When I was a child, I often stood in my mother’s garden, where she grew red poppies behind the house. My mother would pretend not to see me there and call out to me, over and over. Standing there, I felt invisible. In that garden of red and green nothing could hurt me. Nothing could take me away. Even my mother was not immune to it.
I stare now at the dull red petals of a poppy plant. Even in the darkness I make out the color when star shells explode. They are the color of blood and cover this wasteland from which there is no return. I lay in the land of the dead where the living should not go. We were not men when we crossed into it. We were beasts, driven mad by fear and blood rage. Now humanity returns and we are no longer welcome here.
The choking smoke of expended shells creeps along the ground toward us like an ocean’s wave, cresting shell holes and billowing over bodies and debris. In the darkness it is a gray mist. In the light of the star shells it is a pale yellow, like the color of dying flesh. It reaches for us with foul smelling tendrils, curling under and around our limbs, seeking purchase on exposed skin. It leaps for our noses and throats, wanting to be let in. Once inside it will choke us, stealing our lives like a reaper’s kiss.
It is a silent death and we hush our own voices in hope that it does not seek us out. The dying are the only ones who break that silence. To hear nothing means life and I hope that none of my friends shall call out.
Shells explode to my left and suddenly it is too much for me to lie still. I try to stand up, to run away and flee this horror but I am held down. A hand is grasping my shoulder straps, keeping me there. I struggle, wanting to scream in my sudden terror.
It is only Kat and when I realize this I stop struggling. Shiod crawls to me on the other side and nodes. We are all here, all alive. The sudden light of the explosions shows me we are all in one piece.
Kat points and we begin to crawl away in that direction. Around us the shells whistle and crash, splintering the remains of the trees that once sheltered us. We come at once upon a body. He stares with wide, bulging eyes. His hands have ripped open his shirt to expose a ghastly red wound. I hardly see it, for his eyes are haunting. They implore me to save him, to do something. They ask why he is dead and why I am alive.
We can not linger and begin to run as the shells fall again and again. They pour down from the sky in all directions, filling the landscape with blossoming clouds of fire. Instantly I imagine myself in that field of red poppies, invisible. I can not be hurt, can not be touched.
A shell explodes behind me and I am thrown in the air by the concussive force of it. I feel like I’m in the air for hours and when I land, I hit hard onto the slope of a shell hole and slide to the bottom. My helmet nearly rips free from my head with the impact. I feel something wet on my neck and under my arms. I also taste something foul that burns my tongue.
It is the choking smoke of powder and I spit violently, then at once am on my feet, clawing my way up out of the hole. My lungs begin to burn but I ignore it, pretending that I am only winded. I tell myself that over and over. I am only winded. I am only winded! The charge took too much from me, that is all.
“Kat!” I shout but another explosion drowns out my voice. “Kat!”
Perhaps I’m turned and the thought fills me with panic. Should I turn back? Go the way I came? Where is Kat? Where is Shiod? I am alone and my lungs are burning. I feel dizzy as well and in danger of passing out. The smoke is thick and obscuring everything around me. I can’t see five feet in front of my face now. I call out again but my tongue feels thick in my mouth. The vomit that comes up afterward is dark and thick. Staring at it, I wonder if I’m dying and if I will ever see Kat, Shiod, or Vanmere again. Will my parents ever hear what happened? Will they even know I’ve died? The stories of mass graves takes hold and I am more afraid of that then of actually dying.
And then Shiod is there, lifting one of my arms over his thin, bony shoulders. I lean on him and we limp away. There is Kat, waving to us as another explosion hits a tree to our right. Shards of burning wood fly past us and one buries itself in my leg. I cry out and nearly go down but Shiod manages to keep me up. He’s hurt too, I know this somehow but there’s no time to wonder how he is carrying me.
The smell of burning wood assaults me. There is also the scent of freshly turned earth, mixed with blood and something else that reminds me of going to the butchery. I vomit again and Shiod holds a wet cloth to my mouth.
“Hang in, I have you!”
We stumble through shells and fire blossoms and trip mines. The three of us are ghost-like travelers in the dark and Kat is our guide. He probes the ground ahead of him and keeps his sharpened shovel at the ready. Finally the explosions seem to lessen and we move faster. I feel fresh air on my exposed skin and I know I must be dying. Nothing in this place would feel so sweet, so clean, so pure. I am unworthy of it and feel instantly dirty.
I am handed to someone else then, Kat maybe but I can no longer see. The coughing that wracks my body now is so painful I can no longer stand or open my eyes. Above me, someone says “smoke, swallowed a lot of smoke” and then something pinches my leg. I claw for consciousness, desperate to know what is happening.
When I open my eyes, Kat is standing above me. I am laying down and all around me are the walls of the trenches. We’ve made it then, I am alive. Joy erupts in me, safe in the knowledge that I am not bound for an unmarked mass grave. My parents will know what happened to me. Kat will see to it. Kat… Kat…