“I looked up at the face of a young boy, but he was distorted by some unknown substance. It was evening, so was it just darkness messing up my vision? No, there was some gurgling sound as well. Suddenly, it had hit me. That sound was water!”
Chapter 2: Kurt
I looked up at the face of a young boy, but he was distorted by some unknown substance. It was evening, so was it just darkness messing up my vision? No, there was some gurgling sound as well. Suddenly, it had hit me. That sound was water! I had never liked the stale biscuits that the boy shoved into my mouth. They tasted like a species of cardboard, and yes, I meant species. They didn’t taste like normal biscuits, they tasted like crap, but delicious crap that I was eternally grateful for. The water flowed across my face, and since my lips were cracked, it gave me brief relief, until I saw the Kaiser’s crest on his shoulder. Wilber! Was 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, wasn’t Wilber evil? Maybe. No. Half? No. Enough to keep an eye on him, I guess. I was delirious. I thought he was my friend, but the real question was: who was this German idiot who would help soldiers of the Triple Entente? We had the French symbol, and he was definitely German. Something didn’t add up.
“Your friend awake,” said the boy, “vision too fuzzy, but I have pistol to your friend and knife that any moment go into stomach.”
So that was the catch. This German boy was after information. Well, the minute he looked at Wilber, I would take out my knife, and the positions would be flipped. Wilber knew this as well and smiled briefly at me as he slowly edged out of the boy’s vision. When his eyes flicked to Wilber, I sliced his knife hand, and Wilber preemptively jumped out of the way of his instinctive pull of the trigger. The boy screamed and dropped his knife, which was grabbed by me, and the gun was quickly grabbed by Wilber, who stood uneasily with the firearm pointed at the boy, lying in a sort of turtle position with his hands raised in a halfhearted attempt to protect himself.
“Who are you, and why did you come to our camp?” Wilber asked with a now rightly earned air of superiority.
“Don’t have camp,” the boy stuttered out in his broken English. “Have piles of dirt.”
Wilber and I shared another look. He may be German, but insulting your captors tended to yield worse results than complimenting or praising them did.
“You were trying to extract information from us, the least you can do is grovel,” replied Wilber, flecks of spit flying out of his mouth in rage.
Wilber was born in Metz, Germany, a harsh place in a neighborhood where the Germans practiced firing shells. Wilber didn’t really know how to talk to people, a thing that had begun in his childhood when he had lost his home to a stray German test shell when he was eleven. He went to find work, but strayed too far once, and while he was away, his family was accused of being French spies and were put before a firing squad three days before he returned. He finally, after staying in his childhood home for a while, discovered extra money that his father hid. He used it to buy his way to Britain, where he became a newspaper boy until he scraped together just enough money to go to America, where he met me. He was an orphan when I found him in the streets after his immigration from Britain. We had become friends ever since I ran away to France, and we joined the French Army together. The Orphan Duo, as we were known. 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.
“Grovel? 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 prepared to shoot the proud German.
Wilber turned to me questioningly.
“Russell, this traitor to the world killed my family.”
I opened my mouth, but he cut me off.
“You know what I mean. Germans. In fact, you do not have a say in this. This is strictly personal between me and the filth he owes his allegiance to. Don’t you know Germans are the filthiest 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 that 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 didn’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 began 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, get back to the Hope Reservoir with his canteen, and be off. 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, then went in circles, randomly picked a direction, and saw 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 from a story, with his word choice and fake 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.
Wilber now appeared resigned to the German’s fate, but he 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 I immediately reproached myself as Kurt became flushed, got up, and dusted himself off. I thought that we were somewhere near the French city of Somme, but we could’ve been near Verdun or Switzerland. Anyway, given our predicament, It didn’t really matter.
“So, what’s your name?”
We needed something to pass the time before I could figure out where we were.
“Kurt,” the boy said.
“Where’s your family?” I asked, slightly over eager in my joy at finally making headway.
“They were murdered in cold blood,” he said stonily. “I left them for the army, and when I came back, they were dead. I don’t know how it happened, so I just stayed in the army.”
Okay, that didn’t work, I thought to myself. I was about to try a different angle to get in, but he cut me off.
“What do you plan on doing with me? And your dilemma? How will you handle that?” he said, trying to stop my efforts for enjoyment before anything became of him, his usual strategy.
I was actually now getting very worried about Kurt calling to the Germans, or waving a flag of surrender. It was hard to guard to him from anything white and even harder to have to watch him constantly. It was out of the question, though, to leave Kurt even slightly unattended. 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?”
“If that is what you call them.”
Suddenly, I was struck with a thought. What religion did this boy — sorry, Kurt — identify with? Wilber was an atheist, and 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 responded.
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 bore into my back. I turned around, Kurt’s gun in my hand, and prepared to fire as I turned. It turned out 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 an unrivaled intensity, it made me flinch.
“How can you be so sure?” I asked him.
I wondered now if there was some kind of aura, a vibe that atheists gave off, or a somewhat secret signal that only other atheists picked 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 is too devoted. He fights for something, I can tell. There is something he hides from us, and he better come clean to me.”
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 shriveled away from his smile to make him focus the spotlight on Kurt. His eyes remained so 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 followed his heart when he gave up the notion of monotheism and all faith for atheism. Wilber had followed his heart his whole life and would never take orders from anyone or, for that matter, give them. He strongly opposed change, and he had a very clear cut belief system that he would always follow and go by.
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 paused momentarily.
“I owe my faith to only Germany. Religion is passing thought, no real importance. Loyalty to your nation is what counts. Nations will stand, but atheists are fools. Jews will die out because their numbers are so low, but Germans will always remain the utmost on the egalitarian chain. We are the true heroes of the war, and all who 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 fake. You, Russell, believed me every moment for your religion, and Wilber here overlooked it, forsaking his true ulterior suspicions for exterior ones. You people are too predictable.”
Wilber and I sat in a stunned silence, too dumbfounded to speak. The wolfish grin still inhabited Kurt’s face, making it look as if he presided over all of 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 from 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 shrubberies. 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 without proper provisions, although the minute I told this to Wilber, he raised his eyebrows and muttered “Why not?” under his breath.
It had a certain paradoxical element, not only within itself, but also the fact that it did kind of help me get through the days, weighing pros and cons of both. We covered Kurt’s mouth with my torn jacket and tied it so that he wouldn’t call out to the Germans, but we were still worried about him somehow being like a beacon to German troops, that his mere presence, unless somehow guarded by some kind of shrubbery, would alert them. Hunger now began to gnaw at me, like a feral animal trying to escape the prison that was my stomach. We kept on going, wearily trudging through the landscape that had become all too familiar to me and my companions throughout these past days. 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. But, crazily enough, that was not the case with him. When I had first brought up the irony that we had had nothing to eat since Kurt had exhausted his rations nursing us to health, and yet we were surrounded by game, he looked at me, with a somewhat destabilized look of insanity, and started to yell.
“Why are you complaining about hunger when we have my gun and bullets for the rabbits and rats 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. He was appalled by the fact that we didn’t immediately understand his perspective and that we struggled to kill the rats and rabbits around us for one simple reason: we held respect for the life around us, and as I had thought earlier, we couldn’t kill with the same intensity of the bullets in our gun. It was different in the haze of the battlefield, when you were shooting at a somewhat unidentified foe, just randomly shooting your gun at what might as well be some kind of deformed beast. It was much different when the eyes of the creature looked at you hard beneath the fur, or scuttled to hide childishly under some remarkably insufficient barrier like a fallen leaf. What person could bring themselves to kill a living, breathing creature that you would then proceed to eat?
In this matter, I was somewhat influenced by Judaism, not a huge amount but somewhat, in my wariness against killing and eating another living creature in cold blood. 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. I wonder why I hadn’t heard them in my reverie.
“You have no respect for any life!” Kurt screamed.
“I’m not the one who wants to kill your precious life, you are!” Wilber returned with fury.
“I mean life that COUNTS ME!”
“Well, at least I’m not killing my own kind!”
“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 you have the mind of a rat, it’d be such an improvement.”
Wilber’s tension from the other day had boiled into today. Wilber’s grimace-smile resurfaced again, 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 Kurt 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. Wilber jumped on Kurt, elbow forward, and jabbed him straight in the nose, hearing 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 realized the fact when he received a crushing uppercut that almost sent him towards Wilber, but he fell backwards. Kurt 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 answers 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, I continued 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 seep blood 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 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 shy away from me angrily to prove his point. What he meant was that he thought that us, as white, pure, good creatures, were rabbits to Kurt’s alter-ego of a rat. When I had allegedly joined with Kurt in their disagreement, I had betrayed him and became a rat alongside Kurt, allied against the rabbit that was still and would 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. We were being shot at! I got a glimpse of grey fabric as I glanced upwards to a tree grove we were planning to avoid for that very reason. During Wilber and Kurt’s fight, we had apparently moved our positions from our previous ones, throwing off our plans to go in one direction and hope for the best of luck. And now, we had to scratch our course because of Wilber’s rabbit drama and Kurt’s obstinacy.
Why was I the one who was caught between these two idiots all the time? Why did I have to suffer for their ridiculous qualms with eating or not eating? Really, I didn’t have to put up with it, I could just shoot the rabbits, shoot Kurt, and start walking, leaving the gun with Wilber. But, that was a crazy thought, especially when we were being shot at. I ran for cover near Wilber under an overhang, and Kurt was seeking shelter in a smaller alcove. Our two hideouts were now under machine gun fire, and there was no real cover. Wilber was too frightened to chitter at me again as bullets rained down on us.
“Damn it!” I whispered to no one in particular.
I picked the gun up off the ground, advanced towards Kurt, and crouched. I had just realized that he was left unattended, no less than 60 feet from the enemy. Kurt reached into his pants and gave me a hard stare. What was he doing? I kept moving. He pulled a bit of his underwear out. What was he threatening me with? He grimly smiled and mouthed the word “white” to me. Oh, his underwear was white. He wanted to surrender with it, show his Eagle. Then we would be killed as Allies. Brilliant. I stayed in my position as rain began to come down. That was actually a blessing in disguise, as rain would hopefully distort the sniper and the machine gunner’s accuracy. Now our only hope was that they would think we were a whole brigade, so they wouldn’t advance. I was only twenty feet away from Kurt, and I was seriously debating shooting him. We crouched there for a while, each eyeing the other, trying to predict their opponent’s next move, a deadly standstill.
After a few minutes, Kurt spoke. “Get the hell away from me now,” Kurt said, “And you know why you better do it fast.”
He held up his underwear. No! I hadn’t realized that he couldn’t get it off in sixteen paces, the distance I’d have to go to get to him, but he could if I stared at him for five minutes looking like a dumb cow. Now I had no advantages, and no Wilber, because any more movement would have the sniper’s gun on me. Then, a body fell out of the tree. More gunshots were heard, and shouts of pain and the enraged buffalo shrieks I knew filled the air. Destruction seemed to reign in this terrible landscape, without even some semblance of authority. I saw that all the Germans actually seemed to be dying and falling out of the tree. There were people in gray-green cloaks, more practical, but apparently no side either. Rogue Germans? Green Berets gone wild? Who knows? But I would soon find out. They were all coming down the trees in droves and looked to be swarming us.
I heard Kurt muttering a few unintelligible words in German.
“Hello, fellow soldiers!” The man in the front of the leading group of five looked at us and smiled. “Little young to be in a war now, aren’t you?”
Then he looked in surprise at Kurt’s Eagle.
“And a German? One confusing group, I’ll tell you that much, little sirrahs, huh?”
He seemed to quite a merry, jubilant man, but I was still suspicious.
“Who are you?” I asked, a now ingrained distrust of nice people bearing the Kaiser’s Crest.
“His name’s Leon,” Kurt said darkly again.
I turned around to stare at him in surprise. I then became very conscious of everyone else staring at my back. But when I turned around, I realised that they were all staring at Kurt like I was, only they were behind me. I turned awkwardly back to Kurt, and then, ironically, all eyes shifted to me. I decided to break the silence.
“How do you know?” I asked quickly, before anyone could comment on my strange turning.
I knew it was worthless to try to explain, so I made it look like they were the ones being weird, what with their not answering. The rain was pouring down outside our little outcrop, and it almost made me reminiscent of the old days back home. The constant patter had almost lulled me to sleep when I finally got an answer.
“He’s a filthy traitor and a liar!” Kurt screamed.
Leon appeared unfazed by the vocal assault. He, however, was fazed when Kurt ran and got the gun.
“You damn murderer! You coward! You scum!”
Kurt had worked himself into such a rage that he was visibly sweating, even during the rain.
“Crook! Vandal! You have no honor! You are not German, nor are you human!” Kurt shot at Leon, just missing his arm.
He turned to me. He looked at me hard. We had both just realized that he had the gun. In my pity for him, I had allowed him passage to the gun, and as a defense, I reached into my pocket for a lighter. I found it. Then I reached for my extra gunpowder in my army jacket. Kurt was still focused on Leon. I pressed myself against the wall and tossed some powder behind Kurt, and fumbled to light the lighter for a second. It wouldn’t light. Kurt stared at me for a second when he heard scratching. One of Leon’s four men tried to jump on him. That turned out to be a bad move. Kurt shot grimly, and the man slumped mid-jump, staring into the ether that surrounded us, staring into nothing.
I sprang into motion, throwing the powder in his face along with the lighter. An acrid smell filled the air, and the air around Kurt turned into a whirlwind of fire, flaring up around him. He screamed, not in pain but in surprise, more of a yelp than a yell. I ran into the fire, knowing that it only lasted for a few seconds, and grabbed the gun from the ground where Kurt had dropped it. I held it to the back of his head. It felt a little weird to hold something as unwieldy as a rifle to someone’s head. I suddenly wished I had a pistol, which would also look much cooler. Kurt trembled and slowly walked forward, away from me.
Quickly, he pivoted and leaped on Leon before anyone could get a word out, and put his hands around Leon’s throat, his eyes burning with cold fury. Leon delivered a crushing punch to Kurt’s rib cage, and Kurt flew off of him with a loud crunch. Kurt gritted his teeth, and when Leon’s remaining three bodyguards tried to apprehend him, he outmaneuvered them and rammed into Leon’s slightly stout frame, head first.
“DIE, you thief! You damn murderer! You ingrate!”
Kurt shoved his elbow into the outside of Leon’s throat.
“Gurk!” Leon said, in a slightly strangled voice. He again bashed Kurt, now on the side of the neck, forcing him into two of the bodyguard’s arms. His jaw was taut, and eyes wild, thrashing at the bodyguards.
I watched in wonder at Kurt’s outburst, and I wondered exactly what had happened between the two men. I would soon get my answer.
“You lied to me!” Kurt’s left side was sagging, and he was bleeding hard from his dislocated nose. “We trusted you, and you betrayed us!”
I was staring at Kurt in a very new light, a light of determination and ferocity. He turned to me, a smart move on his part, isolating himself from the physical conflict that he actually started. He began to tell what had happened, with sporadic spasms of pain and screaming peppering his speech.
“This vagrant– aaaah!– my family had pity on him — graah! — he destroyed our house — gracch! — stole everything we owned.” He began to sob. “He tried to kill us all, and thank God, that in his blunderous rage, he stepped on some of the nail’s that pocketed our floor.”
“AGH!!” Kurt was obviously in a lot of pain, but I was, in a morbid sense, riveted by his tale. It also seemed to have some truth to it. Leon seemed appalled by the story, like he didn’t believe it. Kurt sat with his jacket to his ribs but immediately threw it away, now a damp cloth full of blood. Leon’s three remaining men began to set up camp near us, driving the stakes through the fabric and into the ground.
Kurt was a wreck, shivering in the corner. I almost made a move to help his pathetic form but a stern glance from Wilber told me not to. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, with Kurt in the corner, Leon’s men and Wilber bonding and setting up the camp, and Leon calling in the rest of his meager force in with a horn. I elected to go and talk to Leon.
“Well hello, mister!” He said jovially “I’m really sorry that your friend, Kurt, feels that way, but I think that he’s just trying to cope with what-”
He pronounced ‘what’ in a weird way, with the ‘wh’ in who, and the ‘at’ like the end of cot.
“-happened in the past. I used to be a beggar, but his house burned down, and he blamed me for it. I didn’t try to kill his parents either. I’m actually from the West, ya know, if you couldn’t tell already, but my parents moved to Germany when I was a young kid. I ran ‘way though, and that’s how I became a beggar. But now I’m just boring ya. What are you doin’ with the little murderer? You know, by the way, the man he shot isn’t actually dead. So I guess he’s not really a murderer, more of a coma-creator.”
He chuckled at his morbid joke.
“Now I’m really prattling, tell me about yourself.”
I was enthralled by the way that he could talk, winding me into his yarn without me noticing anything. I liked him immediately, but I was also wary of it, knowing full well how dangerous a person is when they could do that. But he was very comforting to listen to, and it almost made me want to ask him to just keep going. But, my addled mind went on. He won’t think the same if you keep staring at him like this with your mouth open.
I couldn’t get through anything, and I didn’t want to either. My past was something that I’d rather not delve into, especially when I could be listening to him.
“I don’t know what to tell you” I said, “I’m a Jew, and we picked Kurt up when he tried to get information from me and my friend, Wilber.”
When I said the word ‘Jew’, his nose wrinkled a little bit, and his warm and friendly face got a little colder. I didn’t really expect that kind of a reaction from this kind of a man, but I was getting used to it. I excused myself and started back to the camp, happy with my discovery of a new friend in our merry band. I settled down on some moss, glad that the overhang protected me from the rain. I looked over at Kurt, who seemed to be doing something to his face. I shook my head in capitulation and laid my head down on the leaves that Leon’s men had gathered for us. I heard another bang and a scream of pain. Kurt had knocked his nose back in place.