August 29th 1914, Grimbergen, Belgium.
I was not ready.
That's what I thought, but the enemy would have to shoot me before I would say it out loud.
Our brand of soldiers was lying hidden in the high grass on the shore of the canal, observing the bridge. The Burned Bridge, that is. It had earned its name when it was set on fire by the Spanish Garrison a very long time ago, but I didn't quite remember when. History lessons had never been able to hold my attention for long.
But now it were not the Spaniards who were besieging the Bridge, but the Germans. The opposite shore of the Canal was made entirely inaccessible. The wrong side. The side with the village.
What had they done to them? All of them? Mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, husbands... Wives.
We had seen it, the night before. The night had been quiet – almost peaceful, if we hadn't known better – and dark. So dark. Almost everyone had been sleeping. Everyone, except us – the Guards of Grimbergen. We had been watching over the village, split in pairs, supposed to be protecting it.
“I'm tired, Léon,” my fellow – Gerard – said. “They won't be attacking tonight. They're not even close. And it's quiet.”
I didn't avert my gaze from the faint lights on the other shore. Somewhere out there, in one of those houses, my Mary was sleeping.
“Can't we just go to sleep?” he whined.
I still didn't move my eyes. “You can. I won't.”
Perhaps my Mary was awake right now. Lying in her bed, suffering from insomnia. Would she be thinking about me? Like I was thinking about her now?
“Dude. You're no fun. I'm gonna crash right here, wake me when something happens.”
I didn't answer. I just kept scanning the village. After a last grumble, Gerard finally shut up and went to sleep.
I didn't know how much time passed while I simply sat and watched in the dusk – minutes, hours – but after a while, I detected movement. I blinked and focused on the spot, but it looked just as still as it had before.
Now, it could have been my tired eyes deceiving me – but I couldn't take the chance. Even the smallest suspicion had to be mentioned to the commander. The Germans were smart, violent and sneaky like foxes.
“Gerard!” I whispered urgently, “Gerard, you idiot! Wake up!” I tugged his arm.
“Mmmmm... Louisa...” he murmured, a faint smile on his lips.
I slapped his jaw. Not hard, but just enough to wake him up. “Wake up, darling.”
If I hadn't been so anxious, Gerard's expression would've been funny. His eyes were confused, bewildered. When he saw me, the corners of his mouth turned down, disappointed.
“What?” he asked sourly.
“Movement. Near the village, Section Three.”
His eyes widened, and he immediately turned his look to the Canal. “The Brige?”
“Shit. Not good. Really not good.”
The burned Bridge was our weak spot. The Germans only had to disable it, and we were helpless to do anything against them destroying the village. Sure, there were some soldiers over there... But not enough to both protect the villagers and fight the Germans. Everybody knew that – but no one thought it would really come this far. If the Germans attacked, they would come from the East side, over the Bridge. Not the West side, from behind the village.
“Darn it. Get the commander. Quick!” I ordered. Don't panic, don't panic... Gerard scrawled upright and sprinted of as silent as possible.
I went back to studying the other side. Yes, there definitely was movement. My exhaustion was long forgotten, but my worry had only increased.
Mary, Mary, Mary... Was she all right? Would she be? God, I hoped so. I never had hoped for anything as much as for that. Please let her be okay. Let her walk away from this.
And now we were helplessly watching the shore, just like then. And I was not ready. I wasn't, but I had to do it.
“Commander, Sir.” I paused. Was I truly going to do this? I knew the commander would allow it. In times of war, we had to use every chance we got. “Sir, I have a plan.”
The commander's grave face turned to me as I addressed him. “Yes, Trésignies? Let's hear it.”
“Well... The Germans disabled the mechanism of the Bridge, right? We need to repair it. I could” - Not ready, not ready - “swim to the shore and do it. If I'm allowed. Sir.”
I said it. There was no turning back now. I wasn't ready, but I had to do it, even if it wouldn't succeed – I had to at least try to save my Mary.
Suddenly, all murmured conversations in the distance came to an abrupt stop.
“You... what?” Gerard shouted, breaking the silence. He wasshocked. “But- That's suicide!”
I swallowed uncomfortably. “I- uh. I know. I'll go.”
“What?” he yelled again, “You know? Léon, this is war. Not a time for heroic deeds. This is no story, dude. 'S real life.”
“I know,” I repeated, “But... what if it works?”
Silence. Apparently, no one knew what to say. And I knew what they were thinking. They didn't want me to do it – but if there was a chance, a reasonable chance that it worked and we could save Grimbergen and its inhabitants...
“Léon Trésignies,” the commander started in a severe tone, “If it works – and I suppose, even if it doesn't – you will truly be a hero.” A glance at Gerard. “A real life hero. But still a hero.”
“But Sir!”, Gerard protested angrily, “You can't let him do that! He'll be shot before he reaches the shore!”
“We all know that, Desmytere. But what if it works?” the commander repeated my words. And with that, the discussion had come to an end.
* * *
We had taken in our places. Hidden in the grass, behind trees, under bushes. We were waiting for the sign.
I was not ready at all, but for my Mary – only for her – I would do this.
I could almost sense the gratefulness and the sadness of my companions in the air. The atmosphere was anticipating, thick, heavy. We could see the Germans patrolling up and down the bridge, the dike, the roads. My eyes traveled to the houses. Mary... Please be okay. Please forgive me for this.
The call of an pigeon cut the sky. The sign. I was the only one who moved, sneakily and hoping not to be noticed. I slipped in the water of the Canal.
It was so cold. Even though it was summer time, the icy feeling cut of my breath for a few moments – but I didn't have time for that.
I dove. Under water, the world seemed dark. Black, almost. I kept swimming. Had they noticed me? Would they shoot? I stifled those questions in the back of my mind. There's no time to worry – it was already too late. I'd be dead anyway.
My hands touched something soft. It was the submerged wall of the shore, overgrown by water-weed. Finally. My lungs were screaming for air – but my mind wanted to stay in the water. Land, dangerous. Water, safe.
But I forced myself to go up. Everything went very fast then – I couldn't lose any time. Once the Germans noticed me, I'd be dead. And I couldn't be before I repaired the Bridge's mechanism.
I jumped on the shore, without time to waste. Quickly! I sprinted to the Bridge's mechanism.
It started with one shocked shout, and others swiftly followed. Pang. A gunshot, but it missed. Don't stand still, keep running. If I kept moving, they couldn't aim right.
I reached the Bridge's mechanism. I had been here before, I knew how it worked. It was quite simple, actually. One large switch to turn the Bridge up and down, and several chains. One was broken.
Pang! I ducked. This was what I was trained for: shunning gunshots.
I pulled the chains together and switched the handle – a loud metallic sound overshadowed all the other noises.
Léon Trésignies... If it works, you will truly be a hero.
Pang! Pang! Two short pains, my shoulder and my chest.
It had been suicide. But it had been useful.
Mary... My Mary. Please forgive me. Walk away from this. Please be all right.
A/N: Hello people! Thanks so much for reading this! I just wanted to say a little thing. Now this story right here really happened. well, not all of it - I have no idea if Léon's wife was called Mary - but the main things did. I live in a town near Grimbergen - which is now a city, not a village anymore - and we all grew up with the story. There's even a memorial stone for our friend Léon. Anyways, please comment! Thank you sooooo much! xx Paige