The light fades.
Carefully, I cache my pencil inside my shirt, for I’ll never find it in the quagmire sucking at my boots. It is quiet, and a few of the other boys have gathered in a dry stretch of trench. I follow the glow of their cigarettes and soft murmurs.
“‘Allo, Jack, pull up a chair.” They make room for me.
“Done scribblin’ for the day?” asks George. “Did yer write down how many we picked off?”
“You mean the lice we picked off, George?” The boys laugh. It is true, I keep track of the vermin infesting our trench as accurately as I document enemy casualties. I am compelled to capture the passion and fierceness of every moment, word by word, thought by thought.
A barrage of shelling sets the twilight sky ablaze. We shoulder our rifles and open fire across the swathe of cratered ground and twisted barb wire. The bombardment does not last long, but it’s time enough for Billy to take a bullet in the head and for Jimmy’s chest to spew us with splintered bone and blood.
“For the love of God,” gasps George. It’s a declaration, a prayer, a challenge, and there is no answer. We shift our dead comrades to the end of the trench, where they’ll be safe.
My heart still echoes the abated artillery fire. We reload our rifles. Blood is stiffening on my face, but I wear it like a token of tribute, a wordless eulogy.
Come morning, we pass through a burned village. Houses are still smoldering, and here and there a stray flame licks a timber or tattered blanket. My eyes burn.
At lunchtime, I write quickly between bites of moldy bread and bully beef.
An elderly couple push a wicker baby pram, but there is no baby, only a teapot, a yellowing photo, and an ancient Bible swaddled within. Old men lurch like broken-down gates; the women droop like empty sacking.
“Jack, look alive.”
An enemy plane swoops down and strafes the field where we huddle, churning up soil and sod. More planes follow, and we run toward the creek, to shelter under the trees along the bank.
“Oh, God.” George clutches his belly, and an appalling amount of blood flows between his fingers. “Are yer writin’ this one down, Jackie boy?” I hold his head in my lap, thinking to ease his breathing, but then George is still, remnants of his smile still lingering as he stares into the stinking haze.
“Let’s get out of here, men.”
We hunker down for the night on an abandoned farm. I spare an inch of my stubby candle and write feverishly, trying to keep pace with the surging images hurtling behind my eyes.
Whose war is it? Does it belong to the thin, begrimed children sucking their dirty fingers? Is there any future for the silent bundles held so tightly against hollow breasts? Is it a war of principles, of property, of power?
The land is broken.
The people are broken.
As we walk past them, there is no shadow of accusation in their empty eyes.
They care nothing for a faraway archduke or for the catastrophe foisted upon them and us. A few potatoes, a scrawny chicken, and some cheese is all they desire. They’ve become an insignificant expenditure, common people jettisoned by the ambitions and aspirations of others.
I see a doll lying in the scorched grass, legs burned away, tufts of grubby stuffing escaping, its dress tattered and smeared. The face is cracked, its painted smile contorted into a sooty, grotesque grin. Just like George. Billy. Jimmy.
I had hoped to write of nights spent around campfires with my valiant comrades, sharing cigarettes and accounts of bravery, and of days bounding over enemy territory, calmly eliminating faceless adversaries.
How pleased we had been, even jubilant, marching jauntily into the maw of death. We did not know, could not know, that the war to end all wars would persist past the first Christmas, that hope would rot in the foxholes, and despair would seep into our souls like trench water oozing into our worn boots.
I struggle. I am tested. How do I reconcile myself to proclaiming honesty with my earnest pencil, and then allowing my selfsame fingers, treacherous and duplicitous, to squeeze the trigger of my rifle, killing the fathers and brothers of homeless children?
We are all acquainted with the savage truth. We are no more innocent.
My words blur.
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