‘“The rats will destroy the rabbit then.” He turned to me. “I thought it was the other way around.” It seemed like a very vague statement to anyone else, but to me it made perfect sense to me, and it hurt me to my core.’
Chapter 1: Expulsion
They didn’t appear to me as bullets anymore. They were worse than the enemy, worse than anything the Kaiser could summon up. They were mindless shards of destruction and death, able to kill a man without remorse or any thought to the matter. But, that is what comes with war.
I am now fifteen, and a proud American Jew, but still cannot kill with the same mechanical intensity. I cannot fathom a time when I could use plastic soldiers and pewter cannons as playthings that could die and regenerate themselves in the span of a few minutes. Sadly, that was my mindset when I entered this war in 1914, and worse, that was my mindset when I volunteered to go on this mission. It is late 1915, and my job, along with three other recruits and a veteran, is to infiltrate the enemy lines in slight discretion. Then we must do as much damage possible before the rest of the advance unit arrived. We are halfway there, and one of us is already dead in a foxhole in no-man’s land. The force now consists of Me, José, Wilber, my closest friend and honorary American, and a weathered veteran known only as Apocalypse’s Fifth Horseman for his chilly demeanor. All of a sudden, the world exploded, or so it seemed.
Shells were everywhere, and that was our cue to attack.
“GO!” Somebody shouted at me to interrupt my reverie, and I hefted my gun into firing position and, according to some crazy unspoken wartime rule, began to bellow like an enraged buffalo.
“Hold the position!”
“We need a doctor!”
The sounds of battle were everywhere, the sound of death, that everlasting shriek cut short by the worse sound of silence. We charged into a foxhole, but as I got in, I realized how much water there was.
“You okay?” asked Wilber.
“Fine. You?” I said.
“Russell, I’m gushing blood! ” he responded with fervor, blood flowing in a steady stream from his thigh. I suddenly realized that the water in the foxhole wasn’t water, but his blood. I knew that he needed a doctor, but I also knew that the expedition could potentially break the German support lines, a crucial target. My mind was made up when José’s body tumbled into the foxhole, eyes glazed and chest mangled.
“Let’s go,” I said solemnly. The enemy was almost upon us. I had no choice, and I headed back to the trenches only out of necessity. Sadly, that argument did not land well with my superior. As I began to explain to him the hole in his reasoning, that Wilber would have died, and just how wrong he was, his nostrils began to flare and I backed down, causing me and the sergeant to sit in such a silence you could almost taste its bitterness and slime. The tension was unbearable, knowing that botching this procedure might result in the loss of my friend, companion, and fellow warrior. The doctor invited us into the army’s hospital room with a hurried wave of his hand, and, ignoring all discipline, I shoved my sergeant aside. I gave a sigh of relief. Wilber was alive! But my relief didn’t last for very long. As we were reunited, the sergeant spun me around and shoved two pieces of parchment into my chest.
“You’ve been discharged. Now get out before I make you.” he said quietly, but with a rage burning in his eyes.
I tried to make a case for Wilber’s being delirious but no one would listen. We’d been given a dishonourable discharge for running away in the face of the enemy, and were left to wander the scorched landscape. Bodies were strewn carelessly across the line, no respect for their families, and evidently no respect for them. The week had passed. We kept walking, running, walking, running, alternating between the two, an eternal rock and hard place situation. Days passed, we tallied them on our shared canteen. Then finally, we went from the fire into the frying pan one hot morning.
“Hey Russell?” Wilber’s shrill voice called out from the small dirty lake that we’d found, and exploited.
“What?” I called back irritably. “Did you fill the canteens yet?”
“Well, yes,” he called back.
“Then what is it?” I walked over to the lake, which we had renamed the Hope Reservoir. It was definitely unclean, but it was water, and it kept our canteens filled. We had utilized it to its complete fullest, even with the easily perceptible mold and moss at the bottom.. We had decided to use the trees the to make wood canteens with our supplies, so we could walk back to Paris or some other town in France, but we did not have a map and so it was very important that we stay, lest we end up in some German town.
Then I saw what he was talking about. He lay in tears with the rock that we used to tick off the days in his hand. But in his other was a nearly shredded canteen. I was at a loss for words. Then he shook his head, and pointed to the Hope Reservoir. At this I fell to tears. Our food and supplies were disappearing down into the lake. A dim voice kept saying that the canteen was an accident while ticking off days, and in his misery had accidentally kicked the supplies in. That voice turned out to be Wilber. After this incident, we decided to get going, and time became a dim factor in my mind. We trudged onward, and we began to become emaciated. Blood soaked the ground. God, this hurt. Where were we? Probably somewhere in hell. Maybe somewhere in Germany. Pain was the only presence in my mind, my stomach was cramping, and it felt as if it was imploding. My thoughts were everywhere, yet always focused around one objective: home. The sun appeared to be a blazing ball of fire, making me nostalgic, and reminiscent of the war. The light began to fade. Darkness was my home now, enveloping me in its soft folds, tempting me to give in. “Wilber, do you have any ideas to pass the time?” I asked desperately.
Wilber stared at me hard. “There aren’t even any sticks here, we can’t even draw in the dust, because there isn’t any. We don’t even know where we’re going! Haven’t you noticed all the repeating landmarks? We’re going in circles! We have to just pick one direction and then go with whatever we choose.” He paused for breath. “If we’re to survive, you’ve got to be more attentive.” I stared back at him, dumbfounded. What repeating landmarks? I just saw bloodied dirt and randomly strewn bodies, which I didn’t think really qualified as landmarks. We started to walk forwards.
“No, I noticed them,” I said stupidly. Wilber stared quizzically at me.
What was he talking about, I wondered.
“Ilow dathe water canty.”
Now he was just speaking gibberish, but the next part alarmed me.
“Garmy Russol. Garmen spak amy.”
I deciphered this one quite well. What he meant to say was that he wanted to stab me! He must have let that one slip, the cursed traitor. It is all so clear now! He is a thief! I did not drop the food, nor destroy the canteen! All I did was take care of him, and he has turned against me! I must admit, I didn’t see such cruelty in him. But he’s the dark one, telling this darkness to come for us, trying to get me to bend to his will the whole time. I saw right through his plans. He should know better than to mess with me. He is staring at me now, head cocked as if I am some kind of demented specimen. He is German. He must be. No he isn’t. He protects me. He is merely leading me to the slaughter. The psychological battle rages on in my head. I break down in tears. I feel as if I am hit, and I fall right in front of Wilber as he also collapses again. The darkness finally overtakes me, and I surrender to its might.
Chapter 2: Kurt
I look up into the face of a young boy, but he is distorted by some unknown substance. It is the evening, so is it just darkness messing up my vision? No, there’s some gurgling sound as well. Wait. That sound is water! I have never liked the stale army biscuits more than when he forced them down my throat at that moment. They tasted like a species of cardboard, and yes, I mean species. They didn’t taste like normal biscuits, they tasted like crap, but delicious crap that I was eternally grateful for. The water flows across my face, and since my lips are cracked, it gives such incredible relief that was unrivaled by any pleasure I had back home, until I see the Kaiser’s crest on his shoulder. Wilber! Is he okay? What happened? My mind was prepared to burst with questions.
“Where is Wilber?” I asked with a frantic air. Was he dead?
Wait, isn’t Wilber German? Maybe. Keep an eye on him, I guess. I was delirious, so no, he is my friend. Anyway, the real question is, what German would help Allied soldiers? We had the French symbol, and he was definitely German. Something didn’t add up. “Friend awake,” said the boy. “Vision too fuzzy, but I have pistol to your friend and knife that go any moment into stomach.”
So that was the catch, the German was after information. Well, the minute he looked to Wilber, I would take out my knife, and the positions would be flipped. Wilber knew this as well, and smiled briefly at me. He slowly edged out of the boy’s vision, and when his eyes flicked to Wilber, I had already sliced his knife hand and Wilber had preemptively jumped out of the way. The boy screamed and dropped his knife, which I grabbed, and Wilber quickly grabbed the gun, and stood uneasily with the firearm pointed at the boy who lay in a sort of turtle position, with his hands raised in a half-hearted attempt to protect himself.
“Who are you?” Wilber said with a now rightly earned air of superiority. Wilber didn’t really know how to talk to people, a thing that had begun in his childhood when he had lost his whole family to a German shell while he was at home. He was an orphan when I found him in the streets after his immigration from Britain, and we had become friends ever since I ran away and we joined the French Army together.
“Don’t have camp,” the boy stuttered out in his broken English. “Have piles of dirt.” He narrowed his eyes in anger and spat at our campsite. Me and Wilber shared another look. He may be German, but insulting your captors tends to yield worse results than complimenting or praising them does.
“You were trying to extract information from us. The least you can do is grovel,” Wilber retorted, spit flecks flying out of his mouth in rage. In the army, we were known as The Orphan Duo, and our ages had become a carefully guarded secret, and one that we kept with our lives. But this German boy seemed almost fourteen, way too young for an army man, even by our standards.
“I not bow.” He seemed more confident now. “I never betray Kaiser Vilhelm.”
“Then that will be your own demise,” said Wilber, as he leveled the gun towards him.
“Stop!” I shouted as Wilber aimed at the German. Wilber turned to me questioningly.
“Russell, this traitor to the world killed my family. You don’t have a say in this. This is strictly personal between me and him. Don’t you know Germans are the most filthy type of organism on the planet? They are lower than scum, not worth the dirt he says our camp is made of. I have every right on the planet and tens of thousands of grieving families to back me up. What do you have? Some foolhardy chivalrous code will get you nowhere but death by snakes like this one. You cannot blame this choice on lethargy. You have to capitulate to these instincts, Russell, they are there for a reason,” Wilber said heatedly.
I sighed. Wilber did have a point, but he made a mistake in telling me to capitulate. I don’t give in to anything, and I wouldn’t start now. I knew Wilber would let down his guard easily with a well placed stroke, and so I tried to put on an indifferent and apathetic air.
“Look Wilber–” I began, but Wilber cut me off.
“That was a rhetorical comment, you don’t respond to it. We can either waste time arguing over this and then kill him, or take advantage of the cool night to get back to the Hope Reservoir. Your choice.” I glared at him. It was hard to argue with someone who wouldn’t let you finish a sentence.
“Wilber, stop and think for a second. If we went from the trenches, to the Hope Reservoir, which was parallel to the battle lines, we then went in circles, then randomly picked a direction, and now we see a random German strolling–” I was interrupted again, but by someone different.
“Then you are in Deutschland, obviously.” The German boy smirked, resembling a gangster, what with his word choice and fake western accent he put on. I suddenly felt an urge to go with Wilber’s strategy, but I stopped myself quickly.
“As annoying as you are, sadly, we’re going to keep you,” I said to the kneeling teen as he slowly moved forward, now back in his turtle pose. Wilber now appeared resigned to the German’s fate, but still wanted to belittle the German one last time as the boy crawled towards them.
“You know, Napoleon once said that an army moves on its stomach. I’m now sure he was talking about German soldiers.”
I couldn’t help sniggering at that last comment, but immediately reproached myself as Kurt became flushed, got up and dusted himself off. My guess is that we are somewhere near the French city of Somme, but we could be more near to Verdun or Switzerland. “So, what’s your name?” We needed something to pass the time before I could figure out where we were.
“Kurt,” the boy responded. “What do you plan on doing with me?” he said, trying to stop my efforts at enjoyment before anything came of them, his usual strategy. Kurt was really getting on my nerves, but he was our only chance out unless we wanted risk a hit or miss in a random direction, and end up in Berlin. The sun was already pretty low on the horizon, and by the time it became too dark to continue, we had laid down in a cluster of rocks, and I went on guard to watch the camp. I turned around and saw Kurt staring at my back. I turned around to look at him.
“What?” I asked, feeling somewhat unnerved. He kept staring at me until he finally said something.
“Say it again. What you were muttering,” he asked.
“You mean my prayers?” He nodded.
“If that’s what you call them.” Suddenly, I was struck with a thought. What religion did this boy – Kurt – identify with? Wilber was an Atheist, I was a Jew, but what did this new member of our crew believe in?
“Are you a Jew?” I asked tentatively.
“No. And no other religion either,” he said. Ah, so the boy was an Atheist, like Wilber. Darn. I wondered why they hadn’t bonded over the fact yet. Something was wrong. I felt another pair of eyes boring into my back. I turned around, Kurt’s gun in my hand, and prepared to fire as I turned. It turned out just to be Wilber angrily staring at me.
“What?” I asked, in a slightly provocative tone.
“He is not an Atheist.” Wilber stared at me with such intensity it made me flinch.
“How can you be so sure?” I asked him. I wondered if there was some kind of vibe that Atheists give off, but a secret signal that only other Atheists pick up on. I tried to imagine Wilber with a halo, or some kind of invisible radio signal that he radiated from his head or something like that.
“He’s too devoted. He fights for something, I can tell. There is something he hides from us, and he had better come clean.” A small smile appeared on Wilber’s face, but one devoid of real happiness. It looked more like a grimace or a scowl, but really, it was just a smile with no life. I backed away from his menacing smile, so as to make him focus the spotlight on Kurt. His eyes, though, never moved. He remained fixated on Kurt, as if he were some kind of grotesque specimen. Wilber followed his instincts when he ran from the German shell, he followed his heart when he immigrated to Britain from France on his family’s money, and from Britain to America as a stowaway. He’d followed his heart when he gave up monotheism. Wilber had followed his heart his whole life, and he would never take orders from anyone, or for that matter, give them. But most of all, Wilber knew people. Wilber knew when people were lying and what they were hiding from him, but his gaping flaw was that he didn’t know himself nearly as well as he knew other people. WIlber could not, for the life of him, decipher himself, and had really only branded himself an Atheist out of necessity. He liked to say that he was a powerful disciple and devotee to the heart, and I was fully prepared to see this seemingly innocent conversation go up in flames because of him. Kurt gave him a wolfish grin and stood up, fully prepared to meet the obvious challenge of his loyalty. He stood close to Wilber and, without pause, began his comeback with bravo.
“I owe my faith to only Germany. Religion is passing thought, of no real importance. Loyalty to your nation is what counts. Nations will stand, but Atheists are fools, Jews will die out, but Germans will always remain the utmost on the egalitarian chain. We are the true heroes of the war, and all that doubt us will fall. Nationality is the only thing that will persist throughout the ages, where beliefs will fail and religion will fall. And yes, my broken English was a fake. You, Russell, believed me for every moment for your religion, and Wilber here overlooked it, forsaking his true ulterior suspicions for exterior ones. You people are too predictable,” Kurt said.
Wilber and I sat in a stunned silence, too dumbfounded to speak, the grin still inhabiting Kurt’s face, making it look as if he presided over all this. He then went back to bed using his kingly walk, making him look smugly royal, as if he had just expounded the answer to the meaning of life onto peasants who were struggling to comprehend life at its smallest.
Chapter 3: Rats and Rabbits
After the argument the night before, I thought that we really needed to watch more attentively while in the camp. We packed our, well, nothing, as our camp was only really dirt and shrubbery. That day, as we set off to make our way across the French border, a thought suddenly struck me. We had a German prisoner, which we couldn’t take with us across the border. We also couldn’t leave him stranded here, although the minute I told this to Wilber, he raised his eyebrows and muttered, “Why not?” under his breath. We always had the gun ready, so that he wouldn’t call out to the Germans, but we are still worried about him being somehow like a beacon to German troops, that his mere presence, unless somehow guarded by bushes and shrubs, would alert them. Hunger now began to gnaw at me, like a feral animal trying to escape the prison that was my stomach. Finally, our weary sights turned to the abundance of game that seemed to surround us.
Kurt was almost to the point of trying to shoot the both of us, and to the casual observer, he would have no premise to shoot us besides the fact that we had captured him. Crazily, that was not the case with him. When I had first brought up the irony that we had had nothing to eat since Kurt exhausted his rations nursing us to health, yet we were surrounded with game, he looked at me with a somewhat destabilised look of insanity, and started to yell.
“Why are you complaining about hunger when we have my gun, bullets, and rabbits, all around us? You are swimming in a freshwater lake, and you are complaining that there is no water to go around.” He shook his head half in disgust and half, truthfully, in shock. Where he came from, utilizing nature was a part of life, an accepted fact that everyone seemed to understand and did so without hesitation or thought to it. In the matter, I was somewhat influenced by Judaism, not a huge amount, but somewhat, in my wariness against killing and eating in cold blood another living creature. It seemed much more innocent to eat meat that somebody else killed, knowing in some form or another that it wasn’t my fault, that it would be eaten anyway. Now pictures of the rabbit frolicking in a field harassed my mind. When I turned around, Wilber and Kurt were arguing loudly.
“You have no respect for any life!” Kurt screamed.
“I’m not the one who wants to destroy your precious life, you are!” Wilber returned with fury.
“I mean life that COUNTS, you IDIOT!”
“Well, at least I’m not committing regicide!”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“You’re lower than a rat, I thought he had some authority over you! Frankly, I’d rather have the rat.” Wilber’s tension from the other day had boiled into today. Wilber’s grimace smile again resurfaced, this time in a more sarcastic form.
Suddenly, a bang rocked the ground around us. We were being shot at! Then I saw that Kurt, in a quick maneuver, had grabbed the gun, and shot the rabbit, leaving the rat to run away. Wilber stared at him with such an anger that I had never seen solicited from him before, and charged the few paces between them. He punched him in the jaw, and I watched Kurt crumble before Wilber’s stocky form. Then Wilber let out a cry of pain. Kurt had used a rock to hit him in the shins. He jumped on Kurt, elbow forward, and jabbed him straight in the nose, and I heard a crack. He got on top of Kurt and was immediately toppled off by Kurt’s hit to his right shoulder. He fell over, and as he tried to get up, Kurt slugged him in the stomach. But Kurt didn’t notice that Wilber’s left hand had moved behind him, and only realised the fact when he received a crushing uppercut that almost sent him towards Wilber, but he fell backwards. He then hooked Wilber’s leg and began to pull him downwards, all the while raining punches on his stomach, his mouth, and his cheeks. I suddenly realized that I had just been standing here the whole time, and I moved to intervene. I tried to break them up and received my fair share of punches in the process, but I finally succeeded in stopping them.
“What’s the matter with you!?” I asked heatedly, although I knew both their answer and the real one.
“Here’s the matter,” Kurt said.” You people are–”
“Would you shut up for just one damn second?” I said, then regaining my composure, went on.
“Here’s the reason that you two are squabbling like this: You don’t have any food.” Kurt started to get the gun, but Wilber stiff-armed him.
“Not yet Kurt. If I know my FRIEND…” He paused to slam in the emphasis. “He’ll have more to say on the matter, won’t you Russell?” He stared at me so hard that I flinched, for the second time in the last seventy-two hours.
“No Wilber, I hate to concur with Kurt, but he’s right. We need the food.” The dancing rabbit in my head began to bleed from the numerous bullet holes I now imagined him with.
“The rats will destroy the rabbit then.” He turned to me. “I thought it was the other way around.” It seemed like a very vague statement to anyone else, but to me it made perfect sense to me, and it hurt me to my core. Wilber sat down on one of the rocks in our den in disgust, and went to sulk in a corner. Whenever I came near him, he would show his front teeth, chitter, and turn his back to me angrily to prove his point. What he meant was that he thought that us, as pure creatures were rabbits to Kurt’s alter-ego of a rat. When I had joined with Kurt in their disagreement, I had betrayed him and became a rat alongside Kurt, allied against the rabbit that would allegedly always be Wilber.
Another crack rang through the air. I turned to Kurt, prepared to punch him nearly as hard as Wilber did, when I saw that the gun was lying on the floor near Wilber. My eyebrows creased in questioning, until I fell in pain as I felt my thigh implode on itself, my bone shattering almost instantaneously. The world began to go dark, and through my blurry vision I saw French troops coming in with machine guns from a group of trees, and a German sniper fall from an adjacent patch. Then I understood.
Chapter 4: Loyalty
I woke up in a bunker. Was Kurt just a dream? I feel sick. No, not a dream, because my leg is hurt. Then where is Wilber? Standing next to me. What?! I turn my head feebly toward Wilber. He smiled at me.
“Kurt ran,” he said gently. “You took a bullet to the left thigh, but the doctors say that they got it out, and fixed up your bone. We’re in Verdun, and if you’re better, I’d much rather fight alongside you.”
I smiled in return, and found that I could get up. Before I knew it, they had equipped me with the standard weapons, a Berthier rifle and a few grenades on my belt, and we were off again to the battlefield, with the same mission: maximum damage, minimum discretion. A storm of bullets were all around us, and Wilber and I faced them down together, as friends and allies once more. We were ordered to take down a particular bunker that had been a thorn in the side of the commanders for a while now, and we set off to storm it.
So far, so good. We were in the bunker, and we weren’t met with any resistance. We then went in with our new storming group of seven other men, but as we went through the tunnels and finally found the main one, two of our group immediately dropped dead to awaiting machine guns. There were about twenty Germans in there, but in the firefight that ensued, they lost sixteen, and all our men and reinforcements were dead. I had been shot twice, once grazing my ear, and once in my hand when I stopped a bullet from coming into my heart. Wilber was so far unscathed, but there was no way out of here unless these Germans either surrendered or died protecting the exit hole deep into their lines. Suddenly, two more Germans came from behind us and one used the butt of their gun to hit me in the neck, knocking me down, and Wilber, to avoid being hit in his own turn, fell as well. The Germans blocking the entrance approached us, with one of them walking forward ahead of the group
“Now you die,” the German said, holding a gun to my head. All of a sudden, another German came bursting out of the exit hole towards us, and shot the lead German in the back of his head. The soldier’s messy blond hair was all too recognizable to us. Kurt!
“Go!” he shouted. “There was a reason I didn’t shoot you when I had the chance. Follow your religions no matter how minor they are. I am happy to give my life to let two men realize their potential.”
He shot another German, and Wilber picked me up, slung me over his massive shoulder, and ran. I saw Kurt shoot another before receiving a bullet to the stomach. His face contorted in pain, he shot a soldier running after us. Now bullets peppered his body, and a bayonet appeared from behind him through his chest. He now fell, and the Germans repeatedly bayoneted him and shot him at close range. His eyes became vacant, an empty stare, as Wilber took me farther and farther out of the tunnels. My eyes fluttered rapidly as I started to lose consciousness, and I began to cry. Wilber, hearing my sobbing, knew what happened and also began to cry. I realized that Judaism and Atheism were powerful, but to have the strength and loyalty that Kurt had was beyond the power of any God or man on this earth.