There are no grenades to be had and so we pack our belts with as many rounds as we can. Kat hands me some food he’s scrounged and I nibble on a strip of dried meat as we collect these things, sometimes pulling them off the men who in this dugout with us. They do not protest and some do not even look up. The shell shock has gotten to them.
“This should be Shiod’s job,” Kat mutters as we leave the dugout. I do not trust myself to speak in response. That wound is still too fresh, the ghost of my friend still lingering in every dark corner. I grunt and Kat understands. If Kat grieves, I do not see it. He is a year older and perhaps a year wiser and tougher. Perhaps it is even simpler still. He is too long at the front.
We hurry along what remains of our communications trench, bent low at the waist to avoid snipers. The bullets make zipping noises through the air above our heads and smack into mounds of dirt and bags of rock. Dust blows thick across our passage, white and choking.
At the end of this trench line we wade through brown water that comes up to our knees. Frogs swim around us and Kat tosses one away with his spade. A sniper bullet takes it out in mid air. The sight is so ridiculous I nearly laugh despite myself. Instead, I silently compliment the sniper’s skill and speed.
Down the line we go, passing young men and old men and every possible age in between. No one stops us and no one offers to help us. There is no ‘hey comrade, good to see you’re still ticking.’ They avoid our eyes. Kat sets his jaw and balls a hand into a fist. His mood confirms my suspicions that this is a suicide mission. Command knows the numbers of snipers over there, how many shells they will soon be lobbing at the wall. Surely the General can see without being told. This is a waste of two lives.
What are two men to them? Numbers, that is all we are. We are numbers on a paper they will use in the years to come. They will post them for sympathy, build large memorials with our names and say to others, ‘Look at how we remember, look at what we did for them.’ Men and women and boys and girls will come and touch those names and feel like they’ve participated, honored us. It is enough to make me sick.
“You all right?” Kat asks, for he’s seen my expression. I nod and urge him on. We approach the end of the line where some of the trenches are deep enough to walk. Here men and boys are treated for their wounds. I do not stop to look at the waterproof bags that lay in heaps against the wall.
Kat leans against the trench wall and looks over to scan the area beyond. “Enough craters to take shelter in, no shell lands in the same place twice.” I join him and look, seeing the bunker known as the eastern watch beyond. It looks so far, a ghostly shape in the smoke.
Here Kat pauses and frowns. My eyes widen, I feel it coming and we duck down. A barrage opens up everywhere at once. The shells land in every direction, tearing up earth, exploding dugouts, and destroying screaming men. The field ahead of us takes hit after hit, digging out new shell holes for us.
Kat takes hold of my arm and holds up three fingers, then two, then one and we go over the top. The air is immediately hot but clear of moisture. The explosions have robbed the place of humidity. We leap into the nearest shell hole as four land near the end of the trench.
There is no time to look and again and again we go over the edge, running for the next shell hole and leaping, sliding on chests and knees into them. In the fourth, there is a single, perfectly intact chair sitting square in the middle of the crater. The absurdity of it gives me pause but only long enough to realize there is still a pair of bloody legs at the foot of it.
It is only minutes later that we are staring at the bunker from only a few dozen feet away. The shells are striking the city directly, and I swear that I can hear the screams of the dying. Kat does not hesitate and we rush for the bunker.
A shell is fired. I hear the report of its gun and detect the buzzing, terrifying whiz of its approach. It comes ever onward, seeking us. I feel its hot breath preceding its arrival and wonder what it will be like to die in a million pieces. Will it be quick or will I feel that moment in its entirety?
There is no escape from it and I run because there is no other thing to do. If I stop it will kill me, or a sniper will. Their bullets are following along behind me with every step, puffing clouds of dust in my wake. I run to my end, and I only hope that it will be swift and I will not suffer long.
The shell hits between us. I watch the silver streak of the metal casing flash before my eyes. Kat and I dive for the ground out of instinct but at this range the concussion will destroy us. I open my eyes and the shell is there, embedded in the mud, whole and steaming.
We waste no time to celebrate our providence. Sniper fire increases and we rush to the bunker. A man is there, waving for us to hurry. The earth rumbles and dirt reigns down on us like muddy rain. I slip and pitch forward but Kat is there, dragging me down into the bunker’s shallow trench.
I lay heaving, spitting mud from my mouth. My eyes close and I take careful inventory of myself, moving everything very slightly and find nothing more than some strained muscles. A moment later and I’m on my feet, crouching to follow Kat and the soldier who’d met us.
Kat has told the soldier what we’re about and we’re hustled into a deep dugout. There the General sits in a cushioned chair, fingers swirling the remains of a drink that looks like brandy. The whole dugout becomes visible to me as my eyes adjust. There are rugs and half-eaten meals of bread and canned beef. My mouth waters just seeing it. The General pays it no mind and waves Kat forward.
“Message?” he says and one of his aids takes the message from Kat’s outstretched hand. The aid opens the letter, reads it and then puts it before the General. He is not an old man, perhaps in his forties, with a long, dark beard and gold spectacles. His blue overcoat is clean and in good repair, just like his face and hands. His cleanliness angers me but I say nothing.
“So that’s it then,” the General says and looks up at us. “What does the man expect me to do?”
“Sir?” Kat says, using his most measured ton.
“The wall is coming down. Abbot’s flank is being rolled up and our trenches are gone.” He stands up and sighs, removing his spectacles. “Lieutenant, prepare a letter to give to these men.”
The man who led us in takes us out again and we crouch in the mud outside while the General prepares his return letter. In the meantime the old soldier gets us some bread and fresh water. I drink the water down and chew the bread many more times than necessary. Kat and I do not talk as we sit there, the bombardment drumming and crashing in the background. I know I must cross that barrage again but for now, for this moment alone, I am alive and at rest.
All too soon the letter is done and handed to Kat. We stand and gaze out over the great gulf we must cross. The shells land slower now but they still fall. There is no sense waiting and we go over at a run.
The bombardment falls like a curtain of fire around us. I cry out as hot teeth bite at the back of my arms, my neck and shoulders, setting them afire. Kat grabs hold of me and we fall behind a large piece of the city wall that lay like a monument in the middle of the mud and dirt and death.
I lay, angry and cursing. Just leave us alone! Just let us run two hundred feet more! Yet the barrage quickens, grows denser and Kat and I huddle together against the stone. And then, like a breaking storm, it lifts and crashes against the city.
A moment passes, perhaps only a heartbeat, but it seems like an eternity. We do not speak or waste it. The sensation of relief drains me of tension, wipes away my fears. Ahead, I can see the unexploded shell where it lies in the field, a reminder that we are alive.
“Let’s go,” Kat says and begins to rise. In doing so he does not see the collapsed bit of stone that now exposes him. I notice this in the instant before the words of warning will escape.
The impossible happens and Kat falls.