The whole thing was about me grasping at straws, more than anything.
Three months ago, I’d hit upon what I thought, at the time, was a brilliant idea: write a book examining Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a. mutant terrorist Magneto. It wasn’t exactly my first choice for a subject, but no one else had tackled a biography of him yet. Besides, I knew any book dealing with the "mutant threat" issue would be a sure sale with the hyper-paranoid reading public of today.
However, it was not a sure sale with my publishers. Besides being completely spineless about taking on so hotly debated an issue, they also didn’t think I could actually find enough information about Lehnsherr to fill an entire book. It took a lot of work to convince them.
But after three months—and a lot of personal expense—in my mostly futile effort to research the life of the mysterious Magneto, I was starting to think they were right.
I’d started out with a promising enough lead when I was referred to one Colonel William Stryker, a military scientist who had reputedly overseen Lehnsherr’s confinement. However, that went nowhere fast. I soon learned that Colonel Stryker had vanished without a trace—at roughly the same time as Lehnsherr’s escape from captivity.
Well, that would at least make for some juicy speculation in the last chapter of my book, if indeed I ever did gather enough information to write it. "Did Magneto murder his erstwhile keeper?"
In the meantime, I kept on doing my best to explore Lehnsherr’s sketchy past—a pursuit that eventually led me to a home for the elderly in Warsau, on one of my typical wild goose chases.
A resident of the home, who was a survivor of a World War II concentration camp, allegedly had a story to tell about seeing a boy tear down a barbed-wire fence without touching it. In the very vaguest of ways, the circumstantial details seemed to fit with Lehnsherr’s history. However, upon making the trip to Poland to visit this gentleman, I found that he was simply too senile to be relied upon. My final conclusion was that his story was nothing but a crock.
It had been a worthless and miserable trip in every way, and visiting that institution was the grand climax of it. In half an hour, I saw more emptiness and tragedy in the residents’ faces than I had before in my entire life. There are some horrors that even the forgetfulness of old age cannot erase.
I had interviewed the old man in one of the common rooms. When I finally shut off my tape recorder, stood up and began to make my way out—eager to escape the incongruous gloom in that brightly lit, antiseptic place—I was stopped by a gentle tug on my shirtsleeve.
Turning, I found a tiny, sparrowlike old woman gazing brightly up at me. She didn’t speak, which I imagined was for lack of English, but she gestured for me to follow her. I shot a helpless look at the orderly who was escorting me, and he said something apparently intended to placate the woman, but she was remarkably persistent. In the end, just to resolve the situation, I gave in.
Smiling charitably, the woman took my hand in hers—she was strong for someone who must have been in her late eighties—and towed me across the room to a table by the window. There sat an old man, dressed in a threadbare blue bathrobe and confined to a slightly rusted wheelchair, looking out at the rain that fell on the neglected garden outside.
The woman smiled, patted my hand, and shuffled off.
Mildly confounded, I turned to the old man, and he ducked his head with an apologetic smile. "Forgive me for sending her, but it is not so easy for me to go about." He made a deprecating gesture to his wheelchair. His English was quite clear; his voice was strong, and marked with a decidedly German accent. Though age had taken its toll on him, I could imagine that he had been handsome in his youth. His body was now frail, and what remained of his hair had turned to steel gray, but his knife-sharp blue eyes were still the marvel they must have been in the days when young women sighed after him.
"You are the woman who came to ask Otto about the magnet-mutant?" he asked gravely.
These geriatrics apparently had quite a grapevine among themselves. Surprised, I nodded, wondering why this fellow was interested—and sure that I was about to find out.
A wry smile hovered over his lips for a moment, and he spoke in a voice that was low, but still comfortably conversational. "I do not know about this one, but I could tell you a story about another mutant. A story from the War."
For a moment I was torn between curiosity and impatience. Such early instances of mutation were rare. If this guy knew what he was talking about—and those eyes alone told me his mind was as keen as my own any day of the week—then he just might have a fascinating tale to tell.
On the other hand, if I got back to my hotel in time, maybe I could change my flight reservation and be on my way back to the States before the day ended.
I looked at the man for a long moment. He gazed up at me steadily, his lips still crooked in a smile.
Finally, I sat down. I felt almost compelled to by that calm, direct gaze. I set my tape recorder on the table between us; he glanced down at it, then up at me, with a look of subtle amusement and reproof.
The tape recorder promptly went back into my purse.
He smiled in satisfaction and leaned back in his wheelchair, folding his hands.
"It was the winter of 1944," he began. "I was a soldier in the Wehrmacht. I was very young; I didn’t want to fight. It was only in fear for my family that I was pressed into service.
"One day, not long before Christmas, my patrol came upon a handful of Allied soldiers. They had become lost somewhere, I think, and some of them were injured. When they met with us, there was a brief but fierce battle. Those men fought well, but… they never really had a chance."
He paused for a long moment, staring at the pattern of raindrops against the window.
"My friend Gunther—my friend, but not a nice friend, ja? Well… you see, he liked to strip the dogtags from the dead, for trophies. I watched him as he went among the bodies, collecting his prizes. There lay one man, so young—much younger even than I was. The shrapnel wounds in him were… very bad." The old soldier grimaced slightly, but his eyes were haunted by much more than memories of the dead.
"Well… when Gunther bent over the body to take the dogtags… I do not think he even lived long enough to understand what killed him."
He looked up at me then, with a grim smile—not warm and light, as his other smiles had been, but cold and almost lifelessly empty.
"The dead man got up," he said, in a flat voice. "It all happened so very fast… yet it seemed so slow that I could see everything. I saw the shrapnel just… fall out of his skin, as if it were being pushed out from the inside. I saw the wounds close before my very eyes. I saw his face—and I could not recognize it as human. Bared teeth and wild, raging eyes, like an animal."
He drew a breath and let it out. "Gunther was only the first. The man… the thing… it killed them all… every one of my comrades. Killed them with its bare hands. Sometimes… it tore them apart. It took several bullets without even slowing down—and then, it turned to me."
Absorbed in a sense of visceral horror, I found myself leaning toward him intently as he went on.
"I would also have tried to shoot him… but then I looked into his eyes, and I knew that he was as confused and terrified as I was. He didn’t understand what had happened to him. I didn’t either, until many, many years later—but now I know what I saw that day." He paused. "Mutation most often appears in the young, and often after a trauma, ja?"
I nodded slowly, finding my voice. "So you think that with the shock of the attack, his injuries… a mutation was triggered in this young soldier."
The old man nodded solemnly.
"So what happened next?"
He let out a grim chuckle. "I dropped my gun."
I gaped in surprise. He smiled wryly and went on.
"I truly thought I would die. The gun was useless against him—against something that could heal like that. So I waited for him to attack… but he only stared at me for a long moment, covered in blood and panting like a wild dog. He seemed like a cornered animal. Something so inhumanly savage, yet at the same time, so afraid—shaking with the horror of this monstrous thing that had happened to him.
"So there I stood, staring into the eyes of the beast that we had awakened… until, slowly, I saw some kind of true human awareness return there. At last, he simply said one word.
His lips twisted in a bitter smile. "And so I ran—and I never stopped running. I deserted the Wehrmacht. I changed my name and my identity, and after the War, I spent my years alone and in fear. Because you see, somehow… I have always been afraid that he would finally come for me."
He closed his eyes, leaning his head back. "But now that I have told someone, I don’t feel afraid anymore."
For a long moment I was silent, trying to absorb his fantastic and terrible story. I was certain I didn’t believe a word of it—and yet…
"Do you know whatever happened to this man?" I asked faintly.
The old man opened his eyes and shook his head. "I thought, once, that I saw him. A man came here from America—a professor, I think, who was in a wheeled chair, like me. He came to ask Otto for his story of the magnetic mutant, as you did. And there was someone with him, who looked so much like that young soldier that…" He paused. "Ah, but no. It could not have been him, for he was much too young."
"What about your family?"
"I don’t know." He lowered his eyes, quiet pain filling his expression. "I never saw my wife and son again. I tried, after the War, for many years… but I couldn’t find them."
I was left speechless.
Somehow, whatever he might have done as a soldier, I found it impossible to think ill of this lonely old man. He could never have been a violent person, if that single terrifying encounter he described could have so completely shattered his life. All I could see was a man who had been used, and had lost everything, never to gain it back.
My proposed book about Erik Lehnsherr could wait. I had something more important to research now. After a long moment’s thought, I leaned across the table toward the old soldier.
"I can’t promise anything," I began. "But if you want me to, I could try to trace your wife and son—maybe even your grandchildren. I can try to find them for you."
I hadn’t thought it was possible that his blue eyes could become any brighter, but they did. "You would do this?"
"Yes." I pulled my notebook and pencil out of my purse. "I just need to know a few things. Let’s start with your name—your real name, that is."
The old man smiled understandingly. He glanced left and right, then leaned forward in his wheelchair and spoke, his voice low but clear.
"My name is Wagner… Gerhard Wagner."
© 2003 Jordanna Morgan - send feedback