Morphine makes me weightless, airborne. The cloud I float on is soft and comforting, but it is bouncing up and down violently. A symphony of bees is living in my ears while muted lights flash on the edges of my vision. I try to tell the bouncing and the bees to stop, but they don’t. I’m not even sure I’ve spoken aloud. I’m not even sure where I am.
I had given up in my attempts for peace and quiet some time before when the noise and bouncing stop. I think I hear voices, but they are far away, filtered through a haze of muddy water.
“That building there! Hurry!”
The bouncing starts again, and I feel tilted, like my feet are slowly rotating above my head. I try to open my eyes, and the blurry sight is upside down. A green mass is right in front of me and the sky is down. I try to find my feet and after the steel-gray passes my eyes, all I can see is another green mass down by my feet. This one might have a face though, but it’s just a fleshy blur.
The dim light of the sky winks out and is replaced by a soft glow. I guess I’m in the building now, but I still don’t know where it is. Sleep seems to be a good idea.
* * *
Walking patrol between Champs and Longchamps was part of the mobile defense of Bastogne, but Corporal Walker wondered why they couldn’t just dig in a slit trench and wait for the Jerry’s to show up. It was cold, the locals said it was the coldest winter they could remember, and Walker dreamed of heat, whether it was a hot shower, a campfire or even hot food. More often then not, the rations were frozen solid and Walker and his buddies had to suck on them so that they would melt enough to be chewed. That was when they even had rations. There hadn’t been a supply dump in over a week.
There had been some action, mostly along the southern ring of the defense where the 506th and 501st were stationed, but Walker and others of the 502nd PIR hadn’t seen any action yet. The officers said that a major Jerry offensive was imminent. Bastogne was surrounded and the 101st Airborne Division was lacking food, ammunition, medical supplies and officers. It was up to men like Walker and Sargent Mulberry to lead the men. That didn’t mean Walker had to like it.
It was quiet the morning of December 22nd. Word had come down last night that the Jerry’s had all the roads in and out of Bastogne under their jackboots. The Americans were good and caught. Walker had been ordered to take a squad on patrol of the perimeter just east of Champs about five miles and then back again. The men were on edge and so was he. Jones was on point and Walker could just make out his shape trudging through the snow about fifty yards ahead, moving from tree to tree. Jones was a good man, had dropped into Normandy with Walker the night before D-Day. The had seen a lot together since then and were enjoying a much needed rest when the 101st was called into help with the defense of Bastogne. Walker trusted Jones with his life, who wouldn’t after everything?
Without warning, the rumble of Panzers thundered through the forest. The squad froze and dropped into cover. Walker scanned the trees, a mask of disbelief on his face. It sounded as if the tanks were behind the lines! Jones came trotting back, dropped next to Walker.
“Bob, it sounds like…” Jones cut off when Walker waved a hand.
“Yeah, they got behind us,” Walker whispered intently.
“What do we do?” Jones asked, hefting his M-1 rifle as if he intended taking the Panzers on with that alone.
“Didja see how many they are or even what type?”
“Maybe 15 fours,” Jones answered while he watched the forest from where the tanks rumbled.
“Panzer IV’s?” Walker was incredulous. “All right, we gotta get out of here quick, regroup and report to Lieutenant Cassidy. Hopefully we can stop them before they reach Champs.”
Jones nodded. Walker hand-signaled to the squad, ordering them back to camp, when the tree next to him exploded. He was thrown to the ground as the Panzers’ big guns thundered raining hot death into his squad. Walker’s only thought as he closed his eyes was that Lt. Cassidy had to be warned.
* * *
The light wakes me. It’s not bright, but it is enough. My legs hurt, pain like I’ve never had. Maybe I moan, I don’t know, but a coffee-colored angel fills my vision then. She speaks but I don’t understand her. She’s speaking English, I’m sure of it, but her accent is thick with French and African lilts. I don’t mind though. She smiles and that alone makes me forget the pain. Almost.
“Dis will help with the pain,” she says as she gives me a morphine shot. I immediately begin to drift.
“You’re beautiful,” whisper to her, my words floating from my mouth and hovering between us.
She smiles again, but it is a smile of bedside manner, one that says she has heard those words hundreds of times.
“Sleep now,” she murmurs, a hand on my head.
* * *
The English day was gray and thick with moisture. Privates Walker and Jones are huddled on empty ammo boxes, a third between them while they play Rummy.
“I hate this waiting,” Jones complained. “How many times have we had to get ready only to have the Honchos cancel things?”
“Yeah, I know,” Walker laid down a trio of Aces, smiling. “Heh, 15.”
“Asshole,” Jones mumbled.
“They say the weather is gonna clear,” Walker discarded.
“They haven’t gotten that right yet have they?” Jones mumbled again as he studied his cards. “Jesus, you’re kicking my ass.”
“Maybe today’s the day.”
“Maybe,” Jones drew a card and furrowed his brow. “What do you think it’ll be like over there? I mean, lotsa Jerrys, sure, but how about the women?” Jones’ grin was wicked. “You know what they say about French women.”
Walker chuckled. “Yeah, that’d be real nice, huh? Swoop in, rescue some French farm girls from the evil Nazis and their fathers will give them away as a reward to the strong American soldiers.”
They both laughed. “Naw,” Jones got out between guffaws, “I want me one of them fancy Paris girls.” He laid a finger on the side of his nose. “They know things we can’t even dream of.”
They laughed harder and then the P.A. shouts, “All personnel of the 101st Airborne Division report to Tarmac C for assembly! All personnel of the 101st…”
“That’s us,” Jones said, throwing down his cards.
“Yep,” Walker agreed. “Let’s go rescue some farm girls.”
* * *
The light wakes me once again. It’s been five days since they brought me to the hospital. My right leg is gone, amputated by the doctors when they realize it’s been too torn up to save. My ticket home once it’s safe to transport me there.
Jones and the rest of my squad are dead. I cried when I found out three days ago, weeping alone in the night. The following morning, my angel sat beside me and held my hand. She said she had heard me and offered sympathy. Augusta is her name. She said that she was from the Congo and moved to Belgium when she was a teenager.
She has been spending her free time, what little she has, with me. We talk of our childhoods and our dreams. We both know that this friendship will never last, but we cling to each other in the center of this Belgian hell, taking from each the strength to continue. Her eyes are as haunted as mine and she prefers to talk of happier times, as do I.
On this fifth day, she helped me into a chair and we go outside among the rubble to enjoy much needed fresh air away from the sounds and smells of death. It’s still cold, but the freeze that gripped the Ardennes has lifted. We sit quietly for a time, enjoying the silence. I ask her why it’s quiet and she smiles in that special way she reserves just for me, the way she did on that morning she first comforted me, and hands me a small package wrapped in an old newspaper.
“Merry Christmas,” she says.
“It’s Christmas?” I ask in surprise. “I had no idea.”
She points to the package. “Open it.”
I tear the paper off gleefully, an innocent happiness bubbling in my chest. It’s a matchbox and when I slide it open, I see inside an ugly piece of metal.
“What’s this?” I ask, revulsion twisting my chest.
“It is the shrapnel the doctor took from the leg he could save,” she whispers.
“Why?” I am aghast at this gift. “Why would you give this to me?”
“Because, it will be a reminder of what you have lost,” she says slowly, “but it is also a reminder of what was saved.” She sighs. “It is also a reminder of what can never be.”
I look at her then. “What, Augusta?” I hold her hand, imploring. “What can never be?”
Tears silently roll down her cheeks. “Us, Bob. We can never be.” She buries her face in her hands, sobs rocking her. “We can never truly be friends. Not here. Not in this time or place, no matter how much we may want it.”
She leaves then, running back to the hospital. I sit alone in the center of Bastogne, Belgium, unable to stand on my own, crying onto an ugly piece of German metal I intend to keep forever.
For the Master Class prompt this week, Roxanne of Unintentionally Brilliant chose Kelle Groom’s book, I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl, with the opening line, “Morphine makes me weightless, airborne.”
I gave Kirsten this prompt: Elements of a heist
For those interested: I consider myself an amateur historian of World War II. This historical interest was born from the hobby of tabletop war gaming. Since I learned about it, I have always held the German siege of the Belgian town of Bastogne in awe. An outnumbered American defense, consisting mostly of the 101st Airborne, who were highly undersupplied, held out against a superior German attack for many days. When elements of General Patton’s 3rd Army finally arrived the day after Christmas, the siege of Bastogne was broken and the Germans were routed and pursued for many weeks after.
When given the written request of surrender from German General Luttwitz, acting commander of the American forces, Brig. General Anthony McAuliffe replied, “Nuts!” He believed, as did everyone in his command, that the Americans would prevail. To this day, surviving men of that siege still insist that Patton’s Army did not “rescue them” and that they would have won eventually.
I have written two other stories that involve the action in and around Bastogne: Bastogne and Red Rover. This story is the only one in which I have taken the liberty of including a real people. Augusta Chiwy was born in 1921 in the Belgian Congo. During the siege of Bastogne, she worked with US Army Medic Jack Prior and a fellow Belgian nurse, Renee Lamaire. In 2011, Augusta was awarded the Knight in the Order of the Crown by Belgian King, Albert II, and also the American Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service in recognition of all she did during that time. She has become known as the “Angel of the Ardennes.”
The other historical figure I mention is Lt Col Patrick Cassidy. Cassidy led two companies of the 502nd PIR (Parachute Infantry Regiment) in the destruction of the tanks that got behind the lines and were headed for Champs.
Bob Walker and his buddy Jones are fictional.