“Soft feet, don’t have soft feet” Kurt repeated in dry whispers and when he could not puff the words past his blistered lips he thought to himself from within a decaying mind. He closed his eyes, sun burned lids folded painfully down as he did so. He no longer felt wet from sweat, his body had no more to give. Instead he could only feel the searing pain of his feet.
“Don’t have soft feet”. Repeating what he had been told many months ago from an uncle. Then it seemed like a fun distant warning. Now he wished that he had taken it serious.
“Three more miles!” A lieutenant said as he rode past on top of a hot horse, a caravan of flies following its whipping tail.
“You can make three more miles, Kurt” Owen enthusiastically said as he struggled with the weight of his own rifle and back pack.
“Soft feet, don’t have them” Kurt repeated as his mind veered inside of its own madness, drunk with heatstroke and agony. His cheap leather boots were a size and a half too small, in his first march he had noticed the socks wear thin and blisters form. When he had told his corporal he was assured that he would wear them in. Now, in the searing desert thousands of miles from the cool streets of his home his boots were wearing him out. He could feel the blood inside of them, the painful thrashing with each step as his skin turned to a pasty liquid, festering in the heat and with friction.
“We can rest when we arrive back at the fort, for now we march” the lieutenant promised, but for Kurt arriving at the fort offered him no reprieve. Could he survive standing at attention for the commanding officer to review them all. Could he stand the pain of removing his boots. Could he ever dare to again slide his red soaked feet back inside of the leather prison, it panicked to imagine if as his mind sailed into a fever. The forts doctor was not concerned with minor complaints, only with the life threatening. Fever sickness that trapped soldiers close to death, bullet wounds and the sword swipes from the enemy, that was the focus for the doctor. Bloody feet were considered a luxury. Not to Kurt.
If it was not for the sun’s brilliance Kurt would have only seen the growing madness of his own mind. He pushed on. Though the pain was severe he knew that he would be left behind. Discarded. It was a harsh discipline, the wisdom of killers. It was a brotherhood so long as you could keep up and agreed with the orders.
Kurt fell, he could no longer walk. He felt the hot touch of the sand, then he felt nothing.
“Leave him” the lieutenant said, though Kurt could only hear it as an echo.
“But he will die” Owen said as he tugged at the limp arm of Kurt.
“Then he dies, take his rifle and ammunition” the lieutenant ordered.
Kurt slowly woke, he hurt. He was weak and for some reason his body had allowed him to restart. He clawed his way across the hot sand, until he could crawl after some time he was on his knees until eventually he was standing. He would drink from his canteen but they had taken that also, even if it had no water.
He followed the foot prints of the company, stumbling in the heat. A crack and then a series of blasts and explosions erupted from ahead. Kurt could not see the frenzy but he walked towards it. A battle was ensuing in the distance. Stray projectiles hissed nearby, Kurt’s legs stiffened in pain, he could not cower from the bullets, only stand and watch. Like a mirage of hornets far away Kurt could see the dance of war as it played out before him.
He continued to walk, his soft feet agonising as he pushed down onto them. His lips sealed over from the blistering wounds that both dried and congealed. His eye lids swollen now pushed into each socket, hurting to look. The blasts of battle eased. Only the screams and cheers. The victor and vanquished in their own distinct concerts.
His comrades were now either dead or dying, the lifespan of the wounded would be short. It was not mercy only further cruelty that saw the victor mutilate the injured into a petrified death. Kurt continued to march towards a certain fate. His delirious mind pushing for a solidarity with the very men that had abandoned him.
Eventually Kurt arrived, he walked like a corpse towards over his dead comrades and past the victors who warily watched him. Those on horseback moved to the side, the others who were robbing the dead only stopped to do so briefly. Soon the victors laughed as Kurt marched on. He past the blood pond of battle, the broken bodies and torn limbs, the flag of his nation covered in sand as horse manure piled upon it. Kurt walked over the brutalised body of Owen, so young and now twisted in death. Kurt marched beyond the victors and away from the company of soldiers that had been his brothers in arms.
The victors jeered, Kurt was no threat. He was a carcass in motion, slowly dying beneath an unyielding sun. Nothing that they could do to him would be worse than his inevitable fate. The victors left. Soon the vultures and flies picked through the remnants of his comrades. To the lieutenant who had said three miles, it may as well have been three hundred to his comrades, or for Kurt for that matter.
The sun had now lowered into the horizon, it was now late afternoon. Though it remained hot. Kurt suddenly stopped walking. His face bashed hard into two large wooden doors. Kurt stood stiff against the wood, two soldiers rushed to his side. He had arrived to the fort.
Kurt was carried to the infirmary apparently he was in enough of a condition for the doctor to see him. Kurt woke in bandages, and to the taste of water. His weary eyes opened. The colonel, the commanding officer of the fort stood over him.
Kurt attempted to stand to attention, but he was restrained.
“You fought your way back to tell us that the enemy is near, you are a hero” the colonel said as he smiled proudly, his lips curving beneath a thin moustache. On his chest a series of medals for bravery, service and heroism in the many wars that he had participated in.
“I survived?” Kurt asked.
“You did my brave boy”
“I am?” Kurt asked, he was still to sore to move.
“Yes, you are.”
A moment later an explosion erupted followed by the cracks of rifles and machine guns.
“They attack us!” The colonel said as he fled from Kurt’s bedside.
Kurt tried to sit up, his body was still far too weak. Instead he listened.
Screams and explosions, cracks and bangs. The battle sounded fierce. Even into the night it went on. One could not sleep through the fury, the noise and looming spectre of death ensured that they remained in a tired wake. Kurt was no different. He laid and listened to the grapple between life and death as it waged outside of his tiny room.
It was too dark to notice the fixtures of the room, occasionally the flames and flares peered a light through the slit of window high above his bed. He could see the shadows dance on the wall. Kurt could see briefly the bedside table where the nurse had left a pitcher of water. Kurt was thirsty. He could reach the water. He raised his right arm, it was heavy as he extended it. The water was too far. So he sat up, as he curled his body it hurt too much so he collapsed backwards.
Outside the defenders mounted a counter attack, blasts and explosions erupted and more flares were raised. Kurt could see the pitcher with clarity. He slowly sat up again, his breathing tight and his muscles throbbing as he did so. Beyond his walls men thrust bayonets, stabbed with swords and shot rifles with ferocity, from his bed Kurt climbed from thirst to the salvation of what resided inside of the pitcher.
Another explosion followed by the angry mechanical burps of machine gun fire, then a flare. Kurt sat upright, he leaned towards the pitcher, outstretching his hand he reached its handle. He clasped it. Like the lone machine gunner outside desperately holding the gun’s trigger, Kurt pulled back on the pitcher and motioned it delicately to his mouth. With precision he pressed it to his swollen lips and slowly he drank from it. Tender gulps that fell down his throat. A reprieve, the taste of life. For now.
The machine gun outside stopped. The victors cheered. The defenders had been over run. Kurt finished drinking the water from the pitcher and laid back onto his bed. The morning groaned as the dying and dead lay where they fell. Kurt was no longer thirsty. The dancing shadows of the flares soon were replaced by the steady light from a rising sun.
Kurt had not slept, he tried to move his legs. He pressed them to the floor, they were bound in bandages. It hurt to put weight onto them. He collapsed as soon as he stood upright. The pain was too much for him in his weakened state. He fell into the door and it opened. He looked up, the morning sun was bright. It cast it’s heat across the burned fort, littered with broken walls and bodies, washed in the blood of the dead.
The victors had gone. They left their legacy, death. Bodies were mutilated, torn to pieces, no one was spared. Only Kurt. He leaned against a broken rail, the wood should have splintered his hands if not for his bandages. Instead he looked around at the death and carnage that scattered across the once ordered fort that he had called home in the past weeks. The pimple of civilisation in an otherwise forsaken frontier. Now it lay ruined. Kurt’s mind was slowly returning as he attempted to recognise the blood red faces of the defenders. Only their uniforms revealed a familiarity, otherwise they were mangled nightmares.
The colonel lay naked across a cannon, his pale flesh lacerated and his legs splayed open in a humiliating manner. Kurt wondered where his chest of medals now lay if not on his bosom. Kurt could no longer save the fort, but he could find food. He was hungry. Kurt staggered towards the mess hall, his feet continued to hurt.
He passed the broken doors, climbed over the furniture and sand bags that were strewn along with the dead. Delicately he pressed his feet onto the ground as he climbed the obstacles, cursing his soft wounded feet as he did so. Once inside he went to the kitchen and found a loaf of bread and a plate of cold soup.
Kurt carried the plate filled with the brown slop and the bread, he carefully made his way to a lone table. He sat down on it, around him the other tables and chairs were upturned. Bodies piled, stripped to near nakedness, blood and severed limbs splashed across the floor and walls. Kurt placed the plate down and broke the bread. His feet throbbed but so too did his stomach.
“Here is to you comrades” he toasted before stuffing the bread into his mouth. To eat, to taste even as the crust past his lips was for him to live. Kurt closed his eyes, to saviour the taste. He would need a drink, he realised before finishing his mouthful. Twisting in his seat, he lifted his legs above a corpse and delicately stepped onto the bloody floor.
“Damned these soft feet” he cursed as he walked across the debris of the mess hall floor. He found a bottle of wine, it was hidden in a pantry. The red liquid sloshed inside of the bottle as Kurt returned to his table. Once he sat, he fidgeted with the cork, pulling it free. Kurt lifted the cork to his nose, he closed his sore eyes as the wines perfume entered his nostrils.
“It will do” Kurt took a swig and enjoyed the wine as it washed down his throat. He dipped the bread into the cold soup, he pushed the soggy piece into his mouth and let his returning taste buds determine contents. Ox tail, he concluded.
Kurt ate slowly and carefully, it may as well be his last feed. He gave no thought to what would come next. He now only lived inside of each chew. A crashing noise began outside, yelling and screaming voices, and the drumbeat of busy feet. Kurt continued to chew.
He used the last of the bread to clean his plate, he scooped up the remnants of soup with deliberate swipes. The saturated bread was flavoursome as he let it rest in his mouth before his final chew. As he swallowed the barricade was knocked over, soldiers rushed in. They climbed over the dead until they stood around Kurt.
“A survivor” a soldier yelled.
A tall captain walked in, he held a pistol in one hand and a sword in the other, he studied Kurt before he spoke, “Are you the only one?”
Kurt turned, he was now sleepy from his feed. His feet hurt and the wine had gone to his head. He shrugged as he stood slowly onto his bloody feet.
“Help this man, by God he is a hero!” The captain ordered the nearby soldiers to assist Kurt. They carried him away from the table, over the bodies and past the barricades. He was lowered onto a stretcher, Kurt gazed up at the blue cloudless sky.
Hundreds of soldiers crawled over the fort, they restored and filled it ready for the next attack. Kurt was taken away, beneath the shade of an ambulance he was given water and food.
“You are a hero” he was told.
Kurt did not reply. His eyes were busy but his mind was now dormant. He could only smile and nod, his lips hurt and his feet ached with a pain he could not escape. On board the large boat that would ferry him across the ocean back to his homeland, he lay on a cotton bed. It moved with the sea bellow. It eased his pain as the peace of the gentle sea assured him that the blistering desert was far away.
A small group gathered in his room, officers and journalists. Ladies and Gentlemen. They watched him and eagerly waited for his attention. When he arrived home, he would be awarded medals and to be heralded in parades. Aboard the boat he was a celebrity.
“Tell us what happened, how you managed to survive?” A possum faced journalist asked eager for the answer.
“I had soft feet” Kurt smiled.