- short story by sam douglas  

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There was sand in her doll’s hair. And it was all Monika’s fault. They were playing in the field across from the Gasthaus only because that was where Monika wanted to play, and the field was full of sand. Erika looked intently at Monika and said, “Du kannst mir nicht sagen wo wir spielen sollen. Ich bin aelter.” Monika just looked back at her with the innocent expression of an angel. Everybody said Monika looked like a little angel, but Erika knew she didn’t always behave like a little angel. Still Monika was her very best friend, and they played together every day.

Erika was blonde and petite, small even for her age but with a sense of adventure that showed in her eyes, blue, a little too close together, and mischievous. Those eyes gave her away every time to her mother, who always knew when Erika was planning something daring. Monika, in spite of looking like a little angel, was darker with black, shiny hair, black eyes, and a wide, innocent, baby face. She was more of a tomboy than Erika, climbing trees, crawling through bushes, and throwing rocks at birds.

They were both six years old, but Erika was older by four months. She had been born in May of 1936, while Monika had not been born until September of that year. Erika sometimes used the age difference to get her way with Monika telling her that she must do what Erika said because Erika was older. That usually worked unless there was something Monika wanted to do really badly, like today when she wanted to play in the field across from the Gasthaus. “Warum willst du hier spielen? Hier gibt’s nichts zu tun,” said Erika now, questioning why Monika wanted to play in the field. Monika said she liked to play in the field because they could see all the people come and go to the Gasthaus, which was indeed the primary place in the village where the adults gathered. Some came to eat, some came just to drink beer, but all came to socialize. The view from the field gave the very best picture of the social life of the village.

Today Monika had an extra incentive to play in the field across from the Gasthaus. She had heard her older brother Hans tell his friend Karl that he’d meet him at the Gasthaus for a few beers. Monika’s mother thought Hans was still too young to go to the Gasthaus and drink beer, so Monika wanted to see him come so she could tell their mother on him. She had thought about telling her mother right away when she heard Hans talking to Karl, but then she thought it would be better to wait until Hans actually went to the Gasthaus. Sometimes he changed his mind, and sometimes he said things just to fool her. Once he told her he was going to join the army; but when Monika told their mother, he laughed at her and told her he was too young to join the army. Then everybody laughed at her.

The field across from the Gasthaus was well suited to spying on people. In addition to being located right in front of the village’s main meeting place, it was rough and uneven with many crevices and dips and small hills big enough to easily hide two little girls. It also wasn’t very well kept, so the grass and weeds grew high enough for them to creep very close to the road without being seen.

In fact, there was not much else for little girls to do in their tiny village besides play with their dolls and watch the people come and go. Indeed, there was not much else for anyone to do in their village. Since nobody owned a car, they experienced a bit of excitement, once a month or so, when the occasional vehicle passed through on the dusty road built just for the farmers’ wagons. When that rare car bounced through, raising a dust cloud that covered the entire village, the men in the Gasthaus all claimed they knew what it was, what make and model, and how fast it would go. But there was never any consensus. They were all just bandying about car names that they had heard on the radio and trying to establish their superior knowledge.

Not many people in the village owned radios either, so that was another attraction of the Gasthaus. Herr Bour, who owned the Gasthaus, also owned a radio and played it during his peak hours to attract customers and generate discussion. That also generated sales certainly of beer and schnapps but also of food. Since he brought his radio into the Gasthaus a couple of years before, sales had at least doubled, possibly tripled. Since there was really no place else to go in the village, the number of men coming to the Gasthaus didn’t increase appreciably. They just stayed longer and ate and drank more. Also, more of the women of the village came to the Gasthaus after Herr Bour brought in

the radio. Sometimes, just for the women and just for a little while, Herr Bour would tune the radio to a station that played music.

But most of the time, the radio was tuned to the news. Most of the news that reached the village came through that radio, or one of the few others in the town owned by the Burgermeister, the doctor, or the priest. From these radios, the people heard about the latest cars and sporting events. They heard about movies that they never saw because there was no movie house in the village. They heard about exotic places they would never go, because nobody ever left the village except to go to Schwartzenitz, a slightly larger town fifteen or twenty kilometers to the west.

Mostly nowadays on the radio, they heard about the war. Though their village lay on the German side of the Czech border, the war had touched them very little. A few of the young men had gone away to the army returning on leave now and then to show off their uniforms. (He didn’t know it yet, but Monika’s brother would join them within a year, despite his protests that he was too young to join the army.) Occasionally airplanes flew overhead, going both east and west but not doing anything that the villagers could connect to the war. Once one of them dropped some silver colored material, rather like tinfoil, which the children ran into the fields to retrieve in spite of the pleas of the adults to leave it alone. When the adults saw what the children brought back, they speculated that it might be something the planes dropped to confuse radar or antiaircraft guns. Even so, they couldn’t figure out why the planes had dropped the material so close to their little village; there was certainly no radar or antiaircraft guns around there. They concluded it must have been a mistake or the plane malfunctioned.

Shau her,” said Erika, “sie hat Sand in den Haaren,” as she thrust her doll toward Monika, “und es ist deine schuld. Ich wollte hier nicht spielen.”

Sei ruhig,” said Monika, urging Erika to silence as she peeked over the grass toward the Gasthaus looking for Hans. She didn’t see her brother; but down the road past

the Gasthaus, she saw something that made her forget that she was looking for him. “Shau,” she said to Erika, pointing down the road. Erika raised her head to see what had

suddenly captured Monika’s attention.

It was a column of men walking down the road toward them as if in military formation. But these men were not in military uniforms. They were dressed in dirty, tattered shirts and pants with the black stripes that identified them as prisoners. Their hands and faces were dirty, and they were unshaven and unkempt. Their hair was wild and scraggly with a shaved strip right down the middle of their heads. There were eight or ten of them, walking two by two up the road; and on either side of their column were men in uniform with guns. The little girls recognized these uniforms as those worn by the German army. They’d seen them on the village boys who joined the army and came back on leave. There were two of the soldiers on either side of the column.

The little girls stared at this unusual sight and wondered who the men in the striped clothes could be. Were they the Americans the adults talked about? Were they the cruel aggressors who wanted to kill us all and take our country? As they whispered about the strange scene they were witnessing, the column of prisoners neared the Gasthaus. When they were at their nearest point to the overgrown field, one of the prisoners broke away and ran toward them, toward the field with its high grass. The girls crouched down in fear, not wanting to be seen but afraid they’d be run over.

“Halt, halt,” shouted the soldiers, but the prisoner continued running toward the

field. The little girls heard the sound of the soldiers’ guns being fired but did not recognize what it was until they also heard the sound of the bullets striking the ground

around them and saw the dust and clumps of dirt the bullets kicked up. They screamed and began to cry. They were afraid to stand up but looked toward the road and hoped the soldiers would see them and stop shooting. As they looked that way, the prisoner who had been running toward the field stumbled at the edge of the road and fell face first skidding on his chin and chest to a stop right in front of them. He lay still just inches from their faces. His eyes were wide and staring, his mouth was open in a silent scream. Blood was pouring from his mouth, his nose, his ears, and several places on his head.

The little girls, momentarily struck silent by the sight, stared in horror and then began again to scream and cry uncontrollably. The soldier who had pursued the prisoner to the field finally saw them and exclaimed, “Mein Gott, was macht ihr hier? Seid ihr verletzt?” He was overwhelmed by the idea that the two girls had been hiding in the field all along and had been in such danger.

Erika grabbed his arm. “Er ist tod,” she sobbed, trying to explain to the soldier that the prisoner was dead. “Der Mann ist tod,” she cried.

Ja, ja, Kind,” said the soldier softly with obvious concern for the children in his voice, “Er ist tod.” But to ease the children’s dismay, he continued, “Aber ihr sollt nicht weinen. Er ist nur ein Jude,” explaining that they need not cry because the man was only a Jew.

Er ist tod. Der Mann ist tod,” screamed the children again in unison, and they ran away from the soldier, away from the field with tears streaming from their eyes. In her fear, Erika even left her doll lying in the dirt. They ran as fast as they could to Erika’s house and to their favorite hiding place behind the huge tree in back. For a long time, neither spoke. They just sobbed quietly and thought about the wide, sightless eyes of the dead prisoner. When they finally did talk to each other, it was only to try to figure out why the soldier could not appreciate how terrible it was that the prisoner was dead. They couldn’t understand why he couldn’t see how horrible that was since it was so clear to them. They never found an explanation that seemed adequate to them, that could ease the despair they felt over the scene they had witnessed.

They never spoke of the tragedy with any other adult. They were sure no adult would understand what they felt, not even their mothers. They never played in the field across from the Gasthaus again either. Erika didn’t even return there to retrieve her doll.

When they were eight years old, the Russians marched through their village. They took all the men away in formations much like the one the girls had seen from the field.


Sam Douglas is a former military man who served in Air Force Intelligence all over the world including several combat and Cold War stations. Many of his stories were drawn from his military experience. He is now a freelance writer living in the southern US with his wife of many years. He has a BS from the University of Maryland and an MS from Webster University. His work has appeared in various university, small press, and online publications.

Contact Sam at samdouglas@access4less.net.

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