Characters from the manga From Eroica With Love belong to author Aoike Yasuko, Princess Comics and DC Comics. (Really? EMX belongs to DC? O-kay..) No harm intended and no profit made.

Crossing the Lines
Jay Tryfanstone
2005


'Von Langenau is writing a letter, lost in thought.
He is drawing slowly with large, serious, upright letters:
"My good mother,
"Be proud: I am carrying the flag,
"Be without worry. I am carrying the flag.
"Love me: I am carrying the flag-"
The he puts the letter under his uniform, in the most secret place, next to the rose petal. And thinks: he will soon be fragrant with it. And thinks: perhaps someone will find it one day... And thinks - ...; because the enemy is near.'

From The air of the love and death of Coronet Christoph Rilke, Frank Martin, 1942.
Text by Rainer Maria Rilke, translation Knut W. Barde.

 

 

It is raining in Friedrichschafen. It will be raining in London, and it was raining in Bonn.

The rain in London will be light, a promise of spring. In Germany, it is heavy, sullen. The autobahn blurs between clouds and water. Klaus drives between them, steady, the wheel of the Benz heavy under his fingers. He should not be driving alone. He should probably not be driving at all.

"...General...?" Liesl had said, as he left.

"It is more than likely that this situation will be permanent. General, I am going to recommend..."

Klaus will not return to his office.

Friedrichschafen is a long way from Eberbach. It is notable for its lake views, its small guesthouses, its floating population of burghers taking the water. Many years ago, it was a border town, a last posting for those lucky enough not to be assigned to the eastern front.

Klaus has never asked his father what he did in the war.

"Call yourself an Eberbach?"

"Your cousin Marianne has had another daughter."

"Klaus von dem Eberbach, from his father, the Graf. It has been arranged that you will spend the long vacation in Heisenberg. Accommodation has been arranged."

But Klaus' father has never asked him what he did in the war, either.

Klaus' war is over.

The Graf owns a house on the lakefront. It is a small house, doublefronted. The carved gables drip onto Klaus' bare head and the driveway is puddled. The housekeeper, coming to the door, stands well back from the rain and looks at Klaus' feet before she looks at his face. Klaus wears thin, shined shoes, office shoes. He did not bother to take more than a change of clothing from the Bonn flat. There is nothing else there he wants, and in three week's time he will sign the lease over to Liesl, whom he will never meet again.

Inescapably, Klaus is standing in rainwater. His feet are wet. Klaus can see this, in the face of his father's housekeeper.

"I am looking for the Graf Eberbach," Klaus says. In German, one can be direct. When one speaks English - when one speaks English well, as Klaus does - language becomes elliptical, sliding into shades of meaning. Klaus prefers German.

The housekeeper does not invite him in. It is possible that she does not know who he is. Klaus has never visited his father's house before.

"He is not here."

In London, it will be Bonham, grayed. "The Earl is not here."

In Bonn, Liesl answers the phone. "The General left this morning."

"It is imperative that I see him." Klaus says. Rain begins to slide down his neck, the space between skin and shirt. "Now."

Klaus has not led a combat mission for ten years. He has, still, the expectation of command. For all of his life, men have done what Klaus said.

There is a bowl of roses in Klaus' father's hall, white roses, tightly furled. Klaus guesses it is the housekeeper, not his father, who chose the flowers. There had once been a rosegarden at Schloss Eberbach. There has not been a rosegarden at Eberbach since Klaus was very young.

"He is in town," The housekeeper says. She starts to close the door.

"Where in town?" Klaus says, as he will say to Bonham, "Where is he?"

"I don't know where he is," Liesl is saying. She will not cry over Klaus. It is understood between them.

"In town."

"Please," Klaus says.

"He takes coffee in the morning, at the Auchtenschaffe."

"The Earl received an invitation to a reception at Grosvener House."

Klaus' father's housekeeper closes the door. In London, Bonham will look down the steps of Gloria House and frown. "General, are you well?" he will say.

Klaus turns his back on his father's house and walks to the Benz.

The Auchtenschaffe is in the town square. There are tables outside the cafe, the umbrellas furled and glistening wet, the cobbles filmed with water. Klaus parks his car illegally and puts his NATO identification, two days out of date, on the dashboard. He walks to the cafe through the rain, but Klaus will not bend his head and has not deigned to equip himself with an umbrella.

In London Bonham will offer him an old-fashioned military cape against the persistent drizzle, and Klaus will almost accept.

The cafe has two large windows, grayed out. It is warm with the smell of Schnitzel and chicory coffee, and of cigars and wet overcoats. In the doorway, Klaus pauses and looks over the crowd. Men his father's age. Men who will never wear their medals.

Und läßt uns im Stich einst das treulose Glück...*

In the corner, hunched over a table, his father.

"He's not...been himself, lately," Bonham will say, over coffee.

"The General has been fine," Liesl says. "Absolutely fine."

"Herr Doctor. I have been ordered.."

The Graf is smaller than Klaus remembers. His face is thinner, the flesh fallen in, crumpled. He is still himself: Klaus, suddenly, feels again the ghost of the awe he felt as a small boy, ushered into his father's presence. But he is, now, older than his father had been, facing the small boy that was himself. He has been a general for eight years, a member of High Command for three.

Klaus does not need to square his shoulders: he walks, always, under the shadow of the flag, although it is not the flag his father or his father's father fought under.

Klaus' father is not alone. There is a small, thin man who shares his table. Between them, a chessboard, with a game half played. This Klaus sees as he halts and clicks his heels.

"Sir."

The Graf looks up. His eyes are pale, sharp between the folds of his skin.

"Klaus."

He shows no surprise. He does not stand, or offer to shake hands. He does, however, say, after a moment, "Join us."

Once, years ago, in Amsterdam, Eroica said exactly those words to Klaus. It was late, it was the tail end of a very long mission, but the Earl was only just going out: minimally dressed, reeking of some scent that made Klaus' nose itch. It was all too clear where he was going, he and his young men, laughing. Klaus knew what Amsterdam had to offer, disgracefully, openly.

Klaus said no. He may well have said other things as well.

On this occasion Klaus says yes. He sits down. He keeps his jacket on, damp as it is, because underneath it Klaus wears only a shirt, and he will not dress so informally in his father's presence.

"This is," the Graf says. "Johannes, my son, Klaus von dem Eberbach."

Across the table his father's companion inclines his head. He is a little man, short, sharp, with the eyes of a survivor. There is something odd about the way he inclines his head, as if it hurts: his shoulders are held tightly, uneven. Klaus wonders about an old wound, but the man does not hold himself like a soldier.

Klaus turns his head to look back at the Graf, but his father is looking down at the chessboard.
They have never had much to say to each other.

"Finish your game," Klaus says.

After a moment, his father moves a piece across the board.

In London, the checkered tiles of the hall at Grosvenor House will remind Klaus of this moment. The board his father uses is battered and worn. The hall will gleam, lit by the great chandelier with all its glass prisms rainbow sharp. Klaus will have borrowed not a coat, but an evening suit from Bonham. It will fit as if it was made for him, and it will come to Klaus still in the tailor's white tissue paper. The receipt dates to fifteen years ago, and was paid in cash. Only the shoes will be Klaus' own.

"I will have it cleaned," Klaus will say, to Bonham.

"There is no need," Bonham will say. "Keep it. He will be pleased."

The game plays out in silence. Klaus orders coffee. His father drinks schnapps. Almost to the end, his father seems to be winning, but then Johannes makes, quickly, two moves, and the board is at stalemate. Klaus' father laughs, a dry chuckle Klaus cannot remember hearing before.

"I can never win against you."

Johannes says,"I will leave you-"

"My son will not be long," the Graf says.

What Liesl tells NATO is not what she tells her mother, or, later, her lover Ralph. To them all she tells what she knows, that Klaus has gone. To her mother, to her lover, she says she does not think Klaus will be coming back. She is right.

"Klaus?"

'Dear Sir. I am pleased to inform you that I have been appointed captain of the first IV... Have been offered a place at the academy.

'Dear Sir. I write to you from my first command....my office. My headquarters.

'Fraulein Menchsein, I am sorry to inform you...the following provisions have been made for your comfort..'

"Father, I have resigned," Klaus says.

"Sir. My resignation." Klaus has said, in Bonn, after the doctor.

In London, he says nothing at all, but he does not need to.

The Graf's hand clenches on his glass. "Is this sudden?" he says.

"Yes," says Klaus. "I have...a heart murmur. It is nothing. But the doctor.."

"The doctor this, the doctor that," his father says. "Always the doctor...You are getting older, Klaus."

"Yes," Klaus says.

"You will join the company of old men, who have nothing to do but sit in cafes and fight old wars." Klaus' father says. "And you have no children."

"No," Klaus says.

"Well," says the Graf. "More coffee?"

Klaus finds himself standing. "Sir..!"

And the Graf too. "Have you learned nothing? You idiot! You fool..!" He is flushed, wheezing for breath: Klaus puts out a hand.

"Sir?"

But it is Johannes who says, from across the table, "Heinz.." and Klaus' father sits. He looks at the chessboard. For a long time, Klaus' father looks at the chessboard.

Then he says, unexpectedly, "I loved your mother."

Klaus, too, slides into his seat. "I know, Sir," he says.

"But she never understood...about the war. And all the time.." Klaus' father says. "All the time...I was fighting on the wrong side."

Klaus does not know what to say.

Johannes says, "The war is over." His right hand covers his arm, sleeved: he strokes the cloth and the flesh under it, slowly, as if soothing a very old scar.

The Graf says, "Is it, my friend?"

G resigned in uniform. It was a year before Klaus won his appointment to High Command, six months after Klaus had walked into the corridor to find G held upside down by five new recruits, his skirts over his head. It was not the first time. It was the first time G cried, openly, in front of the general. "I can't help what I am," G said.

He moved to Berlin. Klaus signed the leaving card. Occasionally, Klaus has considered looking G up when he reported to the Reichstag. It had never happened, but Klaus has the address. In or out of skirts, G remained, always, one of his best operatives.

Klaus' father drinks his schnapps.

Klaus says, "Father?"

Klaus' father turns in his chair. His eyes are the same colour as Klaus', but Klaus, although he does not know it, has his mother's eyelashes, and the line of his cheekbones and jaw is hers alone.

"What are you going to do?" the Graf asks.

For all of his life Klaus has been surrounded by structure. His school, his career, the regulated lines of his life. In combat, he has always known what to do, what is right and what is wrong, There have been no shaded lines for Klaus, no ambiguities, no softness.

He will hesitate, at the bottom of the stairs, in the hall with its checkerboard floor, amongst the scented beautiful people. He hesitates now. It is not difficult, unknowing, to be brave. It is much harder to be brave in the face of certain knowledge.

"I am going to London," Klaus says.

Klaus will drive to London through the rain. It will take eighteen hours, and he is no longer young. He will be glad of coffee, of the bath in the Earl's guest suite. When he arrives at Grosvener House he will have been awake for over thirty hours, the shadow of fatigue etched on his face, the frown line betwen his eyes pronounced. He will look both exhausted and formidable.

"You are going after that fop," Klaus' father says.

"Yes," Klaus says.

He will expect finding Eroica to be easy. He will be wrong. Amongst all that crowd, Eroica's slender figure, his mane of golden hair, should light his presence: it does not. Klaus fights his way through knots of people he does not know, entanglements of limbs and language. "Excuse me. Have you seen? Yes, hello, no. No. Excuse me...verdammit Englisher.."

They have never met, Eroica, the Graf. But Klaus is not surprised. His father has always been well informed.

"It's time, then,"the Graf says. Then, harsher - "Are you asking for my blessing?"

"No," Klaus says. "But...you should know, there will no turning back."

Eventually, Klaus will find himself at the end of the room, by the band. There will be another staircase, and a balcony, from which he will be able to see the whole of the room. He will set his feet to the risers.

"Not from this," the Graf says, slowly. "I assume you know what you are doing."

"Yes," Klaus says.

At the end of the balcony, leaning over the rail, will be a tall figure. A man, but a man lissome and graceful, the line of his back elegant as the curve of the petals of a rose. His hair is plaited, a rope of subdued gold. He is alone. Klaus will stop, at the top of the stairs, stop and catch his breath and look, as he has never allowed himself to do before.

"It will not be easy."

"I know."

It will not be easy. Klaus will find himself, at the last, without words. He will walk forward, each step feeling as though he walks through mud as deep as any his grandfather fought through, at Ypres, at Passenchale. Eventually, he will stop at the rail. He cannot bring himself to bend, but instead stands upright, a parade-ground rest.

Klaus' father says, slowly, "I have never thought you a coward."

Klaus shuts his eyes, for a moment, then. And opens them. "Thank you. Sir," he says.

"Go, then," the Graf says. "General."

"General," Dorian will say, without even turning his head.

In Bonn, years ago, blonde, suitable, undemanding Liesl had dimpled, her voice breathy. "General..?"

"Eroica." He has said it cursing, with passion, with hate. He has screamed it into an empty sky. In London, Klaus will say it with nothing more than recognition in his voice.

"It's been a while," Dorian will say.

"And don't leave it so long next time." It is the Graf speaking.

"Have you come to gloat?" the Earl adds.

"What?"

"You heard me," the Graf says. "Now go. You have a long journey."

"The old queen in the corner," Eroica will say, deliberately camp and sly. "You can laugh at me now, Klaus. No more pretty boys. Not unless I pay them." He will toss back the glass of champagne as if it were lemonade: Klaus will wish he had thought to accept a glass, two, from the tray thrust in his face ten minutes ago. "How is the lovely Liesl?"

It has been an eminently suitable arrangement.

"It's over."

"These things never last. You will find another one," Eroica will say. Now, at last, he will turn round at look at Klaus. He looks almost austere, his hair pulled back. There may be a trace of mascara on his eyelashes: Klaus is not certain, but he wears no jewelry other than a single gold stud in his ear. He looks older, harder, colder. It has never been so clear to Klaus that Dorian's war has always been other than his own.

"You have become cynical," Klaus will say. It makes no difference.

Dorian shrugs. "You have become polite. What is it, General? One last mission for the old faggot? The chance to go out in a blaze of glory?" His voice is edged, but just for a moment there will be something in his eyes that might be hope.

"In a way," Klaus will say. He will always understand life as a battlefield. "Dorian...I am not finding this easy."

"Which approach would you prefer, General? I always thought you would prefer me kneeling...or is that too direct? My dear," Dorian will say, "don't worry. I gave up on you years ago. There will be no scenes, I promise. And I notice you haven't hit me yet. What is it?"

"Dorian," Klaus will say, and then, falling back on the formality of his youth, "My Lord, ...will you...would you...dance with me?"

Klaus has said it before, to young girls in muslim frocks, to NATO matrons in pearls. He has never said it to the man who stands opposite him. The man who does not look at him: the man whose hand tightens, whitening, on the stem of his glass, tightening until Klaus thinks, shocked, he will break it, and then, he will break.

He reaches out his own hand to still those long bone-white fingers. At his touch, Dorian looks up. His eyes are darkened and damp, but all the angles of his face are set with the stubborn pride that Klaus has always recognised.

"Are you laughing at me?" Dorian will say, ignoring the tears that, unshed, gather at the corner of his eyes and star the laughter lines to beauty.

"Nein," Klaus will say. He has never laughed at Dorian. Cursed him, struck him, rejected him time and again. Never has he laughed. "Are you frightened?"

"Yes," Dorian will say, starkly honest, suddenly aware of what Klaus is offering. "Have you forgotten what I am?"

"Never," Klaus will say. "Never." It is a promise. "Dorian...look down."

Below them, beneath the balcony, on polished parquet of the floor, the beautiful people talk, sway, dance, shape and reshape in formal interchange. There are two elderly couples who dance like retired professionals: two young boys, laughing, a drag queen with a feather boa, a man, a woman, a man with another man, two women in love, a man and a young woman and a child sleeping in the cruck of his mother's arm.

"Dorian, look down," Klaus will say. Then, suddenly, impatient, "Look up."

Later, not much later, he will undo, strand by strand, the plait of Dorian's hair, will comb it out so it lies like silk over the damask of the Earl's sheets, run his hands through it time and again until Dorian, laughing, will shake his head free and allow his curls to fall deliberately over Klaus' thighs. Now, he twists his hand into the rope of it, holds Dorian still with one hand at his neck and one on the bone of his hip where the skin marks so easily. It is not so difficult, after all, to take this last step, to lay his armament aside, to learn to fight under a different flag.

"Could you love me again?" Klaus will ask, his voice rough, non too steady on his feet.

Dorian, shaking, will say "Of course. Always. Oh, my darling..."

'My dear father,' Klaus will write, a month later, from Schloss Eberbach. 'My dear father. I hope this finds you well. You will be pleased to hear that the shrubbery survived the spring storms, and the harvest this year should be spectacular.
'My last mission was successful.
'I trust you will not be displeased if we replant the rose garden.'

Fin.

 

* Und läßt uns im Stich einst das treulose Glück
'And if faithless luck abandoned us one day' (From the Panzerlied)