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Eternity of Iridescence
You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.
He looked out the window with cold, hardened eyes that didn’t actually take in the scenery in front of him. For the first time in years, pure rain streamed down the panes as he rested his forehead against the glass. Could the Kaiser have possibly predicted how horribly wrong he was when he spoke to the troops so long ago? Four years had passed, four seasons of leaves falling…a leaf for every life destined to be lost.
Yes. He could have known.
This thought caused him to tear his gaze from the window and clench his jaw. Dark wavy hair fell over unusual bronze coloured eyes that focused on the metal bracelet fastened to his wrist. Lothar Siegfried Freiherr von Richthofen. As he ran his long fingers over the engraved words, he found that they felt no different than any other name. So why should his name be immortalized in time while that of others disappeared into the merciless momentum of history? Was it simply because he survived? His nobility?
No…it was because of his brother.
The thought of Manfred made Lothar bite his lip. It had been nearly seven months since he had been killed…Seven months since he got that fateful telegraph while recovering in that Berlin hospital. Manfred’s death had destroyed Germany, the troops, the Jasta… But most of all, it destroyed Lothar.
The Allies had discovered Germany’s Achilles heel and took advantage of it like a pack of determined, hungry wolves. The end came quickly, but with a price too high to pay. To the Kaiser, it had been the humiliation of a lifetime dedicated to perfection and order. But for the soldiers fighting in the seas, in the muddy trenches, and in the sky, it had been a blessing full of blood, tears, and sweet relief.
But no matter how hard he tried, Lothar could not keep his mind off thinking how his brother took his final breaths. He died alone in the cockpit of his notorious red triplane, shot clean through the chest, eventually drowning in his blood.
He reached into his tunic pocket and pulled out a tattered photograph. A ghost of a smile passed over his lips as he looked at all the fresh young faces captured in time…Manfred, Schäfer, Allmenröder, Voss, and Wolff. He suddenly realized that out of all the men in that picture, he was the only one left. Schäfer, always laughing or smiling, but could be serious and sensitive when it was needed most. One could always find him drawing squadron members or working out a complex mathematical equation for his engineering studies…But all those twenty-five years of life slipped away in a heartbeat as every last bone in his body was broken. And Allmenröder, constantly playing the piano or studying the concepts of medicine, slipped away when twenty-one years came to an end entwined among decomposing bodies of infantrymen in a hastily-dug cemetery. Twenty year old Voss danced his final waltz with the Devil high over the Front after his plane exploded into powdered fragments. And, finally, there was Wolff- the determined, frail, delicate little flower, wilting as he as overwhelmed by the enemy after his wingman turned tail and fled.
They had all been good, honourable, admirable men…Germany’s finest. What made God decide to take them away along with his brother a short eleven days before his twenty-sixth birthday? Better yet, why did he leave the spoiled, sheltered child behind? Not a single one of them deserved to die, no matter the extent of their wartime exploits. God’s manner of Judgment Day had always unnerved Lothar; it was so…unpredictable.
Overcome with emotion, he put the photograph back into the pocket of Manfred’s jacket. Lothar had always been intrigued by superstition and wondered if that had contributed to Manfred’s death as another one of God’s merciless ways. His brother had left the aerodrome that April day without it and never returned. Every single sortie he had ever flown- except for the patrol in July where he took the shot to the head- had not been without that jacket…and he always landed back at the aerodrome safe and sound. But when Lothar returned to the Front to find his brother’s jacket on his desk-right where he had left it- he changed his view of the world. At that moment, a new fear was instilled in him about the arbitrary ways in which Fate, God, and Man walked hand-in-hand. In both memory and precaution, he wore the jacket every day and every sortie he flew; it was a little tight on him and hit right at his hips since Manfred had been so much shorter than him.
“It never ceases to amaze me how different you and your brother looked.”
Lothar opened his eyes at the grating, nasal sound of Hermann Göring’s voice. In the reflection cast upon the window pane, he saw his own tired, almost unrecognizable features and the pinched, rat-like face and shrewd eyes of his Wing commander. Göring was standing behind the once-beautiful and pristine grand piano, his gaze focused on the oil-painting of Manfred. Even in the distorted reflection, Lothar could make out his brother’s light blond hair, a shock against his tan skin, and his unique icy blue eyes brought out by straight dark brows and a strong facial structure. It left him breathless for a moment; the painting was so lifelike, especially the eyes, that he felt as if his brother was in the room with him, which he had dreamed every night for the past seven months.
Göring tore his gaze away from the portrait to turn his attention to Lothar, who still sullenly watched his reflection in the glass. “You know that you can answer me, don’t you Lothar?” Göring said, running his fingers over the broken piano keys as he looked at the sheet music in front of him.
Lothar tensed as he recognized the notes of Allmenröder’s music. He remembered where it was from- Dreams in the Starlight… a piece he never got to finish. Lothar and Manfred had stayed up with Allmenröder the night he got the inspiration for the piece. Lothar had watched as his brother carried his comrade to his own room after he fell asleep at the keys before returning to sit in front of the fire, as he did every night for two years. Lothar tried to make himself feel some sort of emotion, but he wouldn’t dare show it in front of the Wing commander. But now, he didn’t know if he could ever feel any sort of emotion or attachment to another person ever again, not after losing every single one of his friends.
The music suddenly stopped. “It is all over now, Lothar. The war is over. No more patrols, no more accolades…no more kills.”
The last word rang through Lothar’s mind like the bell of a monastery. Kill…that was the one word he had lived by for the past four years. So this was the day the Front would finally fall silent. The storm that raged for four years and blinded the world with a rain of blood and steel. Now that it was all clear and the damage could be seen, a new rain of tears of grief and hatred would soon fall; the leaders of the world would finally see what they had forced their loyal men to do to each other. No amount of rain or tears would ever be enough to cleanse the blood and sins that soaked the earth and consciousness of men.
“The General of Staff says we are to fly the planes to Strasbourg and hand them over to the French without any altercations.”
Lothar met Göring’s gaze in the reflection. “I won’t do it.”
Göring’s eyes widened and he abruptly strode forward across the cracked hardwood floor to Lothar’s side. “That wasn’t a suggestion, Oberleutnant. That was an order.”
As he sensed the venom lacing Göring’s voice, Lothar turned from the window to face him. “You cannot make me do it, Göring. The war is over…I no longer take orders for you.”
“I still command this Jasta, Richthofen. As long as you are a member of this squadron, you take orders from me!” Göring hissed, seizing Lothar by the collar of his jacket.
Lothar met Göring’s unwavering gaze with burning bronze eyes and roughly pushed his hands away. His voice grew ominously quiet in comparison with the piercing voice of his commander. “Tell me, Göring, why do you think the High Command gave you the responsibility of this Wing? Did you really believe you could live up to the expectations left behind by heroes such as my brother, Karl Emil Schäfer, Karl Allmenröder, Werner Voss, and Kurt Wolff? After all, this is Jadgeschwader Richthofen, named after my brother. I have more kills than you…But, most likely, you appealed to the officers until they gave you the position.”
Suddenly, Göring shoved Lothar against the window, one arm pressed against his throat. With his free hand, he pulled out his Luger and pressed the barrel between Lothar’s eyes. “You are way out of line, Richthofen! You were always living in your brother’s shadow and now, even with him gone, you are just a shadow of your former self. Look at yourself, drunk and reliant on pain medication. This certainly isn’t the hero your brother or Germany made you out to be.”
Lothar suddenly laughed, the dark sound resonating in the cramped space of the room. Although he didn’t show it, it frightened Göring that he didn’t see fear in Lothar’s unnerving bronze eyes. Instead, a wry, evil grin made its way to Lothar’s chiseled lips as he spoke.
Lothar’s emotionless voice took Göring aback. He licked his lips as a cold sweat broke out on his forehead, causing him to blink his eyes rapidly.
Unable to meet Lothar’s gaze for any longer, Göring stared at the Luger and drew the bolt back with a shaky finger.
Lothar laughed again. “You know, they have special places in Hell reserved for men like you and I. All the chaplains that ever came through this Jasta had the same belief they preached to us every single service: a pilot’s goal in wartime is to gain a place in Heaven, no matter their exploits. But I have a feeling that our places were given to other men that deserved it. So, go ahead…Shoot me, I beg of you! You don’t know how much of a blessing it would be-“
Lothar’s strained, high-pitched voice was silenced as Göring pressed the barrel painfully into Lothar’s forehead and pulled the trigger. Lothar tensed and closed his eyes, waiting to feel the bullet to tear through his brain.
That small noise, nearly drowned out by the incessant patter of the rain, changed his life in an instant. Lothar reopened his eyes and saw Göring staring at him, tears streaming down his face. The gun slipped from his hands and clattered to the floor.
“I’m sorry,” Göring whispered, turning to walk out of the room without uttering another word. Lothar felt his heart flutter in his chest as he heard his footsteps echoing unmercifully in the corridor.
It took only a moment for the shock of what had just happened to hit Lothar. He stared at the door then at the gun lying at his feet in silence. His legs gave out beneath him and he sank to the floor, his sobs fading into the patter of the rain against the window.
Mud caked his riding boots-which he had always strived to keep clean- as he walked across the aerodrome. The planes had been lined up in the grass, their brightly coloured fuselages and wings standing out amongst the dense fog and spotty rain.
Lothar stopped in front of the aeroplane at the end of the line. It was painted a brilliant canary-yellow with the black Iron Cross on the wingtips, fuselage, and rudder. Manfred had flown his little red bird into the maelstrom high above the French countryside.
And this was Lothar’s little yellow bird.
Lothar ran his hand over the smooth material of the fuselage, feeling the dips in the fabric where bullet holes had been covered; in his mind, he could hear the sounds of the pullets punching through the fuselage, could see the barrel of the machine gun flash in the little mirror mounted in front of him. He craned his neck to take in the instruments covering the control panel. It made him wonder exactly how many bullets he had fired, how many hours he had flown…exactly how many lives he had taken.
This little yellow bird had been his life…the only thing he had left. Now, they wanted to take it away from him. He couldn’t let that happen…No, he wasn’t going to let them take away his wings. If he couldn’t have his wings, no one else could. Let us all be flightless together.
Lothar grabbed the can of petrol sitting beside the wheel of the aeroplane and poured the petrol over the fuselage and into the cockpit. He fought through the tears that had built up in his eyes again as he sprayed the petrol all over the aeroplane until the can was empty. He didn’t even think about what he was doing…Thinking had only brought him two things in life: sorrow and regret. As he reached down to take the flare gun from its holster fastened to his boot, the tears made their way down his face. He no longer felt the need to hold them back.
“Never give up. Never surrender.”
Once again overcome with emotion, he pointed the flare gun at his beloved yellow bird and pulled the trigger. Flames instantly leaped from the petrol-soaked fabric and licked at the frosty air around him. In moments, the yellow was gone from the fuselage as it began to crumple in on itself, threatening to explode at any given time. He stood in front of his downed bird and watched as the flames incinerated one of his last reminders of the War. The heat from the fire soon dried the tears as they streamed freely down his cheeks, mixed in with the frigid rain that drenched him thoroughly. Flashes of dogfights and nights in the officer’s club with the other airmen ran through his mind like a scene from the cinema.
Just as the heat grew intolerable and he turned to walk away, Lothar reached into his pocket and pulled out the photograph. Smiling faces called out to him with voices that continued to haunt him, nearly a year since he heard them last. It hurt him to realize that they had died a mere few months before the end…the end of all the killing, the hatred, the grief and the pain. It all came to an end and he left him here dealing with obstacles and memories far crueler than those of the past four years. And those obstacles were seeing those faces every day and remembering their story that he had had helped write.
He took one last wistful glance at the photograph before tossing it into the burning cockpit; it instantly became consumed by the fire as the flames burned through the black-and-white faces.
“Death before dishonor.”
Now this was the time he was liberating himself of his past, a burden that had troubled him for far too long. He didn’t need the photograph to remember those he had lost. For as long as he would live, he would never let those faces slip from his memory. Every single one of those men was a part of him, a part he would never lose. And he felt as if he would be meeting them again very soon, in a place much better than the one they had met for the first, yet not the last, time.
Göring had said that this was the end of everything.
But in reality, it was just the beginning.