by, Daniel C.
“There was not an atom of hate that day. It was just like the interval between rounds in a friendly boxing match. Looking back on it all, I wouldn’t have
missed that unique Christmas Day for anything.”
-Bruce, an English Soldier
Bruce stood silently on the familiar pavement of Cobble Street. He stood as cold and motionless as a lamppost, ignored and overlooked by passers by. Winter had lost its bite under the warm atmosphere of the bakeries and shops. The houses on Cobble Street had a keen personality about them. They were packed so close together, they seemed to huddle around each other. Every window gazed into the street as chimneys puffed their sweet smells, causing the houses to resemble old men in friendly conversation under a cloud of pipe smoke.
The streets flowed with jolly folk, laughing for the sake of laughter as children raced after each other in games without rules.
But Bruce stood alone. He was dressed in soldiers clothes, not decorated or splendid, but muddy and stained. Silently and with haggard expression, Bruce gazed at the house adjacent to him. The windows were bright and warm and he thought he could hear the singing of carols inside.
Bruce wiped his nose on his muddy sleeve. He was very cold.
He wanted with all his heart to join his family inside, to stand around the piano with them and sing songs. To hear Uncle Harry sing Silent Night as though it were a drinking song and melt with gladness at the soft chirp of little Margaret’s eleven year-old voice. He could hear his darling wife Susan singing, softy. How he missed that sweet voice which had made the whole world seem pure and spotless to him.
Bruce ached for home, but there was a crimson-soaked wall standing between him and the delicate fabric of his younger life.
Every night he watched them from the other side of hell’s gates, longing to be home for Christmas.
Then, with all the heart stopping shock of a gunshot, there came a scream from behind Bruce.
Bruce whirled around, heart pounding. He knew what to expect, but somehow it caught him off guard every time.
His eyes met with the face of death, and it froze his veins and paralyzed his heart. Charging wildly at him from a dark corner of the street raced a man in dark, military dress. His boots, which pounded the ground, were stained and in his hands he gripped a rifle, equipped with a long and deadly bayonet. His head was guarded by a glossy, black helmet, fixed with a tall spike like the ornate head of a graveyard fencepost. His most fearsome aspect was his face, which was hidden by a hideous gasmask, giving way to glass eyes, dark as the deepest dregs of midnight.
On his chest was a German, Iron Cross.
Bruce lurched back as the ghoulish soldier raced at him, like a wild beast, its bayonet bent on running Bruce through. As Bruce let out a cry, he awoke.
Falling back into his real self, Bruce did not cry out, he did not thrash or even open his eyes. He just sat there, leaning against the mud and clay of the trench wall. His rifle lay cradled in his arms, his meager rags pulled tight around him. Bruce could feel the familiar shaking of the mud as iron titans battled with fire, flung by lesser mortals, governed by the hands of their invisible gods, reining comfortably and impersonally from London and Berlin.
When Bruce first came to the death-fields outside the French town of Ypress, he thought he might write some kind of poetry about the “hell of war”. But the more he saw of it, the more his inspirations evaporated. The trenches had a way of making a man loose sight of a heaven he never knew he had, until it was gone.
It was not for the bodies that Bruce refused to open his eyes, but for those living soldiers, huddled in the trenches with him. Those who viewed the world through stone eyes, not even granted the chance to grow clouded.
Heresy among saints is a luxury when scorched by the fires of hell.
Bruce tried hard to recall the image of that sweet-smelling street, the call of the venders and the smoke from the chimneys. He wanted to see the faces of those jolly folk again, to hear the carols from the other side of that unassailable threshold on Cobble Street.
No matter how hard he tried to recall the intoxicating charm of that English street, his mind lingered on the eyes of that gasmask, and the soldier who haunted his dreams. A man who was no longer a man, but an animal, hiding behind a mask. Bruce knew, somewhere buried under the debris of hope, it would be such a man as this German, who would be his demise.
“Bruce Haulston…” Came a man’s voice, speaking loud and clear over the howling of shells overhead. Bruce’s red eyes shot open as a brown, paper-wrapped package bound with twine fell into his lap. At first, his eyes were blurry with the light, which he soon found to be dim. Daylight was fading somewhere beyond overcast skies.
He fixed his eyes on his package, astounded. With furrowed brows, he gazed at the brown box for some time. It had been a year, almost to the day, since he had actually received a package. He had gotten many letters and things before, but they were often half burnt, ruined or lost. But this package was as though it had been delivered by the postman and left on a dry and clean doorstep along with the morning milk.
“Bruce! Is that for you?” called a paradoxically jovial voice amidst the cacophonous cannon fire, booming all around. Bruce looked up to lock eyes with his best mate, Jonathan Richards. His face was narrow from lack of provisions and pale from his days hiding in holes in the ground. With such energy and pale complexion, Jonathan had always resembled a white hare to Bruce. It had always been that contrastingly human smile which seemed to break the stonework of the evil inanimate, which demanded their lives daily. Jonathan was the picture of cheerful defiance against death. The day ol’ Jonathan dropped would be a dark day indeed.
“Yes, it’s got my name and address on it.” Bruce said, eyeing the package with that dreamlike fondness which threatened to melt his heart. Bruce immediately looked back at Jonathan with courteous urgency.
“Did nothing come for you?”
“Yeah, my fool of a brother sent me a new football. What good’s a ball when your hiding in holes, eh?” Jonathan laughed. Bruce smiled and replied.
“Maybe if they pull us back after Christmas, we could play a game.” There was a short silence as both the men strayed from eye contact, tucking away their fears into familiar pockets.
“Well go on, open it!” Jonathan urged with a rough and boyish nudge.
“Now, I can’t do that, it’s just not proper, its being Christmas Eve and all.” Jonathan slumped back against the mud wall of the trench with quiet disapproval.
“Curiosity’s going to give you a stomach ache.” Jonathan smirked, pulling close his brown coat.
“Nothing I can’t weather. Now you mind your own business. This kind of thing is special, to come to a man on Christmas Eve. I’ll open it at the strike of midnight tonight.” Bruce said, with cheer in his voice as he eyed the package.
Jonathan grudgingly put his rifle across his lap and turned his head with childish, mock frustration.
Bruce leaned in toward Jonathan and said, in a hushed tone.
“But if it’s something strong I’ll split the bottle with you. But only if you’re a good lad.” Jonathan slowly looked at Bruce again, with a squinting grin and gave Bruce a hearty handshake.
“I’ll be as good a lad as ever you’ve seen.” Jonathan said, suppressing laughter. With that he was up and back to his post, leaving Bruce as he had been, alone with his package and his thoughts. It was a dangerous place to be.
Bruce did not know why he didn’t want to open that package. It was not for fear of its contents, but what they might do to him. Reminders of home had grown sour to his taste, and made themselves a catalyst for reaction.
It was almost as though home was dead and he was left to grieve.
Faded pictures, stained with blood and marred with time, disfigured familiar faces and made grotesque figures of innocent memories.
When Bruce had come to the line from his home, he had come with Jonathan and their merry band of friends. There was fire in their hearts, warmth for each other’s company and a paradoxical atmosphere of cheer which brightened the trenches for a season. But the nature of war had its way, and now all that was left of their merry band was Jonathan and Bruce. Every evening, when the light was dim and the smoke was heavy, Bruce thought he could see their faces in those of the other men. But now they were gray and grim, tainted with morose expression.
Bruce had learned to keep his eyes closed during these hours, pretending to be asleep. Men in warm houses would call this, ‘childishness’ or perhaps ‘cowardice’, but they could never understand the risks one took when closing one’s eyes and falling back into oneself. It had become a wild and dangerous place to go.
It was Christmas Eve, but that meant nothing when standing face to face with the fumes of hell. All Bruce wanted to do now was remember the smoke from that chimney and the smell of the bakery. To hear Susan singing behind that closed door.
Bruce had given up praying for another peaceful Christmas. Even if he did manage to return home one day, in one piece, would it ever be the same? Could he ever manage to cross Cobble Street, and enter in as though he had not seen what he had seen? Still, every night he would dream of that house, facing the door he could never open. All he had now, were memories, and even these had grown stale.
He could remember the lights, the music, the smells, all seeming to be fueled by some intangible goodness which had come as faithfully as the snow in the days of innocence.
What remained of that intangible force for order and good, for peace and hope now, was dashed by the constant barrage of field cannons, fixed on the red fields of France, where the living dug their own graves.
Either such innocence was always an illusion, or he had become blind, even unworthy of entering into it.
That voice which called out for justice had long been silenced by the droning of war machines and the inhuman stares of German gasmasks, with black helmets fixed with a devil’s spike.
The daylight was fading, and soon the land would be lit by the lightning flashes of artillery and bombs.
With the night, there would come the cold. At least when the cold came, the firing would often calm. This signified there must be some warmth left in German blood, though Bruce hadn’t a clue from where such warmth came.
Bruce glanced down at his watch. His shift would be soon, and he would have to brave the firing line once again.
Bruce forced himself to his feet, looking wretched with his muddy blankets and bloodied clothes. He shed these blankets, took up his rifle and thrust the package into his coat pocket.
Walking those wooden pallets to the adjacent trench, Bruce heard the last thunder of artillery from either side. Small arms fire scarcely continued, like the crackling of an enormous fire, but the thunder of artillery had entirely released its grip on the atmosphere.
This was unusual. Often times the artillery would continue long into the night, reminding them every moment that they were on the threshold of death. But they had gone quiet, and it bothered Bruce.
As Bruce approached the adjacent trench, he caught the haggard eye of an officer. Bruce immediately addressed him.
“Sir!” The officer said nothing, but nodded to Bruce, giving him permission to speak. Bruce looked up at the dim skies and said, with urgency.
“Why has the artillery stopped?” The officer did not reply at once, but looked vaguely over the muddy trench to the bleak skies beyond. Then his eyes drifted back to Bruce with a tarnished glow.
“It’s Christmas Eve, I think we both deserve a breath.” The officer replied, his smile loose and restful. This frustrated Bruce, who struggled to maintain absolute respect as he continued.
“But…Sir, isn’t that taking an incredible risk?” The officer returned this comment with distant eyes and that same relaxed grin as he clasped Bruce’s thick shoulder.
“Just keep a tight watch tonight.” Without further instruction or explanation, the officer walked off, into the dwindling light, leaving Bruce rather stunned.
Bruce had nothing left to do but to tend to his post, and watch the German line from his periscope, very carefully now that the artillery had stopped.
He had always dreaded watching the German line for fear he might see the same man from his dream, the gasmask shielding the face of that savage war-beast.
Hesitantly but, as always with dutiful bravery, Bruce peered through the periscope to the opposing line, marred with artillery craters and barbed wire. Part of the view was blocked by the shattered bodies of brave souls, who had set foot where the gods of war dealt their wrath, in the red soil of no-man’s-land. But what was bravery now against iron talons and rocket fire?
Peering over the carnage, Bruce could see no sign of the German soldiers at their guns, but what he did see was the glow of camp-fires and the rising of smoke. It smelled sweet, like warm bread.
“What’s happening over there?” Came Jonathan’s voice to Bruce’s left. “Why’ve they stopped shooting?” He added. Bruce shook his head and removed his eyes from the periscope, with unveiled confusion in his eyes.
“I don’t understand, they’ve just stopped shooting.” Bruce replied.
Jonathan furrowed his brows some, then cracked a smile, saying.
“I suppose it’ll be a merry Christmas after all.” Bruce did not let this comment escape. He would not give his enemy the grounds for humanity.
“Don’t get too comfortable, it’s bound to be a trap of some sort. Watch their guns and be on the alert.” Bruce replied, in stiff objection.
“Alright, alright…” Jonathan said with a shrug, walking back down the trench, as lanterns were lit and fires were struck. Bruce pursed his lips, and returned his gaze through the periscope.
The whole German line was glowing with soft light. What were they planning?
All had become sickeningly quiet, and it shook Bruce to the core. Then, there arose from trenches a familiar, but grotesquely out-of-place sound, and it rattled Bruce more violently than the initial silence.
His eyes widened as the sound began to spread over the line, as steady as the sunrise overtakes the dark. There was no visible change to the line, and no sign of enemy activity, just that noise, floating on the wind from the other side of the red field.
Bruce turned with bewilderment from his periscope and fixed his gaze on Jonathan, who sat against the muddy wall of the trench with legs crossed and eyes drifting dreamily over the dusky sky.
“Jonathan!” Bruce called out in a whisper. Jonathan, with little urgency, turned his face to Bruce.
“What?” Jonathan crowed, with some irritation in his voice. Never the less, Bruce persisted.
“What’s that noise?”
“It’s coming from the German line,” Jonathan replied with shrugged shoulders, and said to Bruce, with a sardonic overtone.
“Well, it’s singing, isn’t it?” From these meager words, Jonathan apparently expected Bruce to understand. But Bruce did not, and as Jonathan’s gaze returned to the dusky sky, whose clouds drifted like tattered, red banners, Bruce found himself alone with his own prejudices and paradoxes, unspeakably exposed.
Jonathan was right. The Germans were singing “Silent Night” in their native tongue. For many, this would be a means of melting a heart frozen by the inhumanity of war. But, for whatever reason, it terrified Bruce.
As though justice was not served. Without a word or action, the inhuman war-beasts were unconsciously granted humanity, the rights to goodness and beauty and everything Bruce thought he was fighting to preserve. If he was not fighting decay, but a faceless mass who likewise preserved their own goodness, then for what was he fighting, and from where did the soldier with the gasmask come into his mind?
This was no change of heart for Bruce, but a crowning dread.
Then, the unimaginable occurred.
Rising like warm vapors from their own trenches, flowed the same song in English, mingling with the German translation. The red fields and dark trenches were immersed in an alien occurrence, which left Bruce’s absolutes mangled and his state of mind muddled.
First came the initial dread. The cold sensation of one who has traveled far, only to finally realize he is lost. Second, the actual sense of ‘being lost’ solidified, and became terribly opaque as both fronts, German and English, joined in the same song. It was terrible to realize that his own comrades were not bound by the same dread which gripped him with such stubborn strength.
Bruce found himself unable to speak, unable to even look at his fellow soldiers, and unable to join in that heavenly chorus. He was stricken on his road to Damascus, but found to have been blind the whole time. The heavenly light was one hidden in the hearts of soldiers, waste deep in death, shame and dread.
It was here that Bruce found himself at his wall – the wall which separated him from joining the chorus and from walking across Cobble Street.
This wall he had erected could not stand. Not only had it kept him from his own self, but it had captured his ability to be a true human being who could accept mortality and be an honorable warrior.
As the carols continued into the night, they only further illuminated this old and sinister wall which had been comfort and his false idol, a drug to keep him from a painful, yet lovely reality. There was good no evil could touch, and intrinsic beauty in a man’s heart of hearts.
Through tears and eyes skyward, Bruce soaked in the night as never before, and found it brighter under a canapé of sweet song, in both German and English.
Christmas day arrived through a dim haze of white light, illuminating the faces of a thousand soldiers, equally intoxicated by the melodies echoing in the caverns of their minds.
Bruce was a changed man that Christmas morning, but still the wall loomed over him, a shadow of shame and dread which he had blanketed himself with to hide from cold reality. The street in his dreams was still a vast distance, too sacred for him to traverse. A no-man’s-land of the mind.
Then, under the light of that Christmas sunrise and under the light of his revelation, Bruce found he would have to substantiate this beauty, this intrinsic value, peace on earth and good will to men.
But this was no idle inspiration, and soon it was conceived that Bruce would have to make a dire action if he were to break this wall, if he were to truly believe.
He had never considered himself a courageous man, nor a man of wisdom or even expressly virtuous, but in that moment, on that Christmas morning, Bruce found himself doing something any other man would call irrational and foolhardy, but in that moment, it was essential for Bruce, to continue living a sane life. If there was truth in the beauty they had mutually experienced that night, then it would have to be consummated through a daring sacrifice.
Bruce rose to his feet and turned to face the wall of the trench, which was coated with a film of frost.
Bruce further stepped up to the shooting ledge, so he could peer over the top of the trench and gaze, with his own eyes, over the red fields, now frosted white. The German line was quiet, but he could see dozens of machine gun nests and hundreds of rifles aiming their deadly steel at him, cold and silent.
Bruce swallowed hard and forced down every screaming voice in his mind telling him not to do what he was about to attempt.
Bruce composed himself and drove his foot into a solid foothold in the trench wall, giving him a boost up.
He set foot on the red fields, where the cruel gods of war dealt their judgment. He could feel their eyes on him, but bravely, he stood, and raised his hands.
It was at this moment when Jonathan awoke to see his friend setting foot on these killing grounds. With shock and terror he shot upright, threw off his filthy blankets and cried out.
“Bruce! What do you think you’re doing?!” Bruce stopped dead, as the voice of Jonathan resounded through the trenches and over the red fields to the opposing trenches.
Bruce closed his eyes tight with a most dreadful and helpless fear, as Jonathan’s voice echoed through the thin morning air.
Bruce stood stalk still, immersed in silence as he faced the German line under the gaze of steel machine guns and all the cruel eyes of death and judgment upon him.
He was at the mercy of a theory which was the hope of mankind. What ever godliness, what ever mercy, what ever inherent value which had caused enemies to join in song, in this Bruce put his trust.
Then, Bruce saw what he had dreaded all these years to see. A face peered over the German trench, several yards ahead of him. Bruce could see that devil’s spike rising from his black helmet and the iron cross on his coat. Bruce could see the sunrise reflected through bleak and dark lenses, which were fixed into the soldier’s gasmask. It was none other, than the product of the wall, the personification of his greatest fears, the soldier fate had chosen to kill Bruce. But with an inexplicable act of faith, Bruce lifted his hands higher and locked eyes with the German soldier, undaunted in the face of death.
Bruce’s arms stiffened, his expression remained steadfast and he desperately tried to appear friendly, while every inch of his flesh crawled and screamed at him to turn back.
The German soldier pulled himself up with strong arms over the trench and then stood tall and ominous on the red fields, eyeing Bruce with soulless lenses. Eyes fixed on that grotesque mask, Bruce began to take tentative steps forward.
Bruce whispered a desperate prayer as he took those fateful steps, Jonathan’s panicked eyes at his back, and those of the German’s to his front. Bruce’s whole body seemed to ignite into electric sensations of fear as he forced himself not to shake or shiver, but to walk steadfast, eyes locked. He could almost feel where the bullets would pierce him. But every step was necessary, if he were to believe in something good and something greater than the cruel eyes of those wrathful gods, dealing their judgment through steel and fire.
Just then, Bruce heard the violent sound of German calls from the opposing trenches. Immediately, the German in front of Bruce turned gave one loud call, which silenced the others. Everything became painfully quiet, as the German turned again to face Bruce. Then, as Bruce prepared himself for the inevitable, the soldier did something very unexpected. He grasped his gasmask, and removed it from his face, exposing his real, human face.
The soldier was a fair-faced young man, the same age as Bruce from the looks on his terrified face. Blue eyes and blonde hair replaced dark lenses and black steel. His arms slowly raised skyward and his knees trembled.
“Meery…” The voice hesitated. “maree…Cris…mos”
Bruce let out a long breath, one he did not even realize he had been holding in, and found he did not know what to say.
He looked across no-man’s-land to the German line and saw hundreds of pointed helmets peering from their holes, rifles in hand, eyeing the English line. Bruce glanced over his shoulder, and saw hundreds of his fellow Englishmen, at their guns, ready to release their fire on the enemy.
“Meery…Cris-mos.” Came the young voice again, and Bruce turned his face to meet those blue eyes again. Without the gasmask and helmet, Bruce was faced with all this man’s sharp and painful humanity.
Bruce looked at the German young man, and saw himself, terrified and yearning for a reason to believe in what that silent night had spoken to them both.
Bruce finally found his voice amidst the shock and weight of the moment, and said in reply.
“…Merry Christmas!” A nervous smile lit the young man’s face, and those in either trenches lifted their heads. For a moment, hate and death loosened their grasp, as the two mediators slowly approached one another, hearts racing wildly from fear and desperate hope.
In a moment, the two soldiers were face to face, two men standing in a field separated by coincidence and the politics of impersonal gods of wrath. But there was a greater power which had brought these two forces into mutual hope and understanding. Bruce chose to believe in a God of love, rather than bending to the will of steel and fire.
Bruce offered his hand to the German soldier, and said with as confident and friendly a voice as he could muster.
“My name’s Bruce Haulston.” The young soldier looked down at Bruce’s exposed hand, bruised and bloodied. He lifted his hand and with little hesitation thrust it into Bruce’s, gripping tightly as they shook.
“My name is…Ernst.” A wave of something warm and spring-like washed over the two as they had to keep from laughing. Bruce had never known such a primal sensation of goodness like this.
“It’s good to meet you, Ernst.” In a moment, the whole German line had abandon their weapons and their holes in the ground to meet the English on the red fields, with open hands and nervous smiles.
As handshakes and hesitant greetings were exchanged on those killing fields, scales fell from the eyes of those soldiers and they could see clearly. Every man had preserved his wall, and now, on a titanic scale those walls had been toppled. Though it was difficult to communicate and almost impossible to convey any kind of joke, laughter filled the air which they breathed, and partook of a sacred goodness which Bruce had thought was a fools dream. Officers exchanged cigarettes while young soldiers gave meager gifts of playing cards and scraps of food.
“Oi! Bruce!” Called out a familiar voice in the crowd of laughing soldiers.
Bruce turned to see Jonathan. There was a gleam in his eyes like never before and in his hands he held his new football.
“Be a sport and join us for a game!” Bruce could not help but swell with laughter as Jonathan and his merry band of German and English soldiers made room for the game of football. The boundaries were marked by helmets and the sidelines were crowded with cheering officers and soldiers.
The game was lively and filled with laughter. No score was kept and the teams were segregated for neither German or English.
It was a glimpse of heaven as ever could be imagined in a battlefield.
In that moment, throwing off his coat to chase the football like a child in the street, Bruce could have believed the war had been a dream, and he had woken to the real world.
Bruce had attacked his wall before, but never with such a weapon as this. To love one’s enemy in the midst of war and death and to hold the goodness of things eternal above the prejudice of things temporal. To turn from marching to dancing, from speaking to singing, from walls to open fields.
Hatred stood still all that cold Christmas morning, even turned its back as the football match sent dust into the air to catch the sun.
However, as quickly as it came, it was gone. As the landscape loses the celestial light at dusk and one is reminded of his place as a mortal in the land of injustices. When the smiling face of intrinsic goodness turns, and the spectator is left with the hope that, one day, he could live a life eternally immersed in that celestial light.
The football match came to a halt as every head turned to see flashes of cannon fire along the distant front. Their ears were met with the dull rumbles of those wrathful weapons as their fellows fought in the distance, unaffected and unaware of the wonderful phenomena which had occurred on the red fields that Christmas morning.
As officers called their men back to their stations, they could not help but look at their enemies under a new light. Unveiled faces which had laughed and sang with their enemies now reflected something different, something radiant.
To any man reading this in a comfortable chair, surrounded by his illusions of peace, this reflection would make no sense. But to the men standing on that battlefield, they knew they had glimpsed something higher than themselves.
As Bruce put on his coat again, he caught the blue eyes of Ernst who was collecting his things. Bruce approached the young man again, without fear, even under the dreadful prospect that he may shoot him in the next hour. But here they could both be honest men, facing death together.
Bruce offered his hand to the young man once more, and said with a smile on his face.
“It was a pleasure to meet you, Ernst.”
Ernst sniffed, his eyes burdened with the weight of that moment, then put his hand in Bruce’s.
“Meery Crismas.” Ernst struggled to say, never the less with a broad smile. As they shook hands, Bruce found he was unsatisfied. There had to be more, something more he could do to defy those wrathful gods who would soon have him hurling steel and fire again, as though none of this had ever happened.
Then, Bruce remembered the package, thrust into his coat pocket.
His whole self ached to expose that package, but as he lifted it up and offered it to Ernst, he found surrendering it was a remedy.
“Mery Christmas, Ernst.” Bruce said, eyes softened and heart clean of what stone had once surrounded it. Ernst shrank back some, objecting in German that Bruce should not give up a package from home. But Bruce persisted.
“Please, I want you to have it. It’s a gift.” Ernst relented with a sigh and smiled again. He received the package with an honest smile, and immediately began to unwrap it. Bruce did not object, but watched as the package was exposed. Inside, was a tin box, which slid open to reveal its contents.
Ernst produced a hand-knitted scarf, from which fell a piece of paper. Putting the scarf over his shoulder, Ernst reached down and picked up the paper, eyeing it curiously. But as he looked at the paper, his expression melted and he offered it to Bruce with that same, young smile as he said.
“She is very beautiful.” Bruce took the paper and saw it was a picture of his wife, Susan. She was smiling like the sun, the kind of subtle smile which would drive any good man to courageous deeds.
“Yes, she is.” Bruce replied. “I miss her very much.”
Ernst tucked the tin box and its wrapping under his arm, and with the other clasped Bruce on the shoulder, capturing his attention.
“You are a good man…Bruce.” The stuttering simplicity of Ernst’s honest words were a greater gift than any he could give in return.
It was then that they found they were alone in the red fields, all of their comrades resuming their posts in the trenches while the two mediators exchanged their fond farewells.
As Bruce walked back to the English trenches, he was astounded by the dominating silence across their field. While guns boomed in the distance and fire flashed on the horizon, it was quiet where Bruce stood. Quieter than ever before, as though some noise inside him had stopped and was transfixed by those few words, spoken from the lips of an enemy and in broken English.
Bruce was a good man, and he felt he could finally believe that.
Although the red fields remained red and stained with the tragedies of mortality, Bruce could see the ruins of toppled walls.
Every man who had bravely climbed from their holes that morning, had brought with them their own walls, each one obscuring their view. Together they had abandon the rubble of their walls and saw each other as they were. Good men in a bad place.
Bruce dreamt of Susan that night, and the sacred innocence of Christmas, hearth and home.
Four years later, December twentieth, 1918, Bruce stood in an oddly familiar place. The war had ended, and Bruce was home. The only thing which separated him from that sweet-smelling house on Cobble street, was the pavement at his feet.
Bruce stood alone. He was dressed in soldiers clothes, decorated and splendid, cleaned of the dirt and blood which had been his constant companions over those long years. Silently and with placid expression, Bruce gazed at the house adjacent to him. The windows were bright and warm and he thought he could hear the singing of carols inside.
It was just like every dream which had haunted him in the trenches, prior to the Christmas of 1914. The wall which had prevented him from crossing that street and entering into the love within was now a mere pile of rubble somewhere in the red fields of France. Now he was home, and had awoken from the nightmares. What had lead him to abandon his wall was neither the carols of that fateful Christmas eve, nor the football match in no-man’s-land. It was the sight of Ernst and the sound of his voice. It was through those honest and grateful words, ‘you are a good man, Bruce’.
Not a day had passed when Bruce did not wonder if Ernst had survived the war. It was thanks to that young German soldier, the bravest man Bruce had ever met, that Bruce was able to surmount the final quest, by crossing Cobble street.
As Bruce took his first step onto the pavement of the street, his ears were met by a meek, but earth-shaking voice.
“Meery Crismas!” It called.
Bruce stopped cold, unable to move as he caught his breath. For a moment, he found it hard to believe he had actually heard that same voice, the voice of a timid German soldier on a frigid Christmas morning, hoping upon hope for warmth in his enemy’s heart.
Bruce turned. It was all so dreadfully familiar. There was the same corner from which had emerged the savage soldier from his dreams, clad in black and obscured by a grotesque gasmask. But in its place, stood a man, dressed in common clothes and walking with a cane. At his side was a lovely woman, and around him were two young boys, with blue eyes and blonde hair.
“Meery Crismas Bruce!” called the man again, with the same broad smile which had received the scarf. Bruce dropped his things, and turned to face Ernst, as alive and cheerful as he was that Christmas morning four years before.
In his hand, Ernst held a familiar package, wrapped with torn paper, but glued back together. It was the very same package, labeled with the very same return address.
Bruce was astonished as he came face to face with Ernst, who held out the package with his ever broadening smile.
“It’s a good scarf.”
Bruce laughed and the two embraced. Entering into the house on Cobble street, and watching the dream emerge into reality, one would find it hard to believe there ever had been a war. But now, with clear eyes, Bruce could love and be loved. The landscape regained its celestial glow, and it was here he would hang his hope like a coat, content to stay in peace.
Through crumbled walls, with songs and laughter, Bruce could see himself as he was.
A good man, home for Christmas.
If you enjoyed this short story, you’ll love the other stories I have in my 9 story compilation, “a Case for Color”.
Thanks for reading!