It started because he walked up the wrong mountain.
Corporal Arthur Cooper of the 15th Royal Wagon Company was on his way to the unit’s Christmas party. True, they were in a war, but the front line was six miles away.
And it was Christmas Eve.
Even the Kaiser wouldn’t fight at Christmas. The Germans were probably having their own parties at the other end of the valley.
The previous week had seen both sides hold tight in their new trenches, though the commanders still nervously called in artillery barrages up and down the valley if they heard a rumor of enemy movement. Arthur had heard the officers saying to themselves that the whole thing would blow over by spring and no one would ever remember that there was an Archduke named Franz who started a war by getting himself shot.
Heeding the weather report, Arthur borrowed the radio operator’s large coat. Lance Corporal Thorpe had bought it off a Russian sailor and it was a hefty, double-breasted monstrosity. After a quick, secret look at Thorpe’s fine features, Arthur headed for his tent.
Admiring the looks of men was a habit he needed to break, he told himself as he dug in his footlocker. He was a grown man now and the time for school boy crushes was over. Arthur put a pair of fresh socks in his pocket for the next morning’s return trip and then walked down the road towards the HQ.
Clouds covered everything that gray afternoon. Arthur pulled his watch from his left pocket. It had cost him half his paycheck when he first hit London out of training. The time was thirty-two minutes past four.
Half a mile down the road, a flurry of snow hit. Arthur could still see the road and kept to the side, wary of supply trucks. He saw none of the signposts the engineers had erected, but he held to the road shoulder as best as he could.
But when the snow cleared thirty-four minutes later, Arthur was lost. He had ended up in the forest, with no trace of road. Light filtered down from the glowing clouds, casting everything in twilight. The pine branches were bent with smooth, glistening snow. The ground sloped gently one way, so Arthur knew how to get back to the valley, though the trees blocked his vision beyond fifty yards or so.
He trudged downhill, sure he would hit the road before long.
Then a voice shouted beside him in German and he nearly shit his pants. A scruffy soldier in snow-covered brown jumped out from behind a tree, his rifle aimed at Arthur’s heart. More shouting followed with the German pointing at Arthur’s pistol holster. With two fingers, the German signaled how Arthur was to remove the gun.
For a while, Arthur did not move. He had never actually seen a German before, being a supply horse driver. The soldier was young, with angry gray eyes and an expression of desperation.
Again the German shouted at Arthur and thrust the tip of his bayonet at him. Arthur lifted the revolver and tossed it at the German’s feet. The soldier slung his rifle across his front and pointed Arthur’s own pistol at him. Arthur lifted his hands high.
Another stream of German followed. Arthur understood nothing, except the word Deutschland several times. Wonderful. This Hun was going to lecture him on the glory of Germany before shooting him.
But no bullet came and Arthur realized a worse truth—the soldier expected him to point the way back to the enemy end of the valley and the crazed German was going to kill him if he didn’t. But Arthur did not know which slope of the valley he was even on.
Arthur shrugged dramatically and pointed to his head, saying, “I don’t know where I am!” Then he pointed one finger at the sky and two fingers at his eyes, saying, “Stars. I need to see stars.”
“Yes, stars.” Arthur kept pointing. “I can’t tell where we are until I see stars.”
The German seemed to realize Arthur was lost and his shoulders fell. The gun did not point away, however.
Then the soldier looked up again, inspiration on his face and said, “Stars!” Then he ordered Arthur to walk up the incline. It made sense. They had a better chance of seeing stars up the hill.
Arthur walked in front, careful to keep looking forward. He did not want to get shot if the German got the idea he was resisting.
He would resist, though. The soldier was about his size and age and had been careless a few times already. Letting the end of his rifle get within reach of Arthur for instance. But Arthur needed the German to trust him and calm down first.
Arthur wanted to bring out his watch and check the time, but kept his hands swinging steadily. They walked about fifty minutes, the ground getting steeper. A cabin drifted into view through the gloom. It was small and simple, but looked in good repair with a pile of firewood nearby.
Inside, the German forced Arthur to stand in one corner while he looked around. It was definitely a hunter’s cabin, with a bearskin on the floor before the fireplace and antlers decorating the walls. The soldier opened one of the wooden windows and let in some light.
A table with two long benches stood on one side and a cot on the other—with a piss pot underneath. Near the table was a cupboard full of cookware and supplies.
There was also a small package of meat. When the war came to the valley the cabin’s owners had probably evacuated without too much care for what they left behind. The meat was frozen solid and the frustrated German hit it against the tabletop.
“I can cook that for you if you want,” said Arthur.
The German looked up, and spoke in a puzzled tone.
Arthur pointed at the pots, the fireplace and the meat, then he made a stirring motion with his hands and pointed to his chest.
“Really?” the German seemed to say.
Making a chopping motion then pointing at the axe near the fireplace, Arthur told the German to go get some firewood.
It took seventeen minutes for the German to chop the wood according to Arthur’s watch. He gave no thought to escape during that time. He knew the German was testing him. If Arthur put a foot outside the door, he would get a bullet in it.
There was a moment of nervousness when the German came in to find Arthur with a kitchen knife. The soldier nearly dropped his wood, but recovered and kept his distance while Arthur cut up carrots and potatoes.
The German got the fire going under the pot of water then left to chop more wood. Arthur defrosted the meat. Then, after he had salted everything well, he set it all to boil. After he came back, the German hunted in a footlocker by the bed and came up with a yell of triumph, holding a simple wood-handled razor. There was no brush or lotion, but he seemed happy to rid himself of the scruff on his chin and cheeks with the bare blade. He tossed his helmet aside and used a comb and small mirror to smooth his bright blond hair.
Arthur tended the pot, amused at how vain the German seemed. Or maybe the soldier was just delighted in being civilized again?
The German was quite handsome once he was neat.
Arthur had never had occasion to act on his feelings for his own gender. He had lived his whole life away from people, on his family’s farm. Now his stomach flip-flopped a bit: he was lusting for the enemy. He stirred the pot harder.
But the happy German wanted to talk. He left the rifle by the cot, though he kept the pistol in his belt. “Friedrich,” he said, pointing at himself. Then he shrugged and said, “Fred.”
Friedrich, called Fred.
Arthur told Fred his name. Feeling obligated to carry his end of the conversation, he also held up ten fingers, then nine, and pointed to himself.
Fred held up ten, then eight.
He was a year younger than Arthur, yet he had an air of confidence and knowledge. Well, he certainly did not know cooking better than Arthur.
Fred sat on the bearskin and removed his boots, warming his feet. He threw his wet socks on the floor in disgust.
“Fred?” said Arthur using his captor’s name for the first time. The soldier looked at him, smiling. Arthur withdrew his extra socks and threw them at the boy. Fred caught them with an exclamation of delight and put them on immediately. Clean socks were a heavenly gift to a soldier.
Fred ground his feet into the bearskin, savoring the warmth. He even did a little dance as he walked around the room, finally getting close to the pot.
“Berlin,” said Fred, pointing to himself as he stood close to Arthur. Then he pointed at Arthur.
Well, shit, how did you say middle of nowhere in sign language, Arthur wondered. He decided to moo. Then he made sheep and horse noises.
Fred laughed. A good-natured laugh, a laugh at the effort Arthur was putting into their conversation. Then he turned to go test his socks out some more.
Arthur quickly slipped a leg behind Fred’s ankle and pushed him over it, toppling the young soldier onto the floor. By the time Fred gained his feet, Arthur was standing out of reach, aiming the rifle at him.
“Give me back my gun,” said Arthur, pointing.
Fred was furious. He shouted in German, making axe-chopping motions and pointing to the firewood as if to say, “We were making this work together. Why’d you spoil it?”
Arthur had no time for sentiment. He fired the rifle into the ceiling and then pointed it back at Fred. Except there was no bang and no bullet came out. The damned thing had been empty from the start.
Fred pulled the pistol from his side and held the barrel. He whipped Arthur across the jaw with the handle. Arthur fell, his head on fire. Hot blood leaked down his neck.
Fred’s look of anger was mixed with regret, but the anger won out once he saw Arthur move. He signaled Arthur to sit in the corner of the floor furthest from the exit and kept the gun pointed at him. The desperate look was back in his gray eyes.
So much for winning his trust.
After a few minutes, Fred dipped a bowl into Arthur’s thin stew and sat at the table. He ate with his stare fixed on his prisoner, the gun on the table under his hand. As he ate, Fred removed the fresh socks from his feet and put his old ones back on.
After finishing his bowl, Fred dipped out another. He was halfway back to the table when he turned to Arthur and gave him a brief glimmer of appreciation under the anger. Then the German walked right over and held the bowl and spoon out to Arthur.
Deciding not to make a fuss over the fact that Fred had been eating from this bowl, Arthur took it and said, “Danke.”
The German seemed surprised, but said nothing. He took another bowl of stew for himself and resumed his angry eating.
Arthur’s jaw was still hurting when Fred ordered him back out into the snow, saying, “Stars.” His face and neck were stiff from the swelling and the caked blood.
Outside, the clouds still hid the sky. The hillside above the cabin had fewer trees to block their view, so Fred marched them fifty yards higher until he found a six-foot log just thick enough to make a comfortable seat. Arthur positioned the log where Fred told him to and the German sat in the middle of it, facing the valley. After four minutes, he glanced up at Arthur and then shifted to the right end of the log, indicating that Arthur could have the other side.
Then they waited. It must have been past eleven, Arthur figured and he was actually sleepy despite the adrenaline. He had been tired since the war started, really.
He was still surprised the German had not killed him after the attack in the cabin. Arthur knew it was probably just the practicality of Fred needing him since the city boy was probably not familiar with stars. But Arthur felt a little grateful anyway.
Fred was starting to shiver next to him. His lips were trembling and for a moment Arthur admired their shape. He wondered why the German had not simply robbed him of his coat. Then Arthur remembered the socks Fred had rejected. Too much pride in this one. Fred would be happy to freeze rather than ask Arthur for a share of his warmth.
So Arthur slipped his right arm free of his sleeve and opened the coat. He held it up and gave Fred a “Come on, be reasonable,” expression.
Fred scoffed, but then he looked at the coat with jealous eyes. He held the pistol up and threatened Arthur with what was probably, “Fine, but I’ll shoot you if you try tricking me again.”
Fred got under the coat, sticking his arm through his side’s sleeve. The coat would not button in front when used like this, but it was enough to keep them both warm.
They would be warmer if Fred would sit closer, but the soldier kept half a foot between them.
It was only practical for them to get closer Arthur convinced himself. “We should share our heat,” he told Fred in a neutral voice, pointing to the gap on the log. Then he shamelessly slid right up against Fred. Well, if he was doing it for practical reasons, there was no need for shame, was there?
Fred grunted his acquiescence. Apparently he could see the practicality of it too.
Being so close, Arthur tried not to move too much. Mostly he was afraid of provoking a reaction in his pants. Fred smelled of dirt and sweat and pine needles and that seemed to somehow make him even more attractive.
Instead, Arthur focused on finding a solution to his predicament. As a practical consideration, he decided that he and the German could find a way to live through this thing together. No more tricks.
He did not fear tricks from Fred. Despite having reason to kill Arthur twice now, the boy had shown restraint. At the cabin he had-
What if it had been a trick? Fred had left the rifle a bit too much in the open. And Arthur’s farm noises had not been that funny.
He must have been testing Arthur. And Arthur had failed.
Fred’s shoulder bumped Arthur and they both murmured apologies. Then they both grunted a laugh at themselves.
Could Arthur trust that laugh?
He looked up at the sky. The clouds seemed to be thinning near the horizon.
Fred turned and asked a question, pointing at the medal on Arthur’s chest. He had worn it for the party. There were supposed to be Belgian refugee girls there and Arthur had hoped that the medal might help him get a gratitude fuck—and maybe getting that first fuck would clear away all these urges he sometimes had for men.
Fred pointed again. He mimed shooting a gun and then lifted his eyebrows.
“No,” Arthur shook his head. He moved his palm in the shape of a horse and neighed. Then he showed himself leading the horse with clicking noises. Then he made the universal sound of falling artillery and exploding shells. Last, he showed himself holding the horse steady and calming it with strokes to the neck.
“Ahh,” said Fred. He patted Arthur’s shoulder with a look of respect. Fred’s hand was warm even through his thick clothes.
Was it midnight yet? Arthur reached for his watch. Fred stiffened next to him and Arthur held still. Then he moved his arm carefully to pull the watch from his pocket.
Twenty-eight minutes to midnight.
Fred gave a cry of astonishment at the watch. With round eyes, he signaled for Arthur to hand it over. So much for Fred’s pride. It seemed the watch was a fancy enough prize for him to claim.
Jabbering in German, Fred pointed at the parts of the watch, including the maker’s name and the glass window in the back. He spoke excitedly at Arthur, but when Arthur could only stare at him, Fred made a noise of dismissal and went back to ogling the watch.
Inside the stream of speech Arthur thought he heard a word that sounded like ‘father.’
“Your father has a watch like this?”
Fred raised an open palm over the top of his head, grunted and raised it one more time.
Then Fred made a round shape with his thumb and forefinger and held it to his eye like a monocle. He pointed to the watch and made the thumb and monocle into tweezers.
“Your grandfather repairs watches.”
Then Fred smiled and pointed to himself and made the symbol for a small amount.
“He taught you a little.”
Still smiling, Fred stroked around the edge of the watch, his eyes glassy. Then he offered it back to Arthur. When Arthur took it in his left hand, however, Fred would not let it go. The German was speaking rapidly and Arthur caught the word for ‘dead’ a few times.
Fred’s grandfather was dead now.
A tear fell from Fred’s cheek to Arthur’s hand. Fred’s voice was breaking as he spoke, in turns lamenting then angry. From what Arthur could understand of his words, Fred was going to be killed by stupid fucking Englanders in a stupid fucking forest in the middle of stupid fucking France and he would never see his home again.
Arthur felt crass, because in Fred’s words was the name Heinrich and he could not help but enviously wonder if Heinrich was Fred’s lover.
“Who is Heinrich?”
Fred wiped away a few tears. Then he smiled. He pointed to himself and put his hand out at chest height. Then he said “Greta” and lifted his hand above head height. He put his hand at knee height and said, “Heinrich.”
Friedrich, the middle child, with big sister Greta and Heinrich the little brother.
Fred put his hand at his ankle and said, “Krause.” Then he meowed.
Krause sounded like a good name for a cat.
Arthur held his hand at big sister height and shook his head. Then he put his hand at little brother height and shook his head again. Arthur the only child.
He got a look of mock pity from Fred.
Arthur laughed. Fred laughed too, then he went serious again. His tears resumed quietly. Fred was still holding Arthur’s left hand around the watch. Arthur put his right arm over Fred’s shoulder and hugged him. Fred collapsed against him and Arthur held him protectively while the boy silently shook with tears.
They stayed like that even after Fred was done crying. It was eleven minutes to midnight when the clouds cleared.
It was a mystifying sky: all black. Clouds were not blocking anything. The stars had gone from existence, except for a faint dot above the horizon. It seemed to waver, becoming brighter and then fainter in no clear pattern.
Neither of them spoke. The night was completely still, with no wind and no movement in the trees. The horizon star glowed brighter and the light seemed to warm them.
Arthur looked down at Fred who smiled a happy smile.
Can I trust his smile?
Seeming to read Arthur’s expression, Fred reached to his side and offered the pistol handle to him with a serious look. Arthur nodded his appreciation and put it away. Then Fred pulled a hip flask and sipped it before offering it to Arthur. It was brandy, and it tingled all the way down. Arthur aahhed his satisfaction and handed the flask back.
They continued sharing it while the light of the star grew brighter and warmer. Maybe Arthur had gotten drunk, but it seemed like the lone star had become as bright as the moon. Below them, the valley was a stretch of glowing, white serenity, the river sparkling through it.
Fred turned to Arthur. Arthur stared at his lips again, so soft and shiny. Fred was looking at him with expectation and...gratitude? Admiration? Could Arthur dare hope for desire? They were still holding hands around the watch.
Fred reached out with his other hand and stroked the hair behind Arthur’s head. Then he pulled him closer.
He’s going to kiss me.
But Fred’s lips dodged his. Instead he carefully kissed Arthur near his ear, at the spot where he had struck him earlier.
Arthur appreciated the gesture, but wished it had been something more passionate. Still, he knew now was not the moment for that. He nodded his forgiveness to Fred and they held each other while the deep light of the midnight star shined down on them.
While the star’s light yet illuminated everything, Fred led Arthur back to the cabin and the bearskin, where he fed the fire three pieces of wood.
In the crackling firelight, Arthur kissed a boy for the first time. The feeling was like discovering a lost part of himself. He pulled Fred closer and squeezed everything he could out of the moment as their lips and tongues played and pressed against each other.
They undressed slowly, the tender mood of that moment on the log still with them. It seemed that Fred understood Arthur was new to it all and he took the lead.
The fire warmed their skin and the air all around them as they knelt, naked, on the soft floor, hands and lips seeking pleasure in the shape and feel of the other’s body.
With touches and signals, Fred let Arthur know the mechanics and art of the different acts until they had made love, reaching a sense of completion and contentment.
They spent a few minutes holding each other and saying tender things. No matter that the other could not comprehend the language, the happiness and affection were clear.
And their sense of contentment did not stop them trying it all one more time before falling asleep, Fred wrapped in Arthur’s arms, back to chest.
Before dawn, Arthur awoke to Fred playing with him down below and they took another delightful journey into the other’s domains, Fred revealing a few twists on old techniques for his rapidly improving student. Then they dozed off again.
When Arthur awoke properly, light was leaking under the door and it was morning for real.
Christmas morning deserved a feast. He took the pistol and set out in his coat, leaving Fred on the bearskin with a kiss while he snoozed.
City boys never got up early, Arthur chuckled to himself. He staked out a good patch of ground and waited. The air was just as still as last night, but the sky was clear and blue from end to end. It took forty-three minutes, but Arthur got a good opportunity at a rabbit close enough that that the pistol could make the shot.
Right after he hit the rabbit, a roar filled the air and an aeroplane swung past the peak of the mountain. Arthur picked up the rabbit with a sense of urgency. With the good weather, the generals were thinking of war again and sending out their eyes. Tomorrow, there would be offensives by both sides.
But it was still Christmas now and he had all day to be with Fred. Arthur got his new lover up and demanded more firewood. Fred waved him off as if to say, “Yes, yes, I know my job,” and tromped outside. Arthur noted with a smile that he had put on the new socks.
It took two hours for the rabbit to be properly cooked. They spoke little during that time, and mostly just enjoyed being close. Fred praised the food with grunts through thick, sloppy mouthfuls and Arthur laughed at him.
After eating, they stepped outside for a walk. It was warm and they left the big coat behind, holding hands as they strolled in their private hillside forest. Where they were and where they were going seemed unimportant next to the sense of joint forward motion, of being with each other. Every few minutes, Arthur would reach for his left pocket and then pull back, deciding that it was better not to know how long until morning and the resumption of the war.
When they were back at the entrance to the cabin, Arthur tapped Fred on the shoulder and pointed imperiously at the firewood. Fred gave him an annoyed look and kicked snow at him. Arthur kicked back and the battle began. They hurled fresh snow at first, then snowballs. Then they found cover to stockpile ammunition and set ambushes for each other behind trees. For one moment of clarity while he dodged snowballs, Arthur thought to himself how odd it was to be playing at war while in the middle of a war.
The battle ended in close quarters engagement, with snow being stuffed into collars and crotches until both parties reached an armistice.
In the cabin, they tossed aside their wet clothes and warmed their naked selves at the fireplace. That quickly led to taking liberties with each other’s bodies and another bout of lovemaking. The quiet mood of the previous night was long gone and Arthur was no longer a novice so this time their passions came loose and drove them to an energetic and exhausting climax. Then they wiped each other clean with warm washcloths and napped, sharing the heat of their bodies.
Sometime in the mid-afternoon, Arthur lay on his back listening to Fred snore against him. His first Christmas away from home had not turned out quite so bad. It still felt incomplete, however. He wished he could exchange presents with Fred, but what could he give?
The watch would be perfect, of course, but then Fred would feel obligated to give a gift in return and it was unlikely Fred had such a valuable object at hand. So Fred would end up feeling like a heel and nothing but bad feelings would come out of the whole thing.
Ah, the politics of new love.
And it was love, Arthur realized. Or at least the beginnings of it. He had never felt this close to someone. Felt so strongly about their fate. So there were to be no presents this Christmas. No stockings. No candy. No—
“Fred,” Arthur said pushing him awake and jumping to his feet. When all he got was angry mumbles, he pulled Fred up.
Fred made a “What?” gesture.
Arthur pointed to the corner of the room near the cot and said the one word in German he was sure of: “Tannenbaum!”
“Tannenbaum?” Fred asked skeptically.
Arthur pointed at the corner again, then at the axe and then out the door. “Yes. Tannenbaum.”
Maybe it was just Fred joining in because he saw how much Arthur wanted it, but he smiled, kissed Arthur and got dressed.
They walked twelve minutes up the hill to find a small tree. Arthur figured it would be easier to carry downhill. About halfway through chopping the tree down, Fred saw an aeroplane over the mountains on the other side of the valley. His face went dark.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Arthur. “We have today for us. Me, you and the tannenbaum.”
Arthur had brought cord from the cabin and cut it with Fred’s bayonet, which he carried hung on his thigh. They tied the larger branches out of the way and started for home, Fred in the lead, each singing ‘Oh Christmas Tree’ in their own tongue.
The artillery barrage hit them just in sight of the cabin. There was no sense of which direction it was coming from, just the whistling shrieks from above. The first explosion hit behind them. It was an air-burst, designed to shred human flesh with flying steel shrapnel.
Instinctively, they dropped the tree and ran for the cabin—and what little protection it offered. Then a shell blew the cabin apart in a deafening, orange boom. The debris-filled shock wave knocked Fred back into Arthur and sent them both tumbling.
When Arthur got up, he could feel the world shaking in pulses, but everything was silent save a ringing sound. Bright red blood stained the white ground. The bayonet, still tethered to him, had pierced his right side above the hip. But there was more blood than Arthur’s wound could explain. Looking around, he saw blood leaking out from under a pile of snow. He dug in and found the stump of Fred’s arm, jaggedly cut right below the elbow, strips of skin and veins still hanging off around the broken bone.
No! Not today! He can’t die today.
Arthur plunged into the snow and pulled the rest of Fred out. The boy was screaming as blood dripped from his head.
More vibrations hit, followed by hot blasts of air from different directions.
Arthur took the rest of his cord from his pocket and drew it tight around Fred’s elbow. He knotted the tourniquet into place.
Would that work? Should he get something better?
Arthur had no time.
He scooped Fred up and onto his shoulders like a sack of flour. Then he set out into the silent, dangerous world erupting around him. He tried to run, but the deep snow and the shaking ground caused him to falter immediately. Pain started in his wounded side as his overloaded brain finally registered the damage.
There was no way to outrun an artillery shell in any case. It would be quicker to get out sure-footed rather than stumbling.
Arthur took a route down the hill. The ground grew flatter and stopped trembling so he could move faster. For a while at least. The warm day had melted some of the snow down here and it was forming mud. The long stretches of slush slowed him down again. At one point he slipped, sending Fred towards the ground. Arthur twisted and took the impact on his back instead. It felt like he ripped his side open.
He lay there for a minute, breathing hard. Then he eased himself up and checked on Fred. The boy was unconscious. Arthur did not know if that was good or bad. He knew it was bad that the cord had come loose and blood was flowing out again. Arthur looked around, desperate.
This was all his fault. He had gone and shot the stupid rabbit. Some commander must have gotten a report about a gunshot near the cabin and decided to wipe it out just in case.
Now Fred was going to die because Arthur had wanted Christmas stew. It seemed so senseless.
Arthur used the bayonet to cut at his uniform’s shoulder, ripping the sleeve free. He sliced the material into strips and tied a new and better tourniquet.
Lifting Fred was much harder this time with his side revolting and threatening to cave in. If he dropped Fred again, he would not be able to pick him up.
Arthur resumed carrying Fred through the mud and the trees, not knowing if he was even walking a straight line, much less what direction he was taking. The cold came through the space where his sleeve had been. His exposed left arm got stiff from the fingertips right up to his heart. His right arm ached from holding Fred in place by itself.
And every step jolted his side like a spear stab.
Soldiers appeared in his blurred vision, shouting at him in what he was sure was Swahili. He put Fred on the ground, dropping him the last six inches as his muscles stopped working. On his knees, he tried to focus his eyes and mind. It was Germans and they were pointing rifles at him, demanding he get face down.
“No,” he shouted, pointing at Fred’s insignia. “Help him. He’s one of you. Deutschland!” Two soldiers knelt by Fred and then called into the forest. Arthur raised his hands in surrender. What seemed like their commander asked him questions he could not answer until an ambulance showed up. One alert soldier spoke into the officer’s ear. The man then had Arthur’s pistol removed. As the officer inspected it, the orderlies loaded Fred into the back of the vehicle. Arthur rose to join the ambulance and the soldiers shouted at him again, two of them restraining him by the arms. He yelled, “No, I have to go with him. He needs me. I can’t leave him alone.”
He would lose Fred forever if the van left without him.
The officer moved to block his view and Arthur kicked him in the leg. When the soldiers moved to help their leader, they eased their grip on Arthur just enough that he twisted free and grabbed his gun back. He swung the officer into a choke hold and pointed the gun at the man’s head, cocking the hammer.
The soldiers kept their guns raised, but made no threatening moves. Arthur walked himself and the officer backward to the ambulance until it touched the back of his legs. Then he let go of the commander and sat, scooting close to Fred.
The officer looked at him like he was a mental patient. Arthur eased the hammer down and handed the gun back to him, handle first, just as when Fred had given it back last night.
The memory of Fred under the midnight star made Arthur’s tears well up and he turned away. The officer told the driver to move off and at some point the rocking motion of the van stopped hurting his side and simply put Arthur to sleep.
It was still winter when Arthur awoke, judging by the snow falling past the windows, but it felt like he had slept a lifetime. His bed was the only one in the stone room and he was warm under the covers.
In a chair nearby, a man with a white coat and a stethoscope around his neck looked up from a book. He had a few lines of gray in his hair and wore round spectacles. “Welcome back to life, young Arthur.” He spoke in a German accent, so that solved the mystery of where Arthur was.
But Arthur had lost his sense of time. This could be a new winter. It could be a hundred winters after he fell out of the world.
“You’ve been unconscious for six days,” said the man in the coat. “Well, semi-conscious is more like it. You’ve had a severe fever and your brain was not-”
Arthur coughed as he tried to speak, his throat dry. Pain murmured where he had been stabbed.
The man shouted through the door and then helped Arthur sit. A nurse brought a cup of water and Arthur took small sips.
“Where is—” Arthur coughed again, then said, “Where is Fred?”
The nurse gave the man a worried look and he sent her out of the room. Then the man stroked Arthur’s shoulder and said, “Fred is alive, to answer the most important sense of your question.” Then he smiled. “As to the specifics of it, I don’t know exactly where he is. Private Lowe came by to visit you this morning, but where he goes between visiting hours, I-”
Arthur said, “How’s his arm. How—”
“We must speak of other things first. You came to be here under most peculiar circumstances and there are questions remaining.”
Arthur looked at the man in the white coat, noting the shine on his shoes. “You’re no doctor,” he said.
“No, but you are in a hospital.”
“I’m not a prisoner?”
“Of course you are a prisoner. Are you not a British soldier?”
“I am Colonel Stein. Before you see Private Lowe I must confirm aspects of his strange story. I understand for instance that when you came under attack, the two of you were carrying a Christmas tree down a hill. Can you explain that?”
“I would have thought that no explanation was needed for carrying a Christmas tree on Christmas day.”
“Don’t give me that insufferable English cheek! Your friend is facing court martial. We need to know that he acted properly as a German soldier.”
“Of course he acted properly,” Arthur said. “He took me prisoner.”
“Yes. He tricked me out of my own gun.”
“The same gun you later used to commandeer an ambulance?”
The colonel continued, “When your ‘captor’ was injured, you dressed his wound and brought him through two miles of cold, wet muck to safety. You call that being a prisoner?”
“I call that being a human.”
“What happened on that hill?”
“Nothing of consequence to you. And nothing to do with your bloody war.”
Colonel Stein smiled. He gave Arthur a knowing look and said, “I suspected as much. Especially from the way he looks at you while you sleep.”
Oh, no. That’s what Arthur got for trying to argue with an interrogator. Now Fred would be ruined.
But the man simply stood and said, “I shall tell the private to be along soon.”
“But how— Wait, that’s it? You—”
“My report will say that the private forced you to assist him to our lines at gunpoint. No one higher up will question it and that will be the end of my involvement.” The man rolled his eyes. “Much easier than convincing them you suffered an attack of Christmas-induced charity.”
“And you don’t care about...the other thing? That he and I—”
“You youngsters always think you’re the first to discover some strange delight. As if us old soldiers never thought to find comfort on a battlefield.”
Fred burst through the door, his severed arm bandaged, but his other arm waving wildly. “Arthur!” he shouted, then he moved to kiss Arthur right on the lips.
“No.” Arthur pushed him off and pointed at the colonel with his eyes.
“Achh,” said Fred, “Stein is pussycat.”
“You know English?”
Fred smiled proudly. “A little,” he said.
The colonel said, “He’s been having me teach him, in preparation for your recovery.”
Arguing came through the doorway, followed by a doctor—a real one this time. He chased Fred and the colonel from the room and set about inspecting his patient.
Arthur did not see Fred again until much later that night. Colonel Stein convinced the nurse that Arthur was well enough for a short walk. The colonel escorted him, telling him about the hospital. “It was once a great abbey, but the monks’ numbers have dwindled and they had space that we needed.”
“Colonel?” said Arthur.
“About Fred. He lost his arm. But it seems like he’s barely noticed.”
“Indeed. I’ve never seen someone skip over their anger and desperation so quickly after losing a limb.”
“Is it shell shock?”
“In a way,” smiled the colonel. “I understand love can have that effect.”
They arrived at a great hall full of books. Fred stood in his uniform at a wide window looking at the falling snow,
Stein said, “This is the library of course...”
Arthur tuned out the colonel. Fred turned and smiled. When they were close, Arthur held Fred, determined to never let him go.
He said, “Fred,” as if the name itself was a magic spell to keep them together.
They were like that for two minutes by Arthur’s estimate. Then the colonel interrupted with champagne.
“From my top secret reserve,” he told them. “We must drink to bring in the new year.”
They clinked their glasses and sipped.
“What will happen to us?” Arthur asked.
“Fred’s war is over,” said the colonel. “As for you, I expect you’ll be exchanged for one of our prisoners before long.”
“I wish I could stay here.”
Fred spoke and Stein translated, “Fred seems to think you’ll just find each other again after the war. I’m not so sure it will be that easy. I think it will be a long war. More than a year. Maybe two.”
The two young soldiers looked at each other in despair. Then Fred touched his forehead to Arthur’s and spoke.
Stein explained, “Fred says you are worth waiting for.”
Arthur stroke Fred’s cheek and said, “You barely know me.”
Stein translated Fred’s reply. “He says he will have enough time to know you before you leave. By then you will both know if it’s worth waiting.”
“A year, you say?” Arthur looked to Stein.
“At least. Sadly, I expect a savage war. I’ve seen the weapons the high command want to use. It’s barbaric. It’s...better we not speak of it. This is a new year we’re about to begin. We should speak of peace and hope.”
Arthur mused, “I wonder if we will ever really have peace?”
Fred spoke in English, “If this war be horrible enough, people stop having them maybe.”
The colonel finished the champagne from his glass. “The way I see it, the best we can hope for is an occasional day of grace, like your Christmas on the mountain. Or like tonight.” The colonel pointed to the quiet, snowy forest outside the window.
Arthur and Fred turned to look out over it, their arms around each other’s waists. The colonel’s footsteps faded as he left.
After three minutes, they heard the abbey’s bells ring. Fred’s gray eyes were bright and wet.
“It’s midnight,” said Arthur. “I think that means we must kiss.”
“Yes, we must.”
So they did.