Howling wolf (freewrite)
It had to be him. The others had already picked their shovels, without a word, as was customary, and had started digging, but he just pushed them away. Also without a word, but they understood, Abe was his brother to bury. They just wanted to spare him the pain, but Jonas knew it was his burden to carry. Digging the grave didn’t matter, the least he could do for his brother he’d sworn to keep safe. As if there’s anything safe in a war. But still he’d promised his mother he’d look out for Abe.
He’d spent all his childhood helping in the fields, by the time he was ten the palms of his hands were rough, calloused like his father’s, and there was no way he could clean the dirt under his fingernails, not even for Sunday mass. He knew how the earth felt under the tip of his shovel, he knew the raw smell of upturned dirt, but this was not it. The small mound at the edge of the battlefield gave off a sickly smell, and it was not the dead, it was the ground that had turned foul. Sometime, after the end of the war, they’ll put a fence around it and maybe a marble slab, naming all those who died there. Or maybe not. The king might be busy otherwise, a new war might start.
But he had to tell mother he’d put Abe to rest one last time. Like when they were kids and they’d cuddle under the blanket and he’d sing in Abe’s ear. Softly, he couldn’t afford to wake father up, for father was tired and he’d shout at them through the thin wall. Even come round and box his ears, smack little Abe’s rump, even. He was not a bad man, father. Just hard, like all the men were. Like all men must be, times like these were not for sissies and he wanted to see his sons grow up to be strong. Or else. The children never asked what he meant. Everybody knew sissies were the first to die in battle. Abe was no sissy, it was just bad luck that he was placed in the first line. Those never make it. He should have traded places, but Abe would not have agreed, because Abe was no sissy. He was brave like Thomas the Wolfling. It was his favorite story when he was small and he made Jonas tell it again and again. How one day the wild boy showed up in the village, stark naked, his skin brown with dirt, matted locks going down all they way to his waist. How he howled like a wolf when the priest had his servant give the wildling a bath and cut down his mane and make him look like a decent little boy. But Thomas never really understood how to be a decent little boy. Even when they taught him how to speak he’d still growl and howl like an animal and it made your skin crawl. He should not have been in the army, for Thomas barely knew how to ask for a piece of bread, he could not understand what the war was all about. But the king needed men, if they were able to walk they were good enough for the army, the orders stood. As strong as he was, he was useless with a riffle, so he became a howler. It was a captain who came up with this bright idea. Have Thomas go around the enemy’s camp and howl like a wolf, scare them to death, have them abandon their posts in the middle of the night and run straight to them. And their riffles. Abe didn’t care about the part with the rifles and who won, he wanted to know more about Thomas and his life with the wolves, who taught him to be brave. He wanted to be brave like the Wolfling.
The grave was ready for Abe. The earth was waiting for him and there was nothing to shroud him in. Not even his blanket. They could not spare it cause the nights were cold and the living would be needing it much more than his dead brother. All he had was a soiled handkerchief to cover his face with, so the dirt won’t get into his eyes and into his mouth. At the very last moment Jonas remembered the knife, the little blade Abe carried in his pocket. He’d had it since he was a kid, when they played at soldiers on the barren field behind their house, for what else could children play? There was nothing but war, always someone leaving for a battle, few ever returning. Elijah was only ten, he’ll need something to remember his older brother by.
He was afraid of the moment he’ll look his mother in the eye and tell her about Abe. He thought she’d crumble, but she carried her pain like a badge of honor, the only badge she’d ever get for sending her son to battle. Badges and medals, those were for the generals and the officers, not cannon-fodder like peasant children. A bag with exactly five coins was all they got and Abe put that in his father’s hand. His hand was trembling and he almost dropped it. The old man’s bad leg buckled, just in time to remind him it was that thigh wound that saved his life. They sent him home when he got wounded and could not keep up with the others. Abe had been wounded in his stomach, gutted like a pig, but Jonas did not tell them that. There’s only so much people can take. But he told them he was sleeping peacefully, he’d taken care of it. His father nodded and limped away. His mother lowered her eyes and sat down to resume her work, shelling peas with quick expert moves. It was almost noon, they’ll need to eat.
He found Elijah in the room the boys shared. The room he’d grown up in felt suddenly cold with Abe’s empty bed glaring at him accusingly. Abe won’t be sleeping there anymore and it was his fault. The kid had heard everything from the window and was fighting back tears, he would not allow himself to cry like the little boy that he was.
‘Want me to tell you a story?’
The kid nodded and Jonas began the story of the Wolfling, which always started with his crude imitation of wolf howl. Abe used to cling to him tightly when he did the howl, but Elijah didn’t even flinch for his mind was elsewhere. And the howl wasn’t scary, anyhow. And he suddenly understood the Wolfling’s howl, for the first time he could see the boy all alone in the woods, terrified by all the animals and the strange noises they made. Maybe that’s why he learned to howl like a wold, to hide his fears. They’d been wrong all along, he and Abe, the Wolfling was not brave, he was just a scared little boy.
He remembered the knife he’d brought back for Elijah. He took the cold blade out of his pocket, careful so the boy won’t see it and sank it deep into the child’s right thigh. Elijah howled with pain, but Jonas kept a steady hand, tearing into the boy’s muscle. And he smiled. The king won’t want his little brother.
Story written for @mariannewest's freewrite challenge. Today's prompt was: earth! Check out her blog and join our freewrite community.
Thanks for reading!