The roses lay between the shot-up, burned-out shell of a house and the overgrown orchard. He'd stopped there for the night, eaten the apples and sought shelter from the light rain and the cool summer night. Had his company burned this farm on its march through France? He couldn't remember. All the farms on all the hills of Normandy looked the same--now, even if they hadn't before. The years since the Nazi victory over France looked all the same now, too. They blurred in his memories, where the faces of the dead, German and enemy alike, also looked the same. If only the tanks he'd heard today would run him down so he could release this last cowardly hold on life. If only he had the guts to stop surviving and seek his own death. He'd left the smoky stench of the house and the guilt that lurked there and gone out into the rain. And found the roses. They were untouched, although the flower beds surrounding them had been utterly destroyed and even the apple trees behind bore scorch marks. Untouched by fire, but not entirely untouched, he saw as he limped closer. Out here, in the middle of no-man's land, the roses looked kempt. Cared-for. Why roses, he wondered, too bleary to wonder harder about why anything at all was cared for. Nasty thorns. Too much trouble for a few pretty blooms. Why roses? The touch on his arm was no more than the brushing of the wind, but so cold, so warm, so unlike the wind that his heart stopped. His hands, well-trained, reached for his rifle as he swung around. Eyes like pieces of dark glass stayed his hands. His heart stuttered, then started again. The woman who'd touched him took a step back. Her hair was swept back into a kerchief. She wore a plain dress and apron and a face with too many lines for her years. "Not too much trouble." The words were more soft and rounded than German, but he understood enough of French to think that was what she said. A French woman. Alone? He looked around and saw no one else. If anyone dangerous to him lurked about, they would surely have killed him by now. That wouldn't have been all bad. "Who are you?" He asked in German, and her only response was a sad smile. He began to phrase the question in French, but before he could think of the words, he realized he could see through her. The trees behind her, the burned-out house, the darkening sky--it was all faintly visible through her body and her face. Only her eyes were not transparent--dark eyes like pinpricks into another place. He stepped back, felt the thorned branches catch on his pant leg, felt the moist lump of a crushed flower beneath his boot. The ghost gasped and held out her hands as though to stop what was already done. In her right hand, she clutched a bundle of cut roses. Blood ran from more thorn pricks than he could count, surely more than there should have been. Blood trailed down her forearm and dripped from her palm onto the blackened earth. "Mein Gott," he said. "Lay them aside, woman." She shook her head, apparently understanding even though he'd spoken again in German. He realized that he'd not spoken at all the first time, and she'd answered him anyhow. "They hurt you," he said. "Why do you hold onto them?" "It is beautiful," she replied. "It is worth the pain to keep from letting go." He shook his head. "It? They are flowers. Only flowers." "Only flowers," she said. "Only life. Little things, but all we have." She'd been listening to his thoughts for longer than he'd realized. She motioned him to step forward, off the trampled roses. He did, and when he looked back, the plant had already sprung back into place. "It recovers quickly." She smiled, though he could hardly believe she was smiling at one of the soldiers who had destroyed her home, her family--her life. She plucked a rose from her bloody bouquet and held it out to him. It bristled with thorns and dripped with blood. The bud was tightly closed, pale, creamy pink with blushed edges. If he touched it, it would feel like velvet, he thought. "It is worth the pain," she repeated. "Will you take it? Will you hold onto it?" He thought of home, the first time in months he'd done so. Was it still there, that tiny farm where life had been hard but bright? What remained of it? What would remain of it, when the war was over? The longing to be there was an ache in his gut, but it was hopeless. Even if he could reach it before the Allies captured or killed him, Germany was surely as doomed as he was. As doomed as she. Yet she stood there with her beloved roses clutched in her bloodied hands. And offered one to him. He was ashamed, suddenly. He stared a moment longer at the closed bud, wondering if it would bloom, imagining its beauty if it did. She held the rose closer to him. He took it. Pain pricked, but it didn't hurt as badly as he'd imagined. Blood welled. The ghost nodded and disappeared. The distant grumble of approaching tanks reached his ears. His earlier wish to lay himself beneath their treads gnawed at his gut, but it wasn't as strong as before. He clutched the rose more tightly yet and ducked into the cover of the orchard. A long, grim way to go, to home, he might make it yet.
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