6 – The Auction Block

Manfred and Diogenes were gagged, shoved into a cart, and buried under a heap of rags. Horses were harnessed then whipped to gallop through the ditches and breach the landfills of the Eastern ring camps. Beria blasted a path with a sawed off shot gun, storming through cardboard shanties and tents, cracking ribs or crushing beds under his wheels. Diogenes and Manfred were hand cuffed face-down then dumped into the back of a pick-up which rattled East through the rain over rutted asphalt. They were allowed to stretch briefly and relieve themselves, ungagged, in a dank, moonless field overlooking the River Elbe. They remained mute, driven by the scrawny go-for who had helped abduct them, until they reached their destination at dawn, and broke their silence only upon being unloaded for a last time in Dresden.
They were led into a bleak fair grounds on a landfill bluff, overlooking Dresden’s ring camps, herded with other prisoners into a tent, and chained to a bench. They waited on display, among the hustle and bustle one might encounter at a State Fair. At noon they were served one helping of thin gruel from a ladle which passed from the other prisoner’s mouths to theirs. Manfred refused to eat, but Diogenes advised him to keep his strength up if they had an opportunity to escape, especially if they were freed from their bench. Finally, they could hear an auctioneer barking out from a wooden platform forty or fifty yards off, when they were forced at gunpoint to line up, no doubt, to be sold.
“My God, we’re slaves!” Diogenes exclaimed.
“Diogenes, you should speak English. It might make you appear too stupid to be a slave.”
“Brilliant idea. But what if we aren’t sold?”
“I heard stories … from refugees … but I refused to believe them. They said if you’re not sold, it’s easier to escape. Or they merely set you free. A man in my town once boasted that he was auctioned but pretended that he was mad, and he wasn’t sold. Eventually, he hitched back, after hiding three weeks in a barn, and lived to joke about it.”
“I’ll take your advice. But, what if we’re strangled or shot?”
“That’s always a possibility.” Manfred demurred.
Tugged by a leash from the bench, they were forced to line up nearer to the platform. A young Greek girl was being hawked, inciting a hubbub among male peasants competing for a female house slave. A toothless pig farmer, challenged by his rivals who claimed he could not pay, soon dropped out. The auction resumed, and soon the weeping girl was dragged off the block and shoved into a rural pimp’s mule-drawn truck. Following her, a well-muscled boy who, as the auctioneer claimed, had planted potatoes in Poland, was paraded back and forth, with the serious farmers quizzing him as to what he really knew, cheered on by the hyperbolic auctioneer. Finally he was sold to a shrewd looking stump of a man with a long wispy beard.
Diogenes was then led up, glancing back at Manfred as they marched him from the wooden stairs to the auction block.
The auctioneer shouted: “Now, what’s my bid for this man?”
“Not a pfennig!” A farmer shouted back.
“What can he do?” Another questioned, screwing up his face.
The auctioneer turned to Diogenes: “What is it that you can do?”
“Govern men!”
“What did he say?” The same farmer shouted.
“Govern men.” Translated a German to the right who apparently understood his English.
“Speak German!” The auctioneer ordered Diogenes, “Or we’ll have you whipped.”
“Kiss my Ass!” Diogenes screamed, then wheeled around, prancing, and began unbuttoning his trousers and playing with himself before the crowd. Manfred couldn’t believe his eyes.
“He’s crazy! Have him whipped!” A farmer bellowed, scandalized amid the uproar, and the auctioneer agreed.
Diogenes was duly whipped with a bundles of sticks across his bare back while the farmers applauded.
“You fucking pigs! I’ll sow your eyelids to a pipe and elope with your daughters … and we’ll sprinkle you with strips of Albanian love poetry!” Diogenes foamed in ridicule; “You brainless baboons, you knuckle-headed oafs!”
“No one wants an old dog like that!” They shouted.
“Now, now! He’s just high-spirited.” The auctioneer countered feebly.
Diogenes was reeling from his whipping when he glimpsed the man who had translated his first insult. He wasn’t dressed at all like a farmer but seemed possessed of a rather sickly intelligence, flabbily spilling out a corduroy suit, polishing a pince nez with an oily handkerchief, fascinated by the show, yet unmoved by Diogenes’ foul insults — even if he was the only bidder to understand them.
A ground official then bolted onto the platform and whispered into the auctioneer’s ear. He nodded to the official already walking down the stairs.
“This will be our last slave today, men. You disappointed our owner!” But he was drowned out with catcalls and jeers, since Diogenes was still acting up, mooning the resentful farmers.
“Who will take this high-spirited slave and make the day’s last offer?” The auctioneer ventured. Diogenes, meanwhile, out of spite and in despair of being sold, dropped his trousers and danced while they threw cow flaps.
“You cannot mean that there is not one offer?” The auctioneer feigned surprise.
There followed a heavy moment in which no one shouted a thing, and even Diogenes felt bored. The farmers shrugged, waving away the auctioneer, retiring for a smoke or a swig, and the few who remained, lobbied for another whipping, or curiously waited on the fool who would bid for the maniacal old dog. A dwarf junk-dealer offered one pfennig for him, bragging that he’d have him ground into fertilizer. The others blinked, slapping their knees, again growing interested
“I’ll skewer your wife with a brass dildo! Yes, You! You birdbrained dwarf!” Diogenes growled. The farmers mocked Diogenes, pretending to cringe, without understanding his insult.
“This is not a side-show or a circus act, men, we’re conducting business!” The auctioneer protested. The farmers chuckled, anxious for another joke. Finally, the man who had translated from the wings waddled up to the platform and made a modest offer. The farmers were confounded, wondering if he knew something they didn’t, or if he were only a fool. He wore ironed clothes and looked rather brainy and unaccustomed to physical labor.
“Have him buy me!” Diogenes pointed, sardonically, “That man needs a master!”
The man motioned for the auctioneer and whispered into his ear, pointing to a cart then to Manfred. He slipped three gold pieces into the auctioneer’s palm as the farmers strained to peep over his shoulder to see what bargain was being struck. The auctioneer nodded to an assistant on the stairway and also pointed toward Manfred, then stood up and announced, without further ado, the end of the day’s sale.
“Come back Wednesday! We’ll offer up sturdy boys from Ukraine!” He barked out, as the farmers grumbled, retiring.
Diogenes was hurried off the platform by the assistant while the auctioneer consulted with the spectacled gentleman until they all reached Manfred, who stood up, unsteadily.
“Can you drive a cart, boy?” The buyer asked Manfred.
“I guess so.” Manfred replied.
“I will buy your freedom if you will drive your friend and I twenty kilometers West. I’ve seen to it, you’ll enjoy free passage back to Berlin where you were captured.” He said, with a very quiet, fastidious voice while the auctioneer impudently tapped his foot.
“What about Diogenes?” Manfred asked.
“He’s going with me to Heidelberg.”
“And then?” Manfred glanced piteously at Diogenes.
“We’ll discuss it on the way.” The gentlemen mumbled, as the assistant drew up a cart.
“It’s means your freedom Manfred, you must accept.” Diogenes insisted.
“You shut up!” The auctioneer interjected, furious since Diogenes not only made him a fool on the block but indeed spoke German.
“You have your money, Sir. Just see that the bill of sale for this one’s release is signed.” The gentleman interceded firmly.
An assistant ran up with an invoice and a pen and offered his back to the buyer to sign on, as Diogenes was loaded into the rear of the cart and the horses were harnessed. Manfred was handed the reins by the gentle buyer who hastened to begin their journey as soon as he inspected the papers, tracing the numbers upheld within inches of his eyeglasses.
The auctioneer fiddled in his pocket for his gold pieces, scowling at Diogenes, then slapped the horses just as his buyer, now his owner, mounted the seat beside Manfred.
“I fear that it is only a matter of months before Nebuchadnezzar’s forces swallow up all these men and their little farms.” The owner spoke up as they left the grounds.
“Who is Nebuchadnezzar?” Manfred called back, trying to engage Diogenes while he was riding prone and still manacled.
Diogenes, with some effort, rolled over and propped himself against a wheel hub, so that he could answer: “He means the guy who is building a new Empire and fighting in Slovenia.”
“His forces have reached the Austrian border.” The owner whispered, as if keeping a secret from the soon to be occupied land.
“Were we just in Dresden?” Diogenes asked.
“Yes, the outskirts. What a hole it is now. Ugh, those ring camps!” The man shuddered.
“What is it that you want?” You don’t look like a farmer.” Manfred asked, politely.
The man grabbed his coat where he held a pistol and held it, worried that they might overpower him, with Manfred driving and unbound.
“I am not a farmer. I was in Dresden because they were stripping an old factory there and I was curious as to what machinery or tools I could barter. It was over before I reached Dresden, but I have picked up tools in a ring camp market.” The owner ended, still wary and distracted.
Manfred circumspectly drew him out, if only for the sake of Diogenes: “And then you wanted to buy … a slave?”
“It was an accident that I came to the auction. I … ” The owner hesitated to further explain his situation. “I need some help around my house.” He muttered vaguely.
“What is your name?” Manfred asked softly.
“Hindenburg.”
“And yours?” The man swiveled around to shyly face Manfred.
“Manfred. And this is … Diogenes … the slave you bought.” Manfred added, awkwardly.
The countryside rolled by, littered with burnt-out houses and deserted barns, scarred by cattle and sheep decaying against rusted fence wire. The horses coughed in the misty road, clambered over ruts, and skitted by a swollen river, which paralleled the road. Manfred held the reins while Diogenes took the bumps and Hindenburg surveyed the fields, or scribbled on a notepad he kept in his left coat pocket. Snow fell on the muddy road as they trotted South, slowly passing a graveyard with aging tombstones, a lighter gray in the mist. Diogenes sat up to watch it pass, manacled, returning thoughtfully to Lazarus and the Pan Am building. They followed train tracks as the graveyard gave out and then they stopped, abruptly. Hindenburg fed the horse oats, tested a muddy path close to the tracks, then climbed back on and nodded at Manfred to continue.
“You’re taking Diogenes with you to Heidelberg?” Manfred asked, breaking the silence.
“Yes. I need someone to teach my children. I want them to learn English. My wife is in bad health and I would rather not neglect my work.”
“What is Heidelberg like now?”
“A ghost town. The university, boarded up. You know, the high tech industry folded decades ago. No work. No hope.” Then he started whistling, and added, waxing nostalgic: “Except in spring, when the flowers … ”
Manfred examined Hindenburg cautiously and shuddered at the forced sentimentality.
“What is your work?” Manfred persisted.
“Oh, I have only what I inherited, which is almost depleted. There’s no work. I putter around my basement. I’m interested in plastics, in fabrics, and flight!”
Manfred and Diogenes again listened warily, wondering if Hindenburg might be mad.
“My father was an engineering professor. The university system was crumbling when I became college age so I went to work in a plastics factory until that shut down.” Hindenburg acknowledged, meekly.
“I wonder if you’ll allow me to write out a letter to a friend in Berlin, to explain what has happened?” Diogenes asked.
“I guess it won’t hurt. But no tricks!” Hindenburg added, stiffening.
As Manfred finally pulled the cart over on Hindenburg’s directions a pile of machine parts roughly wrapped in canvas appeared, beside a hand-driven two man rail car parked on rusty tracks. Hindenburg allowed Manfred to unmanacle Diogenes so he could write the letter, producing his pistol, overseeing the process, while Manfred dutifully loaded the machine parts onto the hand car. The snow fell more hurriedly now while Diogenes painfully wrote with a cold heretofore bound hand the letter he intended for Undine, via Georg. With the loading completed, after a search for stolen parts, Hindenburg directed that Diogenes end the letter and jump on board. Manfred pocketed the note and they stood facing each other for a moment, in the middle of a snowstorm, twenty kilometers West of Dresden.
“So long Manfred! Good luck. Everything has changed since you helped me reach Berlin.”
“We’ll meet again Diogenes, believe me.”
“Thanks Manfred.” Hindenburg interrupted, “Follow the fork North just before reaching the auction grounds. And sell the horse and cart before you reach Berlin, you’ll do just as well on foot as flogging that old hag.”
Manfred thought it wonderful Hindenburg let him know where he would keep Diogenes. It would make it easier for Manfred to spring him, and it might be simpler for Diogenes to escape. After Hindenburg threw away his bill of sale, Manfred patted the horses, lifted the reins and looked back as he lurched forward, at Diogenes and Hindenburg, standing on the hand car, readying to pump their way West by rail.