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Last Christmas my friend told me to write a story for the holiday, I produced the following short.

Christmas 1914

For three brutal weeks I had stared across this land without ever dreaming of stepping on to it. As I did, I was first struck by the difference, it was frozen solid. The temperature in No Man’s Land was no colder than the trench, but the constant battering of boots never allowed the mud of the trench to freeze.

We saw the Germans the night before begin to place small trees along their line, lit by small candles affixed to the the limbs. Having all but forgotten that the men we had been killing were fellow Christians, at first we were confused, and let loose some rounds. Shortly after the first couple of volleys, we understood that these men meant to celebrate the birth of our savior.

When we got word that there would be a Christmas truce, there was some initial skepticism, but that was soon replaced with relief. No one would die today, we would meet our enemies in the middle, among the bodies and debris.

Some of the men began to prepare gifts, in the surreal hours of the morning the men gathered what they could to celebrate. Most of the gifts were small bottles of wine, tobacco, and tea. My gift was among the best, 3 small fruitcakes, prepared by my dear Anna, intended as a special treat for the men and I. As much as it pained me to pass these along, I wanted to make sure that my gift was a good one. In my time in the trench I had seen hellish fates befall the men I served with, and knew well and good that the Germans on the other end of the field had suffered just as greatly at our hands.

The first order of business, upon leaving the trench, was to collect and bury the men who had foolishly tried to push the line forward. The bodies had built up into a wall of moldering corpses, their identities all but erased by the hail of bullets they had taken, and continued to accept in our stead. In death these souls protected us, even as the Germans tried to cut through the wall with their Maxim machine guns. We all hated to give up the protection, but none among us could justify allowing our fallen brothers to be abused any further.

The first steps were uneasy, still untrusting, the Germans moved slowly from their holes as well. We were unsure of what depths these men were willing to sink, but it had become clear that they too shared the interest of tending to their dead. Both sides somberly moved forward and began the grueling task of breaking into the frost and soil, struggling to dig holes just deep enough to respectfully cover the bodies in field. I could hear some of the men praying as they dug, and some weeping as they got their first good look at what we had done to the soldiers who dared try to advance upon us.

It took hours of labor, even with all involved, to properly retire the soldiers to the earth, and it was with great relief that I finally posted the final cross. Looking across the expanse, this once bare land was now an orchard of grief, shabbily constructed grave markers hanging like loose teeth in the bitter soil. The Germans were done with their rites just before us, and they proceeded to make the first move.

As they advanced to the center of the small plot of land that so many had died trying to claim, I was struck by their youth and condition. The enemy’s “men” were gaunt, heavy bags pulling their eyes into a stunned expression of fear and exhaustion. My men looked like well fed lions in comparison to these boys. From across the field they had appeared as terrible shadows, 8 foot tall destroyers, but as they drew closer the illusion lifted. These dreaded foes were just well organized schoolboys with gas bombs and chain guns, their deadly weapons made them giants; without them they were pitiful.

One approached saying “Frohe Weihnachten.” another behind him translating, “Merry Christmas,” adding, “my fellow Christians,” in broken English tongue. His addition was clearly a shield, they were not fully convinced that this truce would be honored.

Out of respect for their bravery in making the first advance I presented my hands, open and free of even that spade that I had used in burying my kin. Some of the men around me returned with a “Merry Christmas” of their own, and it was clear that for now, we were all going to honor the cease fire.

Part of me wished that we had used this opportunity to lay waste to the enemy while they were out in the open. I did not wish to see them die, as much as I wished for the nightmare to end. I wanted nothing more than to stop seeing good lives wasted in that trench, and to stop having to kill to live. I did not want to see them so close, to know that they were human. I missed the thought of these men being rabid berzerkers that were better left dead in the snow.

The boy who only spoke German smiled, removed his helmet out of respect and pulled some dry wood from his sack. He sat down, and proceeded to prepare a fire, waving at us to join. Slowly we collected in a circle and saw similar groupings forming along the middle of No Man’s Land with soldiers from both sides contributing kindling. In short time many fires burned, and like magic the warm glow of the fires birthed strained conversation. The men spoke of their families, and memories of Christmases before the war.

The boy passed me a flask, the drink made me warm, and eased some of my fears. I coughed a bit upon my first sip, and the boy smiled and motioned for me to drink again. I took another sip and passed it back. The boy nodded and took a strong pull, his eyes locked with mine, looking through me. He was young, but he had seen a lot, there was age in his eyes, a wisdom gained by watching his brothers in arms die on the line. A wisdom gained by killing the men across the field, my men.

I pulled the fruit cakes from my bag. Wrapped in a yellow kerchief, he first looked on confused, I untied the bundle and watched his eyes light up at the sight.

“Stollen!” He said enthusiastically.

“No, made by my wife, it’s fruitcake.”

“Ich mag stollen!”

I handed them over, he produced a knife and began to cut slices. I looked to the man who spoke English and said “Tell him no, tell him to save the cake. You will want something tomorrow, to take you from the trench, to remind you that you are still human.”

The translator nodded and spoke to the boy. Momentarily he looked distressed, then wrapped the cakes back up. He spoke to the translator as he gently placed the cakes into his sack.

“He says he is thankful. He says he will share, he says we must drink more.” The translator spoke nervously, struggling to find the best words.

“Yes, share the cake.” I said smiling. “And yes, let us drink.”

The Germans produced more alcohol, and we enjoyed passing the bottles around. Soon carols were being sung, men clapping each other on the shoulders like old friends. In those moments the war was over, and the joy and merriment of Christmas had chased away the memories mustard gas, and the thunderclap of artillery.

In time the fires grew dim, both sides began collecting their goods. Some of my men held ornaments, hand made by the enemy, small crosses, and candles. Others had bottles of liquor, and angels made of tied rags and paper. Our Christmas was coming to an end and come morning hell would rise again, this land would once again become home to none. The boy patted his bag as he and his comrades retreated to their end of the field, I waved as he disappeared into the evening fog and turned, returning to my hole.

When morning came, and the truce was broken I imagined the Germans snacking on the cakes I had given the boy. I imagined them savoring every bite, if only for a moment escaping the nightmare of the trench. I imagined them later buckled over as the rat poison did its work.

I don’t know if the dust of the ground pellets would be enough to kill them, or if it would simply take them out of the fight for a bit, a gift to the men serving by my side. I just prayed that they all got a taste, and prayed that my own death would come as peacefully as the one I hoped to have given them.