THIS WAR AND I
“My dear Elizabeth, it pains me being so far from you. These past few nights have been sleepless and dreadful. One would think it was the constant bombings or the fear of being captured, but it is the thought of never seeing you again that keeps me up. Tomorrow, Oliver, Charlie, and I will make another attempt to reach the British ships for evacuation, though I cannot promise our efforts will be successful. Be it as it may, I would give anything to lie next to you once more, to hold you in my arms and feel your warming embrace. If, by God’s intentions, I do not make it back, please travel to America and find a new place to settle. I fear the Germans may soon invade into England and I cannot bear the thought of them harming you. Know that I will always love you with my heart, your one and only, Wilhelm.”
June 27, 1940.
Britain had called the evacuation of their troops a few weeks ago yet here we are, the abandoned souls who could not reach salvation. However, today is the day we get the hell out of here. Oliver has knowledge of an unconventional path that eventually leads to the beaches and with very little supply left, this is our only shot. The only shot we got to making it home.
I have been in the company of Charlie and Oliver for these past few weeks and they are some of the finest lads I have ever had the pleasure to be around. Their comradery is contagious and even in the face of preeminent danger, their spirits remain high. Given the circumstance, I cannot think of any other people I would take over them. Regardless of how this ends, I have to say it was an honor to be serving alongside them.
The sun has just barely touched the horizon meaning it is time we head out. We pack what little left we have in our bags and shuffle out from whatever rubble and ruin we slept under last night. We limit our noise to the utmost minimum and scurry out of this ghost town. Looking back, it is hard to imagine what this place looked like before we touched it with the hammer that is war. Houses blown asunder into brick and dust. Dismembered and festering bodies strewn across the streets. All that remains to the eye are the remnants of man’s creations caught between man’s ideology.
We then walked for hours on end until we reached the countryside. Before our eyes lies a vast stretch of lavender fields. We take a moment to gaze at the purple beauty, an ounce of land yet untouched by the clutches of this war. I could not remember the last time I saw something this profound since I enlisted. I turn to Oliver and notice that he has removed his helmet and sat down as some sort of respectful gesture toward the field of flowers in front of us. There was a calming breeze passing through and peace was among us, even if only for this moment.
“Oi, Ollie. You think it’s bout time we moved on, mate,” asked Charlie. Ollie. I had almost forgotten we addressed Oliver as such. It is ironic as Oliver is the oldest in the group, yet the nickname of “Ollie” makes it seem like he is the youngest. Though I had not personally known Oliver before the war, Charlie continuously shared stories during our downtime. I remember one where Charlie and Oliver had left a local bar in London completely hammered. It was around 5 am I recall. Charlie was the more inebriated of the two and could barely stand. The two roomed together and unfortunately, their place was located just up the hill. Oliver decided that the only way forward was to sling Charlie over his shoulder and wobble his way up. About halfway there, Charlie decides to take a leak, drenching Oliver’s shoes and the bottom of his jeans in piss. Caught off guard and way too intoxicated to adjust, Oliver ends up slipping on Charlie’s piss, and the two of them stumble and roll down the hill and back to the bar. These two clowns were something else.
Oliver looks up at Charlie and smiles, “You’re right, but I believe it’s your turn to carry me.” Charlie smirks and extends a hand to help his friend up. Oliver grabs the hand and as Charlie pulls him up, a bullet zips from the field and pierces through Oliver’s stomach. Time then slows to an unbearable pace.
Charlie stares at Oliver as he hits the ground still clasped onto Charlie’s hand. Blood slowly seeps from the wound, drenching Oliver’s uniform in the sickly dark fluid. From the field, I hear the ejection of an empty shell then the cycling of another round. Seeing my comrades on the brink of the reaper’s grip, I take the rifle off my shoulder and cycle a round into the chamber. I notice a glint of a scope within the field of lavender and shoulder the Kar before taking aim and snapping on the trigger. With that snap, time and the senses seemed to rush back all at once.
The explosive projection of the bullet traveling out of the barrel, rocking my eardrums. The butt of the rifle kicking hard into my shoulder. The straining weight of the rifle pulling down my arms. The strange aroma of lavender and gunpowder wafting before my nostrils. It all seemed to occur in mere milliseconds after what seemed like endless torture.
I turn to Charlie who is placing hard pressure onto Oliver’s wound while assuring him that everything is going to be okay. I return to the enemy at hand. Did my shot land? I reload the rifle and grip tight on it. I cautiously push forward into the field with my eyes aimed down sight. The foliage spreads apart in my waking steps, yet my vision remains obstructed from the mass of purple before me. I press forward still until my foot collides with the body of the enemy. He holds his hand firm against his bloody neck. Judging by the looks of it, this man does not have much time left. We lock eyes and the thing is, there is no hate in them, but rather, fear. This young boy, not even in his twenties yet, was not my enemy but rather another unfortunate soul caught in this war. He looks at me with eyes screaming for mercy. He does not want to die but knows there is little that can be done. I raise my rifle and take aim as he closes his eyes in acknowledgment of the end. Yet again, I am forced to pull the trigger.
Shortly after, I return to Charlie and Oliver. Charlie still holds onto his hand, though the life from Oliver has vanished. Defeated, Charlie stands up and tells me that we do not have much farther to go. I stand there without an inkling of how to respond. In just mere seconds, I murdered a young boy and witnessed a comrade lose his closest friend. I think to myself, “Why are we here?” Is it just to obtain some short-lasting peace? When are we deemed humans again and no longer expendable pawns? I then look to Charlie again and say the first thing that I could think of in that moment, “I’m sorry, Charlie.” “So am I,” he responds.
The walk afterwards became one with absolute silence. Not once did we fill the void with jokes, hums, nor did we stop for a momentary search for peace again. It was a constant push through rural France and though we did not run into enemy troops, I could see Charlie’s state of body and mind falling apart. He refused to eat and drink, and I believe he was okay with dying here.
After a couple more kilometers, Charlie and I arrive at a village. I glance at him and notice that he is pale as a ghost. He was exhausted, starving, and dehydrated. If he keeps going at this rate, he will never make it to the extraction. I figure that it would be best if we scavenge what items the village holds and take a momentary rest before finishing our expedition. Charlie reluctantly agrees. We move further into the village, but that is when we notice the change in our scenery and possibly, our dilemma.
Before us stands a multitude of effigies with deer, wolves, boars, bears, and even humans carved open and pinned to posts. After everything I have witnessed thus far into the war, I will admit that this provoked more fear in me than the enemy troops. To say this is cruel would be an understatement. It is archaic and a fate I would not wish on my enemy. I ask Charlie if there is any way around, but he says that there are only thick forests, forests that will delay us by hours or even days if we do not know the exact direction to follow. That being known, we stomach the sight and push forward with caution, our guns cocked at the ready.
It is unusually quiet as not even the buzzing of flies is present. This place seems vacant, but I cannot shake the feeling of eyes watching our every move. All around me, I smell death and I can sense it coming for us. We quicken our pace until we notice a woman wandering the streets, humming to herself. We stop in our tracks not knowing what to do. I tell Charlie to cover me as I approach her, hoping if she could offer us help. Before I can reach her –- “Wilhelm!” Charlie screams from behind. I instantly turn around and find a group of robed individuals dragging Charlie away. I raise my rifle but feel a sharp pain against my head, then BLACK.
I wake up to find myself on the floor in one of the homes, my hands and feet bound. Glancing out the window, the sun is just beginning to set. Other than that, it is hard to make out anything else. I then notice a small amount of rustling near me. I turn to find a woman with a crown of antlers and strange markings either painted or tattooed on. She currently mixes some sort of concoction in a mortar and pestle. I call out to her and she stops mixing. She turns to face me, but I cannot make out her expression. Then, two robed individuals pick me up and carry me outside. They place me a few feet from an empty wooden post. I finally understand what is going to happen.
Before I can accept my fate, two more robed people carry a topless Charlie in front of me and present him for the horned woman. She holds the mortar in her hands and studies Charlie. He does not have any strength left in him and though I know he is alive, Charlie looks like he is already dead. The horned woman begins to chant some language that I have never heard of. She dips her finger in the mortar and draws strange markings all over his body, smearing a viscous black liquid. I call out to him, but he does not acknowledge. They then hoist him onto the post and tie him there. The woman is brought an antler which she grips tightly in her hands. She continues her chants as I beg her to stop. She approaches Charlie and brings the antler over her head. I scream Charlie’s name louder and louder until he finally raises his head and looks at me. Though he does not say anything, his face pleads that he does not want to die.
With a hard stab, the horned woman impales the antler into Charlie’s abdomen and rips it downward. Charlie gives out a weak scream as his abdomen tears apart, spilling blood and entrails below. I become sick to my stomach at the sight and puke my guts out. I look at him once more with tears pouring out. I call all of them monsters, savages, beasts, etc. The robed people leave one by one back to their homes except for the horned woman who walks up to me. I yell at her with all my strength and ask, “Why not me?” She stares at me before calmly saying, “You have strength. You have purpose. The Great One has spared you.”
That night, I lie still bound before my fallen comrade. I once thought about why I was in this war, but now, I think about why I was spared. Was this God’s intentions or is there no God left? Who are these people? And…
Who is this Great One?