I have just written my first short story. My wife said that I couldn’t do it. She said that if I tried to write a short story it would end up only being 100 pages long instead of somewhere along the lines of two or three pages. Well, I proved her wrong and here it is. It is titled Retreat Hell. Let me know what you think of it!
We’ve been in these cursed woods for three days now, pushing our way toward Paris in an attempt to take France. Most of us are left with only a determination to survive rather than to accomplish that goal. My name is Manheim Kurtz and I’m a corporal in the 28th Division of the 7th Army of Imperial Germany. I would like this tale to stand as a testimony of the true way the world, in all of its forms, works.
It’s been a year since the Americans joined the fight and they’ve shown a spirit for fighting that we, the German people, thought was possessed by us alone.
A good example of this is the United States Marine Corps. Teufelshunde is what some of us call the American Marines, though the phrase is new to me. Our contact with them has been limited but detrimental to our advance. We’ve had them out numbered from the first day but they cling to their initiative with the tenacity of hounds of hell or devil dogs.
Upon their arrival a lieutenant of theirs was ordered to pull back because our push had left the allies rocking on their heels. The young American officer’s words echo in my head to this day; “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!”
The Americans didn’t retreat. Frankly, I don’t believe they ever will. These devil dogs are dug in and their will to fight is most impressive.
The Americans are dedicated to holding Belleau Wood and defending Paris. This is my chronicle of what has transpired and of the horrible realization of how the war, and any war we wage, is lost.
We are enjoying cups of a pathetic, ersatz excuse for coffee and chewing our hardened bread and beef when Sergeant Jaeger appears.
“Corporal Kurtz, Privates Feldermas, Zeigler, Deiter; on your feet. You’ve been selected to act as a probe. The Americans are proving a problem and you four are to find the weak points in their lines,” says Sergeant Jaeger, our platoon sergeant. Jaeger is a beast of man. He looks like a throwback to the days of Attila the Hun. His blondish brown hair is always kept cut close to his head and his blunt face is frightening to behold. His smile, in the rare times he shows it, frightens me. He’s the epitome of what a soldier should be. “The American Marines need to be crushed if we’re to take Paris,” he says.
We’ve had contact with the Americans on three separate occasions and each time they’d repelled our pushes.
“Are they becoming a nuisance to the Kaiser, Sergeant?” asks Feldermas. He’s always making comments that he should keep to himself. He’s also always the last to volunteer. He’s not very smart but he’s our main scrounger. God knows why he feels the need to scrounge everything he comes across. He has a brilliant future as a thief if he isn’t one already.
“You’re the nuisance,” says Deiter. Deiter is a factory worker from Munich. He’s solid and dependable, like me unfortunately. We both dislike being dependable.
Unlike me though, he believes in the mission and the war with every fiber of his being. “To me, you are the greatest nuisance,” Deiter says, rising and tapping Feldermas on the head with his rifle butt, making Feldermas spill his coffee.
Zeigler chuckles at both of them as he stands. Zeigler doesn’t speak much unless he has something to say. He’s quiet, reserved and a decent soldier. Draftees such as him are simply here because they have to be. He does enough because duty demands it but doesn’t go out of his way either. However, he’s not a shirker like Feldermas.
Sergeant Jaeger allows us our comments and joking before becoming what he is naturally. “Enough with the jokes, Deiter and Field Mouse. Start soldiering. Form up on me and listen.”
“My name’s Feldermas, Sergeant,” protests Feldermas.
“You’re name’s whatever I make it! Now shut up and listen for a change.”
We gather around and Sergeant Jaeger details where command believes the weakest links in the American lines are. “Your probe should last no more than three hours. Plenty of time for you lay abouts to gather information on their positions.”
Then Jaeger wastes no time kicking us out of the safety of our covered position. American artillery has a loose-based idea of where we are, but they haven’t zeroed in on us yet. Their shelling hits around us for the most part, but more often than not it’s misses more than hits.
We know the Americans are holding an abandoned farmhouse as a command and control center. Also, their lines are spread thin but they fight like they are the numerically superior force. Therefore, finding their weak points is the foremost priority in winning the war because if we take Paris then the enemy will be crushed.
We leave, grumbling to each other as if the universe were fair, but unfortunately for us it is not.
The sun comes through the branches in rays that illuminates very little. It’s very quiet where we tread. Animals and insects have long fled the region. They’re smarter than us and they don’t fight over pride or territory nearly as much as we do.
We inch through the forest, maintaining our silence as the surrounding stillness shrouds us. It is unnerving and I can’t help but to feel out of place. In my three years of fighting I have never felt such a foreboding quiet.
“We should’ve come across their lines by now,” says Zeigler. “Where are they?”
He only says what I, and surely the others, am thinking. In the hour we’ve been out, we haven’t come across anything remotely hostile.
“They’re smarter than command gives them credit for,” answers Deiter. “They could be watching us now.” He doesn’t believe what he says for a second and proves it with a wide smile. He believes the Americans to be weak, much like their French and British counterparts. He also believes his thinking to be correct. As he says more often than not, “Two nations have been unable to put an end to us so why should the United States be any different?”
He speaks to soon. Machine gun fire from our right flank dispels that notion.
We have walked right into an ambush accompanied by painfully accurate rifle fire. The Americans are farm boys that hunt daily to survive and New York gangsters that fight for their criminal territory almost as much as we fight in this war.
“There’s your goddamn Americans,” screams Feldermas. He returns fire unsure of were he should be shooting.
“We need to fall back,” I scream. The machine gun is merciless and we will achieve nothing by standing to fight. “Go! Move back, stay low!”
I hear American voices as Deiter brakes from his position behind a tree three meters to my left. Rounds from the Americans snap and impact the trees around him. He slides to a stop in the open before rolling over to cover the others.
Zeigler and Feldermas follow his example. I mentally curse Feldermas as he runs. He should be covering Zeigler, not running with him.
Zeigler looks over his shoulder before turning to fire and runs backward into a tree; not his finest moment but near normal for him. He falls face first to the ground and goes prone. “Come on, Manheim!” he yells as he and the others cover me.
My heart explodes in time with the sounds of the rifle fire flying past me. The insane chatter of the machine gun makes my ears ache with “pak-pak-pak” noises as they hit the trees around me.
I think, Dear God make it stop! as I fall down next to Zeigler. This encounter has further compounded my desire to be done with war. I return fire as I make my vow to God to never fire a weapon again if only He’d lift me out of the hell of this so-called Great War.
The others fall back again. Feldermas goes by protocol this time, covering the others. I am the last to fall back. The shooting tapers off before stopping all together.
I can’t help but stare at the Americans as they break cover and charge through the haze of smoke. They are smarter than us. Their greenish brown uniforms blend in better than ours. No wonder they were able to ambush us, that and with their being gangsters and farmers they know how to lay in wait.
They aren’t shooting any more and I can see that their charge is more of a wary creep forward. The smoke obscures us from them. They are hazy in the lingering gunfire created cloud.
We lay in a dense stand of trees, watching the Americans move around. They don’t seem intent on finding us though. From what I can tell it appears that they are more interested in looking for blood trails. None of us are hit though so there is nothing to follow. It has been a lucky day for us.
“They can’t find us,” says Feldermas, being unusually calm. “We need to go.”
“No,” I say, determined not to give away our hiding spot. “We stay put till they move off. No one goes anywhere.”
“Are you mad, Corporal? They can’t see us.” Feldermas is adamant about putting more distance between them and us.
“Stay…put!” I hiss excitedly. I don’t want to push our luck any more than we already have.
Finally the American Marines leave. I suppose they are satisfied with simply pushing us back. I take this as an affirmation of my thought that they are professional soldiers, not murderers. Thank God for that much.
We wait another half hour before leaving our shelter. We cover as much ground as we can in our trek back to our company area. Mentally I review what fire power the Americans have and their locations. The machine gun fire was so heavy that I wonder if they have two or more placements. It’s their line, I think to myself. It has to be. I am coming to believe that we may have underestimated the American industrial machine and their will to fight. Yes, these American Marines have more than earned their Devil Dog moniker. Some mean it as an insult but to me it’s a bitter compliment.
The sun is beginning to set as we continue to retrace our steps. “We should’ve been there by now,” I muse aloud.
“Damn right we should have been,” says Zeigler. “We’re lost. How could we have gotten lost?”
“We’re not lost,” I answer, hoping I’m right. It doesn’t feel like we’re lost though I’ve been wrong before.
Deiter grunts in agreement. “No, we’re on track,” he says as he stops unexpectedly, looking at the treetops. “I know we’re near the company area.”
I stop while Zeigler and Feldermas walk around looking at the ground. “There’s no tracks or signs of anyone. I think Deiter’s right but…” I say to myself. I look at Zeigler, who is the closest to me. He looks confused if not a little scared and I feel the trickle of fear born sweat on my neck. There’s no evidence that troops of any nation have been here.
We continue on until the sun bids farewell. It’s dark so I give the order to bed down before setting the watch for the night. Establishing a bivouac in this motionless wood is a frightening prospect; not even owls hoot their presence.
As I settle in for first watch, I mention that it would be nice if we were to be captured. At least the war would be over for us. Deiter calls me a traitor in a half joking voice but Zeigler and Feldermas just laugh. I’m sure they agree with me.
The night passes uneventfully. Deiter has last watch so he wakes us at dawn, informing us that nothing has happened. A dense fog has set in though, limiting our ability to see past seven meters. It’ll give us as much cover as it will the Americans.
We start a small fire and brew what ersatzkaffee we have. I’ve never liked what we’ve been drinking for coffee but today the smell isn’t as bad as it usually is. Even the wooden bread isn’t as awful as it normally tastes. The meat has less of a salty taste as well. God, I hate being in the Army.
For the first time in three years I find myself complaining of the cold. The others agree with me. It’s early June, why do I feel like I am freezing? The damp fog and the cold makes me want to curl up and die.
I push the thoughts away and chatter idly with the others. Being the one in charge I order us to widen our search pattern. Bitterly I admit that somehow we’ve gotten off course. How I don’t know; I’ve always been able to navigate the woods easily. I spent most of my life in the country with the exception of my time in the Army and my time at college in Sacramento, California. I only returned to Germany because of our sinking the Lusitania. Some Americans took a dim view of that.
Our talk is cut short by a nearby mechanical rumbling. In that moment, we hold our collective breaths.
“Is that a tank?” whispers Zeigler in awe. He says it like he’s called forth the Devil himself. We’ve had only one encounter with the mechanical marvel of warfare. It was something to behold and to fear. Out of all the things that have come forth in this war to fear, tanks are second only to gas. Life in the trench is difficult at best but gas and tanks make that life worse.
The ground shakes underneath us. The tank, if it is just one, is near. Rumors have spread amongst us that the Americans have a vast store of these lumbering killers. The British have a few but the Americans dwarf their mechanical manufacturing capabilities.
We leap to our feet, grabbing our rifles. I kick dirt over our poorly burning fire and we run to where we believe we’ll be safe.
The ground shakes harder as it comes closer to us through the fog. This tank is different than the one we previously had contact with. It’s smaller in length and its steel hide is smoother, subtler. Gone are the rivets and multiple gun and cannons ports. A single rounded pillbox sits on top of what’s called the hull. Protruding from the front of the pillbox is a single gun that looks more impressive than any I’ve ever seen. “Hold up here,” says an American, standing half in, half out of the pillbox’s top.
The tank comes to a complete stop. I wave my hand motioning for everyone to get closer to the ground. I pray that our gray uniforms will help us to blend in with the fog. The Americans are so head strong that they move about like the fog’s not even there. They are an arrogant bunch but I wouldn’t have thought that would carry over into combat.
As the tank soldiers pile out of their beast I focus on the tank. Hauptman Greiswald will want to know about these new additions. If America is bringing this to bear on us then the war is lost.
The front of the tank’s hull slants upward sharply with what appears to be a machine gun protruding from its right side. Curiously the machine gun’s barrel is much shorter than what I’m used to seeing and the single main cannon looks to be a medium artillery piece. There is a white star on the side of the pillbox and another on the hull. I marvel at who would put a target on such a vehicle but judging by what I see, I doubt we have anything that will stop it.
Wood and green boxes are all over the tank, I’m assuming they hold supplies, but most impressive of all is a large caliber machine gun mounted on top of the pillbox. From what I can see it’s a 12.7mm weapon and looks more refined than anything we have. The Americans have been busy shaping war into an art form. Their President Wilson was obviously lying when he said that America wanted to remain out of the war. It appears they’ve been tooling for our defeat all along.
“I thought I smelled smoke,” says an American officer looking around as he walks to where our fire was. Our fire was weak and thankfully he doesn’t take note of it past its faint odor.
“You sure, you smelled smoke, Lieutenant Stuart?” asks another tank soldier dressed in green overalls. The weapon he carries is another indication of America’s war making might. It looks like it could be a machine gun but it has no belt and is much shorter. It has a single grip and what I can only guess is a magazine vertical to the barrel but forward of the trigger well. The barrel is blunted and the receiver looks box like in design. I would really like to get a closer look it.
“What are they carrying for weapons?” Deiter whispers in my ear. “And that tank…”
“I don’t know,” I answer, wishing he’d remain quiet.
Another tank soldier walks around with a magnificent looking rifle. I peer at it intently but I can’t bring to mind any design that it matches. There is no external magazine and no bolt to work by hand.
Wet fear trickles down my neck in rivers. What are these men and the monster they travel in?
“There’s nothing here, Arch. Let’s get back on patrol.” The lieutenant gives the order to mount up and moments later the tank rumbles away.
“What in hell was that,” asks Feldermas in a soft tone, afraid that the tank will hear him and return.
“That,” I say hesitantly, “was an American tank.”
Feldermas looks down at his pants. He has wet himself. After everything we’ve seen and done, he urinates on himself in fear of that tank. In truth, I want to do the same and no one laughs at him.
“We need to go.” The urgency is clear and time is short. This development needs to be reported because if this is being brought to the field then men will die needlessly.
We walk forward, more alert than ever to our surroundings. Even Feldermas is acting like a soldier. In an uncharacteristic move, he volunteers for point.
We walk for what feels like hours and even though the sun is high, the fog has not lifted. “I hate French weather,” I mutter, breaking sound discipline. No one replies, they’re intent on getting back to our lines.
Abruptly, gunfire erupts about three hundred meters to our right. We dive for cover; sure it’s us that are being fired upon. We wait, convinced that we’ve been spotted. As the fire continues I realize it is different somehow. It sounds dull yet close. We hear the familiar sound of Mauser Gewehr 98’s answering the strange rifle fire, which is more rapid than our bolt-action rifles and is accompanied by the sound of unfamiliar machine guns.
“Our line must be near,” says Feldermas with no small amount of hopefulness in his voice. He looks to me, eyes begging for us to advance so we can investigate. My heart tells me that we want no part of whatever is nearby, but he’s right. It may be our German compatriots needing our help out there.
Against my better judgment I give the order to advance toward the battle as quickly as possible.
“Left flank,” yells an American voice as we near the shooting. “Krauts advancing on our left. Redirect fire!” immediately we catch American suppressing fire.
The rounds whiz by us, but the adrenaline of being in battle helps us ignore the danger. We return fire at the Americans while trying to contact our nearby fellow Germans.
“What are Krauts?” asks Deiter as he fires at the Americans.
“I thought our nickname was Boche or Hun,” says Zeigler. He laughs furiously as he sights in on an American and squeezes off a round. I don’t know why he chooses now to laugh but it seems to makes him feel better. His shot misses but that doesn’t deter him. The fog is affecting all of our aim.
Through the lighter patches of fog, I notice these American soldiers’ dress and helmets look different than those we’ve previously encountered. I try to make them out better but it’s so damn hard to see them clearly.
Now that we’re closer, German voices answer our calls but they sound suspicious. We identify ourselves and are horrified when they begin to shoot at us along with the Americans.
“Stupid assholes,” screams Feldermas. “We’re German like you! Grandfather Wilhelm will have your head for this!” He tosses a grenade at our fellow Germans, but it lands short then gives a muffled crump as it explodes.
Stupid me forgot about the three grenades we each carry. I curse Feldermas aloud as I throw one of mine. It lands near an American who simply glances at it before turning his attention to me. I can tell he’s squinting, trying to get a definite fix on me. I hear the grenade go off but I can see no shower of dirt and the American is unaffected by it. Instead, another soldier joins him. The new soldier carries the same unidentifiable weapon that the American tank soldier did.
He fires at me and the rounds kick dirt into my face. As I blink the debris away it dawns on me that the first soldier has the ability to fire his rifle eight times before a metal sound rings from it indicating that it is out of ammunition. It’s semiautomatic and has the potential to fire very accurately in the right hands. Thankfully for me this soldier is firing blindly.
However, his brother in arms’ weapon is much more frightening and breathtaking. It lays down an astonishing amount of fire with one pull of the trigger. It’s like an uber lightweight machine gun, easily carried and used by a single soldier. Now I really want to piss myself. We can never hope to match these infantry weapons.
“Grenade, Kurtz! Grenade near you!” Zeigler warns me. I look to my right and less than a meter away is a grenade that further astounds me. It’s smaller than ours but gives off just as much destructive power. I know this because when it detonates I am somehow uninjured. I assume it must be made for a killing height of a meter or more. I thank God for sparing me to live another day.
The fire that came from our fellow Germans returns to the Americans before it withdraws slowly. We also crawl away from the field as cautiously and quickly as we can. It’s a long, hard crawl but worth it if it keeps us in one piece.
Once we’ve crawled about twenty meters away we climb to our feet. The fog has given us the cover we need to escape. For the first time all day I’m glad for it.
The need to find our company is compelling so we search for the Germans from the battle. We can hear them whispering to each other, talking about getting their wounded to an aid station and regrouping to engage the Americans again.
Deiter calls out to them and they go quiet. After a few seconds we hear them whispering among themselves once more and then the silence returns. Suddenly, I get the feeling that we are being stalked and by our own people no less. Zeigler has the same feeling and says as much.
Deiter and Feldermas agree so I make the decision to fall back. They may be deserters yet they speak as if they are still in the fight against the Americans.
Everything that has happened has left me confused so for safety’s sake I give the order to withdraw from the area all together. They may be German but they fired upon us and I won’t risk my life or the lives of these men on such a gamble. We quietly withdraw and find ourselves back where the battle took place.
“Shit,” says Deiter, looking around. “We’re back where we started, Kurtz. Now what?”
“We need to look the area over,” I say, feeling the need to find out more about what’s going on. “Something’s not right.”
“Do you think so,” says Zeigler with no light amount of sarcasm. “We were fired upon by the Americans AND our own people. I bet they were deserters.”
“Ja,” agrees Deiter. “And they should be shot.”
“Some of them were,” says Feldermas trying to be funny, but instead it flies all over Deiter.
“Shut up, Feldermas. What do you care? You’d just as soon join them. Of that, I am sure,” spits Deiter. He is angry and I can’t blame him after everything that we’ve been through. On a personal level I’ve never thought of Feldermas as a coward. There’s a world of difference between a shirker and a deserter.
“Piss on you, Deiter. You want to have this out then let’s do it,” yells Feldermas.
“Fellows,” calls Zeigler from the fog. “Fellows, stop fighting and get over here. There’s a wounded American.”
Deiter and Feldermas cease their argument and join me in looking for Zeigler.
We find a trail of blood and follow it to where Zeigler is crouched beside an American soldier. The American is wounded and scared and my heart goes out to him.
“He’s but a child,” says Zeigler, though the American is no older than he is. The war has aged us in ways that mere years never could. It’s the way it ages all soldiers that have fought as long as we have. The young American has the look of a newcomer to war.
“Should we kill him?” asks Deiter. I know Deiter means it as mercy and not barbarism because the boy is so badly wounded. I lean my ear to the bullet wound in his chest and listen.
“Why didn’t his comrades take him with them? It seems wrong to leave him here as he is,” says Zeigler, staring at the American with curious eyes.
The American soldier, like all the others we have encountered today, is clothed oddly. With his right hand he clutches his strange weapon with what strength he has left. It’s one of the marvelous eight shot rifles and as much as I’d love to examine it, I’m more concerned with the American’s well being.
“Rest easy, soldier. What’s your name, friend?” I ask in my best English, taking his helmet off.
“Wayne Taylor,” he says between struggled breaths. “PFC Wayne Taylor. 7th Armor Division, US Army.”
“I am Corporal Mannheim Kurtz,” I say, attempting to share what little water I have. He denies it, pushing it away with a weak hand. I look over to find Feldermas rifling through his pack and I shake my head no at him. The man is dying. He doesn’t need the indignity of us going through his belongings as he holds to life’s failing remnants.
Feldermas notices me looking at him and nods in agreement. He isn’t very far into his examination so he just closes the flap.
I look at PFC Taylor as I hold his hand. “I’m sorry we’ve had to meet like this.” I say softly, fumbling for the right words to say to this young man. He looks at me with a mixture of grief and anger and I can’t blame him.
“Rest, Wayne, please,” I say, running my hand gently through his hair. His hand had weight when I first grasped it but no more. His eyes close and I feel like we’ve been thrust into a nickelodeon melodrama.
I lower PFC Wayne Taylor’s hand as I tell Feldermas it’s now okay to look through the man’s pack. I’ve killed men, much to my distaste, and been present at the death of comrades but this is different. This feels more personal and my heart is heavy in ways I’ve never felt.
With loving intentions and a kind hand that I had no idea I possessed, I place his strange, rounded helmet on his chest as Feldermas, Deiter and Zeigler go through his possessions. They find a few cans of food, labeled C Rations in English. Beef stew and peaches make for a poignant find. I don’t know about the others but I haven’t been hungry for a while. Our meager morning meal was done out of ritual and I have no interest in the food the others have discovered.
I pick up the rifle to examine it closer. Zeigler has joined me at Taylor’s body and removed his pistol from its holster. It’s marked M1911A1.
Zeigler has talked of having one of these, being a lover of the American pistol but he takes no joy in having it. He seems more melancholy than anything else.
He has become different as well. I can see it.
I turn back to the rifle. It’s amazing in design. It is nothing like the American’s Springfield or the British Lee-Enfield rifles. It’s not bolt action but semi-automatic. It uses the expelled gas to extract and reload the next round.
I pull the bolt back and a round, followed by a metal clip of some kind flies out. The bolt catches to the rear, allowing me to examine it. It is truly wonderful.
I look through the gear he is wearing and find a bandolier of ammo. The design of the ammo delivery is nothing short of breathtaking. Each of the fifteen clips Taylor had with him holds eight rounds, meaning his rifle can deliver volumes of focused fire quickly and judging from the quality of the rifle, accurately. “How long have they had these,” I ask no one in particular.
“That’s a good question, Corporal,” says Deiter, sounding more professional than ever before. “First there was that tank of theirs and now that rifle. Are we the proving ground for their new weapons?”
“I pray we’re not,” I say, moving to Zeigler. He sits cross-legged, eyes intently focused on the pistol. “Are you okay, Zeigler,” I ask, kneeling beside him.
“Yes. I’m fine Corporal.” He sounds distant and confused as he looks up at me and forces a wane smile. I grasp his shoulder and move to Deiter and Feldermas. Both have stopped rifling through Wayne Taylor’s pack and are holding letters in their hands, staring at the envelopes.
“Any intelligence papers in there? Anything useful at all?” I feel even guiltier as I look through his personal items. Deiter and Feldermas look at me then back to the bundle of letters. “Well,” I ask, feeling impatience overtake my guilt.
“Mannheim,” says Feldermas, raising his face to me. He never uses my first name and concern washes over me. “Look, Mannheim. Look at the dates stamped on these envelopes.” He hands me the stack of letters with trembling hands and wide eyes.
I look at the first letter. It has the date April 1943 posted across the stamp. I can scarcely believe what I am seeing. The next letter has the same date and those following are marked between June 1943 and May 1944.
“What does this mean,” asks Deiter. Our bear of a soldier is afraid. He looks like a frightened eight-year-old child, not the combat veteran he is. “These can’t be dates. It’s June 1918 not May 1944. The envelopes and dates must have some secret meaning. That’s what it is, a secret meaning. Some new code the Americans have invented.”
“Yes,” I say, removing a letter from one of the envelopes. It has some sentences blacked out but it still has some discernable information in it.
Along with mentioning some places I’ve never heard of, El Alamein and Monte Casino, it tells about an assault on German positions in Normandy, France. The German people are referred to as Nazi’s and the writer has written of some German named Hitler. The writer hates this Hitler with a passion that should be reserved for Satan.
It is then that I realize that the letter is from Taylor’s mother and guilt courses through me greater than before. However, the guilt is quickly offset by the impossibility that the letter was written on August 27, 1944.
Hastily I refold the letter and thrust it back into its envelope. “Bring these,” I say, handing it to Deiter. I don’t want to hold it any longer. I feel cursed by what is written on the worn paper. I’m a coward for wanting Deiter to bear the horrid correspondence, but I could not bear it any longer.
Deiter takes it from me, albeit with great reluctance. He reties the twine that held the letters together and places them into his shirt pocket as if they might mysteriously burst into flame.
“We’re moving out. If we quick time it now, throwing caution to the wind, we can be back by night fall.” I hope I sound more confident than I feel. I stand and look around us. Deiter and Feldermas join me but Zeigler is still seated beside Taylor’s body. His hands are now empty and they lay folded on his lap.
While we were discussing the impossibility of the letters, Zeigler returned Taylor’s pistol to its holster. He stands and looks at us. “I don’t want it,” he says in a soft voice. “He can keep it. I think he might need it more than I do.”
For the first time I realize that I am still holding Taylor’s rifle. My three friends look at me before looking to it.
“Give him his rifle back,” says Feldermas. Amazingly, Feldermas, the scrounger of the unit, doesn’t want the spoils of war or anything salvageable from Taylor. “Please, Corporal. Return what is his.” Feldermas’ eyes are pleading and his voice is halting. “The letters too. Let him have his memories, Mannheim. It’s all he has now.”
These men, these survivors of Verdun, the Somme, and Aisne exude a newfound peace that I’ve never seen in them before. They seem to know something that I myself am reluctant to admit.
“We’re moving out…now.” I say holding tight to Taylor’s rifle. I order Deiter to return all but four of the letters. They look at me with accusing sympathy in their eyes. “We need the remaining letters for intelligence. Those so-called dates are a new American code, nothing more. This rifle,” I hold it out in front of me, appreciating the feel, “is proof that the Americans are bringing new weapons to the field that we need to develop countermeasures against. Taylor stated he was with the 7th Armor Division for Christ’s sake. That sounds like tanks and a damn lot of them.”
They look at each other before looking back at me. “Let’s go, Mannheim. There’s nothing further for us here.” Zeigler stands and joins the others.
Angry at the guilt I feel and the situation we’ve been thrown into, I return Taylor’s rifle to his side. I try to force my mind into coming up with a plausible lie to explain why I don’t have the rifle to offer high command. I try hard but I return again and again to the pointlessness of it all.
I stalk away from them, secure in the knowledge that they will follow and they do but no longer with a soldier’s purpose. They move as if they have nothing to look forward to and no place to go.
We walk for a while without speaking, though I can feel them coming to some grim conclusions.
“Anyone ever read The Time Machine?” I say, waiting for someone to speak, though none do for a few moments.
I know Deiter is a reading machine and while Feldermas is the least educated among us I know he can read well enough. Zeigler is smart in his own right, but only reads when a novel strikes him or when he has to. He was at university when he was drafted so I know he has education. “Any of you ever read that book?” I ask again.
“I have,” answers Zeigler.
I look at him and notice that neither he nor the others are walking at the ready for a fight. They walk like a tired hunting party at the end of a long day.
“I’ve only read half,” replies Feldermas, of all people. “Stopped halfway through. It was too strange for me.”
Deiter says nothing. He only plods along.
“Maybe we’ve somehow gone forward in time. I don’t know how but what if we’ve gone forward like The Time Traveler did. I know it’s a stupid idea but anything is possible, right? Instead of seeing Morlocks we’ve had a glimpse of a possible future.” It’s an outlandish idea but it would explain this strange situation we’ve found ourselves in.
“We’re not in the future, Mannheim. At least not like that,” says Deiter in a stern tone. “You need to admit it.”
“Admit what?” I scream. “Admit what, Michel? Hm? Fucking tell me!”
“We’re dead, Mannheim,” says Feldermas. “We’re dead and in Purgatory or limbo or something.”
“What is your evidence?” I yell, needing them to tell me even though I already know.
“We took all that fire and never got a scratch. We’ve got Americans and Germans shooting at us. Our own people fired at us, like we were the enemy.” Zeigler looks from his feet, to the others, then to me as he speaks.
“What? That’s your proof? Mein Gott, Ernst! We got lucky. We should thank God we weren’t harmed,” I say, walking to him, putting my face mere centimeters from his.
“We didn’t see anyone clearly until they were dying,” says Deiter.
“We saw him clearly because we found him in the fog. We couldn’t miss him because we were beside him!” My God, I’m growing hysterical. Why am I allowing this
conversation to make me lose my self-control?
“Mannheim, remember our supposed comrades from earlier?” says Feldermas. “The ones that fired at us? I should have said something earlier but I saw one of them.
I couldn’t see the others clearly through the fog but I saw the most severely wounded. I saw him as clear as I see you. The others were hazy but he was clear. That’s when I began to suspect, Mannheim. Please see reason here. We are dead.”
“You are all looking for institutionalization is what I see,” I say, standing before them, confident that I am, in fact, the lunatic.
“No, Mannheim,” says Deiter, the surest of us all. “Our contact with the American Marines yesterday was when we died. I know it. We. Didn’t. Survive.”
“No, you didn’t,” says a voice from behind me. I turn to see Taylor. He is uninjured and there is a peace to his face that is otherworldly. He has his helmet under his left arm and there is a glow about him that I find calming. “You died in June 1918 in an ambush with your friends. Yes, it is 1944, but my name isn’t Wayne Taylor and I’m not a Private First Class in the US Army. To put it simply, I am Death.”
“What?” I ask, incredulous at what I am hearing though I know it to be true. The fog slowly lifted as Taylor spoke. Now that it is gone I personally experience a feeling of peace that I never have before. “You’re…Death?”
“Yes, yes I am. You four were on the razors edge of being Heaven bound or Hell damned. I allowed you to wander the field for over twenty years, trapped in the thought that you were still fighting World War One.”
“World War One,” laughs Zeigler. We look around to find other soldiers, American, British and German forming a ring, one hundred meters wide around us. Some are in uniforms we recognize and others are wearing something close but not the same. Most of the Americans are dressed as Taylor and the Germans wear something similar to us, but not exactly.
“That’s right, Ernst, World War One. It’s now World War Two and it’s being fought on a scale that makes The Great War pale in comparison. You four have been given a great opportunity, by me.”
“What opportunity,” I ask; still enjoying the peace Taylor seems to exude.
“You four showed compassion and dignity when you believed me to be a simple, dying American soldier. For that you are all being tasked with helping me ferry soldiers to their rewards, be it good or bad.”
“He wants us to be Grim Reapers,” says Deiter like it’s a joke, but he knows better, just as I do.
“I do. I only recruit those who show mercy and kindness on the field and you four have fulfilled that requirement.” Taylor, Death, puts his hand on my shoulder and I feel more of his calming effect. “You and your friends have the ability to show great compassion, Mannheim Kurtz.”
I smile as a beautiful light bathes the four of us with its glow.
So, that is what we do now. We visit the battlefields of all conflicts, on all sides. We operate as a team of compassion and peace now as we operated as a team of soldiers in life. Our job is to ferry the valiant, the wicked and the humbled dead to whatever reward awaits them.