by Ara Crae
Rated: ASR · Short Story · Action/Adventure · #1217949
Sometimes, one must slog through hatred & learn the healing power of love & forgiveness.
Behind Barbed Wire
Sitting in the dark, crowded cattle car, Josef Kramer contemplated what the American who had helped him onto the train had told him.
“You’re a lucky young man, you are,” he’d said. “You’re still a Prisoner of War, but you won’t be treated as one, where you’re going. Camp Concordia’s a pleasant sort of place. Kansas too, I’ve heard.”
Josef hadn’t seen any of this Kansas at all, since the door of the train had been locked as soon as the last POW had entered the car. There were about twenty in all, all of them German POWs. Josef could see their dim outlines. Most of them were in civilian clothes provided by the Americans, though one or two of the newly captured still wore their uniforms. Josef was one of these.
He lifted one hand to swat away the gnats that insisted on attacking his sweating face. It was a mystery to him how air and light could not get into the car, and these confounded gnats could. The heat had flattened the natural curl of his hair, and it lay like a dark bedraggled mop atop his head. Seat stung his eyes, adding to his discomfort.
Josef was thrown suddenly backwards against the wall as the train screeched to a halt. A volley of curses--both in English and in German--accompanied the opening of the door, and for a moment, Josef was blinded by the sudden onslaught of sunlight.
He got carefully to his feet, shielding his eyes. A hand griped his arm and helped him descend. When his eyes adjusted to the daylight, Josef stared.
The landscape was flat, extending far beyond his vision, trying to touch the edge of the great sapphire bowl that was the sky. He could see the guard tower, extending up like a hard cement finger toward the sky, and the barbed wire fence that enclosed the long flat barracks the POWs would sleep in.
An American man in uniform--a guard, no doubt--moved toward them. His gaze scanned the line in front of him, coming finally to rest on Josef. He spoke slowly.
“You speak English?”
Josef nodded warily.
“A little sir. I was educated here.”
“Were you?” the American looked a little surprised, but gave him an appraising look. “Your name?”
“Josef Kramer, sir.”
The guard gave him a tight lipped smile.
“Welcome to Camp Concordia, Josef Kramer. Would you be so kind as to translate for me?”
“If you’d like me too, sir.”
The guard nodded and turned back to address the POWs in general. They were lucky to be at Camp Concordia, he told them. They would be well fed, and well cared for so long as they did what they were told. They were to report to role call twice a day, once in the morning, and once in the evening. Their assignments would be given to them the following morning.
They would also be assigned to barracks. Any instruction given were to be followed promptly; restrictions should be adhered to; punishment would be severe. They were lucky to be alive and lucky(once again!) to be at Camp Concordia. Did they understand everything? Good. They were dismissed.
As Josef moved into the camp, behind the barbed wire, he thought again how often these Americans used the word “lucky”. It seemed that he was not the only one who’d noticed.
“Lucky,” muttered a man next to him, in German. “There’s nothing lucky about our condition.”
Josef felt a twinge of annoyance at this man’s words. His name was Franz Stein, and he was only a few years older than Josef himself. From what Josef saw, there were very few things that could be said about Franz’s personality. He seemed a very defiant and fiercely independent troublemaker.
He’d been taken the same day as Josef, but he’d kept mostly to himself. Josef realized now that he knew very little about Franz at all, apart from the assumptions he‘d made previously.
He turned his attention back to the camp, to the long neat rows of barracks, each painted with a number in white paint. Josef was assigned to barrack four, and so--to his displeasure--was Franz. Following assignments was supper. The food was surprisingly good.
As Josef went back to his barracks, some of his skepticism had faded. Maybe he was lucky after all. He was behind barbed wire, but away from the war.
The whistle shrilled piercingly, jerking Josef out of his sleep. Above him, pale fingers of light strained through the barrack windows. In the bunk above him, Franz was groaning, cursing in German.
Remembering the American’s warning the night before, Josef swung his legs off his bunk.
The breakfast food was as hot and delicious as the evening meal had been. And as the sun rose over Kansas and Camp Concordia, Josef found himself doing almost exactly what he had done back home. Except that this time, he was hoeing and planting under the watchful eyes of the guards, each with a rifle in his hands. The hoe felt familiar in his hands, and the dirt felt clean under his fingertips and feet.
Josef had no idea when he first saw her. She was only half a head shorter than he was; her skin bronzed by the sunlight and her dark hair coiled around her head. He caught her eye once, held her gaze for a brief moment before she looked away.
Franz, working beside Josef, nudged him with his hoe.
“I’d keep my sight where it belongs if I were you, Josef.”
Josef glanced at him, surprised.
“Because that’s Fraulein Burnett. She’s Frau Amalia Wright’s niece--the lady whose land we’re working on. Hates us cause one of her nephews--Fraulein Burnett’s brother--lost his leg, and her own son was killed .”
“How do you know all this?”
Franz grinned wickedly.
“Heard it through the grapevine, so to speak.” He lowered his voice. “Keep your eyes away from Fraulein Burnett and there won’t be any trouble.”
“You sound like you have had experience.”
“I have. This isn’t my first POW camp and it won’t be my last.”
All day, Josef could not keep his eyes off her. She seemed to spend much of her time outside, reading or weeding in her small garden. He thought about her all that day, and the next; and the next.
It was about ten days after his arrival that he got up the courage to talk to her. She caught him looking at her while working in her garden.
“What are you staring at?”
There was a briskness to her stance, a frankness in her eyes and voice. She all but demanded an answer.
He gave her one.
“Forgive me if I have cause you any offense, Fraulein.”
Before the girl could reply, Amalia Wright came out onto the porch. Amalia was a thin, formidable woman in her late forties. Everything--her iron gray hair, her hazel eyes, her voice--all seemed incapable of taking any nonsense from everyone and everything in her line of vision. She regarded her niece with a expression of disapproval on her face. Josef frankly eavesdropped.
“You were talkin’ to one of them,” came from Amalia.
“I wasn’t talking,” from the girl. “I asked a question; he answered.”
“You’re not to associate with them.” replied Amalia. “They’re prisoners. And what’s worse, they’re German prisoners. It’s men like them that killed your uncle and your brother Michael. Its men like them that took Jason’s leg. You stay away from them, and do not speak to any of them under any circumstances, do you understand me?”
For answer, the girl turned and swept into the house with a stiff back. And still Josef could not keep his eyes off her.
“You aren’t gonna listen to me, are you?”
Franz’s voice jerked Josef away from his thoughts. He raised his head, facing Franz, who was lounging on his bunk. Moonlight bathed the barracks in a pale blue light.
Franz grinned, leaning forward and lowering his voice conspiratorially.
“You’re still thinking about Fraulein Burnett, aren’t you? I told you to stay away from her.”
“I can’t. She’s unlike any girl I’ve ever met. She makes me feel like I could fly over this barbed wire if I wanted to. She makes me--” Josef’s eyes were alight. “She makes me feel like a bard or a poet or something.”
“You may feel like a poet, Josef, but you sound like an idiot.”
Josef rolled off his bunk, and began to pull on his boots.
Franz stared at him.
“What the hell are you doing now?”
“I’m going to see her.”
“What?” Franz was on his feet. “Are you out of your bleedin' skull?”
It was Josef’s turn to grin.
“Probably.” He moved toward the door.
But Franz wasn’t finished. And he wasn’t going to let Josef get away so easily.
“D’you know what they’ll do to you if they catch you?” He didn’t need to elaborate on who “they” was.
Josef’s grin widened.
“You’ve had the experience, Franz, you tell me.”
“I’m serious, Josef!”
“So am I.”
Before Franz could reply, Josef went out the door.
Once outside, he flattened himself against the barrack walls, eyes scanning the darkness for guards. But he didn’t see any. Josef peeled himself away from the shadows, and moved toward the barbed wire walls. To his surprise, the gate opened quite easily and silently. He could see the farmhouse ahead, like a beacon. Josef slipped out of the gate, keeping his eyes ahead. He did not notice the guard that paused at the sight of him, and followed.
The girl was sitting alone on the porch, her hands clasped about her knees, her head tipped back, eyes fixed on the stars glittering overhead. Josef approached her cautiously, keeping to the shadows as much as he could.
She started to her feet.
“What do you want? If you so much as lay one finger on me, I’ll--”
Josef cut her off by laying a finger to his lips, moving out of the shadows and into the moonlight. She stared.
“You.” Her voice dropped to an urgent whisper. “What are you doing here? Do you know what they’ll do if they catch you?”
He smiled at her.
“Do you mean you’re aunt or the guards.”
“Both. And it would serve you right!”
“Why?” His voice was soft. “Because I’m a man alone with a woman?”
She shook her head.
“ Of course not! Because you’re a German, and a prisoner of war. They hate you almost a much as you hate us.”
He moved closer to her.
“Do you hate me, Fraulein?”
“Why do you keep calling me that?” She countered.
“It is a term of respect where I come from. It is what we call a woman when we don’t know her name. Will you answer my question now?”
“Does it really matter that much to you?”
Josef nodded. There was a brief pause before she spoke again.
“Is it true, what my aunt says, did you kill my brother?” The words came in rush, as though she could not hold them back.
He stared at her, unsure what to say.
“Did you kill Michael?” she persisted.
He looked into her eyes, choosing his words carefully.
“If I killed anyone related to you, Fraulein, I did it in defense of my own life. And I ask your forgiveness.”
For a long time, she held his gaze. Neither of them moved. She looked away first.
“No,” she said softly. “No, I don’t hate you.”
There was another pause. Josef broke it.
“What’s you’re name?”
She looked back a him. But before she could reply, the air was rent by an explosion like the crack of a whip. Josef reeled backwards as pain smashed into his calf. The unexpected rush of blood weakened him, crumbling his body toward the ground. A pair of rough hands caught him before he fell.
The world seemed to blur together. The owner of the hands was shaking him, shouting something unintelligible. Then the voice softened a little as the guard spoke to the girl frozen on the porch.
“I’m sorry miss. You’re safe now; it won’t happen again.”
Josef, still fighting to stay conscious, heard the slam of a door, and then the voice of Amalia, shouting over the sound of the other man.
“Lara! Lara darling, are you all right?”
He was being dragged painfully backwards and he cried out as the rough ground increased the pain in his leg into agony. But he was smiling.
Lara. He thought, as his vision began to fade. Her name is Lara.
The darkness came again, eager to take him prisoner, and this time he let it.
Lara sat as though turned to ice, barely aware of Amalia’s arms around her, holding her close.
“It’s all right, Lara darling,” she was crooning. “Everything’s all right now. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Auntie’s here.”
But it’s not all right! Lara thought, as she watched the guard dragging the prisoner away, unaware of the cries of pain issuing from his mouth; and the blood leaving a scarlet trail behind him. He wasn’t doing anything wrong, and that man shot him1 For no reason, he shot him! She got shakily to her feet.
“I’m all right.” her voice was surprisingly steady, and calm. “Really, I am.”
She shook Amalia’s hand off her gently, and then turned and went into the house, the prisoner’s agonized cries ringing in her ears.
She slept badly all that night, and was awake before dawn, her head still full of the prisoner; what he had said, how he had walked, how he’d looked at her. Quietly, so as not to wake either Jason or Amalia, she moved to the kitchen, lifting a tin cup from a hook in the wall as she went. Her hand shook as she pumped water into the cup. She sipped half of it, rolling the other half across her forehead. His voice sounded again inside her head.
What’s your name, Fraulein? What’s your name?
“Are you all right?”
Lara whipped around, dropping the cup into the sink with a clatter. Jason sat in the doorway, fully dressed. One of his hands rested on the armrests of his wheelchair, the other on his lap, the tips of his fingers only inches away from his right knee--all that remained of his right leg. Even after three months, Lara couldn’t take her eyes off of the place where his leg had been, or forget the haunted look in his eyes when he had told them that the grenade that took his leg, had killed Michael.
“I didn’t mean to wake you.”
Jason smiled at her.
“I was already awake.” he wheeled closer to her. “Are you all right? I heard a commotion last night. What happened?”
“Didn’t Amalia tell you?”
Jason shook his head.
“Even if she had, I want you to tell me, Lara. You’re the one who’s upset.”
She told him. She told him everything; about the prisoner, their first conversation, the incidents the night before and their result. It all came out in a rush, tumbling from her mouth like a waterfall.
Jason sat their silently, listening. He let her talk, did not ply her with questions. When she was finished, he spoke quietly.
“It really upset you, didn’t it?”
“I don’t know why. I know he’s a German. I know he’s a prisoner. But he seemed so--so human. He didn’t look or act bloodthirsty, or vicious. He was kind and thoughtful and--” she paused, watching her brother’s face.
“Jason,” She chose her words carefully. “Are all German’s--bad?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I watch them everyday.” she told him. “They work so hard, so cheerfully sometimes. And they play some kind of game sometimes, when their not working. And they seem so much like us.” She raised her eyes to his, uncertain.
“Am I wrong to think this?”
For a long time, Jason simply looked at her, as though studying her face.
“No,” he replied finally. “no you’re not wrong; not all German’s are bad.”
“You sound so certain.” She said.
“I’ve had experience. With good Germans, I mean.” He winked at her. “How do you think I got out of Germany?”
She smiled at him. Then her face grew sober.
“What should I do?”
“About the German prisoner.”
“You care about him, don’t you?”
Lara looked back at Jason, her eyes suddenly determined.
“Jason, where are the prisoner’s barracks?”
Lara wrapped her arms around herself, her fingers digging hard into her sides to try and ease the trembling of her body. Was she nervous, she wondered, or afraid? There was nothing to be afraid of. It was not as if they would seize her and drag her off to a nearby torture chamber. Some of these men seemed hardly capable of violence anyway.
They gathered around her like bees around a hive. But their expressions were not hostile or angry, merely curious. She licked her lips, her eyes scanning their faces.
“Do any of you speak English?”
The prisoners looked at her, did not so much as flicker. Lara swallowed. She was tempted to raise her hand to press at her temples as she fought to remember the little German she had learned before the War, and the few phrases Jason and Michael had taught her after the war began.
“Englisch?” She tried. There was a murmur of understanding now. One of the prisoners stepped forward, returning her gaze steadily with eyes as green as freshly cut emeralds.
“Fraulein Burnett,” he said. “I speak English. What do you want?”
She swallowed, taken aback by his frank stare.
“I--”she cleared her throat. “There was a prisoner who was--injured last night-”
“Josef.” The name swept through the crowd of prisoners like a gust of wind. The prisoner who had spoken to her did not break his gaze.
“What about him?”
Lara kept her own gaze steady.
“I want to see him.”
He stared at her.
“What did you say?”
“I said I want to see him. Please.”
The prisoner looked a little surprised. Then he nodded.
“Come with me.”
He lead her across the flat parade ground of the barracks, past the bunk houses and the square tin cookhouse. He stopped at last in front of a long building made of wood slats. Lara stared.
“He’s in there?”
“Yes, Fraulein.” He took her arm, gently. “Do you still want to see him?”
She nodded. He lead her into the building. She saw a long row of white curtains, all hiding rows of beads in neat rows. Doctors and nurses flitted about like bees from bed to bed. The prisoner leading her paused suddenly, and Lara turned her head.
He was lying on one of the beds, his body bathed in sweat. She could see his leg, where the nurses had removed the bandage to air the wound. She moved toward the bed.
“Will he be all right?”
Her companion shrugged.
“The wound’s not infected; bullet came out clean. But--I am not a doctor, so I do not know.”
Lara sat down on the edge of the bed, not caring if the prisoner saw, or heard what she said. She spoke softly, tenderly, as though she spoke to Jason or Michael, instead of a stranger.
“I don’t know if you can hear me,” she whispered. “and I don’t care. I thought--thought you might want to know something.” She leaned closer, lowering her voice.
“Lara.” she murmured. “My name is Lara.”