Stalemate. One eye staring deep into the barrel of your rifle, the bayonet scratching away at my eyebrow. The other eye on the nozzle of my own weapon, pointed dead at your chest, aiming at the heart of my enemy.
Did I say enemy? I averted my gaze from my gun to you for a split second, and you did the same. I scanned the depths your eyes and you pierced back into mine. Yet neither one of us could find any trace of their enemy. Only the expressions of scared and confused boys seeking refuge amidst the chaos; given guns to shield themselves in exchange for turning on the ones they once called their Brüder.
It wasn’t the fear of killing, I have killed before. I’ve rightfully served my duty to mein Vaterland in this war. I’ve blasted countless holes through countless scoundrels who dared to challenge our might. I’ve impaled, slashed and beheaded any who fell at the mercy of my bayonet. I’ve seen more blood and more insides than any doctor would in a lifetime.
One push of the finger, that’s all it would to take to end this deadlock; it would have been that easy. But with you it wasn’t. I couldn’t bear to bring myself to pull the trigger with you on the other end, and I sensed you felt the same. How could I sever the roots of the tree I was once inseparable from, whom I once grew side by side with?
We couldn’t have been older than 12 when we first met. I was always amazed at how perfectly you could speak our language, despite all its complex grammar rules and its other oddities. Your Papa taught you to speak. He grew up here, and thought you’d enjoy reliving his youth. After all, what better place to grow up than the lush valleys of Bavaria? I was still nothing short of impressed. All I knew in your language was the basic 'Hello', ‘goodbye’ or ‘thanks’, and of course the multitude of swear words you taught me. I could barely hold a conversation. Yet you had both the skills and courage to grow up in an unknown faraway land from your own, in a culture alien to yours.
It's no surprise your courage and sense of adventure led you here, in the heart of the battlefield. Not that either of us even had a choice. I could see the same pain, loss and suffering in your sleepless eyes. This war had its toll on us both. To think that your mother language was the only thing that separated us from facing the same side of our bullets.
Time was lost to me, no concept of weeks, or months or years. I don’t think I can remember my life before this hell.
I watched the way the snowflakes drifted around you and listened to the crunching of the snow beneath your boots. I’m mirroring your every breath, every blink, every drop of sweat trickling from every hair on your body, and every inch of your finger etching back and forth from the trigger. Is it the danger of a deadlock that triggers the instinct of a man to mirror his attacker for the best chance of survival? Or was it exclusive to us - the bond we shared for so long that, to this day, still connects our movements and thoughts together.
This bond we shared since the day we met. It was a grave mistake for the porter to pair up the two most mischievous fiends in the same dorm room. Oh the chaos we caused and the trouble we brewed. There wasn’t a single teacher in that school that didn’t have their hearts filled with resent and anger towards us. We were neither popular with them nor with the other boys in our class. We tried our best with the ladies, but fat chance we had to impress any of them. You had the beer belly of a middle-aged dad, and more chins than you had hairs. I on the other hand was short and scrawny, easily mistaken for a child half my age. They wanted the broad, bold, muscular men that we could never hope to live up to look like.
There’s nothing in the world I wouldn’t trade to relive those treasured memories. All those late nights gazing at the night sky, talking of grand life dreams. I wonder if you’re still set on scaling the Himalayas when this is all over? The overwhelming pride when we made it to the first eleven, and the very first goal we ever scored together on our debut game. Do you remember when we were caught drunk stealing from Herr Klein’s liquor cabinet? Even after all those years, I can still feel the burning lashes of the cane beneath my skin. Those torturous years of school made bearable with you by my side. How naïve I was to think those days would be my worst.
I looked past your rifle straight into your withering eyes, desperately trying to call out to you. In hopes that somehow you can read my mind and hear me crying out - I miss you. I beg you, please shoot. Losing my life now couldn't compare to the cruelty of being one that severs our ties in an instant. Spare me from that burden.
The the burden bared on my shoulders and weapon in my hold growing unbearably heavier; each passing moment a thousand kilograms heavier than the last. This machine- it terrifies me how each component is meticulously crafted, designed only to rip apart a man and bleed his soul out; with an explosion detonating in my frail, bony arm. What sick madman ever thought of such a contraption?
I knew better than to take avert my gaze away from the jaws of danger, but I couldn't help but notice your leg, shaking violently, battle to hold control. Was your body also failing under the weight of this stalemate? I guess you never did fully recover from that football injury. I can still vividly relive the euphoria of that day.
The final game of the season, and a single goal was the difference between ultimate champions of the city, or a close, woeful second place shame. Our goalie made a grave mistake at the last minute and cost us an open shot. It was fired like an artillery shell in the top corner, helplessly watching the efforts of an entire season fall to the mercy of a cruel mistake. I'd never known a man to have the leap of a gazelle. Yet there you went, darting into the goal as the ball skimmed against the teeth of defeat. Denied with an overhead kick strong enough to launch the ball on the other end of the field. But far too strong for you to wield, as you crash landed with a bone crunching crack.
Your reckless, spider-like reflexes created the golden opportunity I needed. The referee blew the whistle, but not before I stormed through the opposition’s barricade, and took the final shot. It was over. The goal was mine; the title was ours, but the victory all yours. I carried you across the field and flung you up for the world to kneel before their champion. Now I wondered if I'd have to carry you across the battlefield and kneel before your unmarked grave. Or would you kneel before mine?
The sting of the icy snowflake on my open wound suddenly surged a wave of adrenaline through my veins. How much time has passed as we continue to stand in this deadlock? Seconds? Minutes? Hours? Days? The tension an unbearable torture clawing away at me. Why am I not dead yet? Why have you not shot yet? WHY WON'T YOU JUST SHOOT?! IF YOU WON’T, I WILL!
You heard the deafening scream from within my mind and cocked back your rifle in perfect time with mine. The distinct clicks from the two hammers of both guns synchronised into one. Both weapons loaded. Only the final click of the trigger before the exploding bullets put an end to this deafening silence.
Silence… Silence…? Why was it silent? I thought my senses had faded out the background to focus on the danger before me. But even as I shifted my senses to the surroundings, the silence remained. Was I already dead? But the feeling of a machine gun rattling inside my chest confirmed my heart was still beating strong. The piercing daggers of cold winter air in my lungs told me I wasn’t on my last breaths anytime soon. Cautiously, I lowered my gaze from the scope of my rifle and waited. No explosions, no bullets, no agonising screams, no battle cries…nothing. Without realising, I slowly relieved the pressure from the trigger until it cocked forward.
That was when I heard it. I put my ear against the wind in disbelief of what I’d just made out. Had I gone insane? Had this deadlock driven me to madness, or could I actually hear singing? I held my breath to listen to the faint melody in the distance. "...O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, wie trau sind deine Blätter...". Which Arschgeige was singing carols in the middle of a battlefield?
But it wasn't just the one fool who'd lost his mind. Ten, twenty, fifty, something close to perhaps a hundred voices. "...O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree, thy leaves are so unchanging..." I heard the same melody in foreign words from the enemy.
I watched helplessly in awe as soldiers from both sides erupted from their trenches and exploded harmoniously in song. White flags waved from both sides in armistice. Battle cries became infectious laughter, attack commands became friendly conversations, and the onslaught of bloodshed that once was, now an intense rivalry settled over a heated game of football. I was watching a miracle unfold before my eyes. Christmas day 1914, in the era of the great war. A day when, after months of feud and bloodshed, enemies joined together in friendship and jolly spirits to celebrate Christmas cheers.
The ball rolled outfield and stopped between your legs. You stared with a confused smile across your face. But as instincts always take over, you launched the ball back over with your mightiest kick. One of your soldiers beckoned you from across the field. “Oi! Put that sodding gun down! We need another man covering defence”.
"Hee! Komm her!" I heard one of my comrades call to me, “hilfst dem Stürmer vorne!”. We shared a look of excitement together and let out chuckles of relief that were months overdue. With an exchange of nods, we hurled our rifles at the ground where they belonged – discarded -and bolted across the battlefield to join the festive showdown.
It was just like our days spent on the playgrounds. No coach, no referee, not even a proper ball, just something large and round enough to kick about. We never failed to find a pitch to play on. Any open space or any tight corners would do so long as there were friends to play with, and a goal that could be marked. We made pitches of open farm fields, abandoned steel mills, and even the narrow lanes between houses where your shoulders would scrape between the two walls. Yet never could I have imagined playing on the bombed and battered battlegrounds of the Somme.
My awe was broken by the celebratory cries from the opposition. My carelessness had cost us a goal and cost us the lead. “HOHLKOPF!” I heard my teammate express his anger for my dazed state, “konzentierst auf dem Spiel!” He was right, I had to focus, get my head in the game, if we didn’t want to lose to such sad excuses of players our opposition were.
The game waged on from what felt like sunrise to sunset, yet the score remained one-all. Neither side could even come close to breaking free of this stalemate. Until the goalie made a grave mistake. The scene was all too familiar. His pass mistakenly hit one of the opposition players. Too far outfield to make it back, the player effortlessly chased the stray ball down the final few yards. He pulled back his leg to fire the final devastating volley that would assure them the victory.
Denied. Our final defender beat him to the ball by a fraction of a second and blasted it clear into the air. The ball kicked with such deadly precision now darting towards the opposition’s goal like a meteor. Would it go in, or would it miss? I couldn’t take that chance. I bolted towards the goal, tracing the ball’s trajectory, storming past the dumbfounded defence. I was reliving the final moments of the title winning game back in school. No defence, no goalie, no chance of missing. Just me, the ball, the open goal, and the golden opportunity to break this deadlock.
And you. You too knew this scene all too well, and you stayed back as the last line of defence to risk defeat. The ball slowly descending, as our eyes met for a brief instant. No words, only an exchange of determination, with the same smug expression on both faces screaming out the same words- “the ball is mine”. I only had an instant to intercept the ball and land a diving header into the goal; my timing had to be perfect. The ball inching closer and closer to your reach.
NOW! I ejected clean off the ground and launched myself into the sky. Anticipating my every motion, you pounced with a mighty leap in hopes of clearing the ball away, just as you did when you heroically saved us from a bitter defeat all that time ago. But this time wouldn't be the same. This time you made one grave mistake. This time, you were up against me. I torpedoed my head towards the ball to blast it into the net.
Direct hit! But not with the ball. My head buried in your chest, and your knee crushed into my stomach. Falling from a mid-air collision for what seemed an eternity. Both smashing into the ground that was as battered and bruised as we were. Face flat on the floor, staring silently at each other as we were left breathless from the impact. We should have been rolling around and howling in pain. But at the sight of our pathetic wincing faces, we couldn't help but let roar rapturous laughter.
I could feel the bullet wound in my ribs try to rip out of its stitches. I knew I had to stop laughing, or I'd spill my insides out and bleed to death. Somehow, I just didn't care. I welcomed the thought of my last breaths being ones of joy and nostalgia, shared with the long-lost Bruder who first taught me to laugh out my darkest days. Better that, than my last breaths emptied out as cries for help that were never to be answered.
You reached down to me and offered a hand. "Don't know why you bother trying to get those headers, you tiny Zwerg" he taunted, "you were always too short to reach the top of my head, let alone a ball that high".
"I would have waited to chase it after it fell, but it would take me less time to run around the pitch, that run around you, you fat Scwhein". I took your hand and heaved myself up, dusting off the muddy snow that cushioned my fall. "I see even with the food shortage and running around playing soldier still hasn't helped you lose that pregnant belly of yours", I said, slapping your stomach like the drum it was. "Aww, big words from der kleiner Junge. I see you haven't grown much; you really should be drinking your milk if you want to grow up to be a big, strong man and tough out pain like me”, you replied, annoyingly ruffling my hair.
"I'm not surprised you toughed out that blow, seeing as you have all that blubber on you to cushion the impact".
I was on the verge of another laughing fit at our childish taunts. But I stopped dead at the sight of the explosion to your distant rear. Cheers suddenly became cries, and the beautiful orderly arrangement of the football game diminished to chaotic scattering on the battlefield once again. Each side screaming orders to retreat and take arms. I noticed I was still clinging on to your hand, your grip tightening. The same grasping regretful thought clenched us tightly together – I’m not ready to say goodbye, not when I haven’t had the time to say hello properly.
I felt a hand on my shoulder tugging me away to head back. I watched one of your own men do the same, desperately calling you back to retreat. But it only made us tighten our grip. I put my other arm around you, as we held each other tightly in futility. Determined not to let go. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing you again. Your helpless grasp crushing my ribs told me you felt the same. But the fear and hatred stirred by the war had overpowered us, and we were ripped apart from one another, once again.
We flailed and barged and threw our bodies violently in the clutches of our comrades as we were dragged across the battlefield, clawing out to reach and grab hold of one another once more. Every so often I was able to lunge forward and brush your fingertips. But my aim was worsening as the tears clouded my visions, and you grew smaller and smaller. Even when you disappeared, I stretched my hand out still desperately reaching out to you, listening to your muffled cries in the distance. Fading, knowing we were fated to never again cross paths.