When the German artillery finally ceased firing around sunset, Jack’s neck and shoulders slowly relaxed; he hadn’t realized he’d been tensing them all that time. The relentless shelling had forced his company to hunker in the trenches for over forty-eight hours. Now the silence unnerved him. The shelling could resume at any time, but the officers sent word that the men should rest as best they could.
Jack sat on a stool, dangling his feet inches above the mud oozing up through the wooden floor boards. Their dugout opened to a trench that stretched for a dozen yards before turning a corner to connect with another deep damp trench. At one end of the dugout, Privates Watkins and Sutherland sat on wooden crates playing cards in the growing dusk as they awaited further orders. They played whenever there was a lull, and Sutherland cursed when he lost a hand, even though they were only playing for matches.
Brown, the other company sergeant, sat at a makeshift desk, writing dispatches. He was a prissy little man, always polishing his boots and buckles and trimming his moustache. Seemed pointless here in the muck.
Off in the distance, some fool was playing “Oh, Johnny” badly on a concertina. There’d be no sleep tonight as they waited for the enemy’s guns and mortars to resume.
Might as well make the best of it and write to his kid sister; there hadn’t been time during the barrage. There’d been no major casualties during this attack, but beyond the dugout, the dead lay rotting on the fields. Jack breathed through his mouth; the stench of decay and human waste was thick in the trench air. He balanced a book on his knee as he wrote.
Thanks for the cake—it sure tasted fine. Tell Ma she’s not to worry, I’m all right. The grub is pretty good and they feed us three squares a day. I hear we may be pushing on tomorrow—the Germans are no match for our Howitzers.
He crossed out the last line, no point giving the censors more to cut. He’d heard of letters arriving home with entire paragraphs blacked out. But he didn’t want to write another cheery letter about the weather and the food, God knows he’d written enough of those.
“Hey, Yank! Writing yer sweetheart?” asked Clark, the newest recruit, but Jack ignored him. He wished that they would stop calling him that, as if his birthplace mattered. When he’d enlisted a year ago, he’d told the recruiting officer that he was from Vancouver, which was half-true, Ma had been born there. The Canadian recruiters generally didn’t probe too much, they were too eager to enlist any man who applied, even Yanks. Some folks back home weren’t happy about that, and the government was threatening to strip the citizenship of any man joining a foreign army. Hell, what did they expect a fellow to do, sit at home while there was a fight going on? Yeah, that’s how he’d thought back when he was as green as this newly-minted private sitting across from him.
Now, he wasn’t so green, and he wasn’t so certain of this war. Six months in the trenches took the fight out of a man. He set aside the letter and leaned back against the dirt wall. The periods of mind-numbing tedium between attacks were almost as bad as the barrages. He’d never seen so much rain in his life. Funny how back in Carson everyone prayed for rain, while here, it never seemed to let up. Sometimes, he had to stand for hours in stagnant water watching as trash and rats floated by. At least he hadn’t contracted trench foot like O’Malley who could barely stand. He wanted to tell Kate how miserable it was here, but he stopped short of writing about last month’s night patrol.
He’d volunteered to climb out of the trench to check the communication wires along the edge of no man’s land. Restless after days of inactivity, he’d welcomed the opportunity to escape the closeness of the trench. He kept low to the ground, his eyes open for any movement.
The farm fields between the lines had been beaten lifeless by artillery shells. In the late night, the waning moon’s light cast long shadows across the barbed wire strung along the line. Up ahead, a shape appeared in the pale light. He froze, not daring to breath, and stared at the form, but it didn’t move. Might be a cow or a horse killed by the shelling. If the carcass was fresh, that meant meat for the company mess. He crawled towards it.
It was a dead German soldier, caught in the barbed wire fence like a rabbit in a snare, the body bent over, the head bowed as if in prayer. The lower half of the man’s face was missing, shredded flesh and fragments of bone where his jaw should have been. Jack fell back on the ground and turned his head away from the corpse as he fought the urge to vomit. He crawled away, leaving the body hanging in the wire, where it would remain until the enemy sent men to reclaim their dead. He dragged himself back to his dugout and stumbled down the ladder into the trench. He fell to his knees and vomited uncontrollably until there was nothing left inside.
Almost a month later, he was unable to fall asleep, afraid of the dreams that would come, dreams of crawling through miles of mud and debris in darkness while chased by dead Germans. The nightmare ended the same way every night: seeing his own faceless body strung in the barbed wire.
How could he write of his empty days, his longing to sleep without waking up in terror? He couldn’t even write that he regretted enlisting and that he wanted to go home, the censors would likely cut that. Bad for morale. But he could say that he missed the family ranch, missed the fresh scent of sagebrush, missed the quiet solitude of the desert. Kate would understand that.
In the darkness, a light flashed noiselessly above him. A shooting star. More lights streaked across the skies—the Perseid showers. He stood up and pushed his steel helmet back on his head to get a better look at the brilliant stars above; seeking constellations he’d learned as a child: Lyra, Cygnus, Ursa Major. Frozen in that lovely second, he forgot for a moment where he was and why. Hundreds of shooting stars crisscrossed the night sky, and he was back home, eight years old, watching the stars with his mother. Shooting stars foretell death, Ma had said. Another flash overhead but this one was a thousand times brighter than the stars. He watched, mesmerized, as a star shell’s flare floated from a small parachute and blazed brightly for a minute, illuminating the trench. An artillery shell burst over his head, and he slipped into blackness.
He forced his eyes open but could not see clearly. His left eye refused to focus and his face felt like he’d been punched with a lead weight. He tasted blood. The air around him vibrated with a tinny whining noise; his head throbbed and his limbs were numb. He attempted to raise his head but lacked the strength, sinking deeper into the mire. It was as if the foul mud was devouring him.
Voices from faraway, indistinct. Someone was coming for him.
The voices grew closer, two men chatting casually as if sharing a pint down at the pub. A young man’s voice. “Watch yer step here, it’s slippery. God, look at this mess.”
The other man, older, clucked his tongue. “Poor buggers never saw what hit ‘em.”
A rattling of metal tins, then the younger man’s voice. “Would you look at that? Them Canadians have coffee. I haven’t seen a decent cup of coffee since Christmas.”
“Leave that be and help with the stretcher.”
“But the coffee’s going to waste.”
“You’re not here to take what’s not yours.”
“All right, all right, but I don’t suppose these buggers’ll miss it.”
Their footsteps came closer.
The younger man said “Forget that one, he’s done for. There’s nothing we can do for this lot.”
Jack tried to call out. Over here, come on. I’m still alive. Don’t you see me? Only a faint gurgling sound came from his throat.
The men’s voices grew fainter and farther away. Stop! Come back. They couldn’t leave him here to drown in a muddy grave.
He tried to move his mouth again and a searing pain tore through his face and neck. He moved his tongue to inspect his mouth. There were teeth, and then nothing. A hole. He touched his right cheek, feeling his jaw and the corner of his mouth, all solid flesh. Then he put his left hand to the other side of his face. His fingers sank into soft wetness that felt like raw meat. He looked at his hand—it was covered in blood and shredded bits of skin.
Frantic, he raised his head to look around. The dugout was in a shambles from the explosion, and nothing was recognizable. All that remained of Sgt. Brown’s desk was a heap of shattered wood. No sign of the sergeant. Watkins and Sutherland’s bodies slumped over the crate that had been their card table. Clark lay in a puddle, a bloody hole where his chest had been.
No other survivors. Small wonder the stretcher bearers had left.
He was alone.
He clawed at the mud until his hands touched the wooden planks below. He pushed at the wood to roll onto his side, groping blindly for anything to grab onto. A fallen beam pinned his left leg to the floorboards. He reached for an overturned box but it was too small to be of use.
In the gloom he saw a crate, just beyond his reach. He kicked his right leg at it and the crate tipped over. Metal canteens tumbled from the crate, clattering and banging against each other.
The clanging lasted for a minute or two until the last canteen rolled to rest next to him.
Didn’t you hear that? Are you deaf? Exhausted, he lay back down and the mud oozed up around him. He wished he had a pistol. Anything was better than drowning in mud.
Minutes passed, or was it hours? He had no sense of time here. There were stars above, so it was still night. He had no awareness of his body, as if he was floating outside it, unable to feel anything. Was this dying? Or was he already dead?
“I’m sure I heard something.” The older stretcher bearer.
The younger man, annoyed. “Yer daft. There’s nothing back here. Maybe it was a rat.”
“Come on, we’re here—let’s take a look.”
A shovel scraped against rock, boards were moved not more than twenty feet from where Jack lay. He called out, but he had no voice.
“See? Nothin. Now, can we please go?”
“Guess me imagination got the better of me.” The men’s footsteps moved away from the dugout once more.
What is wrong with you blind fools? I’m right here.
Jack felt around for the canteen lying by his side. After several attempts, he grasped its strap in his hand. Pushing against the mud and the floor boards, he rolled on his side and heaved the canteen across the dugout. It banged against something and the noise vibrated in the stillness.
The footsteps returned and someone pushed aside a beam that had crashed down in the explosion. “Bring the lantern over here.” The older man’s voice.
Jack looked up at the men in the lantern’s light. The older man peered at him, sorrow in his eyes. “It’s all right, boy.”
The younger man gagged as he looked down at Jack. “His face…”
The older man shushed him; to Jack he whispered “Never you mind-at least you’re alive. You’ve got yer blighty ticket home now.”
The younger man murmured to the older man, “Poor bastard would’ve been better off if we hadn’t come back.” The old man pushed him away and leaned over, sliding the stretcher closer.
Jack turned away from the men’s pity, and watched as another shooting star blazed across the night sky, remembering how much brighter the stars were back home. Soon he’d see them again.
Banner Image: By Siarakduz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons