Unteroffizier Erich Lang awakes long after the dawn to the distant sound of artillery. The gunmetal sky ripples with threatening black clouds, and the dusty smell of rain hangs in the chill air. He is slumped back against the earthen wall, his left arm crooked and folded behind him. It comes awake in a flare of pinpricks and fire, and he winces as he works it free and shakes. His slender frame is wrapped in his thick woollen coat, sodden and heavy with mud, and he feels cold water seeping in through his threadbare trousers. Besides the upturned helmet lying in the mud a few yards away, he is alone in this narrow trench.
He pulls his long legs toward his body and stands, feeling the cold air glide through the shifting folds of his clothes. The coat tugs at him as he stands, weighted down with filth.
There is water in his boots, running down his legs as he stands to soak through the layered socks that protected the last bit of warmth and dryness. He scowls at the mud and the sky, and they are unmoved.
He winces against the sudden pain in his head and chest as he tries to sort out the jumble of memories and awakening thoughts. He wonders idly what day it is, but he cannot recall the chaplain’s last sermon, the only landmark he has to mark the progress of the days.
He tries to remember the night before, or at least some small hint of how he’d ended here, soaking up rainwater in the trench. The preceding days are a monotone fog, a jumble of images and impressions of mud soaked boredom and terror.
“Thought you might be dead,” comes a voice from his left. He turns to see a figure, leaning on the wooden post at the crook in the trench. His face is obscured by a gloved hand gripping a smouldering cigarette. Erich blinks and strains to focus on the man, but his blood is now surging in anticipation of tobacco.
He takes a few awkward steps, and he can see now, the crooked chin and bulbous nose of Karl Strauss. Aromatic smoke seeps from between his yellowed teeth, and Erich wordlessly extends his hands. Karl drops the small leather pouch into them. When Erich has rolled, lit and inhaled his first cigarette, he clears his throat and spits on the hard packed earth.
“Why did you let me sleep out here? I could have froze,” he rasps. His throat is raw and catches when he speaks. Karl chuckles, a deep rumble from his barrel chest, and flicks his cigarette against the wall. It collides noiselessly with a support beam and blossoms into a hundred momentary sparks.
“I let you do what you like, Lang.” He grins at Erich and claps him sharply on the back. Erich momentarily considers anger, but cannot find the heart for it.
The low tremor of a distant explosion ripples through the dirt, and Erich stiffens.
“Big guns. Far away,” Karl says, and Erich begins to relax.
“Us or them?”
Karl shrugs and his eyes bulge slightly. For the thousandth time, Erich can see how perfectly Karl was suited to his life before the war. He pictures Karl on the stage, greasepaint glinting in the lights, playing the clown, the fool, for the cream of Bavaria. A natural.
Out here, in the blindspot of God, Karl is a natural of another sort. Erich has been with him in the beginning, since Belgium. Erich can recall the clown’s visage, somehow pleasant and comical still, in the firelight of Andenne, as they burnt the village and, fearing guerrilla fighters, shot all the men.
Karl and Erich walk the trench, taking the traverse back through the lines. A few men huddle for warmth in small groups, smoking, or warming their hands on tin mugs of coffee. There is a lethargic stillness to the men, and they keep their eyes fixed on the ground or skyward, but avoid eye contact. Erich is grateful for the quiet passage.
The first guard post is empty, and the mounted machine gun and mortar are untended. Erich looks to Karl, but he seems unconcerned. Karl has kept a small rank superiority to Erich for the past three years, and Erich has come to depend on relinquishing all judgement and worry to the older man. It has allowed to live this long, unquestioning.
Only the Chaplain sits at the mess hall benches, solemnly dipping a crumbling dry biscuit into his coffee. Karl and Erich join him, following his lead to soften the rocky bread. The Chaplain, Sebastian Raus looks up at them with watery brown eyes through his scratched and chipped spectacles, and nods, almost imperceptibly, before returning to the patient vivisection of his meal.
Erich thinks to ask him what day it is, but can’t imagine knowing would be worth the effort, and moves to lay his jacket on a small stove. Anaemic smoke drifts from it, and it seems no warmer than the surroundings. They sit in silence, draining the last of the coffee and rolling cigarettes from Karl’s seemingly endless pouch.
“I just realized,” starts Sebastian, his voice tenuous from disuse. “I haven’t seen an officer in at least a day.”
“This is a good thing, most likely,” Karl huffs with his crooked grin.
“What if… What if the line is breached, and we’re cut off, with no one to tell us?” The Chaplain does not appear worried, merely curious. For a moment, Erich considers the logic in this conclusion, and cold panic begins to coalesce in him.
“Stick to the sermons, father,” Karl snorts in derision.
But the idea gnaws at Erich through the day. He passes scattered and listless men, all strangers to him, but no officers. It occurs that he cannot recall the last briefing they had. At an empty guide post, he raises his head tentatively above the outside wall, and gazes across the front, toward the French line.
As it has a thousand times before, the stark unearthliness of no man’s land catches his breath and turns his heart to ice. Jagged cinders in the shape of trees jut defiantly from the craters and hillocks of carrion soaked mud. Erich can see blue hands clutching at the sky, the ragged shreds of boys from across the Empire.
The land is dead, Erich knows this in some deep and primal way; he’s seen burned farms, and razed towns, but out here, it’s different somehow. There’s a palpable emptiness, a hollow that absorbs all sound, and cuts away at those that persist in living here. Erich can feel it, reaching out to him from the monochrome charnel fields. A shiver twists around his spine.
“I know it doesn’t look like it, but He is here.” Sebastian’s voice is quiet and hollow. Erich turns to regard the Chaplain briefly, before returning his gaze back to the void.
“I admire your faith, Sebastian,” Erich leaves the next part unsaid. Sebastian has been insistent and dedicated, but they’ve had this conversation many times. Erich knows they are going through the motions to satisfy Sebastian’s guilt, but today, he’s too tired to humor him. Erich hasn’t believed since Andenne. Sebastian’s smile is weary, and he looks grateful for Erich’s non-participation.
“You’ll see,” he says, at last.
They stand in silence, as a thin and fetid miasma of fog drifts over the dead land and spills like molasses into the trench. Erich is looking at the fog thicken and blot out the unburied dead, when he turns to see Sebastian is gone, the fog and the dead land stealing even the sound of his footsteps.
The sky darkens and Erich gives up any hope of being dry or warm today. A concertina picks out a lively tune in the distance, but the fog muffles the sounds and robs the life from the notes. Erich tries to follow the wilting music, taking traverses and glancing down each line, but it always stays in the distance, circling around him in the encroaching gloom. At last, it dies away, mid stanza with a mournful trill, and Erich is alone in the deepening gloom.
He fights down panic as he backtracks towards the front line. The dark and the mist have muffled the world, the only sound is the scratching shuffle of his wet wool coat and the tread of his boots. The trench is empty, and he is alone. Above him the sky is a bruise, purple and darkening. He struggles to recall which direction the makeshift barracks are in, but this only makes him realize that he’s not quite sure where he is at this moment.
The fear has him now, a cold blue corpse’s hand clutching at his lungs. He struggles to catch his breath and the filthy damp in his clothes presses inward, smothering his skin and extinguishing the heat like a flame.
The world pitches a little, shudders, and he’s suddenly aware of sitting, Karl above him and sliding a lit cigarette between his fingers. Erich catches a hold of his drumbeat heart and focuses on the warmth of the smoke. Karl is playing the father, his best paternal mask on his face.
“I worry about you, Erich,” Karl says at last.
“What’s going on?” Erich demands. Karl smiles, sadly, and helps Erich to his feet.
“Does it matter?” Karl offers at last, turning away. “Get some sleep, boy.”
He hums tunelessly, and soon the fog swallows his music and the burning ember of his cigarette, and Erich is alone, again. For the first time he can remember, Karl’s assurance has not thawed the frost in him. His heart begins to surge again, terror winding around his ventricles and constricting. He loses his breath and begins to pant, dropping his helmet and running his fingers through his filthy hair. The sky seems to contract around him, and the trench stretches away infinitely. Erich is gripped by fear, and he slumps against the earthen barricade.
There is a low thud, followed by an angry hissing, and a bright column of red fire arcs into the sky, igniting the black fog. The world is suddenly bright and painted crimson. He stumbles to the edge of the trench, and looks over the edge, hoping pitifully not to see what he knows is there.
The nightmare landscape of filth and gore is cast into sharp and dancing relief by the burning flare, and the graveyard is picked out in sharp contrast. The dead trees loom menacingly like prison bars around the dead. The fog hovers like a noxious living thing, its tendrils caressing the defiled earth.
In the hellish stillness, he sees them, surging from the fog. Hundreds, thousands of the enemy, breaking across the pitted ground like a wave. Bayonets on rifle barrels shudder across the surface like quills, and they are pressed together so close that Erich can not pick one from the next.
He grasps at his back for his rifle, and realizes with a sickening lurch that his doesn’t have it, hasn’t had it all day. His sidearm holster is empty, the leather damp and torn.
They are closer now, and the world is silent. Erich can see their hollow, empty eye sockets. He can see their hanging, shattered jaws and torn leathery skin. He can see the French soldiers in ragged uniforms, and the torn and burnt shapes of civilians. He can see his friends, his comrades. They all bear down on him beneath the waning flare light in utter and unbroken quiet.
They crash over the edge of the trench, and Erich feels a bayonet slide into his lungs, hears the rifles fire, and smells the burning wool and meat from his ragged wounds. He is crushed backwards, his arm folding beneath him as he tumbles to the floor.
The rotting thing above him stands, panting. Erich looks up to it, but instead of worm choked cavities, he sees… watery blue eyes in a filthy, young face. He sees fear that matches his own. He sees a child. He sees. He begins to understand.
The fog, at last, obscures his sight.
Erich awakes long after the dawn to the distant sound of artillery. The gunmetal sky ripples with threatening black clouds. He is slumped back against the earthen wall, his arm crooked and folded behind him. It comes awake in a flare of pinpricks and fire. Besides the upturned helmet lying in the mud a few yards away, he is alone.
Credited to Josef K.