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My name is Ulric, Graf von Bek, and I am the last of my earthly line. An unhealthy child, cursed with the family disease of albinism, I was born and raised in Bek, Saxony, in the early years of the century. I was trained to rule our province wisely and justly, to preserve the status quo, in the best traditions of the Lutheran Church.
My mother died giving birth to me. My father perished in a ghastly fire, when our old tower was partially destroyed. My brothers were all far older than I, and engaged mostly in military diplomacy abroad, so the estate, it was thought, would be my responsibility. It was not expected that I would wish to expose, any longer than necessary, my strange, ruby eyes to the light of common day. I accepted this sentence of virtual imprisonment as my due. It had been suffered by many ancestors before me. There were terrible tales of what had become of twin albino children born to my great-grandmother.
Any unease I had in this role was soon subdued as, in my questioning years, I made friends with the local Catholic priest and became an obsessive fencer. I would discuss theology with Fra. Cornelius in the morning and practice my swordplay every afternoon. All my bafflement and frustrations were translated into learning that subtle and dangerous art. Not the sort of silly swashbuckling boy-braggadocio nonsense affected by the nouveaux riches and ennobled bürgermeisters who perform half-invented rituals of ludicrous manliness at Heidelberg.
No real lover of the sword would subject the instrument to such vulgar, clattering nonsense. With precious fewaffectations, I hope, I became a true swordsman, an expert in the art of the duel to the death. For in the end, existentialist that I am, entropy alone is the only enemy worth challenging, to conquer entropy is to reach a compromise with death, always the ultimate victor in our conflicts.
There's something to be said for dedicating one's life to an impossible cause. Perhaps an easier decision for a solitary albino aristocrat full of the idealism of previous centuries, disliked by his contemporaries and a discomfort to his tenants. One given to reading and brooding. But not unaware, never unaware, that outside the old, thick walls of Bek, in my rich and complex Germany, the world was beginning to march to simplistic tunes, numbing the race mind so that it would deceive itself into making war again. Into destroying itself again.
Instinctively, still a teenager, and after an inspiring school trip to the Nile Valley and other great sites of our civilization, I plunged deeply into archaic studies.
Old Bek grew all around me. A towered manor house to which rooms and buildings had been added over the centuries, she emerged like a tree from the lush grounds and thickly wooded hills of Bek, surrounded by the cedars, poplars and cypresses my crusader forebears had brought from the Holy Land, by the Saxon oaks into which my earlier ancestors had bound their souls, so that they and the world were rooted in the same earth. Those ancestors had first fought against Charlemagne and then fought with him. They had sent two sons to Roncesvalles. They had been Irish pirates. They had served King Ethelred of England.
My tutor was old von Asch, black, shrunken and gnarled, whom my brothers called The Walnut, whose family had been smiths and swordsmen since the time their first ancestor struck the bronze weapon. He loved me. I was a vessel for his experience. I was willing to learn anything, try any trick to improve my skills. Whatever he demanded, I would eventually rise to meet that expectation. I was, he said, the living record of his family wisdom.
But von Asch's wisdom was nothing sensational. Indeed, his advice was subtle and appealed, as perhaps he knew, to my aestheticism, my love of the complex and the symbolic. Rather than impose his ideas on me, he planted them like seeds. They would grow if the conditions were right. This was the secret of his teaching. He somehow made you realize that you were doing it yourself, that the situation demanded certain responses and what he helped you to do was trust your intuition and use it.
Of course, there was his notion of the sword's song.
"You have to listen for the song," he said. "Every great individual sword has her own song. Once you find that song and hear it clearly, then you can fight with it, for the song is the very essence of the sword. The sword was not forged to decorate walls or be a lifted signal of victory and dominance, but to cut flesh, bone and sinew, and kill. She is not an extension of your manhood, nor an expression of your selfhood. She is an instrument of death. At her best, she kills in justice. If this notion is objectionable to you, my son-and I do not suggest for an instant that you apply it, simply that you acknowledge its truth-then you should put away the sword forever. Fighting with swords is a refined art, but it is an art best enjoyed when also a matter of life and death."
To fight for the ultimate-against oblivion-seemed to me exactly the noble destiny the Raven Sword, our ancestral blade, deserved. Few down the centuries had shown much interest in this queerly wrought old longsword inscribed with mysterious runic verses. It was even considered something of an embarrassment. We had a few mad ancestors who had perhaps not been exemplary in their tormented curiosity and had put the sword to strange uses. There was a report in the Mirenburg press only in the last century. Some madman posing as a legendary creature called "Crimson Eyes" had run amok with a blade, killing at least thirty people before disappearing. For a while the von Beks had been suspected. The story of our albinism was well known there. But no person was ever brought to justice. He featured dramatically in the street literature of the day, like Jack the Ripper, Fantomas and Springheeled Jack.
Part of our vulgar and bloody past. We tended to want to forget the sword and its legends. But there were few in the empty, abandoned and lost rooms at Bek, which had no family to fill them any longer, who could remember. Only a few retainers too old for war or the city. And, of course, books.
When it was time for me to handle that sword whenever I wished, von Asch taught me her main songs-for this blade was a special blade.
There were extraordinary resonances to the steel, however you turned it. A vibrancy which seemed feral. Like a perfect musical instrument. She moved to those songs. She seemed to guide me. He showed me how to coax from her, by subtle strokes and movements of my fingers and wrists, her songs of hatred and contempt, sweet songs of yearning bloodlust, melancholy memories of battles fought, determined revenge. But no love songs. Swords, said von Asch, rarely had hearts. And it is unwise to rely on their loyalty.
This particular weapon, which we called Ravenbrand, was a big longsword of black iron with a slender, unusual leaf-shaped blade. Our family legend said that it was forged by Friar Corvo, the Venetian armorer, who wrote the famous treatise on the subject. But there is a tale that Corvo-the Raven Smith, as Browning called him-only found the sword, or at least the blade itself, and wrought nothing but the hilt.
Some said it was Satan's own blade. Others said it was the Devil Himself. The Browning poem describes how Corvo gave his soul to bring the sword to life again. One day I would go with our Ravenbrand to Venice and discover for myself what truth there might be to the story. Von Asch went off and never came back. He was searching for a certain kind of metal which he thought might be found on the Isle of Morn.
Then it was August 1914 and for the first months of that war I longed to be old enough to join it. As the realities were reported by the returning veteransyoung men hardly older than myselfI began to wonder how such a war could ever be ended.
My brothers died of disease or were blown apart in some nameless pit. Soon I had no other living relative but my ancient grandfather, who lived in sheltered luxury on the outskirts of Mirenburg in Waldenstein and would look at me from huge, pale, disappointed grey eyes which saw the end of everything he had worked for. After a while he would wave me away. Eventually he refused to have me at his bedside.
I was inducted in 1918. I joined my father's old infantry regiment and, with the rank of lieutenant, was sent immediately to the Western front. The war lasted just long enough to demonstrate what cruel folly it was. We could rarely speak of what we'd witnessed.
Sometimes it seemed a million voices called out to us from no-man's-land, pleading only for a release from pain. Help me, help me, help me. English. French. German. Russian. And the voices of a dozen disparate empires. Which screamed at the sight of their own exposed organs and ruined limbs. Which implored God to take away their pain. To bless them with death. Voices which could soon be ours.
They did not leave me when I slept. They turned and twisted in millions, screaming and wailing for release throughout my constant dreams. At night I left one horror to inhabit another. There seemed little difference between them.
What was worse, my dreams did not confine themselves to the current conflict but embraced every war Man had instigated.
Vividly, and no doubt thanks to my intense reading, I began to witness huge battles. Some of them I recognized from history. Most, however, were merely the repetition, with different costumes, of the obscenity I witnessed twenty-four hours a day from the trenches.
Towards the end, one or two of the dreams had something else in common. A beautiful white hare who ran through the warring men, apparently unnoticed and unharmed. Once she turned and looked back at me and her ruby-colored eyes were my own. I felt I should follow her. But gradually the nightmares faded. Real life proved hard enough, perhaps.
We, who were technically the instigators of the war and subject to the victor's view of history, were humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles in which the Europeans squabbled with ruthless greed over the spoils, disgusted President Woodrow Wilson and stripped Germany of everything, including machinery with which to rebuild. The result, of course, was that as usual the common people were forced to pay far too high a price for the follies of exiled nobles. We live, die, know sickness and health, comfort and discomfort, because of the egos of a few stupid men.
To be fair, some of those nobles, such as myself, elected to stay and work for the restoration of the German Federation, though I had no liking for the swaggering aggression of the defeated Prussians, who had thought themselves unbeatable. These proud nationalists were the ones who supplied the rhetoric which, by 1920, was fueling what would be the Nazi and Bolshevik movements, admittedly towards rather different ends. Germany defeated, impoverished, shamed.
The Serbian Black Hand had fallen upon our world and blighted it almost beyond recognition. All that Bismarck had built up in us, a sense of unity and mission, had been diverted to serve the ambitions of a few greedy businessmen, industrialists, gunmakers and their royal allies, a sour echo which many of those, in Berlin for instance, chose to ignore, or turn into an art of bitter realism giving us the likes of Brecht and Weill. The sardonic, popular rhythms of The Threepenny Opera were the musical accompaniment to the story of our ruin.
Germany remained on the verge of civil war, between right and left. Between the communist fighters and the nationalist Freikorps. Civil war was the greatest danger we feared. We saw what it had done to Russia.
There is no faster way of plunging a country into chaos than to make panicky decisions aimed at averting that chaos. Germany was recovering. Many thinking people believed that if the other great powers had supported Germany then, we should have no Adolf Hitler. Creatures like Hitler emerge frequently because of a vacuum. They are conjured whole from yearning nothingness by our own negativity, by our Faustian appetites and dark greed.
Our family and its fortunes had been greatly reduced by the War. My friend the priest had become a missionary in the former German colony of Rwanda. I became a rather sorry, solitary individual. I was frequently advised to sell Bek. Bustling black marketeers and rising fascists would offer to buy my ancestral seat from me. They thought they could buy the authority of place in the same way they had bought their grand houses and large motorcars.
In some ways, by having to manage my estates rather more desperately than in the past, I learned a little of the uncertainty and horror facing the average German who saw his country on the brink of total ruin.
It was easy to blame the victors. True, their tax on us was punitive, unjust, inhumane and foolish; it was the poison which the Nazis in Munich and other parts of Bavaria began to use to their own advantage.
Even as their popular support began to slide, the Nazi Party was able to take control of almost all the power in Germany. A power they had originally claimed for the Jews. But recently, unlike the Jews, they actually did control the media. On the radio, in the newspapers and magazines and movies, they began to tell the people whom they should love and whom they should hate.
How do you kill a million or so of your neighbors?
Well, first you say they are Unlike. They are Not Us. Not human. Only like us on the surface. Pretending to be us. Evil underneath in spite of all common experience. Then you compare them to unclean animals and you accuse them of plotting against you. And very soon you have the necessary madness in place to produce a holocaust.
This is by no means a new phenomenon, of course. The American Puritans characterized everyone who disagreed with them as evil and godless and probably witches. Andrew Jackson helped start an imaginary war which he then pretended to win in order to steal the treaty lands of Indian nations. The British and Americans went into China to save the country from the opium they had originally sold it. The Turks had to characterize Armenians as godless monsters in order to begin their appalling slaughter of the Christians. But in my time, save for the embarrassments of Martin Luther's fulminations against Jewry, such talk was strange to me in Bek and I could not believe that ultimately a civilized nation would tolerate it.
Frightened nations, however, will accept too easily the threat of civil war and the promise of the man who says he will avert it. Hitler averted civil war because he had no need of it. His opposition was delivered into his hands by the ballot boxes of a country which, at that time, had one of the best democratic constitutions in the world, superior in many ways to the American.
Hitler's opponents were already in his power, thanks to the authority of the State he had seized. We could all see this, those of us who were horrified, but it was impossible to convince anyone. So many German people so badly needed stability they were willing to cleave to the Nazis. And it was easier to forget a Jewish neighbor's disappearance than it was the concerns of your own relatives.
And so ordinary people were led into complicity in that evil, through deed or word or that awful silence, to become part of it, to defend against their own consciences, to hate themselves as well as others, to choose a strutting self-esteem over self-respect, and so devalue themselves as citizens.
In this way a modern dictatorship makes us rule ourselves on its behalf. We learn to gloss our self-disgust with cheap rhetoric, sentimental talk, claims of good will, protestations of innocence, of victimhood. And those of us who refuse are ultimately killed.
For all my determination to pursue the cause of peace, I still maintained my swordsmanship. It had become much more than a mere pasatiempo. It remained something of a cause, I suppose, a method of controlling what little there was still in my own control. The skills needed to wield the Raven Blade were highly specialized, for while my sword was balanced so perfectly I could easily spin it in one hand, it was of heavy, flexible steel and had a life of its own. It seemed to flow through my hands, even as I practiced.
The blade was impossible to sharpen with ordinary stone. Von Asch had given me a special grindstone, which appeared to be imbedded with pieces of diamond. Not that the blade ever needed much sharpening.
Freudians, who were busily interpreting our chaos in those days, would have known what to think of my tendency to bond with my blade and my unwillingness to be separated from it. Yet I felt I drew power from the weapon. Not the kind of brute, predatory power the Nazis so loved, but a permanent sustenance.
I carried the sword with me whenever I traveled, which was rarely. A local maker had fashioned a long gun case, into which Ravenbrand fitted discreetly, so that to the casual eye, with the case over my shoulder, I looked like some bucolic landsman prepared for a day's shooting or even fishing.
I had it in my mind that whatever happened to Bek, the sword and I would survive. Whatever the symbolic meaning of the sword was, I cannot tell you, save that it had been handled by my family for at least a thousand years, that it was said to have been forged for Wotan, had turned the tide at Roncesvalles, leading the monstrous horses of Carolinian chivalry against the invading Berber, had defended the Danish royal line at Hastings and served the Saxon cause in exile in Byzantium and beyond.
I suppose I was also superstitious, if not completely crazy, because I sensed there was a bond between myself and the sword. Something more than tradition or romance.
Meanwhile the quality of civil life continued to decline in Germany.
Even the town of Bek with her dreaming gables, twisted old roofs and chimneys, green-glazed windows, weekly markets and ancient customs, was not immune to the twentieth-century jackboot.
In the years before 1933, a small division of self-titled Freikorps, made up mostly of unemployed ex-soldiers commanded by NCOs who had given themselves the rank of captain or higher, paraded occasionally through the streets. They were not based in Bek, where I refused to allow any such goings-on, but in a neighboring city. They had too many rivals in the city to contend with, I suspect, and felt more important showing their strength to a town of old people and children, which had lost most of its men.
These private armies controlled parts of Germany and were constantly in conflict with rivals, with communist groups and politicians who sought to curb their power, warning that civil war was inevitable if the Freikorps were not brought under control. Of course, this is what the Nazis offered to do-to control the very forces they were using to sow the seeds of further uncertainty about the future of our poor, humiliated Germany.
I share the view that if the allies had been more generous and not attempted to suck the last marrow from our bones, Hitler and the Freikorps would have had nothing to complain of. But our situation was manifestly unjust and in such a climate even the most moderate of burghers can somehow find himself condoning the actions of people he would have condemned out of hand before the War.
Thus, in 1933, fearing Russian-style civil conflict worse than tyranny, many of us voted for a "strong man," in the hope it would bring us stability.
Sadly, of course, like most "strong men," Hitler was merely a political construct, no more the man of iron his followers declared him to be than any other of his wretched, ranting psychopathic type.
There were a thousand Hitlers in the streets of Germany, a thousand dispossessed, twitching, feckless neurotics, eaten up with jealousy and frustrated hatred. But Hitler worked hard at his gift for cheap political oratory, drew power from the worst elements of the mob, and spoke in the grossest emotional terms of our betrayal not, as some perceived it, by the greed of our leaders and the rapacity of our conquerors, but by a mysterious, almost supernatural, force they called "International Jewry."
Normally such blatant nonsense would have gathered together only the marginal and less intelligent members of society, but as financial crisis followed crisis, Hitler and his followers had persuaded more and more ordinary Germans and business leaders that fascism was the only way to salvation.
Look at Mussolini in Italy. He had saved his nation, regenerated it, made people fear it again. He had masculinized Italy, they said. Made it virile as Germany could be made virile again. It is how they think, these people. Guns and boots, flags and prongs / Blacks and whites. Rights and wrongs ...As Wheldrake put it in one of those angry doggerel pieces he wrote just before his death in 1927.
Simple pursuits. Simple answers. Simple truths.
Intellect, learning and moral decency were mocked and attacked as though they were mortal enemies. Men asserted their own vulnerable masculinity by insisting, as they so often do, that women stay at home and have babies. For all their worship of these earth goddesses, women were actually treated with sentimental contempt. Women were kept from all real power.
We are slow to learn. Neither the English, French nor American experiments in social order by imposition came to any good, and the communist and fascist experiments, equally puritanical in their rhetoric, demonstrated the same fact-that ordinary human beings are far more complex than simple truth and simple truth is fine for argument and clarification, but it is not an instrument for government, which must represent complexity if it is to succeed. It was no surprise to many that juvenile delinquency reached epidemic proportions in Germany by 1940, although the Nazis, of course, could not admit the problem which was not supposed to exist in the world they had created.
By 1933, in spite of so many of us knowing what the Nazis were like, they had taken control of parliament. Our constitution was no more than a piece of paper, burning amongst great, inspired books, by Mann, Heine, Brecht, Zweig and Remarque, which the Nazis heaped in blazing pyres at crossroads and in town squares. An act they termed "cultural cleansing." It was the triumph of ignorance and bigotry.
Boots, blackjacks and whips became the instruments of political policy. We could not resist because we could not believe what had happened. We had relied upon our democratic institutions. We were in a state of national denial. The realities, however, were soon demonstrated to us.
It was intolerable for any who valued the old humane virtues of German life, but our protests were silenced in the most brutally efficient ways. Soon there were only a few of us who continued to resist.
As the Nazi grip tightened, fewer and fewer of us spoke out, or even grumbled. The storm troopers were everywhere. They would arrest people on an arbitrary basis "just to give them a taste of what they'll get if they step out of line." Several journalists I knew, who had no political affiliations, were locked up for months, released, then locked up again. Not only would they not speak when they were released, they were terrified of speech.
Nazi policy was to cow the protesting classes. They succeeded fairly well, with the compliance of the church and the army, but they did not entirely extinguish opposition. I, for instance, determined to join the White Rose Society, swore to destroy Hitler and work against his interests in every way.
I advertised my sympathies as best I could and was eventually telephoned by a young woman. She gave her name as "Gertie" and told me that she would be in touch as soon as it was safe. I believed they were probably checking my credentials, making sure I was not a spy or a potential traitor.
Twice in the streets of Bek I was pointed out as an unclean creature, some kind of leper. I was lucky to get home without being harmed. After that, I went out as little as possible, usually after dark. Frequently accompanied by my sword. Stupid as it sounds, for the storm troopers were armed with guns, the sword gave me a sense of purpose, a kind of courage, a peculiar security.
Not long after the second incident, when I had been spat at by brownshirt boys, who had also attacked my old manservant Reiter as an aristocrat's lackey, those bizarre, terrifying dreams began again. With even greater intensity. Wagnerian, almost. Thick with armor and heavy warhorses, bloody banners, butchering steel and blaring trumpets. All the potent, misplaced romance of conflict. The kind of imagery which powered the very movement I was sworn to fight.
Slowly the dreams took shape and in them I was again plagued by voices in languages I could not understand, full of a litany of unlikely, tongue-twisting names. It seemed to me I was listening to a long list of those who had already died violent deaths since the beginning of time-and those who were yet to die.
The resumption of my nightmares caused me considerable distress and alarmed my old servants who spoke of fetching the doctor or getting me to Berlin to see a specialist.
Yet before I could decide what action to take, the white hare appeared again. She ran swiftly over corpses, between the legs of metal-covered men, under the guns and lances of a thousand conflicting nations and religions. I could not tell if she wished me to follow her. This time she did not look back. I longed for her to turn, to show me her eyes again, to determine if she was, in fact, a version of myself-a self freed at last from that eternal struggle. It was as if she signaled the ending of the horror. I needed to know what she symbolized. I tried to call out, but I was dumb. Then I was deaf. Then blind.
And suddenly the dreams were gone. I would wake in the morning with that strange feeling of rapidly fading memory, of a vanishing reality, as a powerful dream disappears, leaving only the sense of having experienced it. A sense, in my case, of confusion and deep, deep dread. All I could remember was the vision of a white hare racing across a field of butchered flesh. Not a particularly pleasant feeling, but offering a relief from that nightly conflict.
Not only my nightmares had been stolen, but also my ordinary, waking dreams, my dreams of a lifetime of quiet study and benign action. Such a monkish life was the best someone of my appearance could hope for in those days which were merely an uneasy pause in the conflict we began by calling the Great War to end wars. Now we think of it as an entire century of war, where one dreadful conflict followed another, half of them justified as holy wars, or moral wars, or wars to help distressed minorities, but almost all of which were actually inspired by the basest of emotions, the most short-term of goals, the cruelest greed and that appalling self-righteousness which no doubt the Christian Crusaders had when they brought blood and terror to Jerusalem in the name of God and human justice.
So many quiet dreams like mine were stolen in that century. So many noble men and women, honest souls, were rewarded only with agony and obscene death.
Soon, thanks to compliance of the church, we were privileged to see in Bek's streets pictures of Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of Germany, dressed in silver, shining armor and mounted on a white horse, carrying the banner of Christ and the Holy Grail, recalling all the legendary saviors of our people.
These bigoted philistines despised Christianity and had made the swastika the symbol of modern Germany, but they were not above corrupting our noblest idealism and historical imagery to further their evil.
It is a mark, I think, of the political scoundrel, one who speaks most of the people's rights and hopes and uses the most sentimental language to blame all others but his own constituents for the problems of the world. Always a "foreign threat," fear of "the stranger." "Secret intruders, illegal aliens..."
I still hear those voices in modern Germany and France and America and all the countries we once thought of as far too civilized to allow such horror within their own borders.
After many years I still fear, I suppose, a recurrence of that terrible dream into which I finally plunged. A dream far more real than any reality I had known, a dream without end. A dream of eternity. An experience of the complexity of our multiverse in all its vast, limitless variety, with all its potential for evil and its capacity for good.
Perhaps the only dream that was not stolen from me.