"Down at the beach one summer a bunch of kids and I found a sandpiper's nest. Had the worst fight I ever had in my life with a kid that wanted to take the eggs out of the nest." - D'Angelo, "The Crucible"
"How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world." - William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice
It's summer the day they see the sandpiper's nest, he, and four other boys on the beach.
There's three speckled eggs nestled beneath the sea bird. His dark eyes are wide, awed with the discovery, the beauty of life wrapped in a hard shell and hidden from prying eyes. The bird spots them, getting to her feet and hopping away, dragging a wing behind her. He takes a step back to ease her worries.
One of the other boys reaches forward and starts to roll an egg out of the nest.
"What are you doing?"
He taps the egg. "For my collection."
There's fear in the mother bird's eyes as she chirps, dragging her wing slower, darting in front of them.
"No, put it back." his voice is harsh, as rough as a ten year old can sound.
The kid looks up. "Its just a stupid egg, Pete." He raises a foot to smash the nest and something within Pete breaks, like a band drawn too tight, wound to the breaking point.
He doesn't know how much longer they can hold on.
Smith got it first, a bullet through the temple killing him in mid word. The replacement never knew what hit him.
Mac and Saunders were hit almost at the same time, the leg for one, side for the other. Nothing fatal as far as he could tell but neither could run or even walk to take out the machine gun nest that's tearing them to shreds.
He runs a hand over his face, drawing in a shuddering breath. That left Gibson, the green kid who went into shock the first time he saw someone shoot at them, the boy who blushed red to his hair-roots if he was within ten feet of a girl. He was huddled over the radio yelling the same words over and over.
"Apache 1, this is Apache 6, over!"
A barrage of bullets slam into the side of the foxhole and for a moment he's only aware of Gibson's cry of pain. He throws himself across the radio man as the grenade explodes, the shrapnel missing them by feet but jarring every bone in his body.
"Hey, kid!" He shakes the boy. "Gibson!"
Blue eyes flutter open weakly. "D'Angel.." A harsh cough cuts off his words and blood trickles from his mouth.
"Hang on, kid. You're gonna be okay."
"R-radio.." He chokes out.
D'Angelo casts a look behind him at the pathetic heap of twisted wires.
"It's all busted, Gibson."
More gunfire erupts and he looks over at the other wounded, Saunders out cold, the Sarge clenching his leg, face twisted in pain. Gibson's eyelids flutter, slipping closed.
"Gibson? Kid?" His fingers find a pulse, thready, but there. "Hold on, kid."
He fights with the skill of a ten year old who's grown up hard. The other boy is bigger, stronger.
An elbow gets him in the ribs, a fist to the right eye. His breath catches but he swings again, landing a blow to the boy's stomach. The kid kicks, a knee catching his nose and he feels the blood start running.
His vision is blurred, body on fire. But he throws all his strength forward into one punch, a fist into the boy's jaw.
And by the time their parents arrive and pull them apart, he has the boy down for the count.
He tosses his empty gun back into the foxhole and reaches into his uniform. A single grenade. It's all he has; it will have to do the job.
There's a stretch of open field in front of him, yards where they could cut him down. But he has to try. He touches the medal around his neck, the gold smooth against his calloused fingertips.
He only hesitates a second before he crawls over the foxhole. The machine gun turns his way, opening fire. And then, like a man with a deathwish, he stands up and runs to the next.
He wipes his sleeve across the blood trickling from his nose, wincing as it contacts the bruised eye.
He's lost three friends today, kids who don't understand why he'd fight for a nest full of eggs and a mangy bird. But it doesn't matter because beneath the pain his heart is singing.
He kneels and cups his hand gently around the egg that rolled away, returning it to the nest. Three eggs, unbroken and unharmed. The mother watches him from the water, eyes softening as she sees the touch of his hand.
She will not forget this day.
He crawls forward, out of the foxhole, the mud scraping his jacket as he holds his left arm to his side, dragging it limply. His other hand clamps around the grenade in his pocket, holding his breath as he waits.
A German peers over the top, staring at him as if calculating whether it's a wounded man or a ruse.
He pulls the pin, counting the seconds between his teeth as he waits. And then he raises up as the Germans open fire.
The bullet enters high, exiting in a spray of scarlet. The momentum throws him backwards, grenade rolling behind him.
He scrambles for it, black dotting his vision, fingers closing around the grenade. His good hand throws it, aiming toward the nest with all his fading strength.
He lets himself fall to the ground, chin slamming into the mud as he slides backwards into the foxhole and curls into himself. And in the instant before the world explodes he thinks he hears the call of a sandpiper.
"Mama bird, Mama bird, with your broken wing. Lead them away or we'll never sing."
He's dying, this one. He's come across an ocean and into the land of his heritage to fight for the country of his birth, the country her ancestors have lived in for centuries. There are so many like him, boys she ran alongside the beaches with, and swam in the same seas as the tide came in. The wound is no worse or better than their's, blood of the same hue.
But this one is different. She's never seen him but the story has been passed down, the quiet memory of a simple kindness shown by a roughened boy on a summer afternoon. This is the one, the one she owes her life to, as did the line before her. This one is...good.
He hasn't crawled an inch since the ground exploded, taking those who shot him with it. For the first moment after the explosion she'd seen the injured wing clench against the mud, but then it fell limp to his side. She thinks there's still a whisper of life left in him but doesn't know.
She calls again but he doesn't respond, lying still against the grime.
She swoops close, landing gingerly on the mud beside him, tapping her beak gently against his cheek. He's the color of the pale pebbles the children take from the shores but as she leans toward him she can feel the faint puff of air from his mouth as it ruffles her feathers.
In the distance she can hear human voices, ones not so gentle or loving as this one's. But hands, human hands that can make him whole.
She spreads her wings as wide as she ever has in her life, soaring above him in a rapid circle, a ring to keep out harm, to combat the scarlet ring around him, the blood smeared on her feathers from the touch.
She hears the first one's call, a harsh song. He comes over the ridge and toward the hole. She flies higher, staying above them and still circling. The man drops beside the good one, another running in behind him. Hands pull away his clothes, reach into the opening and fight to stop the flow. Another grabs his chest, his wrist, seeking the throb of his heart. Something comes out of the first human's pouch and he works it into the wound. She waits, heart pounding, as the crimson slows to a trickle, and finally stops.
And then, with a final call, she spreads her wings and flies away.
"How is he?"
The medic's face raises, a stranger's blood smeared on him, features lined with exhaustion.
"Hit an artery. I've got a clamp on it and we're giving him as much plasma as we've got." He shook his head, expression softening into wonderment. "If it wasn't for that bird, Captain, we'd never have seen him until it was too late."
Captain Benedict took off his helmet and ran a hand through his hair. He'd seen it too, the sea bird flying low and in circles around the foxhole. They'd found D'Angelo in that hole, covered in grime, clothes peppered with shrapnel fragments, and a pool of blood spreading in an ever-widening circle around him. The soldier's olive-toned skin was chalk white, mouth tinged with blue.
It had taken the medic several seconds to find a pulse, and even longer to clamp down on the artery. Yet he still clung to life with the tenacity of a bulldog.
He knelt and brushed a matted lock of hair off the wounded man's forehead.
"What are his chances?"
"His pulse is getting stronger. If he doesn't start hemorrhaging again he should make it."
"Captain?" He turns toward the whisper and the figure on the other stretcher. "Yes, Gibson, I'm here."
He strained to focus. "Did you see...the bird?"
"I saw it."
"Never saw....anything like it." He caught his breath, than continued. "Like it was...protecting him."
Captain Benedict turns back in time to see black eyes flutter open, staring up toward the place where they'd last seen the bird. It was gone now, flying away as soon as the medics had stopped the bleeding.
"Maybe it was."
Somewhere in the distance there's the sound of another battle, another company, of men dying, of soldiers living against impossible odds. The bird rests on a tree nearby, watches the battle with a silent and ageless gaze.
The good one will live today. She has done all she can and the humans will do the rest. He will survive and her heart soars with a song that carries over the field of death, a song to soothe the wounded and dying, the perishing in body or heart.
She does not forget a kindness.