In Ruta Sepetys’ forthcoming novel, Salt to the Sea, World War II is coming to an end, but thousands of refugees are still left with nowhere to go. Told in alternating perspectives from four characters, Joana, Emilia, Florian, and Alfred, Salt to the Sea chronicles their convergence of their paths and journey toward the Wilhelm Gustloff — a ship that could bring them to freedom. Salt to the Sea hits shelves Feb. 2, 2016, but check out an exclusive excerpt below.
Guilt is a hunter.
My conscience mocked me, picking fights like a petulant child.
It’s all your fault, the voice whispered.
I quickened my pace and caught up with our small group. The Germans would march us off the field road if they found us. Roads were reserved for the military. Evacuation orders hadn’t been issued and anyone fleeing East Prussia was branded a deserter. But what did that matter? I became a deserter four years ago, when I fled from Lithuania.
I had left in 1941. What was happening at home? Were the dreadful things whispered in the streets true?
We approached a mound on the side of the road. The small boy in front of me whimpered and pointed. He had joined us two days prior, just wandered out of the forest alone and quietly began following us.
“Hello, little one. How old are you?” I had asked.
“Six,” he replied.
“Who are you traveling with?”
He paused and dropped his head. “My Omi.”
I turned toward the woods to see if his grandmother had emerged. “Where is your Omi now?” I asked.
The wandering boy looked up at me, his pale eyes wide. “She didn’t wake up.”
So the little boy traveled with us, often drifting just slightly ahead or behind. And now he stood, pointing to a flap of dark wool beneath a meringue of snow.
I waved the group onward and when everyone advanced I ran to the snow-covered heap. The wind lifted a layer of icy flakes revealing the dead blue face of a woman, probably in her twenties. Her mouth and eyes were hinged open, fixed in fear. I dug through her iced pockets, but they had already been picked. In the lining of her jacket I found her identification papers. I stuffed them in my coat to pass on to the Red Cross and dragged her body off the road and into the field. She was dead, frozen solid, but the thought of tanks rolling over her was more than I could bear.
I ran back to the road and our group. The wandering boy stood in the center of the path, snow falling all around him.
“She didn’t wake up either?” he asked quietly.
I shook my head and took his mittened hand in mine. And then we both heard it in the distance.
Fate is a hunter.
Engines buzzed in a swarm above. Der Schwarze Tod, “the Black Death,” they called
them. I hid beneath the trees. The planes weren’t visible, but I felt them. Close. Trapped by darkness both ahead and behind, I weighed my options. An explosion detonated and death crept closer, curling around me in fingers of smoke.
My legs churned, sluggish, disconnected from my racing mind. I willed them to move, but my conscience noosed around my ankles and pulled down hard.
“You are a talented young man, Florian.” That’s what Mother had said.
“You are Prussian. Make your own decisions, son,” said my father.
Would he have approved of my decisions, of the secrets I now carried across my back?
Amidst this war between Hitler and Stalin, would Mother still consider me talented, or criminal?
The Soviets would kill me. But how would they torture me first? The Nazis would kill me, but only if they uncovered the plan. How long would it remain a secret? The questions propelled me forward, whipping through the cold forest, dodging branches. I clutched my side with one hand, my pistol with the other. The pain surged with each breath and step, releasing warm blood out of the angry wound.
The sound of the engines faded. I had been on the run for days and my mind felt as weak as my legs. The hunter preyed on the fatigued and weary. I had to rest. The pain slowed me to a jog and finally a walk. Through the dense trees in the forest I spied branches hiding an old potato cellar. I jumped in.
Shame is a hunter.
I would rest a moment. I had a moment, didn’t I? I slid across the cold, hard earth toward
the back of the cave. The ground quivered. Soldiers were close. I had to move but felt so tired. It was a good idea to put branches over the mouth of the forest cellar. Wasn’t it? No one would trek this far off the road. Would they?
I pulled the pink woolen cap down over my ears and tugged my coat closed near my throat. Despite my bundled layers, January’s teeth bit sharp. My fingers had lost all feeling. Pieces of my hair, frozen crisp to my collar, tore as I turned my head. So I thought of August.
My eyes dropped closed.
And then they opened.
A Russian soldier was there.
He leaned over me with a light, poking my shoulder with his pistol.
I jumped, frantically pushing myself back.
“Fräulein.” He grinned, pleased that I was alive. “Komme, Fräulein. How old are you?” “Fifteen,” I whispered. “Please, I’m not German. Nicht Deutsche.”
He didn’t listen, didn’t understand, or didn’t care. He pointed his gun at me and yanked atmy ankle. “Shh, Fräulein.” He lodged the gun under the bone of my chin.
I pleaded. I put my hands across my stomach and begged.
He moved forward.
No. This would not happen. I turned my head. “Shoot me, soldier. Please.”
Fear is a hunter.
But brave warriors, we brush away fear with a flick of the wrist. We laugh in the face of fear, kick it like a stone across the street. Yes, Hannelore, I compose these letters in my mind first, as I cannot abandon my men as often as I think of you.
You would be proud of your watchful companion, sailor Alfred Frick. Today I saved a young woman from falling into the sea. It was nothing really, but she was so grateful she clung to me, not wanting to let go.
“Thank you, sailor.” Her warm whisper lingered in my ear. She was quite pretty and smelled like fresh eggs, but there have been many grateful and pretty girls. Oh, do not be concerned. You and your red sweater are foremost in my thoughts. How fondly, how incessantly, I think of my Hannelore and red-sweater days.
I’m relieved you are not here to see this. Your sugared heart could not bear the treacherous circumstances here in the port of Gotenhafen. At this very moment, I am guarding dangerous explosives. I am serving Germany well. Only seventeen, yet carrying more valor than those twice my years. There is talk of an honor ceremony but I’m too busy fighting for the Führer to accept honors. Honors are for the dead, I’ve told them. We must fight while we are alive!
Yes, Hannelore, I shall prove to all of Germany. There is indeed a hero inside of me.
I abandoned my mental letter and crouched in the supply closet, hoping no one would find me. I did not want to go outside.
I stood in the forest cellar, my gun fixed on the dead Russian. The back of his head had departed from his skull. I rolled him off the woman.
She wasn’t a woman. She was a girl in a pink woolen cap. And she had fainted.
I scavenged through the Russian’s frozen pockets and took cigarettes, a flask, a large sausage wrapped in paper, his gun, and ammunition. He wore two watches on each wrist, trophies collected from his victims. I didn’t touch them.
Crouching near the corner of the cellar, I scanned the cold chamber for signs of food but saw none. I put the ammunition in my pack, careful not to disturb the small box wrapped in a cloth. The box. How could something so small hold such power? Wars had been waged over less. Was I really willing to die for it? I gnawed at the dried sausage, savoring the saliva it produced.
The ground vibrated slightly.
This Russian wasn’t alone. There would be more. I had to move.
I turned the top on the soldier’s flask and raised it to my nose. Vodka. I opened my coat, then my shirt, and poured the alcohol down my side. The intensity of the pain produced a flash in front of my eyes. My ruptured flesh fought back, twisting and pulsing. I took a breath, bit back a yell, and tortured the gash with the remainder of the alcohol.
The girl stirred in the dirt. Her head snapped away from the dead Russian. Her eyes scanned the gun at my feet and the flask in my hand. She sat up, blinking. Her pink hat slid from her head and fell silently into the dirt. The side of her coat was streaked with blood. She reached into her pocket.
I threw down the flask and grabbed the gun.
She opened her mouth and spoke.
The Russian soldier stared at me, mouth open, eyes empty. Dead.
What had happened?
Crouching in the corner was a young man dressed in civilian clothes. His coat and shirt were unfastened, his skin bloodied and bruised to a deep purple. He held a gun. Was he going to shoot me? No, he had killed the Russian. He had saved me.
“Are you okay?” I asked, barely recognizing my own voice. His face twisted at the sound of my words.
He was German.
I was Polish.
He would want nothing to do with me. Adolf Hitler had declared that Polish people were subhuman. We were to be destroyed so the Germans could have the land they needed for their empire. Hitler said Germans were superior and would not live among Poles. We were not Germanizable. But our soil was.
I pulled a potato from my pocket and held it out to him. “Thank you.”
The dirt pulsed slightly. How much time had passed? “We have to go,” I told him.
I tried to use my best German. In my head the sentences were intact, but I wasn’t sure they came out that way. Sometimes when I spoke German people laughed at me and then I knew my words were wrong. I lowered my arm and saw my sleeve, splattered with Russian blood. Would this ever end? Tears stirred inside of me. I did not want to cry.
The German stared at me, a combination of fatigue and frustration. But I understood.
His eyes on the potato said, Emilia, I’m hungry.
The dried blood on his shirt said, Emilia, I’m injured.
But the way he clutched his pack told me the most.
Emilia, don’t touch this.