You are exhausted. Weariness pulls at your legs, grabs at your arms, like the men that lay dying, scattered across the battlefield, groaning and grasping towards the sky for what could be the last time. Your feet drag behind you on the ground as you walk, scraping small divots into the mud and soil of the battlefield.
A 2152 word short story about tragic lovers in the 40s, in which lowly armyman Powell falls hopelessly in love with his comrade Joffe. I recommend you read Ichabod's Flowers before reading this.
Content warning for depictions of war, injury and blood, and grieving.
Come let me kiss you. Life was never so precious as today — when it meant so little.
— Erich Maria Remarque, Arc de Triomphe
You are exhausted.
Weariness pulls at your legs, grabs at your arms, like the men that lay dying, scattered across the battlefield, groaning and grasping towards the sky for what could be the last time. Your feet drag behind you on the ground as you walk, scraping small divots into the mud and soil of the battlefield.
Though war can bring anyone's shoulders to bow, yours hunch as if you cannot fight gravity anymore. As if you are to collapse at any minute. Sometimes, when night falls, you see Joffe watching you from where he sits, on the other side of the circle that your comrades roughly form. His eyes are dark, attentive, placed unevenly on a gaunt face smattered with thousands of freckles. He teases you as you begin to, inevitably, fall into slumber. The others do as well, and you simply laugh along. Though you disagree when they say that being able to sleep anywhere is a gift.
The world is rarely silent for long, with the bombs and destruction that follows you, and still you sleep. Perhaps sleep is not the right word for the fitful suspension in nothing, in blackness, that still leaves you weak and fruitless when you wake. It is never enough. You never stop craving for what is enough, though it seems eternally out of reach.
He is always eating, always trading valuables he pulls from places you do not know for extra food, always craving. You are no exception from the list of men he goes through every day to ask for extra food. You always give him what you can, for you cannot deny Joffe and his peculiar and terrifying energy, and the brightness of his eyes, and the dimples around his smile that has not vanished from the war like yours has.
He hungers not only for food, but for knowledge. He has the bluntness that you do not, always pulling people aside and asking for rumors, for wisps of what command wants of them, of what command is doing. His voice comes out sharp, hoarse, but he is never done talking no matter whether his throat hurts.
"Powell," he says to you, and his voice breaks as he speaks, and never before have you felt such a sweet tenderness to your name. You fall deeper into your slumber.
You are always marching. Joffe too. Even when marching, Joffe never rests his voice, tilting his head towards yours to speak in low tones about the trees around you. Germany, you learn, is filled with spruce. That lilting call you hear as you march, you learn, comes from a faraway robin. It fills the air with a light and bouncing tone, an innocent sound that makes you just that more desperate to clean the dried blood and dirt from under your fingernails.
You are always marching. You must. Even when you are bleeding, everything stained red, fresh, barely awake. You rest more on Joffe's weight supporting you than your own feet.
"We should rest here," he says. He sets you down. You are exhausted, so, so, exhausted, and you cannot open your eyes to see where it is that he has put you down.
So you say, "Where are we?"
"A graveyard. We will be safe."
"A graveyard?" You try to pry your eyelids open, to no avail.
"Yes," he says firmly. "Graveyards are always protected. The dead are a soldier's best friend, you should know this." A teasing edge leaks into his voice and he nudges your shoulder.
You laugh, though it holds the wetness of a weep. "I cannot see ghosts, Joffe."
"You don't know that," he responds. He works on binding your arm, your chest, in bandages. "And anyways, I'm sure they don't mind."
Compared to Joffe, you are seemingly blind, your eyes drooping and closed against a world that you constantly depart into the realm of sleep. His eyes are wide open to a magic that you are oblivious to. A magic that he finds in a cloud shaped like a dog, or in a distant, idyllic cottage untouched by the bombs, or in a clover-like plant that he plucks with a smile and pockets, then later uses it to unlock the locked door of an abandoned German building that you and him run to hide in.
"Raskovnik," he says with a triumphant edge to his voice as he faces you, holding it up, breathing heavily in time with you. "It's hard to find, but it can open any lock."
You have nothing of substance to say in response, and instead scour the building with him, eyes fighting sleep yet watchful for any Germans. The building is empty, lifeless, a corpse of what once was, and you find yourself with Joffe for the whole night there.
As the sun descends wearily over the horizon, the darkness grows, and you find yourself watching the black shadow of Joffe's long nose elongate and curve delicately over his imperfect cheek. You find yourself too tired to move, so when Joffe once again hungers, asking you for the old bread that you have in a pocket, you simply let him bridge the gap between the two of you to take it.
He yanks spare cloth out of his pack and bandages his own arm while you try to get a fire going. He is vivacious and filled with a drive that has long left you. He seems to easily be a replacement of the sun, an endless warmth spilling out of him as he wraps and wraps, with a grim smile and not a single noise of complaint. You are awed at his perseverance, his gritting of his teeth, his stubbornness in the face of agony. How he can always be this resilient. You are awed.
"Powell," he says when he is done. "Powell," he says, hungry. "What's your first name?" He warms his hands over the fire.
You look up at him. His facial expression is indecipherable. You try to read the lines of his face, the too many freckles, the slightly burnt eyebrows, the curly black hair.
"Mine is Itzhak," he says.
Your mouth opens, but it takes a moment for the words to breach your lips. "Omar. I'm Omar."
"Omar," he speaks, softly, reverently, and you seem to ache so deeply that you are brought out of your fruitless haze. His voice cracks, breaks, weary and tired from overuse. "Omar," he whispers longingly, trembling fingertips reaching up to brush your cheek. You lean into his calloused and dirty palm, gentle despite its qualities.
His face gets so close to your own. Your noses brush.
You lean in.
"It was hungry grass," Itzhak says one day, when it is raining and you and him and hundreds of other soldiers are confined to cramped, dark spaces.
"I had walked into some when on a family trip once. I was no more than yea high." He gestures somewhere near the ground. "It basically cursed me to always be hungry."
You look up from the letter you received from your sister. The paper is worn, dirty, and you cradle it in your hands like it is gold.
"I'm surprised you're still interested in magical plants after that," you say, full of good humor.
Itzhak laughs. It is an ugly thing, full of guttural sounds and snorting, but it is nothing to you but beautiful.
"More interesting than shoes, at least," he says with a grin. You want to kiss his dimples, but there are other soldiers nearby. They will show no mercy to what they will undoubtedly find horrid. You want.
"My family's always been in the shoemaking business," he says. You nod in acknowledgement.
"Shoes are practical," you say.
"Yeah yeah." He shrugs dismissively. "But so are plants." He sighs dreamily, and you greedily drink in the sight of his wistful smile, his half-lidded eyes, his lazy posture. "I've always wanted to own a greenhouse of just magical plants. My grandpa's friend apparently has one, but I've only met her in person once, and I've never seen it."
"That'd be lovely," you say in response. You try to imagine him in civilian clothing, sleeves rolled up, working in dirt to plant a tree of golden apples that you and him will later kiss under. You imagine dirt, upturned under your weary and dragging feet, the earth consuming what you and him have given it, ever hungry, and creating beauty, plants, and allowing growth from its bosom. You want.
The two of you recline under a tree. The sun is setting. The fighting is on pause.
Itzhak got mail, and you simply stare at his profile as he reads it. His jaw is strong, his chin pronounced, his black hair curly, his nose long and straight and though you have kissed it many times you want to do so again. You hunger to lightly brush your lips over his many freckles, over his thick brows. Against the sunlight, he looks like something ethereal, like an unattainable figure of holiness and perfection, like the picture of man, delicately painted on some masterpiece.
But no, he is no painting or god or angel, for he is real and his touch is real as he catches you staring and leans down to peck your forehead. His lips are chapped, his eyes atop dark bags, his hands dirty. He is the imperfect picture of perfection. You hunger.
His gaze at you is tired, but filled with affection. "It's from my parents," he says.
You spot a photograph tucked in the pages. You point at it and say: "Who's that of?"
"Oh!" He smiles almost giddily and hands it to you. It's of a young boy, no more than two. The boy is the spitting image of Itzhak. "It's my son, Ichabod."
You look up at him, shocked. "Your son?"
"Yeah." He pauses. "I don't have a wife if that's what you're wondering. I raise him alone. Or, well, my parents raise him when I'm gone."
"Oh." You look down at the boy. He holds a placid and innocent smile. You wonder if Itzhak looked like that as a kid.
"He's the most enthusiastic boy," Itzhak says. Pride flows into his voice, and you feel like you could get drunk off of hearing it. "I'm not a perfect dad, but I'm glad he's turning out well."
You nod. The sun continues to set. The fighting is on pause. Even you cannot resist the temptation of sleep any longer, and your head rests on Itzhak's shoulder. He sleeps as well.
You are terrified. You have never been so awake, so painfully, agonizingly aware, in so long.
Your hand grips at Itzhak's uniform, his chest, over his heart, where he is bleeding. Itzhak wheezes, retches, and the light in his dark eyes is sputtering. His hands cover yours, holding tightly.
"When this is all over," he says, his voice broken and weak, "take care of Ichabod, will you?"
"No," you beg, shaking your head. "No. You're going to live. Tell me what I need to do. A plant. A spell. Please." Your voice is shaky, and your eyes are wet.
Itzhak coughs. One of his hands, bloodstained, reaches up to caress your cheek. It is gentle, though it leaves your cheek red. "A kiss will do."
"Itzhak," you sob, helpless, though you are too tired to resist as he tilts your head for a tender kiss. As he looks at you, he seems exhausted. Most of the light has bled from his body.
"Take all of my belongings. Take care of Ichabod. Can you do that for me?"
You rest your forehead against his freckles one. "Of course," you say, weeping. "Of course," you say, yearning. "I love you, Itzhak."
"My dear Omar, I..."
The hand which clutches yours loosens its grip. As Itzhak's head goes limp and falls back onto the mud, your forehead loses contact with his, separating the two of you by an inch or by an infinity. His other hand, which caresses your cheek, still rests against it, but it is not gentle. It is merely there.
You let out a sob. The world seems dark, empty of light, and you are blind in its nothingness. You want. You want so much. You hunger for what has just left you.
Ichabod Joffe, when you meet him, looks just a few years older than the Ichabod Joffe that is in the photograph in your pocket.
You and your sister are introduced to the family: Ichabod, Ichabod's grandparents, and his great grandma Ellie who is still holding onto life.
Ichabod looks so much like Itzhak that it hurts. You hunger for Itzhak's long gone touch. Your search and pain is fruitless. But there is Ichabod, and as you and Ichabod sit under a tree as he weaves you a flower crown and talks about carnivorous plants, you are wide awake to take in every word.