The letter to Vanmere’s family goes poorly. I crouch in the mud outside a medical tent with Kat while we wait for word on Shiod. I put the nub of my pencil to paper but the words that come are stiff and meaningless. They form no sentences, create no explanations for the woman who made me promise to look after her son out here.
At first I wanted to tell her the truth, that I’d failed to do what she asked. I would write that we’d gotten separated and I hadn’t looked for him. I left him to die in No Man’s Land without a second thought. Me, I killed him as sure as the sniper’s bullet.
Kat reminds me that it isn’t that simple. He makes me remember the insane charge across open ground with explosions all around us. It was dark, so very dark that you could hardly see a foot in front of you. Our only guidance came from the muzzle flashes of our enemy’s guns and the star shells that exploded overhead. We rushed towards death just like a ship would rush to ruin by following a lighthouse.
“Why did we do it?” I ask him, but Kat only shrugs and tells me that was how it was. That was how it was, that’s what I will tell her. I will write to her what war really is, that her son rushed to death because that’s all there was to it. There is no glory in taking a shell splinter to the abdomen, no heroics in tripping a mine. It is just what it is. Senseless.
“I can’t do it,” I say and put down the paper. I smoke another cigarette, my fifth in an hour. Back home I never touched the things but by now I’m a professional. I could light one in a downpour. This skill is one they should have taught us in the school houses. It serves us much better than knowing how to read or manage a conveyance reading.
Kat lights up as well. Together we sit and stare up at a blue sky, its fluffy clouds mixed with the puffs of anti-zeppelin fire. Still no word comes down the line about a treaty, nothing more about an alliance with Prussia. There will be no zeppelins flying our banner today.
“What we need are some good bomb raids, that’ll break up those bunkers,” Kat says. “We had a few before you got here but the Johnnies went at them pretty hard. Last one went down just before you arrived. Small thing, but an airship is an airship.”
“Where are the Johnny bombers?” I ask. “They could bake us in here.”
Kat shrugs. “Baltimore’s got some good anti-zep batteries, they will get them if they come, but they haven’t been seen in weeks.” That’s the last of it and we lapse into silence again.
Lenmerer comes out of the tent and spits into the mud at our feet. I look up at him, raising my eyebrows in curiosity. Len eyes me, rubs at his jaw and flops down next to me. I don’t ask him. Len will tell me what he’s come to say in his own time.
After almost a minute he sighs and steals a cigarette from me but doesn’t light it. Len would never smoke, but he always has to have something to do with his hands. In school he would always be rustling papers or tapping a pencil.
“Shiod is fine, I have him under a good amount of chloroform because he punched me right in the damn jaw,” he says and indicates a slightly red spot on his cheek.
“So he’ll pull through,” Kat says, gazing up at the sky.
“It was just a few fingers, he could do with less. Unfortunately they didn’t blow off the expressive one.” Len grunts and stands up. “I need to get back. I hear there will be another attack later today?”
Kat exhales a long trail of gray smoke and turns his eyes back on Len. “My bet is sundown, but who knows?”
“Can we see him?” I ask, getting up and brushing off my pants. The mud is thick on them and it cakes my hands. I try to wipe them off but there is little of me that isn’t covered in it. I settle for smearing the top of my helmet with the stuff. Len jabs a finger back toward the tent.
“Better make it fast.”
When we see him, Shiod tries to raise himself out of the cot and groans. I can see at once that Len was conservative on his wounds. The last two fingers of his left hand are gone and his right leg has some bandages I didn’t remember him having before.
His face is dirty and when I sit next to his cot, I have to resist the urge to wipe it clean. He is so small and thin that he looks like a little boy laying there. It is in this moment, as Kat stands on the other side of the cot, that I feel a sudden and irresistible sense of loss.
These are my friends. Len, Shiod, Vanmere and I grew up together since we were very young. Kat came later but has been just as important, perhaps more important. Through all the trivial problems with Lia, with school, with parents and growing up, these four were there, always.
Now one of us is gone, his body lying broken and abandoned in a lonely shell hole full of mud and rats. Another lays here, wounded and in pain and I can do nothing but tell him that he looks ridiculous. He grins, his overly large teeth making his face look uncomfortably like a corpse mask. The blood is all gone in his face, and in its place a yellow-green pallor.
“Not so bad, look!” Shiod says and holds up his wounded hand, a single finger showing. It’s a crude gesture, derogatory and pathetic, but on Shiod, it’s comical. I laugh despite myself.
“Nice to see you too,” is the only thing I think to say.
“You’ll probably be sent up,” Kat says. “First train out if you’re lucky.”
Shiod’s grin fades away and a shadow falls across his face. He looks suddenly like an old man with yellowing eyes and deep lines. His scowl unnerves me.
“I don’t want to be sent up. I want to go back with you.”
“Don’t talk stupid,” I say. “You can’t hold a rifle with that hand.”
“Can so,” Shiod says. “Ask Len, I punched him just to show him I could. Well that and for…” he looks around and lowers his voice. “For the Johnny.”
Kat leans over Shiod and prods him in the chest with one of his big fingers. “Listen. Up there is nothing but hell. You get the chance to get out, you take it. You’re lucky, I know a couple hundred boys who’d have loved to get a wound like yours.”
“I’m not them,” Shiod says and struggles to sit up again. Kat holds him down with little effort. Still, Shiod struggles. “One of those gear and brass jobs and I’m fine. Hell, I can hold a rifle with two fingers. I can hold a pistol, throw a bomb…”
“Listen,” I start to say but there’s something very wrong in Shiod’s expression. I can’t place it but it unnerves me. He struggles again and his wounded hand clamps onto my arm and shakes it.
“Let me up! I have to get back there, we have to go get him! Don’t just sit there, let me up! Let. Me. Up!”
Kat looks at me and I frown, not sure what he wants me to do. His eyes are looking into mine, holding me there like he did back on the firing step with Vanmere. I understand then, and look back at Shiod. His eyes are still wide, still mad with the fever I’d seen take him on the firing step.
I take his uninjured hand and grasp it tightly in both of mine. “Hey,” I say in a voice we used to use as kids. It’s a hushed, conspiratorial tone. Some used that tone to keep information away from others, to trade secrets or gossip. We did too, but of a different sort. We used it to talk about unspeakable things. Shiod would speak of his parents and the fighting, the beatings at home and I would speak of Lia. I use it now to speak of Vanmere.
I tell him what I couldn’t say in my letter. I tell him that Vanmere is dead, that Jeffrey Vanmere was killed by shrapnel in No Man’s Land. How there was nothing we could have done, how the fighting was everywhere and the darkness was so very complete. I tell him that he was our friend and we must remember him. I tell him that one of us must make it home to tell his mother, to tell everyone what happened to us.
When I finish, I realize that I believe, truly believe, that I am not coming home. Another attack is coming and this time it will get me. A soldier can not outlive a thousand chances. I will not be as stupid this time, but when we go over the top the bullets will not find someone else. They will find me.
“Promise me you’ll go back and tell them,” I say. Tears streak Shiod’s cheeks and his teeth are chattering. I’m shouting it now. “Promise! Say it for all that we mean to you, damn it!”
“I promise!” Shiod shrieks and then I’m embracing him and Kat is there as well. This unspeakable thing that we have lived through will have no other ears to whisper them to. Shiod will be its sole carrier, our eulogy when the end comes.