The Ultimate Freedom

January 28, 2008
By
Sometimes his breathing wakes me. Sometimes he gets caught up in the world, which is trapped in his own mind, a fresh memory. And sometimes, I find that the man I’ve grown to love isn’t there at all. A blank stare or a shallow smile is all that’s left, for the rest of him is trapped eternally in a state of mind that shall never leave him until death. A state of mind that used to be real, a place in which he gave up his heart and soul for freedom, not only for himself but for his friends and family he thought of daily to survive. Benjamin Maul is this man, or what used to be a man, what used to be my husband in whole. Now his mind is elsewhere; even as we sit at the table for the celebration of his 88th birthday, a blank stare is all that is shown on his face. Our children, and their children, sit silently, eating their food, and at times, momentarily stealing a glance in his general direction, hoping for a sign of life. A sign, that his mind has left the war, and is finally back home with us once more, as he used to be many years ago.

Sometimes I wonder what he’s thinking of, what he’s doing at that moment. Benjamin feeds, bathes, and dresses himself, but he rarely speaks or shows signs that he’s in present day. As I look down at my wrinkled hands gently cutting the meat upon my plate with a steak knife in one hand and a fork in the other, I can think only of the days when he would speak to me effortlessly, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. In this world. In the real world. But now, even at times when he mumbles my name, Amelia, his mind is gone, still creeping silently among the bushes, eyeing the German enemy with an expression of disgust.

-Flashback-

“Ralph, we’ve got to get over there and get food for James – as it is, you know he won’t last long in the condition he’s in without all the strength he can get.” The breath coming from Benjamin’s mouth made a fog in the chill in the air. Ralph merely sighed, and shook his head. “How do you know he can’t make it? James is a strong man, Ben. Don’t underestimate him. I know we were appointed to go on a food search, but I don’t think that going in there just the two of us is a good idea. There looks like there could be dozens of them; what if this ends badly?” Ben wasn’t looking Ralph in the eye; he was staring blindly at the enemy, thinking of nothing but his starving, sick friend who was still lying in the snow back with the rest of their fellow soldiers. The rest of them could make it, he knew, they could handle not eating – but James was getting sicker by the day; he wouldn’t last much longer.

Without looking up, Ben’s expression hardened and his lips quivered slightly as he spoke. “I’m going in there with or without you. Make your choice. Come with me or stay here; either way, I’m getting James some food.” He was already down on his hands and knees, and before Ralph could answer him, Ben starting crawling through the underbrush ever closer to the camp, fallen snow turning his legs and arms numb as he went. When he finally got to the edge of the clearing, closest to the nearest (and largest) tent, he looked behind him to see Ralph quietly creeping in the cold in his wake, a smile playing on his face. “I suppose I can’t let you have all the fun, huh?” He whispered. Ben just smiled back, and motioned for him to come up level with him.

“Look” Ben said, as Ralph came closer. “We’ve got to take out those two guards outside this tent first, I’ll take right you take left, then whoever is inside – I imagine whoever it is must be important to have a fricken tent like this. There’s bound to be food in there, so grab whatever you see first and run for it. Shoot anyone who tries to stop you. I doubt they’ll follow us, as they won’t waste their time with two men. Until, of course, they find whoever important’s been shot. But we’ll be gone by then – got it? And if I go down-“ Ralph quickly interrupted. “Let’s just… not let that be a possibility, okay? Neither of us are going down; we’ll be fine. Now, let’s go.” Ben didn’t argue, but merely motioned for them to go with one quick hand gesture. They stood up, and both took aim at opposing guards and shot simultaneously – both guards went down at once, and shouts in a foreign language could be heard from inside. Ben and Ralph ran inside, their hearts pounding, and shot freely at the five men inside, until all were down on the ground.

Quickly, they grabbed at the bags and cans on the table next to the maps that were spread upon it, and ran out of the tent, breathing heavily as they tried in earnest to reach the protection of the forest with utmost haste. Ben was almost to the edge of the line of bushes and trees when a shot rang out and a long shout was heard from behind. He turned to see Ralph lying on the ground, and in the distance another German man held a gun in his hand, a look of malice on his face. Without even thinking, Benjamin raised his own gun and shot the man down, and then looked down at his feet to see his friend Ralph rolling in the snow. He was turning it a dark crimson shade of color, his hands clutching his chest and his screams echoing around the area.

Ben ripped Ralph’s coat off, and then the other fabrics between his hands and his chest to reveal a gaping bleeding hole right over his heart. Before Ben could even speak, Ralph’s movements ceased, and his face relaxed; his eyes were hollow and his mouth was agape. Shouts and commands from across the clearing met Ben’s ears, and he knew that soon he would be outnumbered. Knowing not what else to do, he grabbed the food lying on the ground next to his dead friend, and ran back into the forest as tears ran down his face. Ralph’s hand fell gently to the ground, the blood upon it dripping to the surrounding snow.

-End Flashback-

At times, I cry for him – I wish that I could be with him, wherever he is, and be able to really speak to him, be able to hug him and him feel it. Suddenly, in the midst of the silent dinner, Benjamin throws his hands in front of him and rakes the plate, silverware and glass of wine off the table, making them crash to the floor. I jump up as he starts screaming and clutches his chest, tears running down his wrinkled face. As I reach down and put my arms around him, he grows silent and calm as suddenly as he grew unsettled. He slowly looks around at the frightened faces that stare up at him from around the table, and lowers his gaze. “Amelia…” He says slowly, with the most feeling he’s shown for several years. “Please take me to go lay down.” I pause for a moment, and then help him out of his seat and out of the room; my mind fearing what I know is now inevitable. I know he’s going to die now. I know it’s his time, after all these years.

Benjamin lies down gently in his consecutive place on the mattress, closing his eyes softly. I take a seat on the edge of the bed, and for the first time in too long a time – I’m unworried. Perhaps I should be, perhaps now of all times I should be worried sick; yet… I’m more at ease than I’ve been in years as I see him lying in that bed, his eyes closed and a faint smile upon his face. He’s calm – he’s at peace, finally. I stare at his chest, which rises and falls with each calm breath – and then I smile at him as he opens his eyes and mouth to speak to me, one last time. He pauses and closes his mouth once more, as if struggling to find the words he wants to say so badly. But finally, the sound of his voice meets my ears. “It… it was worth it, Amelia. The war, and the pain – it was worth it knowing that our family’s safe. That they’re free.” Benjamin smiles one last time and then gently rests his head upon the soft pillow underneath him, his chest movement ceasing. Death, I think to myself, must really be the ultimate freedom. But I’ll never forget what he sacrificed all these years for us. His friend, his thoughts, his sanity. The world may go to pass and forget the name Benjamin Maul – but I shan’t. Not even in the ultimate freedom.





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