The only refuge from the rain of fire was a narrow slit dug into the earth. The soldiers cowered against blood splattered dirt walls writhing with arterial flesh colored earthworms tunneling around them. Joachim after earlier expressing a curiosity to see the thunderstorm of fire and shrapnel of an artillery barrage was now in the midst of one crouching in the mud. His fingers were laced behind his head, and his shivering body was seized by shivering convulsions every time a shell exploded too closely. His weapon lay flat in the dirt next to him. Tears were streaming down his cheeks, and he begged to go home.
He was not the only boy at the front to find out, that despite all the bravado were not a natural fit for combat.
The stony-eyed combat hardened veterans huddled down and medicated their rattled nerves with chain smoking.
The stoic reaction of the veterans who had been here in the glory days of the unit came largely from acceptance. They lived to see the weapons break, the uniforms fade, and the best of them die. They were going to go through the rest of war being ground down into the dust fleeing across the burning wastelands of Russia. War taught them to have nothing and hope for nothing.
Joachim jolted when he felt a hand pat him on the back. He looked up and saw a thin stubble covered face with a crudely rolled cigarette hanging from his lip.
“Would you like one?” He asked.
The trembling boy couldn't answer.
“Come, have a smoke with me.” the soldier congenially offered.
Joachim fought to get his flailing body under control. The fire was petering out, and the explosions were growing more distant and less frequent.
He sat up against the wall of the dirt corridor and took a deep breath
The friendly soldier patted him heartily on the back.
“Don't worry it's all ok now.” He assured him. He held up the cigarette again.
The boy's hands shook so much he had trouble getting the paper between his lips.
The soldier struck a match. He steadied his hand and held the flame to the end up to the end. “The tremor never really goes away,” he said with a slight smile.
Joaquim inhaled deeply. The smoked dried his tongue and clogged his throat. He coughed out his first drag and continued to cough until he was red in the face.
“Give it another go the soldier.” said with a laugh. “Trust me it helps.”
The boy took a second smaller pull and after a few puffs he was finally able to get the rhythm.
The weary eyed soldier sat down in the dirt next to him and took a long drag.
“I am Werner.” said the soldier with a puff of smoke.
“Sorry, sir. I am private Joachim Strasser.” said the boy saluting.
“Don't worry about all that.” Werner chuckled.
Werner with his tired deep set pale blue eyes and gray streaked stubble was a stark contrast to the teary eyed apple-faced boy.
“How long ago did you get here?” Werner asked.
“Just four days ago.” sir Joachim answered reflexively.
“Why did you join?” Ask Werner
Joachim was caught off guard by the question. “To defend the Reich,” he said with a shaky, uncertain voice.
“Why else?” Werner replied.
Joachim took a second to take another puff of his cigarette.
“There is a girl in my village I want to marry.” he replied.
Warner grinned with the cigarette still between his teeth. “Yeah I have heard a few fellows say that.” He said. “I am also willing to bet they told you thinking of her would get you through his.”
Joaquim didn't answer.
“Don't get caught up in that trap.” Advised Werner. “If you do it will only take you longer to accept the truth.”
“What truth?” Asked Joaquim.
“You are never going home,” Werner replied curtly. “None of us are. Thoughts of your life will only make you sick with hope. You forfeited that life when you came here. You will die with us. There is a bullet, a shell or a bayonet with your name on it.”
Jauqucim still didn't answer. He could feel the burning cherry on the cigarette approaching his lip. He exhaled and dropped the butt in the dirt.
“What do you recommend I do sir?” Joaquim asked meekly.
“Accept everything is gone and that death will only be a release from this.” said Warner as he stood up and flicked his finished cigarette away.
“Trust me the Budah said we all eventually have to come to terms with the fact existence is an illusion. The sooner you do that, the less the shelling will bother you. I promise.” Werner said before walking away.
"Oh, one more thing. Your bride to be is probably fucking a man too smart to get roped into this shit." He said as a kind of postscript.
That was the only advice the young soldier was privy to during his time at the front.
He eventually dismissed the advice as the rantings of a man ruined by war. Still, the conversation would replay in his mind. Miserable contemplation was all he had to do while he and the decimated regiment marched across the countryside.
The barren gray landscape was freezing in the late autumn cold and everywhere from the leafless branches of lonely trees to the stringy brown grass disappearing into the frosted ground were the grim reminders of the cold dark winter when the earth forsakes all and everything dies.
Fearing the planes that hunted them from the sky they moved mostly under the cover of darkness. Like the nocturnal rodents, they shared the country with they would seize up anytime something stirred in the dark.
That night they heard Joaquim heard them coming. They could all hear them. They lay flat on the frost bit ground staring into the impenetrable shroud of darkness that engulfed the vast planes. Every time Joaquim shifted his weight the frosted grass crunched underneath him, and he froze in place so the noise would stop.
The hoarse whispers, heavy footsteps, and the clattering iron of a tank could be heard. They were as still as rabbits who had just heard the screech of an owl hidden among the trees. Death was looming but where?
There was the fizzling sound of sparks. A row of what looked like stars ascending from the earth burst in the sky illuminating the whole field in a white hot light as bright as the sun, and suddenly the hoard of red army troops silhouetted by the burning glow of the slowly ascending phosphorus candles appeared in the distance.
The screaming swarm bore down on the frightened Germans, their bayonets gleaming in the light.
“Oh shit!” Croaked Joaquim firing his rifle.
There was a barrage of small arms fire from the Germans, but their bullets couldn't cut the waves of Russians down fast enough.
“Oh please god please god save me,” Joaquim said trying to steady his hands as he fired blindly into the onrushing attackers.
“Run!” Someone screamed!”
Joaquim caught his last glimpse of several gray uniformed figures disappearing into the returning darkness. He looked forward again a large Russian in a tattered green coat was charging towards him. His bulging bloodshot eyes were fixed directly on him, and so was the tip of his blade.
“Oh shit oh shit!” The boy screamed firing off a shot that went well past the enemy.
“no no no!” he repeated in a panic firing again, this time, hitting the hulking figure in the shoulder.
The Asiatic beast flinched from the shot but didn't miss a step even after the bullet pierced through his shoulder.
“Help me please help me!” Joaquim cried squeezing the trigger. The shot grazed the Russian's leg but did still not stop him.
Joaquim tried to aim but by the time he got his eye lined up with the sights of his rifle the screaming giant was already above. As he raised his blade the blood from his gunshot wounds spilled onto Joaquim. He clenched his eyes shut and felt the blade go through his back between his shoulders.
The howling soldier pulled the blood-stained steel out of his flesh before jamming it in again and again. The first few wounds brought pain, unlike anything the boy had ever experienced before. He could already feel the blood drench his clothes.
The pain abruptly stopped, and there was a numbness creeping through his body. The blows ceased, and the battle crazed soldier ran off leaving Joaquim in the snow. As the world around Joaquim faded and the noise of battle drowned into a distant echo Joaquim's mind returned to what Warner had told him.
“At least it's over.” he muttered.
Joaquim body was left to decay on the open field. His body disintegrated, and it's putrefying remains oozed into the dirt, fertilizer for the soil when the sun resurrects the land in spring.