The Long Defeat (7) by Sorina Higgins

7) Victory
Events moved swiftly to their close from the moment the Grand High Führer of Unified Europe stepped out of his car and strode through the gates of the Sheldonian Theatre. He set up his new headquarters there, from which he could stretch out his military tentacles and grasp at all the free world.
There were no emotional goodbyes, no final gatherings of the four literary spies, no hurried hand-shakes and last lingering glances. No. The Nazis liked their enemies isolated, solitary, preferably sobbing for mercy or cursing their God.
So they were glad when Charles Williams collapsed in the street, gripping his stomach in agony. His old intestinal complaint had flared up, and he writhed on the pavement unceremoniously. By the time the Gestapo had him locked in a military hospital, he was unconscious.
The Nazis were also pleased by the flutter of papers through the air when the bashed down the door of Barfield’s office, scattering their work, battering his colleagues, clapping him in handcuffs, and burning the building. As they stuffed him in the back of a car, he saw he office explode, and the last ashes of the British Secret State’s legal position disappeared in a dark conflagration against the bright morning sky.
They were happy, too, that they got to watch Lewis’s face crumple, its jovial red fading, as he ran smack up against them in the High Street and practically tumbled into their hands. They smirked and joked—with him, not just themselves; they were human, after all—as they tossed him into solitary confinement, as he shivered with the cold, as his substantial flesh quivered at the anticipation of starvation, as his ample mind shrank from isolation, as they forbid him paper and pen and watched his spirit break. That part was fun.
It was even more fun for them when they caught the dapper don, the famous Professor Tolkien, and interrogated him for hours on end in a gray concrete cell. They made a game of it, seeing in how many languages they could ask him the same questions, over and over, about the letter he had sent a German publisher in 1938, refusing to prove his Aryan ancestry, calling the Jews a “gifted people,” insulting the Pure Race by suggesting it was of Indo-Iranian origin, mixed with Hindustani, Persian, and—horrors!—Gypsy ancestry. They called in one expert linguist after another, tormenting him with vain repetition in many tongues.
The Nazis were tickled by Owen Barfield’s staunch statements of loyalty as they shipped him off to Germany and gave him into the hands of counterintelligence agents, whose job was to break him and turn him into a double agent. They chortled as they settled in for the long process of brainwashing, erasing and reshaping his mind. They delighted in the back-and-forth, the repartee, the psychological pressure, the faked executions, the sleep deprivation, the endless hours of recorded propaganda playing in his cell day after day. They praised his intellect and his rhetorical skill. They were impressed by his logic. They admired his tenacity. And after a while, they stopped laughing. Then they stopped smiling.
On and on it went, and he would not budge. No matter what the conditions, he behaved as if he were giving closing arguments in the courtroom or debating theology with Lewis in a pub, demanding that they make logical distinctions, clarifying fuzzy categories, insisting that they define their terms. Eventually, they left him to a slow starvation in a solitary cell, and he lawyered his way into eternity, making St. Peter define everything and interrupting his most dogmatic pronouncements with subtle distinguo’s until that Apostle opened the pearly gates in sheer exhaustion.
They were not quite as cheerful as they watched Williams slide in and out of consciousness, suffering extreme agonies in his intestines and bowels, as his insides fell apart and infection spread. Gestapo officers didn’t like to see people dying of natural causes. They gave him modern medical treatment, of course, but they didn’t let his wife visit, nor did they even tell her where he was. Michal stood in Oxford in the rain in South Parks Road, outside the last house where her poet-lover had lived, and she could feel his soul slipping away. It had never really been hers, and now it was going far, far out of reach. But it was exulting, chanting, declaiming great verse, as it mounted to the heavens. In his hard, metal hospital bed, Williams suddenly flashed into consciousness, sat up and raised his right arm. Powerful rhythms rolled out of his mouth, the great iambic lines of the past, and he named the ascending virtues of the Sephirotic tree as he drew near perfection, and he called upon Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton as he stepped unashamed into their great company. The German doctor bowed his head, then moved forward to close the luminous eyes and lay the rigid figure down on the bed.
It even amused them that Tolkien almost always replied, that he knew all the languages they so abused, and that he sat upright, debonair and dignified, unmoved, as they mocked him in manifold phrases, and that he refused to cry out, even when the torture began. Instead, he retold them their own noble legends, in their own noble speech—as they deprived him of sleep, immersed him in freezing water, and administered electric shocks—about dragon-slaying warriors and heroic last stands. They laughed even harder when he began babbling nonsense, as they thought, about ‘Sauron’ and ‘Mordor’ and ‘Gollum.’ Poor old professor, they said to one another: his mind is wandering. Then he slipped into songs about the elves, and drifted away from the Grey Havens as Ilúvatar gave him the gift of death.
But it wasn’t the SS officers who were laughing as they frog-marched Lewis out into a courtyard, set his back to a wall, and blindfolded him. No, they weren’t laughing. No one bit. But he was. He was roaring, his beefy face red with delight, his jowls shaking in amusement, his still stocky figure aquiver with joy.
“Further up and further in!” he shouted. “This is the first step on the last great journey, the first chapter in the great story where all myths come true, all evil comes untrue, and all questions are answered at last. And you!”
He thrust a stubby finger in the direction of the firing squad he could not see.
“I jeer and flout at you devils to drive you out. You cannot endure to be mocked, and so I mock at you. And yet….” His voice softened, and the firing squad squinted at him, waiting for their orders, waiting to hear what he would say.
“And yet, I pity you, poor puppets of the Kingdom of Noise. Your dance on this little stage will be so very short, and then you will be jerked away by your strings, the boards cleared, the work of God begun again.”
At this, the commander shook himself, scowled at Lewis, and growled:
“Time to shut this one up. We don’t need his pity.”
Suddenly, Lewis bellowed: “I want to look you in the eyes! I want to square up to death and stare him in the face!”
He struggled, his hands bound behind him, scraping his blindfold against the wall. The officer leaped forward, but the blindfold fell from Lewis eyes and he stared the German down, steadily. The man stepped back, turned to the fire squad, and barked out:
“Soon it will begin,” Lewis said, in a lower voice, almost dreamily. “There will be a sudden clearing of my eyes. Just think what I will feel at that moment! Scabs falling from the old sores, emerging from a hideous old shell…”
“Aim!” shouted the officer.
“What, then, of this final stripping, this complete cleansing? This release, this glorious freedom! I wonder—”
“Fire!” came the command.
Jack’s eyes opened wide, and his face broke into an enormous grin.
“Of course!” he said.


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