What is to die, let it die, and what is to be destroyed, let it be destroyed; and let the survivors devour one another’s flesh.
— Zechariah 11:9b, The Holy Bible
THE TRENCHES & THE BLISS, 2016 (WIP)
My rifle quivered in my right hand and bewilderment kept it numbly there, hanging at my side, pointed aimlessly. Though my feet were still cold and numb, heat caused my soul to swell like a bee sting on a fair-headed child, suffocating all context except the need for self-preservation.
We stood in the trenches, floors of mud mixed with blood, looking up in half fright and half disbelief at the clownish figure who had strutted out upon the field just beyond our trench. The figure was dressed in blue and white striped silk pantaloons, with a red vest and white shirt of the same cloth accentuating his pork barrel, with a rather unremarkable hat of the same silk; it was his bulbous nose, marvelous smile, but especially the plate that captured us most: a plate with a slice of cake.
We were bleeding.
He was eating cake and smiling like a buffoon.
We wore the blood of our comrades.
He wore silk like he was royalty.
“Keep your heads up, chaps! They don’t even exist! This battle is over as soon as you decide it is!” he roared out to us with a hearty cackle, crumbs of cake tumbling down his frontside.
Then came his aide, a blonde wafer of a boy, shuffling in a zig-zag pattern, clearly more attune with the present risks than the buffoon. Boss Bliss took the teacup from him and, holding out one fat pinky, drank.
Scrap threw down his weapon and began climbing the trench wall like a spider —
“I’m going to kill ‘im!” he screamed. “I’m going to kill ‘im dead!” he screeched.
Ruffton and Napler grabbed his arms and pulled him back down.
“You’ll be killed — idiot!” Ruffton rebuked.
But Scrap had seen sixteen-too-many comrades blown to bits on his right and left side. He meant to kill Ol’ Bliss and no manner of persuading was changing his mind, so Napler knocked him out cold. He fell with a squish into the muddy blood bath below.
A shot or two rang out just above the Bliss’ noggin and he yelled again: “This isn’t woman’s work, you worthless shits! Cover me!”
“I thought the battle didn’t exist, shithead!” I yelled back, but no one heard me through the thunder of cannon fire. It began to rain again.
I had lost my voice yesterday…or maybe the day before. The battle felt like a cold flash flood of a thousand years ripping flesh from bone. All that remained was cold shards in cold trenches. Pieces of men amongst blown up bits of dirt.
A warmer, tumbling wind woke me as it turned leaves into cartwheels down and around the trench, a carefree and enchanting wind, like the smell of a freshly clipped lawn beneath childhood games. My eyes followed the swirling browns down the length of the trench to the north. I watched some fall into the mud. I watched some skip up over the edge in search of greener resting places.
I dropped my rifle and, seeing no one present to mind my path, I succeeded in climbing out of the trench from the south end. Gunfire still whizzed and pinged and whooshed and splattered to my left, but the wind carried scents of a wood fire, sweet meats, warm cider, green pasture, and a distant rain: I forgot about the airborne risks and wandered toward the large brick house ahead, further southwest. There was hardly anyone left to notice.
I followed the wind because it was warm and everything inside of me was cold, empty — like the naked tree to my left that stood in rebellion against the baby blue sky, a reminder of the times, void of the wind’s nostalgia. I wanted my mother’s dimpled arms; I wanted my father’s calm voice; I wanted grandma’s blanket and Cherith’s lap for a pillow. I wanted things that didn’t exist anymore, things that had never truly belonged to me yet, somehow, left me hollow in their absence.
A lull in the wind carried the Bliss’ voice across the field and I turned to see —
“Deserter!” he cried out, pointing his finger at me.
I kept walking.
My sense of duty crumbled like the brown leaves crunching beneath my boots. Patches of yellow grass stood unmoved by leaves or wind, here and there. I came to the back of the house and walked around the left side to the front. There was nothing remarkable there: a small porch, an iron fence that must have served only to separate the yard from the dirt road (for it was capable of nothing more), and a brick walkway between the two. I could hear people laughing as I stepped onto the walkway. The door opened before I could knock.
A wavy blonde smiled at me. She was wearing a silky dress that matched the yellow-gold of her hair perfectly. No frills. Pink lips. One gold bangle.
“Need a pick-me-up, soldier?”
I managed a half-smile and put the three steps up to the porch behind me. Mostly, I just wanted a bed.
“Mm. Look at you,” she said, searching my face with her blue eyes and a gentle hand. “I bet you haven’t had a good dance in a year.”
She put her arm in mine and pulled me into the house. We walked past one room on the right. It was full of happy people, talking and laughing. A staircase intruded on my left. She escorted me into the second room on the right, where a record already lay upon the player. She set the needle and a peppy little tune began to spin as she tried to spin me.
“Oh!” I grabbed my left calf. “My leg — I can’t.”
She tilted her head.
I tried to smile. “I’m sorry…the war, you know…”
Her eyebrows jumped. “Are you injured?”
I chuckled, standing erect, “Yes. A bit. Actually, I have some shrapnel stuck on the left side of my abdomen too.”
“Shrapnel?” She threw her hands in the air, dismissing me with a shrug. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean. The ‘war’? — Good heavens! You talk as if it were in our backyard and now!” She laughed. “There hasn’t been a war in Queensland since before I was a child.”
Her face was so sober, so childishly sweet, that it occurred to me now that perhaps I had been more seriously injured than I realized. Perhaps none of my days or events as I recalled them were reality. Perhaps I had suffered a brain injury. Nothing the bright angel said made any sense. So far as I knew, war was indeed in her backyard! — Yes, now! — But I couldn’t hear the gunfire through all of that music; it was too loud.
My hands burst with sweat and I moved toward the windows to confirm my health or insanity. My gaze swept the scene as I brushed away the lace curtains, but it was the wrong side of the house. I needed to find the backside.
I turned, forgetting the woman, and headed back for the hall.
I found the kitchen to my right from the hallway and clutched the edge of the sink to peer out of the small window above and let out a great sigh of relief. It was as I had said. I could still see the Bliss’ target-worthy pantaloons from here. He had unfathomable luck; it was like he worked for the other side.
“Hey! You can’t just go wandering through someone’s house,” the blonde scolded with furrowed eyebrows.
“You’re right,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
Her head tilted again. I felt no need to explain myself. I had learned long ago that some people believe whatever they wish. Reality was relative to eye health. She would not understand my war even if I could explain to her the one in her own backyard.
“I need to rest. Do you have a room I could use — for a little while?”
Her face brightened. “Ok,” she replied. “Well, follow me then.”
We quickly left the staircase behind us, as she led me to a spare bedroom. The bed was neatly made and the furniture was tidy, small, and sparsely decorated. A sheer curtain over the window gently billowed over the foot of the bed.
“Oh — I’ll get that.” The woman moved to the window, shut it, and pulled a thicker curtain over the glass.
“Thank you,” I said. “This will do fine. I don’t want to be disturbed for a while.”
Her eyes narrowed slightly but she nodded and left me there.
I removed my boots, sunk into the bed, and placed both pillows over my head. The music was terrible but it was better than the sounds of war. I wondered if she would want payment for the linens I was probably smearing sixteen comrades’ blood on, plus my own, and how I would get it, and then I fell into a deep sleep I can’t remember.
Cold steel pressed into my chest as my heart and lungs tried to escape. I was screaming out to Napler but nothing was coming out of my mouth and his back was to me.
A scream burst from my belly and woke me. I was sitting straight up in bed, and I’ll never forget the look on the doctor’s face. Apparently, the cold steel had been his stethoscope on my chest; he was looking for a beat. He found it.
“We’ve got to get that shrapnel out,” he said after regaining his composure.
He was an olive-skinned man with unruly hair, like a sheep in need of shearing; his eyes were dark and kind. I would’ve thought he was a doctor or a minister had I passed him on the street. The good ones always had that look about them. The only doctors I’d ever disliked in retrospect were the ones that did not have those kindly eyes, furrowed brows, and pessimistically hopeful smiles.
I tried to relax and laid my head back on the pillow. “Can’t we just let it be?”
He shrugged his head to one side, both doubtful and conceding, “The leg, maybe; the abdomen, no. That must come out.”
“I’m sorry we disturbed you,” a soft, flat voice said from the doorway.
It was the woman. She was not a minister or a doctor.
“I was concerned about your injuries and my linens,” she smiled.
It was, at least, an honest smile. I nodded my regards to her but wasn’t in the mood for chatter.
The doctor was packing his bag.
“When?” I asked.
He scratched his cheek and looked up in that habitual sort of way before answering, “I’ll be back tomorrow morning. Shouldn’t take long, then you can rest up.”
“I really should get back…” I think I mumbled out loud, but my body was not willing to rejoin my trained sense of duty yet.
No one said anything else. They just left. I preferred it that way.
It occurred to me that the house could be destroyed in the war before tomorrow but there was no one to fuss at about it. The house was strangely quiet. I wondered briefly about the woman and then fell asleep again.
The doctor returned at about eight o’clock the following morning. He was sort of short and bulged a little in the middle — not that it mattered — I simply had not noticed it yesterday. He seated himself in a small, wooden chair beside the bed, crossed his arms and legs, and leaned back.
“Now, what is your name, soldier?” he asked.
“How old are you, Tapp?”
“Where are you from?”
“Where are you now?”
My face hardened. What was with the questions?
“Nowhere, Wisconsin…I think.”
His eyebrows raised and he leaned forward slightly.
He leaned back into the chair. “I’m sorry for the questions, Mr. Tapp. My name is Dr. Linsper. I like to know something about the folks I operate on. I don’t mean any harm.”
I believed that last line. My jaw loosened a little. “I’m tired, doctor,” I said. My eyes felt as empty as my words but I fixed them on the doctor anyhow: “I’m just tired.”
“I understand, son,” he said.
He moved me around so he could get at the left side of my abdomen and then he went to work. I don’t know what the doctor gave me and I didn’t care, but it put me out good. When I awoke, the doctor was gone and that cursed Bliss was lording over my bed.
“What from hell,” my voice lashed, cracking.
“And I half expected to find you wearing a bonnet,” he said, smiling.
My vision blurred for a moment and it seemed as if the whole room turned red.
“I see you’ve been taking some R&R,” he said.
Scrap would have killed him already, but even with the adrenaline of fury I felt too weak to take him on. I tried to sear him with my eyes, but I didn’t know if it was working. He stunk of moldy cake.
The words “arrest him” sprayed down across my face like a foamy glee escaping an uncorked and shaken bottle as he sneered over me. I was not sure I had ever known hate until that moment, but I knew it now — and without the faintest wish for redemption.
I hadn’t prior noticed the two privates standing behind him. Johnson and Blane — Bliss’ cronies. I caught the slightest peep of that strange blonde gagged and tied behind them before Johnson knocked me out. I’d seen the boys in action before: I knew it had been Johnson when I woke; Blane punched like an ounce of scotch in a gallon of water.
There was no telling where I’d end up. Stories of the Ol’ Bliss’ Trainings, however, were anything but blissful. He was of that predictable and ancient nature which required all men to play by the universal creeds of good faith, courage, and a one-dimensional, translucent, spongey, and convenient character, though he conducted himself with the many exceptions and complications of an emperor — a pantalooned emperor at that. His Trainings were vaguely disguised tortures and his power was a silver-tipped tongue — shockingly powerful, I might add. I’d never seen so evil a man with so cleverly covered a backside, as if he always knew the next bullet’s path and so stood precisely five millimeters away to avoid the skirmish, while smiling and eating cake to appear sociable. He professed no war, after all; only a game to be captained — so long as it was of some benefit to him.
Had I not been nearly buried alive with corpses in those trenches, it might have been funny… but death does not leave the living untouched. If I ever woke up again, I vowed to cut out his tongue. No more cake, no more lies.
And I’d add now: No more dreams.
I thought I understood my character when I began this story six years ago (inspired by a boss/corporate system I loathed, to be honest)… but not hardly so much as I fully know this character now: It is me.
I have lost my sense of duty; I have lost the will to fight. All of the other invisible losses have crushed it out of me. Somewhere beyond death is endless dying; I am there.
No, nothing has changed. Visibly, you will see no difference. When will we learn that the seen was created, is created, will be created from the unseen? What is visible is only ever part truth.
Never, not once, in my entire life have I understood the sentiments of Job’s wife. What a terrible person, I would have thought not so long ago… Somehow, today, that has changed. I now understand her perfectly, as her own words lodge as the thorn in my side: “Curse God and die…” Never has that been a temptation for me, until now.
Writing is therapy, but I have bled myself dry. Maybe one day, if the transfusion works, I will have something sanitized, pretty, and excellent to show for the cost…
But I doubt it.
Not in this world…
Pray for me, but don’t condescend me with caked-on concern; some things (hurts, complaints, despairs) are for God’s ears alone…
I just threw down my gun and walked away… from trying. I give up. Just let me lay down and die… and burn my book of dreams with me. If I never see that thing again it will be too soon. Never has anything cost me so much or caused me so much invisible pain.
And He knows it; ergo, my anger…
Perhaps in my weakness, He will prove the strength of His words.
“I have not spoken in secret, In a corner of a land of darkness; I did not say to the descendants of Jacob, ‘Seek Me in vain [with no benefit for yourselves].’ I, the LORD, speak righteousness [the truth—trustworthy, a straightforward correlation between deeds and words], Declaring things that are upright.”Isaiah 45:19 AMP
End (inappropriately public) therapy session.
(Chapter 2 is here if you want to continue.)