The Youth of Gerhardt Frei
Apartment No. 14, The First Floor
from the collection Tales from My Bomb Shelter
by Oleksiy Chupa
Translated from the Ukrainian by Zenia Tompkins
These days no one would even remember who Gerhardt Frei was. Yet, some sixty-odd years ago, this name ended up at the center of most kitchen table conversations throughout the city.
After the final rout of the Third Reich, he, along with thousands of other German POWs, was sent here, to our part of Eastern Ukraine, for construction work. Frei was taken prisoner all the way out in the suburbs of Berlin. He laid down his arms only upon learning of the surrender, and from the time that he was taken into captivity his behavior was docile and defeated.
He looked to be no more than thirty-five years old and was dignified and handsome. And it was precisely this that compelled the little woman who managed the intake of prisoners and their allocation to job sites to take particular notice of Frei.
Gerhardt Frei sat before her perfectly erect, swaying a bit from side to side in his chair. Slender, tall and fair, he smiled amicably and said nothing. Only his eyes, blue and weary, gazed coldly from behind the lenses of his glasses. The woman looked him up and down, lingered for a moment on the baby-white crop of short hair on his head, remembered her Vasyl who had gone to the front in ’41 and was later used as cannon fodder during the liberation of Kyiv, and sighed. The death notice had arrived at the end of November then, together with a greeting card sharing the news that Kyiv had been taken on the eve of the October Revolution. The woman hadn’t found any particular solace in this. All of the symbolism and historical significance of that military operation simply wouldn’t sink in for her, possibly because Vasyl really had been her other half, or, if we’re going to resort to being literal, her upper half. Vasyl had forced her to think with her head and feel with her heart. Vasyl was gone—some machine gunner had laid him down in the cold Dnipro waters—and ever since she had in fact felt like just a stump. A half-person, as if she existed only from the chest down. She was no longer capable of anything else in this life other than wanting to eat and wanting a man.
“So, tell me…” She faltered for a moment, trying to decipher the captive’s difficult Germanic name. “Gerhardt, were you not by chance in Kyiv when our troops were liberating it?”
But Frei only looked at her more intently. He didn’t understand Ukrainian but had made out the familiar word Kyiv and his name. He sat silently for a minute, contemplating what it was she wanted from him, then, to be on the safe side, shook his head no.
“Ah, you weren’t there,” the woman sighed once more and immersed herself in the papers before her.
A few minutes passed to the measured accompaniment of a large wall clock and the rustle of pages. Until the woman came to a sudden stop at one of the documents. Encountering some strange note, she wrinkled her forehead, then rubbed it. Her brows arched in surprise. She flipped back a few pages, reread something there, glanced at the last page in the folder and then again at the first, and, holding her suddenly headache-swollen temples, focused and reread the note as carefully as she was able.
The end result didn’t comfort her, and at length she raised a perplexed gaze to Frei. He was sitting just as straight as earlier, swaying slightly, while a barely perceptible smile played on his lips.
“Valiera!” The woman reached for the bell that was right there on the desk beside her. “Valiera, come here for a minute!”
In the adjacent room feet began pattering, and a few seconds later, opening the door with a jerk, the interpreter Valiera entered.
“I’m listening, Comrade Mykytenko!” he rattled off not too adeptly, though standing at attention nonetheless.
“Come here. Take a look.” Mykytenko beckoned him over with a finger while pointing at the stack of papers in front of her with her other hand.
Valiera hovered over the desk and fixed his eyes on the spot the woman was pointing at. Then he, just like Mykytenko had a minute earlier, skimmed the entire folder and raised his eyes to her in confusion. “That’s nonsense. It’s probably either a mistake or a joke.”
“Well, then go on and ask him, Valiera. Don’t dilly-dally.”
Valiera straightened up and, after pacing around a bit in front of the chair holding the prisoner, began talking in German—granted, not addressing the captive directly, more throwing the words out into the air in front of him. “What’s your name?”
“Gerhardt Frei,” the prisoner replied obediently.
“Where were you born?”
“Your year of birth?”
“Sixteen eleven,” Frei stated slowly and with a predatory smile.
“There’s no chance you’re mistaken?” Valiera asked.
“Sixteen eleven!” the prisoner repeated firmly and loudly, and stretched out in the chair to such an extent that even his ankles crackled.
“And you know what year it is right now?”
“Yes, of course,” confirmed the German without ceasing to smile.
Valiera turned toward his superior and explained, “This German claims that he’s almost three hundred fifty years old. He says that he was born in the early seventeenth century.” In corroboration of what he had said, Valiera poked his finger at the date in the documents that had so alarmed Comrade Mykytenko.
“OK, but you do realize that this can’t be.”
Valiera once more turned to Frei. “You claim that you’re more than three hundred years old?”
“When you were captured, were you asked about this?”
“And no one was surprised at it?”
“Yes,” repeated the German for the third time.
Valiera tried to picture Soviet soldiers not marveling at the fact that the prisoner of war was more than three hundred years old and didn’t believe it.
“Fine. Maybe they just wrote everything down mechanically over there,” he acquiesced reluctantly. “But we need to sort this out.”
“Sort it out.” Frei let out a patronizing laugh.
“Silence!” intervened Comrade Mykytenko, who had understood nothing of their conversation but to whom this laughter hinted that the German for the moment had the upper hand in the situation.
Valiera made a reassuring gesture with his hand, the woman settled back in her seat, and Frei fell silent.
“How did you manage to live for three hundred plus years?” he asked the captive.
“I don’t know any other people like that.”
“How did you pull it off? And even manage to maintain such good ‘curb appeal,’ so to speak…” he added, alluding to Frei’s physical appearance.
“You wouldn’t believe me either way.”
“Why don’t you try? I’ll listen.” With a sugary KGB-style grin, Valiera’s face leaned in toward the face of the prisoner.
Gerhardt Frei looked him in the eye and, holding his gaze, said calmly, “Had you been German and lived in Cologne, you would most certainly have known the surname Frei. We’re a dynasty of sorcerers. My grandfather knew how to do things that would make a life spanning three centuries seem like child’s play to you. He was burned at the stake on suspicion of collusion with the devil. Just between us, the suspicion was legitimate. I, unfortunately, am not that powerful because my grandfather didn’t have time to teach me much, but stealing the souls of others and preserving the physical appearance of youth—that’s a cinch. If you don’t believe me, I suggest that we meet up in a hundred years and have a talk about all this.”
“OK, for sure. So, what? You’re immortal?”
“Obviously, dummy. I’m three hundred thirty-five years old. Is it that hard to figure out?”
“Ah, OK. Then we’ll see each other in a hundred years.”
He moved away from Frei, sat down at the desk facing his superior and, beginning to fumble around in the same papers, asked her, “Tell me, has he seen the psychiatrist?”
“Yes, here’s the medical certificate.” The woman thrust some sheet of paper at him.
“Wonderful. It says here that he’s healthy.”
“So what’s the matter?”
“He was just explaining to me that he’s a sorcerer and immortal. If you ask me, he’s trying to wiggle his way out of hard labor. In that case…”
“In that case,” chimed in Comrade Mykytenko, “we’re sending him off for the hardest labor. Yes?”
“Yes. To Building No. 166. They’ve just laid half the foundation there and need skilled workers—to mix cement, make and carry bricks, dig, haul things, and that’s not all… Let him practice his witchcraft there.”
The woman swiftly wrote a note with the work directive, thumped it with some kind of stamp, and called over two guards. Within five minutes Gerhardt Frei, smiling sinisterly, was already being escorted to the place where he was scheduled to work for seven years.
The story spread throughout the city by word of mouth, and the subject of Gerhardt Frei was discussed by all and sundry for some time till it finally lost steam and was forgotten. The German’s name simply stopped being mentioned.
And if Valiera and Comrade Mykytenko hadn’t been indifferent to the subsequent fate of the POW Frei, they would have certainly realized that he was in fact the eccentric German trying to incite an insurrection in honor of the Third Reich at a construction site when they later heard this story in passing.
One autumn morning Frei issued a call to arms, but the concurrent gunfire of several watchmen instantly mowed him down. Gerhardt was thrown backwards and tumbled into a pit dug out under the foundation, and a concrete slab placed carelessly at the pit’s very edge fell on him rim-down from above and crushed the German. The rest of the prisoners didn’t even have time to rise from their knees in opposition against the guards before their leader was already dead. All of this would remain a secret. Within half an hour they had covered the slab-cleaved Frei with dirt, burying both him and any memory of him whatsoever beneath the foundation of Building No. 166.
These days no one would even remember who Gerhardt Frei was.
* * *
Only a couple of Slavist-philologists could have named their children Cyril and Methodius. In our working-class cities, people respond to the word pair Slavist-philologist with approximately the same disdain and misconception as is elicited by some exotic word along the lines of homo-maso-pedophile. No one can figure out what exactly it means, but the underpinnings of our working-class subconscious stubbornly prompt us to view the bearers of such titles as unequivocally making asses of themselves and not worth our time, which means that we need not engage with them, only humiliate them. Because they’re by default humiliating us by simply calling themselves Slavist-philologists.
Without any doubt, Yaropolk and Fedora Zadorozhniy, professors of the local university, were capable of picking names for their children that would have at least kept them from getting picked on in the brutal world of kids. And they did resist their natural urge for some time. When a son was born to them, they named him Cyril and continued sincerely hoping for a daughter. But fate and the tenor of their lives played a cruel joke on them. After Cyril, another boy was born and, clenching their teeth, they named him Methodius. After spending ten years living in a working-class neighborhood, the little boy perfectly appreciated what it felt like to walk around with a name like that and would refer to his parents as extraterrestrials on the sly. Methodius Zadorozhniy awaited his sixteenth birthday like the greatest holiday. He already knew that only then would he be able to change his name to a different one—one more suitable to his life status.
Yaropolk and Fedora Zadorozhniy really were extraterrestrials. Earthly matters didn’t concern them in the least. They had become permanently entrenched in comparative grammar charts and conferences attended by fellow extraterrestrials and deemed necessary by few in post-Soviet Ukraine. Their children, for all intents and purposes, grew without supervision. And without any particular concern on the part of their parents.
The quintessence of their apathy regarding their own progeny was the horrible incident that occurred with their very first child, Anna. No one ever did figure out what transpired then.
It was the mid-eighties and only a few years since the Zadorozhniys had swapped their moldering flatlet in the Nakhalivka district for a spacious apartment at the other end of town, in one of the best neighborhoods. It’s true, the neighborhood was inhabited almost exclusively by transplants from Western Ukraine, but that was only a bonus for the Slavists. Their daughter Anka was six years old already and was getting ready to enter school. As befitted a child of two philologist-scholars, the girl was growing up to be wonderfully knowledgeable, though also horribly naïve, even for a preschooler.
Yaropolk Zadorozhniy had already registered the little girl at the art school on the corner, Fedora was inquiring among her countless acquaintances where to buy an upright piano as quickly as possible in order to give Anna lessons, and both parents dreamed of how, come winter, when she had more or less adjusted to school, they would begin studying English and Polish with her.
But these rainbowed plans, so full of noble intentions, were struck in a savage and horrid way. One warm July morning the Zadorozhniys went off to the market downtown, leaving Anna at home alone. When they returned three-four hours later, they saw the following: Anna, the darling and clever little Anka, was lying on the floor in the living room, maimed and bloodied. Her delicate body had literally been pressed into the wooden floor as if an asphalt compactor had rolled over the child, her shoulders and face were torn as if by claws, and her beautiful little Czech dress, obtained from abroad through a connection only a week earlier, was torn to shreds. Anka was lying in a dark pool of her own blood, dead and seemingly almost shriveled like a dried fish.
Yaropolk Zadorozhniy passed out right there in the entryway to the room, and Fedora did so a bit later, as she tried to slap her husband back to consciousness. Turning her head toward her dead daughter, she noticed that the girl had clutched her favorite doll with her final spasmodic motion—the one that Fedora had handsewn for her on her last birthday. The woman took a deep gulp of air and collapsed onto the floor beside her husband and child.
When they came to, they were acting much more calmly. They called the cops and medics, who arrived, shook their heads, then shrugged their shoulders, powerless to explain or even somehow comprehend what had happened. A query of the neighbors yielded nothing. No one had heard Anka’s screams, though a few people had seen the Zadorozhniys leaving home and had also seen them coming back. No one had noticed any strangers during the time of their absence. The investigators also proved useless. They opened a criminal case and offered their condolences to the parents: In short, they did everything they could. And the Zadorozhniys, once they’d delivered the small children’s casket to the cemetery and held a funeral, packed up their suitcases and left for a linguistics conference in Leningrad as if nothing had even happened. They didn’t mention Anka again in a single conversation, either between themselves or with others. Ever. The only thing they did was to order a headstone for her grave and ensure that it was engraved without mistakes. That was it. The grave swiftly became overgrown with grass, and now, after the almost thirty years that have passed since then, the Zadorozhnyis wouldn’t even be able to find their way there.
Later they never even thought about the child, but Fedora got pregnant when she was a little past forty already, and then got pregnant again. And so the Zadorozhniys, now respected people and Slavists with recognized names, unexpectedly became young parents once more.
* * *
Cyril wasn’t horrified at the idea of going outside and playing with friends with a name like his, so he would go. But Methodius, weary of being picked on by every last kid, grew up a loner. He even enjoyed it, particularly in the summers.
The boys’ extraterrestrial parents would disappear for weeks at a time to their forums, conferences and colloquia, and Cyril would scoot out of the house as early as six o’clock in the morning to go fishing, take a hike, or just play soccer. Methodius would be left alone. He read, watched TV, or bummed around the apartment, not heading out into the scorching city unless there was a need. Methodius always belonged to no one but himself, and that made him terribly happy.
He was waiting for this summer with particular impatience. The thing was, he had bought himself a strange book from an old wino at the train-station market sometime in April. The book had something to do with yoga, meditations, and journeying into the depths of the consciousness and beyond its limits. Notwithstanding the fact that Methodius Zadorozhniy had just turned ten years old, he worked his way through the whole book, even if he didn’t fully grasp everything. “I’ll have to try it out,” Methodius decided and seemed to grow a little cold in a premonition of the summer.
The meditations came easily to him. All of June his parents were somewhere in Slovakia or Slovenia, Cyril barely showed up at home, and there was more than enough time for self-centering. There was more than enough silence too.
The silence proved to no longer be as dense and absolute. Only when Methodius shut everything off and sat quietly, centering himself, would he begin to hear a host of extraneous sounds: some sort of moans and sighs, clicking, creaks and footsteps. At first this would startle him and make him tense, but with time he grew accustomed to it. Sometimes he would even have conversations with a voice coming from somewhere beneath the flooring or behind the walls. The voice, in contrast to his parents and brother, showed a genuine interest in Methodius’ thoughts. It was almost as if he had found a friend.
One morning Methodius woke up, got dressed, steeped himself some tea and drank two whole cups with a pastry while gazing at the morning outside. It was barely past seven, and his brother had already run off somewhere, taking almost an entire stick of sausage and a small bag of apples along with him. Methodius surveyed his lunch-making options, then decided to meditate for a bit.
Entering the larger of the two rooms, he settled down on the floor in front of a giant full-length mirror and, tucking his feet beneath himself, closed his eyes. He was imagining a warm sea with himself, Methodius Zadorozhniy, on its shore. A lightness was permeating his body. It filled his lungs, his limbs, his head. The boy grew warm and felt the sand beneath his fingers, loose and pleasant. The lightness engulfed his body entirely, and the boy began to feel as if he was holding onto the floor only by some miracle. A measured and pleasant humming swelled in his head—the warm backdrop of meditative ascent. Methodius pictured himself as a butterfly on the sand, made a gentle movement with the fingers of both hands, as if to push off, and that very moment felt his body rise into the air.
Methodius was swept by joy, but simultaneously also by fear. The fear chopped off his wings and drove the lightness from his body, and the boy once more felt the rough floor beneath him.
He opened his eyes. The room had become noticeably darker, like before a thunderstorm. Methodius didn’t even have time to be surprised at it having grown darker so soon after sunrise when he suddenly noticed something on the coffee table next to the mirror. There, on a stack of colorful magazines, alongside the now empty teacup, a head was wobbling. With short blond hair and with dark circles around the eyes and cracked glasses on the bridge of its nose. Methodius grew cold and scooted backwards until his spine was flush with the wall. The wall was hard, cold and unexpectedly sharp, as if covered in spikes. Methodius closed his eyes in terror, but the horror didn’t disappear. The head began to cackle ominously, inhaling air with a strange sound reminiscent of either the shrill caws of a raven or the scraping of a knife over iron gates. Methodius timorously opened his eyes at this satanic laughter and saw that the head was no longer on the table. Instead, behind him, right in the wall, stood a long thing figure in prison dress. The figure was cackling uncontrollably, stretching its arms out toward Methodius, and within a second the boy felt cold sharp claws touching his skin. The person from the wall set to work immediately and in earnest. The boy felt the claws ripping the skin on his shoulders with a crackle and then wriggling around in his muscles. A rush of adrenaline flooded his head and the boy, finally having regained control of himself, tried to make a run for it. He didn’t utter a single sound; his larynx dried up and emitted only croaks.
He yanked his back from the wall, took a few clumsy steps toward the exit, counted how many remained to the door… But the figure from the wall was now no longer a mere silhouette; it had gained volume and give. As if from a spring, it shot up to the ceiling and pounced down onto the poor boy in a nose dive. Methodius tumbled down on the floor under the weight of the monster, then jerked a few times, but the creature wasn’t letting him move.
Methodius sensed that something dark, old and evil was working its way into his body, was pouring itself in there like milk into a jug. The pain pierced through him, and the boy arched his back over the floor, then feebly sprawled out, no longer able to hold himself up. A black shadow oozed out of him downward somewhere, into the basement, through the floor. Simultaneously he felt himself being butchered and disemboweled, as if with some invisible knives. His body was pulled, squeezing into the floor in the wake of his soul, pushing out a shallow cavity in the flooring.
The final thing in his life that Methodius Zadorozhniy managed to remember was the needlelike sensation of splinters from the floor boards pushing beneath the skin of his hands. Then a black void set in. Then came nothingness.
And Gerhardt Frei’s lips parted in a predatory and satisfied smile in anticipation of the next little child to grow up in Apartment No. 14.