Holiday Journey 14

“Over here,” Roy said, and the four of them piled into an ambulance.  They headed out toward the front, and Chris had yet to say a word.  Mary sniffed, but pulled a cap from her backpack.  It had a big red cross on it.  She had two arm bands that also showed a red cross.  Without being asked, Chris helped tie the arm bands around her upper arms. Then they sat, like a couple of rag dolls, tossed by every bump in the road, but never opening their mouths.

When the ambulance came to a stop, as the sun started to set, they came to the trenches. Plum, Roy, and Chris got escorted one way, and belatedly, Chris noticed Merry got taken off in a different direction.

“I don’t want to lose her,” Chris said.

“Good to hear you say,” Plum spoke right up.  “I’ll tell her you said that.”

“No. Yes.  You know what I meant.”

“Yes I do,” Plum said, though Chris could not be sure if the man, or elf really knew.

“Welcome to the front lines,” a sergeant said, in a heavy cockney accent.  “I am Sergeant Digby.”  He showed them first where they could relieve themselves. Then he brought them into a dugout bunker where some cots lined the wall.  “You’ll be resting here tonight.”  He put four trays of some kind of food on the table that had six seats around it.  The table also had four cups, but nothing to fill them.  “Keep the lights in the bunker so some German sniper doesn’t see and draw a bead on your head.  We are not expecting a blow tomorrow, but you never know what the Germans might have in mind, even if it is Christmas Day.  Sorry the accommodations aren’t better.  We haven’t had many newspaper people up here.  Colonel says we need to treat you as well as we can, but let you get a real look at life in these god-awful trenches.”  The Sergeant quickly came to attention, and saluted when another man entered the dugout.

“At ease Sergeant,” the man said, as he dropped a pack on one of the cots.

“This here is Lieutenant Smith,” the sergeant introduced the new man.  “He’s been assigned to act as your liaison for tonight and tomorrow.”

“I was wondering who the other meal was for,” Chris said.  “Lieutenant,” He reached to shake the man’s hand.

“Lef-tenant,” the man responded.

“Christopher Shepherd, American,” Plum said, with a thumb point at Chris.

“Oh,” the lieutenant and sergeant both sounded like that explained everything.

“One question,” Chris needed to ask.  “Where is Merry?  The red cross worker that came with us?”

“The woman?” the Sergeant asked for clarification.

“She is at the little hospital bunker we set up at the rear of the line, I am sure,” the lieutenant said.  “They do what they can for the wounded to comfort and prepare them for transport to the rear and real medical facilities.  Don’t worry.  She will be fine.”

“His fiancé,” Plum said, with another thumb jerk in Chris’ direction.

“Is not,” Chris protested, and paused a second before he added, “I haven’t asked her yet.”

The sergeant, lieutenant, and Roy all smiled for him, and the lieutenant spoke. “She will be well taken care of, no worries, Mister Shepherd.”

“I must go, get back up to the line, and all that,” Sergeant Digby told his commanding officer.

“Merry Christmas,” Chris said, wanting to distract himself from his thoughts about Merry.

“Happy Christmas to you,” the sergeant said, smiled, saluted, and left.  The others sat and had a fine supper.  Then, no one stayed up late.

In the morning before dawn, Chris went to relieve himself, and he heard what sounded like singing in the dark.  Drawn to the sound, he wound through the trenches until he reached the most forward position.  The soldiers there were singing Silent Night, and the Germans across the way were echoing with Stille Nacht.

Despite the warning, Chris poked his head above the edge of the trench.  The soldiers did not know what to do.  Being a civilian, they could not exactly order him to keep his head down.

Chris squinted in the dim light before dawn.  He saw a small group of men standing in the field that served as no-man’s land between the trenches.  They appeared to be talking.  He thought he recognized Sergeant Digby in that group.  One private poked his head up beside Chris and commented.

“Maybe we will have a temporary truce, it being Christmas and all.  Whad’ja think?”

As the sunlight cracked the sky, Chris, grabbed the tin of cookies the soldier was enjoying, slipped the white handkerchief out of the pocket of the soldier on the other side, and climbed out of the trench altogether before anyone could stop him.  To be honest, he acted out of ignorance of war and killing more than inspiration and courage.  But he did think that men should not kill each other, at least, and especially on Christmas day.

The two privates followed him, concerned about their stuff.  One said no guns, so they both laid down their rifles while Chris raised his hands, waved his white flag, and tried singing.

“O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,

Wei grun sind deine Blatter!

O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,

Wei grun sind deine Blatter!

“Nein, nein,” Chris heard the response right away from the German line, and a big German corporal climbed his own ladder, put his hands up, and corrected the only line in German Chris knew.  “Wei Treu sind deine Blatter!”

“You sing it,” Chris said quickly, as two more Germans crawled out of the trench, and laid their rifles down in imitation of the British.  “Please.  Bitte.”

The man sang, a clean and fine baritone, while Chris at first, and then the corporal, walked toward each other.  He just about finished the song when Chris and the corporal met in the middle. Chris held out the tin.

“Christmas Cookie?”

The corporal smiled broadly.  “Danke.”

“Merry Christmas,” Chris said, and he said the same as he gave cookies to the two soldiers that followed their corporal out of the trench.  Then he turned and walked boldly up to the group in the center, his two privates following him like faithful puppy dogs. The men there had long since stopped talking in order to stare.  Chris did not hesitate.

“Christmas cookie,” he offered to the German soldier who smiled and said thank you is reasonable English.  He turned to the German sergeant, and the man looked ready to grab a handful when his Captain interrupted.

“Ein.”

The sergeant took one.  When Chris turned to the captain, he said, “Got any schnapps?”  The captain slowly smiled, and the British captain turned immediately to his trench and shouted.

“Willoughby.”

“Sir.”

“Fetch the brandy.  The good one I keep hidden in my duffle.”

“Sir?”

“And no weapons,” Chris said.

The captain did not hesitate.  “And no weapons,” he shouted.

The German captain said “Brandy,” but it sounded like he was not impressed.  He turned to his own line and shouted a series of instructions to his men.  Chris could not follow all that German, but he did hear the word schnapps several times. It seemed a prominent part of whatever the officer said.  When the man turned back to face the group, he found the British captain holding out his hand.

“Merry Christmas,” the captain said.

The German captain shook that hand, and responded in English, “Merry Christmas.”

“And a Happy New Year,” Chris said.  Both captains looked at him, so he felt it necessary to explain.  “I have no vested interest.  I am an American.”

Both captains mouthed “Oh,” as if that explained it all.

It did not take long for soldiers on both sides to start coming out, unarmed.  By noon, people all up and down the line were exchanging presents, sharing food and smokes, sharing letters from home, playing games, and generally enjoying the Christmas spirit.  Chris had no idea how long the truce might last, but he felt glad that at least on one day, they had Peace on Earth.

Plum and Roy found Chris early in the morning.  They kept up their disguise of being newspaper reporters, and Roy took plenty of pictures.  Merry found her way to the field by lunchtime, bringing tea and biscuits, as she called them, for all.  It felt like a good day, but there was one sour note.

One German, apparently egged on by one of his own red cross workers, produced a handgun. He pointed it at some British soldiers and made threatening noises.  Merry saw and shouted.  Chris ran up and stepped into the middle.

“No, no, no,” he said, in as soft and calm voice as he could muster.  “Nein.”

“Weihnachtstag,” Merry said, as she arrived to stand with Chris.  “Frieden heute.”

The man began to cry.  He dropped the gun and Merry hugged him.  Chris looked at the German Red Cross worker, but she turned to walk off.  Apparently, she laughed, and in that sound, and from her appearance, Chris could only imagine Courtney.”

Before sundown, Chris, Plum, Roy, and Merry made their way to well behind the British lines.  A food truck there just dropped off Christmas dinners for the troops.  It headed back to the train depot where it dropped off the foursome and picked up another load for the front.  Plum led them to a hotel in the town.  Plum checked them into rooms while Roy got them a table in the restaurant.  Over a fine meal, they discussed things they saw that day.  They laughed plenty, and cried a little over the whole idea of war.

Finally, Plum said they had a train to catch early in the morning.  “Just what they call a continental breakfast tomorrow, on the way back to the station.”

“Fine,” Chris said, and added the only anxious note of the day.  “Tomorrow is Thursday back home.  Maybe we can catch Lilly tomorrow, or, at least…are we getting close?”

Roy spoke before Plum could come up with an encouraging lie.  “She is more than a day away, but we have caught up some.”  He turned his head away from the table.  He did not want to look Merry or Plum in the eye.

Plum finally said, “We should go up.”  He stood, so they all stood.  Chris, who had not said anything directly to Merry all day, did not walk beside her to the elevator, and did not look at her in the elevator, though she looked only at him.

Chris gave a general “Good-night,” and went directly into his room.

Merry went into her room and spent the night weeping.

Holiday Journey 13

When Chris rose in the morning, he found someone came in the middle of the night and replaced his down jacket with a pea coat.  It felt like wool, so he imagined it would be warm enough.  Elves, he thought.  He shrugged it off before he thought to check for his wallet and keys.  He found them in his coat pocket, where they should be, but someone replaced his American dollars with old looking British pounds that he thought looked more like sheets of paper than money.  He shrugged again, grabbed his backpack, and went outside to find Mary.

Mary came out when he did.  Perhaps she heard his door open.  She came dressed in a white dress that fell to her ankles, edged with tatting, the same as her collar and her sleeves.  She wore boots that had laces up the side.  Chris imagined it would take him half the morning to lace those boots. She also wore a pea coat of her own, though hers went to well below her knees.

“Are we ready?” she asked casually as she buttoned up her coat against the cold.

“I take it we are headed into the past,” Chris surmised.

“That would be my guess,” Mary answered, and did not appear shaken in the least by that suggestion.  That brought back all the questions Chris struggled with all night.  Before Chris could ask about that, Roy and Plum arrived.

“Ready to go?” Plum asked.  “We will be taking the train today.”

Chris looked at the two men who appeared dressed in some kind of uniform.  Roy carried a big box, and a tripod, which suggested to Chris the box might have an old-fashioned camera in it.  Plum carried two small duffle bags, and pretended he had the heavy load.

“We best get going,” Roy said, quietly.

“Yup. Don’t want to miss breakfast,” Plum agreed, speaking with some volume, and patting his ample stomach.  “But we got to make it quick.  It’s a long walk if we miss the train.”

Chris stepped from the motel, Mary beside him.  Mary put her pink backpack up on her shoulder as Chris spoke.  “Polar Express.”

Mary laughed, and shook her head, “No.”

Breakfast at the Yuletide Diner did not take long.  No one spoke, except Mary mentioned she felt glad the sun came out, and Plum, who said they should eat up because who knew what sort of food they might have on the train.  Otherwise, they ate in silence and nursed their coffees.  Roy had tea.

Chris spent that time staring again at his three companions.  He tried to imagine what Roy and Plum might look like in their elf form.  He felt a bit disturbed at how easy that was to imagine.  Roy went back to staring out the window, and said nothing, but Chris expected that.  Roy never said much.  Plum spent the whole time nervously playing with his food.  He kept looking like he wanted to say something, but kept changing his mind.  Then, there was Mary.

He had to find out how old she was.  He did not even know her last name, which shocked him when he thought about it.  In fact, he knew nothing about her, and yet, somehow that did not matter.  He decided he did not care if she was eighteen, he wanted to be with her.  As he thought about it, he felt a touch of surprise.  He felt like he wanted to be with her forever, if possible, or as near to that as he could manage.

The station proved not very far down the road.  When they got on the platform, Chris took a long look back at the town. Something registered in Chris’ mind, but before he could put it into words, he had to hustle up to the train. He did catch a glimpse of the diesel engine up front, and wondered how far in the past they had to go.  That engine would not have been in service before the 1940s, maybe, the 1930s.

“Here,” Mary said, taking his hand, and directing him into the bench seat beside herself.  He made her get in first so once again he could trap her and she could not escape. She did not seem to mind sitting by the window.

 

Cue: We Wish You a Merry Christmas

A Holiday Journey, The London Symphony Orchestra

conducted by Don Jackson.  Ó℗CD Guy Music Inc., 2001

 

Chris watched over Mary’s shoulder as they pulled out from the station.  In fact, he watched all morning.  He saw the quaint sixties housing development built on the edge of town.  He imagined in another thirty or forty years, it would become urban sprawl.  Too bad about that.  They quickly got out to the countryside, and it became a pleasant ride. They went through one short tunnel, and stopped briefly at two village stations before Mary turned to face Chris and said, “What,” rather sharply.  She looked down, her ears and cheeks red from so many conflicting emotions.

Chris took one last look out the window.  He saw a horse pulled plow out in the field.  He turned to focus on Mary, and couldn’t help what came out of his mouth.  “I really like the way you look in that dress.  Do you dance in that dress?”

Mary looked up.  “I could learn,” she said, with massive amounts of hope in her voice and eyes.

“Maybe we could learn together,” he suggested.

Mary grabbed him, threw her face into his shirt, and wept.  He put his arms around her, encouraged her, and said, “Hush, hush.” Plum turned around in his seat, pulled his head above the back of the bench, and totally interrupted.

“Lunch.”

Plum and Roy stood, and Chris and Mary followed, but they refused to let go of each other.

“You know, I will have to ask you some questions,” Chris whispered.

“And I will answer honestly,” Mary said, as she wiped her eyes.  “I don’t ever want to lie to you.”

Chris paused.  He had not thought she might lie, but he supposed that was important for her to say.

The next car turned out to be a dining car.  They got a table for four right away, and ordered sandwiches and lemonade. Chris asked if they had coffee. The waiter said he would serve espresso with desert.  Chris turned up his nose a little, but accepted it as the best they could do.

“American,” Plum told the waiter, and the waiter said something in French, no doubt an insult.

“So, where are we?” Chris asked.

“Somewhere outside of Paris, I would guess,” Plum said, but quieted when he looked up and saw Chris talking to Mary.

“You know what I know,” Mary said, and frowned at using her defense right at the beginning.

“So, where are you from?” Chris asked, first thing.

“Norway. I was born in Norway,” Mary said and got quiet as two men in uniform came up to the table.

“Monsieur Plum and Roy.” one said, and Chris thought he recognized the uniforms. They were both army captains, one French and one British.  “Mademoiselle,” the Frenchman nodded to Mary.  “And…” he looked at Chris.

“American,” Plum repeated.  “He is here to observe, so treat him well.  It would not hurt to have the Americans on our side.”

The Frenchman frowned, but the British officer seemed delighted.  “Bravo.  Welcome to the bloody mess.  We will try to keep the Hun out of your way.”  He reached over and shook Chris’ hand.

“Le Boche,” The Frenchman said, and followed with a bunch of words in French that Chris had no hope of following.  When Mary answered the man in French, however, Chris raised an eyebrow. The men left, but the food came, and once again they ate in silence.  When the espresso and desert came, Chris finally asked Mary what the man said.

Plum spoke.  “He said they did not need the help of the know-it-all Americans.”

“And what did you answer him?” Chris asked.

“She said, you have reached a stalemate.  You better hope the Americans can tip the scale in your favor.”

Chris and Mary gave Plum hard stares, and Roy thought to intervene.  “Maybe we should go back to check on our equipment.” He practically hauled Plum to his feet and escorted him out of the room.

Chris and Mary sat in silence for a minute, but finally, Chris had to ask. “So you are from Norway.  And what is your last name?”  He shook his head.  “There is so much I don’t know about you.”

Mary got up and sat on the other side of the table to face him.  “I haven’t got a last name.”  She reached out for his hand, and he gave them to her, but he did not otherwise move.

“Your parents?”

“My father is Juletre.  That means Christmas tree in Norwegian.  My mother is Willow, named like the tree.  My brother is Rowan, like the tree with berries that feeds the reindeer.”

“Older or younger brother?”

“Older. Much older than you.”

“So, you were born in the woods?”  Chris smiled, but Mary couldn’t smile.  Her anxiety exploded on her face and in her body language.  She began to worry the hand that held his.  She bit her lower lip.

She finally said, “I am not who you think I am.”  He just raised one eyebrow.  “Well, for one, my name is not Mary.  It is Merry.”

Chris nodded and smiled.  “That is the most sensible thing you have said so far.”

Mary returned his smiled when she realized he could not possibly hear the difference.  “I mean, my name is not Mary, like the mother of God.  It is Merry, as in, Merry Christmas.”  Chris said nothing.  Merry swallowed.

“Second, you needn’t worry about how old I am.  I’m one hundred and thirty-seven-years-old.  I am a full-grown adult.”

Chris’ smiled until it became a bit of a laugh.  “So, maybe you are too old for me.”

“Third, I’m an elf, technically, a Christmas-elf-maiden.”  Merry removed her glamour of humanity and looked at Chris through eyes that were even bigger and more puppy-dog than before.  Chris returned her stare, and at least she was happy to see that he did not snatch his hand back like it was on fire or she had cooties or something.  Then again, he might be in shock.

“And…” Chris coughed to clear his throat. “And Lilly?”

“You honestly know what I know,” Mary, or rather, Merry said.  “We are dependent on Plum and Roy to find the way she has gone.”

Chris stood, and Merry started to get up, but he waved at her to keep her seated. “No, no,” he said.  “Finish your custard.  I need to be alone for a bit.”

“Flan,” she called it.

He started toward the passenger compartment, but remembered Plum and Roy. He went the other way, found a seat, and stared out the window for a long time.  Merry spent most of that time crying.

 

Cue Reprise: We Wish You a Merry Christmas

A Holiday Journey, The London Symphony Orchestra

conducted by Don Jackson.  Ó℗CD Guy Music Inc., 2001

 

When Chris found his way back to the others, he took his seat beside Merry, who looked like Mary again, though she remained Merry.  He said nothing, looking straight ahead.  She said nothing and did the same.  Then the train pulled slowly to a stop in the station.

Plum tried to hurry them.  The sun got ready to set.  Chris got his backpack, and Merry got hers.  Chris offered his arm, and Merry took it, but still, without a word, they walked off the train.