The young woman got out of the taxi, walked up the gravel path towards the house and, after a little hesitation, knocked the door.
“Wer ist es?”
A gentle female voice answered behind the frosted glass.
“Guten Tag. Frau Ziefferman? I’m Mary Thompson.”
The door opened to reveal an elegantly dressed woman in her seventies, thought her short hair and slim figure made her appear to be much younger.
“Oh, come in please. I have been expecting you.” She said in perfect if slightly accented English, opening the door with a warm smile.
I keep my head low, trying not to stir the bushes around me. The stench of dry blood from my uniform feels me with nausea. It’s a constant reminder of the moment when the shell fell right into our foxhole, showering me with broken bloody bits of what had been my friends. I can’t stay here. I have to find somewhere to hide before the sun comes out.
Mary sat across Frau Ziefferman, a thick folder full of yellowed papers and several photographs occupied the lawn table between them.
“My grandmother kept trying to find him, she talked to everyone still alive from his old unit. All they knew was his patrol was reported as ‘missing in action’ when they failed to return after some kind of attack. He had barely been here for a week.”
I can see a lone surviving house in the distance. There are no lights but being so near the battlefield I can’t be sure if its empty or if the people inside are keeping dark to avoid being sighted. I slowly move towards it, trying my best not to step on the fallen leaves that crunch loudly under my boots.
Frau Ziefferman gently picked up one of the photographs, it showed a smiling young man in full combat gear. He was sitting on a fence eating an apple. The words ‘Dear Mary, I promise I’ll be back, and you know I always keep my promises. Love, Joe.‘ Were written on the back.
“He looks so young, almost a boy.”
“He was nineteen when they took that picture. The army thought he was twenty-two, but he lied about his age when he enlisted.” Answered Mary.
God, I’m starving. I suddenly realize I haven’t eaten for two days, having spent every hour trying to return to my company. Most of my gear, including my rations, was at the foxhole when it blew up. I search within my bag and find a couple of badly bruised apples, the last survivors from Mary’s farewell. I quickly eat one and save the second one. I may need it later.
“My mother used to tell me about that battle. They had to leave the house when the army told them they would shell the whole valley to slow down the Americans while reinforcements arrived. She was so heartbroken.”
Frau Ziefferman sipped her tea, a look of sadness crossing her face.
The house is empty. As I get nearer I notice it has escaped its fate by a miracle. Two round pools of muddy water mark the place where the shells nearly missed it. Suddenly I hear voices behind me, talking in German. I am caught off guard. If I run fast enough I might still make it to the house before they can see me. I clutch my bag, and dash for it.
“I am so sorry that I cannot help you more. By the time our family was allowed to return it had all passed.”
“Don’t be.” Answered Mary. “It was a long shot anyway. I just thought that, since your house was the only one in the area that survived and was still inhabited by the same family, perhaps you knew something that might give me a clue to what had happened to him.”
“There were so many young men missing on both sides after that battle, some are surely still be buried in this valley, resting where they fell.”
The crunching of the leaves under my feet sound as loud as thunder in my ears. I realize running was a mistake when the voices turn to shouts. It’s too late now. I have nearly left behind the flooded craters when something hits me hard in the chest. I turn down to see the dry blood mixing with my own fresh blood. I stagger as my legs begin to go limp under me and, clutching my precious apple, collapse and sink into the muddy waters. I’m so sorry, Mary… I’m so sorry.
The two women sat in silence, lost in thought under the cool shade of the single apple tree beside them… its leaves rustling in the breeze.