It was just the two of them, trudging along for what felt like an eternity. They walked that first night and hid the next day. At some point they’d given up on trying to hide; there was no one to hide from. The weather had been kind enough at the beginning; cold, not too cold, and kind of dry. Until today. A thick fog had come in, heavy and wet, and there was a rumble off in the distance. And flashes. Lightening maybe. Or guns. Probably guns. It was getting really cold, that damp cold that crept under their skin and made them shiver if they didn’t keep moving. It felt like rain, maybe snow, and they weren’t prepared for it. They had the one blanket between them, a thin old rag borrowed from what was left of a farmhouse, and split that in half. It barely wrapped around the helmets. The short one said, “You look like that grandma, in that town, the one that had her hand out.” It wasn’t meant to be funny.
The tall one was limping from the shrapnel that had passed through his calf. A flesh wound, the medic had said, not worth one of the few morphine vials he had left. Had it only been a couple of days back? “You’ll live,” he’d said. “Just don’t think about it too much.” The tall one just nodded. He never did say much. There wasn’t much to say.
The tall one had to stop. The short one stopped, too. “Bad?”
“Kind of burning. Let’s go easy, I’ll be okay.” The short one thought they had been going easy but didn’t mention it.
They’d only been together for a few weeks before the battle; both of them replacements called up. They stuck with each other because the older guys in the unit didn’t want to know them. Replacements, after all. Replacements didn’t last. They hadn’t been treated poorly—just pretty much ignored. “Go there, dig this, hold that….” Nobody asked their names, where they were from. Not mean, just not interested. That’s probably why they were put on the far right of the line.
The medic had been okay, gave them a flask of something, calvados maybe, and told them to keep quiet or everyone would ask for it. He then ran off to another hole where someone started yelling out, “Medic, medic.” “Why now?” the short one asked; they hadn’t been shelled in half an hour. Maybe he was knocked out and just woke up, the tall one suggested. Maybe, said the short one. He took a swig from the flask and handed it to the tall one. “It’s for you, really.”
It got colder as some fog rolled in, but they didn’t notice much because the explosions got going on their left. When those stopped the two of them heard someone, probably an officer, shout, “They’re coming.” As soon as he said that, the attack started. The two inched up over the edge of their foxhole to get a better look. The flashes were nearby. They could hear the guns, yelling. But they had nothing to shoot at, no one to see, so they just stayed low, scared, and waited. Even the bad guys were ignoring them now, joked the short one. “I hope they keep it that way.”
After a while, the firing came closer, much closer, then settled down and moved away, behind them. They heard some more yelling, distant screams, and voices, not English, not their side, so they slunk deeper into their hole. The heavy snow muffled even those sounds. When it was quiet enough, when quiet could mean safe, the short one poked his head up and saw nothing, not a soul. The battle was well behind the two now. It had passed right over them.
“Maybe we should move,” said the short one. “Can you walk?”
“Where you wanna go?”
“I don’t know, but this can’t be good. We’re alone out here. Head back to our lines, maybe.”
“I can walk.”
The short one helped the tall one out of the hole, took his rifle, and bent low, lower than the tall one, as they stumbled along, stopped, listened, and moved on. He was going to tell the tall one to get lower but didn’t. Why bother? With his leg wound, it was enough that he was moving. Besides, he didn’t want to admit it to himself but the tall one made a bigger target.
But they encountered no one, no soldiers at least, their side or the other. In the distance, they heard fighting, but it could have been miles away—dull explosions, not small arms.
That first day they came upon what was left of a farmhouse, partially bombed but quiet. Muddy boot prints, broken bottles, and opened tins told a story of soldiers having come and gone. The pair looked for something to eat but found nothing and shared the last of the rations they had on them. They finished what was in the flask. It had a sweet almost vanilla taste that burned its way down their throats. It was a good burn, too, it almost felt like warmth. Whatever it was, they toasted each other on the last sips.
They moved along a muddy road, crunching the ice that had formed on the edges of potholes. It sounded incredibly loud. Every house they came to was either destroyed, looted, or both. In a stone barn, the short one ran after a few scrawny chickens that flew up into the rafters. The tall one was about to shoot but the short one said no, it might draw attention. They threw rocks at them but didn’t hit any and moved on. The tall one said he didn’t know chickens could fly. The short one shrugged his shoulders and said, “Tell them that.”
The tall one’s limp got worse. He was using his rifle as a crutch. He was slower now, even slower than before, but didn’t complain. The short one said they should surrender if they could. He had a white cloth ripped from a curtain tied to his rifle. He thought about throwing the thing away but worried what an officer would say if he showed up unarmed. They’d call him a deserter for sure, so he kept the rifle and held it at the ready. Just in case. He’d claim the white rag was camouflage.
Sleet started to come down, making the mud icy and slick. The tall one slipped twice. The short one helped him back up. They didn’t speak much. They weren’t just tired, but hungry and lost. As prisoners, they’d get help. If they found their unit, any unit, they’d get help. They couldn’t imagine why they met no one.
Up ahead was another farmhouse, with a thatched roof and a dead cow in a small field, its stomach bloated and legs sticking straight up almost comically. Large black birds were pecking at its head, which was turned away from them. The tall one stopped for a second as if contemplating butchering the thing but caught the putrid scent and hobbled on.
The short one was well ahead by now. He turned and waved that he was going in. The tall one stopped, leaned against a tree, and gestured that he would take a rest.
The door opened to a small room, which smelled of burnt wood. It was beaten up, like the others, having seen soldiers come and go, their cigarette butts, empty cans strewn about, drawers and cabinets left open, not caring if this was someone’s home. There was a bed, muddy but standing, and some down comforters leaking feathers, dirty but dry. They’d rest this night. The short one walked over and kicked a can on the floor he hadn’t noticed. It was full. Peaches, in heavy syrup. Rations. They’d eat tonight then. He looked out a window, preparing to shout over to the tall one, who was still leaning against that tree, eyes closed, not quite asleep.
Then he opened the can, drank the sweet liquid, and ate the peaches as fast as he could. He poured in some water from his canteen and swirled it around, drinking that too, and tossed the can onto the floor with others that had been left behind, opened, empty.
He let the tall one take the bed that night.