Artales26 Drama Historical Fiction Romance

Cannons and Carols

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-by Sowrabha Karinje and Ratnakar Baggi


25th December 1925

Long rows of coloured lamps illuminated the sidewalks and shops in the crowded streets of the Lower East Side in Manhattan district. Tinsels hung from railings, trees and electric poles. Large advertisement signboards wished Merry Christmas. At every corner, groups of people had gathered to sing and dance. On this cold and festive night, a tall and somewhat forlorn man pushed his way through the celebrating crowds. He was looking for an address.    

A few minutes later, he reached a modest apartment building. These were the kind of accommodations that European immigrants could afford to live in. He walked up to the apartment number and knocked at the door. Unlike the revelry outside, there was a certain restraint to the festive mood here. Near the door was a simple pine tree decorated with a wreath and a few glittering baubles.

A young woman opened the door and examined her unexpected visitor.  

‘Ms. Hannah Wolff?’ 

‘Yes,’ she answered.  

‘My name is Bruce Hansall. I work at the New Yorker,’ he said, flashing his business card. 

She gave a puzzled expression and said, ‘I wasn’t expecting anyone today.’

‘Merry Christmas, Ms. Hannah,’ he said. ‘May I come in and have a word with you?’

‘Oh, yes, of course. Merry Christmas to you too,’ she said, ushering him inside and seated him on a sofa. 

An awkward silence later, he said apologetically, ‘I am sorry to be showing up like this, without a prior appointment. I would like to thank you for contributing to our fiction segment.’ He paused in search of words. 

‘I am delighted too,’ she said, displaying congeniality. The New Yorker had started publication earlier in the year and was fast gaining readership. ‘When would my story be in print?’ she asked. She showed such eagerness that aspiring writers feel towards getting their work recognized by readers.

‘It is regarding the same matter that I am here, Ms. Hannah. If I may ask…’ His voice trailed off as he noticed something both familiar and discomforting. On the table were pictures of a majestic town that had some connections for him.   

‘Are you from Heidelberg?’ he asked.

She nodded yes. ‘I used to live there before moving here.’

‘Due to the war?’

She gave a wry smile.   

His gaze returned to the pictures, when the portrait of a handsome young soldier arrested his attention. It was a picture taken during happier times. The deep-set eyes, high cheekbones, and prominent jawline accentuated the raw attractiveness of youth. Bruce was transfixed. The same pair of eyes that had sparkled and laughed with him on the night when the cannons fell silent, and the angels sang. 

‘I was at the war too,’ said Bruce, dissolving into reminiscence.


24th/25th December 1914

It was a beautiful moonlit night, with frost on the ground, almost white everywhere. The British soldiers stationed at Neuve Chapelle on the Western Front, feeling weary, after firing all day, had slumped into the muddy, damp trench. It reeked of soiled bandages, blood, broken bones and uncovered graves.

‘What a hell hole,’ cursed a soldier in disgust.

‘How I wish we got a break from all this,’ added another.

It seemed like another night of despair until they heard cheerful babble from the other side.         

‘Merry Christmas, Englishmen.’

The British soldiers received the greeting with suspicion.

‘What’s going on there?’

‘Is this some kind of a joke?’

They perked themselves up and peered at the German camp. Candles were lit at various places along the trenches. The harsh wasteland was dotted by benign candlelight. It was an extraordinary sight.  

‘Isn’t it Christmas Eve?’ exclaimed Bruce. As a 20-year-old newly enlisted in the army as a Private, he was ever dreamy-eyed.

‘Oh, Blessed Lord.’

The men were contemplating a suitable response, when a soldier from the other side waved a friendly gesture.

‘Stay clear. Don’t indulge with the enemy,’ snubbed the Brigadier General.

And yet an enthusiastic British soldier could not hold back his enthusiasm.  

Frohe Weihnachten*!’ He shouted back.

As though on cue, one of the Germans walked out in the open to the No Man’s land. A handful of British men trained their guns on him.

‘You no shoot, we no shoot,’ he shouted. He stood there unarmed, in a fashion dismissive of the war. It drew a surprised reaction.

‘He surely means what he says,’ said Bruce.  

One by one officers and men stepped out from both sides and met in the middle. They shook hands. No shooting tonight, they agreed. In the far distance, a small French town glowed in resplendent lights. Bruce imagined people celebrating the night in the comfort of their homes. He longed for his home in the Sussex countryside.  

‘Wish you a merry Christmas,’ said someone tapping him on the shoulder. He turned to find the same soldier who had first walked out in the open. He was a broad man with remarkable features, slightly older than Bruce.

‘Merry Christmas,’ replied Bruce.

‘Matchstick?’ he asked, extracting a pipe from his breast pocket. Bruce obliged. 

‘Ernst Wolff,’ he introduced himself. The rank insignia sewn onto his upper tunic sleeve indicated he was a Sergeant.

‘My name is Bruce,’ said the young Britisher looking at him in admiration.

‘Nice to meet you, Bruce,’ he said in a gruff voice. ‘For you, a pipe? With German tobacco.’ He chuckled.

Bruce was fond of smoking. ‘I will share yours,’ he said and pulled it out of his mouth.

‘You amuse me!’ said Ernst. ‘Did you like it?’

Bruce found the sweet taste of the pipe and the earthy smell of tobacco quite intoxicating. 

He noticed folks mingling and exchanging small souvenirs. They traded cigars, hats, and chocolates. As he watched, he felt home wasn’t as far as it seemed earlier.

The soldiers retired to their trenches for the night. At dawn break, there was still an eerie silence around. Gunfire could be heard miles away on the right and left, but this part of the battlefront remained committed to the temporary ceasefire.

The morning half went without any excitement. By afternoon, the men were bored. Someone produced a football from somewhere and proposed a contest between both sides. ‘Bring it on,’ both sides cheered. Bruce played with such abandon that it prompted Ernst to indulge in reckless banter. ‘You look serious, but you have swift legs,’ he shouted every time he dodged him. ‘Let’s see who can run faster,’ they challenged each other and sprinted away with the ball. Even though the game ended in a goalless draw, every player felt like a victor. 

As the evening came to a close, the candles were lit again. A small group huddled together and sang carols in both languages. Bruce and Ernst sought each other’s company. There was an unmistakable magnetic attraction between them. 

At midnight, they sat down in silence and smoked together. Each time, Bruce insisted, “I will smoke from your pipe. It’s the best thing I have ever tasted,’ and giggled with a boyish charm.

‘You can have the pipe,’ said Ernst. ‘Will you sing for me?’

‘How did you know?’

‘You are a quiet bloke. What good use is your resounding voice for?’ 

Under the serene skies and the glittering stars, Bruce lent his voice to the divine hymn.    

Silent night, holy night

All is calm, all is bright

Round yon Virgin Mother and Child

Holy infant so tender and mild

Sleep in heavenly peace.

Sleep in heavenly peace.    

‘Your singing reminds me of my family church in Heidelberg,’ said Ernst. ‘Very soothing.’

He laid down on his back and closed his eyes. Bruce held his hand and kissed goodnight. 

Since both sides had reached an informal agreement not to resume fighting till the New Year, the truce sustained in the following days. Instead of boredom in the trenches there was a semblance of normalcy. The barren ground still littered with tree stumps and snarls of barbed wire was a stark reminder of the war. But the truce couldn’t have arrived at a better time for Bruce.

On most days, he went looking for Ernst. They mostly spent time together, drinking, smoking, and chatting about their childhood and home. Yet, on some days, Ernst was elusive and kept to himself.

‘What is the matter with him?’ Bruce inquired of the German soldiers.

They replied, ‘Ernst? Why! He must be busy reading love letters from his wife.’

Bruce was shattered by what he had heard. 

‘Are you married already?’ he asked him the next time they met.

Ernst smiled faintly and replied, ‘I got married a year before I had to join the war.’

‘Don’t you still love her?’

‘Of course. I do.’

‘Oh!’ Bruce ran his fingers in his hair. His face betrayed the slight he felt. He was disturbed at being oblivious to an intimate bit of Ernst’s life.

He tried to walk away, but Ernst held on to him. ‘Don’t go, Bruce. I feel lonely.’ A smile returned to Bruce’s face. In a heady rush of emotion, he grabbed the German’s face and kissed him on his lips.

From that day, little was spoken between them, but they had accepted their mutual affection. They shared wine, cookies, cigarettes and whatever parts of them that could be shared without hurting each other. Soldiers from both sides were amused by their aloofness. ‘Looks like we won’t have to resume the war,’ they joked. 

They bonded again during the modest party organized on New Year’s Eve. Ernst drank lots and laughed even more. 

‘What would you rather be if not a soldier?’ He asked Bruce.    

‘A writer,’ Bruce replied.

‘I knew it.’

‘Why do you care?’

Bruce couldn’t hear what he said since their conversation was drowned out by loud singing – ‘Auld Lang Syne’. Ernst joined the men bidding farewell to the year. He sang till he was exhausted and fell into Bruce’s arms. 

Before they signed off for the night, Bruce persisted with him, ‘Tell me more about her.’


1st January 1915

‘Aim, quick. They are coming at us.’ The Brigadier General’s hoarse voice reverberated in the crisp morning air. The blanket of snow was thicker than the previous day. 

Bruce was agitated by the suddenness of the command. The merriment of the previous night lingered in his head so much that he had forgotten he was in the middle of a war zone.

‘What in the name of God is happening again?’

‘Oh, the bloody war, isn’t it?’ another voice said. 

‘Only fools are lulled into a ceasefire,’ thundered the Brigadier General. ‘Get back on your feet. Shoot.’

In the last five months since the war started, Bruce had responded to every order. But this morning, he felt differently. Soon enough, it occurred to him he was thick in the miasma of the battlefield.

‘Come on. Let’s bring down those German bastards.’

‘We will finish this war in a few weeks.’

As the cries around him grew louder, his body trained for combat responded with the alacrity expected of his duty. In a mechanical motion, Bruce loaded his rifle, and set out towards the enemy line to open fire at them. Within no time, the formidable line of British soldiers penetrated the German defence. A fierce encounter ensued, marked by an intense gunfire and a shower of shrapnel that cut into skins.

Bruce had thus far only retaliated in defence. Now, a bomb hurled towards him felled a fellow soldier. He could be the next target. His muscles stiffened, and his heart raced. The only way to survive now was to go for the kill.

‘Attack,’ his head screamed. Bruce had advanced far into the German side till he was just a few feet away from their trench wall. Most of them had fled under the barrage of artillery firing. Suddenly, a head popped out of the trench, and the soldier’s body hauled itself up to take position. Bruce held up his machine gun with single-minded determination. Rat-tat-tat, rat-tat-tat. He fired incessantly till he found his target. The German soldier collapsed on the ground.

Bruce had claimed his first victim of the day. He walked ahead and looked down into the trench where the dead man lay. He was seized by a sharp spasm in his gut. His ears shut out the booming guns and all he could hear was the faint echoes of a raspy voice singing Auld Lang Syne.

Death knew no courtesies during the war. Ernst Wolff was a lively friend one day and a dead foe the next day. Bruce froze in motion, staring at the limp body with a mix of remorse and dispassion.

Auld Lang Syne. Farewell, my dear friend.    


25th December 1925

Hannah held on to the stony silence she had maintained during Bruce’s narration. It seemed like a long time ago that she had lost her husband, and much had happened ever since. After the strenuous war was over, people came to terms with the turmoil in their lives. Hannah had moved to New York and started rebuilding her life bit by bit. She was still struggling to make a career and forge new relationships.

Her train of thought was interrupted by choruses of hymns from the floor above.

‘It is my first Christmas here,’ said Bruce, breaking the silence. ‘I served in the British army for a couple more years after the War formally ended. Then I decided to hang my boots, and came to New York and took up this job.’

‘So, it is him that brought you here today?’ asked Hannah. 

‘On the purpose of my visit, there is something more that led me here,’ said Bruce, pulling out a leather diary from his coat. ‘I believe this belongs to you.’

Hannah took the diary from his extended hand. On the cover was a small photograph of her cheerful self. She flipped through and glanced over the pages – the ink was faded yet legible; there were side notes scribbled by Ernst. Her eyes welled up with tears.

‘Where did you find this?’ she asked.

‘I noticed it had fallen out of his uniform when – when I bent over him, er – his body. It wasn’t a bunch of love letters that his colleagues were teasing him about but an entire manuscript you had sent him to read.’

‘Yes, indeed.’ Her voice quivered with emotion. ‘It was my maiden attempt at writing a novella. Ernst was always very encouraging. He had to leave for the war just when I had finished writing. So, I sent him my manuscript. I never imagined that would be the last of him and the manuscript.’

‘I had asked him that night – if there was one wish you could ask for if you were to die tomorrow, what would it be? He said he wanted you to become a successful author. He loved you very much.’ 

‘And you loved him,’ she whispered. 

Bruce gave a slight nod.

‘Is this how you reached me?’ asked Hannah, looking at the manuscript in her hand. 

‘Yes, your short story came to my desk last week. When I read through it, I was struck not by the sharp writing alone but an uncanny resemblance to something I had read earlier, a longer version of the plot. I found the answer in the recesses of my memory. I immediately knew what I had to do next. If there were a chance to fulfil my dead friend’s wish, I would not let it go.’  

‘Ms. Hannah,’ continued Bruce. ‘I found your manuscript very impressive. Would you grant publication rights?’

Hannah did not answer.

Bruce arose from his seat. ‘I don’t mean to insist on an answer now. But I will look forward to hearing from you soon. Once again, Merry Christmas, Ms. Hannah.’

He bowed and stepped out of the apartment, far relieved than before. It was freezing out in the open. Bruce dug his hands deeper into his coat pockets. He felt a pipe in his right hand that made him smile. He looked up at the skies and noticed a bright star among the countless ones twinkling back at him. 



Picture credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.



* Frohe Weihnachten (German) = Merry Christmas 


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