A Winter War
By Matt Shaner
The therapist said I need this journal. She says it will help me to process the events of so many years ago. She says it will help me regain my memory and sanity. She has not seen my sights though. She does not understand the feeling of death. She has no concept of dedication and country. I write this for myself and my family. They need to know our story. They need to see why their grandfather is in this home and why he will never leave.
We were drafted late in the second Great War and arrived on the southern coast of Italy at the end of summer. The landing ships pulled into an ancient harbor and we disembarked to empty buildings. Intelligence reports indicated we would face minimal resistance until we were well into our northward march. The missions were simple, land at the heel of the boot and eliminate the Germans from the entire thing. After four years, set sail for home. I left behind a wife and two daughters.
The late afternoon sun cut some heat away as we organized for the march. It took time to ready the vehicles. I stood with four other guys next to an old fish market building. The waves lapped against our ships. The salt smell danced in the air and it felt good to start a war in paradise. As we were to leave, we heard a rustling in the building. Our Sergeant, Taylor Smithson, drew his service pistol and opened the door. He jumped when an elderly woman fell into his arms. He pulled her outside and laid her onto the sand. She looked into his eyes. We stood in a circle. Someone ran for a medic. She raised her hand and touched the Sergeant’s face. She spoke in an Italian variant. Before a translator arrived, her head fell limp. We placed her on the side of the building and moved on, no time or energy to dig a grave.
We marched through lowlands and hills. We examined villages, wreckage of houses and lives. We were welcomed in some and despised in others. We fought and I killed. The feeling of power intoxicated and invigorated. We were soldiers. We were legally able to eliminate life from the earth. We knew the enemy. They were no better then objects. I thought of my family and I did not care about theirs.
The first sign of luck, if you want to call it that, arrived in the second battle against resistance fighters. We were stopped at a field edge with two towns on either side. The leaders examined the options. They decided to use the towns for cover. Before we moved, our Sergeant spoke up. He stood in the meeting area with a vacant look in his eyes.
“Use the field,” he said. The responses came swift.
“We’ll be target practice.”
He spoke directly to the commanding officer. They had gone through basic training together.
“Trust me. We need to use the field.” The officer accented to his friend and we marched straight through.
The bombs fell to our left and right. Bullets whizzed over our heads, some finding ground and others finding the chests of men. The sky had grayed and a stiff wind pushed the gun smoke into the air. The towns on our sides were on fire and totally destroyed. Their people who decided to stay met their deaths in the attack. We watched from our positions and kept the advance.
After the enemy attacks faded, we moved in and cleared their stronghold. We stood on the battlefield, looking at the destruction. The field shone brighter then the towns. My hands burnt against the heat of my guns. We kept our northward march. I went instep with the Sergeant.
“How did you know?” I asked.
“The old woman,” he said.
The seasons changed with our progress. Snow started to fall and we passed roads flanked with frozen bodies. The snow itself was equal parts white and red. The land soaked up the blood regardless of which side we were on. The beauty of the country stood against the destruction. We met more resistance and our numbers succeeded in securing our advance. This is where I first noticed the strange happenings.
They extended further then good guesses in battle. Enemy bombs from above would fail to detonate. Bullets flew over our heads and around our positions. Our guns found no need to reload. Wounds, as the medics were treating them, closed and healed. We walked those months losing no one from our troop. We advanced into the northern sections of the country in December.
Snows fell for a week straight, hampering our efforts. We changed to camouflage whites that burned the eye in the morning sun. Soldiers, half frozen, lined the paths. One night, outside during a smoke break, a guy spoke up.
“Anyone know the date?” Most heads shook. Finally a person responded after consulting their journal.
“Wow. Well, merry Christmas early then,” he said. We laughed. That night we fought off a small attack and did not sleep.
The next day, Christmas, we marched onto the ruins of an old bombed out church. The snow had tapered to a few white dots in the sky. We walked in through the entrance. The roof of the chapel was open to the weather. Wooden pews splintered and some withstood the assault. Those open to the elements started to rot from the moisture. A grouping of birds fluttered away at our presence. The Sergeant walked up to the Alter.
“We camp here tonight. Let’s take a break from the weather.” The men cheered. We spread out over the area.
I used my grenade belt as a pillow. A few small fires were started and contained on the stone floor. A soldier took a piece of the splintered pew wood and lit candles on the Alter. Men found a bed where they could. Some slept in the confessional, others on the remaining pews. The stone floor felt like Heaven against the cold ground outside. Around midnight, the scout officer sounded an alarm. We jerked awake, grabbed our weapons, and ran outside.
The snow had stopped. A German contingent advanced up the road to our surprise. We were sure the holiday would prevent any action and we were wrong. The first volley of rifle fire took out the man to my left. He fell, a hole in his chest. He was talking to me and then he was gone. We took up defensive positions in the ruins. This is where things started to happen.
My position flanked the entrance. An organ, with destroyed pipes sounded a mournful note and we all turned. The crucifixion, large and gold, seemed to vibrate above us. The Christ, his head pierced, opened his eyes and two rivulets of blood ran down his cheeks. The rifle fire kept coming. We had no time to watch.
The contingent of soldiers was still advancing. We stopped them at the “driveway” of the church. A grenade took down the right side of the building. We swore this would be the end. I pictured my family and wondered if they enjoyed their dinner. They started to advance past the drive and to our forces. From his cover, our Sergeant stood. He pulled out his handgun and before he could fire, two large figures appeared next to him in white.
The figures extended wings that blocked the building and our troops. The bullets bounced off their wings. They pulled swords from their belts. The night lit up like a noon sky. The organ note pounded in my ears. The Christ’s blood tears now flowed in a small river to the floor. With two swipes of their weapons, they cut down the opposing soldiers. Their vehicles exploded. The bodies fell to the ground. We stopped and stood in silence. After the action, they withdrew their swords. The wings folded. They vanished and the sky went dark.
I slept in the ruins that night with a new peace.
I know what we saw. I know they investigated the area and found no wreckage of a church. I know something else though. We all survived and completed our mission. We returned here and continued our family lives. We have a reunion every year to catch up and the story is always told. I keep a piece of wood in my pocket, not larger then a postage stamp, from those pews and I twist it in my fingers now. That is my story whether they like it or not. I hear them in the hall, talking. They debate my will and my existence. They discuss funeral arrangements. They demand money for grandchildren who never come and visit. They do not know that, in these dark times, I am comforted by my memories. I return to the church. I kneel and touch the blood. I cross myself and fall prostrate to the floor, ready for the next battle, whenever it may come.