The faces of his companions are shrouded in shadow, but that does not matter for they will not talk to him anyway. Only seeing as far as their chewing mouths makes it easier to pretend he is alone. From the corner of his eye he watches the serving girl enter the kitchen. The light over the door illuminates her in passing, making her soft curly hair sparkle and her skin glow with the radiance of happier times.
But her beauty is only a simple fact he notices before she disappears with the closing doors. A night of peace, of food and drink is all he is thankful for. He doesn’t even remember the beginning, when his wheat blond hair and eyes as blue as the clearest stream – their words, not his – made for coy smiles and inviting eyes, and lead to endless nights of passion.
“Pass the salt, please.” The man sitting to his right says.
Silently he heeds, not expecting a reply.
“Thank you. Have you been here long?” The man continues.
It has been awhile since he has spoken to anyone. The group of partisans he has joined cannot forgive the actions of his countrymen. He does not know how to explain that he has never shared in them, so he does not try. He is used to the silence and the long sideways glances of the men whose belief he does share.
“Six or seven months.” He replies. “I cannot be sure, because the days blend together so. And I have stopped counting them.”
“I understand. On some nights I cannot even bring forth my mother’s face in my mind. Try as I might, all I see are endless green plains and the smoke.”
His own mother died of pneumonia years before the war.
“We will be crossing the open ground to join another group tomorrow.” He says after awhile of trying to remember his mother’s eyes.
“Yes, that is the plan.”
And so they talk of the war and, later, of the women and the villages and the cities that they have seen and conquered. He smiles to the girl when she comes to take his plate, and places his arm around her waist when she refills his glass. Though that night he sleeps alone, and doesn’t dream of burning houses and severed limbs.
In the morning the wind cuts like razors, bringing with it the clean scent of snow. The ground runs red in the winter, not like during the other seasons when the soil drinks up the blood, he thinks as he checks that his gun is loaded before they begin the march.
They are crossing a field on which nothing grows. For a while there is no sound, save for their marching footsteps and the cry of the crows amassed on the field, and trying in vain to dig out the last remaining seeds. As they approach a small thicket that separates this field from another just as barren, he notices a doll left to lie forgotten in the bushes. The tracks on the road are still visible, though he can see no house from which the family must have fled.
He doesn’t hear the first shot ring out, but feels the burning in his neck. And as his hearing returns his last thought is for the man behind him. He turns and grabs him, forces the man to the ground and falls on top of him.
He can see his mother’s face clearly now, and her smiling eyes, as she pulls the blanket over him and whispers,
“Go ahead, Gunther, sleep now. There are no monsters in the dark. There is nothing to fear.”
BIO: Vanja is still a new writer, though some of her stories can now be read online at A Long Story Short, Thieves Jargon Heavy Glow, Savage Manners and LauraHird.com. She is seriously considering writing her first novel.
MOTIVATION: Inspired by a story my grandfather once told me.
Photo by:Terry Eaton