Palo Alto Weekly 17th Annual Short Story Contest
by Kevin Zhou
Soft winds from seaward blew across the beach. But this wasn't a beach back in the States, filled with relaxing families on a weekend vacation. The regal warships, big and small, the menacing dragon's teeth rearing up from the crimson-polluted water, the tanks plowing their way across the beach, and the thousands of other tools of war gave testament to the fact that this was no ordinary beach. Then there were the men. Many were walking, breathing, living. Some were moaning and crying out loud, either to God or feminine names. Others were still and silent. That was the worst part. But I didn't mind it too much, for a fresh recruit ignores such things. However, it did trouble some small part of me that seemed to shout "No, no, no." As I looked across the beach to the ocean commanded by the Allied navy, the excitement that afflicts new soldiers swelled within me.
I had the same feeling when I killed my first German today.
"Henry! Want a cigarette?" hollered Ben, obviously sharing the thrill of the new soldier.
"Sure! How many Germans did you get?" I shouted, intoxicated by battle.
"Four. Nailed my last right in the head! The sucker went down like a block of concrete!" Ben replied gleefully.
A veteran glanced up from his seat in the sand and gave us a nasty look while I lit my cigarette. I chose to ignore it. I wouldn't let anything spoil my fresh, invigorating taste of battle.
That was my first day in Normandy.
In the next few weeks, we did nothing but march and fight, march
and fight. We cleared Germans from large swaths of northern France,
a place more dangerous than a minefield. German traps and ambushes
were everywhere. Even a seemingly lovely and demure French farmhouse
could be a German outpost.
Death prevailed in three forms. There were the wounded and the dying. The soldiers caught in this trap were the most terrifying and foreboding to look upon. Their bandaged bodies, empty eyes and vacant, yet hopeless, expressions tore at my soul. There was the Allied dead. To their corpses we cast quick, sorrowful glances. Our mourning for them was not unaccompanied by a note of more terrible emotion.
Fear struck in every vein and nerve in our bodies as we passed the haunting images and lonesome graves of the unlucky. Then there was the German dead. To their disgraceful bodies we muttered curses and thought of our comrades who had died at their hands. However, something within me, the same part of my subconscious which cried out against the corpses of Omaha Beach, felt sympathy with those out-of-place souls. Day following day of this ugly routine pulled our spirits down like hell itself. My original vigor mellowed. As we advanced upon the Germans, several men from our regiment would end the day stiff and silent. My mind struggled with itself to ignore these casualties. However, the thought of sharing their sad fate was undefeatable, like the Devil himself. Nightmares imagining my pale face staring up at the sky from a lonely French field or ditch relentlessly taunted my rest. Why won't it end?
Eighteen miles from the Rhine, eleven o'clock at night, our regiment stopped to sleep in an inviting French town. The summer night sky was clear and bright and I found my way onto the roof of the building and hit the sack. From atop the house, I had a view of the Rhine, a reflection of the moonlight winding through the darkness. I would be there by noon tomorrow.
"Beautiful, ain't it?"
I snapped up like a rubber band at the voice beside me.
"Jeez, it's only me, Henry!" mocked John, who had bedded down on the roof without me noticing.
"John, you're worse than the Germans," I joked, still shocked by his sudden appearance.
John immediately fell silent. I had said something wrong. His eyes grew haunted and he turned away and muttered, "I wouldn't think so."
Eastward in the distance, artillery opened up, casting little candles in the night. John cringed visibly. Footsteps sounded on the stairs and Ben popped up, followed by five other soldiers seeking the cool night air.
"We'll be over there tomorrow, right in that artillery. Just think about it," said Ben, stretching out next to me.
"I'd rather not. That wouldn't be the most reassuring thought," I replied, sleepily. "Well, like it or not, tomorrow we'll be fighting ... and dying." He seemed to be joking, but I sensed a crack of sadness in Ben's joyful facade. We paused for a minute, listening to the manmade thunder and watching the explosive lightening. As I took in this destructive duet, I no longer wanted to continue. Why was I fighting? Definitely not for the adventure I dreamed of in the States. Besides that, what other reasons were there?
"Ben, why are you fighting?" I asked softly.
A long silence. Ben turned to look at me. Then another series of explosions lit the sky. For a second, Ben's face caught the light, showing the sorrow deeply etched into him. I don't remember him as holding that somber expression when we were school buddies in New York.
"You know, I've never seriously thought about that before." Ben went quiet and I could see him deeply in thought, even though the night was as dark as swamp water.
"Henry, I honestly don't know that answer. I mean, my grandparents were German. I never had anything against them," said Ben, resentment and bitterness full in his words. "Now that you mention it, I don't even know why I came over to this godforsaken place. I'm fighting against my own people."
"I feel the same way. I met a few German prisoners near Strasbourg. They seemed exactly like us. They had wives, children, and homes. Although they knew only a few words in English, I could tell they hated this war."
"Then why are we fighting?" asked Ben. "There's no purpose. If the Germans and us feel the same, couldn't we all just go home?"
John, until now silent, turned over to face us. "We can't. It's just not like that. We're stuck, whether we like it or not."
Another burst of shelling made us jump.
"I sorely hope this war will end soon," I sighed. "It makes me sick."
"Why is this war necessary? Why must we fight those who are not our enemies? Can't we stop it?" pleaded Ben.
A flash of light erupted from the direction of the Rhine and showed John's morose face as he spoke. "Nobody's brave enough."
I chuckled quietly at that statement. If John heard it, he didn't mind, for he remained silent and soon was asleep.
If we were brave enough to fight in this war, wouldn't we be brave enough to end it?
By the hour the first soft colors of sunrise lightly touched the French countryside, the regiment was up and moving. I boarded a truck with twenty other men and we immediately began the ride down to the Rhine.
The artillery had not ceased during the night. The temper tantrums of the howitzers grew louder and louder with each passing minute. I looked at the faces of the men with me. Many were set in grim acceptance. Some were in deep reverie. Some were praying. But all of them, including myself, were full of ugly, naked fear.
I gripped my rifle tensely. The knuckles of my fingers melted and paled until they were snow white. We already knew what was coming. The bulk of the Fourth Corps was not far behind, and the bridge spanning the Rhine needed to be captured at all costs. This would be the most tragic encounter since my day at Omaha Beach.
A thunderous sound pierced the roar of the engines. We craned our necks and watched as the German artillery on the far side opened up, cascading death upon the reconnaissance near the bridge. Our tanks, situated upon a ridge overlooking the river, returned the favor, raining equal destructiveness upon the far shore.
We continued down the sloping road unfazed, but noticeably tense. Four B-17's approached from the north, down the river. There were none of the customary cheers in the truck. The bombers dumped their bombs like trash upon the Germans. Rumbling explosions shook the air, as the eastern bank of the Rhine appeared to sprout a patch of orange flowers of gargantuan proportions. We approached the bridge under slackening fire. I breathed a quiet sigh of relief.
"Everybody down! We're advancing on the bridge!" shouted the sergeant. At that, we unloaded from the trucks and began the terrifying march into the heart of darkness. The faces of all my comrades were blank, but alert. We watched as the reconnaissance trickled back the way we came, carrying their wounded buddies. I shuddered in despair at the sight of them. The bridge approached menacingly. I imagined our enemies, caught in equal states of terror, with fingers on triggers, waiting in grim anticipation to pull. Suddenly, the crack-crack-crack of machine guns and rifles ripped the building apprehension. The pings of bullets visibly frightened many of the men. We immediately scattered into squads, picked targets, and plunged into the downpour of lead. The sergeant shouted through a rainstorm of bullets, "Drive the Germans off the bridge! The Army is counting on us!" As I ran, a boy from Massachusetts not ten feet from me was cut down. He gave one shout and collapsed in a broken heap. I stopped abruptly in mid step, stunned by the uncensored act. Then Ben grabbed my shoulder and I pulled myself out of the coma. Men dropped inexplicably around us. We tried our best to take advantage of the sparse cover.
I spotted a group of desperate Germans near the bridge house. My rifle jerked up and I fired. Behind the terrible noise of the bullet, laughter from the pits of hell seemed to echo through my mind. In the same second, a German soldier fell to the ground. I stood fixated upon my evil work. There was no thrill in this anymore. It had all been replaced by a real-as-life nightmare. The battle raged for half an hour as German reinforcements, many already wounded and forlorn, were pushed to the front lines. Casualty by casualty, we gained inch by inch. Now the Germans had been repelled onto the bridge. The battle was a tide, as the Germans and us alternately advanced and retreated. After every retreat, bodies would be left behind where they had breathed their last. I huddled behind a steel beam, waiting for orders and at the same time wishing for none but retreat. The thuds of bullets against corpses and the piercing rifle shots were pushing me to the limits of saneness. John crouched beside me, equally frightened. Then, as if in a trance, he stood up.
"What are you doing John?" shouted Ben. "Don't expose yourself!"
"I won't fight in this war anymore! I have nothing against the enemy!" John burst out. "They are not my enemy! I refuse to fight!" His body trembled with anger. He took a deliberate step toward the French side of the bridge. I crouched in awe, overcome by his show of unveiled emotion.
The sergeant, from his position, raised his rifle. "Stop! If you take as much as one more step back, I'll kill you!"
John stared at him with indifference. He raised his head in defiance. "I shall have no further part in this war. We are plagued by conflict, but the lack of will to change is the real issue. However, I'll take a step in that direction. Just watch me."
With unshakable courage, John stepped out into the center of the bridge and threw down his rifle, his face betraying no emotion. A burst of fire shattered the air, and our hearts and minds.
The Germans were as cowardly as we were.
The next day was clear, with a light scattering of clouds in the sky, marred only by the flight of aircraft and the passage of tanks. We buried John as we were leaving. The race to Berlin was nearing its climax. The other men filtered away. I alone remained in the quiet meadow in the woods at the shore of the Rhine. Near the mound of newly upturned soil was John's rifle, rising from the ground like an evil flower. His helmet dangled upon the rifle butt, a customary memorial. At that moment, my anger peaked. How dare they bury John with his rifle, the thing he had chosen to cast aside? In my inconsolable grief, I tore the rifle from the earth. The helmet dropped and rolled across the meadow. In my desperate anger, I stalked to the nearest tree and brought the accursed weapon crashing down upon its trunk like an axe. The rifle broke with a resounding crack. I picked up the fallen piece and hurled both sections into the woods. I fell to the ground and kneeled there, defeated.
"John was right. We're not brave enough to reject this!"
I cried out. The chattering birds and insects fell silent, abandoning
me in my deep pain and regret.