Private Harper Norington breathed in the cold night air and blinked. It didn’t make any difference. No light distinguished the difference from having his eyes open or closed. Even the stars were absent and the moon hid above the heavy clouds. Being early November, winter decided to put on a preview and the forty degrees of temperature sent shivers through his small frame. The Lee-Enfield rifle in his hands felt weighty and comforting; though sight failed him, he still could get lucky if the jerries decided to attack. Beneath his army jacket, the hot-water bottle he got from the last sentry warmed his skin a bit. The exchange had been a short one after Norington crawled and felt his way along the ground and whispered the password every few feet until he bumped into a pair of legs and a voice gave the countersign.
After the sentry had handed over the hot-water bottle and crawled off back to the shelled house where the rest of the company hid, Norington groped along to a pile of debris and laid down on his stomach on top. From what he remembered, it would cover two of the three roads entering the abandoned village.
A slight squeaking jolted him from his thoughts and Norington tensed, crushing himself down even more into the rubble. Various edges and points from the pile prodded him, but he ignored them, eyes flicking back and forth, head hunching into his shoulders, and his rifle aimed in front of him. Bloody dark! he thought. No good. He still couldn’t see anything. Holding his breath, Norington listened harder.
There! The squeak sounded again. Closer. The trigger felt smooth, tempting against his fingertip. Suddenly, a tickle at his ankle brought a shiver across his body and he clenched his teeth to keep from yelling. Just a mouse, he thought, letting out a measured sigh as the squeak faded, just a wee mouse.
Harper Norington, born in the Yorkshire Dales of England in 1919, never thought he would travel much beyond the borders of his sleepy little village or England for that matter. This is not to say he would not have jumped at the chance. His family owned a small bookshop and, during his childhood, he spent hours pouring over the works of Shakespeare, Milton, and other great minds. Often, customers in the bookshop found him in the oddest places, reading, acknowledging nothing else but the printed words his eyes followed behind thin spectacles. He longed to visit the places described in the books but felt bound to run the bookshop. Due to his father’s ongoing health problems, it was Norington who ran the store during his early teens while his mother tended her husband.
World War II broke out as Norington finished secondary school The same year, Norington’s father at last succumbed to his illness and passed away. His widow and her sister took over the bookstore, and Norington decided to enlist to bring in some extra money in service of Queen and country.
The army physician poked and prodded, declared him of average physique, and wondered if Norington’s eyesight would prove a hindrance on the battlefield. A special operations officer happened to be passing the examination room, took a hard look at the nineteen-year-old, and asked if the glasses meant he was brainy.
“I graduated secondary school, sir. Four years of English, mathematics, science, fencing, and the like,” replied Norington.
Raising an eyebrow, the SAS colonel humphed. “Can you handle a rifle, man?” he demanded. “Ever gone on a camping trip, slept in the rough? We can train you to do all that, but experience is welcome.”
Norington shook his head. “No, sir. My family runs a bookstore. I can categorize books, repair them, run a register, do the accounts, and I know a few other languages.”
“Which ones?” Now the colonel looked interested.
“Latin, French, and German.”
The colonel turned to the army doctor. “Bugger his eyesight. He’s in.”
Fresh gusts of wind ruffled Norington’s black hair. Against his ears and forehead, the freezing metal of his helmet bit at his skin. He wanted to wear his old stocking cap, a black woolen article his aunt gave him before he shipped out, but the sergeant told him to wear his helmet. Norington complained. The sergeant fixed him with a stern glare and said headquarters reported Gurkha deployment in the area.
Before he could ask what Gurkhas were, the sergeant sent him off on sentry duty.
As the cold wind wafted around his ears, Norington let out a hiss of frustration. His stomach gurgled in tandem and he remembered his dinner. Due to the squad’s lack of direct contact with the main army, supplies were restricted to travelbread and water. Adding this to their orders to hold position, one soldier in the company joked it was like prison without the walls.
The wind died down and the night turned quiet once more. If he weren’t lying on a pile of rubble and couldn’t smell the death of leaves and the dampness of wood, Norington would have thought he was floating in a void. Suffocating darkness pressed down upon him, feelings of claustrophobia gnawing at his mind. The wind had not shifted the clouds and the stars remained cloaked.
He swallowed, the still-present powdery taste of the hardtack in his mouth. A cough broke in this throat, and he buried his face in the crook of his elbow to muffle it. Tears sprang to his eyes at the tickle. Coughing again, he shifted on the pile and nearly swore aloud as the jagged edges found new tender areas on his bodies to prod. With a small clatter, something fell down the mound. Norington froze. Blast it, man! Pull yourself together and stay quiet! he swore to himself.
For the next few seconds, he held his breath again and listened. Nothing. Not even the beating of his own heart. Fumbling, Norington reached down and touched his numb fingers to his chest to make sure he was still alive. This darkness was unnatural; combined with the silence, it was ethereal, an enormous creature enveloping him in a heavy embrace.
The fact his heart still bumped against his ribs comforted him slightly. He grasped his gun with the other hand again, wanting to run his hands over the heap to assure himself of space and objects close by. Better not. If there are Nazis out there, I’ve made enough noise. They won’t be able to see me, either, but they won’t hesitate to fire at noises.
Across Norington’s legs, a sensation akin to bouncing needles on the skin spread across his calves. Of all the times for my legs to fall asleep, he growled in his mind. Now he faced a dilemma: either move and attempt to rid the feeling and risk giving away his position or stay still and risk not being able to move when trouble came. I wish Sarge told us how far away the lines are. Speculation among the company generally agreed that they held the village on the extreme right of the British Expeditionary Force. According to headquarters, the main clashes with the Nazis were happening forty-three kilometers northwest of the company over a series of bridges. Since deploying here a week ago, their company had yet to see any action.
Still, that doesn’t mean a thing, pondered Norington. I wouldn’t put it past Hitler to confine his troops to one area. On the other hand, if I’m careful… Before he could talk himself out of it, he wiggled around carefully, moved his knees back and forth. The feeling subsided somewhat and he even felt bold enough to try and move over on the pile to find a new place with less sharp bits.
No such luck. As Norington lay back down, what felt like an iron spike pierced through his jacket and punctured his water bottle. The now-cooled liquid seeped through his uniform. It was the last straw. The darkness, the wet, the cold ears – he had had enough. Reaching into his jacket, he pulled out the stocking cap. The darkness and wet he couldn’t change, but as for the ears, Gurkhas could wear tap shoes and dance on Broadway.
Without warning, a hand reached down and traced the rim of his helmet. Paralyzed, all Norington could do was lay there, as the unseen fingers rubbed around the cold metal. He had not heard the person approach. In the darkness, he could not tell if it were friend or foe; though if it were a Nazi, he would have a pistol digging into his ribs by now. Confusion and terror fought for control as he wondered who it was.
The hand stopped feeling his helmet.
“Good,” muttered a man’s voice in accented English.
Norington couldn’t place the intonation. It wasn’t a German accent, but neither was it English or French.
“Hello?” he rasped, regaining his voice at last.
“Englishman, where is your leader?” A rustle followed the question, then a click as the unseen person turned on a flashlight, keeping their hand over it to shade the beam. In the faint light, two obsidian eyes gleamed at Norington, set in a square tanned face that looked like it could stand up to several blows from an iron bar and certainly was not European-looking, but Indian.
“What- who are you?” asked Norington, unable to keep the fear out his voice.
“I am a Gurkha,” the man replied simply. “Where is your leader?”
Back in the half-demolished house that was their makeshift base, Private Norington watched with the rest of his squad as the Gurkha conversed with the sergeant. When Norington brought in the man, the sergeant showed no surprise, merely sending someone to take over sentry duty. Mutters ran through the group as the Gurkha introduced himself as “Santosh,” a corporal in the Indian division of the British Army. Norington observed several dark glances passed among the veterans in their group. His confused look drew an explanation from one of them, Corporal Henderson.
“Gurkhas are from Nepal, originally. Excellent fighters back in the last war. Can’t imagine what they’re doin’ this far west,” muttered Henderson, running a nervous finger across his unshaven chin. “They’re fair shots, but y’see that knife on his belt?” The corporal pointed at the blade the Gurkha carried. “That’s what really makes ‘em dangerous, those kukri. They use those for everything: whittling, choppin’ up meat, clearin’ away brush, you name it. Now, the army types use ‘em when sneakin’ up on people. Those blades are so bloody sharp, you’ll never know you’ve been cut until your ‘ead falls off. One swipe is all it takes.”
Norington moved his trembling fingers away from the trigger of his Enfield. “I never heard him coming.”
Nodding, Henderson pulled a grim smile. “Neither do the Nazis, I ‘ear. One minute, they’ll be waitin’ in the fox’oles, the next minute,” the corporal reached up and ran his hand around Norington’s helmet. “They’ll feel some bloke feelin’ they’re ‘elmet. The Gurkhas can’t see bettern’ the rest of us, but they know the difference between a Nazi ‘elmet and a French or English one. If they feel a Nazi ‘elmet, they won’t ‘esitate.” Henderson made a graphic motion with his hand to emphasize his point and raised a wise eyebrow. “Now, aren’t you glad you didn’t wear your aunty’s cap?”
The fear had long surpassed the cold in the shiver-inducing department for Norington. “Good Lord,” he murmured. “What is this war coming to?”
With a soft chuckle, Henderson stretched his legs out in front of him. “Welcome to ‘uman nature. Forget about honor, respect, and love for your fellow man. When you’re out there, the night playing tricks on you, your stomach clamoring for an ‘ot meal, the smell of your chum’s blood on your jacket, you find out it doesn’t matter so much anymore. The Gurkhas know it and knew it long before we did in the last war.
“Still,” the corporal grimaced. “I wouldn’t want to spend more time than I had to around those blokes.”
Norington nodded in agreement. Just then, the sergeant and the Gurkha finished their discussion and rejoined the squad. “Listen up, you lot,” the sergeant ordered. “Corporal Santosh here tells me the Nazis plan to advance early tomorrow. Headquarters hasn’t sent word either way, but we all know where the general staff is right now, eh?”
“At the rear, sleeping on real beds and drinking brandy, Sarge,” piped up a soldier.
“Right. Now, we’ll be moving closer to the next unit tomorrow evening, sixteen hundred hours at the latest, if we don’t get orders otherwise. As for Santosh, he and his squad are going behind enemy lines for reconnaissance. One problem: their translator was shot two days ago and they’ll need a new one.”
A clammy hand seemed to finger its way down Private Norington’s throat and rest damply in his stomach. Its limp digits tickled his gut as the sergeant turned to him and finished, “Norington, congratulations. You’ll be expanding your education and broadening your horizons. Leave all your nonessential gear here; you leave in ten minutes.”
The dryness of his throat defied a nervous swallow as Norington nodded, straightening and saluting. “Yes, sir.”
“Good. The rest of you buggers get some rest. Wake up call’s at 0600. That gives you four hours.” The sergeant returned Norington’s salute and moved over to sit against the wall. Most of his command followed suit, some shooting sympathetic glances at Norington.
With a sigh, Norington bent down to tie his boots tighter. Standing up again, he nearly fell over backwards as he came face to face with Santosh. The Gurkha held his glance in silence for a moment, then pointed at the English soldier’s gear belt, waving a dismissive hand at his blanket, torch, and shovel.
Norington understood and obeyed, cutting a square out of the woolen blanket to shove into his shirt for extra warmth and to dry himself off from the broken hot-water bottle. His pack of playing cards he tossed to the sentry who gave him the bottle as an apology for breaking it. As for his flask of whisky, Norington kept it tucked away, but he relinquished his cigarettes. When he pulled out a few letters he wrote during his off-duty time, he hesitated. Still watching, Santosh shook his head and the Englishman sighed. “Let me finish the one to my mother, and I’ll give them to Sarge.”
Santosh nodded without speaking, then moved to stand at the doorway to wait, looking off into the night.
Pulling open his most recent letter, Norington took out his stubby pencil. In his last note home, he’d written a poem and his mother sent it to the local village paper which published it. For this letter, he’d written another but it was unfinished. So far, it read:
This struggle, a titanic wave against another,
With us, the bubbles in foam, the men, striving to overwhelm
And yet, when we stand, and watch the sky,
And all is quiet with doubts surround us as mist
Norington stared at the smudged but legible words on the paper. He looked up at the Gurkha, standing in the doorway, then at the kukri knife on the man’s belt. Memories of the darkness and silence of sentry duty flooded back, bleak, eerie. He wondered how it must be for Sontosh, who did his work in the dark, the sensations of hearing and of smelling and of touch standing between him and sudden death. Before he knew it, Norington’s pencil was moving, his eyes squinting in the faint lantern light nearby.
As he crossed the last “t,” he looked up to see Santosh turn and stare at him. “Come,” the Gurkha rumbled.
A minute later, Norington crept through the darkness, one hand on Santosh’s broad shoulder for guidance, the last verse of the poem fresh in his mind:
We weep and question and clench our fist,
Asking, “Why?” of the darkness, the unanswering silence-
Author’s Note: This was a work published in my last year at Clark College for the Phoenix, the student art and literary journal. Originally an assignment in a writing class, we were to set the protagonist in an uncomfortable situation and have the audience feel along with them.