The King of Dwarves
Valhalla, the Gods await me,
Open wide Thy gates, embrace me,
Great hall of the battle slain
With swords in hand!
Manowar, Gates of Valhalla
“You don’t think all those things really exist, surely?”
She smiles — not a grin but a small smile, just baring her little white teeth as if she's about to sink them into you. Her eyes glisten; her fingers clench the stem of her wine glass. Women love to argue. Not because they want to get to the truth but out of cheer stubbornness: they hate to admit defeat. I bet she feels aroused at moments like these.
I take a theatrical pause, pretending her question has caught me unprepared. The black curtain embossed with a runic pattern quivers in the little current of air from the aircon. The silence is absolute. The closed windows don’t let through the groaning of cars stuck in the traffic jams. The candles flicker like wolves’ eyes in the dimmed light.
You might mistake my room for a hunter’s abode. Wherever you look, its walls are lined with the twisted horns of wild ox and deer skulls bleached with time. The dinner table rests on a bear hide of a deliberately crude tanning. A boulder I brought from the Norwegian marshes sits at the center of the room. It’s a gorgeous item: a monolith chunk of granite.
“Absolutely,” I reply calmly. “I don't doubt it for one single moment.”
She sips red wine from her glass. Her cheeks begin to glow. She’s about to launch an offensive.
“Very well... I agree, to a point,” she says. “Let’s presume that our planet was formed in place of the primordial chasm of Ginnungagap that used to divide the two realms of ice and fire. For millennia the two kingdoms drifted toward each other until they finally united, producing the athletic giant Ymir and Audumbla the cow. Personally, I tend not to agree with what was supposed to happen next but... I might just suspend my disbelief that much. The first man and woman emerged from Ymir's sweat while his two legs copulated with each other, giving birth to a son, which was how the ice giants were born into the Earth’s stormy night. I’m not laughing at you, oh no. If our historians still argue over the intricacies of the Great Battle, who would take it upon themselves to claim the knowledge of what happened a million years ago? How did humanity come about? Did it emerge from the ocean, drop from the sky or crawl out of underground tunnels? All this is guesswork.”
She sets her glass down. Flirtatiously she rearranges a feathery strand of hair. “But as for the rest... you’ll excuse me if I interrogate you extensively,” she continues. “Let’s examine it all in every detail. So, high in the sky we have the hovering Asgard, the heavenly dwelling of the gods, which is perfectly normal. All cultures place their gods up high. The Christians billet their God among the clouds; the Greek gods used to dwell on top of Mount Olympus, and the Hinduist God Shani actually impersonates the planet of Saturn, or all places. Deities are obliged to live in cloudland: if they dwelled amongst us, they'd lose their wits within a week. Now let’s make an effort and imagine one of Asgard’s buildings — namely, Valhalla. Odin’s banquet hall, a place of unending orgies of bingeing and lovemaking. There, dead soldiers gorge nightly on the meat of Sæhrímnir the boar and drink themselves senseless on the mead produced by the udder of Heiðrún the goat. And once they’ve eaten, the dead enjoy the services of beautiful maidens. Five hundred and forty doors — and a roof thatched with gold shields supported by a colonnade of spears. You have to agree that an unwashed medieval Viking warrior must have taken this idea of heaven quite for granted in the wilds of their fiords. But what about us? Us, living in our cynical age of e-funks and the world wide Shogunet network? Us who can’t watch television without our 3D goggles? We can’t even shift our backsides without being assisted by a machine! The office rat responsible for the invention of remote controls must have made a fortune! Do you still think that the Vikings’ heaven is any good for the men of today? Well, I don’t. You, just you personally — do you believe in Valhalla?”
I reach for a slice of pork and chew on it, slowly and neatly. The wheat beer in a misted glass cheers my eye; I watch it weep. I don’t drink wine. I don’t consider it patriotic. She? Well, she... she can do whatever she wants. It’s all peanuts compared to what she’s already done.
“I’d rather believe in Valhalla than in the Biblical heaven,” I answer in a syrupy voice just when she’s about to lose her patience. “It’s much better organized. Every person in the Reichskommissariat, from babies to old women, has a military rank. This is perfectly logical, considering that only an Einherjar can enter Valhalla: a warrior who has died in combat, sword still in hand. Admittedly these rules can sometime have the most funny consequences. Even bus conductors are considered a military unit and have their own system of ranks. A bakery manager receives the rank of a Subaltern Baked of Products and wears special black collar insignia shaped as ears of wheat. Even gynecologists have been made into a Sonderkommando unit complete with a coat of arms depicting a naked Valkyrie revealing her heart in her hands.”
“This is something I could never understand,” she interrupts me. “Why heart?”
“What else should she reveal?” I reply meekly.
She turns red, pretending to play with her wine.
“Everyone wants to go to heaven. This is a prerequisite for our existence,” I press the napkin to my lips. “Behave, and you’ll be rewarded. Valhalla makes it so much simpler. No need to fast and pray. All you need to do is kill and die in battle. This isn’t just what the Vikings think. Muslims believe this too. Or are you uncomfortable about Heiðrún the goat? She doesn’t need to be there after all. I’m quite prepared to allow the existence of a modified version of Valhalla. In this day and age it can be refurbished and turned into anything. Even a sushi bar.”
She empties her glass in one gulp. The twinkle in her eyes expires. “In any case, the Führer isn’t in Valhalla!” she enunciates. “If he's anywhere, then he’s in hell!”
Unhurriedly I dunk the meat into sweet mustard and drag it around my plate. “Our whole life is hell,” I explain with a polite smile. “And the only way to escape it is by dying. If our priests are to be believed, the Führer is busy enjoying Sæhrímnir steaks even as we speak. I know, I know. He didn’t die sword in hand. But what difference does it make? At the moment, the Führer is a trademark, not the nation’s leader. His pictures on mobile phones, lighters and condoms — all this is a marketing ploy. No one’s going to sacrifice their lives for him these days. They might do so if the price is right, provided it’s in yen. Or even Reichsmarks. Alas! All these office rats are unlikely to ever see Valhalla.”
I give the wurstsalat its due: the good old combination of sausages, potatoes and a dash of mayonnaise. I increasingly get the impression that there’s something perverse about our dinner — indecent even. Still I like it. And so, I believe, does she. The Führer? It’s not so simple, either. Even the wisest of our priests admit it, those who were interned in Norwegian caves. The Führer died on October 20 1942 during a parade at the Nibelung Square celebrating the first anniversary of his armies’ victorious entry into the capital of Russland. A lone terrorist driving a truckful of explosives smashed it into the stands by the walls of the Kremlin. Instead of a sword, the Führer was holding a small stack of paper as he delivered one of his fiery speeches. Within a split second, the entire upper echelon of the Third Reich disintegrated in the blast. There wasn’t as much as a single molecule left of them. The Führer took a fast train to Valhalla in the company of Himmler, Bormann, Muller, Goebbels and Goering. I remember a little blond guy in the Higher Theological College ask simple-heartedly, “Do office workers like Reichsleiter Bormann go to Valhalla too?” They kicked the kid out of school on the spot. From what I heard, he became a street sausage vendor.
“Had I not believed in Valhalla, I’d have never become Odin's priest,” I continue, looking her in the eye. “Spirituality is unpopular there days. It’s easier to put the Führer’s portraits on lighters — Japanese tourists buy them like they’re going out of style. Or get a job at the Institute for the Research of Aryan Origins, that’s something quite popular with girls your age. You spend five years as a hermit at the Mount Kailash archeological digs in Tibet searching for the first Aryan sites. Barley cakes, yak butter tea and tons of enlightment. But personally, I wholeheartedly believe in Viking rituals — and not just because they make part of the Reich’s official religion. Go see Trondheim, it’s no less impressive than Jerusalem. The goat is nothing, after all. Not when you think of all Christianity’s goofs.”
She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t even look my way. She must have taken offence. How are you supposed to talk about anything with the Schwarzkopfs? They're not open to discussion. The moment you say something that contradicts their point of view, they sulk and pout their lips.
The girl reaches for the remote she’s so passionately condemned just a moment ago and thoughtlessly clicks the TV on.
A commercial break. Whenever you switch it on, it’s always advertisements.
“Konnichiwa! Want to be sure you’re part of the master race?” a juicy kimono-clad blonde inquires from the screen. “Our Sony computers know if you’re an Aryan. They require a DNA sample to boot up. Our Sakura Operating System is now available in Russisch.”
Unfortunately, the only two things the Reich is good at making are sausages and missiles. All the rest is made in Japan. White goods, brown goods, fountain pens even. The Nippon koku is so popular that every Fräulein[i] worth her salt has had an eyelid job to give her gaze an Asian slant. Japanese food is everywhere. You get served wasabi even with your beer and sausages. Outdoor advertising has more fancy Japanese characters than normal Gothic letters. Slowly and smoothly, the Reich is being devoured by the Teikoku — the Empire. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day we began addressing the Führer as the Mikado!
I sense it’s time to break the silence. “You need some rest. Allow me to accompany you.”
She lays the napkin on the table.
We head for the bedroom. A black color scheme. The wallpaper pattern is that of crossed battleaxes. The interior designer sought inspiration in Viking caves. Well, admittedly he succeeded. I can even sense a whiff of dampness in the air — but most likely, I have the aircon to thank for that. The girl doesn’t like it here, I know. The Schwarzkopfs don’t appreciate living in style. Well, I’m sorry. She has no choice.
I tactfully turn away from the king-size bed while she removes her dress and dons pajamas. I’m sure she wants me to turn round; but I can control myself.
“Good night,” she whispers listlessly and slides under the quilt.
“Sleep tight,” I say as I cuff her wrist to the headrest.
She doesn’t react. Her eyelashes are lowered.
“You need to understand,” I heave a sad sigh. “This is for your own good.”
Quietly I close the door, lock it and place the key in my pocket. A camera eye glows in the room. I may not be there but I can see everything my prisoner is up to. I’m not talking about masturbation. Whenever this happens, I switch off the monitor — you can’t even imagine what a woman can do with only one free hand — and listen to her groans in the speakers. Sometimes I get the impression that she does it not so much for her own pleasure but in order to seduce me. Which woman would refuse to spend a night with a priest — even a pagan priest? At first, when her two shoulder wounds were still raw, the girl tried to free herself but only managed to scrape her handcuffed wrist. Now she’s okay but still I shouldn’t be too lax. She’s wrapped herself in the quilt — asleep, hopefully.
Excellent. I have terrible vertigo.
It takes me a quarter of an hour to heat up the Norse boulder with red-hot embers. It’s so hot I feel like a kitchen cook. I reach for the knife. Its steel is cool against my skin. I ran it across the flat of my hand. Blood drips onto the granite, sizzling and bubbling, streaking the runes brown. My nostrils quiver, taking in the pungent smell of a slaughterhouse.
Pain enters my head. My skin prickles with electric discharges. My eyes fill with white flashes. I can see something but I can’t quite make out what it is. Just some spine-chilling outlines.
It’s all right. I have these fits sometimes. It’ll be over in a couple of minutes.
The airspace of Russland, near the city of Sochi
Pavel didn’t know what to do with himself. The old Junkers airliner on a LuftStern flight from Hong Kong to Moskau was packed solid and shuddered in the air like a streetcar. The threadbare economy class seats; the stomach-wrenching stench of microwaved meals; the air hostesses with martyr’s smiles on their faces, their unyielding legs swollen from long hours of flight... he’d seen it all on his business trips.
He leafed through a magazine, then listened to the music in his earphones. Doing nothing for ten hours on end could be really exhausting. He couldn’t sleep: the seat was too hard and uncomfortable.
Come to think of it, this time he was really unlucky with his seat.
He’d got to sit in the middle. The window seat (to his left) and the one by the aisle (to his right) were taken by two elderly Japanese. An old man and an old lady. Both wearing those panama hats so beloved by Japanese tourists worldwide, floral-pattern shirts and matching pants. For some reason, they reminded him of two lapdogs, useless and goofy. Plus the cameras, of course. They had even taken a picture of themselves in the plane's bathroom.
The old boy absent-mindedly opened a colorful leaflet and peered at its title through his glasses,
Visit Lake Baikal, gem of the Reich!
Tourism operations to Moskau had shrunk 50% over the last couple of years, and so had the reichsmark in comparison to the yen. Japanese tourists were the only hope the Kommissariat had left. Where else was it supposed to get the money from? Industry was on its last legs. St. Petersburg (or should we call it Peterstadt now?) was flooded every summer with groups from the Nippon koku, complete with their panama hats. Tourist guides were run off their feet taking them from Salvador Dali’s statue of the Führer all the way to Peterhof and street markets offering swastika-decorated Easter eggs. No one really cared that Operation Barbarossa of July 22 1940 had initially intended to raze St. Petersburg to the ground. There had even been some sort of blueprint detailing the whole procedure. Never mind St. Petersburg! The same Operation Barbarossa had planned to flood Moscow and turn it into a water reserve. They’d had some sick imagination, really. No one would admit this but in fact it felt like half the Führer’s entourage had been high on LSD.
The Japanese guy turned the page to the next picture. Palm trees and seaside. A girl in a swimsuit stood on a sandy beach, cocktail in hand.
He turned to Pavel."Sumimasen," he grinned, baring a mouthful of teeth. “Excuse me. Do you speak Russisch?"
At any other time Pavel might have pretended not to understand the question. Still, the flight to Moskau was going to be a long one. What difference would it make anyway, if you were stuck in a confined space at thirty thousand feet with two old farts for company? Even they were a Godsend to while away the time.
He smiled. “Konnichiwa, Sensei. How can I help you?”
The old boy pointed at the girl on the picture, burying his fingernail in her ample chest. “Excuse me,” he said, butchering the language. “My wife and I will be staying two days in Moscow. And after that we’d like to go to the seaside. I can’t decide on a destination. Is the city of Sochi (he pronounced it as Soci) good?”
The plane hit a turbulent patch. The passengers clenched their armrests. Soci! Pavel chuckled to himself. This guy knows what he wants. Very well, then...
He pressed an armrest button. His seat slid backwards.
“If the truth were known, Sochi isn’t a place I’d recommend,” he said with a deadpan face, glancing at the old man. “It’s part of the Caucasus Reichskommissariat. That area suffered a lot during the Twenty-Year War. Service is rubbish. Hotels are refurbished barracks. The sea is still full of drifting mines. Kidnappings of tourists are not uncommon. The local tribesmen often leave their mountains to ambush tourist buses and blow up funiculars. And food is too expensive for what it is. Even corn ears sold by beach vendors — former members of SS Turkic legions — might cost you a good hundred reichsmarks apiece.”
The old man nodded. Apparently, he hadn’t understood half of it. Still, Pavel wasn’t going to switch to German. From his experience, few of the Nippon koku’s denizens knew any Hochdeutsch.
He cast a sideways glance at the booklet. The blue sea, the palm trees, the cocktail glasses and the girl, laughing out loud, in her Peenemünde swimsuit. This was a paste-up if ever he’d seen one.
...Once again, the stench of burning filled his nostrils. Pavel saw the dead cities; the black skeletons of the buildings. The smoke drifted low over rivers overflowing with dead bodies. Oh, yes. He still remembered it all.
By the summer 1984, when the Reich’s flags were finally flying over the Urals’ defenses as well as both African and South American jungles, the ruling elite of Greater Germany had split. Nobody wanted to acquiesce. The SS wanted to have control over the oil wells, the Wehrmacht wanted to lay its hands on the diamond fields while the Gestapo claimed the U-mines. That would have made any history scholar laugh. Money and luxury: this was every empire’s undoing. The hordes of Genghis Khan had crossed the continent from the Chinese steppes to the spires of Polish churches, but the Mongols’ imperium had crumbled to nothing. When a warrior is loaded with gold like a donkey, why would he go into battle? All he can dream of is wine and female affections. Similarly, the Reich’s military elite had mutated, becoming a financial oligarchy. All of them had joined in the carving up of world resources, even the Navy’s Chief Karl Dönitz in his wheelchair, shaking with old age. It was a miracle that the Twenty-Year War hadn’t ended in nuclear attacks: the Reich had tested its first A-bomb already in 1944 on the island of Peenemünde. Unfortunately, the air raids had seriously damaged the nuclear power stations. The air there was still buzzing with radiation and Geiger counters were just as commonplace as aircons.
The old guy just wouldn’t give it a rest. “I wonder if fishing is good in Soci?”
Pavel didn’t hear him. The roaring of the plane’s turbines had nothing to do with it. He was far away, reminiscing.
The Twenty-Year War had flattened each and every one of the Reichskommissariats: East, Ukraine, Caucasus and Turkestan. Some cities had been luckier than others, emerging relatively unscathed. But Moskau, Kiev and Minsk had turned into battlegrounds. The Reich was devouring itself from the inside while the Nippon koku was getting richer, offering loans to both sides. And what was the result? The empire’s economy was on its last legs. Moskau alone was still braving it out while in the Caucasus, from what he’d heard, local highlanders were swapping lynx pelts for butter. Japan, however, had ballooned like bread dough, its skyscrapers bayoneting the sky, their walls covered in neon signs. Not just in Tokyo but also in Shanghai, Manila and Sydney. The post-war accord had granted Japan half the world. They’d received China and Australia, clipped off Alaska, Seattle and Nevada, and invaded Russland’s Far East and Siberia. Oil, gold and gas — the Japs had jumped at their chance then and they had it all now. In 1970s, the Emperor Hirohito had issued a decree gifting Lake Baikal to the Reich. Moskau girls had wrapped themselves in kimonos; all you could see on TV was manga and anime. This was the real enslavement of the planet, creepy and inconspicuous — no need for tanks or airplanes, only fashion statements. Now the Nippon koku was brimming with money while the only thing the Reich still produced was weapons.
But who were they supposed to sell them to if the world was already conquered?
“Fishing?” Pavel resurfaced from his musings. “Plenty of fish there, Sensei. The lake’s seething with them. Take my advice: forget the fishing rod. A machine gun is the thing. Did you watch TV last week? About that mutant shark that attacked a speedboat near Adler, just next to Sochi? Lots of victims that day. And the killer crabs... too much radiation, you see.”
The two tourists’ panama hats rustled as they exchanged anxious whispers. The fact that they had to lean over him to do so didn’t seem to bother them. They hadn’t even thought of asking him to swap places. He watched their wrinkled faces: they looked like two Shar-Pei dogs sniffing each other. Oh, well. They were the master race. As simple as that.
“Arigato gozaimasu,” the old man finally managed. “Thank you very much for your help, Sir.”
His wife nodded enthusiastically. It didn’t look as if she’d understood what the conversation had been about. She sneezed and reached into her handbag — apparently, to get a handkerchief. She rummaged through it, rattling its contents, but never produced anything. Her husband exploded in a bout of dry coughing and pressed a hand to his mouth.
Old age ailments! Now they would start taking pills by the handful. Time to bid his Auf Wiedersehen.
“You’re very welcome,” he sighed. “Excuse me, may I squeeze past?”
He walked down the aisle. It felt like being stuck inside a giant bee: a buzzing in your head, a stuffed feeling in your ears. The economy class bathroom was as comfortable as a coffin. He'd have liked to know how porn actors managed to make out in places like these. It was too small for two guinea pigs to fornicate.
The tap produced a weak trickle of hot water. Pavel splashed some onto his face puffy from lack of sleep. He glanced into the mirror and cringed. Not the best version of him. On the other hand, how are you supposed to look like when you live, eat and sleep your job while the top office is too stingy to afford a business class seat for their expert? Sunken cheeks, receding temples, a hooked hawk nose and eyes transparent like jelly. Pavel still remembered what he used to look like while a little kid. He'd never been beauty pageant material, and as for his height... never mind. The Führer had made short men popular. All things considered, not too bad.
Pavel reached into his pocket for a disposable razor and gave himself a good shave.
When he returned to his place, the plane was descending. A viscous lump of nausea blocked his throat. The Japanese’s seats were empty. They were off on some business of their own.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seatbelts,” the metallic voice of the air hostess resounded throughout the cabin. “Our flight will land in half an hour. The weather is fine. The air temperature is 95 degrees. According to the local weather report, radiation levels are within safe limits. No need to wear face masks on leaving the airport.”
Pavel didn’t look in the window. He was fed up with cookie-cutter views.
Two men awaited him on the ground. Despite the heat, they were wearing gray raincoats.
“Welcome to Moskau, Sturmbannführer,” the first of them clicked his heels.
The other one reached out to take Pavel’s suitcase. Pavel didn’t mind.
“Once again, our apologies for having to summon you all the way from Hong Kong,” the first one continued. “It must have been a long flight. You need to get some sleep. We’ll take you to the hotel.”
Pavel shook his head. “Oh, no. Plenty of time at night to do that. Let’s go directly to the Gestapo.”
A middle-aged air hostess — a peroxide blonde with the LuftStern logo on her beret — sprang to attention, watching the three men climb into an executive-class Opel Admiral. She struggled to suppress the desire to shoot her arm out in the party salute. The Sieg Heil! had been abolished as the result of the Twenty-Year War. Together with the party, that is.