The earth heaves under the barrage and throws up gouts of rock and dirt in every possible direction. We run, hunched over like animals. In places we are reduced to rodents, scurrying on hands and knees as the trench is destroyed above us. I hear nothing but the booms and cracks of artillery fire. I see nothing but flashes of intense daylight when the star shells explode overhead. In those moments the world is reduced to what is before me. The trench is my home and Shiod and Kat my brothers.
A shell lands behind us. I hear its whistle a moment before impact and fall flat, covering my head. I feel the explosion before I hear it, a deep, angry rumble that turns into a terrible vibration. It tears at me, rips the trench apart on all sides. Mud and dirt and human viscera fall upon me.
I scream, not from fear but from anger and resentment. This is the reality, this shell that lands so randomly, kills so effortlessly. It is the only important thing. Lenmerer will die a traitor because he felt compassion, yet this shell is sent to us blindly and will kill us for no other reason than the degree of the barrel was good.
I climb through, pushing aside the mud and come across an arm. It is not Shiod’s or Kat’s and so I continue, shouting for them to follow me. There is a dugout nearby, I remember it. It is deep and reinforced and we will be safe there. Another flash lights up the sky and I see two men ahead of us. They are running toward us! I shout for them to go back, to turn away, to run for the dugout.
They do not heed me, do not hear me. They are young, two boys of the new draft that arrived earlier today. The first is on me and I heave myself up, my shoulder connecting with his hip and he goes down with me on top of him. Kat grabs the other by the leg and kicks him down. The boy beneath me struggles, screams and I let fly with the flat of my palm against his face. He is reduced to sobbing after only two strikes but it takes Shiod brandishing his knife to quiet the other.
We drag them toward the dugout as the barrage thickens. It is everywhere, exploding both against the ground and in the air, raining down shrapnel. A piece cuts through my upper arm but doesn’t do much damage. I don’t even feel it.
A more serious wound opens up on the boy Shiod and Kat are managing. It rips right through his shoulder and the blood explodes onto Shiod’s face. The boy kicks him off and is at once standing. Kat reaches for him but it’s too late. He runs like a madman into the rear, into the thickest of the shelling. We can do nothing more for him.
The dugout appears and it takes all three of us to drag the other recruit into it. He’s become hysterical again, kicking, biting, screaming at everything and anyone. “Damn fool!” Kat says and throws him against the wall of the dugout. He gets up, perhaps to run but Kat pulls his spade on him. “Sit down.”
He does and some of his sanity returns to him. Others join us, some are wounded and a surgeon’s assistant is there. He treats my cut with a bandage and begins working on the others. I don’t look at him the whole time, fearing that I will see Len’s face. I don’t want to think about Len or Vanmere or Lia or any of them. I sit down and stare at the wall.
The barrage goes on for hours. The dugout becomes so thick with heat and fear that it is suffocating. Claustrophobia sets in and more than once, someone must be restrained from running out into the barrage. I feel the itch myself. It is oppressive, settling on me like a weighted blanket. The stink of unwashed bodies mingles with exhaustion. More than one man loses control of his bowels during the attack but no one says anything. We understand these things and it is no longer shameful.
Kat perks up and I look at him. “What’s up, Kat?”
“That’s a whistle,” he says and stands. He holds up a hand to forestall any further movement. “Wait.” Three more shells explode nearby, cracking the mortar overhead and dust falls over us like a settling fog. Through it all, Kat stands motionless, listening.
“It’s come,” he says and picks up his rifle where he’d stowed it. He looks at all of us in turn, but we can not comprehend. “An attack, move!”
The word ‘attack’ forces us from stupor. I grab my rifle which I only not realize I’d kept hold of. That is what this place has done to me. In a panic I will not forget to keep hold of what matters. I go to follow when I see Shiod behind me. The rifle he carries belonged to the recruit who had run off earlier. He glowers at me. “I’m coming,” he says and gives me a shove. “Move!”
What makes men brave? What possible thing makes us dive headlong into the slaughter that awaits us? Is it madness? Is it duty? I don’t know, may never know. Shiod does not hesitate or flinch due to his injuries. He hobbles along with me, fumbling to insert fresh rounds from a dead man’s belt. In that moment, his wounded hand gripping the weapon while he reloads, Shiod is the bravest man I know.
The firing step is all that remains of our front line trench. It’s been blown to bits and craters separate only shallow cover all along the line. We duck down behind the step and I hope it is enough.
The whistles are more frequent now and down the line I see exchanges of rifle fire. I risk a look over the top of the trench and in the light of a star shell, I see the enemy coming. Kat and I look at one another, nod and begin to throw what few bombs we have left. Shiod sets up his rifle on the top of the step and fires. When the last of my bombs are thrown, I pick up my rifle and do the same.
The Johnnies suffer greatly. To our left, a man with a rotating gun is cutting into what is left of their ranks. Kat and I cover him as best we can, for he is exposed with such a weapon. He must stand to wield it. Still, it is not enough and the man takes half a dozen bullets before he falls.
We ditch our rifles as the Johnnies come over the last of the wire. Kat wields his spade and I my knife as they come at us. Shiod fires away with a revolver he’s pilfered but it is soon exhausted.
The first Johnny hurls himself at me, intending to smash the butt of his rifle into my skull. I sidestep him and ram my knife in above his hip. There is a groan of pain and he falls to the ground where I finish the job with two downward stabs.
Another reaches me just as I pull my knife out of the first. The weapon smashes into the side of my head and stars explode before my eyes. My legs turn to water and I fall. I try to raise my hands to defend myself but they won’t respond. For the moment I am paralyzed.
Shiod appears and wraps an arm around the Johnny’s throat, hauling him back. The soldier struggles, flailing but Shiod’s grip is a vice. In school he’d wrestled well above his weight and he is all arms and legs, pulling the man down. Kat comes to help and ends the soldier’s struggles with his spade.
I regain the use of my limbs quickly and we head away from the area to reinforce another position. We pass the dead man with the rotating gun and strip him of his bombs and rifle rounds. Kat and I throw the bombs as we leap into a shell crater for cover. They land in the midst of another wave, throwing debris and bodies in every direction.
“Where in Hell is our artillery!” Kat shouts, throwing his last bomb and pulling up his rifle. I have no answer for him as we take position on the lip of the crater with Shiod. We fire rapidly, and I manage to take down two soldiers in as many shots.
The enemy begins to return fire from a shell hole not far away and I slide back down for cover. Shiod’s body convulses and I realize he hasn’t taken cover. He’ll be shot! I reach out and grab him, pulling him down. “You damned idiot!”
I stop, the words dying in my throat. Shiod’s eyes are open but they aren’t looking at anything. Above his eyes, a third, red one has opened. For a moment I don’t understand, can’t understand.
“Snap out of it! Wake up!” I shake him. “Wake up you damned idiot! Wake up!” His body does not respond. There is no breath in his lungs, no witty comment about to burst from his lips. His eyes do not move, but continue to stare blankly into the sky. “No,” I say, my whimper lost in explosions that suddenly open up on the field. Our artillery is firing but it is too late.
“Hey,” I say and cradle his body in my arms. “Don’t worry about it… you… it’s fine…” I lean my head down against his, unable to speak the unspeakable. Then I force his eyelids closed. “It’s okay.”
“We have to get out of here,” Kat says. I nod, upset because there are no tears on my face. I feel numb inside, like all the feeling has been taken from me. Shiod lays still against my chest, his body still warm but the life already gone.
Kat takes my arm and tries to get me up but I pull free. “I can’t leave him here!” I shout but the shells are falling dangerously close. I know I can’t stay here, can’t keep him here. “Help me!” I can not leave him out here like Vanmere. I can not.
Kat takes takes Shiod from me, cradling his body in his arms like a mother might hold a child. I think of Shiod’s mother, who always looked away when the beatings got bad. Would she look away now? If I go to her, stand at her door and tell her, will she simply ignore it and refuse to know?
We reach the reserve trenches but I don’t remember how. A stretcher bearer comes to take Shiod but I refuse to leave him. “He’s gone,” he says over and over. Eventually, I nod. Still I go with them to the station where the surgeon confirms it. He hands me his things, a small pouch of coins and photographs he kept on him. I don’t look at them, unsure if I will ever look at them. I put them in my pack as they seal up his waterproof burial bag. I make sure he gets one of those.
The barrage goes on, each side trading endless destruction. I walk and eventually Kat finds me. There is news of Lenmerer and I hear what I must hear. They shot him as a traitor shortly before the command station was obliterated by shell fire.
This war takes everything from us. From Kat it took a sister, a cousin, a father and endless friends. From Vanmere it took his future, for he would have become a brilliant scientist. From Lenmerer it took his innocence, his naivety, his hope. He believed in such things and they shot him for it.
Shiod. His name was Devin Shiod and what it took from him was life. He lived every hour, breathed it in and laughed out the pain and suffering. He ate horrible things and pretended it was a grand feast. He surrounded himself with friends and thought of them as family. His future mattered little to him, as long as there were friends there.
The unspeakable things will remain unspeakable. One day I will go back and see his mother and his father if they are both alive and I will tell them what they have lost. They will not turn away from their son again.
And what has this war taken from me? To say everything is too dramatic and altogether too simple. It took Lia from me in the beginning, the only girl I was so sure I could love. I look out from our shell hole now as the first rays of morning peak through the rock hills and wonder. Love, sensation, it is all numbness. Will such a feeling quicken within me ever again? Can such a feeling survive this horror?
And it has taken Vanmere, Len and Shiod. In the end it took them all. For a brief, glorious moment it gave me back Shiod only to snatch him away again. It takes everything you are and have. That is war, total and complete war. When the fight leaves here it will consume other homes, destroy more lives.
A shell lands ten yards from my position and I do not duck, do not flinch. I close my eyes and wait for this war to claim me as well. Nothing happens and I sink down, the yellow water swirling with red around my boots at the bottom of the crater.
Kat is beside me. Kat, my only living friend. Kat, my savior and comrade. Stephan Katzin and myself are the only ones left. The numbness grows and settles into my chest, cushions my heart, steals my breath.
“It will be over soon,” Kat says absently. He is looking east, at the rising sun. “Another eight hours, if they were telling the truth.”
Eight hours. What is eight more hours? An eternity? A blinking of one’s eye? I can’t grasp it, can’t fathom eight hours. What will happen after? Will the fighting cease? Will we go home? It is all too far away. I am certain of only one thing.
Morning has come and I will face this day with Kat alone.