Inspired by true events. Merry Christmas, my WordPress friends!
“I wasn’t good enough for Coleen’s da,” I said, striking a match. A hiss and a glow appeared with the flame, and I cupped my chapped hand around it, trying to contain what little warmth and light it gave. I guessed that it was close to midnight, and the little light was a welcome relief from the deep cold of that unforgiving darkness. The match’s friendly sulfur smell filled my cold nose. I extended the light to him, and he leaned forward languidly to dip the tip of his cigarette into the fire. It was a casual movement, cultured almost. He held himself as if he were reclining in an old friend’s parlor. Looking back on it, I think maybe he was.
I lit my own cigarette and shook out the match. We both took a silent contented moment to relish the first pull of our smoke. I could hear muffled conversations and laughter from comrades down the way, but for the most part, things were quiet with him and me. I let out a natural breath through the nose, but I watched him deliberately purse his lips and blow a steady stream of smoke upward, lookin’ for all the world like one of those puffy-cheeked clouds you sometimes see in the corners of old maps. He watched his cloud slowly disperse with a thoughtful expression. The spell it had over him seemed to break when the last spirals of it curled into invisibility. He broke from watching it and turned his attention back to me, nodding a cordial thanks.
“It’s good,” he said.
I shrugged in reply. I wasn’t fond of the army-issued smokes myself, but they were better than nothin’.
He said nothin’ else, but looked at me expectantly, so I continued on with my story.
“I can’t blame the old man much though. What could a poor tenant farmer with nothin’ to his name offer a lass like Coleen? Beautiful, she was, and as good a girl as ever was made, and that’s the truth.” I shook my head, feelin’ the defeat of rejection wash over me afresh. Coleen. I wondered what she was doing at this moment. Was she by chance thinkin’ of me, so far away on this cold Christmas Eve?
The lad sittin’ across from me nodded in instant sympathy. It matters not a bit who you are or where you come from, there’s a certain brotherhood it seems that forms between young men who all share in the same reverent terror of men with pretty daughters.
“So I says to meself, I’ll put on a uniform and go off for a bit. Maybe when I come back it’ll have some kind of medal on it. Maybe then I’ll be something. Maybe it’ll impress the old man…” I trailed off. Looking down at my cold-chapped fingers peeping through threadbare gloves, I knew it was useless. The war wasn’t making me a greater man. Could’ve been making me a wiser one, but wisdom won’t put a satisfactory roof over the head of a girl like Coleen. It’s hard to feed a family a dinner of wartime philosophy. But I shoved the gloomy thoughts away, it bein’ Christmas Eve after all. There’s plenty of time for melancholy the rest of the year.
“So here I am,” I finished, a bit lamely I thought. But my new friend nodded in general acceptance of my story. A man doesn’t need a reason to go to war really, not when he’s sittin’ smack in the thick of it. The fact of the matter is we’re all here and have to deal with it best we can. When it comes down to it, the original motive for joinin’ this madness is just a meaningless relic to dust off and show to comrades when they ask.
And like a good comrade, when I finished my tale I in turn asked this fellow what he was involved in the fightin’ for. He gave a surprisingly familiar answer, somthin’ about his da and his teachers all talkin’ up the glories of combat and him wantin’ to be a dutiful and patriotic son. Just the same as most of the boys I’ve talked to. Brits, Irish, Frenchies, even the few Yanks scattered about, the story doesn’t really vary much. They all wanna do their duty. They all wanna make someone proud. But at the end of the day, when the shells are explodin’ and their mates are dyin’ and the trenches fill with water and blood and the cold seeps into their very bones, well, then none of us really knows what it is that’s worth it all, do we?
My companion was a quiet one. His pale face was thin, with a sharp nose and sunken cheeks. The face looked altogether too small for the round, wire-rimmed spectacles that perched on his delicate white ears. Blue eyes, dirty yellow hair. It would’ve been a nice face if he’d been a little better fed.
Sometimes I wonder what impression he carries around of me. Probably quite the same that I do of him. Sunken cheeks, haunted eyes, dirty unshaven face, red-chapped nose. Hardly the stocky, apple-cheeked boy I always remember being me, the one with a smile for everyone who would always go for a joke and a drink. I wonder what my friend looked like before I met him, before the war turned him into what I saw that cold night.
He might have been a scholar, I’ve always thought, but course, I could’ve been gettin’ that impression from the spectacles. His English was textbook, like he’d done more readin’ of it than speakin’ and more than once he had to stop me, who’s been speakin’ it me whole life but never so much as cracked open a book, and ask me to explain what words meant. But it didn’t seem to bother him none. In fact, he smiled quite a bit, and seemed to be enjoyin’ himself grandly. I tried to smile along with him, convince meself to have a good time of it all but the more I realized I liked him, the sadder I became.
I didn’t like likin’ him, I realized. I wanted to believe his sort were all bad, heartless terrors to be fought off and destroyed. I didn’t like it that now he had a face and a name. I didn’t like hearnin’ his story, or imagining him as a happy schoolboy with a mam who loved him. And I didn’t want to kill him.
I think he could tell what I was thinkin’. Maybe he was thinkin’ a bit on the same line himself, for he reached out and put his hand on my shoulder.
“Forget the war tonight, eh Comrade?” he said. He spoke lightly, like we was old friends meetin’ over a pint, but something in his eyes was earnest. He was begging me to forget that we both were over our heads in death and suffering. He was pleading with me to pretend, even just for a moment, that the two of us weren’t enemies. “It’s Christmas, ja?”
“Ja,” I repeated. Christmas. Peace on earth and all. It had been so long, I hardly knew what peace was anymore. But then he showed me. That scrawny German boy, who had lately been lobbing shells at me from across no man’s land, taught me what peace sounded like.
“Perhaps you know this one,” he said. “My family, we sing this as we walk to mass on Christmas morning.” And then he began, closing his eyes and leaning his head back against the dirt wall:
Venite, venite in Bethlehem.”
His clear tenor cut through the cold, still air. His voice was soft but strong, a beautiful, almost eerie melody that split the gloom as swiftly and effectively as a flame cuts through darkness. Tears sprung to my eyes as I instantly saw myself as a small child, singing these very words with my da as we walked, hand in hand, along the crunching snow to Christmas morning mass. The church bells were ringin’, our words formed clouds in the icy air, and the village roads were full of people all comin’ together to sing and pray and celebrate… Something like joy welled in my chest and I threw my own less skilled voice in along with his.
Voices around us began to join in. All up and down the trenches, the song grew, one glorious chorus. Friends and enemies alike united in a simple song.
You know, the history writers called it the war that would end all wars. Well, that was the only moment I ever believed it could be possible.
He stayed all through the night, and far into the next day. We swapped songs and stories, what food and drink we had, and plenty of laughter. Comrades came and went, sometimes we had a large festive group full of our boys and theirs, and nobody cared. But it was me and him who stayed the longest, unable to leave each other’s company. And as the sun was settin’ on Christmas evening, I was sorry to see him go. He clasped my hand and shook it firmly.
“Happy Christmas,” I said, and my throat felt tight of a sudden.
“Fröhliche Weihnachten,” he replied with a smile. He turned and was gone, back over the trench, back across no man’s land, and back into the war we had both managed to forget.
The shells and gas and blood and screams started up again the next day. The truce of Christmas 1915 evaporated from memory like a dream. The killin’ picked up like it had never stopped. All explosions. No singin’.
It was another three years before the war ended. And twenty have passed since. I came home to Donegal, married Colleen, and avoided talking about the fightin’ whenever possible.
But the war didn’t end all wars, that’s sure enough. It’s comin’ again, and with Germany too no less. You’d think the bigwigs up in world government would’ve learned their lesson, done what they could to keep us out of another war. But then again, they weren’t the ones doing the killin’ and dyin’. They weren’t the ones in the trenches or field hospitals. They don’t even know what they’re talkin’ about really, when they talk of war. I keep me mouth shut for the most part, when I hear the young folks spoutin’ off about the glories of war, the necessity of it all. I’ve done my part, and no use talkin’ of it to the lot of them. They’ll know soon enough, poor lads. I can’t fathom what it’ll be like, when it comes, like reopenin’ a wound just barely healed.
I think of him, you know, when I hear all the talk about the evils of the Germans. I don’t doubt their Fuhrer is a madman. If I thought long and hard, I might even come to the conclusion that another war is the only solution. But I’ll always remember that cold Christmas Eve, sharing a smoke and a song with a German soldier, my enemy, who was quite an awful lot like me.
Odds are stacked against him coming out of the war alive. He may even have been killed December 26, 1915, when the first shots were fired after our little truce. And it may be that I fired the shell that killed him.
But if by some miracle he saw it through, came out unscathed, I hope he remembers me, like I do him. And I hope he looks back and thinks, “Not all of them were so bad.”
His name was Josef. My name, as it happens, is Joseph. We were both twenty years old that Christmas. Both of us far from home, both cold, both hungry, both wishin’ we didn’t live each day fightin’ for our lives. It didn’t matter much that one of us was an O’Kelly and the other was a Müller. It didn’t matter what language we spoke or what uniform we wore. All that mattered was there we were, a good Irish Catholic and a good German Catholic, sitting in a muddy trench in France, singing in Latin about a boy born in Bethlehem.
And we were at peace.
©2017 Hannah Kaye
Note: Apparently there’s a movie that has pretty much the same plot as this story called Joeaux Noel, but I’ve never seen it. I guess that’s what happens when you try to write about true stories!