Sonnets of Truth & Love
Erwin Smith had hidden a volume of his poetry, written in a language so ancient only a few living persons could read it, inside a book within a book. It was only through extremely meticulous examination that Schreiber was able to discover the secret poems from the private library and stack upon stack of paperwork the Commander left behind.
The poetry shed a whole new light on Schreiber’s subject. All the while he saw Erwin Smith as the charismatic commander and scholar of warfare, the brilliant strategist and war hero. But the secret poems revealed another side of him: Erwin Smith the Lover. Erwin Smith the Truth Seeker.
‘Tis the truth that shall set thee free!
Only truth maketh the blind man see.
Thine is the kingdom filled with doubt
O cursed, cursed the life of truth without
Poem upon poem Erwin spoke of his burning desire to know the truth. It consumed him, messed with his mind, Schreiber could see that through the sonnets.
Legan commander, cloth in self indulgence
Treacherous, primus inter pares deceptivus
Maketh his way
Ignorance, every day an inquisition
Stumbleth he down the road to perdition
He used the archaic word “legan” meaning to deceive, belie, betray. And then another ancient language in “primus inter pares deceptivus” or Prince of Deception.
The truth is worth dying for!
Even if it bringeth thee gloom
The truth is worth fighting for!
Even if it meant my doom
All the sonnets had been numbered, and once Schreiber figured out the Commander’s numbering system he found they corresponded with important events in his life. He could see the way Erwin cleverly wrote an official report or commentary regarding events in a cold, unsparing manner, but the thoughts he dared not speak of in public he wrote in the form of sonnets.
It wasn’t all about liberty and the pursuit of factualness, however. Schreiber catalogued a total of thirty seven poems on truth and freedom, but twice that number were poems about something else. Or more accurately, someone else.
Captivated by thy brazen tongue
Beguiled by thy tenacious mind,
Muscles flexed, thy will so strong;
Deep underground I was to find,
Hopelessly in love with thee I fall,
The handwriting was on the wall.
It was the first of his love poems, the one with the earliest date. It was before he became Commander of the Survey Corps. Who was this person he spoke of? Schreiber dug through more of the documents and what he found took his breath away.
Though short in stature, tall in pride
Poem after poem described a person he knew, one who was still alive: Levi Ackermann. The sonnets spoke of intense longing and unabashed desire, mixed with admiration and respect, spiced up with humour and a large dash of infinite joy in the beloved’s presence.
Was it unrequited love? Did Levi know? Did the Commander die unfulfilled and unhappy? Schreiber hoped with all his heart that he did not. There could only be so much grief and pain for one man to carry. He continued his search through the archives.
Mine arms tremble, thou doth hath yielded,
In thine heated embrace I melt, enchanted.
Intoxicating grey eyes in passion shielded
On thine exquisite face a look so haunted.
Till sunrise with me thou must abide
Shattered, worshiped, broken, deified
Ah! Their relationship was consummated, and gloriously so! Schreiber breathed out a sigh of relief. Thank heavens! The commander might have died a horrific death, but in life he experienced a great, abiding love.
The final sonnet Erwin wrote made Schreiber cry.
But, woe is me, this beatless heart,
Thine eyes see truth that runneth deep.
Door shook in anger, mine honor did depart;
Betrayed, anguish robbing thee of sleep.
Darkness cometh, thou wept in endless rage;
This life for truth, a sacrifice from age to age.
He traced the date of the sonnet and found it was the night before the Survey Corps went out to retake Shiganshina. It was the last poem written by Erwin Smith. He died in Shiganshina the following day.
What must it have been like for Levi, on that fateful night? From the poem Schreiber learned they had an argument. He imagined Levi begging the injured Erwin not to come with them just this once. But Erwin refused because he simply had to see the basement, even if it meant certain death. He died trying. He was this close. Schreiber took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his eyes.
Carefully, reverently, he arranged the poems in chronological order, stacking them neatly and putting them inside an unassuming cardboard box. He vowed to translate the entire collection, as only a handful of modern Eldians–professors of ancient literature like himself– had the skills to read such an antiquated language.
He would begin with one sonnet per night, after work. It would take a long time because the ancient language was so oblique that much was lost in translation. He’d have to annotate and explain many of the words and their usage, explain how they corresponded and differed with the modern version spoken today. But Gustaf Schreiber knew the effort will be well worth it. For Erwin Smith’s legacy was not just the basement discovery, it was in his incredible oeuvre that spanned the military and literature genres.
With an uncharacteristic spring to his step Schreiber carried the box to one of the locked cabinets in the storage room behind his office. Before turning the key he stared at the box. What a treasure he’d just discovered! It was a wonderful collection: sensuous and sinewy, intertwining dark, oppressive themes of social justice, imprisonment, willful ignorance, prejudice, expediency, guilt and shame with transcendent, hopeful themes of love and loss, sacrifice and atonement. It was a poetic evocation of one man’s quest to find himself and others in a world that was rigged entirely against him.
Translating Erwin Smith’s poetry was something Gustaf Schreiber genuinely looked forward to. He hadn’t felt like this in a long time.
It took a while for Levi to finally talk. A whole year, in fact. It was a month after Schreiber presented him with Erwin Smith’s translated poetry anthology.
The brigadier was quiet for a while. Schreiber steeled himself to accept the long stretches of silence. He would stop blinking if only to get Levi to talk.
Schreiber had found and read Erwin’s secret poems, the dead man’s most intimate thoughts laid out bare for all to see. At least, those who were schooled enough to decipher the ancient language Erwin used. Levi resigned himself to the fact that there was someone out there who finally found out the truth about Erwin Smith.
“I hold Erwin Smith in the highest esteem,” Schreiber began. Levi, who had been in profile studying a painting in the room, turned to scrutinize the librarian, read the sincerity in his eyes.
“I hope you wish for others to do the same,” Levi responds.
“I do, Levi.”
Schreiber hands the soldier his proposed outline of the former commander’s biography. The scholar then goes into an oral overview of how he planned to lay out the entire book. He spoke of Erwin in the most glowing terms.
Levi listens, his lips curling up in a smirk.
“I see you’ve caught the Erwin bug,” he notes, sounding bemused.
“The more I learned about him, the more I knew I was in the presence of true greatness.”
Levi moves on to another painting, examines it for a while. “Erwin had a way about him. He could talk to anyone. He put people at ease. The way he looked, the confidence he exuded. He was very persuasive,” Levi offers. “Smooth-talking bastard more like.”
“I consider him a genius. An authentic soldier-scholar.”
The brigadier glances at the librarian, a note of merriment in his eyes. “You two would’ve been friends. I can picture it, the two of you drinking and discussing the intricacies of Ancient Eldian, in Ancient Eldian.” On Levi’s face was a soft smile. It was such a rare sight the librarian wanted to snap a photograph. “Erwin would’ve liked you.”
“I would have been blessed.”
It was now or never. Schreiber said softly, “Please tell me what Erwin Smith meant to you.”
“Off the record? There are two sides to Erwin,” Levi began. “Was Erwin Smith–the only son of a school teacher wrongly murdered for treason–an amoral tyrant or an anguished hero? Was he a valiant commander who led thousands of soldiers to their deaths in the name of victory for humanity? Or was he a charlatan who led those same thousands into one suicidal charge after another for the sake of selfish truth-seeking? Was he the father of the modern Paradis nation state? Was he a genius or an irrelevant drop in an ocean of self-serving truth seekers? To some he is a hero. To others he is a savage wrapped in philosopher’s clothing. In his desperate search for truth was he a man of peace, an idealist, or merely a foolish child who did not know what was bad for him?”
Schreiber held his breath. The room was silent except for the sound of his scribbling. He blinked not, fearing that one tiny movement from him will make the soldier clam up again. When Levi talked, he talked. He preferred this eloquent, philosophical Levi better than the cursing thug Levi.
“He was but a foolish child, Gustaf,” Levi goes on. “But we both agree, do we not, that he who seeks the truth is a fool for an hour, but he who does not seek remains a fool forever? Erwin’s legacy as a truth seeker is his greatest achievement. But to the grieving families of the soldiers Erwin sacrificed in pursuit of this truth, the end doesn’t justify the means.”
The librarian nods, his pen the only one making a sound. Please keep talking.
“That’s precisely why we need to be very careful about presenting his legacy to the public. You have to strike a delicate balance between the valiant commander who fought titans on behalf of humanity to the truth-seeker who was willing to sacrifice everything to see what was in that basement. What is heroism to some is expediency to others.”
“I fully understand that, Levi. I will do all I can not to disappoint.”
Levi returns his gaze to the painting.
“Why did you choose to revive Armin over Erwin?” the librarian ventures.
The soldier snorts. “Has Hange been at it again regarding that, after all these years?”
“They say they will never understand why you made such a choice. But that they don’t resent you for it, merely accept it.”
“And you, Gustaf, why do you think I made the cursed choice I did?”
“Knowing Armin, and from what I learned from researching Erwin Smith, I like to believe the obvious interpretation: that you made a choice between the past and the future. I like to believe that you saw Armin, who represented youth and faith in the outside world, as the beacon of hope for Paradis. Erwin, on the other hand, was searching for the truth hidden in the past hundred years, without a vision for the future. So you decided to let Erwin ‘rest’ instead of asking him to continue shouldering the burden of the world in the form of a bona fide monster. That’s what I like to tell myself, that’s what I told Hange when she asked for my opinion, so that both of us could somehow justify and make sense of what you did. But that is merely seeing things from a morality perspective, from the point of view of conscience, of the ideal. It barely scratches the surface…” The librarian looks at the soldier apprehensively.
“Go on,” Levi prompts.
“On a deeper, ego level, I think that in that moment, you somehow managed to look at the situation from the lens of an uncompromising realist. At that point in time, you all believed the only hope Paradis had for survival was Eren Jaeger. Eren’s fate had always been tied to Mikasa and Armin’s lives. Eren needed Armin alive so he could carry on, at that particular point in history. Armin’s death would have completely devastated Eren, resulting in unknown consequences. Levi the realist made the rational choice, sacrificing the love of his life so that Humanity’s Hope, Eren Jaeger could have what he needed to carry on. In this case, your reason triumphed over instinct.” Schreiber braces himself, waiting for the soldier’s wrath to rain down on him.
So Schreiber continues. “On the deepest, instinctive level, your choice didn’t make sense. In times of great stress human beings operate on the pleasure principle, the innate drive to satisfy an impulse immediately, regardless of the consequences. In that case you should have chosen Erwin. But you managed to shut down that unconscious, primitive part of you and let rational choice overcome desire.” He glanced nervously at Levi.
“I think you were able to do that because you loved Eren Jaeger, too. Perhaps not in the same way you did Erwin–I will never know because Eren is dead and you refuse to talk about him–but you loved Eren. So much so that you put his needs above yours.”
“And you thought of all that how?”
“From the moment I met you, you struck me as someone who knew the meaning of the word sacrifice. You hadn’t spoken a word to me, but one look at your face and I saw someone who understood what it meant to make a rational choice from a sociological perspective.”
Levi lets out a heavy sigh, muttering, “No wonder the queen seeks your counsel.”
“Will you ever tell me the truth behind your choice?”
“Nope. That’s just one of those things that will remain a mystery.”
“Throw me a bone to gnaw on?”
“I simply thought of it this way: It is rude to silence a fool, and cruelty to let him go on.”
The brigadier smirks. “You’re relentless, Gustaf. I don’t really think Erwin was a fool, although he himself would remark to me what a fool he was. Here’s what I actually think: The fool thinks himself to be wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool,” Levi lets on. “Another bone for you to gnaw on.”
“Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Levi,” Schreiber says.
Levi snorts. “So, are we done now? I’m talking like a pompous ass and I don’t like it. Am beginning to sound like that bastard Erwin Smith. You’re a bad influence, Gustaf. Let me go back to my usual snappish, cussing self.”
“No, unfortunately, I have one more question. I understand how much you meant to Erwin from his poetry. Would you tell me what he meant to you, please?”
“You’re a clever man, Gustaf Schreiber. Surely you’d have figured that out by now?”
“I want to hear it from you.”
Levi stands by the picture window behind the librarian’s desk. He looks out into the city clothe in darkness.
“Erwin saved my life,” he says, slowly, thoughtfully. “He accepted me for who I am. He gave me a reason to live.”
Schreiber scribbles. Please keep talking. Please don’t clam up now.
“He taught me everything he knew, everything I needed to know. He told me, showed me the truth about himself. He trusted me, believed in me more than anyone I have ever known,” Levi continues in an unusual burst of candor.
The librarian holds his breath, stops blinking, willing the soldier to go on.
“Erwin taught me how to love and be loved. He meant everything to me.”
Was there a heart somewhere shattering into a million pieces due to the unbearable weight of sorrow? Were there tears that did not fall because they vanished in the fire brought forth by unspeakable heartache?
Gustaf Schreiber stops scribbling, turns from his chair to gaze at the short man by the window who looked so lost and forlorn, vulnerable in his honesty.
How cruel the world was, Schreiber thought, when a man believed he had found his true home only to be forced to let go, to have to choose between the life of one human and the death of another. To be asked to make an infinitely cruel choice. In a world where there was only anguish, misery, hopelessness, a heartbreak that would never heal, enough guilt to break the strongest of spirit, endless regrets…
The man by the window turns to look at Schreiber, clear grey eyes meeting the scholar’s gaze.
As if reading the librarian’s mind Levi speaks. “No regrets.”
And that was the beginning of their friendship. After receiving the book of poetry Levi became notably friendlier toward Schreiber. They bonded over Erwin. Whenever he visited the library he and Schreiber would have a cup of tea in the librarian’s office. Sometimes Levi bought exotic tea leaves for him to brew. They’d sit and share their impressions of the beverage at hand. Levi asked his opinions about whatever novel he was currently reading, and Schreiber would do the same. Levi might not be a professor of literature like himself, but he was a veteran–a tenured professor–in the School of Life.
Today, Gustaf Schreiber was looking forward to Levi’s visit. “Important. Carve out time,” said the note. What could the brigadier have up his sleeve?