Historical fiction story written for the finals of the flash fiction challenge in 2015 (featuring a bullet proof vest and an animal shelter). You can tell I was teaching WWI that year. I got an honourable mention- it came in 11th.
The Small Things
The evening news flickered muted blue light across Laura’s face. She sat next to her mother with a Great War textbook on her lap; history homework that she would never finish. The TV showed an aerial shot of an alleyway in Paris, gunshots, people running, and then cut to scenes of people crying, holding each other, laying flowers. France. She was learning about France, and all those lives lost in the mud and trenches. Her fingers flicked the pages until she found a map. France was shaped like a star.
Another news story made her look up. This time it was a tribute to a French police dog killed in the line of duty. There was a photo of the animal wearing a special bulletproof vest. She was curious.
“Do animals go to war? Do dogs?”
“Sadly, they do. You know you had a great, great uncle Alan who looked after horses in World War One, maybe even dogs. We have his old army kit in the shed. You might find something interesting in there.”
“Did he die in France?”
Laura opened the shed door and dust swirled in the warm beams of sunlight. The room took a breath and the ethereal lace cobwebs quivered as she moved across the room. The A.I.F. kit bag was on the top shelf. She carefully removed each item: a leather bound shaving kit, scissors, a pair of threadbare woollen socks, a heavy woollen blanket folded neatly, a tattered photo of a young woman and lastly, a metal tin with what looked like a man’s thumbprint pressed into a smear of dried mud from a distant time and place. The metal lid was stuck fast, and Laura worked with keen fingers to loosen it. With a scrape it came off and she smiled to discover a little diary. Gingerly, carefully, gently, she lifted it out. In her hands it fell open to a page where a folded yellowing note had been placed. Carefully setting the note aside, she read that day’s entry.
Somewhere in France, 4th December, 1916
Yesterday it snowed for the first time. For a while the frozen mud was dusted white and looked clean and pure. Today it is raining and the heavy grey ice and slush taunts us like death. I’m not as unhappy as those sods at the front. They have me in a reserve trench, looking after wounded animals. I have made a moveable sheltered clinic from a horse cart and currently have care of three dogs and an injured carrier pigeon that I’m keeping in a wicker basket. It’s almost time to remove the bird’s splint- which is actually a matchstick! Two of the wounded dogs are known to our battalion. Rusty is a local breed and his thick coat makes us all jealous. He’s a trained sentry dog- he goes on patrol around secured areas and growls or barks when there is an unknown presence. He got his leg caught in some barbed wire last week, but he’s almost ready to go back to the front. A stocky mixed-breed dog we call Sergeant Sniffer has been with us for over a month. He was first seen running towards us ahead of a bitter green sea of mustard gas. He must have caught a whiff because he has a hacking cough like some of the men who were too slow to fit their masks. He’s a champion because he starts to whimper when he first smells the gas, and gives us fair warning before an attack. The heavy shelling last week took its toll and he could barely stand when they dropped him off, and couldn’t stop quivering and shaking. After some sleep and a few extra chunks of bully beef, I reckon he’ll be back to his old self. The third dog is quite a mystery. She’s a black German Doberman and was very disoriented when we caught her. She’d lost half her right ear and I removed some shrapnel from her back and hind legs. She is deaf, but hopefully this is temporary. She was carrying a small tin around her neck, like she was some kind of messenger dog. She growled at first but eventually allowed me to remove the tin and look inside, where I found a small note. I’m desperate to know what it says, but it’s written in German so I’ll have to get someone to translate it for me. For now I’m keeping the dog with me and have called her Jess. She’s lovely company and someone must be missing her; she curls up against my belly when I’m sleeping in my cot. In three days we move out, not sure where, but I doubt we’ll get any reprieve from the cold. I’ll certainly miss the warm sun, the fruit and the beach this Christmas.
It didn’t take Laura long to type the German characters into an online translator. As she copied down the words she felt a chill, as if the ghost of a scared German soldier boy was given life after almost a hundred years.
She joined her mother who was watching the late news. There was footage of a chocolate and tan German shepherd puppy being given as a gesture of solidarity from Russia to France. Ally to ally.
“I want to read you something I found in Alan’s diary. It’s a note from a German soldier.”
She held out the paper and with a trembling voice, finally breathed life into his words;
“I am not your enemy. We are not heroes for killing each other. I wish for peace this Christmas. Fresh snow makes me think of home- of fruit cake dusted with icing sugar, mulled wine and gingerbread- but all I have is watery stew and rye bread, and I know at home they go hungry. I wish that we could all be with family now, to enjoy the small things, because that is all there really is. War is the enemy.”