Dreams of Home
Nobody ever told us why we were there.
Nobody asked us if we wanted to fight. If they had, I woulda told ‘em to go straight to hell. Germans never did nothing to me, so why should I want to kill them?
Might be I heard something about some Duke that went and got himself shot a few years back, but so what? Sounded like somebody else’s problem to me. If the Brits and the Frogs had their hackles up, let ‘em kill the Germans themselves.
Only they must not’ve been doing such a good job, because one day a bunch of politicians passed a law that said we had to kill Germans too. Either that or maybe go to prison. I reckoned I’d rather kill Germans. I’ve been in prison before and wasn’t fixin’ to go back.
When we got there, it turned out the politicians had been lyin’. It wasn’t some big glorious war like you read about in history books. We didn’t even do much fighting, let alone killin’. We spent most of the time hunkered down in ditches, up to our asses in mud. Between the lice and the rats, trench foot and unburied corpses, we was too busy dying to do much killing.
Once in a while, Captain Vitters would stand us all up before sunrise and tell us to fix bayonets. Then he’d yell, “Over the top, boys! Time to kill some Heinies!” and we’d scramble over the parapet and run straight into hell.
Seen lots of things charging through no-man’s-land like that. Bullets and artillery and barbed wire and smoke. And bodies. Lots of those. We’d wade through it for a couple hundred yards, and if enough of us was still alive, we’d throw ourselves into the enemy trench.
And then Captain Vitters would holler, “Just ten thousand more like that and we’ll be in Berlin, boys!”
Personally, I’d have rather shot Vitters than Germans.
We’d been holed up in a trench just outside of some stretch of nowhere called Binarville for a couple of months. It was noon, and I was hunkered down in six inches of mud next to Silas Beaumont, the only man in the whole unit I ever felt sorry for.
Maybe five foot three and a hundred pounds, he was some kinda college bookworm, barely enough to hang a uniform on. Blue-eyed and fair-skinned, with stringy straw-colored hair long enough that he mighta passed for somebody’s sister. Some bastard back home had a cruel sense of humor sending a boy like Silas to a place like this.
Anybody coulda told ‘em the men here wouldn’t do him right.
Most of them was already asleep when I lit up a cigarette. I took a long draw on it, letting the smoke warm my lungs before passing it to Silas. I puffed out a couple of smoke rings and watched them disappear over the rim of the trench.
I tossed him a glance. “You reckon you’re gonna get some shuteye?”
He didn’t look me in the eye. Just grunted and gave a little nod.
A yellowish-green bruise about the size of a baseball colored the side of his face. It had showed up a couple days earlier, after I’d woke up and headed to the latrine.
Might be he had a nightmare or maybe he was talking in his sleep. All I know is I heard a whole lotta hollering, and by the time I ran back, the kid was face down in the mud. He never did tell me who popped him, but from then on, everybody took to calling him ‘Screech’.
“I can sit up with you for a spell,” I offered. “Maybe play some cards.”
He shook his head and offered the rest of my cigarette back.
“Keep it,” I said. I pushed my helmet down over my eyes and settled back against the wall. “They just keep me awake.”
A boot to the ribs jarred me out of sleep. I rubbed my eyes and looked up at the moon. It looked an hour shy of midnight, or thereabouts.
Vitters’ hoarse whisper was quiet enough that it wouldn’t carry too far. “Your turn in the rotation,” he said. “Listening post number three. Get your ass topside.” He jerked a thumb at Silas. “And take Screech with you.”
I didn’t bother to argue. I’d already done my rotation a few days earlier, but arguing with Vitters was a waste of time.
Besides, he didn’t actually have it out for me. Not really. I was just the only one who didn’t bitch when they got partnered with Silas, one of the only guys in the unit who spoke German. Vitters probably figured that was a good enough reason to send the kid right up to the German’s front porch as often as possible. I was just along for the ride.
The whites of Silas’ eyes stood out against the dark, sunken circles surrounding them. He stuffed a book he’d been reading into his jacket, got to his feet, and shouldered his rifle. He didn’t look too good. Stood there all shaky, blinking at his feet like his eyes wouldn’t focus.
“What happened there?” I asked, pointing. The cuff of his jacket was stained brown, and a half dozen mud-smeared slices covered the back of his hand like a little set of railroad tracks. It looked infected.
He tugged his sleeve to cover them up. “Nothing,” he mumbled. “Must’ve rolled over on my razor when I was asleep.”
I raised an eyebrow and glanced at Vitters.
He just scowled and stormed off, muttering ‘Gutless piece of shit thinks he’s gonna claim shell shock and get a discharge? Not even if his arm rots off completely.’
Listening post number three was a fancy name for a crump hole about thirty yards out from the German forward trench. 155mm shells leave craters about four feet deep and ten feet across, and I always figured our boys dropped a few of ‘em short on purpose, just so we could have perfect little hidey-holes to use as listening posts.
The legless German corpse rotting in there with us made it a little less perfect.
The kid gawped at the rats that were crawling around the corpse’s innards. He had one hand over his nose and the other on his belt knife. “Let ‘em alone,” I whispered at him. “Long as they got something to eat, they won’t bother you none.”
“But – but,” he spluttered, too loud under the circumstances. “Should we not –“
The knife was already out, and I grabbed him by the wrist. “Shut your pie hole, will ya?” I hissed at him. “You want the whole damn German army to hear you? Now gimme that.”
I twisted the knife out of his hand and tucked it in my belt.
When I gave him a shove to sit him down, it surprised me how light he was. Nothing but a trench coat slung over a bag of bones. I tossed him a canteen of black coffee. “Let me worry about the rats, boy. You just settle down and see if you can hear if them Germans is sayin’ anything useful.”
Silas was all wide-eyed and twitchy. Every time one of the enemy came wandering out to take a piss, he’d start breathing like he just ran ten miles, and I’d have to move quick to keep him from his rifle. To tell the truth, I was relieved when he finally nodded off a couple hours later.
I wasn’t sure how long he’d gone without sleep, but it had to be at least a couple of days. Couldn’t see any harm in letting him catch a few Z’s. From the sounds in the German trench, they were playing cards. Doubt they were talking about anything Vitters would care about anyway.
I settled back with my hands behind my head and watched the stars. Laughter and a few babbled words floated out from the German trench.
“Wie lange sollen wir warten?”
“Ich weiß es nicht. Geben Sie ihm noch eine halbe Stunde.”
Silas shifted, mumbling something incomprehensible. For the first time in weeks, he looked to be at peace. The tightness in his forehead had melted, and he was actually smiling. I imagined in his dream he must be sharing a bottle of wine with some college girl, maybe talking philosophy or art, or whatever it was educated folks talked about.
“Mama, ich bin so glücklich, zu Hause zu sein.”
My mouth fell open. Those words had come from Silas.
I didn’t speak any German, but I’d been on the front long enough to know it when I heard it. He wasn’t dreaming about drinks with some hot young tomato. The kid was dreaming about his mama, and he was talkin’ to her in German.
And then his muttering grew louder. “Ich werde bald zurück sein. Ich muss nur noch die Kleidung zu wechseln.”
The words echoed in the darkness, clear, like a church bell ringing in a steeple.
All the noises from the trench died.
I jumped across the crump hole and clamped my hand across Silas’ mouth, pinning his head against the wall. His eyes snapped open, and his hands clawed at my wrist. Fingernails drew blood, but I held on.
After I pulled his knife out of my belt and put the point against his Adam’s apple, he swallowed and nodded once. He took my meaning. Stay quiet if you want to stay alive.
It was dead quiet for a minute or two, but eventually the Germans must have brushed off Silas’ outburst. It was in their language after all. I finally exhaled after a couple of chairs creaked and somebody started shuffling cards.
Silas didn’t move, but he stared straight ahead, making a point of looking away from the knife at his throat. Sweat had broken out on his forehead.
I leaned in real close, so my nose practically touched his. “We’re headed back to our lines now,” I said quiet enough that only he could hear it. “And along the way, you’re gonna explain exactly why it is you were hollerin’ in your sleep to your momma… in German.”
I’ll admit by the time we got back to our lines, Silas had my brain spinning. It was the damndest story I ever heard.
It turned out that three years earlier, in a Bavarian town named Bamberg, a lot of folks was worried that taking on the whole world at once was a bad idea. Some of ‘em even took to sending their young ones out of the country.
And to the family of Dietrich Becker, no place looked safer than America. Everybody knew, or at least they thought they knew, that there was no way in hell America was getting involved in the war. So they kitted him up and sent him on his way.
Soon as he made shore, young Dietrich changed his name to Silas Beaumont, and found himself a job. He figured once he’d saved enough money, he could finish his education.
‘Cept he never got the chance. I guess his forged papers were a little too good, ‘cause the same draft that got me, swept him up too. Sorta ironic that in order to avoid fighting for his country, he snuck into America and wound up fighting against his country.
The good Lord sure does have a sense of humor.
It was a sad story, but if I’ve learned anything in life, it’s not to stick my neck out for nobody. Captain Vitters would just have to deal with it as best he could.
I gave Silas the dignity not to bring him in at gunpoint, but we marched straight over to Vitters’ dugout.
I saluted as he stepped out of the dugout and buttoned up his jacket. “Captain Vitters, sir!”
The look he threw back at me coulda curdled milk. He didn’t even bother to return the salute. “What in hell are you doing, private?”
His reaction caught me by surprise. I wasn’t at my snappy best when I tried to answer him. “Well sir – that is – well, as we was listening to the Germans, sir, Silas here –”
I stole a look at Silas. His hands were shoved in his pockets, and his shoulders were hunched up, like he was some great tortoise, trying to hunker down into his trench coat. He shook all over something fierce.
But Vitters wasn’t paying no mind to Silas. His face turned nearly purple, and he set to cursing so bad it woulda peeled the paint off a barn.
“Do you think I give a goddam rat’s ass what that idiot did? I sent you with him because you’re supposed to be the one that ain’t batshit crazy!”
“What I’m tryin’ to say is –”
“You’re trying to tell me you’re as yellow as this snot-nosed little shit!” he gestured towards Silas. “You’re trying to tell me you ain’t got the stones to stay your whole shift and do your god damned duty. The two of you are every bit as useless as them mongrels over there!” He waved towards the German lines.
He went on for a bit, tellin’ us both about our duty to help our country annihilate the enemy, especially them sub-human mongrels, the Germans.
I stopped listening, and stared past Vitters to Silas, shivering in Vitters’s huge, hulking shadow.
And it all suddenly made sense.
A scared German kid, trapped in an American infantry unit, commanded by a lunatic who’d kill any German he could lay his hands on. A kid who talks in his sleep and dreams of home too much. A kid who really don’t want to dream of home no more, ‘cause now, dreams of home might get him shot.
It’s an awful thing when your dreams turn poison like that.
I clamped my lips shut, tilted my chin up, and stared straight ahead. Vitters eventually yelled himself hoarse, but I didn’t say a word.
The next night, I wasn’t all that surprised when Vitters kicked me awake early and ordered me and Silas out on listening post duty again.
If I hadn’t already made up my mind to help the kid, the sight of him that night woulda done it. He sat there in the mud, eyes dartin’ back and forth at God knew what, mumbling to himself, and cowering back from anybody that wandered too close to him.
I had to coax him out over the parapet with a hunk of moldy bread, like a skittish, unbroken colt chasing after a sugar lump.
It took about an hour of us stumbling around in the dark, and we got lost more than once, but I finally found what I needed. A German corpse about the same size as Silas.
Well, I didn’t need the corpse so much as the uniform. Silas just stood there, meek as a kitten, as I swapped the dead man’s jacket and helmet for his.
“I don’t know how much you’re listening right now, boy,” I said to him as I buttoned his jacket up. “I’m gonna lead you right to ‘em, but you gotta go in yourself, okay? You just tell ‘em you got yer bell rung, and you don’t remember what unit you’re with. They’ll take care of you. It’s gonna be all right.”
He blinked a couple times, then smiled and said, “Ich denke schon. Vielen Dank.”
German again. I guessed he was so out of it, he’d gone back to his native tongue, just like when he was dreaming. I figured it was probably better that way.
I squinted into the darkness, tryin’ to get a fix on exactly which direction the German lines were.
“Da kommt jemand,” he said, tugging my sleeve.
I didn’t get the chance to ask him what that meant. A rifle shot shattered the darkness, and Silas crumpled to the ground.
Too stunned for words, I just stood there a second before dropping to the ground beside him. He was still breathing, but a frothy foam oozed from the corner of his mouth, and his eyes were moving in slow circles, like a cartoon character. A red stain bloomed from the side of his chest.
A boot crunched the dry gravel behind me. “Best be more careful, mate. That one was right behind you when I got him.”
A pair of British soldiers gave a cheerful wave and continued their patrol.
If I hadn’t been so shocked, I might have gunned them both down before they disappeared into the night. But maybe it was for the best. I was no sawbones. I couldn’t say one way or another if Silas… Dietrich… would make it. He needed help, and I was the only one who could give it.
I didn’t know what would happen if I scooped him up and carried him east, towards the German lines. If I didn’t get shot, I figured I was looking at another spell in prison. A German one this time.
But maybe if I got there in time, it might be worth it.
I looked back at our own trench, maybe fifty yards west. Couldn’t see much, but I knew Vitters was lurking in the gloom somewhere. I ground my teeth and stared down at Dietrich.
I shook my head. I don’t stick my neck out for no one. I don’t.
I picked him up and told him he could go on and have that dream now. It was going to be all right.
Then I headed east.