The fire still blazed, but standing directly before the hearth was insufficient to warm me. Again, I rubbed my hands on the seams of my blue jeans, but that wasn’t enough to get the feel of her off my flesh. After washing up, I changed into clean clothes.
Stella waited by the fireplace, came over when I approached, and stood behind me, put her arms around my chest, and held me as if I was more important to her than any other man alive could be.
I wanted to suggest that she make a more appropriate selection, that I just might be the man who would live to bury her. However, I drew a deep breath, held in the air, exhaled slowly, put my hands on hers and closed my eyes. I felt and knew that I’d experienced more than one lifetime’s horror.
Death is the ultimate test of faith, I thought and wondered why I remembered my CO at that moment. Captain James Todd Wright led with his presence. When the war began, he was an enlisted man from Savannah, Georgia. With time, diligence and due to extreme bravery, he quickly earned the rank of staff sergeant. After a string of catastrophic battles along the paths through Europe to Germany, he became a field-commissioned lieutenant. By mid ’44, he was our company commander.
By then, I’d already fought with him for over a year and remained a friend despite the fact that I refused to climb into an officer’s uniform. I gained the rank of platoon sergeant, felt grateful I’d lived long enough to gain that honor, and never desired higher accolade. I would have been fine dying with three stripes and a rocker sewn to my sleeves.
As the Battle of the Bulge ground our company into memories and remains we would never identify, Wright must have sensed the cloaked black demon that caressed each man’s neck as it accepted him.
We had hunkered down in a bomb crater running low on ammunition and hope. He turned to me during a lull and after we both lit cigarettes, said, “You know, Marlowe, my minister back home once stated in a Palm Sunday sermon that death is the ultimate test of faith. I think by now I’m ready for that test, how about you my friend? Together we’ve watched a lot of good men die.”
“My faith ran dry a few months ago, sir,” I said without revealing the surprise I felt, and cupped the ember of my cigarette to pull in a long drag of smoke without illuminating our location.
He laughed lightly. “That’s what I appreciate most about you, Marlowe. You never bullshit anyone for any reason. Hope you never change. I’m getting the ammo I see laying over there. We’re both getting low.” He pointed at a fallen GI and moved five feet to the right. His head crested the edge of the crater, and a German sharpshooter drilled a neat hole through the center of his forehead.
The fire snapped and a log rolled to the edge of the hearth. I moved Stella’s hands and used the brass tongs to place it back in the center of the flames allowing the movement to help me shake off that memory at least for a while.
Copyright 2018 Gabriel FW Koch all rights reserved