If you want to achieve something, you must first know what it is you desire. Mobilize your soul. “You can change reality with an iron will,” one of the party’s lines states. You only have to identify what it is you want.
Greta’s desire had gone through various stages of development. It wasn’t too long ago that she was dancing under linden trees, not really asking much of life. She didn’t recognize the importance of the times, didn’t understand that every action and thought should be directed toward something great.
If pressed to name one of her past desires, it would be that she wanted to be a little thinner. The remains of degraded decadence roved about the nation, nightmarish ideals of beauty haunted its corners.
It wouldn’t have lasted much longer, that world without troubles or aspirations. The great era had come, along with the responsibility, the mission. Greta understood how pitiful and worthless all her former desires were. She tossed them away like an infant would a pacifier, and never thought of them again.
Today, Greta admired the people who were building this new era. Those who didn’t have trivial desires, who were truly able to focus solely on the goal.
In some way or other she came to admire Hans in particular, and for several reasons. Hans didn’t talk much about victory or ideology. He didn’t talk much at all. He didn’t seem to have the pettiness that was gradually resurfacing in everyone else. And yet he seemed so human. Always serious, but not sad. Soon Greta was unable to ignore the fact that she wanted badly for Hans to love her. Which most likely meant that she herself loved him. She had read that love was simply a strong desire. But where had she read this? She asked Hans, but he didn’t know either. And then he walked off, as usual, just like that, leaving the conversation unfinished. He moved quickly, even though he was missing a leg.
Some might think: how kind of Greta, a beauty like her falling in love with a one-legged man. But nowhere was it said that Greta was a great beauty. And where the men were concerned, all of them in their department, with the exception of the administration, had their peculiarities. Josef was half-blind; Wolfgang had cerebral palsy; Fritz had no sense of humor. Hans was the only one who had come from the front-line; he wore an unmarked military uniform and a holstered gun at his hip. Greta thought about his heroicism, his suffering, and she again grew embarrassed of herself and cast off everything personal to concentrate on the unified goal, the desire of desires: a German victory.
Though it was interesting how, now, that forgotten and trivial desire of hers was coming true: Greta was growing thinner. As was everyone else in her department. As was everyone else in this city.
The department Greta and Hans worked for was, of course, secret. They themselves didn’t fully know what it was they did, and that’s how it was meant to be. At first they didn’t even try to guess. How nice it was not knowing anything, except that what you were doing was important. To know that your daily actions contained some kind of hidden power. They believed that their work would contribute to the unified, inescapable, and impending victory.
When the situation on the front grew unstable, and the administration was on-site less and less frequently, discipline eased and the staff started making guesses as to the nature of their department’s operations. The prevailing opinion was that it was directly related to the Wunderwaffe—the “superweapon.” In theory, it was a new weapon that could singlehandedly determine the outcome of the war. The staff reasoned that all the boxes that they stamped, itemized, and shipped were parts of the superweapon, samples of new materials for it, blueprints. That their department was a middleman between the scientists and the army.
– We shouldn’t talk about it. It’s classified! Wolfgang said, and he was right.
When the front drew even closer, the administration came in even less often, and the staff began to discuss various kinds of superweapons.
Wolfgang believed the most effective would be a heliobeam. It would be placed in orbit, 8200 kilometers from Earth, a concave mirror that would concentrate sunlight into a single destructive beam that would incinerate the enemy troops. Maybe the mirror was being positioned as they spoke. Maybe there had been a setback. The telephone would ring any second, they’d be asked to find a certain document and double-check the connective parts.
Mrs. Wagner thought the army was developing a sound cannon. It would work like the trumpets at Jericho, or a professional singer who could shatter a glass with his voice. In order to do it, the singer has to find the exact resonant frequency of the glass. All objects have a resonant frequency and amplitude of vibration, including tanks, aircraft, and bombs. With such a weapon, which functioned not unlike a depth sounder, they would have to determine the unique resonant frequency of every individual object.
– It would make sense to know the unique frequency of every enemy force before heading into battle. A sonic weapon . . .
– How loud is it? Wouldn’t it be too loud for our troops? Will they be able to hear their commands? Fritz asked.
Mrs. Wagner continued:
– Maybe you wouldn’t even hear it, the way we don’t hear very high and very low sounds. You could just as well call it a vibration cannon. It would only affect objects with the same base frequency. The sound waves would be aimed at a tank or an aircraft, which would then start to vibrate and then break apart. It’s a very humane weapon, because it would only destroy war vehicles and spare people.
–Who might get killed by machine guns later, Fritz added.
Josef gathered himself so he wouldn’t stutter, and offered his version:
– Keep in mind . . . the primary weapon is desire. They’re working on some kind of psychotronic weapon . . . Yes, it’s true! The device is aimed at these so-called “desire crystals” that are somewhere in the pituitary glands . . .
– I think this war could make do with something practical. Like the Midgard Serpent! Five hundred meters of steel! A magnificent machine, it could be digging its way underground, beneath our feet, as we speak. I think I can feel the floor vibrating. The Midgard Serpent is nearing the Russians at their positions. It’s taking its time, winding forward and further on. Once it’s deep behind Russian lines it’ll burst forth from the earth and obliterate everything around it!
– We shouldn’t be talking about this.
– True, true.
But the administration didn’t come back. For a moment the staff wondered what had happened to them. Had they managed to deliver the primary piece of equipment to the army? It wouldn’t be a long way to drive, in any case. Wolfgang surmised:
– Maybe they went on an expedition to the Himalayas, to Tibet. Where they’ll tilt the earth’s axis in Germany’s favor.
– Sorry—the earth’s axis is in Tibet?
– The axis of all things spiritual . . . if I understand correctly.
Greta likes this version. Something somewhere far away has to be shifted, and that’s it, the world starts back on the right path.
But it was more probable that the administration’s car had been hit by a bomb. Explosions were heard more frequently, and were drawing nearer.
Now they could openly gossip about the superweapon, but they didn’t. Relaxed and contemplative topics from another time returned unexpectedly to their conversations.
– Do you think it will rain today? Mrs. Wagner asked. No one knew how to respond.
– It should be lily of the valley season soon. Rain would be nice, Greta said, in response to Mrs. Wagner, but wondered to herself where the nearest flower would even be. Likely beyond the German border. Lily of the valley grew by the millions in independent Germany, whose borders had stretched from the Pyrenees to the Ural mountains. But now the German border could be seen here, in the center of Berlin. Today it had moved closer by two blocks. Whenever the clouds of dust settled, Greta could make out the silhouettes of foreign tanks. Maybe they were trophies, she thought.
By now it was harder to imagine a German victory than Hans’s love. But no matter; why should we desire easy things?
The staff continued to chat. Fritz observed:
– Cucumbers need rain, too.
Mrs. Wagner replied:
– Cucumbers, at the end of April? City boy! At best they’ll only start planting the seeds soon.
Maybe they won’t this year, Greta thought.
Outside, a shell exploded.
– Excuse me? Mrs. Wagner asked once the noise died down.
Fritz started to reply, but another shell exploded, the brick wall crumbled, and Mrs. Wagner had to ask again:
– What? I didn’t hear you.
– Do you have cucumbers in your ears? Country bumpkin!
Mrs. Wagner opened her mouth to lay into him, but was cut off by an even louder blast. That shell had landed very close. The building swayed; it had swayed several times over the last few days, but never as violently as just now. Once their ears finally stopped ringing, when they could hear again, Josef shouted:
– We should go to the basement!
– No, the siren isn’t going! Everything’s fine, Fritz replied.
Naturally, siren hadn’t sounded for days—it had been destroyed. Or had given out. It should be wailing constantly.
Dust obscured the view. Just one second to not to have to see this city! Now it was hard to believe that it had ever been, Hans thought. Paint brushes and glasses, linden trees and liberty—in theory all of these had once existed here, but it was clear now that they were gone for good. What a fragile, fleeting thing happiness was.
The city itself would likely never exist again. Maybe it would be razed and tarred over. Maybe they’d till the soil and plant a forest. The wolves would howl day and night in this forest, never sleeping. Never again would there be laughter, excitement, dancing. There can be nothing here after Greta, after her trembling shoulders and her heavy heart. It was a joint effort that got us to this point—these are Berlin’s final hours, and they won’t be pleasant.
Did it have to be this way? Why couldn’t they sit here, whispering sweet nothings? Did all this really have to happen for them to understand what it was they desired? Wasn’t there an easier way?
Maybe there was something wrong with how they wanted? Some rogue, psychotronic wave had crashed into their desire crystals, unraveled their structure, leaving only scattered, aching shards.
Greta was thinking about Mrs. Wagner, about why had she asked about the rain—was she, too, on the verge of tears? She thought about Wolfgang, if he been able to take cover, since he was rather clumsy. Most of all she thought about Hans. Had he gotten any dust in his eyes?
But the dust settled, and their vision cleared. They were all still there.
– Nice to see you all again! Anyone have a smoke?
Wolfgang must have been joking; there hadn’t been cigarettes for a month. Someone else spoke:
– So, back to work?
Then they all noticed that the giant portrait of the marshal had been knocked off the wall.
– What a shame.
When would they learn to talk normally again, without this fatalistic irony? Probably never.
But where the portrait had once hung, they could make out dark lines in the wall. Not cracks, but straight, connected lines.
– It’s a door! Hans cried, his voice full of excitement—an emotion none of them had heard or registered in some time. He ran his fingers along the lines.
Josef went to him:
– Allow me.
And he felt along the wall with his blind man’s sensibility. He’d been right to step in; he pressed on a hidden protrusion, something within the wall clicked, and the lines in the wall widened. Hans grabbed a dagger—a gift from the SS for their hard work—off its wall mount, and jammed it into the gap. It opened a little more and—
Hans turned to face the others.
– Don’t go in there. There might be classified documents.
– Or a secret passage?
– To where? Where exactly do you want a secret passage to? Africa?
– I can’t stand blacks.
– I think there’s money back there.
– Right, because we could really use some of that right now.
Wolfgang held up his hands:
– Wait, please! I’m serious. Let me guess what’s in there. Maybe the superweapon itself? The key to a secret code?
– Open it! Greta said to Hans, like some kind of daredevil.
As he did, Greta managed to think that the door could be boobytrapped, and that they were all going to die right then and now, even though they could have lived for another day or two. But then the door opened, it wasn’t even as thick as they’d expected. A sharp fragrance wafted over them.
It was a large safe, filled with bottles. At least two were broken, likely from the blasts, which explained the smell. But the shelves remained lined with hundreds of bottles. Not one of the staff had ever seen so many bottles in one place.
Was it the secret ingredient, a poison, the fuel for the superweapon? The bottles were of various shapes, all labeled. Greta read along with the others: Armagnac Castarède 1890, Plymouth Gin, Whiskey, Whisky, Kentucky Bourbon, Хлебное вино, Eau de vie, Gazdova Slivka, Żubrówka, Domaine Dupont Calvados, Absinthe, Cachaça Bayu, foreign, unfamiliar words—was it code?
Upon further inspection, they found not only bottles, but cartons of tobacco, various brands of cigars and cigarettes.
– This is the property of the Germany State, Fritz said, and Josef added:
– Exactly, quite right.
– Let’s close the door, hang the portrait back up, and get back to work.
– That would be for the best.
Twenty minutes later, Fritz vomited. Which didn’t make the floor any dirtier. The floor was already covered in a sticky layer—shards of glass, shreds of torn documents, soil from upturned flower pots. Josef gagged as well, but managed to say with a smile:
– Young lady, why don’t you join us, and at least have a sip of this Mosel wine?
But Fritz, still vomiting, yelled:
– Drink, stupid girl!
And Wolfgang said:
– If the higher power offers us even a moment of forgiveness, to refuse would be blasphemy.
Greta didn’t find any wine, but took a green bottle with a beautiful woman on its label. She didn’t know how to open it, and glanced around. The others had solved this problem by breaking the necks off the bottles, drinking with bloodied lips, their smiles rosied. But she was afraid to do the same. As she stood thinking, Hans took the bottle from her, broke the neck off it, and handed it back to her. The smell of the drink made her dizzy even before the liquid touched her lips; it shot into every channel of her body and exploded like a nuclear bomb. Hans handed her something milder to chase it with (it was bourbon, where were they hiding the wine and champagne? This must be an emergency stash that consisted only of the hard stuff, and it was just as well), which helped, and after a moment Greta was laughing at Fritz’s jokes with the rest of them. Wolfgang, in turn, was urinating out the window and yelling all the Russian phrases he knew in the direction of the gunfire—a few lines of Pushkin he’d learned as part of the literary scene. Josef was dipping his fingers in the puddled liquids, tracing them across the floor, saying how he was going to start painting, it was a latent talent of his, it was time to let it out, and as his first work he’d like to paint Mrs. Wagner’s portrait, but a nude, of course. Mrs. Wagner laughed like a siren. Hans flung away his crutch and rolled onto the floor, where he lay and said:
– My life has been boring. I’ve always followed the rules and obeyed social mores.
Greta pitied Hans anew, did he really deserve such a boring life, poor Hans, poor mankind, the weaker sex. And she embraced him.
She heard whimpering nearby. Greta looked up, was someone injured? The firing was non-stop now. Mrs. Wagner’s blouse was completely unbuttoned, and oh, her breasts were like twin zeppelins, they rose and fell, illuminated by the May sun, forever dignified. Fritz writhed beneath her buttocks, huffing and squirming, while Mrs. Wagner spurred him on:
– Yes, my little cucumber!
Wolfgang and Josef were right next to them, caught in a struggle, a struggle for freedom, and they found victory as they plunged themselves into each another, the freest form of love that ever could be in Germany. It occurred to Greta that Josef was almost completely blind, did he even know . . . but what did it matter. Greta was happy for them.
Hans held Greta. Truly, what right do we have to deny ourselves our last opportunity to live? We don’t have any more rights.
Greta had forgotten this dream of hers; that is to say, she hadn’t forgotten it, she’d just stopped thinking about it. One could say she’d refused it, perhaps, but never surrendered it. And now that she remembered it, how could it be, she had long resigned herself to the impossibility, but here he was, Hans, not even a millimeter of space between them, and he said:
– My love!
And other words, sweet and earnest. His unmarked military uniform flew across the room, as did her blouse, which she wouldn’t be needing anymore. My chaste and lonely Hans, no longer chaste or lonely, now he’s mine. The cries in the office grew louder, and merged with the cries beyond the window, but it was hard to hear because the explosions and gunfire also grew louder; besides, they were experiencing their own internal explosions.
Greta caressed Hans’s hair, kissed his forehead, tasted the salt of his sweat and the sweetness of the bourbon.
– I’m so happy we found each other.
– I’ve always loved you!
– Me too.
– Will we be together forever?
– I have absolutely no reason to doubt it.
– By the way, Fritz interrupted, not in the least embarrassed by his, or Greta’s, nakedness. When I was with the Ministry of Transportation, I went to some rather wild parties, and I have to admit that this one here could put them to shame.
Wolfgang sucked on a cigar and said:
– Yes . . . yes . . . Our Father, who art in Heaven . . .
– Are you serious? Mrs. Wagner asked.
But then a grenade exploded, and they were showered with plaster and shards of bricks. Greta covered Hans with her naked body. But he clambered up onto his lone leg and made for the window. Greta tried to hold him back, what could you possibly want to see, my love? But he was already up, holding onto the wall, which was now only half a wall, and stood looking out the window, which was now more than a window. Visibility was good, and Hans stared out, his eyes wide, and then he shouted:
She was on the floor, curled into a ball, and without lifting her head asked:
– The Russians are retreating! I understand now! We’ve activated the superweapon, it radiates pure energy! It’s unbelievable! The tanks are disintegrating, scattering like dandelions! The Russians are retreating! They’re helpless against the superweapon!
– Does that mean . . .
– Yes, Greta! A German victory!
Dear God, Greta thought. Victory. But how? She almost felt guilty. Now, just when there had been nothing left, suddenly there was everything. How strange. She wanted to beg for their forgiveness. An incomprehensible emotion.
– Come look, Greta! I can’t believe it, you have to see for yourself!
At first she didn’t even really want to look, but it was a historical moment; Greta got to her feet to see, Hans grabbed her shoulder and pushed her forward, look, there, look there! She looked, her eyes dazzled by the light.
In that moment Hans shot her in the head. She was dead before she slumped onto the floor.
Maybe he hadn’t needed to put on a show like that, but Hans wanted Greta to die happy. None of this was her fault, and if nothing else, at least he had been able to do this, so she wouldn’t have to suffer.
He glanced out the window once more. There might still be enough time to drain that half-bottle of cognac. Or to sit down right here, next to Greta.
JĀNIS JOŅEVS (1980) graduated from the Latvian Academy of Culture. Since 2002 he has been working as a copywriter, reviewer, and translator from French. His first novel, Jelgava ’94 (Doom ’94) , was published in 2013. The novel garnered acclaim from critics and readers alike, and received numerous awards: the Annual Latvian Literature Award for Best Debut; the 2014 European Union Prize for Literature; and the 2014 Kilogram of Culture Award presented by Latvian Television. It was also named among the 100 favorite Latvian books of all time on the television show Great Reading, and the Children’s Jury (a project involving young readers from all over Latvia) chose the book as their favorite book in the 15+ age group. In 2020 Joņevs published his first collection of stories Tīģeris [Tiger].
About the Translator:
KAIJA STRAUMANIS is an award-winning translator from the Latvian. She has an MA in Literary Translation Studies from the University of Rochester in New York, and is the Editorial Director of Open Letter Books. Her translations include works by such authors as Inga Ābele, Jānis Joņevs, Laura Vinogradova, Gundega Repše, among others. She received a 2020 NEA Literature Translation Fellowship for her work on Forest Daughters ed. Sanita Reinsone