by Daniella Farara
The forest floor was damp from the previous day’s snowfall. The soft ground allowed for the older man to walk through the eerie looking wood with a practiced step. He was careful not to make any noise as he progressed deeper into the wooded winter wasteland. The winters were harsher here than back home, Hugh thought. He didn’t mind the cold, it was just different. Change was something he could focus on, a distraction to stop the ghastly thoughts from paralyzing him. Eleven years later and the memories were still as fresh as if they had happened the day before, so vivid in his mind they felt real. Crack. A noise pulled his thoughts back down to earth. Hugh stopped in his tracks looking around for the source of the noise. He had stepped on a dry fallen branch, the disturbance in the peaceful forest alarmed all those in the vicinity of his presence.
He heard the rustling and chirping from behind a nearby bush before he saw anything. In a hurry a flock of small birds emerged from behind the hedge. His body reacted before his mind could catch up, acting purely out of muscle memory. With a practiced hand he raised his rifle, pressing his cheek to the side of the gun and squeezing one eye shut as he aimed for the flock of birds fleeing his disruption. Hugh paused, focusing on his breathing just like he was taught, in through his nose and out through his mouth. His finger hesitated on the trigger. His body froze up, unable to move a muscle. Not again he thought. His mind couldn’t do this to him now.
He felt his senses numb. The sounds of distant gunshots filled his ears along with the screams of men in agonizing pain, the vividness of it all completely overwhelming him. His senses were playing tricks on him, they had to be. He couldn’t be back there. Instead of a small bird at the end of his shot there stood a man, a man in a German uniform. Hugh knew this man. He never spoke a word to him yet he knew him. The man’s eyes pleaded with him, his eyes said everything his mouth could not. It wouldn’t have mattered if he could have spoken to him. The man didn’t speak in a language Hugh could understand. But he saw this man so often, he felt like he knew him.
He knew him as he raised his rifle, pointing at the spot between the man’s eyes. He knew him as he laid his finger on the trigger and watched the bullet tear through the front of his skull. He knew him as he watched the life disappear from his eyes, as the blood trickled down the center of his face, as his knees came out from beneath him. Hugh knew this man as he stood over his lifeless body laying face down on the forest floor of France, his eyes open forever in a blank stare, looking off in the distance at nothing at all. Hugh knew this nameless man in a way no one else did as he watched the blood pool around his head creating a crimson halo. He knew the man he killed, even when he never said a word to him. He thought about him every day. His glassy eyes pleading with Hugh as he stared down the barrel of his gun. The colour draining from his face as he took his last breath. His dirty blonde hair tainted with fresh scarlet blood that stood stark against the muted tones of the freshly fallen leaves.
Hugh’s breath was stolen from him, his chest filling with an exploding pain. Black spots began to crowd his vision slowly taking away his ability to see, allowing him to simply slip into oblivion with the crimson halo in his mind. The snow became easy to melt into. The fridegeness enveloping him in a peaceful eternal slumber that Hugh would go into without a fight for he was tired of fighting, so so tired.
He felt the warm breath on his face before he opened his eyes. In his left hand he felt the cold metal belonging to the barrel of his gun. Yet with his right he found something unfamiliar. The feeling in both his hands contradicted each other. In one there lay a cold, rigid, producer of death. In the other there was warmth, softness, a heartbeat. Prying his eyes open he squinted in the bright light from the reflection of the evening sun against the fresh snowfall. He aching turned his head to the side allowing his eyes to focus on what was in front of him. He found two eyes staring back at him. These eyes knew no evil, no carnage, no pain.
The large dog looked at him with an oddly human regard. Almost as if he knew what Hugh was thinking. As if he wanted to help. Hugh felt a sense of comfort as he locked gazes with the dog sitting across from him on the forest floor. As the snowflakes surrounded them Hugh broke their stair to fix his gaze on the rest of the large hound dog. His pigmented black fur was short yet thick, not a grey hair in sight. He was an intimidating looking dog with his large paws and snout, yet his eyes said something different. He had kind eyes. Understanding eyes. As Hugh looked at the dog more intently he saw the dog for what it was, a lost puppy. The dogs ribs could be seen through his thin skin and coat. His ears and eyes were covered in dirt. The scars on his legs told a tragic story. Hugh saw a young dog possessing youth in the beginning of his life that would not last much longer on its own, but then again, neither would he. Then and there Hugh made a decision. He would not let those innocent eyes staring back at him ever know any of the horrors humans were capable of. The cruelty of the world would forever be hidden from him, and Hugh would make sure of it.
Jack, as Hugh had named him, grew into himself. He grew until his bones could no longer be seen as his belly was always full. He remained clean and happy at Hugh’s side, forever preventing Hugh from losing himself in his own mind as he did when they first met on that fateful evening. Hugh fell asleep every night in his small cabin with Jack’s head resting on his thigh. Jack chased away the bad dreams and Hugh let him. The dead man’s eyes Hugh saw when he dreamt slowly became nothing more than a faded memory. He still saw the man, but he also saw Jack. Jack was real and he was at Hugh’s side though it all, through the worst. Jack gave him purpose, allowed him to see the innocence that still existed in the cruel world, the innocence that was robbed from him. They had saved each other’s lives in every way possible.
Hugh and Jack stayed together as the months slowly turned into years. Hugh sat in his chair, Jack at his feet, in front of his small fire after a long day outside. He looked down at his sleeping companion. He loved Jack in a way he could never love himself and he owed his life to him, yet he couldn’t help but feel envious of Jack. Jack knew not of the horrors of the world. Jack did not miss the people who had been lost or fear what evil things humans were capable of. But Jack also knew not of beauty nor of the peace that could be felt in the forest as the fresh snow crushed beneath his feet and the warm sun shone on his face. Jack was unbothered. As Hugh fell asleep he dreamt not of the man’s scarlet stained helmet but of the simplicity of Jack’s life. How bittersweet blissful ignorance could be, and how badly he wanted it.