He might have been a floating log, or a large dead fish. The young boy's skin, blanched to a pallid, ghostly white, blended seamlessly into the kapok life vest that kept him afloat. Only the faint yellow tinge of his blond hair distinguished him from the other flotsam in the cold, dark waters.
Werner throttled back the boat's engines and carefully eased the vessel alongside the small pale shape. Approaching as close as he could, he cut the power and scrambled from the pilot house.
"Magda, over here!" he called, leaning over the gunwales. His wife's footsteps clattered across the wooden deck as he reached over the rail and began unclasping the long boat-hook.
"No," said Magda, restraining his arm. "You might hurt him." Reaching behind her, she removed the two emergency oars from their mounts and handed one to Werner. They dug deeply into the frigid black water in unison, pulling the craft inch by desperate inch towards the small floating mass.
"That's close enough," said Werner, setting down his oar. "Hold me."
Magda wrapped her arms around Werner's waist, holding him fast as he leaned far over the rail, reaching down to the body bobbing gently below. The boy, no older than five, seemed barely human, a lifeless porcelain doll. His lips and ears, a deep unearthly blue, were as inkblots on his frozen skin, which seemed like it would crumble at the slightest touch. His stiff arms spread rigidly from his sides.
Werner froze, his outstretched hands trembling mere inches from the neat laces on the life vest. In his final moments of consciousness, the boy's head had arced back and locked in a curious upwards gaze, as though frozen in the midst of a great sneeze. And in their dark, sunken orbits, the lifeless eyes of brilliant blue seemed to stare straight through Werner, up into the cold, overcast skies.
Gazing up towards heaven.
The blocks of ice made a sickly latrine sound as they fell into the test tank, the shallow, metal-lined bath in the centre of the cramped wooden hut. Dr. Bromm knelt beside the tank and inserted his thermometer, monitoring the temperature as it quickly plummeted. In the far corner, Drs. Kalk and Bruhl, the Air Ministry photographers, adjusted their motion picture camera on its bulky tripod; beside them, Frau Rascher screwed a new flashbulb into the reflector of her colour camera. Seated at the table by the door, Werner busied himself with the monitoring equipment. After resetting the pens on the kymograph drum, he plunged the recording thermometer into a glass of salted ice water, watching the gauge needle fall slowly towards minus eighteen degrees Celsius. Setting the thermometer aside, he opened his notebook and began cleanly dividing the page into crisp, uniform columns with his straightedge. He soon heard voices approaching from the camp outside.
"...I actually brought up that very issue with the Reichsfuhrer before I started the anoxia studies," said a bold, dominating voice. "I said: if these poor wretches survive, is that not grounds for reprieve?"
"What did he say?" asked another, feebler voice.
"He said that these worthless creatures require no amnesty. Who am I to disagree?"
The rickety hut door squeaked open and Dr. Rascher strode confidently into the chamber. A man of curious contrast, Rascher would have looked the part of an ordinary, middle-aged country doctor, his dark hair receding far onto his smooth melon of a head. But his sharp, steely gaze and black Sturmbannfuhrer's uniform transformed him into an eagle, soaring dominantly above his territory.
His conversation partner, Dr. Neff, shuffled alongside with humble, downcast eyes, hands planted passively in his white lab coat. His head seemed roughly whittled from a block of wood, his mouth and eyes crude slits locked in a stony, stoic gaze. This hardened convict's face betrayed him for what he was: a former prisoner of this very camp, his amnesty hinging upon his usefulness to Rascher.
Werner rose from his chair and snapped to attention.
"At ease," said Dr. Rascher, waving dismissively. He gazed down and inspected the apparatus laid upon the table: recording thermometer, stethoscope, electrocardiogram, blood-collection instruments.
"Is everything ready?" he asked, clasping his gloved hands behind his back.
"Yes, all instruments are calibrated," reported Werner.
Dr. Bromm, kneeling by the tank, rose to his feet. "Three point one degrees," he said, shaking the water from his thermometer. "Perfect." The photographers also nodded their readiness. Frau Rascher smiled warmly at her husband, who nodded curtly back.
"Good," said Dr. Rascher. "Bring him in."
Werner clattered down the steep, narrow steps into the dark cabin below, the boy's frozen, lifeless body cradled in his arms. Any good mariner knew to treat such steps as a ladder, but there was no time to waste. After nearly tripping over his own feet, he safely reached the bottom. As he unfolded the tiny galley table and set the boy down, Magda set about lighting the kerosene lamps.
"Is he alive?" she asked, her voice trembling.
Werner placed his fingers on the boy's neck, cold and stiff as meat from the icebox. The boy was deathly still, having likely ceased shivering hours ago. Werner closed his eyes and focused, waiting for the slightest tremor, the faintest hint of a pulse.
"Here," said Magda, holding a small mirror close to the boy's lips and nose. Nothing. Not even the faintest wisp of vapour marred the smooth surface.
Then, somewhere deep in the stiff, frozen flesh, Werner felt it: a subtle, barely-palpable rhythm.
"He's alive," he announced. "Barely. We need to get him out of these wet clothes."
Magda nodded and rushed to the rear of the cabin as Werner began removing the boy's life-vest.
"Wrap him in these," said Magda, returning with a bundle of blankets and old sweaters.
Werner shook his head as he stripped the last waterlogged garments from the boy's body. "It won't work. He doesn't have enough of his own warmth."
"Then what?" said Magda.
Werner thought for a moment. "I...I don't know...boil some water. As much as you can."
As he patted the lifeless boy's alabaster body dry with the blankets, Werner heard the tiny galley stove hiss to life behind him. Magda rushed up the narrow stairs, returning several moments later with a large copper kettle of seawater. She set this on the stove before returning to Werner, who had cocooned the boy in a thick layer of blankets.
"I thought you said..."
"It know," said Werner. "But it will stop him from losing more heat...until we can warm him."
"Well..." said Magda, her hands trembling as her mind raced. "What...what if I lay with him? In the bunk? Maybe with body heat..."
Suddenly, Werner's face went blank. His arms went limp, slowly lowering to his sides.
The guard jabbed his rifle butt and the two women scrambled into the bed, their bulging eyes wide with fear. They were hardly recognizable as women, their sallow skin stretched thin over angular, protruding skeletons. Their breasts had long disappeared, absorbed into their empty, emaciated bodies. Whatever hair had not been shaved hung as a sparse, tattered curtain over their skull-like faces. They were barely human, wretched golems and crones. The male subject lay frozen and lifeless between them, his naked skin paler than the stained linens beneath him.
"Lie with him," said Dr. Rascher in Polish. The trembling women remained frozen, gaping at him.
"Lie with him!" Rascher shouted.
The guard cocked his rifle.
"Werner? Werner!" called Magda, snapping her fingers before his face.
Werner twitched violently as he returned to reality.
"What? What did..."
"I think I should lie with him. Warm him with body heat."
"Uh, no, no," stammered Werner. "It won't work...it's too slow. The back of his neck was lying in the water...he's lost too much heat."
"How do you know?"
"I...don't know...I need to..." said Werner, trembling with frustration. Suddely spying the medical kit wedged up on shelf, he reached up and pulled down the flat metal box with a loud clatter.
"No, no, no," he muttered as he rummaged madly through the gauze, bandages, iodine bottles and smelling-salt ampoules. At last he found it: a small thermometer.
"Here," he said, handing it to Magda. "Sterilize it in the water."
After what seemed like an eternity, the water finally came to a boil. Magda inserted the narrow glass tube into the kettle for several moments before handing it back to Werner, who rolled the boy's body over and inserted the thermometer. They then waited in strained, excruciating silence.
"Twenty-six degrees! Sheisse..." Werner cursed as the instrument stabilized.
"What...what does that mean?" said Magda.
"We need to warm him now!" said Werner, frantically pacing about the room.
"Warm him up fast? How?"
"I don't know..." said Werner. "A bath. We need a bath or something."
"We don't have that," said Magda. "We...we could head back, take him to shore..."
"No: no time. He will die by then."
"Then what? The bilge?"
"We can't throw him in the bilge!"
"I don't know, damn it!" screamed an exasperated Werner. He continued to pace the cabin, his eyes scanning every detail in the room: the kerosene lamps, the bailing bucket, the ice chest, a bundle of rope, mooring fenders, a neat pile of oilskins...
"I have an idea," he said.
The rhythmic cadence of guards' boots heralded the subject's arrival. The prisoner, a towering Russian, shuffled into the room, eyes downcast. His striped uniform hung limply from his once-hulking frame, rags on an old, spindly scarecrow.
Dr. Rascher donned his small glasses and scanned the prisoner head to toe.
"Good. A little on the thin side, but he will do."
"Strip," said Dr. Neff in Russian, his thin mouth barely moving.
The prisoner's long fingers crawled like pale spiders over his chest, quickly unbuttoning the baggy shirt. As he stripped, he gazed sternly ahead, as though staring at something beyond the wall. Glancing over Werner noticed his eyes. Behind their sunken, darkened sockets, they burned as though some great furnace roared in the man's head. Perhaps that was the secret of these Slavs, Werner mused; how these bolshevik brutes could thrive on the bleak, empty steppes.
The subject soon stood naked in the middle of the hut. Drs. Neff and Bromm wasted no time, working with military efficiency. The recording thermometer was inserted rectally to measure his core temperature, the stethoscope and electrocardiogram leads affixed to his chest. The Doctors then clothed the subject as a Luftwaffe pilot: a dark blue wool fliegerblaus and trousers, fur-lined leather boots, a yellow rubber life-preserver and black leather flight gloves. He hardly looked the part of the dashing ace; his shaved, emaciated head was comically small sitting atop his bulky flight gear.
"Reference temperature: 36.9 degrees," Werner announced, reading his gauge. "Heart readings are good." The kymograph pen began tracing its narrow red line on the green-ruled drum.
"Good," said Dr. Neff, signalling to the guards. They escorted the subject to the edge of the tank, the thermometer wire trailing from his flight trousers like a long rat's tail.
"Get in," said Dr. Neff. Without hesitation, the prisoner scrambled into the frigid water, jostling the small ice blocks that still remained. The motion picture camera motor began to whir and click.
"Experiment started: one thirty-two PM," said Dr. Neff, consulting his watch.
Werner noted the time in his notebook, then glanced to the thermometer dial: 36.7 degrees.
"There," said Werner quickly, fastening the last knot. Skirting around the great hammock of oilskins that now hung from the cabin ceiling, he reached down and lifted the frozen boy from the galley table. Magda poured a bailing-bucket of seawater into the waterproof cradle, followed by the kettle's contents. She plunged her hand into the warm mixture and nodded. As Magda departed to refill the kettle, Werner laid the boy in the shallow pool. A crude measure to be sure, but it was the best chance the child had. After propping up the boy's head, Werner began sloshing water over his body, rubbing the skin to hasten the thaw. The warm fluid chilled quickly; the boy was one great block of ice.
"We need more boiling water. Quickly," he said as Magda returned.
"Not for another few minutes," she said, placing a new kettle-full upon the stove. She returned to Werner's side and helped him rub the boy's body.
Werner shook his head. "We have to go faster. Below 32 degrees...he's losing heat too quickly."
Magda cocked her head to the side, her expression quizzical.
"What?" said Werner.
"Nothing," said Magda, shaking her head. "I just hope we have enough gas for the stove."
They bathed the boy for hours, replenishing the warm water as quickly as the kettle would boil. Slowly the colour returned to his pallid skin, banishing the sickly blue from his lips and ears. His pulse grew strong and easily-monitored; his breath could soon be detected without a mirror. Then, at long last, the impossible: the boy's eyelids fluttered and he gave a faint, feeble cough. Werner lifted the boy out and laid him back on the table, drying him with blankets. He then took his temperature again.
"36.5 degrees," he announced.
Magda breathed a sigh of relief. "Good, that's good," she said, nodding quickly. "We saved him."
"No," said Werner grimly. "Not yet."
Magda eyed him strangely. "What...what do you mean?"
"Rewarming shock," Werner sighed.
"Rewarming shock," Werner repeated. "It happens sometimes. The circulatory system just... collapses. I don't know why. It might happen or it might not."
Magda knelt down and rummaged through the small cabinet by the stove, emerging with a bottle of schnapps.
"If he can get him to drink, then maybe..."
"No!" snapped Werner. "That doesn't work. It will only make things worse."
"But everyone knows..."
"Trust me. It doesn't."
Magda stood silently for several moments, staring absently at the bottle.
"How do you know this?" she said at last.
Magda stared at him, her eyes still bloodshot from the preceding hours. "How do you know?" she repeated slowly. "Where...where did you learn all this?"
"Well, in medical school..."
"They teach these things to psychiatrists?"
Werner fell silent, staring blankly at Magda for several moments.
"Oh, well..." he finally said with a disarming chuckle. "To pay for my studies, I worked...in a ski lodge. In the Alps. The patrols would always bring in...skiers, hikers...men who got lost in the snow."
Magda nodded. "Berchesgarten?"
"Yes, exactly" said Werner, grinning.
Magda fell into his arms, burying her head into his chest. "I'm sorry," she sobbed. "I don't know why..."
"I know," Werner whispered, stroking her long black hair. "Everything will be fine. I'm certain of it."
They rocked gently in each others' embrace. Then, Werner spied something through the porthole.
"Upstairs, now," he said.
The EKG needle jerked madly over the kymograph, forcing Werner to switch off the machine. The subject was shivering violently, vibrating like an idling engine. But though his pulsing, sucking breath and chattering teeth could be heard, he was otherwise silent, staring stoically forward.
"He's a quiet one," said Dr. Rascher drawing a blood sample."He should give us good data." He handed the filled blood phial to a waiting assistant, who whisked it away to the lab.
Indeed, thought Werner. Many of the previous subjects had screamed and thrashed as their hands and feet froze solid. Not this one: he just sat there, perfectly still as his temperature plummeted.
"34.2 degrees," Werner announced. Dr. Rascher nodded and placed his fingers on the subject's neck.
"Thirty-two beats per minute." Werner marked the reading on his endless table of data.
Setting down his pen, Werner rubbed his eyes then filled and lit his pipe. It had been two hours.
The subject now appeared paralysed, his jaw locked in a mask of barely-suppressed agony. Werner could hardly imagine the plight of all those brave Luftwaffe pilots who survived the terror and fury of air combat only to freeze to death, alone in the open sea. It was a cruel and ironic death for a noble warrior; perhaps this Slav and his kin would turn the tide against this silent, frigid enemy.
Every half hour, Dr. Rascher drew another blood sample, a task which grew increasingly difficult as the subject's body drew his blood to his core, grasping at straws for warmth inexorably ebbing away. Dr. Rascher removed the subject's glove: his hand was pure white, like porcelain.
At 33 degrees, the subject ceased to shiver. Now perfectly still, he bobbed gently in the tank, only the faint expansion of his chest and the occasional blink betraying life. His arms were locked in a bent position, his hands protruding from the water in some grand, questioning gesture. As his heartbeat ebbed to nothingness, his neck curled back against the headrest of his life-preserver. His eyes gazed directly upwards, straight through the roof of the hut.
Staring up to the skies.
The small fishing boat emerged dramatically from the thick fog. Werner could not believe his fortune: had he not glanced through the porthole at that instant, he would have missed them in the haze. As the other boat approached, Werner spied two people a man and a woman standing on the prow.
"Ahoy!" the man called. "Have you seen a small boy? Eight years old, blonde hair!"
"Yes!" said Magda excitedly, rushing to the rail. "He's here! He's safe!"
"Oh thank heavens!" the mother exclaimed, clasping her hands over her mouth.
"Here, catch hold," called Werner, tossing over a line. Within minutes the couple was scrambling frantically over the rail between the two moored vessels.
"Down here," said Werner, leading them down the narrow stairs. The woman at once fell to he knees by her son's bedside, grasping his tiny hand in her own as she muttered a prayer.
"He still needs to be taken to a hospital," said Werner, nervously pacing the room as the parents tended to their son. Finding his pipe on a nearby shelf, he filled and lit it. With trembling hands, he brought the stem to his lips and took a deep draught. "It's a miracle we found him when we did. Any longer and..."
The father nodded slowly, his eyes welling with tears. "Sir, we...we can't thank you enough..."
Werner took another long draught. "Nonsense," he said. "I'm a doctor. It's what I do."