The rain dripped in through broken walls and crumbled ceilings, where wooden beams were streaked with carbon from long dead fires, and framed photographs had fallen to the floor, faces smudged away with water, and the glass shattered amongst the ruined remains of furniture. Each house, each building, silent as a grave. The once peaceful lives of people lingering in blue shutters hanging from their hinges; on the dirty, pale faces of a child's China doll and in the limp body of a yellow canary. Stiff, cold and wet against pale cream bars, its cage hanging in the hollow eye of a window. Swaying on a hook in the wind.
The town had the taint of blood. Haunted by the quiet after an air-raid. Nothing but silent anguish etched into every brick, in every piece of rubble. The breeze rattling through the narrow spaces between buildings and disturbing the stillness. Death an ugly stain on once quaint cobbled streets and in the muddy waters of a narrow canal. Debris and dirt washing away with ever rising water levels. Clothing and wood, bodies, amongst other things. There was no life to be seen. Not even on winter naked trees.
Except for one soldier. Hidden in the gap between a blown out wall and a drawerless dresser, where the bricks fell away and the floor ended in jagged pieces of timbre, he lay. His body numb where cold embraced his bones and rain drenched his clothes. There was no feeling in the finger he had wrapped around the trigger. No aching in his joints. Even his shivering died down to utter stillness. Pain and discomfort chased away and replaced with the distant, unimportant knowledge that he was dying. His blood a spreading pool that soaked through the threadbare carpet beneath him in watered down pink and red.
It would be a slow, slow dying. Either from exposure or blood loss. Most probably both. But where there should have been fear, there were orders. Barked words to Sit. Stay. Obey. Strive for further. Higher. Better. Be swifter than a greyhound and stronger than Krupp steel. Defend the Fatherland at all costs, as was his duty. His blood bound duty as a soldier who was no more human than the metal tags around his neck.
Through the rifle scope, his vision was rain washed. Wet details of the opposite street standing out in their unimportance. Over the canal, where an abandoned motorcar sat by what had once been a green front door. A door that had become splinters in the gaping, jagged mouth of a half ruined building. Pieces of fine bone china smashed amongst terracotta tiles. A small wooden stool with one missing leg, decorated by Goldilocks and the three bears.
He marvelled that he could see everything. It was how he had spotted the canary. Yellow wing feathers poking out between the bars, and its upraised feet curled loosely in death. He could see the points of its delicate nails. The scaly skin of its legs, and tiny feathered chest. The feed still in its bowl. Every little insignificant detail. Its small, lifeless head caught in the cross hairs of the scope. Like the heads of so many men, who he'd seen, if only briefly, in just as much clarity. Right before their brains exploded in a fountain of red and grey mush. Overripe fruit under a hammer. BOOM! Gone. Leaving wet, reeking mess behind. Over the walls, the ground, their fellow soldiers. Their friends.
At least it was quick. Those men never even knew they were about to die. Not like the ones who were caught by a stray grenade and lost their legs. Or those who got hit in the gut with Trenchgun shells, their stomachs torn open, intestines in their hands. Screaming and screaming for the medic who would just run right on past because he knew. The Medic knew, the man was done for.
Yes. Death by Sniper was so much kinder for the soldiers below. He tried to be merciful, for the little it was worth. Even wasted his bullets on executing those dying in agony. Like the man with his guts spilling out. He'd seen that. In his scope. In every detail. He'd seen the agony etched on the man's face. He'd seen the wedding ring on blood slicked hands. He'd seen naked organs, grey tubes and yellow puss. Mangled pieces of flesh in tatters and strips. He'd seen the man's brown eyes, pleading and afraid. Terrified, traumatized. And he'd shot him dead.
It was his duty to kill, after all, and there had been a battle here. A three day battle that started on the outskirts of the town, in fields and foxholes amongst the bloated bodies of slaughtered cattle. With tanks ploughing through barbed wire fences and turning someone's neat wooden barn into sticks and kindle in an explosions of fire, hay and hiding soldiers. There had been smoke billowing above the distant tree line, away over mud churned fields. Mixing ash with rain. Gasoline fire licking wood, stone and the naked feet of lifeless men. Their boots stripped away as something too valuable to spare the dead. Their heads and arms and legs in pools of bloody, running red, soaking into the earth. Eyes sightless. Not peaceful, but with fear and pain still chasing them into the Lake of Fire. Flames above, flames below. The crack of machine guns, shouts and death cries. The guttering rumble of tanks. Explosions, chunks of mud and dirt and plant matter blasted out from the earth to rain down on helmeted heads. Heavy artillery booming out like thunder.
The foremost American Company had advanced on them along the muddy main road, and he'd crouched behind the tombstone of Finnegan. N. Beauford, hidden in weeds grown taller than his head. Rifle braced against the stone. From there he could pick off the soldiers exposed on the road. One man with a flamethrower. Several manning Tank machine guns, others that he spotted with badges and stripes and patches that marked them as a leader, and those about to take out a soldier from his Corps.
When the fighting breached the church, he ran out of bullets. His rifle a useless hunk of metal when a grenade exploded in the dirt close enough to knock him flat on his back. Air rushing from his lungs as the sounds of war and death turned to numbed silence, and earth rained down on his face and chest in chunks.
Shell shocked. They called it. His head dazed and empty, a high, hollow ringing in his ears.
Someone had fallen forward beside him, and he turned his head to see their face. Open, empty green eyes and parted lips, his helmet askew and lashes low. The soldiers name was Derick. He was twenty four and they had shared a foxhole for a little while.
Derick said he reminded him of his little brother, and had shared his coat when an early frost hit. Derick had been nice. Derick was dead, and in his daze he reached out to touch Derick's face. Still warm, and soft, before bile hit the back of his throat and he was jolted back into hell, into reality. To the sound of men yelling, and screaming. To the whistle of bullets through the air.
Another soldier's hand snagged his arm and hauled him to his feet, and they ran. Sprinted under the spray of bullets into people's raped and decimated houses. Boots ringing hollow on stone streets. They had regrouped by a fountain, ahead of the enemy, and dispersed along the canal. Killing and being killed in skirmishes that carried on throughout the night.
He slept for an hour in a dank basement, sharing his space with rats and two other men. Men whose faces he did not recognize, and names he did not ask.
Too soon, he had been woken. A fourth man sat with a lantern on his knee. His helmet cast the floor by his boots, and his short, pale hair caked with dirt and mud and blood. There was a look on this soldier's face he was coming to recognize. Something jaded and despairing, yet ruthless, with no quarter. He said that in the dark the Americans had scattered, they had no maps of this town and the bridges had been blown out, cutting off enemy tanks till at least noon. The plan was to place small groups of men in strategic locations and cut the Americans off from one another.
It had worked too, to a degree. He borrowed more bullets from a dead sniper he found crushed beneath collapsed timbre ceiling beams, and in the wee hours of the morning they had attacked. While the light still bled in watery and blue under the clouds, and peoples breath misted like smoke before their faces. He climbed into the loft of a quaint little building and crouched between stacked, empty crates, the nose of his rifle rested on the frame of a broken window and his view of the entire street uninterrupted. In the dark, he couldn't quite see the details on the men he shot. He didn't have their faces to add to his lists.
The battle had waged on, for hours he had guessed, judging by the weak dawn creeping in under the clouds, long enough that his whole body ached with fatigue. Numb knees and elbows, pounding head and throbbing eyes. The sound of war so loud in his ears that he had not heard boots on the lofts wooden stairs...
Three men. One already wounded, one he shot, and one that knifed him in the stomach. Short, sharp blade slicing through his jacket, his uniform, his skin and sinking into soft living tissue just above his hipbone. He had smacked the man across the face with his pistol, sending him tumbling down the lofts stairs. A tangle of broken limbs that didn't twitch or move again.
There had been blood on his uniform. Wet and sticky and warm, but he couldn't really feel the pain. Too much adrenalin kicking through his blood. Too much air rushing in and out of his lungs. And fear, like a thrashing monster where his heart should be. A monster that threatened to drive him to panic, and to death. He needed to find a new place to stop and snipe. Or a medic. He needed to move, move, move. Anything but to stay still and let the world catch up with his head.
And that was how he'd wound up with his eye and mind fixed on a dead bird. A full day later and the messily patched wound in his side was still bleeding. A slow but steady stream. The puddle beneath him, of blood and water, was a blooming rose. His life leaking away from numbed bones, and a mind that, in its delirium, couldn't quite care. He knew he was going to die. In the quiet, alone.
Somewhere, streets away, a sudden stutter of distant machine gun fire broke the silence, sending a shock up his spine. There were soldiers here yet. Still fighting. Who won, who lost, he didn't know. The majority of them could already be cold corpses. Hollow bags of meat that would lay and rot in the streets until the rats and cats and feral dogs picked them clean. Bedraggled crows with ratty, tattered feathers feasting on eyeballs while maggots took what was left. He would probably join them soon, the dead, to be devoured.
With nothing else to do, no more energy to move, he watched the canary. Shifting gently back and forth in the scope as the wind swayed its cage. The slow, soft swing that reminded him of a toy sail boat on a lake, swimming in and out of his vision as his eyes slowly lost focus. Dipping to darkness, then into grey, rain soaked light. In and out again. Up and down. His breathing slow, light, and his muscles lax, even if his finger remained fixed on the trigger, and his eye at the scope.
At first, he didn't really notice that the cage had stopped swinging. It didn't quite register when he saw hands unlock the cage door and reach in, not until there were fingers wrapping around the canary's tiny body and lifting it away. Its wings folded gently to its side under a man's gentle thumbs.
He jolted, suddenly. Shock dancing over his bones when he realised that was another person. Someone living. A soldier. Possibly the enemy. His fingers fumbled to adjust the scope, reducing the zoom until the whole window swam into focus. Sharp and crystal clear, an American half shadowed in the eves of the house. His uniform covered in mud, his hands too. The ones that cupped the little bird so gently. Like a child might, saying goodbye to its precious pet. Stroking pale wing feathers before he leaned forward and out of the window.
It took him less than a second to have the cross hairs fixed perfectly on the soldier's helmeted head. It was his job, after all. Sniper. Marksman. The one who killed in the dark, from a distance. The creeper. His finger itching to put pressure on the trigger. BOOM! Make a squished watermelon of the soldier's head... But he hesitated, and the man looked up from the bird in his cupped palms. The soldier looked up, and saw. He saw the barrel of the gun in the window opposite, he saw the frail light gleam off black metal, and froze.
It's what people tended to do. Freeze. Like any other animal in the immediate eye of its killer, and through the scope he found the soldier looking right back at him, and he could see every detail on the man's face. Every one.
Three days worth of shadowed stubble on his jaw and the dark ends of hair beneath his helmet. The dirt on his cheeks, dried blood around the collar of his uniform. The crease of tension between his eyebrows, and his eyes. Blue, blue eyes. Blue like the mountain lakes in Switzerland, where the water was cool and filled with trout. Blue and intelligent. Blue and human. Blue and living, with light instead of sightless death.
He was thirsty, suddenly. And tired, pain returning in deep, aching throbs that started in his stomach and finished in the tips of his fingers and toes. Looking back at the man, still frozen and waiting, he knew they were teetering on some edge. This life was in his hands, and something inexplicable was holding him back from the trigger. Something he could see there, in the soldier's eyes that made him not the enemy but fellow human. Not the unsalvageable wounded, with agony and death on their face. Not someone who was about to shoot him back.
He just wished, right then, to be in his company. Wished for someone to be there when he died. Because to die alone the way his brother had? He couldn't imagine anything worse.
The moment broke when he pushed the gun aside and looked at the soldier in the window with blurred, human eyes. He looked at the soldier as he looked back at him, a silent but mutual ceasefire passing between then before he started to move one more.
The soldier lifted one knee to the windowsill and lent out into the weak rain. He looked down for a moment at the pathetic little body in his hands, his face a shadow beneath the brim of his helmet, but sadness written into the line of his shoulder. Then he outstretched his arms and flung the tiny Canary into the air. It arced, and seemed to be suspended for a moment, wings half spread like they still had the life for one final flight, before it spun down into the canal. Swallowed up by muddy water with a splash too small to hear.
That was better, he thought, than rotting in a cage.
The rifle was still digging into his shoulder, but he didn't move it. There was barley strength left in him to reach down and touch gingerly at the wound still leaking blood. It hurt, it hurt so much.
More than anything he'd felt before. Like burning. Like the blade were still embedded in his gut, with wretched sickness rising up his throat like bile, and his skin burning hot then cold then hot again. His bones weary, eyelids heavy with fatigues. The rain on his lips doing nothing to ease the terrible thirst he felt.
With a sigh that hurt his chest, he closed his eyes and pushed all fear from his mind. He refused to be afraid of dying. He would not be afraid of what he'd waited on, for the past year and half. In every battle. On every front. God knew he'd taken enough life. It seemed like it was his turn, and he would die here. As a soldier. Another face amongst many, in a crumbling house with ruined furniture and ruined lives around him. It wasn't where he wanted to be, a peaceless place, and with his eyes shuttered on the world his mind could drift. Trudging through hurt, thirst and the horror of all he had seen to settle in a well of deepest blue. Blue. Like the sky he hadn't seen in a month. Blue like freedom. Blue like peace.
Blue like the eyes of the stranger he had spared.
Blue like salvation.