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By James R. Benn
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2012 James R. Benn
All rights reserved.
"Burnett." The name drifted across the snow—an urgent, choked, clipped summons. Wind took the sound and scattered it on blowing pellets of snow. The wind was ice stabbing the men's cheeks, stinging their eyes. It was also their salvation, casting away the crunch of boots on snow, hurried whispers, the subtle sounds of fabric and gear as each man swiveled his body, moving head and eyes front and back, side to side. It blew their frosted breath behind them, instead of letting it drift up, or even worse, out in front of their faces. Even so, Jake Burnett heard his name.
"Yeah," he said, barely mouthing the word. He twisted his head to the right and felt the frozen snow tapping incessantly at the back of his helmet. The wind danced loose granules over the foot-deep snow pack, sending clouds of white over the surface so it looked almost like fog. Good cover for crawling on your belly, but hell on the eyes. Jake was glad to turn away, to rest his stinging face. Ice weighed on his eyelashes, creating a hazy white glow. He shivered, from deep inside, the spasms radiating out, rippling through his lungs and shaking his limbs. He tightened his grip on his M1, afraid it might leap from his quivering hands. He let the shiver run through him, keeping his eyes fixed on the lieutenant, a puppet pulled on strings of frost.
Hand signals shot out at him. Index finger stabbing at him, pointing at Clay Brock, five yards to his left. Hand down, keep low. Scout forward. Jake took it all in, nodded, and turned away. Cradling his rifle in his arms, he heaved a deep breath, and pulled himself forward by his elbows. He felt the cold on his thighs the most. His feet weren't too bad, encased in a couple of pairs of wool socks, combat boots, and four-buckle overshoes. He had lost count of the layers under his field jacket, sweaters and shirts compressed into one sweat-encrusted stinking second skin. Even with long johns and the heavy wool pants, crawling in the snow left his thighs numb with the cold. No, numb would have been good. They were bruised with cold, prickly and raw, razor blades slicing them each time he propelled himself, elbows and knees pushing his body forward. Towards Clay, with the bad news. Clay had crawled to the base of a thick pine, and raised himself up on one knee. The edge of his helmet and one eye peered out from behind the tree, just under where the first branches, heavy with iced snow, hung down and disappeared beneath a drift. He was still, except for his eyes. Jake couldn't see his eyes, but he knew. He knew all about Clay. Knew his smell, what his cough in the night sounded like, how he moved through cover, and what he'd say next. He knew Clay had chosen exactly what tree and which side of that tree to crawl to for a better look ahead. Right behind where Clay stuck out his head was a jumble of thick brush, brown branches with lines of white snow on them weaving patterns in every direction. Patterns that wouldn't betray a helmet edge. Stick your head out with a nice clear background of white behind it and Western Union would be knocking at the door.
Clay slowly pulled his head all the way behind the tree trunk. No sharp moves, nothing to draw the eye. He slumped down, leaning his back against the tree, and looked at Jake. Jake rolled behind the tree and got up on his knees. Snow clung to his jacket, and worked its way down the olive drab scarf knotted around his neck. He brushed himself and hugged his legs, willing warmth into his thighs. He looked like he was bowing to Clay, who waited patiently. Clay was never in a hurry. Nothing the Army wanted him to do was ever good enough to be in a hurry for. But that was Clay's nature anyway. Slow and calm, deliberate and predictable.
"Red wants us to scout down to the tree line," Jake whispered.
"Fuck," Clay said. Jake knew that would be his first response. If he had told Clay that they were to head back to Company HQ for hot chow, it would have been the same. Anything the Army wanted Clay to do was greeted with the same contempt, and carried out with the same determined resignation. It was one of the things Jake really liked about being buddies with Clay. That, and his being a good shot.
"Observe across that field, then report back," said Jake. "Look like about a hundred yards?"
"Yep. Fuck," said Clay. He leaned his head forward and tapped the front sight of his M1 on his helmet, a little habit he had started about a week ago. Jake didn't ask about it. He had his own superstitions, his own fears, secrets and rituals. "Let's go."
"Fuck, yeah," said Jake, trying to imitate Clay's flat Tennessee drawl. He tried to smile, to make a joke of it, but couldn't tell if it showed under the frost-encrusted stubble on his face and the scarf drawn up over his chin. Clay caught himself as he began to roll over to begin the hundred-yard crawl. He looked at Jake, raised an eyebrow like he did whenever he noticed something interesting. With a guy like Clay, that was nearly a standing ovation.
"When'd you start being funny, Jake?"
He smiled, and it was easy to see. A big, broad grin lit up his narrow face. There wasn't a lot of stubble, more like strands of thin, faint brown hair that sprouted here and there on his chin and upper lip. Razor once a week did the trick on this boy. His face was dirty. Grimy really, and it looked like the kind of face that when you gave it a good scrubbing, it would uncover a sweet country boy, more Tom Sawyer than Huck Finn. But this wasn't dirt from playing down by the stream. It wasn't the dirt of mischief and mumbley-peg. It was fox-hole dirt, muddy earth overlaid with black cordite smudges, white crows-feet showing at the edges of his left eye where it squeezed shut when he aimed with his right up against the rear sight, easing his finger against the trigger, lining everything up, spinning a straight line from his eyeball through the rear sight, along the barrel, over the front sights, across the gulf separating him from the target, the enemy, the quick from the dead, or so he hoped each time. Final pressure on the trigger and the slam of the shot, M1 jarring his shoulder, smoking cartridge ejecting into the air, and direct line between brain, eye, weapon and enemy soldier disconnected as a gray uniform slumps to the ground, gone. Another dead German, and the tension releases as if a thin line was cut, like a kite on a windy day when the string you're holding snaps and falls from the sky.
Jake smiled, or tried to again, and it felt like his cheeks would crack from the effort. Clay could smile with ease, as if a grin were the natural set of his jaw. Jake had seen him walking a muddy road, weighed down with combat gear and sucking his boots out of the ooze with every step, all the while a half smile playing around the corners of his mouth, as if it was all so funny. Look at us. Ain't we something?
Smiling wasn't something Jake was known for. Shorter and stockier than Clay, his dark, wavy hair and thick beard surrounded deep brown eyes set under heavy eyebrows that looked permanently knitted. Jake's home was Pennsylvania coal country, where the towns lay in cramped valleys, steep hills cutting sunsets short and letting in the morning light a full hour after dawn. Side streets ended in one or two blocks, dead ends hitting granite looming like a giant wall over skinny brick houses. Outside of town, mineshafts descended underground, carrying men in and bucketfuls of black shiny coal out. The men came out the same color as the coal. Some of it washed off, some didn't. It was the kind of landscape that got you worried just waking up in the morning.
But that was nothing compared to this country. There was so much to worry about here you couldn't afford to, not enough time or energy for that. You just tapped your helmet, made your little joke, did whatever you could do to convince yourself you'd get through this day, and maybe the night.
Clay went left, Jake right, around the tree. They were flat, as low to the ground as they could get, keeping their heads down like swimmers doing the crawl. Elbows out, pull. Push with the knees. Butt down. Head down, but eyes up, into the wind. They kept apart, but within sight of each other as the land sloped down, the pine woods thinning out into a field. They could see it clearly now, a wide strip of cleared land, probably a farmer's field. Maybe three hundred yards wide. It curved to the right, rising up as it did so they couldn't see beyond that small hill. To the left, it went on, widening before it disappeared into the pines again. Winds drifted the snow, and in some places only a thin covering remained. Stubble stuck up through the white cover. Sugar beets maybe, they grew a lot of that around here. But the field didn't matter, unless it was mined, of course. What the Lieutenant really wanted to know was about the tree line on the other side of the field. Was that the German MLR?
Main Line of Resistance. Go find it. That was their job today, a simple one, really. It wasn't hard, just sneak around a few outposts and keep going until lots and lots of people started shooting at you. Not a few rifle shots, there had to be more, and heavy stuff too. Machine guns? Mortar fire? Good, you found it. If you didn't get hit right away, or pinned down, you had a chance to hustle back, keeping an eye out for patrols, outposts, minefields, and your own trigger-happy buddies in their foxholes. Good luck, men.
Clay signaled to Jake. They were behind the biggest pine trees they could find, their branches screening them. They'd stopped short of the scrawny trunks, the smallest growth at the edge of the field, going to cover behind thick green branches coated with snow, hung down to the ground, frozen to it by snow and ice. Good visual cover, but that was it. Clay pointed to a rock outcropping about twenty yards away. A jumble of boulders, five feet tall. Perfect cover, good angles between jutting rocks to observe through. Jake nodded, and they both crawled around the pine trees, giving the branches a wide berth. A slight touch and the snow could slide right off, sending the green fir flying up like a penalty flag to betray them. It happened all the time when the sun warmed the snow. You heard it sliding off, hitting the ground with a soft crunch, then the whoosh of the branch springing up out of the snow. Only there was no sun now, nothing but grayness and wind and a white swirl along the hard ground.
Instinctively they moved in front of the trees, trying to keep them to their backs. Jake stopped to look across the field, as much as he could without lifting up his head. He saw white, the ground in front of him blending into the open ground ahead. The field dipped down on the far side, and he couldn't see the beginning of the tree line. Tops of trees stood out along the horizon, under the rim of his helmet. A mix of pines and bare branches, standing out against the sky like latticework. What were they? Lots of oak around here, old growth, thick-trunked trees in forests where you could walk with your arms out-stretched, no new growth in the way. Schu mines were another thing, anti-personnel mines that would blow a leg off but not have the decency to kill you outright. Generations of clearing and grazing left clean woodlands, nothing like the overgrown, spindly, vine-choked thickets back home. German immigrants had broken their backs clearing land for farming, cutting the ancient trees and hauling rock to coax what they could from flatland plots. When Jake was first old enough to wander off by himself, those untended fields were already reverting back, saplings and brush growing faster than corn ever had.
Clay was at the rocks. Jake scuttled sideways until he was behind them, rolled over, shifted up and laid on the rock, helmet tilted back, mouth hung open gasping frigid air. Clay propped his rifle against the stone and tried to pull himself up, giving up halfway and collapsing on his side, his shoulder grinding against the sharp edge of a crevice. He didn't move, except to push his scarf up over his mouth so he could create a little pocket of false hope as he exhaled the air warmed by his lungs.
"Fuck," he finally said. Jake knew what he meant. He could feel the sweat dripping down his back, matting his damp hair, gathering on his stomach. The exertion had warmed him, but in a minute the sweat would soak into his clothes, chilling his skin as he lay, exposed to the wind and cold.
Clay took off his helmet and his wool cap, pulled off his right hand mitten and glove, scratched his scalp, shook the damp cap, and then jammed it back on his head. He pulled the glove back on and looked at Jake, who raised a finger as he brushed snow from his face with the other hand. Gimmie a sec. Clay nodded, minutely, a slight dip of the head as he closed his eyes, then opened them as he looked away. Okay, no problem, take your time buddy. Neither man knew it consciously, or thought about it, but they shared a secret language. Looks, gestures, nods, a raised eyebrow, everything had a meaning that was bound up in who they were, unintelligible to anyone outside their foxhole, outside of their experience of each other. Days and nights together, on marches or waiting by the side of the road, or in some nameless French village, sleeping in a hastily dug hole, huddled for warmth, or in a bombed out house or maybe a barn with clean hay if they were really lucky, had given them time to decipher each other, taking in moods, reading between the lines, learning from silences, until it was second nature to read the other man, know his thoughts from the set of his shoulders, the look in his eyes, a catch in the voice. The shorthand of men.
All this took time, of course, and ability, and the willingness to observe and listen. Infantrymen who came ashore in the spring and summer of 1944 without the skill of observation and a keen ear for listening, whether to their buddies or to the sounds coming across the fields and woods of northern France, didn't need to worry about time. By the winter of 1945, in Belgium or Germany, maybe Luxembourg—nobody was really sure where the hell they were—they were already dead.
Clay took his other mitten off. Except for the extra trigger finger, they always made him think of being dressed for school and how he had hated wearing those mittens. It was a nice memory though, standing next to the woodpile in the kitchen, the stove radiating heat and cooking smells as his mother forced pale blue knit mittens over clenched fists, stubborn little fingers jammed into fuzzy warmth. He stuffed the olive drab mittens into his pockets, as he always had done with the blue mittens right after he turned the first corner down the dirt road and the farmhouse with the collapsed front porch disappeared from view.
Clay pushed himself up, one hand on Jake's shoulder, the other steadying himself against the cold stone. Two large rocks, about five feet tall, leaned against each other and left a small cleft at the top. Clay flattened his face on the rock and peered sideways through the cleft. He looked down the edge of the tree line, waited, and watched. Nothing. Not a sound, no movement to catch the eye. He crouched and slowly moved his face to the bottom of the cleft, looking straight out across the field. He could feel the wind blowing on his face, could hear it swishing the pines and drifting up snow in front of the rocks. The wind lessened and he heard another sound. Scratching? What was that? The wind rose up and he heard it again, his ear tuned to it now and picking it up clearly.
He tapped Jake, a slow deliberate two-finger tap to the shoulder. Jake took off his helmet; neither man wanted to risk the telltale clunk of metal helmet against rock. He moved slowly, coming up to just below where Clay's head was. Clay motioned with his hand, and Jake moved his head up as Clay leaned to the left. Their heads joined, one right eye and one left eye each with a clear view.
An oak leaf. A big one, from one of the giant oaks across the field. Brown and curled, its sharp lobes turned downward so it looked like a prehistoric insect, teetering on its pointed tips, stem straight out like a tail. The wind pushed it along the top of the crusted snow, its protesting sound unnaturally loud in the silence.
Excerpted from Souvenir by James R. Benn. Copyright © 2012 James R. Benn. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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