by Rhianna Herd
It was arguably the coldest day of the year. No one dared venture out into the streets unless provoked or obligated. We were, fortunately, able to take shelter in a nearby café that hadn’t been shelled to hell.
The modest café sat nestled between the tattered remains of a drug store and a run down apartment building. The four walls didn’t provide much warmth from the biting chill outside, saying as there was no heater to speak of.
A man in my unit complained about the temperature loudly, and quite rudely in my opinion, and I told him it was better than the foxholes. He merely scoffed and said that hell was warmer than the foxholes. I silently agreed with him, but didn’t feel in the mood of feeding his hungry ego.
I watched the world outside proceed to freeze everything in its path, the day wearing on in a cold chill, sending civilians and soldiers alike scurrying for some semblance of warmth. The town had taken on a grey hue that had muddled Europe for many years now. Never did the grayness seem to abade, only grow in strength as the German army marched onward.
The café owner, a large beefy man, with thick arms and a thicker mustache, managed to squeeze himself amongst the crammed tables, taking orders and delivering lukewarm coffee that tasted better than anything I’d had in months. When I dug my frozen hands into my pockets in search for bills, the owner chuckled and shook his head.
“Soldiers don’t pay in my café, Monsieur.”
I told him not to be ridiculous but he brushed my offerings away with another guffaw.
“You save our town, you don’t pay,” he insisted.
I thought that in order to save a town, there has to be something left of it and told him so. But he told me it wasn’t just the town that we saved, but the spirit.
I privately disagreed as my eyes roamed around the café and around the chilled streets outside. No one’s spirits here looked saved, they all looked exhausted and a little haunted. The town and surrounding area had been under Nazi occupation for nearly a year now, and my unit had only just liberated it two weeks ago. It seemed a far cry from saving it as much as scavenging for remains.
My exploring eyes landed on a woman and her two children. The children looked no older than 6. Both identical to the last freckle. They were sharing a steaming mug of what looked like hot chocolate. Their mother sat across the table from them, clutching a familiar looking hat in her hands. The hat rested heavily in her hands. She clutched at its brim like a lifeline, wearing the fabric through her fingers. Her eyes looked as lifeless as the chilly streets around us. Her hair was beginning to come out of its bun and it was greying along the edges, a grayness that had probably sprung from Europe itself. The lines of her face sagged downward, pulling her features into a permanent grimace. Her eyebrows knitted together in a devastating line.
As if she felt my curious gaze, she looked up to meet it. I stared back at her, transfixed by the story her eyes told. They were lined in pain, her green iris’ muted by sorrow. I held her gaze until a solider near me let out a cackle of laughter and broke the spell.
I blinked, nodded to her, and looked away. I swallowed around a lump in my throat and clearing it, I looked to the man who had laughed.
He was a buddy in the unit, always making some joke, trying to lighten our greying moods the further we trudged into France’s heart. The grimmer the situation, the louder he laughed; and he was laughing real hard right now.
I glanced at him and raised an eyebrow, telling him to read the room.
He merely shrugged and said that our CO had actually made a joke for once in his life, and that that enough was occasion to laugh his ass off.
I snorted and looked away, back to the woman and her children, but now she was fussing over the two boys as one of them made a grab for the hat still clutched in her hands. The mother looked as though she wanted to protest, her mouth twitching unhappily in the corners. But instead she lifted the hat and placed it atop the boy’s head. He giggled as it slipped over his eyes, and pushed it up, grinning proudly at his sibling who tried to wrestle it off his head and onto his own.
The mother watched with damp eyes as the boy gained possession of the hat. He looked up and asked her a question. Her shoulders slumped impossibly inward; she caved in on herself and let out a shuttering sigh. I thought she was going to crumble away, but instead she fit a smile on her face, and it looked like a painful chore, the corners of her mouth tugging upward in a great struggle. But she managed it and replied to the boy.
Seemingly satisfied with her answer, the boy shrugged as his twin snatched the hat back, taunting him in a high-pitched squeak. When the first boy fit the hat atop his head once more it hit me. I nearly recoiled at the memory of that same hat, lying askew on a man’s head, blood gaping from his open mouth. I suddenly understood the heaviness of that hat, the way the woman held it tight and the way her shoulders met the weight of grief.
We had been hit yesterday by a few arrant German bombers, keen on reclaiming the town and gaining back ground. We were able to eliminate the threat in under an hour, saying as the German’s didn’t expect a whole battalion to be stationed here. But the shelling took us and the townspeople by surprise.
But we still called it a victory.
I didn’t know what to call it now.
There had been causalities but compared to what we had seen the first three weeks we arrived, it was nothing.
I didn’t feel like nothing now.
When the woman looked up again, I averted my gaze, instead intending to watch the world freeze over like the cool breath of death.