When Günther Wilhelm was a small boy, he was kicked in the head by a cow on his father’s dairy. He stood too close, ignoring his father’s repeated instructions as children will often do. An agitated hoof caught him squarely in the temple, forever changing his life.
Swelling put prolonged pressure on his brain, causing slowness of thought and a speech impediment. His afflicted condition caused other kids to tease him about being stupid. Günther was not stupid. He remembered what it had been like when his body would do the things his brain told it to do. He was constantly angry from the frustration and consequently, he burned a short fuse.
At seventeen, Günther joined the German army in the midst of World War I. Because of his somewhat limited capacity, he was placed in the charge of guarding prisoners of war, most of whom were captured in Poland. While in general the prisoners were treated more humanely than the war itself had treated them, most of the German soldiers held them in contempt and were often racist and obscene. They also treated Günther as if he was retarded, and so prisoners who learned to speak some German became surrogates for real friends.
During the latter part of the war, Günther built a relationship with one Russian man in particular named Vitaly. Vitaly wasn’t even a soldier but had been inadvertently captured during a group surrender. Fearing for his family, he kept silent, and he was imprisoned with the captured soldiers. Vitaly struggled with the German language, but labored at it anyway and over time, he managed to exchange with Günther many things about their lives and their families back home.
When the war came to an end, the prison was in disarray. Everyone knew the Kaiser had fled and their own freedom from his service was imminent. At the announcement of the ceasefire, the soldiers, having no allegiance to their jobs in the prison, and no love for the prisoners, simply unlocked the cells and left to go celebrate armistice with most of the rest of the world.
As fate would have it, Günther was called into a private meeting that day. A superior officer with a soft spot for Günther was aware that the war would soon be over. Günther was to receive a promotion for his dedicated service to Wilhelm II. It was a nominal promotion of course, in an army that all but no longer existed, nothing more than a personal show of appreciation from the officer. Behind closed doors, the two men knew nothing of the joyous announcement that came from the prison’s only radio.
Günther left from his promotion in a bath of pride, unaware that the cells had been opened. Most of the prisoners had banded together and followed the same path to exit, but Vitaly had seen which direction Günther went. He didn’t want to leave without a farewell to the closest thing he had to a friend for nearly two years. So he walked alone on a course where he ultimately came face to face with Günther in the corridor.
Günther, still swelling with pride over his accomplishment, drew his gun on the startled Vitaly, whom he considered to be attempting an escape. Vitaly kept insisting that there was no need to shoot, but his attempts to explain the cease-fire in a mixture of Russian and awful German sounded to Günther like the prisoner had called him stupid like an animal. He stood with the gun shaking in his hand, torn over all the memories of the things they had talked about through the door of Vitaly’s cell. Vitaly continued to back away and eventually, barking that he was not stupid, Günther accidentally squeezed the trigger shooting the poor man through the chest.
Vitaly looked down the corridor toward the daylight he craved and the promise it held. So close was his freedom and his return to his family. Then he staggered to Günther, grabbed the gun, and pulled the barrel up against his heart. Günther heard one of the other soldiers yelling down the corridor to him. The war was over; the prisoners had been freed; he should join them to go celebrate. He realized he’d shot his friend for no reason. He grieved in pained confusion as Vitaly, dying a slow agonizing death, begged in Russian for him to finish it.
His damaged brain incapable of words, Günther reluctantly squeezed the trigger again.
© 2011 Anne Schilde