THE KITCHEN SINK
The effervescent potato bug sat precariously on the edge of the kitchen sink. The black spider sat idly beside her.
“Why do you love me so?” the spider enquired.
“Because,” she hesitated, thinking. “I just do.”
“But I’m so ugly,” he began. “I mean, I’m hairy – ”
“Yes, but your hairs make me laugh,” she smiled. “Each one tickles me when you’re close.”
“And my legs,” he frowned. “They’re so freakish. I mean, don’t you wish I had six just as yours?”
“Why?” the spider, curious.
“Because when you hold me,” she looked at him adoringly. “There are two more arms for you to wrap around me.”
“But my fangs. Do they not disgust you?”
“They send chills down my back,” she said, grabbing one of his eight hirsute hands. “When you nibble on my neck.”
“Oh,” he said, blushing at his silliness of ever having doubted her.
“And you,” she began, raising her gray eyebrows. “Why do you love me?”
The spider looked at the potato bug and smiled.
“I remember the first time we met as if it were yesterday,” the spider began. “You’d wandered into my web while I was napping.”
“I remember that,” the potato bug laughed, prodding the spider to continue.
“I hadn’t eaten all day and I rushed across the dewy silk to see what I had caught,” he paused. “I grabbed you and started wrapping you up, and it was strange because we caught each other’s eyes and I stopped instantly and just stared –”
“I remember that too,” she blushed.
“From that very moment I was yours,” he said, as he pushed the potato bug onto her back and started rubbing her belly.
The potato bug grabbed his prickly spider leg and said “But you still haven’t told me why you love me.”
“Well,” the spider paused. “I’ve never really thought about why I love you. I just do.”
“But surely there must be a reason –”
“There is,” he said, tickling her tummy. “Because, when we’re play-fighting and I’m tickling you, you always roll up into a little ball. Every time you do it, I’m reminded of how precious you are to me.”
“And?” she pressed, unfurling herself from her ball.
“And when I look at you with my many eyes,” he smiled. “You’re a thousand times more precious rolled into that ball than if I had just two.”
They stared deep into each other’s eyes, and never again questioned their love.
It’s been three days since we dug in and although the fighting has been intense, at this moment an eerie silence covers the battlefield. It’s strange, but without the expectation of death as each mortar falls near, I feel lost. I feel as if, at this moment, without fear and sheathed in silence – I’m uncomfortable. Our trench is but 20 yards way from that of the German trench.
The year is 1914, and where exactly I am at this moment I cannot say because I do not know anymore. Each time we dig into a new battlefield, the hell, which awaits me doesn’t seem any different from the previous hell I’ve endured in the previous trench. All I know for sure is that my company is in France and it is autumn.
I can hear the enemy speaking as if they were beside me. Their voices fill me with a strange sort of comfort. A strange tongue, yet each word they speak reminds me that each one of them has a mother, father, a sister or a brother. I can feel that their fear of death is just as encompassing as mine. This war has been long – too long. Sometimes I forget that I’m fighting against something with blood, which flows like mine.
I haven’t slept in what seems like weeks. My exhaustion has reached a point where I am functioning like a robot programmed to destroy. Every thought I have is incomplete. The former Captain Bailey lies a few feet away from me – a broken mess. Somehow I am thankful that he is in such a state, for it preoccupies the rats and keeps them away from me.
There were seventy of us when we dug in, but that number has since been reduced to twelve. The enemy seems far too strong for us, and I have an almost non-existent hope that I will live to see tomorrow. Our communications were knocked out last night and I don’t know what we are to do. As far as the command post in England is concerned – we are already dead. And if we are already dead, then there isn’t much point for them to send reserve troops to help us.
The twelve of us are here alone together.
“Who’s over there?” a voice slices over the battlefield. I look around, but none of my comrades are near.
It is the enemy.
“Who’s over there?” again the voice pierces me, and this time I can hear the Germanic accent within the words of English he speaks. I am lost in both confusion and allurement. I’m looking around, but still no one else is close enough to hear the question. I am reluctant to speak, but I feel that I must.
“I am,” I answer with a quivering voice.
“What is your name?” the absurdity of the question unnerves me and makes me smile for the first time in what could very well be months.
“Neil,” I say, confidently.
“How many of you are there?” the question immediately fills me with anger because of its seemingly strategic nature.
“You tell me, how many of you are there?” I snap, my knuckles white from squeezing the rifle I’ve held in my hands for months.
“Fifty,” the voice says, and the answer sends chills down my spine because it only confirms my doubts of leaving this battlefield alive. “Neil, how many are you?” he asks in a strangely concerned tone. I want to lie. I want to say a hundred, but I can’t and I speak candidly.
“Twelve,” I blurt, embarrassed. “What is your name?” I ask, looking over at the Captain, as a massive rat gnaws at his arm.
“Norman,” he says with a sort of sadness in his voice. “I’m 21 years old and I hate being here.” His divulgence gives my heart palpitations because I too am 21 years old.
“Why am I here?” I whimper. It is a question that I’ve asked the soldiers fighting alongside me a thousand times – a yet here I am asking the enemy. It is like asking the enemy why he resides in hell.
“I don’t know why any of us are here anymore,” he says with a tone of regret. “We both want to win the war, but I’m starting to realize in war…there are no winners.”
I nod, tears streaming down my face.
“All my friends are dead,” Retreat in my voice. I can hear the firing of artillery shells in the distance. And because it is not here, I feel a guilty relief.
“Mine too,” Norman says. “I just want to go home.”
Shells explode in the distance.
“The first time I saw a friend of mine die, I cried for days.” He begins. “But as each one after died, I shed less and less tears until finally…I stopped crying altogether. I hate that I’ve just sort of accepted what happens here…”
“I don’t want to end up a casualty of a war that I don’t even want to fight in,” I say with tears still cascading down my cheeks, clutching my rifle tighter – leaning it against my forehead.
A long pause.
In the distance, the low rumble of exploding artillery shells.
“I have a wife waiting for me,” Norman says and I can hear a choke in his voice.
“My parents,” I begin. “Wait for me and I want to see them again. I just want to walk away from all this. I want to put down my rifle and walk all the way back to England.”
I’m startled by the sound of more explosions and gunfire in the distance. A little closer than before, though. I realize that I am shaking uncontrollably, and I’m holding my rifle steady with all the strength I have left just to not let it fall to the earth. Darkness looms, and it is there that my eyes can rest from all that is happening. At least in the darkness I can no longer see the former Captain Bailey rotting away or many other fallen soldiers lying in incomplete pieces. Of course, the sound of rats nibbling away at flesh in the blackness of night does in itself bring an unfathomable amount of fear. No one likes to hear sounds in the night. The sound of gunfire is more comforting to me than the sound of rats in the darkness.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever see my wife again,” he sniffs. “And I don’t know whether I am sad about not seeing her again or angry about being forced to die.”
I’m looking into the multi colored sky, the light slowly fading to black. I hear the screams of bullets cutting through the air not so far away.
“Death doesn’t seem so bad anymore,” I begin. “It sure as hell beats the fear I have in anticipation of dying.”
A sudden explosion throws me to the ground as pieces of dirt and rock fall onto me, and I lie covering my helmeted head with my hands. I dare not move a muscle. I just remain – a fallen statue – as my heart begins to pound harder and harder with each passing moment. For the next moment could see a different shell landing right on top of me, blowing my young body into a million pieces – fodder for the flowers that are to bloom next spring.
I’m whimpering, shaking with fear from the death that may await me in the form of a projectile flying through the air. I clasp my hands together and start praying, not for life, but for death.
“Please Lord, if you’re here with me,” I’m mumbling. “Please. Make it stop. Make it all stop.” Salty tears fall to my lips. As the seconds pass, I fear the lord is not listening, and I fear that the shell I wait for to fall on me in excited anticipation will never come and so I slowly rise to my feet once again.
I pick up my rifle and fall against the trench wall, hyperventilating.
“Neil, are you there?” I hear Norman ask.
“I’m…I’m h…h…here,” breathless. “I can’t take this anymore. I just can’t take…”
“I heard you praying,” Norman interrupts.
“Yes,” I confirm.
“You’re wasting your words, Neil,” he warns with a sense of empathy in his voice. “God’s not here.”
“How do you know that?” I snap.
“Look around Neil,” he orders, and I comply. “Do you think God would allow this? Look at the blood and guts on the ground around you. Smell the rotting flesh in the air. There is no God.”
There is no God.
These words slice through me like a thousand bullets ripping through my flesh. And in this war of lies and deception by the very people I’m fighting for, it seems strange to hear the enemy speaking what, with each passing day, I’m starting to see as the only truth.
There is no God.
“But Neil, pray as you wish,” Norman starts. “If it helps. We all need something to believe in. I’m trying really hard to believe that I will see my wife again. That, and only that, seems to get me through each miserable day.”
Machine gun fire. A hail of bullets whiz over my head and into the darkness behind. I drop to the ground once again, clenching my rifle tight.
“Maybe we can help each other Norman,” I offer, hope flooding my soul. “Maybe we can survive this thing together…”
“I don’t think so,” he quips. “That’s not possible, Neil.”
Artillery fire in the distance. Flashes in the sky illuminate it into an eerie reddish glow. The screams of men pollute my ears. Screams for mercy. Some in English, some in German. Some men just scream like wild animals. I imagine men cut down on the field by machinegun, sniper or pistol fire. I imagine men lying in heaps, in the not so far away distance, with their stomachs cut open by shrapnel from exploding shells. I imagine one man, still alive, holding his own intestines in his hands – running them through his fingers repeating ‘oh god, oh god…’ over and over.
I stop imagining, because imagination is not what brings me to think of such things. It is reality. All these things are real. They are out there in the fields and they are in here in this very trench.
“Why?” I ask, saddened.
“Don’t you understand?” he asks, sadness too in his voice.
“Understand what?” I ask naively.
“For either of us to get out alive,” he pauses. “One of us must kill the other.”
Another explosion nearby startles me. I look around for my comrades, but none are in sight down at the other side of the trench. A sense of dread fills me with the notion that I may be the only one of my company still alive out here.
“I don’t understand,” I press.
“You are the enemy,” he says quietly. “And I am yours. One of us must die.” I hear him sigh, and take a deep breath. “I don’t want to kill you and I don’t think you want to kill me, but that is what we must both try to do because that is the nature of war – as horrible as it is – that is what we must both strive to do.”
“Why does it have to be like that, Norman?” I whine. “Why must we kill each other?”
“You know the answer Neil,” he replies. “Yes, it is true that we could probably help each other and walk away from this trench alive tonight, but tomorrow – what does tomorrow bring? If either of us is spotted, we will be executed. After all, the very countries and people with which we fight for and beside, will hardly find cavorting with the enemy as noble. Our own men will cut us down like sheep…”
“But I have an idea, Norman,” I say excitedly.
“What is it?” he says distantly.
“If tomorrow, I run into any British soldiers, I shall say that you are my prisoner,” I pause, taking a deep breath. “And if you run into any German soldiers, you shall say that I am your prisoner. It will be perfect. That way we would avoid…”
“No,” Norman barks. “I cannot do that.”
“But why, Norman?” I cry. “Why?”
“So what if we get away with it?” he says staunchly. “What happens when we get home? What happens when we see our loved ones again?”
“We cherish them…”
“No,” he shoots, anger in his voice. “If I help you, then I will not be able to look my wife in the eye.”
“What do you mean, Norman?” I say. “What are you saying?”
“What I’m saying Neil,” he pauses as another nearby explosion shakes the ground. “Is that I would rather go home a hero than a traitor. You, like I, would never be able to forgive yourself for doing what we both would like to do in this situation. Living the life of a coward is no life at all, Neil. I would much rather die than have that title hanging over my head for the rest of my days.”
“But we’re friends…”
“No Neil. We’re enemies,” he fires. “That is all. A few words volleyed between us does not erase the fact that a million of my countrymen are dead or dying somewhere out there at the hands of the English...”
“A million of my countrymen are dead or dying out there somewhere as well,” I spit angrily.
“Yes, I know. And so the answer is clear,” he states. “We cannot be friends will all of this going on around us.”
“It’s more complex than that Norman,” I yell. “And you know it.”
“No it’s not,” he retorts. “There is no complexity in war. Simply put, there is no shade between black and white here. It is either kill or be killed. That is all.”
A pause and, for the first time, absolute silence. It is in this silence that I can make out the sounds of Norman, across the way, weeping. He chokes back huge tears, and I too began to sob uncontrollably because I know that he is right about everything. As harsh as his words are to my ears, I know that he speaks what I’ve been trying to forget: Truth.
Sometimes, in situations of desolation, misery and desperation, one misses the big picture. Sometimes lies become truth and truth becomes lies. It is the decisions we make in these situations that dictate what kind of people we become in the future and what kind of life we live in the future. Sometimes the things we most wish not to hear are the most pivotal words we will ever hear in our lives, for these harsh words are usually truth in all of its horrible candidness. If truth were ever easy, then we would have no reason to ever lie.
“Norman,” I say softly. “If I must die, I would rather die by your hand than by some anonymous German foot soldier, out there, beyond these trench walls.”
“It would give me no pleasure to kill you,” Norman says sadly. “None at all.”
“I know that,” I say, leaning my head against the barrel of my rifle. “I too would get no pleasure from killing you.”
The sound of explosions roars behind me. The screams of disemboweled men torture the ear.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
Bullets pierce the air above my head once again. The overcast night sky fading in and out of a nightmarish red.
“What do we do now, Norman?” I ask, lost.
“Wait, Neil,” he answers. “All we can do is wait.”
I look over at the shadow of Captain Bailey. The skin of his arm completely torn away by the rigid teeth of wild field rats.
“Captain,” I say, staring deep into his open lifeless eyes. “Bring me strength.”
Another explosion in the distance and another, another, and is followed by another after that. A low boom throttling my bones, threatening to shatter them into a million pieces. The high-pitched squeal of bullets is a never-ending glimpse of a nightmare I sometimes wish to wake up from. And somewhere, out there, beyond our two trenches another man – friend or foe – dies.