a/n: Written in 2010. I remember treating it as a bit of a writing exercise on mood-crafting and third omniscient POV.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
- Robert Frost, "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening"
Summertime in Bastogne is beautiful, they say, overflowing with life, color, sound, and movement. Flowers bloom, birds sing, the sunlight drips like honey from a blue sky to cast everything in gold. Cars and people bustle to and fro like bees, and tourists flock to the town with their flashing cameras and their flashy brochures to visit the memorial built to honor those who fell in battle. Erected on the very outskirts of town, it stands alone and proud, dignified and composed in the open light. There are memories there, entombed in the stone. Young men frozen in time for as long as the memorial will stand. Here is their legacy, the stones say. This is where they stood, this is where they fought, this is where they died.
Except it isn't, not truly, not for all of them. For that, there is another memorial. Like a secret, it is tucked away, hidden except for those who know where to find it.
The soldier briefly watches the forest pass by on their left, before reaching over the front seat to tap the driver on the shoulder. "Hey," he says. "Here's good, you can stop here."
"Ici?" the driver asks. He's incredulous, but the soldier insists, shoving some currency into the driver's hands before climbing out of the car on his own. He bangs on the hood. "Merci," he says, in badly accented French. The driver winces and opens his mouth, but the soldier's already gone, picking his way through the grass growing on the side of the road, moving towards the shadows collecting under the trees.
The driver closes his mouth, watches for a moment, then shakes his head and shrugs. Some of these men, he thinks. Gears loose in their heads from the war. He mutters to himself, kicks up the engine, and drives away, leaving behind an eerie silence.
The woods are silent too – or would be, except for the sound of the soldier making his way through the underbrush. It's dark and cool here away from the heat of the sun, beneath the branches and the leaves. The light doesn't reach all the way down to the forest floor, so that all he can see clearly are the shallow puddles where the sunlight collects on the dirt and the grass.
And on the leaves too. So many leaves everywhere, he thinks, though there aren't, not really. It's just the last time he was here, it'd been winter, and if he closes his eyes now, the rustle of the leaves beneath his boots isn't so much unlike the crunch of ice. If he closes his eyes, he can almost hear the soft scuff of snow, subtle and shy, the sound of suffering. The whistling of falling shells, the roar of gunfire. Chattering teeth, numb fingers, your breath frozen in the air like the winter's sucking the life right out of you. If you close your eyes –
He catches himself before he falls into the ditch, hand tightening around a sturdy tree branch that had presented itself just in time. When he moves his hand, though, he sees a discoloration in the bark, and when he glances around himself, he sees the same on the other trees, where they had been gouged by pieces of flying shrapnel so long ago. There is a rotting log nearby, infested by termites and covered in moss. He thinks he remembers that tree when it had been standing, right before it'd been splintered by a wayward explosion.
He looks down again. It's not a ditch, he sees. It's a foxhole, or the remnants of one.
He stands there for a moment. Stands there and breathes, lets the air blow through him and feels hollow. Darkness and silence, and they say that if you listen, if you're quiet, you can hear the ghosts breathe.
He can hear them. Not just breathing, though. Screaming and talking and laughing and singing. Whining and complaining about the cold, blue balls, Foxhole Norman, the cold. Where's the goddamn medic, where's Doc? No boots, pissing needles, it's the goddamn artery, and will you look at this shit, they peppered my helmet.
He opens his eyes – he doesn't know when he closed them – and winds a hand through the rosary hanging around his neck. Holds it close to his chest, but gently, so that the metal isn't cutting into his flesh; instead, he holds it like a hummingbird fluttering in his palm, fragile but precious all the same. Around him, the woods are quiet, echoing with a deafening silence, but it's not so loud that he can't even hear his own voice over the sound of artillery. It's not so loud, he tells himself.
Then, casually, he leans against a tree and pulls out a cigarette. Lights it up and watches the smoke curl up from the end before breathing it in, with all the smells of the forest along with it. Mold and dirt and leaves and air. Memories. He stands there like that for several minutes, remembering, before pushing himself up and away; and walks onwards, through the dark woods and back towards the sunlit road.
Summertime in Bastogne is beautiful, he thinks, as he walks. So damn beautiful.