“Elena” she said with a trembling voice, and as she did, he realized he was still holding on her elbow. He let go of her and she, slowly this time, walked away with the shell in her hands.
“Elena…” he repeated, with a spark in his eyes, looking towards the open sea. She had stormed into his life like a hurricane and he was sure that he wanted her to remain there. He wanted to know her; he wanted her to look into his eyes with joy and excitement this time, with trustfulness.
On the way back his friends mocked him and yelled at him.
“How long does it take to pee you joke?”
He ignored them, followed them around for the rest of the day, did his duties until they were back at the camp, then he knew what he had to do. In the whole camp, there was only one approachable person who could speak both Greek and German and that was a teenage boy, orphan, they had taken pity on him after his parents were killed by German soldiers and took him in the camp. He knew German because apparently his mother was German but she was considered a defector. The boy didn’t speak a lot and wasn’t joyful at all, he barely ate and had no communication with anyone whatsoever. Niklaus had a kind soul so he was careful on how to approach the boy. He brought him a bar of chocolate, you could rarely find chocolate in this island.
“Boy, what’s your name? I am Niklaus.”
The boy stared at him for a few seconds but did not respond, he was sitting in a corner with his arms around his knees.
“Here boy, this is for you, don’t be afraid, I only want to ask you something.”
The boy seemed kinda hesitant but he replied this time.
“Manos” he said. “What is this?” he asked in German and Niklaus was surprised by how fluent he was.
“It’s chocolate, it’s sweet, try it. How old are you boy?”
“14” he said and then tasted the chocolate. His eyes opened widely and he licked his lips graciously.
“Well, Mano, I need a favor. I need you to teach me Greek, do you think you could do that for me?”
The boy laughed, “Do I have a choice?”
Niklaus was surprised by the question, it brought to him a flashback of the brutalities this boy and tons of other Greeks were experiencing, made him think of how much he didn’t want to be the person he was expected to be.
“Of course you have a choice.”
“Then I want to make a deal.”
The boy seemed sharp, smart, he was taking a risk but Niklaus knew it was just because he had given him the right to.
“I will teach you Greek” he said,” if you bring me this chocothing every time I teach you something new.”
Niklaus couldn’t help but laughing this time. He thought the boy would go as far as to ask for him to set him free, take revenge for his parents or something like that, but no. All he wanted was more chocolate. His mind couldn’t help but admiring the simplicity of this young person’s soul. His past was shadowed but he wasn’t bloodthirsty.
Without even realizing it he had formed a small routine that he was practicing everyday. He managed to convince Kristof, Fabian, Johann and Thomas to switch shifts, from morning to afternoon. He was waking up in the morning along with everyone else but then their ways separated. Niklaus took off early before the hot sun was out, he had a lot of walking to do and with his heavy clothes it wasn’t the most pleasant thing in the world to do under the sunlight. Sometimes he stole figs from the trees and ate them on the way to the beach. He always arrived there earlier than her; he hid behind some trees and waited. He rested there looking at the sky changing colors until she always showed up adding one more vibrant color into the sky. She was always sitting on the top of the cliff for a few minutes, staring at the sky as well, looking down bellow the sea. Then she was climbing down the stairs and taking off her sandals, caressing the golden sand with her toes, as if she was painting images. It always took his breath away when she was taking her clothes off. He was staring at her naked breasts, giving away that she wasn’t a little girl at all, but it was more than physical desire that drawn him, because even though he couldn’t see them, he kept imagining her eyes while she was letting her hair down of her braid, imagining how the rising sun would make them glow. He watched her swim and then she always disappeared for a while, he couldn’t figure out where. The first time he got scared, he thought she was drowning, but then she appeared again, swimming towards the shore, and then she lay naked on the beach. Her hair was long, becoming one with the sand like the first time he saw her there. He didn’t want to talk to her again, scare her, unless he could communicate decently.
When he was patrolling with his friends in the afternoons they asked him where he was running off to every morning, if he had found a mistress. He was a clever man so he had said yes. He had told them he was seeing one of the German women that they had brought along as secretaries, maids and other responsibilities, he didn’t tell them who, obviously because it was none of them, but he claimed he didn’t want to expose her.
After their afternoon shift he was visiting Manos. He brought him a bar of chocolate and the boy taught him Greek.
“What do you need Greek for?” He had asked one day.
“It’s non of your business boy, your job is to teach me.”
“You met a girl, didn’t you”?
“Shut up kid, just teach me Greek.”
“You can tell me you know, I’m not like your German buddies.”
The kid was smart. Probably he had matured before his time, he appeared to have some kind of wisdom, and surprisingly not just wisdom but peace as well. How could a person who lost both of his parents and is practically being captured by their killers be so peaceful? Niklaus felt some kind of jealousy for the kid because he hasn’t had such a hard life and yet he couldn’t find his peace.
He was somehow drawn to him; he wanted to talk to the boy about his life.
“Do you ever picture your life? How it could be now, if…you know.”
“If my parents weren’t killed and I wasn’t forced to live here for the rest of my life you mean?”
“Yeah I think you pretty much covered everything.”
“Well no, what would be the point? I can’t change anything can I?”
“I guess not.”
“What about you. Have you always wanted to join the army? Does it run in the family?”
The realization of how the Germans were perceived by most people came like a lightning. Manos must have thought they were monsters. That he was a monster; that he spent his days kissing a picture of Adolf Hitler as if he was a god and hating on everyone but Germans. He must have thought that joining the army was his dream come true.
“You know Mano, I didn’t have much of a choice.”
The boy blinked.
“My parents were wealthy you know. I grew up with Egyptian cotton sheets and all the luxury in the world. I had the best education.”
Niklaus seemed spaced out, like he was taking a trip back to the past.
“So what happened then?”
“My parents are good people, supportive people. They made sure I had all the love in the world while growing up but that resulted to me being very shielded. This Nazi philosophy caught me by surprise; I had different plans. I was preparing for university; I was going to be an architect.”
Manos looked surprised now, as if he was trying to fit all of that new information in the image of Niklaus that he had in front of him at that exact moment.
“Then one day my mother came up to my bed, I had turned 18 just two days before and she came to my bed crying. She never used to come to my bed. She was holding a paper, my recruitment. I was just a kid, with a lot of dreams.
The next day they came to pick me up, I didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye to my father. He is a merchant and he wasn’t in town. They took me to a big room with white walls and marble floors, it was empty of furniture and very cold, also there was a smell of mold.
The room was full of boys and men.
I had wavy blonde hair and they shaved it all off. They made us take off our clothes and stand next to each other while they were inspecting our bodies, looking at us as if we were some kind of meat being judged on its quality. Bastards.
I spent 3 years in training, 3 years in a brainwashing environment, trying to turn us into pathetic little chessmen, teaching us how to hate.
That’s when I met Kristof, Fabian, Johann and Thomas. They all come from such diverse environments. They didn’t have the proper education to be able to distinguish the amount of propaganda around us, everyone was reinforcing hostile behavior towards anyone but Germans, we were all kids and it was easier to go by the rules, and when the guys were praised for doing something which in your eyes would seem terrible they could only think it was a good thing.
It was a matter of survival for them, but they ended up liking what they did.”
“Don’t excuse them.”
“I’m not, I still think it’s terrible, their beliefs, their way of thinking, but I can’t really blame them. Not everyone is strong enough to maintain a clear vision under circumstances like those.
Anyway, when we we bonded. This Nazi philosophy changed them radically though, and there was nothing I could do about it. It has become a lot worse since we came here; they think it makes them manlier acting this way.
I had started thinking that there was something wrong with me. How could I not enjoy doing the things they enjoyed? And then I saw that girl Mano. Then I knew why; I am meant for different things. You can’t possibly conceptualize her, her eyes are so sad but she shines so bright Mano. So bright. She is the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen! I just want to make her happy!” Niklaus exclaimed.
“You know Mano, for me the fact that she is Greek means that if she ever loved me this war would mean nothing for me and her. Symbolization that there are more important things in life than a country and pure emotions are the only way out of the darkness.”
They boy patiently listened to everything he had to say but didn’t complain about his own life, not even once. He only said one thing but it was enough.
“You can’t change the world, but you can change YOUR world and live in it, the way you want.”