Fence Post

Submitted into Contest #140 in response to: Write a story that involves a flashback.... view prompt

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Historical Fiction Inspirational Drama

This story contains sensitive content

(CW: Descriptions of gory injuries and post-traumatic stress.)

Austin Tretheway felt like he had aged several years in the months he had been laid up in Stalag V C’s hospital. For the first time in months, he was able to look into a mirror, and wondered if the man in it was really him. The man’s face was hollow. His bones were more prominent. His eyes were deeper in their sockets, and lined with dark circles.

“Corporal,” he said, looking at the German medic, Wenzel, measuring fluid in an IV drip bag, “is it really March already?”

“Yes,” Wenzel replied.

“And it was January when I was captured?”

“I think ‘rescued’ is the better word to use.”

A dull ache suddenly bloomed in Tretheway’s right side. “You’re right.”

After leaving the hospital, Tretheway tried to integrate himself into camp life. As a commando, he was completely alone. Everyone else had their own little groups based on what their job was in the British Army when they were captured. The majority of soldiers there had been taken in North Africa, while the rest had been taken in Italy. Some were tankers, others medics, snipers, mechanics, machine gunners, and general infantry. Tretheway remembered his task had been to blow up a German radio tower some fifteen kilometers west of Augsburg. As far as he knew, the mission was successful, even though he wasn’t there.

He imagined his comrades assumed he was dead. They hadn’t even tried to find him after he was blown off-course—

No. Don’t think about it, Tretheway urged himself. He kept urging that during the two months he was stuck in the hospital. When he arrived, it was the dead of winter. When he left the hospital, spring was emerging. The grass was vibrant and the wind carried the smell of flowers.

Some of the other prisoners had been kind enough to ask him to sit with them during mealtimes. Most of the German guards he interacted with were kind, especially Private Liebermann, who had been the one to find him out in the field that night. What was strangest was that a great many of the people there were wizards.

Tretheway was barred from going on work details because of his injury. He tried convincing the commandant that he was healthy enough to go, but when he approached Captain Westheimer about it, his side and stomach became engulfed in pain. There was no way he would be allowed to go.

That became his life. Constant pain, and not just physically. He was assigned to Barracks One, under Sergeant Plundell. Some mail was waiting on his bunk, along with a present from Liebermann. The present was a silver necklace with a ruby pendant.

“What’s this?” Tretheway asked. The rest of the prisoners were either reading in their bunks or playing cards at a table in the center of the barracks.

“Amulet,” Plundell replied, not looking up from his cards. “It’s got a protection spell on it.”

Tretheway shrugged. “I don’t need it.” He put it back in the box. “I’m going to give it back.”

Don’t!” Every soldier in the barracks looked at him in horror.

“You’ll break his heart,” Plundell said.

“Honestly, mate, offending Liebermann is like kicking a puppy,” Private Wraight said.

Tretheway sighed. “I suppose I owe him for saving my life and tending to me in the hospital.” He put the amulet around his neck, tucking it in his jacket.

“Anyway,” Plundell glanced over at Tretheway, “welcome to Barracks One.”

“Thanks. What all should I know about how life works around here?”

“Not much. Roll call is twice a day. Once at 0700 and again at 2000. We eat at 0730, 1200, and 1700. Showers are at 1800. The recreation hall and exercise yard are open all day. Work details don’t have a set time, depends on who wants us. Mess hall and cleaning duties are rotated. If you have experience with vehicles or medicine, Westheimer expects you to be working in the motor pool or hospital.”

“He also expects this camp to be clean,” Wraight said. “No throwing your cigarette butts all over the yard, or else you’ll be cleaning every single butt in camp by yourself.”

“Laundry is done weekly, usually Saturdays. There’s a building for religious services on Sundays. We get our Red Cross packages once a month.”

“Sounds fairly relaxed,” Tretheway said.

“Compared to other POW camps, yeah. Westheimer is pretty lenient, but don’t abuse it. He’s also open to talk about stuff, so don’t hesitant to see if he’s in his office.”

Tretheway nodded a little. “What else do I need to know?”

“That’s pretty much it.”

“Alright.” Tretheway slowly lowered himself to sit on his bunk, resisting the urge to grunt in pain. Sitting, standing, crouching, kneeling—every movement could cause pain, and he was certain that was permanent. Wenzel couldn’t say for certain whether or not it would be permanent. The pain was either better or worse depending on the day.

“If you need help with anything, don’t hesitate to ask,” Plundell said, noticing Tretheway wincing.

What he said was perfectly innocent. Plundell was trying to be kind and courteous. At the same time, Tretheway felt like the aftermath of his injury were being magnified. He could feel the inky black tendrils of his memories of that night unfurl from the murky recesses of his mind. They wrapped around his brain, and suddenly he couldn’t break free of them.

He saw himself standing with the four other commandos, waiting for the order to jump out the side of the plane over southern Germany. Then he was being shoved out. Winter air sliced through his exposed face and threatened to dry out his eyes. After free-falling for a second or two longer, he yanked on the cord to open his parachute. The straps of his harness were pulled tight as the parachute erupted from his pack.

Wind came from behind, throwing him further east than what was initially planned. Futilely, Tretheway tried to angle himself back. He cursed as the wind continued to carry him. Abruptly, it stopped, and he found himself falling toward an abandoned farm. More specifically, the fence surrounding a massive field, covered in snow. Tretheway expected he would land next to the fence. No big deal. Land, get his chute off, find the others.

The wind again came through as he prepared to land. Realizing he was going to land on the fence, he tried to pull himself away from it, tried releasing the cords of the chute. He could land in the soft snow. Something deep inside told him it wasn’t going to work.

The pain of the pointed fence post impaling him was unlike anything he had felt in his life, physical or emotional. Hot blood gushed freely from the new wounds in his back and stomach. Shock blinded him, and he couldn’t hold back on screaming. He howled at the top of his lungs scrambled to get himself free. Unable to pull himself off, he desperately writhed, screaming and wondering what sin he could’ve possibly committed to deserve such raw and intense pain. Blood stained the snow red. Looking at it, and the fence post buried in the right side of his stomach, a single thought crossed his mind, and stayed there: I’m going to die.

That thought repeated over and over, even though he wanted so badly to survive. The fence post snapped off, letting Tretheway roll into the bloody snow. He untangled himself from the cords of his parachute, and tried to crawl away. He didn’t know where he was going, other than “somewhere.” Somewhere more suitable to die.

Leaving a trail of blood, he kept going. He passed out once, until something forced him awake, telling him to keep going. When he came to the edge of a forest, bordering a vast, snowy field, the voice stopped, and so did he. He lay on his left side, pain continuing to rip through his back and stomach. There’s no way I’m going to survive this. No way in hell.

As he was certain he was nearing his end, the sound of a motorcycle and German shouting rapidly approached him. Though he didn’t want to be taken prisoner, this was his only chance of survival.

“Tretheway? What’s wrong? Are you alright, mate?”

Plundell’s voice pulled Tretheway from his memories. Glancing around the barracks, confusion took hold. It felt like that dreadful night had just happened. The pain in his stomach was still present, though not nearly as intense. Tretheway realized Plundell and a few other soldiers were staring at him, while he was hunched over, holding his side.

“I’m alright.” You rotten liar. You are not alright. You’re far from it. Tretheway slowly stood. “I need some air.”

Outside the barracks, Tretheway struggled to keep his mind from flashing back to the night of his injury. The pain was a constant reminder. This place was a constant reminder. He was going to be in pain for the rest of his life. He would never be able to work, or be independent. The rest of his life would be mired with constant pity, and he wasn’t sure which was worse, pain or pity.

Tretheway reached out to brace himself against the side of the barracks, and felt himself sliding down to the ground, unable to stand. Was this really his life now? Tears began streaming down his face, and he silently begged for someone to help him.

He heard a door open and close, then looked up to see Plundell approaching him. “Hey. What happened?” Plundell knelt next to him. “Do I need to grab a medic?”

Tretheway shook his head. “I’ll be fine, Sergeant. I just want to be left alone.”

“Are you sure? You went through something horrible, and you looked like you had just relived it.” Plundell sat down.

Well, he wasn’t wrong. “I don’t want anyone’s pity.”

“You’re not the only one here who’s been through something so awful, mate. We all understand what you're feeling. We all have nightmares about something.”

“But do you have nightmares during the day?”

Plundell nodded. “I used to have moments where I would start reliving my squad’s death in Italy. For almost a month after the poltergeist incident, I would start hearing the poltergeist’s voice, sometimes at night, and sometimes during the day, if it was quiet and I had nothing to occupy my mind.”

“How did they stop?”

“They still happen occasionally, usually when I feel depressed and more vulnerable. Westheimer and I have long talks about our memories and the significance of them. In some ways, those talks helped. I didn’t feel so alone and helpless anymore. I didn’t feel like I was a complete loon. The nightmares still occur, but they hurt less.” Plundell squeezed Tretheway’s shoulder. “I can help you make them hurt less.”

A warm feeling of comfort spread down from his shoulder. Tretheway looked over to see Plundell was smiling at him. “If you think you can help . . . what’s there to lose?”


Plundell had made it his goal to find something Tretheway was good at that wouldn’t aggravate his injury, something that would give him hope of having a life after the war. The following day, Plundell took Tretheway into the recreation hall.

The hall was lined with bookshelves, tables, and boxes full of items the prisoners—and occasionally the guards—would use to entertain themselves. Playing cards, chess sets, sketchbooks, pencils, anything they could think of. There was even a piano in one corner of the room, and Tretheway found he was drawn to that.

“My girlfriend plays the piano,” he said, turning to Plundell. “I’m not nearly as good as her, but I can give it a try.”

“Go for it, mate,” Plundell replied.

Whoever had last used the piano had left their sheet music. It was a piece that person had composed themselves, with no title. Tretheway grimaced a bit as he sat down, but tried to focus more on understanding the notes on the paper than his pain. How many years had it been since he practiced? Several. Long before the war started. He had been working in construction before enlisting.

Taking a deep breath, Tretheway played each note as he found them. It was slow, and didn’t sound like music. Try one bar at a time. You’ll get the hang of it again. From the corner of his eye, he saw Plundell leaning against the doorway, observing him. Tretheway bit his lip before trying the first bar of notes again. And again, but a little faster. And a third time, faster and smoother.

“That’s lovely,” Plundell said. “I think that’s Becker’s piece you’re playing. He’d been working on that the last few nights.”

Over the next few hours, Tretheway worked his way through the sheet of music, repeating each bar until he could play it with no stops to check if he was hitting the right note. For the first time in three months, he was thinking about something other than pain and memories. He was thinking about the music and how it made him feel. It was a very calm and mellow piece. Not sad, but not happy, either. It was different, but it was a good kind of different. An interesting different.

When he played the piece for the last time, in one fluid go, Tretheway turned, expecting to see just Plundell in the doorway. Instead, he saw several other prisoners and guards, including Captain Westheimer, had gathered to listen. Embarrassment flushed Tretheway’s cheeks. “I didn’t do that well, did I?”

“You did beautifully,” Plundell replied.

“You seem to have a natural talent for it,” Westheimer added.

“Well, I did practice near all bloody day.” Tretheway gave a nervous laugh.

Sergeant Becker spoke up. “I wrote that piece to be challenging for me. I wouldn’t expect someone who hadn’t practiced in years to grasp it.”

“It did take a few tries.”

“That was a compliment. You ought to be really proud of yourself. Hell, you could make a name for yourself when you go home.”

“You think so?”

Becker nodded. “With some more practice, I could see you traveling the world, playing with the biggest names in music.”

Tretheway grinned a little. A real genuine smile after so many months of not feeling happiness at all. “You can’t be serious.”

“I am! Just don’t forget about all of us. I’m sure we’d all like signed records.”

April 07, 2022 00:52

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1 comment

Jeannette Miller
16:38 Apr 10, 2022

Well done :)


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