The final day of 1943 was a dismal one—gray, snowy, and cold. The Christmas attitudes of goodwill and kindness to each other was still prevalent among the German guards and their British prisoners as they sat at a table in the mess hall, playing cards and chess and enjoying the last of the Christmas cookies.
“Does anyone set goals for the new year?” Private Kesby asked, breaking the silence. “Is that a thing here in Germany?”
“It is, but it’s not something I do,” Corporal Viermitz replied. He looked at his fellow guards. They were shaking their heads, except for one.
“I’m planning on learning a new spell,” Private Liebermann said with his mouth full.
Some of the British soldiers laughed. “Oh?” Private Wraight said. “Are you going to learn how to pull rabbits out of top hats?”
“No. I’m going to learn how to grow cacti in any soil.”
Sergeant Plundell grinned a little. “Grow cacti? That seems . . . silly.”
“Would you rather I learn how to make them come to life and chase people around the camp?”
“You do that and Captain Westheimer will have your head,” Viermitz said without looking up from his cards.
“Exactly.” Liebermann gave a big, goofy smile. “It’s perfectly harmless, and it’ll add some color to this dismal place. Who wouldn’t want to see some lovely tropical plants in here?”
“Until you learn to grow coconut palms, I won’t be impressed,” Wraight said.
“I can do that next.”
Plundell cleared his throat. “Serious question, how exactly does a witch or warlock learn a spell?”
“The same way you learn how to drive or ride a bicycle. Lots of practice, and using the correct tools. In this case, just a wand.” Liebermann held up his wand, which was made of wych elm wood. “It’s easy if you’re born into it. For someone who’s new to sorcery as an adult, it’s a lot harder, but still possible if you give it a lot of effort.”
Plundell wasn’t interested in learning any spells, but he was curious to see how Liebermann’s endeavor to learn how to grow cacti would go.
January first of 1944 was the beginning of things returning to normal around the camp. The Christmas decorations were coming down, and the cheer was starting to fade. The poor weather meant everyone was inside longer than they were outside. Boredom became a bigger issue than it already was.
It made watching Liebermann practice growing plants more entertaining than it would normally be. For Plundell, watching someone actively practice their magic was fascinating. He had watched Westheimer perform magic quite a bit over the last few months, but the commandant was an experienced warlock. Plundell had called him a “master at magic” before, but Westheimer denied it.
“I am average,” Westheimer had said, “I know nothing that another witch or warlock my age would not know. What I do is only impressive to you because you were not exposed to this at a young age.”
Plundell couldn’t deny that. Everything Westheimer and his warlock guards did was impressive, because he had never seen it before.
Liebermann had cleared snow away from a patch of ground, and was waving and jabbing his wand at it. Plundell stepped outside the barracks to watch, sitting on a bench by the door. There were sparks and magic dust puffing from Liebermann’s wand. He was completely silent, aside from the occasional grunt.
“Is all magic nonverbal?” Plundell asked, his curiosity getting the better of him.
“Most of it is,” Liebermann replied. “It requires a lot of mental fortitude. That’s why we teach it young.”
“Were you like Westheimer? Did you run away from your culture?”
Liebermann shook his head. “My parents weren’t like the other witches in our village. They had to run away from home when they wanted to get married. To keep me safe, they taught me everything they knew.”
“I’m a bit surprised you’re not on the frontlines in Russia or Italy.”
“Westheimer told you that most of the guards here aren’t fit for combat, didn’t he?”
“Remember how I mentioned that I had an encounter with a poltergeist? That was in France in 1940. Obviously, I couldn’t tell any of my commanding officers what had happened. They wouldn’t believe me, so everything was chalked up to combat fatigue. I was labelled ‘unfit for service’ and sent to become a guard at a POW camp. I was actually at a different camp before this one. The commandant was a very nasty fellow. Private Seiden was there, too, and that was how we became friends. He was picked on a lot because he’s anemic and can’t be given too strenuous a task. Basically, he and I were seen as ‘weak links.’”
“How did you manage to get transferred here?”
“Luck, I guess. Both myself and Seiden were sent to Westheimer shortly after his camp was set up. He knew I was a warlock right away. That made it easy to trust each other.” Liebermann was quiet for a moment, waving his wand again at the ground. “I’m surprised myself that you approached him so boldly after the radio incident. Every other prisoner talks about how intimidating he is.”
“I really wanted to know what happened. That’s why. I was afraid of him, too. It wasn’t just because he’s German. Something else felt . . . different.”
“Even people without magic can get the sense that there’s something off or different about us, no matter how much they’re convinced magic isn’t real.” Liebermann jabbed his wand at the ground. Grass sprang up. “Well, that’s not what I wanted.”
Plundell smiled a little. “You’ll get there.”
“You’re the only one who didn’t laugh, so, thank you.” Liebermann waved his wand, making the grass disappear. “I’ll practice more another time. Should get back on duty before Sergeant Nagel catches me.”
Over the next several days, there were random plants springing up all over the camp’s exercise yard. None of them were cacti. Eventually, though, cacti began to appear. The ground was marred where Liebermann had made his creations appear and disappear, which angered the groundskeeper, who went around swearing in German as he tidied the yard.
The cactus conundrum came to a head when Westheimer hosted a visit from Major Kersting, his superior and a close friend. His staff car entered the gates of the camp—and stopped in front of an enormous saguaro cactus.
Kersting was no stranger to magic, but this was certainly one of the strangest things he had ever seen. What were cacti doing in a frigid, northern country? And in early January, too? He stepped out of his car, looking around the camp. Cacti were everywhere. All different species of cacti. Big, tall ones and short, squat ones as well. Most eye-catching were the ones with bright, pink and yellow flowers sticking up out of their tops.
He looked over to see Westheimer stepping out of his quarters. The old man’s pipe fell out of his mouth upon seeing the cactus forest, and shouted, “What the hell are these damn cacti doing here?!”
All eyes, guard and prisoner alike, turned to Liebermann, who was raising yet another cactus from the ground.
“He’s completing his New Year’s resolution!” Private Wraight yelled at Westheimer from his place on a barrel outside the barracks.
“Private Fritz Liebermann!” Westheimer bellowed. “Get over here right now, young man!”
Liebermann flushed red with embarrassment before heading over to Westheimer. His eyes widened upon seeing Major Kersting. “Sirs,” he said, nervously.
“What—” Westheimer turned Liebermann to face the cactus forest, “is that?”
Liebermann bit his lip. “It’s my New Year’s resolution, sir.”
“Your New Year’s resolution was to grow cacti in inconvenient places?! Please explain to me what was going through your thick head when you thought that was a good idea!”
“All I wanted to do was prove I could do it. I let it get out of control. I’m sorry, sir. I’ll go remove them now.”
Westheimer sighed heavily, raising his staff and making a wide sweeping motion. The cacti disappeared in a cloud of magic dust. “You are sentenced to cleaning the latrines. No help from anyone, including prisoners. Get to it. Now.”
Kersting watched Liebermann walk away. “New Year’s resolution, huh?”
Westheimer shook his head. “Waste of time and breath on an already pointless holiday.”
“I wouldn’t call New Year’s entirely pointless. Some people enjoy it.”
“I do my reflections and that is it. I do not need to do anything else other than switch the damn calendar around.”
Kersting shrugged. “I will admit, I think you were a bit hard on Liebermann.”
“He should consider himself lucky that it was you who pulled in. Any other German officer would have questioned every member of the camp for hours, and once they found out some of us possess magic, we would be put to death. This camp might seem like a haven, but it could be shut down at any moment. He could have put us all in danger."
Plundell entered the prisoners’ latrine an hour later to find Liebermann on his hands and knees with a rag and bucket in one of the stalls. Not wanting to ruin his work, Plundell stayed in the doorway. “Is everything alright? I heard Westheimer was angry with you.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Liebermann muttered. “I get carried away too easily. Always devolves into him yelling at me that if his operation is discovered, it’ll be because of me.”
“Don’t be. It’s not your fault. I’m the one who messed up.”
Plundell was quiet for a moment. “I meant, I’m sorry Westheimer yelled at you.”
“Don’t. I deserved it. I really could put this place at risk of being found out if I keep doing stupid stuff like that.” Liebermann dipped his rag in the bucket of soapy water, not making eye contact with Plundell. “Just wanted to make people smile, that’s all. I hear about warlocks who dedicate themselves to doing fun things with their magic, making people smile and laugh. They use their magic to entertain, and . . . I can’t. I’m stuck here. I couldn’t even do anything special for Christmas aside from the pendants. I couldn’t make dancing snowmen or light up a tree or anything.”
“Westheimer did his best for us this year.”
“I know, but it’s hard to do more when you’re worried about the Nazis coming in and ruining everything, especially when you know that your punishment could very well be death.”
“But you’re tired of everything being so depressing.”
“Exactly. That’s why I grew the cacti. I just wanted to see some color. I wanted to make people happy.”
“If it helps, you made me happy just by letting me watch you practice.”
Liebermann looked over his shoulder. He hesitated for a moment before smiling a little. “Thanks.”
“This isn’t going to last forever. We’ll all be back home before we know it.”
“I certainly hope so.” Liebermann kept cleaning. “All I want is to go home.” He stopped, staring down at the wet floor. His body tensed, and Plundell noticed a tear rolling down his nose. “That’s it. I just want to go home.” He sat with his back to the wall, and wrapped his arms around his legs, putting his head on his knees and sobbing.
Plundell pushed aside the bucket of water to kneel in front of Liebermann. “Mate, don’t cry. It’ll be alright.” When he didn’t get a response, he put his arms around Liebermann. Almost instinctively, Liebermann hugged him back, his sobbing muffled by Plundell’s coat. It eventually subsided, and the two pulled away.
Liebermann’s face was red and wet. Sniffing, he dried his eyes with his sleeve. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be. I’ve had nights where I’ve cried myself to sleep over homesickness. I-I don’t know if it helps, but . . . I don’t want you to feel alone.”
“Thank you.” Liebermann took a deep breath. “I should finish the latrine, and you should go before Westheimer catches you and assumes you’re helping me.”
Nodding, Plundell stood up. “You’ll be alright alone?”
“Yes. We can talk more later.”
Sitting in his bunk, Plundell read through his Christmas mail again. There was one from his parents, one from Monnie, and several from cousins and friends. He had certainly been hoping to see everyone, as he managed to do every year. The letters and care packages were certainly appreciated. In a way, though, the distance made it feel as though Christmas hadn’t happened.
When everyone else in the barracks retired to their bunks, Plundell lay awake, flipping through the cards he was sent. He jumped a little when the barracks door opened. Some of the POWs glanced over to see Liebermann walking in.
“What the hell is your problem? Roll call’s not for another nine hours!” Wraight shouted.
Liebermann ignored him. “Plundell? Are you awake?”
“Yeah. What’s going on?” Plundell slid his cards under his pillow.
“Can I talk to you outside for a minute?”
Nodding, Plundell dropped down from his bunk, and pulled his boots and jacket on before following Liebermann outside. “Is everything alright?” he asked.
“Yes. Everything’s fine. I just wanted to give you something.” Liebermann pulled out a small, empty flower pot from one of the oversized pockets on his greatcoat. He squatted to scoop some dirt into the pot, then handed it to Plundell. He made a circling motion with his wand over the pot, and a small tree sprouted from the dirt. “Miniature oak tree. I know the oak is the tree of England, so . . . I wanted to give you something to remind you of home.”
“Do I have to water it?”
Liebermann nodded. “It will stay little forever, so you’ll have it forever.”
Plundell gently turned the pot around in his hands. “First the pendant, now this. I should get something for you.”
“Don’t. I figured if I’m going to teach myself to grow plants out of nothing, I should at least grow them for a purpose other than proving I can do it.”
“Still, you’ve been doing things for me, and I haven’t really done anything for you.”
Liebermann was quiet for a moment, looking out at the rest of the camp yard before looking back at Plundell. “I consider you a friend. I wasn’t expecting anyone to talk to me after Westheimer’s scolding.”
“I just thought it was strange everyone was getting upset over a bunch of cacti.”
Liebermann grinned a little. “It is strange, I’ll agree with that, but it had more to do with the fact that I let it get out of control. I should have stopped and thought about what could have happened if someone Westheimer didn’t know came in.”
“So, we all got very lucky, then?”
“We did. We’ve had brushes with disaster before, but we . . . I need to make sure we minimize them. Westheimer’s right to be concerned about my ability to control myself.”
“Just don’t beat yourself up to the point where you don’t even have confidence in your abilities anymore.” Plundell put his hand on Liebermann’s shoulder. “Make that your New Year’s resolution. Confidence and self-control. Both will make you a much better wizard, and a much better person.”