1. The Lesser Part
In a dirty little hole, in the aftermath of a brutal skirmish no-one will remember, we suck down heavy charnel airs still echoing with the tattoo of thudding impacts swallowed in mud. With the day’s fun and games killing the enemy concluded, the lottery is called.
The first time is bad luck. The corporal’s number comes up. He is my friend — compatriot and rifle at my shoulder — but still the lesser part of me is sorry to see him chosen instead of me. We all know what horrors await but still we never wish to see beyond the actions of the day.
Wordlessly he follows the handful of other volunteers and those unlucky bastards we have captured from the enemy’s ranks. Only once he turns to meet my eyes in a silent plea to keep it safe until he returns. The contraband. This is to be my only duty of care.
I acknowledge the weight and watch him walk back to the ground we had taken — the killing fields — where the twisted limbs of the fallen lay like fragments of blasted trees. And I watch him stand there, still for the longest time, just looking as flares sickle down through low clouds.
My hand tightens around the neck of the bottle. It holds a full measure, smuggled from some distant mountain distillery. Evening sinks into night. The hour-long screams of the wounded fill our ears. He is out there, my friend, collecting the dead. I am here drinking his smuggled poison. Not just drinking but luxuriating in the softness it bestows – not the harsh-edged kind of drunk that makes you suffer even before you have finished drinking.
The contraband is a thing alive: a spilling, agile creature in this mud-walled tomb of solid air. Heaven’s nectar here in hell, burnished gold liquid tilting at the neck, reflecting light like a trapped coin.
In the field, the staff sergeant is shouting names, wielding his baton to send slouching shadow shapes to retrieve the next of the those fortunate dead, catalogue their names and then to the pits.
I take another deep burning mouthful of the contraband and think it a pity that the sergeant had not taken a bullet in today’s fighting. How had the highest good fallen so far for us? How was it that the best to hope for was not to find joy in life or even to suffer no pain, but simply to survive?
My friend the corporal returns, manifesting like a phantom. The blur of his outline swims and widens, as if his body has assumed a caul of rendered flesh from the fields beyond. He looks once at the bottle I offer him as if it had fallen from the sky into my hands and removes himself silently to some billet, through darkness pulsing in my vision like the last memory of a drowning man.
2. Equal Parts
In exhaustion, we obey. And in obeying we kill. It is our primary function; perverse to think of it that way, but the words of our superiors still echo in our ears when the gunfire has ceased and moans of the dying fade into night. Their word duty seems ill-fitting, but it is the only word we are left with in this imitation of existence – duty to them, to ourselves. To stay alive, if only to kill.
Thus, there is no steady climb to being alert; it is a state that never truly ebbs. So when the bell sounds out for us to crawl from our dugouts to resume the fight, we fall in with little complaint.
The sergeant seems rested. His uniform is fresh. Manoeuvres for the day ahead are announced as a station master might read from a timetable. My head throbs with each heartbeat. My squad members hold themselves with as much poise as can be mustered after all those bloody miles.
The taste of last night’s indulgence still lingers on my tongue. How am I to live another day, while those twisting sinews of liquid still coil around my insides? How I had wanted to love its enveloping warmth the night before. How I know it will betray me to the cold today. Will I be insensible and — whisper it — willing to be found within enemy fire?
No such luck. The sergeant has other plans.
We have taken a particular captive. He is a young, rough-mouthed foot soldier who, on arrival, had railed and spat at those he judged most likely to act to summarily. He wished his own end, and I know this impulse well. His duty of care is finished. I am halfway there myself.
Calm has taken root within him now. He looks as if he comes from a far distant country. Farther, I mean, than the one we fight against, as if he has answered the call of some distant maternal promise, an ancestor’s contract from across a deepening sea.
We live in stuck times, I realise. Nothing changes – that’s how it feels to people living now. The weight of history beating down on them. All those constructions, that artifice, and all the power we wield to destroy it. In the end the roads will still lead to towns with the same names, though the houses and the people in them will be different. Thus, there is an idiotic time before marching out that we are called upon to polish the buttons of our uniforms and scrape the mud from our bayonets. This we do, living in rotten clothes as scratchy as burlap and crisp with days of dried-on mud.
The prisoner is required to do the same. For decorum, they say. For morale. It appears both sides in this war obey the same rituals of discipline.
He had been on corpse duty last night with my friend the corporal and the others from our company whose numbers were called. I watch for a while as he holds court for a few of my division’s stragglers, gestures with his hands, smiles and nods. As I approach, he straightens and salutes – another remnant of ritual preserved.
His pen is like a pig run. Ours is the yard of some abandoned homestead with its high wall, beyond which we cannot see.
“Your friend,” he calls to me. “The little one over there.” He gestures to the corporal, who is holding his jacket out to be inspected by the Sergeant. Streaks of blood are clearly visible from last night’s labour. A replacement is offered from supplies and the corporal is dismissed.
When I turn back, the prisoner has pushed his hands through the bars. I look at him and wonder how his uniform could look so clean after months in this mud and all the worse things.
“It’s the smell more than the stains,” he offers, seeing me appraise him. “Clothes for me. Please?”
And at that he unfurls his fist. In his palm a half dozen nuggets of gold roll about, catching the morning with a dull lustre. No, not nuggets, not natural. Teeth, from the dead. With his other hand he makes a scuttling motion with his fingers. “We live with the insects now. My boot works here.”
The only thing I feel at the sight of them is that I feel nothing.
I look over my shoulder at the retreating shape of my friend the corporal and speak my hope for his rest in silent words. They warn us not to fraternise with prisoners, but when I look at the man before me I do not see an enemy but a neighbour. I shake my head.
A young soldier arrives from the supply yard, pockets swelling. From the topmost he produces a packet of cigarettes, still in its plain-white wrapping. The handoff is done in seconds: a gold nugget pinched out of the prisoner’s hand, replaced with his contraband. Soon the air is drifting with powder-grey smoke and satisfied moans.
“Your face says much in stillness,” the prisoner says, smiling. “Are you shocked? Can you not see the treasure in the mud we see?”
So, treasure was it? The promise of that ancestral calling was to be riches, not honour or pride at a border defended, a nation saved. No. Mere wealth could not be this man’s concern. I look again. This gold was not to be retained for a time of peace.
I tell him as much as we wait for the drill horn to sound.
“Peace?” he asks. His smile does not shift, such is the silent amusement of this idea to him. To me, nothing but horrors. If I could trade my battlefield wealth — fresh clothes, a steady ration of hot food, maybe in a week or two even a hot shower — to share a moment of his luxury in capture! “Whose peace?” he adds.
“Yours? Mine? What’s the difference?”
And so I stand guard while the prisoner prosecutes a steady trade. Two hours later, our line returns from the battlefield. Shots chase them back. A man is taken in the leg. They gather him up and run; it will take all night for him to bleed out.
Still they call the lottery again. My friend the corporal is chosen yet again. When the sergeant sees him in the line, there is no sense of pity or charity. He will not be spared this gruesome task tonight.
3. The Greater Part
What crooked bank secures and pays out some long term good for all this pain?
On this day, I fight. I kill. It is my duty. Duty! A word slaves use to excuse their masters. The contraband is waiting on my return and I allow its darkness to take me.
Shadow is the natural state of all things; the day is the rarest form of existence. Where else is there a sun looking down on things most able to perceive it? In all the depths of everything beyond, where burns some shining star an impossible time away, and where crawls some other hapless thing that knows the universe is made of night and the thing we should most fear is to see?
Whistles and the rain bring me back.
The lottery is called again.
Bad luck is one thing. The third time he is called I begin to suspect a universal joke.
The corporal is no longer recognisable as my friend: we have all suffered the humidity of the day and the chill of the night, until our skin begins to feel as though it is peeling away. The sodden earth holds the honeydew syrup of other men’s sacrifice. My friend resembles a conglomeration of phantoms – a thing made up of all the wretched pain-filled spirits of those whose bodies he has touched. They are buried so close their stillness has infected us. We reflect in their still-damp, empty eyes. Those oracle dead.
He stands to leave. I stand with him. I do not replace him. We go together, the slave and the volunteer. The sergeant tries to send me back but I have no time for his complaints and he no real desire pursue.
We start with the man taken in our line’s retreat. It is as I imagined: the grass against his face, the fly scuttling across his cheek, the wind that rises about his twisted figure all describe the void within where a life once resided.
Later, it is not the sun that lights our path, but torches, flares and the animal side of us that still hunts. It is enough, so I look. I look and I look and I see what I have already seen in my mind’s eye. I look until the image of those exploded limbs, spears of white bone, the smear of flesh and blood combining into pink where I expected red, is impossible to forget.
If I but glimpse it, I know I will see it again in my dreams forever more. I must fill my mind now so it could not haunt me later. Nothing left to be born from the dark that comes after that the eyes had not already seen.
The corporal comes to me and tells me of his hopes. Someone — some old man, or a young man with an old eye — will come along after all this and put a road down where there was always one before, rebuild his house.
How can I not become a man of pity after that?
Peter Haynes lives and writes in Birmingham, UK.
His work has appeared in Unsung Stories, Reliquiae Journal, Litro, Spelk Fiction and elsewhere.
You can find him on Twitter @ManOfZinc and see a full list of writing credits at friendofcarlotta.wordpress.com.