and just to lay with you
there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do
save lay my rifle down.
A military camp in Poland. It is early in the morning. The sky has hardly begun to brighten yet. Most of the men are sleeping in the barracks. Two soldiers sit outside, on watch. Both are nodding off, their muskets cradled to their chests like babes. A cigarette slowly burns down between the fingers of the man closest to the door of the barracks.
Eilif lies curled up in his bunk - his bunk over the top of a small red-haired bloke who says he’s German, but is more than likely not at all. Eilif also wonders if he is a Catholic, but the boy swears he isn’t. Anyway, that doesn’t matter now. They’re all fighting the same war. And besides, the boy’s too small to pick a fight with. That puts him more or less out of Eilif’s thoughts during the day.
During the day it’s easier, with all the marching and training and talking of the men around him. In the day time he doesn’t think about the things he thinks about at night.
He isn’t used to sleeping like this, curled in the foetal position. But it is cold in the top bunks and the wool blankets they are given are full of cigarette burns, moth eaten, and thin. They are stained, some of them, with blood, and God knows what else - this isn’t what he expected the army to be. He’s heard all about the glory and the honour, but he isn’t sure, exactly, on where that all comes in, or how he’s supposed to gain it.
Right now he’s just another man among the masses. He doesn’t like that.
He just knows that it is better than pulling that cart - everything they own in it. Sweating like animals, him and Swiss Cheese, even in the cold. Kattrin shivering and sometimes mewling to herself, clutching the cart curtains around her thin shoulders - their mother singing her songs out the back…
Except that the army, it isn’t. Isn’t better. Now he’s sleeping under the drafty ceiling of a barrack in Poland which is, admittedly, better than sleeping under the cart, as he used to with Swiss Cheese - Kattrin and their mother bedding down inside and above them - but it’s… lonely; oddly enough, with forty-odd other like-minded men sleeping all around him.
Swiss Cheese used to kick in his sleep, and Eilif always pretended that his chatter annoyed him, but it didn’t, and in the winter they would inevitably end up practically in each other’s arms because it was that or freeze to death, no matter how many wool blankets they had around them. And so it was strange, not sleeping next to someone else. All around him was the steady breathing of the other soldiers, but he couldn’t reach out and touch a warm body. He couldn’t hear the voice of his mother above.
Sometimes, him and Swiss Cheese, they would see the guns firing in the distance, lighting up the night sky. He remembers leaning on their elbows, watching the flames from the battle through the wood spokes of the cart wheel… and the two of them, talking about how they were going to join the war together.
It had felt different then. Safer. He tries to put today’s fight out of his mind. The bed next to Eilif’s used belong to a boy his age named Toivo. Toivo was killed around five o’clock that morning after Eilif’s group of younger soldiers got separated from their Commander in an ambush. Eilif had tripped over his body as he ran blindly through the forest in the dark, his sword clutched in a sweaty hand. Toivo had also been Finnish, and he’d been sharing his cigarettes with Eilif.
Watching the war from the safety of the cart was different from swinging blindly at anything that moved and hoping they wouldn’t get you first.
He wondered, now, if Swiss Cheese would be able to handle it. There was a touch of pride when he thought that he, himself could. That he had. That he wasn’t one of the ones vomiting in the bushes when the Commander finally found them.
His family could be dead by now, but that doesn’t cross his mind. Things like that don’t often do. He is good at only seeing and hearing what he wants to. But then, so is everyone in the war.
In any case, he hasn’t seen any of them for almost seven months. And despite his spit-fire character, his courage, and his, at times, infuriating recklessness, Eilif misses his brother. He misses sharing looks with his sister, and knowing what they mean even though she can’t talk because of what that soldier did to her when she was a baby. But that was before he was born. Kattrin doesn’t know. And his mother certainly doesn’t know that he does. He overheard her once, telling someone the story. He never told Swiss Cheese. He didn’t want his brother to change his mind about joining the war…
Eilif is good at forgetting what he wants to, and if he wants to, he can forget that all soldiers aren’t good. He can believe anything he likes if he tries hard enough.
He misses his mother’s songs and her stories about the bombardment of Riga and the fifty loaves of bread. Because despite the fact that Eilif is like a loaded gun - ready to fight at the drop of a hat, he is still a seventeen year old boy, and he still misses his mother.
He is seventeen and his hands smell like dirt and cigarettes which he doesn’t like, but smokes anyway. Despite his build -- which is, like everyone else in this damn fucking war, thin enough - he is nowhere near as thin as his brother and sister, and since joining the army he’s certainly bulked up a little. Despite this, now he is shivering. He is staring blankly at the empty bunk across from him, and at the impressive curve of the nose of the man sleeping beyond, without really seeing it at all.
It’s odd, and he won’t admit it to himself, but he misses all those things he wanted so badly to escape from.
He thinks, now, of his father who he never met - the soldier.
He will be great like that some day.
Eilif lay in the arms of a woman who was still young, but quite a few years older than him. When he’d first seen her and the others, calling to the men from a smoky corner in a warm bar, he’d been too excited upon the prospect of having a woman that he hadn’t even looked at any of the others. For all he knew, he could have ended up with the best or the worst of them - he’d been too distracted by her sweet-smelling breath - brandy and something else - and ample breasts, and the way she twirled long, curled strands of hair around her fingers. He thought, maybe, she was a gypsy. Dark skinned, a rich voice.
He’d never slept with a woman before, and afterwards it had left him feeling strange and empty, but would sleep before he let himself think about it. Maybe he would never think about it.
This was the first warm place he’s been in ages, it seems. Unless he counts all those time he’d been panting and sweating in his wool uniform after they’d marched for miles. The snow-covered landscape of Poland was all starting to look the same, and just when he thought it would be unbearable to see any more white, he woke up this morning and, through the flaps in the tent, he could see faintly green grass. Spring was coming. The air smells crisp and cold, and of nothing more than snow - still not the damp, earthy smell of things thawing, rotting before they could grow again. He misses that smell.
And he misses the smell of his mother’s brandy, and the heat of it when he drank it mixed with coffee, when they had it. They hadn’t had coffee for about a year, by the time he left. His mother had picked up the habit of drinking it from the Frenchman she met after he was born, and he never really liked the taste, but it had grown on him and it could fill the belly when there was nothing else to be had.
He closes his eyes, maybe he can fall back asleep again. He turns carefully and slowly, afraid to wake the whore in whose arms he lies. He presses his face against the softness of her breasts, her belly rising and falling against his. He can feel her breath smelling faintly of drink, ruffling his hair every time she exhales.
He realises, then, that she reminds him of his mother. Not in her appearance, or the way they lay together, limbs entwined, or even really the way she smells, although the faint smell of sweat lingers on her skin… it is something about the way he feels in her arms. Safe - strangely vulnerable.
He remembers being in his mother’s arms, in the kitchen of the Commander’s tent only a few weeks ago now. He’d been so happy. Even when she scolded him, after the unfairness had worn off, he realised that it was with a certain fondness that he’d looked into her eyes - he’d never been able to stare her down. He hasn’t laughed like that since then.
And even though the embarrassment at being cuffed in front of the Commander in Chief and the Chaplain and the Cook had been hot and immediate. Even through the anger and indignation he felt - it was familiar - the way his mother scolded him.
He misses her now. And he misses Kattrin and Swiss Cheese. He misses sitting together on the grass in the summer, waiting for the sun to set. He remembers watching Kattrin, fall asleep on Swiss Cheese’s shoulder, his delicate hands - the dirt underneath his fingernails. How he’d go so still, so careful not to wake her.
Both Eilif and his brother had hard calloused hands - not the hands of young boys like they were. Even Kattrin’s hands were rough and red-raw from the work and washing in all kinds of weather. Eilif finds himself thinking about their hands a lot. The way his mother’s hands felt, strong and steadying. Careful enough even when she was boxing their ears, though she pretended not to be. And always, it still hurt.
She might never want to hurt any of her three children, but her words could be cruel. Eilif had never quite learned how to sort it out - the truth from the lies - when it came to her. She was such a strong, determined woman, yet fragile as well. He’d watched her climb down from the cart late at night when she thought they were all sleeping and stand a few yards away, feet spread, hands behind her hips, just staring out into the night. She worried a lot. He could see that. He often forgot about it then.
Now he wonders… does his absence make her worry? He hopes not.
Though he knows it does. And he hops-- dear God in heaven, he hops that she is mad at him for it.
Because that would mean that he hasn’t been dismissed like so many-- so many other men in her life.
He can bear the weight of the gun in his arms and the sweat on his back and the growling in his belly and the blood on his hands, but he couldn’t bear that.