The Sweets Of The Rhine This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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   The snow hadn't stopped for days, and sometimes seemed as if it never would. It covered wells and roofless shacks creating deadlier traps than an enemy ambush. Anyone who wandered away from the roads took their chances with these unseen and unmerciful assassins. I've heard that in India they have seasons that rotate around wet and dry monsoons. Here, rather than relentless rain and flooding, lives are claimed by billions of frozen stars, falling from a hidden sky. Snowdrifts are created like waves in the sea; some small and weak, but others that reach out for a man's ankle, drag him under, and drown him in their dark recesses.

We were sent here now for a specific reason. Russian winters are famous for being the downfall of armies and murderers of hope. Therefore, we were to attack after the economy-strangling winter and catch the Russian army off guard. Spring is supposed to be a season that brings back life to the Earth, melts the sorrows of winter, and relieves the world from the starvation of a fruitless winter. Unfortunately, winter again reared its horned skull and stabbed at our onslaught with devastating results. It's as if the mystic survivors of the Siberian wastes cast a spell over the land to control the chaotic tendencies of the elements. They brought frigid temperatures and snows that could halt a tank in its tracks. I had seen men die from jagged shrapnel and red hot bullets, but the sight of a man's frozen eyes and gnarled hands, grasping for help, imprinted a picture on my mind that will haunt me forever.

The day it began to snow was a typical spring day. Mud and limp grass covered the roads, the air was cold, and we had been marching since daybreak. It was almost midday when the first of the flurries fell from the sky, only to melt instantly on the mud covering my boots. It didn't begin to really snow until night, when we were preparing to invade a small settlement a few miles away.

The next day, we woke and found a thin blanket of snow had covered the ground. Ignoring the cold slush filling the road, we marched into a burning settlement. Everything had been destroyed, mostly by fire, and there were no soldiers, or even peasants, to stand in our way. The officers used this opportunity to recover lost time and marched until dark.

Throughout the day, a slight commotion inched its way through the lines. I learned a young man was asking if anyone had a double tent to share. When he reached me, I asked, A"Why don't you have your own?"

"Someone took it off my pack yesterday," was his reply, "Do you, by chance, have a tent to share?"

At first glance, he seemed trustworthy and responsible. His clothing was neatly pressed and his pack was organized. He wasn't built for soldiering; not muscular and very slim, and his eyes didn't seem to be hiding anything, but were filled with sincerity and seemingly good intentions. I decided to take a chance and trust him; better than trusting the enemy.

"I just happened to have one, if you're in desperate need."

"I am in your debt. My name is Richard, and I hope you don't mind me snoring."

"Not at all." I said as we sealed the contract with a handshake. For the rest of the day, and the next, he and I exchanged stories from our past and present.

The next night, the wind was so fierce it almost ripped the tent out of the ground, but Richard and I managed to keep it down. That morning we were greeted by a foot of fresh snow. Walking through the cold slush was not easy that day, and it was even more difficult keeping the inside of my boots dry. The air turned colder as the day passed and settled below zero that night.

The officers had told us to expect more snow in the morning. There was no breakfast since, because of the snow, supply trucks couldn't get to us.

The first casualties of this extended winter were found that next morning. A few men wandered off to relieve themselves during the night. They were found under piles of newly fallen snow almost frozen solid!

We were planning an attack on another settlement that afternoon, but as we approached, we could see black smoke rising from gutted homes and fallen churches. The officers had us camp in a circle around the village in hopes that the warmth might add to our own fires and keep us alive. But soon the fires died, and soon, soldiers died. Bodies of those who could not compete with the cold were found in their tents. Both Richard and I survived, and the next morning, he was able to claim his own tent from the assortment abandoned by the dead.

I almost regretted that Richard was leaving my tent. At night we would talk for hours about his wife and two children; "The sweetest things to ever float down the Rhine," he'd say, and tell me how much he'd like to see them again. I'd always reassure him that he'd see them soon, but not once did I convince him. He thought this war would last forever, that the generals would never give up and the enemy would never stop fighting. Usually I agreed, since the amount of marching and lack of fighting we did gaves an impression that we'd never win, just march ourselves to death. Nonetheless, I got up every morning and continued walking.

The snow became overwhelming. Tanks needed to plow the roads ahead of us. Despite our efforts, the snow continued to pile up, and soon the road became invisible to the plowing tanks. We would wander miles off the road before being redirected by passing aircraft.

Finally, winter retracted its horn from our abdomens and ceased its torture. A break appeared in the dark clouds and we had a chance to view the wondrous sun. I noticed it looked the same no matter where I was or how I felt, always brightening my mood. However, it did not melt our problems. Tightly packed snow crunching under our boots and looming walls of snow surrounding the road still added a sense of depression to the day.

Richard walked beside me and refreshed my memory of his two angels and how much they'd enjoyed the snow. We talked for hours, until dark was near. A forest lay ahead and where the snow wasn't so bad.

When the sun had almost set, I noticed my boots had come unlaced. I stopped to tie them and motioned for Richard to stop too so he could continue telling his story. I happened to noticed a wet spot when I leaned over. I ran my hand across it, and, ignoring Richard, found a small, jagged crack running through it. It took a moment before I realized what it was. I leaped to my feet and began running. I shoved others out of my way, knocking some to their knees, and hurtled myself at the shore. When I felt safe, I turned to look into dozens of bewildered faces, and yelled, "ICE!"

Within the next instant, those bewildered faces turned into a crested mass of water droplets and crashed upon the shore around me. Dozens of frantic, fear-driven maniacs forced their way to solid ground, not one caring for the welfare of the man trapped beneath their boots. Among the many cowardly faces streaking by, I noticed none were Richard's.

Maybe I missed him, maybe I missed him, I thought to myself. He's got to be on the shore!

A loud crack and a glass-shattering scream interrupted my thoughts. My mind went numb while the scream filled me with terror. When it subsided, my mind was no longer cluttered or clouded. I could think of nothing but to help the man who screamed, so I ran toward him.

I pushed my way through hoards of frightened soldiers running in the opposite direction, and finally saw where the ice had broken. A head, followed by two flailing arms, bobbed above the water. The arms reached and swung in every direction, hoping to find something to grab hold of. They grabbed mine.

Flat on my stomach, I held on with all my strength. I tried to pull, but the spirit of the water fought me for this soul.

"Please ... tell my family ... I love them!"

Those words rang through my ears, vibrating inside. I looked down and saw Richard.

His eyes flashed with fear and his mouth gasped for air. I pulled even harder, adrenaline pumping, but the frozen depths would win this battle. His arms loosed from mine and writhed, as if in a wave "Farewell," as he slid below the surface.

That final, frozen image of Richard burned into my memory. I didn't sleep that night, nor the next, and within those days, someone gave up.

We were put on trucks and sent back to Germany, but as we left, the sun made its glorious presence known. It wiped the ice and snow from Russia, quickening our retreat and furthering our humiliation.

Richard's family learned of his death via the War Department. I never found out what happened to them, nor did I ever meet them. I live with my actions every day of my life, and every time I try to justify them, the image of Richard's eyes, frozen in time, reminding me of my failure. 1


This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






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GayLeonard said...
Jul. 23, 2012 at 10:06 am
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