The Willow and the War
Christine Grove, of Aparima College, won the senior competition (year 12-13) of the Dan Davin short story competition.
The Willow bent, trailing long tendrils in the clear stream, enjoying the feeling of the cool water running between its fingers. The Willow creaked as he slowly turned his knotted expressive trunk up stream to take full advantage of the sunshine which hailed the start of a new spring and he spied something passing gently through the water.
Time passed slowly for the Willow, and any action he made was slow and steady and his old wooden bones creaked in protest.
A small canoe passed slowly down the tranquil river, its pole dipping sporadically, disturbing the water weed and scattering pond skaters. Its inhabitants were a small sandy haired boy and a solidly built man with a kind, if prematurely lined and scarred, face.
The young boy looked up at the man with a faintly confused look. Noting his son's expression the man looked down and asked "What's worrying you, Peter?" Peter looked down for a moment at the fish darting in and out of their weedy paradise before answering. "What happened to you, Father? You don't look like David's parents. Their skin is smooth, and yours is stretched tight and broken." Peter paused again to push the sandy hair back. "David said it happened in a fight. Why were you fighting, Daddy?"
The boat floated on and the pole dipped. This time it was the man's turn to pause. It looked as though he was pondering something. When he spoke, it was hesitant, "I fought for you, Peter, and for your mother." Peter looked more confused than ever. This obviously wasn't the answer he had expected. "Who were you fighting, father? Were they bad people?"
The man paused again and his light eyes seemed suddenly darker. He bent as though a weight pushed upon him. "I don't know exactly who I was fighting Peter I only saw them once and they didn't seem all that bad then." "Just frightened . . . like me."
Behind the man's head the sun was enveloped in cloud and a chill fell upon the river. He knelt and wrapped his son in a blanket before standing and taking up his pole once more. Peter looked at his father through the snuggery, "I'm still not sure what you mean father, why were you fighting people you didn't know if they weren't bad?" At first the man gave no response as he pushed the boat forward, he looked straight ahead, but his eyes no longer bore the reflection of the dark river. His eyebrows were knitted together in a puzzled expression which was rare on his caring intelligent face. "Have your teachers talked to you of the World War, Peter?" Peter's sandy hair shook as he nodded his head fervently, pleased to be able to share his father's knowledge. The man's smile did not reach his eyes. "I was there, Peter," he whispered staring into the middle distance at something Peter couldn't see. "Your tutor would have told you of what men in the trenches had to face. The sleepless nights spent in fear of the 'Nightingales' shaking the shingles of the shelters, the rats, the lice, endless mud and the adrenaline fueled charges which took the lives of so many." A wind rocked the small boat as they passed under the arms of a Willow, its long fingers slipping over the boat's surface, ruffling the boy's hair. The man looked up at the strong aged bow of the Willow and said "But we didn't know of any of it... not until it was far too late."
The man dipped his pole, his mind far away in the dark recesses of untapped memory. A long wet willow branch brushed past his face and they left Old Man Willow's shadow. The man seemed to wake at the touch and he looked down at his son, suddenly wary. "Are you sure that you want to know this, Peter? You may not like what you hear." The boat drifted languidly down the river, a silhouette against the dark sunless sky. Peter shivered and replied "Yes father, I would like to know." The man looked down at his son, still enriched with the innocence of childhood and he wondered at the effect that his story might have on his son. But the boy needed to know, he had to find out at some point, and it would be better if it came from him. He sighed, leant once more upon the punt, and began.
"Well then . . . I had just left Cambridge when I was called up. I was posted to the Somme with Bill Harvey. We slept in the bunks of the men who had gone over the top before us, sometimes we could hear their long gone murmurings in the night." He gave an involuntary shiver. "We would spend hours standing in mud watching men being massacred and mutilated beyond recognition. Slowly losing our minds. The bodies would freeze in the winter and then fester and rot in the summer heat. I have seen men drop from a bullet through their skull and then be swarmed by rats, all they would leave was the bones." The man never raised his voice but every word uttered fell into silence to be absorbed by his son. "Our comrades were always with us, even after they had gone, they permeated our dreams and their rotting stench constantly filled our nostrils."
Down the river moved the boat. Peter looked at his father with wide sad eyes amazed that his kind strong father could have gone through such horror. The Willow held its breath waiting. "I wondered why we fought and died, why we fired upon a nameless, faceless enemy every waking hour. But every time I was reminded, they threatened us, they threatened my King and my Country, but above all, the evil tyrading monsters threatened you." He looked down at his son, eyes set. The boy looked up at his father into the normally kind eyes and got a glimpse into the life lead hiding behind muddy trench walls.
Down dipped the pole and the man talked on. "We were ordered to go over the top. We all prepared our rifles and wrote last letters home. That day no eye was closed, we were all trying to absorb every colour, feel our heats beating with such brave repetition and enjoy what would be the last moments of our lives. It was raining when the whistle was blown that night and we flung our bodies over the defenses. I ran towards death through mud and rain. A bomb exploded beside me and I was flung into a crater." The punt went too deep and the boat rocked, but the man did not notice, he had forgotten his son and their beautiful surroundings. "I ducked down in the crater, the Germans had opened up their machine guns, the men running around my hole oblivious, dropped with steel smattering their bodies. I hid a while longer, wondering what I would do if one of the enemy joined me.
I got out my knife and waited. The rattling guns were silenced and I heard men's footsteps. I lay down with my face in the mud and pretended to be dead. I heard a splash beside me and I sprang to my feet. I plunged my long knife into the stomach of the man before me. I saw the shock in his features and the pain as he stumbled back and slumped against the crater's face. But as I started forward I saw him properly, he looked as I imagine I looked. Scared, muddy, and frightened. The sound of battle came back to me and I laughed at the stupid situation we were in. It wasn't evil tyrants we faced but mere reflections of ourselves, frightened young men fighting for their freedom. I looked down at the man and I didn't have the heart to end the life of someone who might have well have been my kin. So a walked towards him and at his terrified muttering I said the one word we would both understand 'Comrade'. The boy seemed calmer but still wary, so I approached him and took out my bandages. He nodded and I dressed his wounds."
The man finally looked down at his son and said "I spent the night side by side with the soldier as his blood seeped into my uniform. We showed each other pictures of our loved ones. We knew he wouldn't make it through the night and he gave me letters to send. By the time morning arrived life had left him and he lay slumped on my shoulder. I made my way cautiously back to the trench and you are the first person to hear the story, Peter."
The pole dipped and they left the Willow's corner of the River. The sun escaped from the clouds' choking embrace and they were once more bathed in warmth. The boat moved on out of the Willow's earshot and although they never traversed that river again, the Willow never forgot the man's story, and as he watched the tiny boat round a corner and pass out of sight, he wished the kind man and his brave boy the peace and tranquility that he enjoyed by the river.
The Southland Times