Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Words for the Living, Words for the Dead

Time for another piece of fiction, and another piece in the ongoing First World War serial. To see where this one slots into the narrative, see here. From now on, the works in this series will be broadly in narrative order as I've just about managed to fit it all together. Without further ado:

Words for the Living, Words for the Dead

10th November 1914

At last the marching days have ended,
And step by step we reach this place,
The end of one world

The start of the next.
Tonight, assembled, think on our sins,
For tomorrow at dawn a new war begins.

Smith put the pen aside, and watched the ink dry, soaking into the paper, drowning its white, unmarked youth in blackened wetness, before that too faded away leaving only an echo. It was the fifth entry in as many days, and he knew now that the sharp lines would be visible through the thick paper, shadows and ghosts on the next page. The days were quite literally blurring into one, an endless slog of

Marching, marching, step by step, a war to fight and then forget.

Ever since his encounter with the dead man, that unnamed and unforgettable walking corpse, with his parting gift, nothing more than a scrap of paper, the world he now existed in had seemed so much more real and vivid to Smith. New words and lines of verse teemed in his head, entering unbidden and departing without warning, an endless cycle of forgetting and remembering.

By keeping the words alive, he kept his memory alive. By keeping his memory alive, he kept the dead alive.

 The light flickered, and already Smith was familiar enough with the dugout to realise who had moved and where. There wasn’t much to notice, just a few bunks in the far wall, the short passage along to the kitchen, and only varying shades of brown dirt, wood and canvas to set the shapes apart.

“Evening, Johnson.” He said without looking up from the paper, still mesmerised with the drying ink. The shadow came closer and darkened the desk.

“Oi, Stephens, get your arse on duty.” The new arrival called down the tunnel, and almost immediately, the small man scurried out, the emergence of his pale, bare face instantly reminding Smith of a rat, poking its head out into the daylight and looking immediately guilty. Stephens’ protruding nose and wide eyes did little to help the impression.

Stephens darted quickly from the dugout and out into the sunset, and flitted back in just as fast to grab his rifle. It was a schoolboy error, and Smith instantly felt the urge to admonish him for it, before remembering that Stephens was, in fact, still a schoolboy, barely sixteen.

Too young to fight, too young to die
In evening’s light he lives his lie.

Before he could stop himself, Smith had committed the words to the page, separate from his earlier thoughts. Johnson gave a disapproving snort, and at last, Smith looked up at him.

“Still playing around with that bloody poetry, then, Smithy?” Almost as an afterthought, he added “Evening.”

“I am indeed, Johnson, and I’ll continue to do so until the Boche decide to make things a little more interesting for us. Christ knows we all need something to keep us sane around here.”

“Whatever you say. Anything good?” Johnson peered over his shoulder, his glare seeming to scrutinise every line and dot on the paper, as if expecting something revelatory to be hidden within the depths of black on white. Smith was not quite sorry to disappoint him. A dirt-encrusted hand viciously seized the page and turned it over, to where an altogether different verse was inscribed.

Johnson’s eyes scanned the page, taking in every word, and Smith could do nothing but brace himself for the forthcoming scorn. When Johnson began his inevitable recital, it was in a voice laden with as much snobbish mocking as he could muster, and the sheer contempt for the art was all but tangible. 

“The wet grey mud and red-stained dead”
And every shade between
Are good men dying, mothers crying
For what their sons have seen
When they followed colours flying
To distant shores where blue turned green
Turned red.”

His eyes returned to Smith. “Bloody depressing is all I can say. Don’t you lot ever write anything cheerful? How’re you staying sane with this tragic rot in your head?”

Barely. Smith wanted to reply, but restrained himself, instead simply closing the book and tucking in under his arm, making for the exit before Johnson could make another mocking comment. The temptation to pull rank and assign Johnson all manner of unpleasant duties nagged at the back of his mind, but he resisted it; better to be the butt of a few jokes than make enemies out of men he would too- soon be relying on in battle.

Smith stepped into the trench just as the last sunlight reached an incandescent barrage over the piled silhouettes of sandbags, flames lapping at mounds of bodies. The ground underfoot was slick with water that ran too red in places, lifeblood draining away into some worse hell. What had once been an effective fortification was now a grim mockery of order and solidity.

Men passed, ashen-faced, nodding silent greetings to absent friends. Slowly, a bird made its way across the pale dome above them, the only living thing free to leave this endless stalemate. Smith watched it fade with a ghost of a smile still amazed by how easily the poetic descriptions came to him. Seized by some sudden fixation with the not-quite-silence, he stepped back from the path and closed his eyes.

The sounds that made it through the noiseless air were just as alive and vivid. A whistle sounding from across the undulating void was a summons to battle, and heads looked up in alert expectation.  Somewhere, a sentry gave a call in some other tongue from half a world away, the aggressive syllables reaching out into the stillness. Closers, now, a more familiar voice raised in furtive alarm, a rat calling to its horde.

A rat.


Instantly, Smith was running, snaring a discarded rifle from somewhere he didn’t look, feet pounding across mud that sought to cling and drag him down into its murky depths. Frantic moments later, he reached the sentry.

The sentry, slumped against the wall, mouth open in a wordless scream, filling with still-pouring blood from an empty, red wound, hand outstretched; a final warning to the doomed. Smith prized his gaze away and up onto the sea of mud.

The sea of mud, across which moved grim marionettes, stumbling through the twilight, flashes of light and pinpricks of sound louder than any cannon, a creeping wall of death. Smith’s thoughts stopped, dead as the sentry beside him.

There were no words for this.


Author's Notes: 

- Keen-eyed regulars (if you exist) will notice similarities between this piece and No Man's Land, most notably the frequent intermixing of poetry into the prose. This is quite deliberate, and if anything, this piece adds context to that, explaining the genesis of Smith's rather idiosyncratic thought process. It's also just an excuse to indulge in some poetry. 

That's it for today. As always, thanks for reading and feel free to leave a comment.

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