War Brotherhood

("The Enemy Soldier," short story from the anthology Beyond the Pale, by C.F. Navarro.)

He must have dozed off for a moment. Last he saw, Jimenez had been there in the hole with him. But now Jimenez was gone. Probably went back to regroup the squad. He and Jimenez had got ahead of them, or lost them, and ended up here in this hole, an artillery crater, not thirty yards from the enemy line. He could hear them talking, and their wounded moaning. They must have taken a direct hit. “Our guys sure know how to work those big guns,” he grinned. But now he had to stay awake. Been, what? Two, three days since he had an hour’s sleep? “Gotta stay awake,” he kept telling himself, “Awake. Alert, till Jimenez returns with the squad.”

He must have dozed off again because he didn’t see the German soldier. He didn’t see him running up to the crater and jumping in. By the time he did see him, the German was almost on top of him, giving him no time to reach for his rifle or draw his pistol. But luckily, by chance, he had dozed off with the bayonet in his hand and, at the last moment, when the German’s body was a foot away from his, he swiftly pointed the bayonet upward, and let the German fall on it.

They lay there, the two of them, face to face, gazing into each other’s eyes, as if recognizing something in them, or expecting an explanation, but saying nothing, not uttering a sound, save their heavy breathing.

The German was about his age and size, same complexion, same blue eyes and close-cropped red hair. Reminded him of his brother Zeke, and of his father when he was young. And by the way the German was looking back at him, blinking, knitting his brow, it seemed to him that he, likewise, reminded the German of someone. Everything between them was similar, near identical, except for the uniforms and insignias on the sleeves.

Who was this man? At first he didn’t care to know. Just another Nazi, a barbarian, a threat to America, a brain-washed fanatic he had to kill or else be killed by him. Nothing to feel bad about. He was doing his duty. But then he looked up and saw that the sky and the trees and all things outside the crater had become a gray blur; and he realized that, at that instant in time, in that Godforsaken hole, that he and the man lying on top of him were intimately alone in the world; that they had been inextricably bound by fate in a brotherhood of their own.

So, no, he wouldn’t, he couldn’t just ignore him and get on with the war. He would wait until the man’s body went limp, then turn him over and search his pockets for an ID or a wallet with photos of his family. All soldiers, even Nazis, had a family back home, parents, siblings, maybe a wife and kids. He would keep the ID and photos, and maybe, some day, years later, after the war was done and forgotten, he would contact the man’s family. By then he would know what to tell them. The man might have done the same for him.

But when he tried to move, a weakness came over him and felt the bayonet slip from his hand. The German had not impaled himself on the bayonet as he had thought. At the last moment, as he fell, the German had deflected the bayonet with one hand, and with the other sunk his field knife deep into his abdomen. The blood soaking their uniforms and the ground around them was not the German’s, it was his. He opened his mouth to say something but only a soft gurgle came out.

When Sergeant Jimenez returned with the ten-man squad, he was dead. Spriggs, the medic, inspected the wound, the slushy pool of blood, and shook his head. “Abdominal aorta. Severed.”

“He musta dozed off when the Kraut jumped him” Jimenez said, clenching his fists, his voice heavy at once with sorrow and rage. “Otherwise it would be the Kraut who’d be lying there dead.”

Spriggs laid a comforting hand on Jimenez’s shoulder. “With a wound like that, losing blood so fast, he must have died in seconds. Probably never knew what killed him. At least he didn’t suffer.”

Before covering him up with the medic’s blanket, Jimenez searched for his dog tags and through his pockets, but found nothing.

“Sonafbitch! The goddam Kraut took his dog tags and wallet with all the photos of his wife and kids! He used to show them to me and talk about them every chance he got. ”

“Them fuckin’ Krauts, they’re all like that,” said another man. “Have no respect for the dead. Probably took the tags and pictures as trophies to show off to his buddies and gloat about it.”

Jimenez spat. “May he get his soon. And take a long, long time to die.”

Word squawked over the radio that enemy had retreated, and the squad was ordered to stay put until further notice. The rest of the day they took turns, some catching up on their sleep, while others stood guard. Come night, they emerged from the crater and buried their dead buddy in a patch of daffodils that miraculously had been spared the artillery barrages from both sides of the line.

No comments:

#bookmarks-footer{ display: none; }