Everything was useful-a wire to lace shoes, paper to weave a pad to insulate a jacket. Cups were fabricated from the empty coffee cans.These precious crafted utensils were squirreled into jacket pockets, slept on and inventoried every morning. Mac listed what he could eat and what he could pack for the march. Pack cigarettes, pepper, biscuits, and soap accessible for trade. Mac’s Luft group was force-marched out the gates of the gray camp into a foot of wet spring snow. Be careful what you wish for, it could get worse. The over one-hundred-mile march from Stalag XIII D near Nuremberg to Stalag VII A at Moosburg would land him close to the gas chambers at Dachau. Mac’s replacement boot didn’t fit well, merely troublesome up to now. Fifteen miles of trudging pinched his toes, chafed at his insole, the ball of his foot. Painful sores blistered. Might get fatally infected. The boot opened the blistering wounds every morning; they bled all day. Thank God he’d bought the soap.
“Hey you got a smoke?” Barney had been released from sick bay with more meat on his bones. Thinning hair caught in the teeth of Mac’s new comb. “It must be the soap,” he joked with Barney. What a relief Barney would be making the march to wherever…
Mac kept the Red Cross jelly, biscuit mix, cigarettes on top of his pouch. He traded these with the volks along the way for eggs, vegetables and bread. Don’t confuse the volks with the volkisch, or racial-nationalists who shaped the perpetrators. They marched twelve-hours-a-day, but cadged the freshest provisions he’d eaten since being a prisoner. Villagers eagerly traded fresh jam and bread for cigarettes. Mac perceived want and sorrow that rushed over the outside world like a deluge. His exchange with the villagers offered connection with people, other than prisoners, for connection. Was it a connection to life? …or at any rate, hope? He liked them. They were hungry, too. His woolen sock became his main concern. It kept embedding in the numb blister at the back of his heel. The sock ripped open scabs each night. Tomorrow I’ll try a piece of cotton undershirt between the sock and the foot.
Mac hadn’t received a response from Irene. Had she received his marriage proposal? Has her response gotten mailed to Stalag III? Would she agree? Would my letter be lost from one camp to the other? What made him think he should write a marriage proposal? Had she even received it? He wished he’d never sent it.He carried her telegram in his left sleeve, burning a hole of awareness near his warmed heart. Drawings were in his right sleeve with his silk map. They marched further and further from the safety of what he had known. Mac shivered in the wind during pauses. After half-issues of food portions that barely had provided sustenance for the P.O.W.s a month before the march, they now had less. A grim trip lay ahead. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Don’t project. One meal of barley soup each day was inadequate. Trading cigarettes for eggs was a life saver. The soft snow was their water source. Sugar was poured over the snow for ice cream. Delirium set in.
The everlasting sun shone its blinding brilliance from a resplendent blue sky onto the white, reflective, waning snow. Sunspots pierced their yellow-skinned headaches. Red noses were runny above frozen wet feet. Mac jumped into ditches when the Allied Army Air Corp swooped over and sprayed friendly fire. From behind, bullets rained down alongside the gray-faced marchers from fighter planes that splashed Mac with slimy mud. Moaning, putrid smells emanated from disrupted edges of old puddles. They cheered back! Melting snow decomposed his socks into slippery webs that pull the pickled flesh from his feet. His ears were still ringing from the blasts. Freezing temperatures cut the smell of their foul army clothes. Fatigue ruled. His body is not his own.
Through the fuzzy, blinding, disjointed whiteness, Mac saw a Todt worker, just a boy in ragged clothes, crawl into a garden for a left-over potato or perhaps a spring garlic. Just under the fence, the boy collapsed. He laid there, thin, wasted, and covered in squirming vermin. That poor boy couldn’t feel the lice and maggots crawling in his hair, over his eyelids and down his face. To do this to mere boys! That was the way it was.
A hungry German soldier caught a feral cat by the tail. The cat wailed meaaaaAAW! Then screamed MEAAAAAW as the soldier whipped it around to hit its head against a tree trunk. A sushi-type meal followed. Loud, childlike echoes of meaaaws reverberated through the twilight. The kit was decapitated. A quick-silver-textured stream of red blood rippled down the bark, swelled across the trodden ground, flowed along the slushy road before the march. Reddened mud-puddles glistened with its color. Boots stomped in its plasma. Putrid smells lingered in the air. Gore streamed across rivers and under bridges, over cobbled streets. The sky at dusk looked as if it was fiery red were seeping up into the low-flying purple clouds. Dark gold lines contrasted with the maroon below. Colors changed shades and shapes, then shot up in a rush of liquid red, streaking the deep purple, wispy horizon until darkness oozed in.
Mac trudged with one jaggedly torn foot southeast through puddles of reflective constellations. Orians belt shone its twinkling brilliance from a dark moonless sky onto the luminous, slimy snow. Guns fired. Keep your eyes peeled! Mac cautioned himself. Seventy percent of them were sick. He even missed Barney. Hadn’t seen him in days. Each had shaved off thirty pounds. Men were left along the way. Some, merely missing. He felt his inner sleeve for his compass, a cryptic, military-anodyne telegram from Irene, “I’ll see you in my dreams” and his silk map. Keep your wits about you They entered Stalag VIIA.