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I yawn deeply, shifting slightly to get comfortable in my unstable, muddy seat. Most of my comrades were all snoozing nearby, bundled up in raggedy blankets, stuffing themselves on makeshift beds dug into the dirt or simply slumped against the trench wall. It was my turn to be on watch, taking over for the pre-dawn shift where proper alertness and wakefulness was required, lest I get in serious trouble. It wasn’t too dark, a tiny bit of light was gradually announcing itself through the horizon.
I poke through my kit, checking my weapon and bayonet, and take a peak through the loophole. It was important to be mindful when looking, as a stealthy sniper will happily knock you off. Nothing out there. I yawn again. Ugh. Sometimes you wonder which one was worse, the days and nights where you are constantly bombarded, your soul shuddering as you feel the surrounding earth around you groan, then hear the sharp noise of a whistle demanding you to climb over the parapet to almost certain horrific death, or the days and nights of prolonged boredom while wallowing in filth and the old stench of living men and dead ones.
My eyes peer through the hole again, and I jump. There was a figure standing in the far distance of No-Man’s Land, amongst the small craters, dead trees and scraggly barbed wire. “What the bloody hell….?” Was it a Boche? Must be a Boche. I didn’t hesitate. I shoot him, and see the figure topple over. Orders were orders, shoot any enemy that moves.
I grumble under my breath. What a fool! I settle myself again. My mind quickly losses itself in thought, and starts to lean towards new ideas on how to give myself Blight Wound. Nowadays it was considered lucky to get one, however difficult to properly achieve. If only there was a pleasant way to just walk over and ask the enemy “Excuse me, my good sirs, could you be a dear and shoot me on this here leg? Something serious enough to disable me but not serious enough to kill me. I fancy myself a permanent trip home. Thank you and many kindest regards”.
I crinkle my nose and push away a soggy rat that decided to perch near my foot. I know I willingly volunteered, but this is insanity. I take another peak. The figure was back, standing. Just standing there. But this time, he looked like he was closer. I froze. I blink. He survived?
I shoot again, this time aiming at the head. He topples over. I take a deep sigh, reminding myself how I always felt a mix of emotions, from feeling accomplished to feeling uneasy. Then there are moments of inward nothingness, where you become entirely caught in the chaos with a hundred other things to worry about.
I suddenly hear this strange, wailing noise. It was odd, like the sound of a throaty, dying wild creature. I turn around quickly to browse the inside of the trench. Did anyone else not hear that? I shift and look once more through my private viewpoint. And he was there again. This time, much closer. This time, he was swaying back and forth, with his head bent backwards. His hands were at his throat, clawing at it. He was clawing his neck the exact same way I’ve seen men react after getting attacked and hit with poison gas. But there was no gas around, and hasn’t been any (Thank God!) for weeks. He was clawing so badly, I’m pretty sure blood was starting to trickle down his uniform. I try to see where my bullets could have hit him, and didn’t spot any. Perhaps I missed and he ducked…but…but….
Fuck. What do I do? Shoot him once more? Throw a grenade? Call another man over? A medic? Report it? It would be highly dangerous for me to go out there on that forsaken black desert. Am I drunk? No, hadn’t had a drink since yesterday. Or am I just seeing things? I can’t be seeing things. Damnit, if I react badly, they will think I have shellshock. Everyone knows that is a sure sign of weakness.
I keep watching for a few more seconds. The figure was walking forward, albeit slowly. It was hard to see his entire uniform, it was completely stained with blood and dirt. He didn’t have a helmet on, and I couldn’t see any other kit. His head suddenly shot forward, and I swear, he was looking at me. His arms now raised, they started to twist and turn, unnaturally contorted. Hands, fingers, elbows, shoulders, all bending in various and unspeakable directions.
I jump back. I hop onto the unstable wooden planks which were suppose to help us walk through the murky water “Hume. Hume. Hume!” I speak in a wispy but urgent voice. I didn’t want to wake up the sleeping lads. I had no desire to disturb much needed rest, let alone cause a scene.
“What?” I see the head of a young man that had sandy blonde hair poking through his helmet. “Why are you whisper yelling like that?” He steps forward from the corner.
I beckon him over, and lead him to my area. There was a clear indication of uncertainty in his face, unquestionably concerned over the possible impression that we were goofing off over unserious matters, when we were suppose to be at our posts. After all, if there was something genuinely troubling, I would give off a proper alert. It would not bode well with our top blokes.
He looks through the hole. His eyes widen. “There is a man standing there. Standing there with his eyes squinting and mouth gaping. What is he doing with his…body?”
I grimace. “See? See?”
“Is..he a madman…? Did you…?”
“I already shot him twice. Fatally.”
Hume backed away. I scoot over, and this time I step up higher against the trench wall in order to look over more clearly, though I remained mindful to not be careless.
He was gone. I quickly lower myself down. “Disappeared again. Damn fuckin’ Fritz is haunting us or doing something to mess us up,” I groan. Though perhaps not low enough.
“Remember to keep your voice down, Mathews,” he told me in a quiet but sharp tone.
We both end up taking a deep breath at the same time. Then a brief pause.
Hume rubs his eyes. “Perhaps we are fatigued. Heavily fatigued,” he said softly. I nodded my head slowly. It’s time to think calmly and logically, we are two seasoned soldiers after all.
“I suppose you are correct,” I said. There are so many bodies littered out there, especially the buried ones that resurfaced from the shelling. Broken carriages, foggy dust, added with poor sleep and shitty food could lead to a world wind of dream-like imagery. I felt a little silly for panicking in my head earlier. But then again, I still felt unsure, deep down slightly scared, another type of scared that felt completely different from the fear of a bullet in the head, gas attacks, shrapnel, flamethrowers and disease.
I could tell his body was also stiff with tension, his foot tapping gingerly. I never knew what Hume’s beliefs were in regards to the unknown, mysterious or spiritual, even after we all heard about the Angel of Mons legend, but after the risk of informing him he did appear just as frazzled as I.
“I better get back.” He stood up carefully, turned around and started walking away. I watch him disappear around the corner, and I resume my position. I look again towards the vast, dreary area. Nothing. I check again a few minutes later. Nothing. I wonder what time it is? Coffee, or at least our version of coffee, would be delightful right now. I wonder if my sister got my letter. I hope she sends me some more socks, and maybe some canned pudding. She was always a delight in my life.
Suddenly, I feel something heavy, and I was freezing. Something brushed against my ear.
“A soldier’s job is never done
Not even until glory is won
Broken, mad, a darkened fate
Oh look, here’s one behind you mate.”
I jerk around to look behind me, breathing heavily. There was no one there. I scramble up and scurry back to Hume. I see Hume pressed against the trench wall with his rifle in one hand, eyes gazing through a pair of binoculars held by the other hand, entirely focused on the open scene in front of him. Someone else was standing behind him. The same mysterious thing from No Man’s Land, this time arms and body straightened as if in formal military pose. But his head was turned, facing me. His face was dirty with old grime, hardly a sight of bare skin. Eyes were wide, looking upwards, while his jaw dropping down in such a stretched way you could clearly see his bottom teeth and gums. No trace of any of the new gunshots I gave him. Dread washed over me, I couldn’t speak. This was no Boche.
We executed him two weeks ago. He was a private in our regiment who had broken down in a middle of an onslaught, crying out for his mother, tearing at his body and uniform, before taking off in the opposite direction and promptly deserting. He was later found huddled in an abandoned house at the local village a few days later, with a dazed look his face, his head pushed forward as he was rocking back and forth. “I had enough. I had enough. I had enough. Hahahahahahaha. Hahahaha. HAHAHAHA. More arms exploded you see. Little red stubs. Little red stubs. Dancing little red stubs,” he kept saying. As punishment, he was later tied to a post after a very short impromptu trial, and as commanded he was shot by his own lined up men. I remember the voice of one lone officer, opposing the execution by claiming it was not the fault of that poor soul, but the genuine damages of war. No one paid heed.
“Frig-!” I fall backwards into the filthy water when I tried to back away, awkwardly lifting my own weapon up in the air to prevent it from getting soaked. I look up again, and the man was gone. I wanted to call something out, but Hume, seemingly obviously to what had occurred, turned around and sprinted ungracefully towards the old bell held by a dodgy rope, banging his helmet against it frantically. “Gas attack! Masks on! MASKS ON!”
“Damn, damn, damn!” I pull myself together, my trousers completely wet. I then look over the side of the trench, noticing a very long stream of smoky sinewy clouds floating towards us from No Man’s Land. I rummage through my sack to pull out my gangly mask, and place it on. I was so rattled; I could barely comprehend the other reality that was approaching. Then an old feeling of remorse reappeared.
Everyone was awake now and running around in preparation, the sounds of yelling and clanking of materials spreading. I hear something blast nearby, leaving behind a shower of metal pieces, dirt and rocks. I get into position alongside another comrade, shoulder to shoulder.
“Why they the hell did you say something like that to me?” he said angrily at me a few seconds later, words slightly muffled underneath his own mask.
I ask him what the meant, and he replied that I had whispered in his ear with the words, “Good luck boy, good luck boy, tear out your veins carefully boy.”
I said no such thing to him.
Written by BlackPersephone