The Medal
Wayne Purdy
Alex Allenby returns home to visit his dying father. His father has one regret; he witnessed the ... Show More
Genres:
Contemporary Fic., Literary, Sci Fi
Tags:
world war 2, time travel,

Chapter 17

                                          There will be time, there will be time
                                                          To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.
                                                                                                                 -T.S.Eliot

     The morning began just as all the others for Arnold De Graaf. The fleas didn’t bother him so much anymore. Their irritating bites had become reminders that he still lived and in a perverse way, he almost welcomed them. Almost. His shapeless straw mattress was infested with the ravenous buggers, but it still provided more comfort than the cold, hard ground.

     “Wake up, you dreck!” The kapo barked at him and his fellow inmates. Arnold hurried to his feet, his aching body protesting every movement. It was 4 am, and this was the way he was awakened every morning. The kapo, Edmond, was like him, an inmate, but also served as the head of the work teams. He was a criminal, even before the war started and was elevated to this small positon of authority because he relished cruelty. The Germans delegated much of the day-to-day authority of running the camps to such men, sparing them from having to interact too closely with the vermin in their charge. Arnold hurried to make his bed, such as it was, with military precision, pulling the threadbare blanket over the mattress and tucking the edges underneath. It was a lesson in futility, he knew, but anyone who failed could expect a beating from Edmond.

     He slipped into his boots, trying his best to ignore the plaintive cries coming from somewhere in the barrack. Someone had not made his bed to Edmond’s ambiguous satisfaction. Arnold coughed, his chest wracked with wheezing. He was sick but did his best to hide the illness. There were rumours whirling about what happened to the infirm and Arnold was determined to not test their veracity first-hand. After his bed passed inspection, Arnold joined the throng of inmates to the sanitary facility to wash up for the day. It served hundreds of prisoners and it was always better to arrive early. He washed his face with tepid, coppery water, ignoring the floating bits of phlegm and mucous in the basin.

“Come on, Arnold,” Oskar said. “Let’s see what the chef is serving today.” Arnold smiled. It was the same joke every day, as routine as everything else, but Arnold had come to look forward to his friend’s attempts at joviality. Oskar had been at Kamp Vught longer than Arnold had. He’d been one of the earliest arrivals, a journalist who had been highly critical of the Nazi regime. The camp hadn’t even been completed yet. In a pique of irony, Oskar and his fellow prisoners were forced to finish building the concentration camp that they would be imprisoned in. “Have you got your mess tin?”

     “Of course,” Arnold said, waving the small tin cup in his hand. Arnold had learned the hard way to have your mess tin at the ready for breakfast. No mess tin meant no food, which made for a very hard day. The kapo poured tasteless coffee into the cup and passed Arnold his bread. Arnold grasped it greedily, wrapping it into a filthy kerchief and stuffing it into his pocket. It was likely the only solid food he would get and Arnold liked to save it for later. He drank his coffee quickly.

     “Ah. The journalist,” Edmond said, his words dripping with hate. The kapo saw Oskar and stared at him, daring Oskar to meet his gaze. Oskar was detrimentally proud. He would not look away. His proud blue eyes met Edmonds in a show of defiance. Arnold feared for his friend. Edmond had killed for lesser transgressions. Edmond poured coffee into Oskar’s cup, before clearing his nose and emptying it into the cup as well. Oskar refused to let the man break him.

     “Thank you,” he said quietly, holding out his hand for bread. Edmond, his face red with barely contained rage, tossed his bread onto the ground, and into a puddle of mud. Oskar bent to retrieve it and Edmond delivered a kick into the man’s ribs. Oskar fell into the puddle, retrieved his bread and quickly stood back up and took his place in line. “I shall enjoy the extra flavour,” Oskar said. Edmond clenched his fist, but thought better of it, moving down the line.

     “You play a dangerous game, my friend,” Arnold said.

     “I know,” Oskar said. “I can’t help it though. I try but I won’t let them strip me of my humanity. They may treat us like dogs, but I will not act the part.”

     “Then you will be dead.”

     “My friend,” Oskar said. “Don’t you see it? We are already dead. They just haven’t let us die yet.”

     Arnold didn’t respond, but walked towards roll call in quiet envy. He wished he had Oskar’s courage, but he was also determined to go home when this was all over. Already there were rumours. The allies had invaded France. Surely their liberation was at hand. The Germans were increasingly nervous, which made them all the more unpredictable. Still, Arnold would do as he was told. He would acquiesce, he would obey their commands. He would survive. At night his last thought was of his family, of his children, Anke and Pim. And of his wife. He knew he would one day come home to the farm on the polder. He would hold Edith in his arms again, and all this would fade from memory like a nightmare that you can’t quite remember after waking. In his darkest moments, Arnold regretted working for the resistance, for taking part in the act of sabotage that got him arrested. He was cutting the phone lines, preventing the Nazis from sending or receiving calls. It was a fool’s errand, of course. The Germans would have it repaired quickly. It was more the message that it sent to their occupiers; we will resist. Arnold saw the searchlights and broke into a run, but he was too old for escape. He was captured by a Dutch policeman named Espen Smit. Before the war, Espen had been a friend. Now he was a collaborator. Still Arnold remembered when he’d been captured. Espen tried to help him, tried to downplay Arnold’s involvement. Arnold was a simple farmer, not a saboteur. Klaages wouldn’t have it though. Arnold was beaten and tortured for almost two days before he had given up his collaborators’ names. He prayed it was enough time.

     Roll call was the worst part of his day; he hated it even more than the forced labour. Orchestra music was pumped out of speakers throughout the camp. The Germans believed in music. They used it to develop discipline, to maintain marching order, and to instil a sense of order into the prisoners. There was also a more insidious purpose. The Germans used it to exercise a sort of physical and mental force over the inmates. Arnold came from a musical family. At night they played songs and sang with such glee that it was often the highlight to their days. Here, it was a tool used against them. A prisoner was expected to sing at command, whenever a guard or kapo requested it. After a long day of manual labour, being forced to sing took a lot of effort to a severely malnourished, exhausted man. Failure to obey the order often was met with a beating. The singing was a macabre soundtrack to the rigorous life of the camp, and Arnold resented it with all his heart.

     During roll call, the prisoners were lined up in rows of ten, even the dead. If someone was missing, the whole ordeal started over again, with the kapos becoming more and more angry. The men wore only their striped uniforms, and the process was made more difficult during the winter. It wasn’t uncommon for men to die during the roll call. Arnold stood at attention, praying that the count would soon be done. Finally, they were dismissed, and Arnold joined Oskar for work. The two men were marched outside of the camp, surrounded by antsy young soldiers who seemed to expect an allied ambush at every turn. Usually the work was pointless. They would move rocks from one location to another, and then back again. They would dig holes and fill them back up. Today, they were digging trenches, probably to defend the camp when the allies finally came. Arnold quickly grabbed a pick-axe. Its handle was sturdy and the metal head was in good repair. If he was unlucky enough to not get a tool then he would have to dig bare-handed. Arnold was once a big man, a typical farmer. He was barrel-chested, his back was strong and his hands calloused. After several months at Vught, he was a shadow of his former self. His face was gaunt and his cheeks sunken. His once muscled arms were skin and bones. The work was too much for him. It was too much for any man, but he had little choice. With a resigned sigh, Arnold swung the pickaxe into the ground, and began his arduous task.

     A man digging a few dozen feet from Arnold passed out. The kapo beat him senselessly. The man never got up again.

     At the end of the day, his stomach empty and grumbling, and his body sore to the core, Arnold was relieved to hear the whistle sound. He’d eaten the slice of bread for his lunch. The men shuffled back to the barracks, Oskar and Arnold carried the man who had been killed. They ate soup for dinner, though it was really just water with a sparse few carrots and potatoes dropped into it. Arnold ate his, licking the bowl afterwards, refusing to let even a drop go to waste. Then the men were ushered back to their bunks. Arnold had a bible, smuggled into the prison by Edith when he was first arrested. He had a piece of twine tied to it and he wore it around his neck and under his uniform. At night, he led a bible group, reading the good book to whoever crowded around. Sometimes, if he encountered a particularly despondent man, no easy feat in this world of despondent men, he’d tear a page from the bible so that the man may enjoy the word of God when his sorrow became too much. It was the best gift he could give, and it did seem to help. His bible was now a lot thinner, like he himself, but he believed that it fed his spirit bountifully. Arnold lay onto his bed, a chorus of farts and snores surrounded him. He burned with fever and felt his strength slowly ebb away, but he thought of Edith, and how he would one day share a bed with her again. Very quickly, Arnold De Graaf fell asleep and his day ended just like all the others.

     No two days were ever the same, Brennan Allenby thought as he sat on his rucksack holding a mirror with his left hand and a razor with the other. He had just turned twenty and had still not grown a full beard. The downy soft peach-fuzz on his chin served as a reminder of just how young he really was. The past year had matured him. He’d seen things and done things no man should ever be a party to, especially one who has barely tasted life yet. They July sun beat down on him, and he’d taken off his shirt to bask in its warming, rejuvenating rays. As a boy, Brennan dreamed of one day exploring the world. He wanted to see the wonders of the world; the pyramids, the Eiffel tower, the Great Wall of China. He wanted to explore the amazon. He wanted to have grand adventures. Now, he just wanted to go home. He was in Caen, a city in France, and there was a contagious feeling of excitement bubbling throughout the troops. The war was almost over. Except that it wasn’t. Brennan had to keep reminding himself of that. A bullet at war’s end was just as fatal as any other bullet.

     He took off his socks and washed them in a bucket of water as best as he could before wringing them out and setting them to dry in the sun. His feet ached however, and just being clean and dry seemed to make them feel infinitely better. He’d seen some men with severe trench foot. There was even a fellow that had a foot amputated. The blackish rot was gangrenous. Brennan was envious of the man. He’d gotten a ticket home, and all he lost was a foot. It seemed a fair trade.

     He had a sweetheart at home, waiting for him. Esme sent him letters and care packages all the time. The letters were full of hope and optimism. They would marry. They would have a house full of children. They would be happy. Brennan wanted that. He really wanted it. Happiness seemed a foreign concept to him now. Was there really any chance of that? He didn’t know but he was keen to find out. Airplanes flew overhead and in the distance he could hear the staccato of gunfire interrupted by bomb blasts.

     “They got the Germans on the run,” Art said, taking a seat beside Brennan on the hard ground. Art had become one of Brennan’s best friends. They met in basic and stayed friends throughout the war, more importantly, they stayed alive.

     “Looks like,” Brennan said. “But they sure as Hell aren’t making it easy, are they?”

     “No, I suppose not,” Art said. “Captain says we’ll be moving north after this, into the Netherlands.”

     “The Netherlands?” Brennan responded, disappointed.

     “What’s the matter?”

     “I was just hoping we’d push into Germany, take the fight right to ‘em.”

     “I know, but the Americans and Russians are racing for that. We get the scraps.”

     Brennan shrugged. “Maybe it’s just as well. The fighting won’t be so hard, will it?” He pushed his dark hair back off his forehead.

     “I don’t know about that,” Art frowned. Caen was once a beautiful city, replete with buildings built during the reign of William the Conqueror. The city was in ruins now. “Don’t worry, though. You’ll get home. We both will.”

     “I’m not so sure,” Brennan said, his head cocked to one side.

     “Care to make a wager?” Art extended his tanned hand out to Brennan.

     “Sure. What’s the wager?”

     “If we get home, you owe me twenty bucks,” Art said, a smile blooming on his lightly freckled face.

     “And if we don’t?” Brennan asked.

     Art cleared his throat. “Then I owe you twenty.” The two men laughed and shook on the deal. Art was a good man. Brennan knew he didn’t have a girlfriend at home. Maybe once this was all over, he could introduce him to his sister, Irma. The next time he wrote home, Brennan decided to ask Irma to write a letter to Art. At the very least, it might give Art something to look forward to. There were so few opportunities to find happiness here, and when you did, you held on tightly with both hands for fear that it would slip away. Brennan had Esme and sometimes that knowledge was all that kept him going. He didn’t know when this godforsaken war would be over, but he knew that he was going to make it out alive. Besides, they made a bet, and he didn’t plan on losing.
Log in to add a comment or review for this chapter Chapter updated on: 2/29/2016 9:25:19 PM
  • Ryan Watt commented on :
    3/1/2016 4:06:20 PM
    Two very different perspectives here. Thankfully the second one was a little lighter, and a little more hopeful. Nice balance.
    • Wayne Purdy I didn't think I could do a WW2 story without touching on the camps. We won't see much more of it in the Medal, but it will be mentioned often.
      3/1/2016 6:33:01 PM
  • Andre Clemons commented on :
    2/29/2016 9:56:46 PM
    Great change of perspectives here, first capturing the horror of the concentration camp environment and then putting us in the view of Alex's father...although I can't ... Show More
    • Wayne Purdy I hesitated adding this chapter. I've already introduced so many characters that I wasn't sure if the payoff would be worth it. I'm glad I did though, if only to show how close Brennan is to Hoopstad. I assure you, this isn't an alternate timeline and yes, Alex will meet his dad in the past.
      2/29/2016 10:31:55 PM