by Marco Etheridge
Lieutenant Bondar scanned the battle-scarred landscape through a pair of heavy binoculars. He reconnoitered from inside a hidden basement bunker, elbows propped on the sill of a blown-out window. The powerful binoculars compressed the perspective of the broken land before him as if capturing the scene between plates of glass.
Shattered trees marked the boundaries of an abandoned field, their trunks broken and stripped by artillery. Beyond the empty patchwork of fields, Bondar saw pillars of smoke spiraling from a ruined village.
Crows roosted on the hulk of a burned-out tank. He panned the lenses left to right, one section at a time, searched out to the horizon and back again, then shifted to the next sector. The sun was low in the west. To the east, between his bunker and the enemy lines, the wounded countryside glowed under the slanting light. Bondar hoped the same low sunlight glared blinding any enemy snipers searching for an easy target.
Nothing moved, no tanks, no soldiers, no civilians, but Lieutenant Bondar knew the enemy was out there. From the north, he heard the thunder of heavy artillery, the sound of hell falling on some other poor bastards. Inside the bunker, Bondar’s sergeant cleared his throat with an exaggerated cough, Koval’s method of chastising him.
Yes, thought Bondar, I know. Too long at the window, too much exposure. He turned from the window, put his back to the dank stone wall, and slid down beside Sergeant Koval.
Their secret shelter was a stone basement beneath a ruined farmhouse. It was a cold, dank, hole that smelled of mold, weapons, and unwashed men. Eight soldiers lay amongst stacked weapons and piled equipment. Like all veteran fighters, they slept whenever and wherever they could, especially before a night patrol.
Sergeant Koval’s disapproval was written across his worn face. Lieutenant Bondar knew the look. Bondar was the squad officer, but Sergeant Koval was his senior in both year and experience.
Koval spoke in a hoarse whisper.
“No, nothing moving.”
“Sir, you’re no good to anyone if you get your head shot off.”
“Junior lieutenants aren’t known for their brains, Sergeant. I’m not sure anyone would notice.”
Koval shook his head, but a half-smile crept onto his face.
“We can’t afford to lose anyone, Sir, not even you.”
“Good to know, Sergeant.”
Bondar reached inside his flak vest and pulled out a small pasteboard box. He thumbed open the crumpled lid and offered the box to Koval.
“Piece of candy?”
The older man eyed the contents. The candies looked like brown cough drops, with a dusting of some whitish powder. Koval shrugged, pinched one between thumb and forefinger, and held it up to the feeble light. While the sergeant inspected the sweet, Bondar picked one from the box and slipped it into his mouth.
Koval turned to the lieutenant and smiled.
“Thank you, Sir. I remember these. My grandfather sucked on these things, candy for old men. Most kids hated them.”
Bondar nodded. Koval popped the candy into his mouth. For a time, the two men sat without speaking. When Bondar broke the silence, his whisper slurred around the candy in his mouth.
“My father used to bring these back from London. He went there for work, plastering walls for the Brits.”
“I remember lots of that when I was a kid. The men going off to find work. Laying tile, plastering, stonework, all that kind of thing. Is he still alive, your father?”
“Yes, still alive. He and my mother live in the west, near the Polish border. Safer than here. What about your grandfather?”
“No, dead for years. He farmed not far from here. I’d hate to hear what he’d say about this shitty war. Tanks tearing up farms, villages blown apart. Grandpa was born in thirty-seven, so he grew up during the world war. Nazis and Russians, back and forth, burning everything, then burning it again.”
“And now the Russians again.”
“Yes, and shit still stinks. But this candy brings back memories. We kids would beg him for sweets. He’d give us these things, bitter, like medicine. We’d make faces and spit them out. He laughed that wheezy old man laugh, even though he hated anything wasted.”
Bondar said nothing. He rolled the candy over his tongue, savored the smoky flavor of licorice and root beer, and memories of his father returning from London. In his mind, he counted how many pieces of candy were left in the box, and how long it would be before he could buy more. He smiled and Sergeant Koval noticed.
“Funny thing about this candy, Sergeant. I never buy more than a few boxes at a time, even though I know I’m going to run out before I can buy more. It’s become a ritual for me. I allow myself one piece a day and I try to enjoy it for what it is. Sometimes it works and the candy stays sweet. Other times, I worry about how many pieces I have left. Will I have a chance to buy more? When I worry, it ruins everything. The candy doesn’t taste right, and the good memories are spoiled. Does that make sense?”
Koval rolled the candy into his cheek.
“Sure, it makes sense. Especially now.”
He waved his hand at the dark bunker, the snoring men, the crated weapons.
“A good taste on the tongue, memories of our fathers and grandfathers, forgetting this horrible shit show for a few minutes, that’s precious. And precious things are rare these days.”
“Too true, Sergeant.”
Koval checked his watch.
“Five minutes, Sir.”
Then Koval closed his eyes and leaned into the cold stone wall. The young lieutenant savored the flavor of the candy on his tongue, let the taste of it carry him away to memories of his mother and father, a sunlit yard, fields of sunflowers, and no one shooting at anyone. Five minutes of peace in the hell of war, a precious gift, a sweet treasure.
Marco Etheridge is a writer of prose, an occasional playwright, and a part-time poet. He lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His work has been featured in more than seventy reviews and journals across Canada, Australia, the UK, and the USA. Marco’s volume of collected flash fiction, “Broken Luggage,” is available worldwide. When he isn’t crafting stories, Marco is a contributing editor and layout grunt for a new ‘Zine called Hotch Potch.
Artist: Igor Markov