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The Owl's Lullaby

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It was an early morning in the beginning of summer when sunrise gently lit surrounding areas. Leo Benecke paused for a brief moment. He bent down on one knee and touched a fresh grass laden with morning due - a moist kiss of the receding night. The landscape did not change in a hundred miles, but that did not make it any less stunning he felt.

Far in the front, rolling hills were ascending into the sky. Down in the valley a dense cedar forest stood like an impregnable maze. A lifting fog was slowly revealing the Rus River clad with sandy grass on its banks. Let me swim there tonight, Leo thought.

 

Beside him men were advancing fast toward the east. Wearing helmets with spear like spikes, holding rifles with mounted bayonets they were a fearsome fighting machine with a clear goal in sight. The goal - a trench on the high ground - neared with each breath they took. Closer and closer it came as if the running men pulled the carpet underneath it with rapid great force.

It was an early morning in the beginning of summer. The days grew longer and the trench covered by darkness at this time yesterday, was now in clear sight. Almost daily the defenders' reveille went off late because watchmen failed to wake up the hornist. Chronically sleep deprived they were slapped with more guard duty. The brute, thoughtless handling of the watchmen by their higher ups was well exploited. The sunrise charge was about to crush the defenders with no regard to rank and file.

The wakeup call came straight from the heavens. A sudden hoarse cry of crows broke of the watchmen's guilt ridden sleep. Caw, caw, caw flew through the air joined by pitched terror screams. Everyone in the trench was up at once shooting at the attackers point-blank from the high ground. Never before they allowed their enemies advance so close. This time the defenders' fire was devastating - the attackers were dropping like dead flies.

Bullets swarmed around Leo but the trench was already at his feet. Holding the rifle fast with both hands Leo jumped in. He landed in a pool of mud. He lost his balance, slipped and fell. Right then someone's large hands pinned him to the ground squeezing his neck from behind with the tremendous force. Reeling from the sharp pain Leo heard a pistol shot. He shut his eyes and passed out.

He opened them when someone was vigorously slapping his cheeks. Leo's vision was still blurry but he did not need eyesight to know who was standing before him. Only one man went around smelling like a mobile pharmacy - the company's medic Wasserkind. "Isaac is that you?", Leo struggled to move his tongue. "Yes it's me", said Isaac Wasserkind. Holding Leo tight by his waist he lifted him out of the trench. Leo struggled to get up but his body did not obey him and he collapsed. Isaac caught his head just before it hit the ground. “When I grab you, move your feet", Isaac told him. "Don't think about upper body. Move the feet in sync with mine, one two three, one two three like they make you in a parade. Will you do that for me?

The sunrise charge was turning into a disaster. The company suffered third dead, another third wounded. Fearing a rout the commander ordered a retreat even when some of his men were engaging defenders inside the trench. How surprised he was to find out the next day that the trench was no longer defended. This was not a trap. A reconnaissance team watched defenders retreat deep into the hills last night. Greatly relieved, the commander had his people recuperate...

Isaac Wasserkind was finishing his second year in a medical school when the war started. Unlike his classmates he had a practical experience from the beginning. Isaac's father Abraham Wasserkind was a well-known doctor. He let his son assist him since there was nothing else young Isaac wanted to do but to be a surgeon just like his dad. His wish was granted much sooner than he had thought.

Isaac Wasserkind was at the field hospital when he had a visitor who for a change did not come to complain.

- Isaac, said Leo, I'd like to thank you.

- You can do that on the way to the prisoner camp. I could use a hand.

- Are you going to treat defenders? Leo asked. I don't mind but I don't see the rationale.

- I treat prisoners but this is not a reason we are going there now, Isaac replied. I am taking the Jews among them to join me and other Jews from the company in Shabbat prayers.

- I'll come along only if we'll swim in there tonight, Leo pointed in the direction of Rus River.

- I'd like that said Isaac. Not many of us go swimming in defenders' rivers.

- I will race you for a tomorrow's ration of chocolate Leo challenged him.

- You're on!

Half way between the company's quarters and the camp a large tent was setup. In there standing side by side victors and vanquished were praying together. It did not matter to them who started the war or who held the upper hand. To Leo it seemed that the language of the prayers was much older than his own. Even defenders' tongue did not sound that foreign. He could identify separate sentences by brief pauses made between the prayers. They seemed like verses from a foreign poem partly because they had a measure of rhyme in them. "This is Hebrew" Isaac told him. "It's used for prayers exclusively". What a giant waste, Leo thought to himself.

At the kiddush a local vishnevka put everyone including the prisoners in excellent mood. They still had to return to the camp. The spiritual freedom did not guarantee the physical one.

Being an excellent swimmer Leo was quite surprised to find Isaac waiting for him on the far river bank each time they raced.

- How do you do that?

- What did you expect, Isaac laughed, with name like mine I have no choice!

Spreading their arms and legs Isaac and Leo were floating on their backs. The river was slowly taking them downstream past cherry trees and rose berry bushes.

- Let's check out the forest Isaac suggested.

- Aren't you afraid? Leo was a little puzzled.

- What do you mean?

- You are not a Christian. After the sunset witches truck the blood of those who aren't. An unbaptized man is a piece of raw flash walking on the land, my grandfather used to say.

Expecting nothing like that, Isaac breathed rapidly and disappeared under water. He surfaced a moment later blowing the water out of the nose.

- You are scared, Leo laughed.

He was right. In light of new information, Isaac did not want to explore the forest anymore - especially after dark.

- Yes Leo I am scared, Isaac admitted, but guess what, sunrise follows sunset every time!

- Do you know why crows woke the defenders, asked Leo on the way back.

- Yes, because I am not baptized.

- It was an owl they were after. Owls hunt crows at night that's why crows chase them. I heard the owl all night when we were preparing to charge. I knew the crows will raise hell for him in the morning.

Isaac stopped and looked at Leo.

- Why did not you do anything? he asked.

- Like shooting him?

- Yes, you could have saved many lives. Some of the fallen men were your friends. You nearly got killed yourself!

- I am a farmer, Isaac. People say farmers are stubborn. It's true just as it is true that we are independent people. When I heard an owl that night, I had to make a choice - something I did not do since I was drafted. Nowadays all the choices are made for me. And this was an easy one to make.

- I am sure it's rational, Isaac quipped.

- Indeed. I won’t harm something that does me no harm. When mosquito lands on my hand I smash it. When ladybug does the same I don't. To waste the owl so we can kick the defenders out of the trench to the next one in this vast land? This is a waste and farmers don't like waste.

- I see, Isaac said. How about helping out the crows?

- Farmers don't like crows either, silly! Unless they are stealing from another farmer's fields, Leo winked at Isaac.

- Do me a favor Leo Isaac asked him, don't mention this to anyone else.

They were quiet by the time they reached Leo's tent. From there on Isaac walked alone. The night's air was soft and warm and he felt tired and sleepy. Isaac thought about his bed. It was the only bed in the entire company that had a box spring frame and a mattress. There will be many more nights he will sleep in it. Tonight he would rest here under the shade of a big oak tree. Its roots wrapped in the soft moss will be his pillow. Isaac sat down. He took his boots of and stretched himself out on the ground. He thought about Leo and his farm. He thought about a chocolate he would take from Leo tomorrow and how great it will taste. Isaac was falling into deep sleep. The last thing he heard before drifting off was the cry of an owl in the tree above him. He could not have wished for a better lullaby.

End

 

Stas Holodnak originally from a small rural town now lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York.

 

 

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