“Two men looked out from prison bars; one saw mud, the other saw stars”

The rain had been falling for days now, streaming from the gutters until they overflowed and the meagre exercise yard, a prior wasteland of dying grass, had been submerged to such a depth that the guards had foregone allowing the prisoners access to it.

Twenty four hours a day, reduced to square feet and set meals with nothing to break the monotony. Revolt was in the air, every man in the gulag talking of bullets and bread.


Karl set his tin tray down, took out one of the cheap cigarettes Mika got from his Ukrainian compatriots beyond the razor wire fences, the kind that sagged as the ash collected but were worth a weeks scrip, and accepted a light from Heinrich.

The big Ukrainian shook the match and stared at the burnt head. Each one was a symbol of the men around them. So young and fresh, stacked neatly in their boxes, ready to go out into the world and then, in an instant, they are struck and burn brightly, setting light to the world about them. And then they die and are extinguished, and all that is left is the black head, to be discarded.

Both men had served in the Great Patriotic War, fighting for the Party against the capitalist pigs. And now both men were out of their matchbox, their fuses struck.

“She flies,” Heinrich said.

He was still studying the match, but Karl had spent enough time with him that the match was the least of Heinrich’s concerns. Heinrich set the match down, exchanged it for a piece of black bread and cursed the lack of lard. Karl had spent months in Stalingrad, waiting for the Stavka to make a move, living off of rats and chewing stones when the vermin ran out.

Heinrich had never seen combat. Never seen a German boy prostrate across a park bench in a park where benches had no right to be; the boy’s blood washed away by the never-ending rain. Now the sound of mud churning, as it had in the park, brought back only death to Karl.

No, Heinrich had been gifted with a mind that gave man the stars. Even now, the metal balls he had designed and calculated and tested and tested again were shooting past overhead, free of the rain and the gulags that had imprisoned their creators.

But every night, Heinrich would sit in their cell, the thin mattresses affording no privacy between the two men, and Karl would listen to Heinrich’s breath, as it caught in his throat. A tiny streak of light.

Karl could not look out any more. He saw only the mud, the dead and the dying of a war not long forgotten.

Heinrich could not look inwards any more. He saw only the loss, the realisation he would never be amongst them, the stars.

They were for younger men, matches, still in their packet, so young and full of energy.

Prompt originally posted by mealsonsquarewheels on reddit and received 6 upvotes.

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