Holding On

You’ll only ever hear three sounds on the battlefield of Bastogne, Belgium in 1944: explosions, gunfire and silence. No laughter, no singing, no celebrations. No one would dare. Sound makes you a target for the enemy.
So you keep to your fox hole. Dig it deep, fortify the edges, and find yourself some cover. Your fox hole is your life. And so is the man next to you. It’s cold in Bastogne—so cold you think you’ll never be warm again. There’s no choice but to huddle together for warmth and pray that yours isn’t the next fox hole hit.
You’re short of food, winter clothes and ammunition. Every day you hope air-support will eradicate the enemy and you’ll be able to go home, or at least come off the front lines. Across the battlefield, the others hope the same. But you have to hold the line. You hold, or you lose.
But when the whistling of the bombs come, all you want to do is cry. If you’re not the one to die, then someone else in your unit will be. There is no luck in war. And in those ear-splitting moments, you allow yourself a sob. It’s the only time you can cry without making yourself a target. You just want to go home. You just want to be free.
The snow and splinters settle. More dead. You wipe your eyes and harden your resolve. You will not let those bastards defeat you. You will fight for every man gunned down or blown to bits.
Because you’re alive. And you intend to stay that way.

~
I have to find Benny.
“Carter!”
I have to find Benny. He’ll be in our fox hole. Gotta find my fox hole, gotta take cover.
“Carter!”
Benny’s the only one left from base camp, just me and him. Years now we’ve been together, every week a new member of our crew gunned down or blown to bits. But Benny stayed. I’ve still got Benny. Through every battle, every celebration, every weapons training—it was always me and Benny. I can’t lose him now.
“MEDIC!”
I stumble through the snowy forest. There’s nothing but snow and dark tree trunks. Not a colour to be seen. Except red. My ears ring. The fog and falling snow blind my already hazy vision. I step. I shuffle. I stumble, but I keep my feet.
“Carter! We need a medic over here!”
The forest is silent, aside from the yelling. I frown—yelling?
“Carter!”
I turn and lean myself against a tree for support. I peer through the fog and see Sergeant Phillips jogging towards me. There’s blood on the ground. My eyelids are heavy. I’m so tired, but I have to find Benny. Gotta find Benny.
“Carter. Christ, son. You know how far you’ve walked? Ya need a medic!”
I blink at Phillips. His expression is hard and pragmatic—the face of a leader.
“Medic?” I breathe, confused.
“Sit down, Carter. Christ. MEDIC!”
“Who is it, Sarge?” A voice from nearby, muffled.
“That you, Andrews? It’s Carter. Get over here and give me a hand.”
With the Sergeant’s forced assistance, I slide down the tree and rest on the frigid ground. I look around me. The ground is covered in thick snow. I should be frozen. Why am I not frozen? Has my trench foot gone too far? Have a got gangrene? I wiggle my toes. I feel them, they’re still there. They’re not dead.
Private Andrews skids in next to me from a nearby fox hole. Is it Benny’s fox hole? I have to find him. I should go. I try to stand but Phillips pushes me back down. His face is pale with concern.
“WHERE’S MY MEDIC?” he cries into the white void of the forest. “Andrews, gimme your bandage. Carter, where’s your med-kit? Carter?” He grabs my face and forces me to look him in the eye. “Med-kit, Carter!”
My left-hand fumbles into the right side of my vest, feeling around the pockets for the familiar rectangular box. Andrews passes his bandage across me and I follow the package with dreary awe. Then, Phillips is tearing it open and winding it around the grizzly stump of my arm. I look at it curiously and wiggle my fingers. I can feel them moving but they’re not there. My arm ends at my bicep. My elbow is gone. My hand is gone. My fingers are gone.
My heart makes an almighty thump in my chest that resounds throughout my entire body. I draw my shaking hand out of my vest. It’s covered in blood. So is the med-kit. I stare at it. It quivers in my hand.
Where’s Benny?
Sergeant Phillips snatches the kit from my hand. “Andrews, find me a god damned medic!”
The Private is staring at me. He looks like he’s going to be sick. Does he know where Benny is?
“Andrews!”
He jolts and nods, running off into the forest leaving cries of “medic!” in his wake.
I feel a twinge in my arm. Sergeant Phillips has my bandage out now, and he continues wrapping. He grips my stump with both hands and holds them there. I wonder if he’s applying pressure. I can’t feel a thing.
I look up at the Sergeant’s face. He’s saying something to me, but I can’t hear him. His nose has flecks of blood on it. I focus on his lips. What is he saying? Everything seems to slow.
“You’re gonna be alright, Bill.”
But I don’t care about me. I care about Benny. I have to find him; I have to get back to my fox hole.
I frown at the Sergeant. Is he whistling? Why can I hear whistling? I look up to the sky. The colourless trees around us have no leaves, only snow. Clouds cover the sun. A hint of blue sky peeks through, mesmerising me. A bird flickers past—is that where the whistling is coming from?
“Sarge! I’ve got the medic!” It’s Andrews, with Johnny the medic in tow.
“What took you so long?!” Phillips scolds.
Johnny barely spares him a glance, his focus trained on me. “The last attack destroyed our front line—three fox holes hit. How much morphine has he had?”
“None, he doesn’t seem to need it. Hasn’t said a word.”
“He’s probably in shock.”
The whistling rises to ringing and my three helpers join my upwards glance.
“INCOMING!!!”
Some external force surges through all of us and we lurch towards Andrews’ fox hole. But my reactions are slow. I’m still staring at the sky. It only takes half a second for Johnny and Sergeant Phillips to realise that I’m not following them. They lunge back at me and drag me by the shoulders to the nearest fox hole as Andrews urges us towards him. They return the canvas sheet over the entrance for coverage, and we squeeze into the already-full fox hole. Whistling and ringing combine. The sound makes me want to vomit.
I need to see Benny.
As soon as the first mortar hits, so does the pain. It’s like I’ve emerged from the deep water of a lake to find the surface on fire. My bandages are unravelling. There’s blood everywhere.
I start screaming.
My agonising cries are drowned out by enemy fire and deafening explosions. Someone else cries for a medic. Johnny twitches, but he’s focused on re-wrapping the grizzly remnants of my arm.
“I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die!” I want to vomit. I want to tear the bandages off and bleed out. I want to find Benny.
Sergeant Phillips grips my left hand tightly. I feel it. The pressure. The cold. I feel it.
“You’re not gonna die, Carter! Johnny’s got you, you’re gonna be alright.”
His voice becomes a whisper through the cacophony outside. Every blast of falling mortars makes each of us wince. Andrews makes the sign of the cross. Phillips squeezes harder. Johnny jabs a syringe of morphine into my shoulder. A few seconds later, I feel it hit my system. My body relaxes slightly, but the barrage outside doesn’t stop.
There’s a booming crack outside as the blood-covered tree beside us explodes into splinters. With a strained creak, the broken tree buckles and thumps down onto our fox hole. When the dirt, snow and splinters clear, I see Andrews crumpled on the floor, a trickle of blood slipping down his temple.
Benny. I need to find Benny.
The Sergeant releases my hand and pulls Andrews upright. He’s out cold. Johnny moves to his side. There’s silence outside. The mortars have stopped.
I glance down at my mutilated arm. It still feels whole, but when I move it there’s nothing but pain.
I feel sick. I need to find Benny. He’s the only one left. It’s just us two. I need him. I can’t lose anyone else.
The others are distracted, so I heave myself up through the fallen tree’s branches and into the snow. I lean against the tree, using its stability and my legs to lumber to my feet. I release a deep cry when a twig flicks the end of my stump, opening a hole in my bandage and allowing a trickle of blood to fall steadily from the wound.
The air smells strange. Blinking heavily, I begin tracing my trail of blood from earlier. It’s not difficult to find; the crimson contrasts hauntingly with the blanket of snow. As I follow it, I wonder how much blood I’ve lost, and how much I’m still losing. But it doesn’t matter. Only Benny matters. I have to find him. Before it’s too late.
“Carter!”
“MEDIC!”
“Stay in your fox holes!”
“We need a medic over here!”
“Benny.”
I stumble past fox holes and over debris. My blood mixes with someone else’s, and I find a corpse in my path. I can’t tell who it is—I only find their blood-soaked legs. I trip but keep my footing. My arm throbs and my head aches. I look upwards with exhausted eyes, searching for anything familiar. Where is our fox hole? Benny has to be in our fox hole.
There are gunshots in the distance.
“Carter! Get back here!”
Sarge?
The blood trail ends. There’s an arm. Is it mine? I try to wiggle my fingers again. I feel the movement, and the pain, but the arm doesn’t move. I don’t know what I expected.
My head feels so heavy that I sway drunkenly as I bend over to pick up my arm. It’s oddly light and feels almost fake. Is it really mine? I recognise that scar, it must be mine. I peer at it with my brow furrowed, trying to comprehend what I should do with it.
“Carter!”
I keep moving, arm in hand. I must be close. Benny must be close.
There’s our fox hole. It’s been blown into a crater. There’s blood and soil everywhere.
It starts to snow.
And there’s Benny. He’s not moving. His face is palewhat’s left of it anyway. The majority of his left side is missing, including more than half of his skull. The twisted mess of his brain has leaked out past his neck and down into his chest cavity, mixing with his lungs.
I blink at him without comprehension.
Suddenly, there’s a hand on my shoulder. It’s Sergeant Phillips.
“Carter.”
My body feels so heavy. I fall to my knees. All my energy is gone. I can’t tear my eyes away from Benny. Snow buffers my face and stings my eyes.
“It’s alright, buddy. We’ll take care of you.”

 

***

With this piece I was trying to capture the concept of ‘fellowship’ during war. I left it deliberately ambiguous as to which side it is as Fellowship is a human concept, regardless of political beliefs. These men were brothers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s