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. Continue reading →
We are back on the front line. I sit on the firing step with my back to the reinforced support of a dug out. I’ve smoked the cigarette of my life and enjoy the feeling of calm it settles on me. My lungs are burning but after the pain of my wounds, I hardly notice it.
Kat is whittling a small figure out of some wood that’s blown into the trench. The lines are crude but shaped with such delicate care that I imagine he’s thinking of his sister. She wanted to be a racing champion, even though she wasn’t old enough to ride. When Kat and I used to play cards of any sort in his room, she would come in and announce she was going to be champion of them as well. Continue reading →
It is mid-day by the time I’m allowed to sit up. Len doesn’t say it but Kat does. Even this is too soon, but they need every man who can hold a rifle. A big offensive is coming soon.
“It’s less than a day,” Kat says as I hobble through the medical station with Shiod. Shiod is proposing a game of cards and we’re in search of Len again, full of purpose that we’ll steal him away from the center long enough for a game. Ever since Shiod spilled the news about Vanmere, Len hasn’t been around. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
He is aiming a rifle at us. I don’t know where my rifle came from, but perhaps in the confusion I’d picked it up. I fire once, almost blindly. A hole appears in the man’s chest and he falls face first, landing with a sickening crunch in the mud below. I stare at him, his hands splayed before me as if prostrate, his backside high in the air, his neck bent in an impossible angle and the blood that runs like a river into the muddy water.
Kat touches my arm but the attack is on us. More Johnnies crest the trench, firing and throwing hand bombs. The crack of rifle fire cuts down several of them right in front of us before they can fire, while others leap into the trench to escape. Kat is on them quickly, working with his knife. Continue reading →
The man next to Shiod dies. He is hit by a shell that explodes not a meter from us. In an instant we are covered in dirt. It comes over us like an ocean’s wave. My ears and mouth are especially vulnerable and are filled. Kat digs me out and I, gasping and spitting, help Shiod. Vanmere is spared from the whole of it by a stroke of luck.
The dead man lay where he’d previously stood, but only his lower torso and legs remain. The rest is gone, blown away in a blast that leaves the rest of us shaken but otherwise unhurt. I stare until Kat shakes me back to myself.
We have become numb to the falling of shells. Outside of the dugout we watch flashes of ordinance like one might watch a lightning storm. The explosions that rock the room are taken in stride. Once a direct hit cracks the mortar on the walls and there is some panic, but the support beams hold. It had been a small shell.
Kat suggests a game of cards. We try a few hands but we are too intent on listening to the cries of shells outside and soon give it up. The fear of them is gone but simple survival remains. If one of the large Lees land close enough we will have to make a dive for it or be buried alive. When told this, Vanmere turns green but does not try to run again. Continue reading →