The Frenchman

June 28, 2008
By Henry Knight, Alexandria, VA

It was cold. White wisps of frost drifted out from his mouth into the frigid night air, like tiny silent ghosts, visible for an instant under the pale moonlight, then gone. But the man was not watching the cold entrails of breath, nor was he watching the tiny brown mouse, with an underbelly stained the color of fresh cream, that moved timidly beneath him. High in the pine trees above him, laden with tiny green needles, like medieval spears, there might have been an owl watching the scene about to unfold. It would have been colored motley brown with big round orbs for eyes, like most french owls, but who can say for sure, as the man in the woods was not looking for motley owls or brown mice with cream colored underbellies. No, his mind was on a much more insidious deed.

He wrapped his long thin fingers around a handgun, concealed in his coat. Inside his handgun were four spherical balls of lead, cold, unforgiving, inhumane. The man envied the gun. It had no conscious, no qualms with stealing the life of a man. It did only what it was told, nothing more nothing less. A human on the other hand, is vastly different. A human is a tidal wave of emotion, regret, greed, empathy, pride, love, and hate all welded together to create man. For that is the essence of man, not technology or the manner with which he walks but instead his complex ideals, his passion for every fleeting moment of his tiny life.

The man pulled the gun from his coat, the brown folds of which rustled silently, another man was coming down the path. He was tall and well built, his blonde hair trimmed neatly, his blue eyes shining with exuberance, life seeping from every pore. He was twenty one, a happy age. The man in the woods sucked in cold air, he couldn’t do it, not tonight. He could not take a fellow man’s life on a night where the stars shone so brightly, like hundreds of tiny diamonds imbedded in the cosmos. Then he saw something, a band on the path walkers arm, a red band with a swastika on it, the emblem of hatred, rage, the devil. Somewhere in the dark recesses of the man’s mind he thought it almost comical that a mere pattern could invoke such rage. But that thought was buried by an avalanche of feeling and raw memory; his wife, and brothers, felled by Nazi guns. He felt the need for vengeance, the need to kill.

With one swift, definitive motion he pulled the tiny trigger, the lead spheroid darted from the barrel of his gun at extreme speeds, in an instant it found it’s target, in another instant it was burying into bone and flesh. The sound of the shot startled the man who fired it, he stood stalk still for a moment, staring at his victim. Than he ran. He tore down the park path, but his shot had awoken others. From the shadows of a doorframe a butcher stepped into the pool of light cast by street lamps. He was big, meaty, and a Nazi sympathizer. He wore a stiff apron that once, might have been a pure angelic white but was now red from the blood of cows and pigs. The shot had roused him from a light slumber and know he came to investigate. As the man from the wood ran he cocked his gun without realizing it. He would kill again tonight.

The butcher lunged at him as he sprinted by his shop, and he fired, the butcher fell back, stunned, then dropped to the ground, blood flowing from a wound in his chest. He was dead. The curtain in the room above the butchers shop rustled. Out from it peered a pail, frail, figure, the butchers wife. She glared at her husband’s killer with intensity, a glare only broken when a Nazi guard plowed into the shooter. Soon, he was surrounded by breathing bodies, they wrestled the gun from his hand, but there was no need for that, there was too much death in the world, too much death in this little town, the shooter would not strike again. They beat the shooter with his own gun until slowly darkness crept into his mind and he blacked out.

The shooter awoke in a dark room, but he was no longer the shooter, he was playing a different role in the game of life. Now he was the prisoner. His hair was matted down with sweat, dried blood trailed from his nose and mouth. He looked upon his surroundings indifferently despite his discomfort. In the corner of the room there was a tall man, with an evil smile. He grabbed his prisoner by the head and dunked him in water, then up then down. For hours the prisoner did this, breathing desperately, trying to find air in the hell which was the Nazi torture room, then drifting back into the quite dreamy world which lay underwater. The torturer stopped, at intervals to question the prisoner in German, than French. Each time, however, the prisoner answered in circles. Taking full advantage of his mastery of French, and of the torturer’s tendency to mispronounce, mis-speak, and general lack of understanding of the language he was not used to, to talk circles around his captor.

The torturer tried many methods but the more pain he caused the more the prisoner sunk into a hollow eyed shell, his clever answers giving way to a more monotonous approach. Soon he gave up speaking altogether, he barley ate, and moved only when necessary. He was no longer human, the pain, pride, joy and sorrow were only distant memories now. His sole purpose, for even the most worthless man must have a purpose, even if only in his own mind, became to endure pain, chase after a few fleeting hours of sleep and endure more pain. This new game, new purpose, was not eternal. The torturer became bored with his victims. He always did with those few steadfast souls who, by some miracle of God would not divulge their secrets. The poisoner was loaded onto a damp boxcar, which was a faded red color. On one side was a well worn add, from many years ago for a circus. It made the prisoner smile to know that somewhere at some time there had been a circus and people had laughed, played, and danced to the lively music. Yes, he remembered that fully, the dancing had been wonderful. Quick cheery jigs performed in rooms filled with the optimistic twittering of fiddles and the crackling of fire. He remembered noticing once, the shadows cast by the licking flames seemed to dance along the wall in time to the jigs and the fiddles. And as suddenly as it had come his moment of happiness was whisked away on a northeastern wind.

The boxcar was damp. It smelled of decay, the source of which the prisoner knew but did not speak, for speaking something, as all men know, gives it power. It makes it real and more dreadful than it had been as a thought, an idea bottled up in one’s mind. There were other men in the car, shadows of men really, there faces all alike; sullen, withdrawn, but accepting of their fate and of the pain the must endure. It was not patriotism, in my humble opinion, that kept them silent. No, patriotism had died long ago. It was the simple, quiet, pride of besting your opponent, of delaying the checkmate longer and longer, taking a twisted amusement in the trouble you were causing. That, coupled with a burning desire to live another day, which no amount of torture could drive away from those brave souls. They were given no water, they drank what seeped down through the cracks on the roof. Occasionally a thin stale crust of bread would find it’s way into the boxcar, though the door was never opened. This usually was the result of some young boy soldier who still had a shred of humanity left or an old seasoned officer who was attempting to stick to the rules laid down at the Geneva conventions. The prisoner thought of his childhood. Innocent and happy, he remembered romping about in a field of red poppies by a shimmering pond and suddenly an urge overwhelmed him to breath fresh air and see scarlet poppies. And though he new he may never glimpse his France again, he still hoped for one last look at her shimmering ponds and scarlet poppies.

Hours melted into days on the train which for all intents and purposes was going around in circles, stopping here and there to pick up or drop off supplies. The conductor knew that at some point he ought to bring the french prisoners to the prison camp in northern Germany but he was hoping that if he put it off long enough by volunteering for other jobs they would all die and he wouldn’t have to go up North where it was freezing cold. The prisoner had a vague idea that they were headed to a prison camp but he did not concern himself with that, he need only be worried about his journey. The prisoner watched men die around him, finally giving in to the hunger and constant thirst, they merely let go, allowing their spirits to slip away from their bodies. Slowly the prisoner felt his own spirit start to ebb as well.

One day the train hissed to a stop and there was silence. Then the rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire filled the air. A faint cry of “Vive a la France” drifted into the boxcar. Then, with one uproarious explosion the front of the car burst into flames, an inferno of wood and metal. The fire licked at the wet wood sending columns of smoke spiraling to the heavens Another explosion shook the whole train, someone was blowing the tracks. The prisoner, and his living comrades saw their escape. Summoning every ounce of nourishment, drop of rain water and every crumb of stale bread they burst from the burning car and darted towards the resistance on the fringe of the field.

They ran like no man had ever run before, their feet kissing the ground with every step, determined to live what might be there last moments in total unkempt freedom. The first man made it to the tree line, then the second. Then the prisoner felt, quite suddenly, hot pain tear up his arm. He’d been hit. Crimson blood flowed from the wound onto the emerald grass, but he kept running. Next to him a man fell to the ground, another victim of Nazi guns. The prisoner saw, out of the very extreme corner of his eye a movement in the woods to the left of the resistance, a sniper, loading his rifle and taking aim, on his arm was a red band with a black swastika, the emblem of hate. Again thoughts of those dear to him surfaced and he was filled with rage. In a whirlwind of furry the prisoner picked up a rock and charged the sniper. The sniper never saw it coming, the prisoner blind sided him, bashing him ruthlessly with the plain brown stone while the gun flew from his hands and skidded across the ground, coming to a stop out of the reach of the entangled men. Some where in the pel-mel the sniper found a knife, he jabbed blindly at his opponent and found him, only moments before he died himself. The prisoner fell back, the knife still in his side. He heard the resistance leader call the retreat, they picked up their wounded and ran, leaving him alone with the dead.

There, on his deathbed the prisoner felt no pain, Only a tired spirit, unduly weathered for its years quietly ebbing away. He heard the trample of boots in the distance and the familiar sound of skirmishing, but that did not concern him. He’d done his part. War seemed strange to him now. So much death and carnage in a mad scramble to end up on top of the heap. War was the child of a basic an selfish desire to exercise complete power, to smite the opposition. But there is another aspect of war. Fear a deep fear of individuality, of someone or something different. And from that fear comes a deep and burning hatred which we can not help but satisfy with acts of uncontrollable violence. We are enraged by the very existence of those who are different, horrified by the notion that they might be better than us. And so happily we stain our hands red with their blood.

Slowly he dragged himself across the ground, in search of something. Though he knew not what it drew him to a hill nearby. As he came to the crest of the hill he looked down. Before him he saw fields of scarlet poppies, and a shimmering pond. He smiled, he was on the cusp of the promise land but could not cross into it. For him, to only look upon it was enough. He was happy. He died that way.

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