This blog has been lapsing into inactivity for a week or so, but now I'm back into the swing of writing, and have continued progressing with the Writing Exercises with two more completed in the last couple of days. It's a prequel to the stories found here and here, set in the trenches of France in World War One. This piece, unlike the others, has no specific setting, but is pre-Somme given its position in the story.
No Man’s Land/ The Poet’s War (Ways of Seeing)
Nine o’clock. Smith clicked shut the freshly-cleaned watch and climbed to his feet, noting with sudden alarm the chaotic mess his desk had become as he worked. Hastily, he shuffled the papers into some kind of order, and gave a dissatisfied grunt. It would do for now, he concluded. Grabbing his rifle from where it lay by the narrow exit, he made his way up into the trench.
At this late hour, the trench was all but deserted, only a few stragglers and the watchmen not at liberty to return to their dugouts where they would huddle for cover as the night dragged on. The setting sun cast long shadows, plunging the entirety of the trench into darkness, broken only by flashes of blinding light where the last rays pierced gaps in the sandbags. Smith noted the major openings as he walked, and decided he would place a detail on repairs as soon as it was light enough to work.
Smith reached the watchman’s post and tapped the current guard on the shoulder three times, a routine they had perfected over the long months of service together. Johnson turned on the third tap, saluted and marched back to the dugout, breaking step as soon as he was out of sight. Smith stepped up into the alcove and put his eye to the periscope, surveying the wasteland that was set out before him.
Every day it was the same, and yet different. New shelling had created a barren landscape entirely different from what he had seen only yesterday; mounds stood where there were craters, craters where there had been a rare patch of level earth. Rivers of rainwater, unable to seep into the saturated ground, that had run away to the left yesterday now wound their way to his right, dripping slowly down into the ever-filling-and-draining trench.
The words came to Smith unbidden, as they did every night, and again he fought the urge to prise his eyes away from the glass lens to commit them to paper. Instead, he let them dance in his head like so many fireflies.
Today’s world is falling dead; tomorrow’s unborn,
Greyness yet to find a form,
These hills and gullies, crested with the sunset
Will stand, will die, and we will forget.
As his eyes became more accustomed to the light, the sharp shadows and glaring lights adopting more mellow tones, Smith was greeted with the same horrors he saw every day and dreamed of every night. Men lay in the mud, dead, their uniforms rotting away, their faces grey and pale, their flesh eaten away by the maggots and rats that paid no heed to allegiance. All these dead men, so far from home, were meals to those things that crawled in the dark and were consumed with ravenous hunger.
Dead among the dying they sit, these pale husks of men
Who cannot fight or die again
Their too-young bodies rent and torn
Will disappear before the dawn.
Smith’s vision became clearer, this vision of a daily hell, and the more he looked, the more he saw. Morbid curiosity drew him in, calling seductively, ordering him to look closer, and closer, and closer until…
A man still moves in this too-still world
Face scarred, eyes bloodshot, lips curled
In a cry for home
To the crows and the sky
The ghostly figure crawled, inch by inch, across the wasteland, driven by some desperate force that defied injury and reason. He was bloody all over, shot several times in the chest, and his left arm hung useless, handless at his side. Smith could not look away. For a moment, he considered ordering out a party of men to retrieve this moving cadaver from the field, but he knew it would be a futile effort. The man’s groans, coming to him now through the sunset, belied what little time he had left, his ever smaller and weaker movements were a death warrant. At the very least, Smith could end his misery, but he was somehow paralysed, unable to move until this ghastly play had its final act.
He cries for death, this dying man
That sweet relief that ends us all;
And cries not tears but floods
To drown himself in mud and blood
If none will answer his fatal call.
The sun set, and the crawling corpse groaned on and on into the night, Smith charting his progress and losing sight as darkness fell. Flares, sent up intermittently, would give him another brief chance, a glimpse as this horrible visage came closer, and then it would fade, those ghostly eyes and torn face haunting Smith in the dark between them.
Why does he crawl? Why does he call
For home, when he is alone
So alone among the dead?
What thoughts, what promises,
What secrets never told are pounding,
Marching round inside his head?
At two o’clock, a flare was again sent up and Smith realised with some horror that the creature -for he was no longer a man with those howls and that grimace- was moving ever towards him, now only a dozen yards from the edge of the trench. Another fifteen minutes at most, and he would reach that precipice, and tumble down to lie among the sandbags or be consumed by the muddy water.
Come home, old soldier,
Come back to your ranks and be seen.
Be seen that they might know who you are
What you are and where you have been.
Tell your tale now, or a hundred years hence,
It make no difference till the warlords relent.
- First off, a confession: on this piece I've gone well over the word count, but I've found that these characters have just run away with me somewhat. I feel I'd rather take a little longer and do the setting/character/message justice rather than truncate it just to meet the word count. As always, I hope to have treated the subject well and respectfully.
- The brief for this task asked for a character to have a unique way of seeing a traumatic event, and the focus for this was the poetry in this piece. I've always been fascinated by the War Poets, (Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke et al) and in poetry in general, so this was very interesting to write and experiment with mixing in poetry with prose. If anyone reading this is a poet, then I imagine you'll know what it can be like when words just spring into you head and change the way you see the world. I hope that's worked in this piece.
- The poem itself I think works as a standalone piece, although I do feel the context of this piece improves it. It lacks a coherent rhyme, structure or style, but that is intentional as it highlights the confusion and lack of surety from the narrator.
- At the end of the day, this piece is about character, so I hope to have made that the focus of it. With any luck, this piece and the other WW1 bits will give you a good sense of Smith's character and those of his comrades. I'm pretty sure I'm not yet done with this cast, and will almost certainly return to them.
As always, feel free to leave a comment, and thanks for reading.