by jacob perkins
He looked down from where he hung in the tree and saw nothing at first but grass. Thick and evenly grown like a baseball field, it reminded him of home. He could almost hear the smack of a baseball as it hit home inside the catcher’s mitt, the whiff of the bat as it swung through the air, and the near-obligatory tap of the bat on the plate that told the pitcher, Let’s go again.
As his senses faded out of the black, he heard birds chirp and sing in the fresh sunlight. His vision became clearer still with every moment. He blinked away the thick layer of unconsciousness that weighed on him like a blanket and could now feel the cool breeze on his face. It was a deceiving day to be sure. The sun was high in the sky and beaming down directly onto him. But the day was not warm and he shivered.
Finally, the clarity came. A bitter-sweet blessing of being aware of his thoughts (but also his pain) was bestowed upon him. His leg screamed at him from the knee and pain shot all the way up to his head where it connected and pulsed behind his left eye. He grunted and wished for those moments of semi-consciousness to drift back to him and put him to sleep like a good bit of alcohol after a night on the streets.
He lifted his head up to get a better look. He was in a large clearing surrounded on three sides by protective hedgerows thick enough to guard a castle. On the fourth side, where he hung, was a tree line. How deep or thick the trees were, he didn’t know. He couldn’t turn around. Every time he tried to swing his body around to look at the trees behind him, his leg practically disabled the rest of his body with its cries for help. Out in front of him, though, in the middle of the clearing, was a small cottage with a barn around the back with a fenced in lot with four-legged animals in it. His vision wasn’t clear enough for him to tell what they were.
And perhaps most importantly, in front of him about six feet away, was a woman. She stood bathed in the light of the high sun, looking freshly dressed for the day. Her hair was pulled up and covered by a bonnet of sorts. And she held a rifle—his rifle—shouldered, and pointed directly at his head.
He straightened in his harness as if he was standing before an officer, or more accurately like he was about to be reprimanded by one. He stared at her for a few seconds. His brain lagged, weighted with pain as he tried to process what to say. He hadn’t been taught much foreign language in his life. His knowledge was limited to one simple phrase: schiessen Sie nicht. Don’t shoot. He had never planned on saying it to a German, for saying it would mean he had surrendered. But he uttered it to her, his voice as dry as cracked leather. She took a step back and her eyes sharpened and she leaned into the rifle. Apparently, that was wrong, he thought to himself.
“Deutsch? German? Allemand?”
She repeated herself, panicked. This time she said a few words in English, but they were too fast for his dazed mind. She was sweating and her voice had little tremors at the end of each word. She’s probably afraid, he realized. She is living in a war-torn country.
He remembered, then, the arm-band his unit had put on before the jump. He turned his shoulder so she could see the flag on his arm.
“American?” she asked him. He nodded his stiff neck. She lowered the rifle, and he could again feel the pain flood to every part of him. His neck was stiff and his back felt like a plank of wood. But worst of all was his knee. He could not bend it and if he thought even of moving it, pain flared throughout him. He kept his head lowered and his vision started to blur once more. He saw the woman walk underneath him and say something, but her words were drowned. His vision faded to black once more.
His vision crept back just enough for him to feel dirt against his face and blades of grass tickling his nose. Ahead of him, he saw the cottage sitting against the clear sky. He felt no pain. He only saw smoke rising out of the chimney. The war was nowhere near his mind as he laid on the ground watching the smoke glide up and away to the sky he had fallen from.
He awoke, this time staring at dense wooden beams on the ceiling of the cottage instead of grass. Not totally cognizant, he stared at the ceiling. The beams were built with a modest slope to them, rising until they connected in the middle of the ceiling to make a point for the roof.
Strange for a stone house. He thought it seemed old as he looked at the pock-marks in the wood and ceiling. He’d never seen a building look that old before, much less a building made of old stones. America was wood-siding, brick, and metal. This house must have been in her family for generations.
“Are you awake, American?” He turned his head to see the woman sitting next to him in a small chair wearing different clothes. He then looked down and saw the blood stains on his shirt, undershirt, and trousers. He felt the stains and found they were dry. It was strange how well she spoke English.
“Alexander,” he said. “Or Alex, for short.”
“My name’s Alex. And yours?”
“Marie.” Alex nodded and blinked through his headache.
“I’m sorry, Marie.”
“The blood. And putting you out of a room.”
“It is no problem. We’re happy to help. We saw lots of you falling, but you were the only one who fell close to us. You’re lucky you landed here.”
“What do you mean?”
“German officers are staying at the cottages just down the road from here.”
“Is there a way through them?” he asked.
“Through them?” She looked down at her hands, “It would be nearly impossible.” He sighed and put his hands on his head to run his fingers through his hair. Instead, he found another bandage. This one ran across his forehead and connected at the top of his head. He must have hit a branch and the inside of his helmet cut his forehead.
“Why must you go through the Germans?” she asked.
“I have to get to my unit soon.”
“Why not wait for them to defeat these Germans while you heal?” she said, looking at his leg.
“Because I have to be there to fight with my unit.”
“I see,” she said. They sat in silence for a moment. “You will not be walking on that leg for some time, soldier.” He exhaled loudly. He didn’t have time for this. He swung his leg over the edge of the bed and took a deep breath. And another. Marie sat up straighter.
He stood quickly, putting equal weight on his legs like normal. His left knee gave way and the dusty floor rose up to meet him. Marie stood to help him. “Don’t,” he said.
“There’s no need to yell.”
“Isn’t there?” he asked. “I shouldn’t be here.” He gritted his teeth against the pain and his annoyance. He belonged out there with the other soldiers.
“You would be no use to them, anyway. Not like this,” Marie said softly. Her voice hardened. “And if the attic is too inconvenient for you, ask the Germans if they have a room instead.”
Alex helped himself back into the bed. The springs struggled as he laid back down, and he heard Marie’s footsteps echo on the wooden stairs in the opposite corner as she left the room, followed by the violent slam of the door.
She didn’t understand. A soldier is supposed to be in battle, not in bed. He jumped into France, the first wave of Americans to parachute into battle and now he was laid up like a sick schoolboy. He should have been out there and not by himself in a little cottage far from the front lines. Where were the front lines, anyway? He looked around for his map, taking full stock of the room.
His bed was against the wall with a window in the middle. The opposite wall was identical. He could see, just barely, the tops of trees out of the window. To his right was mostly empty attic space. On the wall next to his head was a small dresser with a mirror on top and a large bowl for water. He could see steam rising from it and thought that Marie must have prepared it for him this morning. And maybe every morning he’d been asleep, however long that was. Aside from that, there was nothing but random bundles of suitcases, spare wood, tools, and various pieces of furniture.
He didn’t see his pack anywhere or any of the gear he had jumped with. His rifle was nowhere to be found either. He sat up in bed and looked around feverishly for it—the most important thing for a soldier. He almost made the mistake of standing again but stopped himself just as his toes touched the wood underneath the bed.
Alex laid back down after some time searching, the pillow now damp and cool from his sweat. He reached down and knocked on the floor. Three quick raps. Again. He heard Marie’s footsteps on the wooden stairs again.
“What do you need?”
“My rifle, please. And anything else I may have had with me when you found me.”
“You had much. It was not easy to hide.”
Marie walked to the edge of his bed. When she came to it, she knelt and reached for the floor. Alex watched her as she put her pinkie finger into a hole in the slat of wood and pulled. The board came out with a little bit of force. Within laid his rifle and pistol along with his bandolier and any ammo he had brought with him. Alex smiled as his worry lifted.
“We have to hide everything, you see,” she began. “We never know when they will come to search.”
“It might ease up now because they have us to fight.”
“Or it will be worse. The rest is in a bigger compartment here,” she said and walked the two feet to the dresser and tapped her foot on a large slat of wood.
“You will have to move the dresser to reach them.” she said.
He nodded and felt terrible about his comments earlier. He felt shame bubble in his chest and collect in his throat. Marie was taking great risks and pains to help him. As she got to the stair railing in the opposite corner of the attic, he said, “Ma’am.” She stopped to look at him. “Thank you. I really mean that.”
She smiled small and nodded. “Anything else for you?”
“Do you have a crutch, perhaps? Something I could try and walk with?” Marie looked around the attic, and her eyes landed on the pile of wood. She walked to it and rummaged around before pulling out a long and slender board. She held it up to him with a look that asked if it was okay.
“That should work,” he said. She laid the board down so it leaned against his bed before heading downstairs. He felt tired as he laid his head back down. The room was warm, but his sweat had cooled his pillows and his sheets, and the room was gradually cooling as the sun lowered in the sky. He closed his eyes and sleep crept ever closer behind his eyelids.
He wondered where the rest of them were at. Surely his unit was crushing the Germans in battle by now. Surely they had shown them how real men fight. It was then he realized that he had not heard a single gunshot in the time he had been in the cottage. No airplanes or artillery, either. Maybe the battle had not moved south as quickly as it should have. He pushed that thought out of his mind. He only hoped they didn’t beat them back without him. That’s what he was there for. He was there for the glorious moment when the German line broke and they ran from the Americans, away from him. He drifted off to sleep.
He awoke to someone gently shaking his shoulder. He looked over and saw a young boy’s face lit by a candle.
“Mister, dinner,” the boy said. “Dinner, mister.” Alex shook his head and reached for the board by his bed. The boy eagerly grabbed it for him and handed it to him. He had a toothy smile and looked eager. Alex smiled and took the board from him, putting all the weight on his right leg, and hobbling over to the stairs. He took them delicately, and, at the bottom, the boy held the door open.
“I’m okay.” Alex walked into the hall. The walls seemed to be made of stone, and in the gentle light of the single candle, he could see picture frames on the wall that extended down the hall to his right, with a couple of doors between the rows of pictures. To his left was the spiral staircase that led to the ground floor.
“It’s a tight fit, mister. I’ll help you.” The boy took the board down the stairs and then returned to the top and held his arm out for Alex to grab. He let the boy support him as they began their slow descent. At the bottom of the stairs was a small room with chairs arranged around a coffee table. The room had many windows and Alex could imagine people gathered around it in the morning for coffee, or at night with bottles of wine or whiskey, talking about sports or politics. He had a room like that back home, where he’d hear stories of the old war. The one with few survivors. There was an opening in the center of that room which led to the kitchen and dining room. He hobbled through it while the boy carefully watched him move.
Inside the dining room was a small wooden table, and on the left wall were places to cook, but they looked untouched. Marie stood on one side of the table in front of a spread of bread and preserves along with fruit and a modest bottle of milk and another full of water. She smiled at Alex and gestured for him to sit. He did so and the boy sat as well.
“It is not much,” Marie said as she sat down. It wasn’t at all. Alex couldn’t believe this was all they had. How long have they eaten this way?
“And we have to eat late, so that they do not come in the middle and take food from us,” the boy added.
“No, it’s plenty, ma’am. And thank you for sharing it with me.”
“We are glad to have you,” the boy said. Alex looked at him and smiled, and then took real stock of the room. It was the only place in the house that was lit. Two candles sat on the table with the food, and in the wavering light, he could see grey stone walls and a door behind Marie that led outside. No pictures here. Only a broom for decoration that sat by the door along with a pair of muddy boots. Likely used for the animals outside. That was all. Or maybe this was all that was left after they took everything from them.
“Milk?” Marie asked.
“Water, please.” She poured from the bottle into his glass in front of him. He then grabbed a slice of bread and spread an orange jelly across it.
“This is David.” She gestured to the boy, who sat up straighter.
“Hi, David. That’s a very English sounding name. But you both speak it with almost no accent, so I shouldn’t be surprised.”
“My husband was English.” Was English, Alex thought. Was.
“Where is he now?”
“Dead at Dunkirk, we think.”
“It’s okay. The boy here is set on fighting as well.” Alex looked over at David and, in the light of the candle, could see he was maybe fourteen, with very short hair and an eager eye.
“That so?” The boy sat up even straighter when asked and nodded.
“Yes, sir,” he said. “What’s it like being a soldier?”
“You can see it hasn’t been kind to me so far.”
“But you’ll get better soon, right?” the boy asked, “So you can fight again.”
“Of course. That’s what a soldier does.”
Marie looked up from her food and said, “A soldier protects.”
“Well, yes, I suppose so. But protection itself is more a job for, say, a police officer. A soldier is really supposed to fight the enemy and beat him in battle. That is their purpose.”
“That’s their only purpose?” she asked him.
“Yes,” Alex said, “which is why I must get better soon, so I can be at the large battle to come that will break their lines. That’s why we’re here.” David looked at the American in their dining room, with his blood-soaked clothes and bandages, and smiled with admiration. Alex noticed that Marie did not look pleased.
He looked over at her as she at him. He really saw her face in the light this time. She was still young, with hardly any cracks in her skin. But where it did crack, her face was full of strength. She had seen much in the past few years. There was a hardness in her eyes that seemed to reflect the candlelight.
“Let me ask you a question, then, soldier.”
“Of course, ma’am.”
“It is more of a story, to be truthful,” she said, and Alex nodded before she began. “You speak of battle. Have you heard of Waterloo? A very important battle for the French and the world alike.”
“Yes, ma’am. A perfect example of what I mean. The British, no offense intended, ma’am, defeated the French decisively and ended any further action.”
“Yes, but it also provides an example for me, soldier. Just before the fight that day, there was a British soldier who was part of the cavalry. He had been brushing his horse because it had rained the night before. Before the signal was given to prepare for battle, he was approached. He found a tiny hand pulling on his scabbard. He thought it was the wind at first, but when he looked he found a young boy. No older than seven. The boy told him, with broken English, that his mother was in a different village and that he was scared. He was scared that a Frenchman would catch him walking down the road, or that he would be hit with a cannonball. The British soldier asked the boy what he would need, and the boy asked if the soldier could take him to his mother.” Marie paused to look at her son. “The soldier pondered for a moment. He put his brush away, and, as the story goes, lifted the young boy onto his horse and then started to trot down the road. Away from the battle, mind you, soldier, away from where Napoleon was. It took several hours but the soldier talked to the boy the whole way and finally reunited him with his mother.”
“A lovely story.”
“Isn’t it?” she asked. “Now tell me, soldier, did the English soldier abandon his duty? He was there to fight, as you said, but he took that little boy to his mother instead. He protected him and missed the battle entirely. What do you think of this, soldier? Is it not just as noble?” Alex thought long about her question. Could he, would he, have taken a child like David, back to his family? He asked himself if he would have fought instead and left the boy for himself. He found he couldn’t bear to think of leaving him behind.
“I don’t know, ma’am. I think it is certainly honorable, in any case.” But he didn’t have a real answer for her. “I did not mean to upset you, if I have, ma’am.”
“No, soldier. You haven’t. I only disagree with your stance. When soldiers believe their only duty is to the fight, they forget their obligation to people.”
“How do you mean?”
“To fight for a nation means to fight for its people, but you must not forget that you fight for all people. For a soldier, a good soldier, is what safeguards mankind. Not just his own people.”
Alex was silent.
“Or so my husband believed,” Marie said.
The rest of dinner was quiet, and Marie eventually put out one of the two candles to hide the meal even further from the Germans. When it was time to head back upstairs, neither the boy nor Alex said a word.
Alex awoke once more in the old bed in the attic. This time, the room was filled with the pale blue light of a coming morning. The window on the wall next to him had fogged and he could not see the morning through it. The attic was much cooler in the early hours, and he rubbed the goosebumps on his arms as he sat up. That was the first moment he had felt any semblance of peace since he landed. He was not panicked about his gear or comrades or the Germans, nor was he plagued by pain.
Instead, he found he wanted to see the sun rise over this new country, over the cottage that sheltered him. He grabbed his board and placed his weight on his right leg as he stood. He tested his left knee and felt that he could put a considerable amount of weight on it compared to the previous days. Thank God. He hobbled over to the dresser where the bowl for washing sat.
He gently knelt and pushed it a few inches to the left with his shoulder and when the large slat of wood was uncovered he pulled it open with his pinkie just like Marie had done with the other board. Inside he found his pack and he dug around in it for his map and compass. He found both and stuffed them in a bloody trouser pocket, then made his way downstairs to the sitting room.
The house was perfectly quiet. Not a creak or a crack or even the mildest sound of the house settling. Alex went to the sitting room filled with that pale blue light from the rising sun. He sat facing the south side of the house toward the front door and the dirt path that led to the hedgerow. The window in front of him was foggy as well, save the very middle. Through the ridged hole in the middle, he could see a light haze that settled on the grass and clung to the hedgerows. With each coming moment, the sun erased it and turned it into dew that settled delicately on the green. The hedgerow on this side of the house had a small break in it, for the path that led to the road. Now, there were birds that gathered in the gap. They sat and picked at the damp dirt for bugs, fighting each other for breakfast.
Alex sat with his hands in his lap and watched as the hole of fog on the window became bigger, the dew more plentiful, and the sun gave the world within the hedgerow more color. He forgot why he was there. It was easy to forget about the war when there were no weapons in his face, no helmet on his head and no gunfire. After a while, he remembered why he had come down, other than the scenery. To study the map.
He unfolded it and oriented it so that north was forward on the map and in real life. He switched places in the sitting room to face the opposite direction and laid his compass down. For a time he just tried to mark locations that were important to the invasion. Carentan, Saint Marie Du Mont, Saint Mere Igles, and so on. It had only been a few days, and he wondered about what objectives they had or had not taken. He suddenly got a sinking feeling. He had no idea where in the hell he was.
“Alex?” David on the spiral stairs in a robe and slippers.
“How’d you get down all on your own?”
“Leg feels much better today. Thanks to you, of course.”
David smiled and walked over to sit next to him. “What’s this?”
“My map of Normandy.” The boy looked at it and saw the villages and beaches that had been marked.
“This is where you must go?”
“These are places the airborne is going, and I need to find them, but I don’t know where I am right now. Maybe you could help me figure that out. Soldiers spend a lot of time with maps, you know.”
David’s eyes lit up and he forced his smile into a tight frown, like a soldier. He craned his neck around to look at the map. Alex watched him trace roads with his fingers and study the map intently. It reminded him of his younger brother. His younger brother, who was probably also learning about geography at a school back home, far away from the war.
“We are here,” David said and pointed to a spot considerably more south than the airborne objectives. Alex was bewildered. David looked so proud to have found his house. Alex didn’t say anything and only roughed up David’s hair.
“Thank you, David.” Alex hoped he’d heal quick. He had a lot of walking in the near future.
“We’re far away from those villages, Alex. Will you be able to make it?”
“I don’t know. But I suppose I’ll have to try.”
“Because that’s what soldiers do?”
“That’s right.” The two sat in silence for a few minutes as the sun finally showed itself above the horizon and filled the room with an orange glow. Alex said, “You know, you looked a lot like my brother when you were studying that map.”
“How old is he?”
“About twelve now.”
“How old are you?”
“If the war goes on, do you think he will fight, too?”
“It won’t go on much longer. We’re going to win.”
“I hope so.”
“We have to, so we will. The battle will come when we break them, I promise.”
“We have to?”
“Yes, or the enemy will come for all of us eventually.”
“For your brother, too, right?”
Alex sat for a moment before he answered. “I suppose eventually they could, yes.”
“Hopefully he’d have a soldier as I do now, at least for a little while. It is better with you here.”
Alex thought about that for a moment. Maybe he had overstayed his welcome. He was afraid he had given the boy too much hope, something he didn’t want to see crushed. How could it be better with him there? They would be killed if the Germans found out they sheltered him.
He then thought about his brother, in the middle of a war, afraid in their house in Brooklyn, maybe hiding with his baseball bat under the table. If there was a soldier there, would it help? Alex imagined it, imagined being there for his brother, reaching under the table to pull him out and tell him it’s all right. That the enemy was done for because he was there now. They weren’t going to get him. He hoped someone would be there to protect his brother should that ever happen.
There was a creak on the stairs that broke his thoughts and he turned to see Marie descending, dressed for outdoor work. She stopped at the bottom of the stairs and saw the two of them sitting together in front of the map. She studied them with those hard eyes before speaking to David.
“Get dressed, we have work to do.” David groaned but got up to change. When he was gone, Marie turned to speak to Alex, “Would you like coffee?”
“I would if you have enough. I know you probably have very little.” Marie smiled and went into the dining room to make some. Just as she did so, the first real rays of sunlight entered the window and the day began. Alex went to speak with her as she made coffee.
“I’d like to help with any work you have if you’ll let me.”
“You are too weak.”
“I’m better today, and I don’t have to do much. I’ll just hold a bucket or hand you tools. I’d just like to express my thanks. I know my being here is not ideal.”
Marie entered the room with two metal mugs and handed one of them over to Alex. The first sip made him feel better, more grounded. He remembered his first days of training, away from family. The little things like coffee or soap always made him feel not so far away.
“Your being here is not a burden. In fact, it is welcomed. It is nice to have you here,” she said, and before he could respond, she continued, “Let’s check your forehead. That wound was not bad at all.” She then set her mug down and unwrapped the bandages from his head. She threw her hands up and smiled.
“Voila, only a small cut remains.”
Alex felt his forehead. She was right; a decent size cut was left on his forehead and it was already beginning to scab over. As he was feeling the wound, David came down the stairs in old jeans, ready to go work.
“Come, soldier. You may help as long as you are healthy enough.”
It was the first time Alex had been outside since he was brought down from the tree. The day was bright and the sky was stripped bare of any clouds. Out the back door of the cottage was the small barn. Made of large and uneven stones, it made Alex feel as if he were connected to the past of Europe simply by looking at the building. How many wars has it stood through?
The north wall of the barn was used to complete the fence the goats were kept in. There were five goats, with a small awning for them to stand under and for their food to keep dry. Alex stood just outside the fence with the board stuck under his arm and a pail in his hand. David went to work shoveling the droppings off the ground and placing them in the bucket he held.
Alex paid no mind to the smell or how much the board bothered his underarm. He unbuttoned his green overshirt for the first time since he landed, and his dog tags hung lazily from his chest while the breeze cooled him. David would laugh as the younger goats butted their heads against his boots, and the older goats bleated impatiently, waiting to be fed.
Marie was around the other side of the barn, and when David sat down on the shovel to take a break, Alex hobbled on his board to where she was working. Coming around the corner, he found a small garden, with a few rows of plants. The first row was a collection of small bushes, with different colored buds beginning to pop open with life. The second and third were but little green stalks of the plants that were to come. Marie was kneeling and digging at the fourth row, halfway down. Alex walked closer and watched as she dropped a few seeds into the hole she had dug.
“Need some help?”
“I am okay, soldier. You shouldn’t stress your leg, anyway.”
“What are you planting?” She responded with the French name of a flower, and seeing Alex’s confusion, she explained.
“They are bushes that sprout white buds during late summer and last until winter. They were my husband’s favorite, and I plant them in his memory now.”
Alex was quiet, and watched her dig a single hole once more, spread seeds, and then cover it again.
“Why do you not dig up the entire row, and spread more seeds throughout? It’ll be a lot faster that way.”
“Speed is not the important thing here, Alex. Taking care to make sure it is done right is what matters.”
“What do you mean?”
“I might tear up the whole row and sprinkle seeds along the row, but that way I lose more seeds than actually take root. If I take care to plant them this way, paying attention to where each one lands, I will find more success.”
“You must always pay attention to the little things, soldier. They begin to add up the more you consider them.” She dropped a collection of seeds in the final hole.
He looked back to the pen and found that David was running around with the younger goats again. Alex smiled and wondered what America would look like under occupation. Would it be just like what he saw? People trying to live and eat and be happy with the threat of death always near? He didn’t know. He always believed the American people would fight. It’s a part of the American history, after all. To never accept what the French had accepted. Maybe it would be too much, and only certain people would have the nerve to fight.
Alex always believed he had that kind of courage, to leave and fight the enemy. Hadn’t he already done that? And, in doing so, left his mother and brother behind like Marie and David. There was no one to protect them now if something happened. Marie’s husband had already died. David and Marie were left alone to the German devices. Someone would need to protect them, like someone would need to protect his family, but Alex had already left.
“Come inside. We’ll take a break and have lunch.” Ssmiled. “Why don’t you grab David for me while I get everything started.”
Alex nodded and limped over to where David was still playing with a baby goat. David smiled as Alex approached.
“Your leg does look better,” David said.
“It feels much better.” He bent his leg at the knee to stretch it a little.
“Does that mean you’ll be leaving us soon?” David asked. For the first time, Alex found himself being pulled to the cottage, instead of south toward the fight. His feet felt anchored on the dirt and grass he stood on and in David’s smile and light eyes. He had a duty and an obligation to go back, to fight. But he found his conviction was lacking for the first time. Who will stand up for them? If the time comes when they need it?
“I’m afraid I’ll have to.” David’s smile slackened and he nodded his head with understanding. Alex thought David must be used to the feeling.
It was then, looking at David in the pen of goats, the sun shining on the nape of his neck and the breeze going through his hair, that he heard his first sounds of the war since he had landed. He thought it was nothing at first. Maybe a large branch fell from a tree or a piece of the old stone barn had fallen. But then there was another and he could no longer deny it. They were gunshots. Two of them, and then nothing more. He looked over to the east. The hedgerow blocked his view, but he stared in that direction looking for anything. And after a few moments, he looked back to David. Be calm. He smiled at David.
“Come on, your mom is making lunch,” Alex said with a coolness.
Inside, Marie stood against the counter next to the table and wiped the sweat off her forehead with her sleeve. She met eyes with Alex as he entered the dining room. Did you hear that? her eyes asked him. He nodded lightly and she dropped her head. When she lifted it again, she was smiling and served lunch. It was much the same as dinner, but this time she had sliced a single apple into pieces, the only one she had.
They ate lunch quickly, for they were all very hungry. When they were done, Alex leaned back in his chair and ate a few slices of the apple as the breeze from the open back door cooled the beads of sweat on his forehead. He sat like that for a while before he asked, “Do you know what baseball is?”
Marie and David both shook their heads.
“We’ve heard of it,” Marie answered. “How does one play it?”
“Well,” Alex started, “it’s simple. A man, the pitcher, throws the ball toward a man with a bat and the man with the bat, the batter, tries to hit the ball. Now, the fielders try and get the ball he hit while the batter goes around three bases. The fielders try and get the ball ahead of the batter, to get him out. But if the batter gets back home, the plate he hit from, that counts as a run. That’s the basic version.”
“Sounds fun,” David said. “Do you play?”
“I do. I was very good in my neighborhood.”
“Where’s that?” Marie asked him.
“New York,” he told them, and they both smiled. He knew they’d like hearing that. It’s just like if they visited Alex and told him they were from Paris. The cultural hubs of two nations. David asked him questions about New York. Was it as big as they say? Did they have a subway? Did he go to soccer games? Was there soccer?
As he asked questions, Alex and Marie could both hear, through the open door, more pops.
They became more frequent and louder. As Alex was talking about football, they heard a machine-gun burst and the sound of an airplane engine far off to the north.
Marie would frequently look to Alex for confirmation. Was that really what it sounded like? He would give his response with a glance, Yes, it was.
It worked. David didn’t notice. Marie eventually closed the door. And they continued to talk at the table for a time. Alex talked about everything he could think of, what it was like outside of the city and what it was like to hunt deer in upstate New York or what the beach in America was like. He talked about anything, even the last thing he remembered about high school. Just to keep David’s attention away from the approaching sounds of war. Until they came too close.
Alex heard a motor, from the road this time, and not the sky. David, Marie, and Alex looked toward the front door, where the path led to the road. Marie looked over at Alex.
“Go,” she said. Alex laid his board against the wall and limped on his bad knee up to the stairs, trying to stay ahead of the approaching vehicle. With each step he took, he could hear the purr of the motor grow louder and louder. But his leg grew weaker and weaker. He reached the door to the attic and as his hand touched the handle, the motor stopped. He heard the squeak of a vehicle door as it opened and shut.
He had to be quiet now. He crept up the stairs and tore his overshirt off; it was stifling. He laid it in one of the clumps of furniture stored there, in the attic. Then he heard the voices. The front door opened, and the voices turned to shouts. Some in German, some in French. He let the shouts cover his movement as he crept next to the bed.
He reached down and pulled the cover off his weapons. He first slipped his bandolier over his shoulder and then strapped his pistol belt to his waist. It was snug and he felt protected with his ammo on his chest and a weapon on his hip. Finally, he checked to see if his M1 was loaded and swung it over his shoulder before drawing his pistol. He pulled the slide back, and in the chamber saw a round was seated. He wondered if he’d soon see that shell ejected.
Alex stood still and breathed lightly as sweat dripped down the bridge of his nose and fell onto his chest. The voices were quieter, but he could still hear Marie’s. Her voice quivered and cracked, and the German response was aggressive. Again and again he could hear the cracks of fear in her voice, though she always remained defiant. The German knew he was going to die soon. The Americans were coming. There was one above him.
Alex stepped toe first over to the stairs and to the door of the attic. He placed his ear against the door and heard no one downstairs, only objects breaking in the kitchen and a quieted argument between Marie and a German. He pushed the door open slowly, and led with the barrel of his pistol.
He crept to the stairs. The German soldier was getting louder and louder. Alex’s knee throbbed and howled as he stepped lightly down the stairs. He held his pistol tightly in one hand, half outstretched with the hammer back. He looked down and his knuckles were white. He took a deep breath to relax, and he crept forward again.
As the German grew louder and Marie grew quieter, Alex crept forward. Finally, he came to a point where he could see around the final bend in the stairs. He crouched as he came around the last turn, and saw, in the sitting room, Marie holding David to her chest with angry tears in her eyes. He couldn’t understand what was said, but the German had finally lost his temper. The German spoke and looked as if he was late for something; he was scared and angry and whatever it was he wanted from Marie she wouldn’t give it to him. Alex thought maybe they knew about him.
He felt the trigger, made sure the hammer was back. He knew if he fired here, he would never leave. He’d never get to his unit, and never get to fight the great battle he wanted. But there was about to be a great battle at the cottage, all his own. That one was just as important, and he was content.
The German stood and started to scream. His face underneath his hat was bright red and he reached for his holster. Alex was quicker and stretched his arm out. Marie and the German looked over at Alex together. Marie covered David’s eyes as Alex fired. The German’s cap landed at her feet.
The heavy sound bounced off the walls and another soldier, this one dressed for combat, looked around the corner from the kitchen. Alex fired at him and missed but heard him go out the back door. The German screamed as he ran around the house and to the vehicle. He yelled the whole way, but his voice cut off as the engine started and he drove off.
“They’re going to be back soon,” Alex said. Marie nodded feverishly and wiped the tears from her eyes.
“David,” she said, “go and gather your things.”
David tore up the stairs, and the sounds of him rummaging through his things echoed off the walls and down the stairs.
“What did they want?”
“A neighbor told them about you. I think they saw you outside today. Or maybe it was when you were in the tree. I don’t know.” Alex saw she stood with emptiness, like a hollow tree in the woods that could no longer stand against the gentlest of winds. She was tired of this war.
“Hey,” Alex said and she quieted. He tried to look at her the way his officers and sergeants had always looked at him, but he couldn’t tell if he looked rattled or not. “Grab anything you need. When you and David are ready, say, in five minutes, you’ll go west.” He pointed. “Okay? And keep running. They’ll stop here for me, but you two keep running. The other Americans will chase them out soon enough.”
Marie nodded and her emptiness faded. Her eyes were still hard like on that first night, and she bounded up the stairs to her room. Alex holstered his pistol but left the holster unbuttoned. He unslung his M1 and racked the charging handle. A round was loaded, and his fate was locked in the sitting room of the cottage in France.
Moments later Marie came back and David held onto her arm, his suitcase in the other hand. He didn’t look at the German lying in front of the chair. He looked only at Alex holding the rifle. Alex said his instructions again, to go west and hide somewhere safe. Marie and David both looked at him, and he could see it on their faces: guilt. Alex had already given his life for them and they knew it.
“It’s okay,” he said, “it’s okay.”
Marie put a hand on David’s back and ushered him out the back door, over the broken glass and spilled food that the Germans left. She looked back once more at Alex. Their eyes met and that was it. They closed the door, and they were gone. They were safe.
Alex went to the attic again, and went to the south wall, opposite his bed, and looked out the window on that wall where he could see the road. He took the butt of the weapon and smashed the glass out of it, clearing the edges of the window with the barrel. He listened intently. For a time, the only sound in his ears was the thumping pain from his knee. He grunted against it. It didn’t matter now.
Soon he could hear crunches. A twig broke here, a rock moved there, and then he heard the final telltale sign: a whisper. He put his weapon to his shoulder and sighted in, the barrel pointed toward the gap in the hedgerow. His mind was clear. It was a moment of pure clarity that felt as though it lasted a day. It was the same feeling of clarity that came before the swing of a bat.
The moment was gone, and he saw very faintly the edge of a helmet creep around the hedgerow. Slowly, the German peeked around the corner. Alex waited until the German showed shoulder. He then sighted his chest and fired through the hedgerow. A single shot. The world was silent afterwards and Alex could only hear the shell land on the wooden floor. He could not see the wound on the German but saw him gasp and roll back. And then it was all but quiet.
He heard a shout and saw Germans run forward, across the gap, to get around to Alex’s right. He fired at the ones he saw run across, landing a hit on one’s leg. Then, from somewhere, bullets cracked in the stone wall of the cottage just next to the window. Alex knew they would try to surround him, but he wondered if they knew it was just him in the house. He ran to the north window and looked out.
Two Germans, carrying a machine gun and tripod, jogged across the tree line. They stopped and Alex could see their flustered faces assembling the gun. Alex sighted the one holding the weapon. He breathed and squeezed the trigger. The German fell as the bullet cracked the glass in the window. He sighted the other German and massaged the trigger. He, too, fell as the remaining glass in the window fell away.
A German fired at this window, from the west hedgerow, and Alex fired back until his ammo was spent. He finessed another clip into the top of his rifle and ran down the stairs. His leg screamed and nearly buckled, but Alex stayed upright and grunted away the pain. On the ground floor, he limp-ran toward the back door and threw it open. He found Germans out in the open, moving toward the cottage. He fired at one and managed to clip him. The other Germans returned fire and Alex felt something punch him in the side.
The pressure knocked him back and he felt the crunch of his ribs as his breath left him. He nearly doubled over but stayed upright. He held his rifle in his left hand and pulled his pistol out with the right. He limped to the sitting room as bullets started snapping into the windows and doors from all sides. Once Alex made it to the sitting room he slumped against the wall. The brick felt cool against the wound.
He felt nothing then, no pain and no worry. He knew he had done his duty. Marie was right. No guilt clouded his mind.
The battle would surely happen. The Germans would run. But at least he never did. The front door busted open and splintered apart, having been shredded by bullets. Alex fired a shot at the entering German and hit him in the leg. The German fired back as he fell.
The Americans found Alex slumped against the wall, weapons in his hands.
A private searched him and pulled the soldier’s dog tags off.
“What was his name?” another private asked.
“What was he doing here?”
“Fighting, looks like.”
“He died shooting, man. Look at the pistol. Come on. Tell Sarge we should bury him. He’s one of us.”
They buried Alexander in the garden next to a row of white flowers. Nothing but a rifle stuck in the ground with a helmet on top to mark his grave: the battlefield cross.
Jake Perkins is a student at Purdue University where he studies English, and travels whenever he can. After graduation, he plans to join the United States Air Force and finish a collection of short stories along with a novel. Twitter: @PerkJay_ Instagram: pake.jerkins
— william hayward