped out, terror clutching about his heart like the icy, asphyxiating mantle of snow that enveloped the heap of dead men, men his leadership had killed. The corpse shrugged.
“We are Legion, Scharführer.”
“Dear Christ, are you the devil?”
The man laughed, a dry, croaking sort of laugh that sounded airless and gasped out of his mouth. On the breath, the faintest odour of dry rot was carried. The officer wrapped his hand around the well-worn grip of the automatic pistol in the holster at his hip.
“We may not be the Devil, Scharführer, but we’re closely related enough to Him that that peashooter you’re clutching will do nothing but anger us, and we are not a group you want to anger. Now, we have a proposal for you, one that will not cost the lives of a single man in your service.”
“Make your offer, demon,” the Scharführer said. Normally, he would have wanted to talk inside, but the snow that had started to fall again now melted into a thin mist of drizzle as it approached the two of them. The officer didn’t take his hand off of his pistol.
“Let’s take this inside, shall we? We don’t feel the cold, so much,” he said, reaching out of the circle of warmth and plunging his bare hand down into the deep snow up to his elbow, the ground frozen from days before, at his side. He never broke eye contact. “But you do,” he continued.
The two men entered the tent.
“So, you will build me a bridge?”
The dead man nodded. “We will. You have dozens of ready hosts out there that we can use. It can be done by morning.”
“Where will the materials come from?”
The cadaver shrugged. “It won’t be a problem.”
“And what payment do you require? My grandfather always said that when you deal with the devil, you have to pay the price.”
“A wise man. We require a soul.”
The man shivered at the way the corpse uttered the word. What business do you have with souls, when you yourself lack one? he thought. As the man was warming up, the smell of rot was becoming far, far stronger than previously, to the point where the Scharführer began to feel a gag coming on.
“Any will do. We will harvest the soul of the first man to cross the bridge.”
“But you said that this did not require the deaths of a single man in my service!”
“And that is true. I believe there are three officers at this camp?”
The two sat in silence for a couple of minutes. The Scharführer wondered whether the smell of Pfeiffer’s reanimated body would linger in the tent after he was gone.
“Do I have your agreement, Scharführer?”
The man nodded. The officer wondered whether it was just a clever trick or true, evil magic that the corpse used to produce a pre-written contract and a quill pen, tipped with a single ruby drop of fresh blood.
The officer did not sleep that night, the sounds of the dead labouring away at the edge of the river keeping him away from what would have been, he had no doubt, uneasy dreams. Eventually, a rosy finger of dawn light broke through the seam of his tent and, not bothering to clothe himself, he walked out and into the snow.
More snow had fallen, and the deep whiteness reached up to his thighs, soaking his thin pyjamas through. The heap was gone, a little rough rectangle of bare ground with footsteps leading away. The man faltered and tripped, plunging whole body into the snow.
It sure was a fine bridge ahead of him.
Three long, Roman arches crossed the water. A few broken spires from the previous structure still poked out of the ice, though the red bricks of the new construction seemed entirely unrelated from the older, late-medieval structure. Strangely, the ice seemed entirely smooth, unbroken and treacherously clear. Underneath the frosty glass the Scharführer could see the supports, where algae seemed already to have been growing for years, despite the youth of the bridge.
The officer had been dreading seeing the dead on this final walk but, mercifully, they weren’t there. He reached the perimeter gate and saw that the guards were still asleep. Just as well. He didn’t want there to be any witnesses to what happened next.
The smooth paving of the bridge had just the barest dusting of snow, the newly laid tarmac modern and high-quality. The man whispered one final prayer and, eyes closed, stepped onto the bridge.
When his eyes opened, he was looking into the eyes of the dead- not just the eyes of Pfeiffer, but the eyes of all the dead at the camp, their flesh now sloughing off as the skin discoloured and their faces drooping heavy with death. The thing controlling Pfeiffer’s form smiled and, plunging a hand into the soft flesh of the Scharführer’s stomach, shrieked with all the ancient anger of the thousand demons that made up Legion.
The dead fell upon the officer, fingers grasping and claws tearing.
Officially, the Scharführer died of suicide by hanging. What the officers left out of the report was that the young officer had been hanged from the bridge by his own intestines, his belly torn open with savage force and his scalp ripped off. His face was left intact, save for his lower jaw which, by the account of the camp medic, had been bitten clean in half by human teeth. The upper mandible was missing all its teeth, and it looked as if they’d been pulled out while the officer was still alive and, worse, conscious.
As it happened, his self-sacrifice was in vain. Just two days after, as the men trudged to what they were told was safety, two Petlyakov dive-bombers attacked the soldiers, one of which was flown by the same pilot who had bombed the bridge days earlier, killing all but two men- the pasty-skinned Standartenjunker, and a junior soldier. The Standartenjunker ended up killing the man to survive in the cold, planning to cannibalise him, when he was captured, tortured, and executed by Soviet forces.
To this day, the Teufelsbrücke still stands, reaching between the banks of the Taseyeva River.