“Peace and Goodwill to all men.” Those words have always echoed in my mind.
As a boy growing up in a small town, I was not protected from the outside world. Every night as we ate dinner it managed to scale the walls I had built to hide behind.
From halfway across the world from rice paddies in the delta, came the gruesome black and white images of death and dying, boys not much older than myself. I shared their fear, I felt their pain, as they ducked and bobbed in the tall grasses. My neighbor’s neighbor, a father’s son and the forever silence of an alien battlefield. The heaving bulging sacks tossed onto waiting whirling birds of prey. And those left behind with longing stares as their weary eyes followed the dark specks into the vast whiteness.
It was a time of violence, a time of protestors hurling rocks, tear gas canisters exploding, buildings burning, armed soldiers shooting killing, and nightly body counts. The most vivid image happened one particular Christmas. During a ceasefire, came the pictures of the many lifeless sacks lying juxtaposed on the dry grasses of an LZ in a place where the guns were supposed to be silent . . . They said, war is hell and death is death . . . And I knew then, I wanted nothing to do with it or them.
A shadow of man sat with his arms cradled over his heart, dozing silently. Periodically waking he gazed toward the fireplace. His white hair casually cascaded over his ears and into his beard. His eyes fluttered in deep sleep, as the fired roared. A chilling cold snow blew outside and his thoughts were lost in a time he had left behind. At his side, pulling on his shirtsleeve was a wee boy child.
“Grand Papa, tell me an olden days story?”
“Huh,” said the old man fighting to open his heavy eyes.
“Tell me a story,” pleaded the boy.
The old man wiped sleep’s traces away and sat up. He yawned uncontrollably and straightened the wrinkles from his sweater. He reached down and wisped up the boy with his once mighty arms and held him close. Looking deeply into his emerald eyes, magically he began his tale.
Many, years ago, a war was raging all around. It was bitter cold. The snow was falling heavily, drifting and blowing. The world outside had become a dunes of shimmering whiteness.
Deep in the woods, in a cabin, a young boy waited. He waited by a frosted over window for his father to come.
“Mother, he’s coming tonight isn’t he?”
“If he’s able, but Fritz, you shouldn’t expect him. Go do ya chores,” she said.
“You heard me . . . And bring back the plumpest hen in the coop.”
“Ya Mama,” he replied.
The snow had drifted over the porch and up the log walls. As he opened the door, a chill went through him and made the fire sputter. Quickly he pushed the door shut behind him and struggled through the frigid powder. As he made his way, his thoughts faded to the warmth of their first days as prisoners of the woods.
It was early March when the bombs started to rain from the sky.
“Helga, we must leave tonight or . . .”
Helmut never finished the words. He stopped before he muttered the word die. He tried, but he couldn’t. Helga and little Fritz didn’t need to know the real danger wasn’t falling from the sky. It was living and breathing all around them.
“But where are we to go, Helmut?”
“I know a place in the forest, we can go there. Wake little Fritz and we’ll go.”
And so they gathered their things and made their way to an abandoned ruin, a shack in the Argon Forest. It took them till dark to haul the cart with all their belongings deep into the forest. They were too tired to do anything but sleep and that night Helmut had to wedge the door into place. Still the wind blew through the walls. From his bed on the floor, Fritz could see the stars through the roof. It wasn’t much of a home. With its rustic facade, it was more suited to a family of wild pigs.
“What if the cabin owner comes back,” asked Helga?
“My sweet, there’s no need to worry, no one will be coming back.”
“How do you know?”
“Don’t worry, they won’t be back.”
Fritz had heard them talking. Father seemed so sure. It was as though he knew something.
Early the next morning, father, mother and Fritz were busily working to make the small cabin, their home. They re-hung the door, tacking a sole of an old shoe, where a rusted hinge used to swing. It would give them time enough to get another hinge.
“Helmut, we need a ladder,” said Fritz’s Mother.
“Ya Helga . . . Fritz you find small trees,” he said holding up his thumb and index finger. “You take the saw.”
Fritz searched the nearby woods, cutting the young saplings and hauling them to the clearing. Once he had a pile, his father began stripping the bark. He cut eight grooved mortises in the strongest two, with a chisel.
“Fritz, cut eight runs, this long,” commanded his father, holding up his two large hands.
“Ya, Papa” said the boy.
Fritz sawed the ladder’s runs with the handsaw and his father cut rectangular tenants into each end. Ever carefully Helmut worked, stopping periodically to test each run in the mortises. When they fit snuggly, he would start cutting another. Finally he used a hand drill to peg the runs to the legs.
“Father, where’d you learn that?”
“Son, my father taught me. He was a carpenter as was his father.”
“Why aren’t you a carpenter?”
“Because they told me, I had to do something else.”
“Never mind you. We have work to do.”
Helmut placed the ladder against the side of the shack.
“Father, what’re you doing, now?”
“At night, you like looking at stars, but in snow and rain, I’m not so sure, eh?”
“Ya,” said Fritz.
The boy watched his father chop a log into shingled slats. He tossed them into a stack until he had enough and bundled them together. He took a handful of nails, a hammer and climbed up unto the roof. Carefully he fitted the slats over the holes and nailed them. Once the roof was mended, Helmut carried the ladder to loft and lashed it into place.
“Fritz, help me carry the mattresses from outside.”
Fritz did his best as they hauled the pads into the cabin. The boy pushed as Helmut pulled each one up the ladder and tossed them into place. Mother made two berths by hanging several blankets from roof supports.
Mid afternoon, tiredly they continued to work stuffing wall cracks with chinking made of mud and moss. As darkness fell, the cabin was tight to the rain and cold.
The next day they hauled the cabin’s stove from the creek bed. Helmut and Fritz eased it back to its original place in the kitchen. Behind the shack, Fritz found the smoke flues tossed in the bushes and before long, the chimney was venting the choking fumes of cook stove.
“Papa, why did someone trash the cabin?”
“I don’t know, but maybe they didn’t like what was going on here,” he said trying to explain the unexplainable.
“Helga, this winter we eat and sleep snug and warm,” said Helmut.
“Papa, what’s this for,” asked Fritz pulling open a trap door.
“It’s a root cellar,” said father.
In the middle of the floor was a door that led to a cellar. It was large enough to hide in, if the need arouse.
“Helga, we should cover the door with your rug. It might be useful, yet?”
Helmut built a large log table with bench seats that straddled the cellar door.
The log cottage was slowly becoming a safe haven in the middle of a dark lonely forest. It would be warm and cozy even on the coldest of nights.
The next day, Fritz’s father would return to the city where he’d work each week. He would return to the woods whenever he could. One of the first trips, he brought seeds for a garden, which kept Fritz and his mother busy. They removed several trees and turned over the top soil. They planted rooted pieces of red eyed potatoes, onion seedlings and seeds from pumpkins, beets, and bright red tomatoes. Each day they hoed and weeded the garden. When there was no rain, they carried water from the stream.
On one trip, Helmut brought a dozen chicks. Fritz and his mother spent the next several weeks building a coop and a small shed for goats and rabbits.
But the happiest return was when Helmut returned with Max, a small fuzzy puppy. Its feet were too large for such a little dog. Helmut suggested that the animal would probably grow into them.
“Helmut, what were you thinking?” Helga asked.
“You need protection and the boy needs a companion. The war is not going well. Every night the sirens blow and we wander aimlessly off to the shelters. All the while, people are being herded into box cars . . . The army, rumors report is deserting. The English are supposedly just over the Rhein and could cross any day.”
“Helmut, I’m worried.”
“Don’t worry. You and Fritz will be safe here. There’s no reason to worry.”
“I worry for you.”
“Don’t, I’ll be fine, my sweet. You worry too much.”
In the warmth of August, Fritz and his mother labored preparing for the cold winter months. Each day Fritz chopped firewood and stacked it in the shed. The harvest from the garden they preserved and stored in the root cellar. Potatoes, squash, pumpkins, apples were stored whole, while berries and tomatoes were preserved in glass jars. Nuts were stored in bags in the cellar.
A mighty gust blew a frosty chill of snow into Fritz’s face. Instantly he was pulled back to the cold night as he trudged through the deep snow toward the shed. The chickens were in their roosts. He pushed each one aside. One by one he gathered their eggs, wrapping them in a handkerchief, and sliding them gently into his coat pocket. Finally he grabbed the plumpest hen and nestled it under his arm. With his free hand he quickly dispatched her and hurried into the house.
“Did you get the eggs?”
“Ya, eight,” he said handing her the limp bird.
Fritz took the eggs from his coat pocket and took off his coat.
“How about a Christmas stew?” asked his Mother.
“Ya, now go fill the wood bin, looks like we’re in for a big snow.”
But before Fritz could put his coat back on, Max began growling, then came a heavy rapping on the door.
“Quiet, Fritz. Put out the candle!”
“But maybe it’s only father?”
“No. Max never growls when he comes. Now, be quick and blow out the candles.”
Helga slowly opened the door. Three soldiers stood shaking in the cold night air. The whiteness hid their uniforms making it hard to recognize who they were.
“Ya,” asked Fritz’s Mother?
“Sprichst du Englisch?”
“Nein,” she said shaking her head from left to right. Quickly she realized the men weren’t German.
“Sprichst Du Franzosisch?”
“Oui,” she said, nodding, worried they were in danger.
After a moment, the American soldier muttered a childlike phrase.
“Oui, but . . . but you must leave your weapons outside Monsieur,” she said as firmly as she could be.
“But . . .” and finally he said, “Oui, Oui,” knowing they needed shelter from the storm.
“Fritz show the soldiers where to put their things, schnell.”
The leader gave a soldier a command and he handed his weapon to him and quickly he dipped his shoulder to help support the wounded man. Fritz led the way as the man with the weapons followed him to the shed. Max ran ahead jumping into the air attacking as many snowflakes as he could before they reached the ground. With each leap, he fell into a heap and rolled in the snow.
Helga held the door for the soldiers to come inside. She pointed to the cot by the fire. The leader helped the wounded man over by the fire.
After a few moments Fritz and the soldier came in and dusted the fresh snow off their coats.
“Mother, should I get another hen?”
“Ya,” she said nodding.
When Fritz came back, he had another bird nestled peacefully silent under his arm. Helga quickly cleaned the two and cut them into pieces. She placed them into a large iron pot with several slices of bacon and put the pot on the stove. Soon the bacon began to sizzle. She peeled potatoes, onions and chopped them up and added them to the pot.
Two soldiers were sitting at the table when Fritz sat down. One of the men pulled a chocolate bar from his pocket and handed it to the boy.
“Danke,” replied the boy as he took the bar.
From the stove came the sweetest aroma of frying chicken. Helga turned the chicken and covered the pot. The wounded man was snoring from his cot. Another was petting Max, while one retrieved a chess set from his pack.
“You play,” he motioned to the boy.
“Oui,” said his mother from the stove.
“You,” he pointed to the white pieces.
After a while, Helga added several pitchers of water to the pot and covered it once more. Shortly, Max began to growl again. He ran to the door and paced back and forth barking. Beyond the door, low male voices could be heard. A rap could be heard on the door’s surface.
Helga went to the door and opened it just a crack.
“Fraulein, may we come in and warm ourselves?”
Helga shut the door a moment to think. Then just as quickly she cracked the door again, knowing if she didn’t the soldiers would get suspicious.
“Mein Herr, you must respect my guests?”
“Fräulein, of course we will respect your guests.”
“Leave your weapons in the shed and then you may enter and share what we have!”
“Fräulein, I must protest. We are fighting a war.”
“Ya, I know. But if you don’t respect my wishes I can’t let you in.”
“Danke Fräulein! We will obey your wishes.”
The officer turned to a soldier in a white hooded uniform and said something. Immediately the man began collecting their guns and ammo belts.
“Fritz, show them where to put their weapons.”
The soldier turned and followed Fritz to the shed.
“Son, do you have a Christmas tree?”
“No, mein Herr.”
“Well, what do say we cut one?”
“Jawohl, mein Herr,” said the boy, unsure but nodding with a smile.
Fritz followed the soldier into the woods where they found a suitable pine tree.
“There,” said Fritz.
“Then that’s the one,” said the soldier and quickly cut the tree.
Helga led her new guests into the cabin and to their astonishment, across the room, sat three soldiers.
“Ma’am,” said the German soldier, “You can’t expect . . .”
The woman’s guests were their enemies, the ones they’d sworn to fight for the motherland. They were members of the Allied Army who had killed their families and friends with bombs in the night.
“Sir, you have a choice, you can come in, warm yourself and fill your bellies or not . . . “
The German officer paused, and finally he said, “Ma’am, we’ll respect your wishes . . . Herr Sergeant, is that one hurt?”
“What’s he saying?” asked the American Sergeant, anxiously.
“He wanted to know if your friend is wounded. He is a surgeon and asked if he could help.”
“Oui,” said the American soldier.
Quickly the German doctor knelt by the wounded man. He opened the lying man’s shirt and removed his bandages. From a dark can, he sprinkled the wound with sulfa powder and bandaged it, once more.
“Herr sergeant, he will be fine. The bullet straight through, just keep it clean.”
“Danke,” said the American.
The boy and the other German soldier entered the cabin. Quickly, the soldier reached for his knife.
“Mein Herr, it is alright,” said Fritz, grabbing his wrist. “They come as friends. They are guests in my mother’s house. You must respect her wishes or leave.”
There was a long moment of silence.
“I’ll stay,” he replied. “Where do you want the tree?”
“In the corner,” responded Fritz’s mother.
An American soldier set his pack on the table and began digging inside. The German soldiers watched him carefully, expecting him to pull out a weapon.
“Sir, what are you looking for?”
“Cigarettes,” he said and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and passed them around.
“Danke,” said each German soldier.
“We need to decorate the tree,” said Fritz, “but with what?”
“Maybe each of us could hang something we value,” responded the German Lieutenant.
“Ya,” said Fritz.
And everyone nodded in affirmation. Helga opened a bottle of wine and poured cups for everyone.
“Merry Christmas,” said the American Sergeant, holding his cup high in the air.
“Frohe Weihnachten,” said the German Lieutenant and lifted his cup into the air as did everyone in the cabin.
The soldiers searched their things. An American took off a cross he wore around his neck and hung it on a branch. A German soldier removed a black cross he received for bravery and pinned it to the tree. Another gently tucked a picture of his girl into the tree’s green needles. One took a prayer bookmark from his Bible and hung it from its red ribbon. Another took a friend’s dog tags. A pair of golden wings a father had given. Helga took her father’s pocket watch from her apron pocket and hung it on the tree.
“We must have a treetop?” said one of the soldiers.
“I have just the thing,” said Fritz as he slid under the table and into the cellar.
In the far corner was a loose board. In their first days, Fritz had found the hiding spot. It was used by a previous resident. He retrieved the cloth object and hurried back.
“Here,” he said as he handed the object to the German Lieutenant.
Everyone stood silent. In his out stretched hand, sat a crumpled dirty-yellow six legged star. The officer’s eyes began to water as he recognized the Jewish prisoner’s Star of David.
“Sir, we must arrest . . . ,” said the German soldier.
But the German officer cut off his words before he could utter them.
“Keep quiet. Tonight, we do nothing or ever. That’s an order. You understand,” threatened the Lieutenant. “You will say nothing or I’ll have you fighting at the front.”
“Yes, my Lieutenant,” returned the soldier.
Everyone stared as the German Officer placed the Star of David at the top of
the tree. No one spoke, no one moved. It was as if nothing else existed anywhere, but in a little cabin in the woods.
“Let’s eat,” announced Helga, as she began dishing out plate after plate of piping hot chicken and dumplings.
Everyone sat at the table, except the sleeping wounded man.
“Let us give thanks,” said the German Lieutenant. “Lord, bless our hosts and these men that we eat with. And bless all soldiers tonight, those that have died and those that will. Let us one day live in peace once again. Amen.”
“Amen,” repeated everyone in their own tongue.
That night everyone laughed and ate till they were full and then they ate some more. They drank hot coffee and told stories and ate sweet potato pie.
When it was time to part, each one thanked their host, wished each other well and left into the chilling cold.
“Which way to the front?” asked the American Sergeant.
The German Lieutenant pointed toward the edge of the forest and said, “Da, my friend.”
“Thanks, we will never forget.”
“Nor shall we.”
And for an instant one Christmas Eve in a cabin in the middle of a raging war, everyone’s gaze turned upward to the top of a ragged pine tree and a star shined brightly overhead.
“Grandpa, you’re crying?”
“No my son, I’m just happy to pass this story on to you.”
“Aaron,” called his mother.
“In here Mama. I’m sitting with Grandpa.”
“Don’t bother Grandpa Fritz.”
“Ok, Mama,” said the little boy, jumping to the ground, running into the kitchen.
Dreams are yours to Share
Just Released . . . Sleepless Nights, AuthorHouse, 2007
A continuation of The World . . . through a poets eyes.
The World Outside My Window, AuthorHouse, 2004
Links: Dreams Are Yours To Share
Warriors and Wars
The Moon Also Rises
Dan’s Room 2 Write
Copyright © 2007 by Dan Hanosh. All rights reserved.
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