I always admired my grandfather’s courage. He had fought in the war on what we nowadays think of as the wrong side, but he had never been a believer in the cause. Sometimes a rifle is pressed in your hand and your choice is either to fire and worry about being shot from the front, or not to fire and be sure that you’ll be shot from behind.
He was young when he was drafted, barely 16. Before he left he gave his first kiss and a promise to a girl. She waited five years until the end of the war, surviving on just five or six letters that she kept as treasure.
The war ended but even the defeat was celebrated. Not openly, but in the hearts and eyes of the people. People never wage war, it is politicians that wage war. No soldier that ever stood in the line of a rifle believes that war is heroic, only those divorced from reality, those that sit in tidy offices, those dream of war.
Soldiers came home with thin bodies and bandaged limbs. They hugged their wives and women before they fell onto beds and relived the front in dreams that made them toss and turn and wake up from their own screams.
His girl watched with tears in her eyes while her sister and mother each welcomed their men home. She heard the men scream at night and each scream lodged a stone in her throat. She prayed that the man she had kissed did not have to scream and then she prayed that the man she had kissed was alive enough to scream. Then she prayed for forgiveness for her selfishness.
The other men, when they came, were often so thin that their women, when they welcomed them, were scared of hugging them too tightly for their spines or ribs might break. Especially those that came from the East were thin, the skin of their faces sunken into their cheeks.
Two years after the war a scarecrow knocked on her door. An old man, forty at least, the arms thin like bare bones, a hard and dirty beard that had long stopped growing for want of nutrition and his skin a gray with blue and black patches. His lips stretched into a black-toothed smile. She stepped back into the house. The door was closing fast.
“Wait,” he said. “It’s me.”
Even after hot meal and shower and shave she still recognized nothing except his eyes and the shape of his nose. It took two weeks before she thought that he was true and another two before she was sure.
Sometimes, on those days where she took him along to the market, the sellers called him her father. The man in the leather chair had to ask her twice and then demand another witness to make sure that he was the man he claimed to be and not his father or uncle or another older relative.
The war had stolen his youth.
When my grandfather spoke about the war he never spoke about his experiences. He spoke in the abstract, the way you speak about a movie or a book, not even the way you speak about history.
“They were overrun. Hundreds of kilometers, there was no resistance at all. Then General Winter, as the Russians call it, attacked.”
“The troops still got further. There were villages, poor people. It wasn’t a choice; the supplies weren’t coming. Everything was taken. All those that didn’t run were shot.”
Sometimes he talked about the early phases of the war, when everybody was hopeful, when things were going far too well and easy. He always said, not with pride but in a matter-of-fact way, that the war would have been won if it had been against one or two or five countries, rather than against half the civilized world.
But my grandfather refused to speak about the things that happened at the end and after the war. When he was asked he didn’t reply. He only shook his head and looked away.
My grandmother said that she heard strange things when he was asleep. She heard him begging for food and water, for a blanket. She heard him beg that someone stop. She heard him beg that someone let him go. She heard him beg for forgiveness.
As long as I can remember I asked my grandfather about the war. Despite his warnings, for me those were stories of adventure and courage. I only heard when he spoke about trenches and gunfire, not when he spoke about catching rats for food and drying puddle water and trousers so soiled that it was better to rub them clean with mud and dry them in the rare moments of sun than to leave them as they were.
I didn’t understand that my questions hurt him, that I forced him to relieve a time that he would have given an arm to forget.
And yet, all those times when I made him tell stories in his odd unemotional and descriptive way, he refused to speak about the end. Once I baited him enough to say that he did not remember how he got home; sometimes riding on trains and sometimes by foot, but always just following the direction of the setting sun until he stumbled upon street signs that he finally could read.
He came from far in the East. Places he either did not remember or did not want to remember. And every time I asked his stories ended with the village that they pillaged, where they condemned men and women and children to death because they themselves did not know how else to survive.
As said, I always admired my grandfather for his courage. He paid that war with his youth and on his return decided that, for this heavy price, he at least wanted to be a good man.
I could recount countless times when I saw him, an old man by then, chase down young rascals that had egged a house or stolen a handbag. He jumped in when neighbors needed help. He passed a burning house and thought he heard a child caught still inside. He told me to stay where I was and without a thought slammed his shoulder into the door until it broke from its hinges and he himself disappeared in black smoke. In the end there was no child that needed to be saved. My mother called him a fool for breaking his shoulder like that. For me he was a hero.
My grandfather taught me that we all dream of being courageous but that very few of us take our chance to be a hero when it is offered to us. In our lives we pass countless times where we could save, but we drive past and look for excuses. “I have to hurry home.” “It didn’t look that bad.” “Others were helping already.”
Being scared and comfortable is easier than being courageous. And to make ourselves feel good we imagine the heroic acts we would have done if we had had the time or if it had been that bad or if others hadn’t been there.
There was only one thing my grandfather was scared of. Dark rooms.
Their house had a basement but they rarely, if ever, used it. There were strong lights installed and the light switch was outside the basement door, but there was nothing inside except for old furniture never to be used again and a few old tires that should someday have made a swing.
My grandmother did not mind entering the basement, but he forbade her to use it.
“There are things,” he said. “That live in such darkness.”
At night he made sure that everyone else was upstairs and in their rooms. He turned the flashlight on and the living room lights off and, faster than he should have moved in his age, hastened up the stairs.
The guest room was right next to their bedroom. So many times and years I heard him run up those stairs, slam the door and breathe heavy air into his lungs. My grandmother never complained. She never told him that he had to stop or that he was risking his life.
She understood. She knew. He had told her.
My father’s parents had died in a car accident when I was young. For me they are a hazy memory, more photos than people. That might be why my mother’s parents were so important for me. They were my personal grandparents, the ones I had and the ones I loved.
They had always been very healthy. When I was young my grandfather still ran and played soccer with me. But in the last few years their age was beginning to take its toll. I noticed that they lost their ability to focus, then their ability to remember recent events, then their ability to remember me.
My grandmother and grandfather still followed their routine. They cared for themselves and didn’t need our help except for tax matters and other administrative duties that some government official had decided needed to be complicated. My parents visited often to make sure that the house was in order and food in the fridge. They kept me updated on my grandparents’ health and happiness.
For Christmas I finally managed to visit. It’s not a nice thing to admit but my parents and I – with my mother as her parents’ only child and me as my parents’ only child – made sure to be there and not have any other plans because we thought it might be the last Christmas that we would have together as a family. I was happy to see them and hug them again. I felt guilty, in a way, that I hadn’t provided any great-grandchildren yet and had not even a girlfriend or wife to present.
I was surprised how confused they were; that they did not remember who I was. My grandparents did not seem to remember my parents’ names either, but they still recognized their faces. I was a stranger, face and name alike and during the meals and songs and conversations I felt as if I was an intruder in bygone lives that they were reliving with glassy eyes.
It was the 26th of December. My parents and grandmother went to see the Christmas market. I stayed home with my grandfather and his aching knee to drink tee and play scrabble.
I was in the kitchen when he called out.
With the teapot I walked back into the living room. He sat in his armchair, upright, his eyes suddenly clear and right on me.
“Son!” he said again, loud and forceful.
“Make sure the lights are on.”
I walked towards the light switch. His eyes followed me.
“They come when the lights are off,” he said. “You know that, right?”
“I’m not sure who comes, but I’ll keep the lights on for you.”
His voice was not frail anymore; it thundered through the room.
“They come! Those things! I told you about them!”
I turned the light on.
“I don’t think you told me,” I said. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Don’t fool me, boy!”
“I’m sorry, I really don’t know what you mean.”
“Oh, I told you. I know I told you. I taught you to keep the lights on.”
“You told me to keep the lights on, but you never told me why.”
There was anger in his face.
“Why? Why? I saw them and I saw what they do to us and you doubt me?”
“You saw things in the dark?”
“Three years I saw them. Three years they held me and the others.”
“I never heard about that.”
“Oh,” he said. “Then you should.”
That evening, in less than twenty minutes, my grandfather told me about his last years at the front.
One year before the war ended they were ordered to retreat. They fled in small groups through the countryside they had pillaged and burned just weeks before, past houses with the frozen dead still inside.
There was a church, he said, a large old church made of stone. It was the only building still intact in the village, the only place to seek shelter from the wind and cold.
They made a fire with old church benches and sank to their sleep right next to it. Seven men in total, two injured and moaning and the other five just scared and weak.
My grandfather said he woke up from screams all around him. The room was pitch black. The stone floor was moving under his body. He struggled to get on his feet – and only then realized that his feet were being held. The floor was still; his feet were being pulled.
Then he too screamed.
He said they were pulled down stairs. His weapon and knife were gone. Then he heard more people, moaning and screaming. A suffocating stench punched into his lungs.
He was thrown onto a heap of warm bodies. Something bit his leg and he kicked and a man screamed in pain.
The room was pitch black. Another man was thrown on him. A door fell shut and was locked.
He said they moved away from the heap of bodies, but the cold soon drove them to get closer. Every few minutes somebody screamed. He could hear flesh ripping and teeth grinding.
He said there must have been hundreds of people. He said they tried to hammer against the metal door and scream for help and the voice of an old man laughed at them from behind. He said in broken German that the door was thick and nobody there that could hear them.
But once every while the door opened. Something dark moved inside and when it came inside the room grew cold and the humans moved closer to one another. My grandfather said he felt the energy being drained from his body and a panic and dread rise in his soul.
Soon the dread started even before the door opened.
They all adapted. There was no problem with water. It ran occasionally down the walls and if it was not licked off it accumulated on the floor to join with the layers of excrement and sweat. He said that he tried to hold out, but that after days of hunger you choose desperate measures. He said that he never killed one there, that he only took pieces from those that had died or at least those that he thought had died.
Every few days more were thrown into the room. Every few days there was a struggle, some of the old against some of the new.
They tried to stay together, the brothers in arms that had fought together, but soon that too broke apart.
He said that some day the number of new people started decreasing. There were only a rare few and the numbers in the room dwindled. He sat for most of the time on a higher stone, one that the others seemed to not have found. He only climbed down when he knew that a struggle had ended, that one was dead, that something could be eaten.
But no matter the struggles, every time when the dread came and the door opened, they all huddled together. They all felt the same exhaustion and cold and panic in their souls.
And then, one day, long after no more new people arrived, when only three or four or five were left, there were footsteps outside. He was scared because he didn’t feel dread. The door opened and a man with a torch stood there. A gun fell from his hand and his mouth opened and he ran and scrambled up the stairs and he threw up while running.
The door was open. There was a glimmer of light from upstairs. That was how my grandfather left. He said he didn’t turn to look who or what he left behind. Something behind him scrambled up the stairs too, but he was the first to get out and he was the first to reach the forest and eat grass and bugs and other things that he found close to the ground.
He found a piece of cloth first, then a rotten uniform on a corpse and later, when he had scrambled far enough and when his strength returned, he found a village and stole a dry uniform from a laundry line and a bag of potatoes from the same place.
“I don’t know what they are,” he said. “But they live from the warmth and spirit we leave behind.”
“They live off us,” he said. “Do you understand? They need you to exist. They want to catch you. They want to drain you. They want that you forget about the light.”
“The light?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “The light. They held us in the darkness. Three years they drained me and lived off me and made me do things I don’t even want to think again.”
He cleared his throat.
“And,” he said. “I know what that dread feels like. It is not like any other. It is at the core of your being, you feel it in your spine and back and gut. Three years I felt it and after that it never went away.”
“It never went away?”
“Of course it didn’t,” he said. “Because they always stay. They always wait. They will always be there, consuming what spirit you leave behind, and hoping that one day you become careless, that you forget about the light. And then they strike.”
I glimpsed outside, where the world was slowly turning gray.
“They are here, right now?”
My grandfather nodded.
“They wait,” he said. “They come and consume what we leave. But they hope for more. They hope that one of us grows careless and ignores the dread. They wait until one of us stays when the room is dark.”
We sat quietly, his eyes meeting mine.
“Okay,” I finally said.
“Good,” he said.
He nodded silently, then looked outside. A moment later his eyes seemed glassy again.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
He turned to me and frowned.
“Who are you?” he asked.
It was the last conversation that I truly had with him. Since January his condition got worse, he talked about dead men. He spoke about hunger and fear. He asked for the girl that he had kissed when he was 16 and neither he nor she noticed that the girl sat right next to him, patting his hand.
I loved my grandfather. I miss him. I wish I had been there rather than a six hour drive away and that I could have taken care of him rather than leave him alone. I wish that it had been me or my parents and not the girl that waited seven years for his return that had to find him.
But most of all, and I know that sounds cruel and wrong and selfish, I wish that he would have died in his bed or in the hospital, during the day.
I wish so much that she didn’t have to find him in the morning, on the living room floor, with the flashlight off and his mouth wide open.