It comes with the earth shaking like a thing alive, followed by a darkness so absolute I am blind. I am swallowed by it, enveloped and embraced by it, a darkness that is utterly without sound or motion. I am frozen in its depths, unable to draw breath or let loose screams.
Then by flashes of light I am made deaf by explosions and see my friends as if through still images. We look at one another with white faces and thin lips pressed tight. In these moments of absolute light there is a complete absence of life. No movement, no warmth and no sound but the crashing of ordinance. The barrage is the only life we know.
It goes on for an hour. I am convinced it will go on forever. The wet mud and cold are the whole of my existence. I extend no further than the falling of the next shell.
An explosion goes off just behind us and Vanmere is gone, his grip on my shoulder ripped away. I cry out but hear nothing. Do I have a voice? Will I ever speak again? Shiod rises to his feet and points but I see only spots of black and white, now fading to amber and gold and silver.
Once my vision clears I spot him laying atop a mound of earth. He’s been blown out of the trench. We call out to him, dig our feet into the mud and try to raise ourselves up to grab him. At first, there is no sign that Vanmere is alive. He returns to us slowly, very slowly, with his arm swinging over the ledge as he crawls to us. We pull him down into the trench and I find myself holding him like I might a frightened child.
The bombardment continues on, heedless of us, heedless of a frightened boy who cries out for his mother. When will it end? It must end, it must! There is no reason for it to continue, to smash against us without reason or direction. Baltimore’s walls are too thick, the metal reinforced with vibration plates. The Johnnies know this, so why do they insist? Blood is the only price they can collect and it comes in droves.
Further down the line a shell lands directly in the trench. The explosion is muffled but where it hits there is nothing but a crater of destroyed mortar, mud and scraps of flesh. I press closer to the trench wall, willing myself into it, clutching tighter to Vanmere as I beg and pray for the earth to swallow us both. It is my mother, my lover, my world. If I can only be closer to her I will live for another moment.
A hand grips my shoulder and shakes me. I shrug it off. No, no! I must be close to the wall. The wall and the earth. The earth, the earth… she will save me! In a mad moment I confuse it for my mother, the only one allowed to say I may die. She has more hold on me than anything else in this world. The shells and bullets must go through her.
I am slapped and shaken, hard. I let go of Vanmere and look into the face of a young man with angular features and bright blue eyes. Those eyes hold me, pin me to the spot. I know them, know them as well I as I know anything. They are the eyes of Stephen Katzin. I feel suddenly myself again as the spell of terror is broken. Kat has come.
“Move!” he shouts, grabbing hold of Vanmere and shoving us both down the line. We head toward the area where the shell landed in the trench. I pause, horrified to pass through the sight of the carnage but Kat pushes us on.
We cross through it. The sight is so profound that they will never leave me should I survive this place. The men who lay here are not men, they are pieces of a dream, a nightmare where a human being is nothing but sinew, bone and blood. A hand sticks through the mud clutching a cross but there is no arm attached to it.
Suddenly we are passed it and Kat yells a warning. I fall backward as a shell bursts the trench wall just feet in front of me. Ahead, a man stumbles toward us and with each flash of the explosions I see his injuries in acute focus. In the first, I see that half the man’s jaw is gone. In the second, through a gaping wound in his chest, I see his lung inflate. Another shell lands, lighting the macabre scene a third time. His tongue protrudes, crying out.
We find ourselves in a dugout, a reinforced hole in the trench walls. Inside, the noise of the bombardment is lessened but still loud enough to ring our ears. I collapse on the worn, dirt floor and cough up watery mud, none of which I remember swallowing.
There are other men here, all looking as dirty and rough as I feel. Their dark blue uniforms are in tatters, stained with mud and things that are very much not mud. I turn away and my breath catches. I close my eyes, small sobs trying to force their way up from my gut. It can never be helped, the panic is just too much.
“Your head is bleeding, Tommy.”
The sound of Kat’s voice brings me back once more. I reach a hand up to touch my forehead and then go further back along. It comes back sticky and wet from rain and blood. It is a graze and nothing more. A rock struck me perhaps. Kat cleans it with a small bottle of alcohol he has in his pack and then dries it with a bandage. I don’t even feel a thing.
“Len with you?” he asks. Shiod grunts and points. It is the first time I’ve seen him since I helped Vanmere back into the trench. I reach over and clutch his hand. He squeezes and looks up to Kat. “With the medics. They made him a medic.”
“Poor bastard,” says Kat as he sits down with us. We are all sitting on a bench, shoulders touching. It is so close in here that it is claustrophobic. The heat is intense as well, but that is welcome after the cold outside. The room shakes again and again as the bombardment falls on the trench outside.
We say nothing for a time. I look to Vanmere and discover that he has gone very pale. Kat is looking at him too; his eyes suspicious. “Jeff? How for?”
“Fine,” Vanmere says. “I’m fine. Fine as ever.”
He is not fine, we can see it in his eyes. He looks like a caged animal with his wide eyes that look here and there too quickly. His hands clench and unclench constantly while he grinds his teeth. Now he begins to shake. Kat rises then but is almost too late. Vanmere is up and running for the door.
“Help me!” Kat says as he grabs hold of Vanmere’s arm. Shiod and I rush to help and together we wrestle him to the ground. He fights us with kicks and teeth, seemingly gone mad. “Let me out!” he screams. “I want to go out! I’ll find it, I’ll find it!”
What he’ll find we’ll never know, for Kat strikes him hard. It is how one’s senses are driven back into our brains. When Vanmere raves again, Kat pushes him back against the ground so hard he groans and coughs. Now a few of the other men in the dugout are on their feet. “Shut him up before he drives us all mad!”
Eventually he does. With Kat’s hidings and Shiod and I talking to him, Vanmere comes back to himself. He sits against the wall and begins to sob quietly. There are no more incidents from him.