Toward the end of the war, a certain Headquarters retreated across the Rhine, leaving behind one officers and a garrison of local conscripts. The officer had asked to be left, yet could give no reason; it was said that he was ill, and there was no time to investigate the matter.
The officer sat alone in his office, as if he had fallen asleep while directing its evacuation; a desk and two chairs were left him, and a clean rectangle on the floor where the filing cabinet had been.
Before the desk stood a prisoner and a guard.
In the new quiet, it seemed to the officer that, one way or another, the war was over for him, he had nothing to do with it anymore. He was tired, and full of doubt about his health. He was not surprised, therefore, that this prisoner looked precisely like himself, although younger and more frightened than he could ever remember having been.
The night guard, who stood behind this boy as if he had captured him single-handed, reported that the prisoner had come in out of the cold of his own accord, that he spoke German, and that his arm was broken. Also, that he was an enemy pilot.
The officer struggled with these facts, but they did not interest him nearly so much as he prisoner’s appearance. Long ago, he thought, I saw that face in the mirror, but I was much younger than he is, I was only beginning.
He remained silent, absorbed with this thought.
The guard coughed loudly, and said,
“Herr Oberleutnant . . .”
Which made him laugh, yet the sound of his own laughter snapped his full attention to the two men before him. He wondered at the same instant how long they had been there, and why he felt so desperately like laughing.