Continuum – for the Composers for Relief; Supporting the Philippines Project
This is my contribution to the Composers for Relief; Supporting the Philippines Project.The project consists of an album of original compositions collected to raise funds and awareness for the victims of the recent storms. Thirty composers have contributed twenty eight tracks. The album is available for download on Amazon and iTunes.
A group of authors– one for each track– have agreed to write short pieces with themes of hope and determination, as inspired by the music.
I had the privilege to write for the talented Ed Watkins’ composition, “Continuum”. It’s a stunning, moving work.
My story is also titled, “Continuum.”
They told us that the war was over.
The fighting, anyway.
I don’t think any of us– not us inmates, not the Allied soldiers who came to liberate our camp, not the surrendering German troops and officers– believed that the war would ever be over.
Our liberators marched units of their defeated foes all around, searching for a building that hadn’t been destroyed to confine them in. Our camp was deemed uninhabitable, even for captured Nazis.
I and some of my fellow inmates, reduced to walking skeletons by malnutrition and hard labor, wandered in the open space outside of the camp. Others remained behind amid the corpses and the stink and the disease, having lost all conception of what it meant to be free.
I stared at the faces of our former captors as I staggered away from the camp. Confusion showed in the eyes of the officers. The expressions of the common soldiers betrayed outright relief.
The faces of the Englishmen also showed confusion, for what I suspected was a very different reason. Many a stiff upper lip was tested that day, and found wanting. Men moved through the crowd with handkerchiefs held to their noses to blunt the stench.
I no longer noticed it. It had become too much a part of me. No amount of cleansing could wash it away.
A cloud of dark smoke settled over the area. It might have extended to cover the entire world.
I stopped to rest against a battered jeep, exhausted by my first few steps as a free man, as a survivor.
Soldiers who weren’t herding Germans or standing guard over one useless pile of rubble or another rushed us as we emerged from the camp, offering food, water, and blankets.
My Brit was a young one. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen, with peach-fuzz on his grimy cheeks and pale blond whiskers on the point of his chin.
I refused the blanket and cast a skeptical eye at the food. It wasn’t that it looked bad. It was more food in one portion than I’d had in a whole month. I guzzled the water, emptying the proffered canteen in three long gulps.
I thanked him in my best English, which proved unnecessary. The boy spoke flawless German.
He took me by the elbow and led me toward the back of the jeep. We sat on the running board together.
“What is your name?” I asked.
“Middleton, sir,” he replied. “Henry Middleton. I’m with the ambulance corps.”
“Middleton,” I repeated.
“Are you sure you don’t want some food?” He again offered me the bread and cheese he’d been carrying.
It had been years since someone had asked me what I wanted. I broke off the corner of a piece of bread and chewed it as I stared back at the camp.
“What is your name, sir?”
“My name? My name is… Tommy.”
“Glad to meet you, Tommy.” He clapped me on the shoulder, just managing to cover his horror at the feel of my bones beneath his hand. “Well, if you’re ready we’ve got a truck to take you away from here.”
“I am not ready to go.”
“Don’t you want to get away from this… place?”
“More than anything. But I will not leave until I find my wife.”
Henry stood and stretched. He cast an eye at the line of former inmates waiting their turn to board the truck.
“Is she in this camp?” he asked.
“She was. I have not seen her for over a year.”
Henry nodded and looked everywhere but at me.
“She is not dead,” I said, saving him from the unpleasant task. “I would feel it.” I placed my hand on my chest. “Here.”
“What’s her name?”
“Hinde. Hinde Auttenberg.”
He thought about it for a few more seconds, then came to a decision.
“Eat,” he said, “I’ll fetch you some more water. Then we’ll go.”
I saw the answer to my question on his face but wanted to hear him say the words.
“We’re going to find Hinde, Tommy, sir.”
Henry and I spent the rest of that day searching for my wife.
He allowed me to do the searching, walking beside me, holding me up when I stumbled. He carried me when my strength failed.
We looked inside every building, went into each fenced-off lot, talked with each collection of dazed inmates.
Henry could not conceal his horror as we traversed the camp. The bodies. The vermin. Our living conditions. The open mass graves.
“I refuse to search the graves,” I said.
Henry wanted to object. I felt his inner struggle, the hope struggling against the enormity of the abomination he saw before him.
“She is alive,” I insisted.
We searched until dark, then continued to work by torchlight.
After several more hours, Henry and I left the camp by the same gate we’d entered it and stopped to share a canteen of water.
“Do you have any children?” he asked.
“No. Hinde was pregnant with our first when they came for us. She lost the baby in camp, thank God.”
Henry knew better than to reply.
It was a booming voice. The tall, broad man who wielded it was just as impressive.
“Captain,” said Henry.
“What the devil are you doing, Middleton?”
“I’ve been helping this fellow find his wife.”
“Have you found her?”
Henry looked to me.
“No,” I said. “Not yet.”
“Not in the camp, eh? Well, we’ve already sent four truckloads out. We’ve commandeered a warehouse. It’s not pretty but it’s a damned sight better than this place.”
We did not find Hinde at the warehouse.
Middleton and I walked together, his arm around my shoulders, down row upon row of silent human ruins. The only sounds we heard, apart from our footsteps on the hardwood floor, were an occasional quiet cough and the settling of bodies in uncomfortable sleep.
I met people I knew, both from camp and before. None of them had seen Hinde.
Henry gave me space as we stepped out of the warehouse. The smoke from cooking fires cut thin white spirals in the night blue sky.
“She is alive,” I said, more to myself than anyone else.
Henry placed a hand on my shoulder.
“We will find her, Tommy, sir.”
We walked back toward his ambulance in silence.
A breathless corporal intercepted us. He looked far too young to be in the war– until you looked into his eyes.
“You’re looking for survivors from the camp?” he choked out.
“That’s right, son,” I said. “My wife. She isn’t here.”
“Well, sir,” he continued, “we’re full up, see? Started diverting trucks to the new campsite due east of here.”
Henry and I were not there to hear the rest. He hustled me to his ambulance, then tore off into the night.
Hinde and I had a son two years later.
We named him Henry.