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The Trench

A story from collection, Across The Battlefield, now available on Amazon!

      The shell exploded above his head and the man next to him exploded in unison with it, torn to shreds like black ribbons that beckoned him to follow down into the muddy death below his feet.  He screamed then, a scream like many he’d heard before, the primal scream of an animal cornered and injured.  A foot to his right and he’d have followed the man into the abyss, felled by the murderous sword of the demons across the field.  That field, that cursed field. A black stretch of death and carnage, the blood of men watered it, yet nothing grew, for evil could not make life, only destroy it.

He gripped his weapon, useless as it was. The demons seemed to be impervious to anything thrown at them, as if the very hand of the Devil himself shielded them as they threw blazing balls of fire and poison at the men cowering in the Trench. The Trench, the black snake that wound its way across the burned-out land, a vein whose blood was the bodies of the dead, the occasional trickle of the living giving some small sense of life as they moved between points of cover, hoping to simply make it through one more day.

      He slipped, his feet betraying him to the soup of death below. He cried out, as much from surprise as the sheer terror of the battle. How many shells could they hurl at the line, how many had to die before it would end? This was not a battle and it wasn’t part of a war. It was wholesale murder, part of a chess game played by sniveling kings who sat their golden thrones as the common man paid for inches of land with his life’s blood.  And the demons were winning, they in their positions across the fields of Hell, plotting the death of his friends, his family, men who only wished to till their land, to drink beer and love their women and play with their children. So many lost now, lost to the bowels of a hellish eternity. Their howls of anguish filled his head, louder than the bombs, the acrid smell of burnt flesh more foul than any gas hurled at them by the enemy.

      The sun was sinking now, shrinking away from the bloodbath, fleeing as best it could from the onslaught that tore mens’ souls from their bodies. The darkness brought new terrors though, unseen specters and spirits that haunted the men trapped in the holes in the ground.  The flashes illuminated the faces of the dead, their eternal screams etched into the minds of the living like a photograph, a permanent reminder of what the demons were capable of. Through the flashes of the salvos from the guns he could make out what was happening in glimpses, snap shots in time of what was happening, like a series of paintings that captured one event split into disjointed pieces. He screamed again, screamed for the noise to stop, for the killing to end, for one goddamned moment of peace. The Devil must have heard him, for the volleys from his demonic guns ceased then, the eerie silence covering the field like a solemn mist.

      The silence was hideous, worse than the explosions. How could it have gotten worse, how could the silence hurt so much. It was the voices, the voices he heard with his ears and his heart. He closed his eyes, trying to push away the dead, to block out the ghastly begging of the man down the trench as he lay dying. The Devil had granted him his request, but oh, how he wished he had not wished it.  His eyes closed, all he saw were the faces of the men who had died at his side, shattered by explosions, reduced to piles of human wreckage like the blackened timbers of a burned down barn. Opening his eyes again revealed familiar horrors, the mangled bodies of his comrades, felled like sapling trees in the face of the lumberman’s axe.

      His resolve finally strengthened enough. He would not sit here, awaiting death as surely as the farmer awaited the full growth of wheat, ripe for death’s scythe. He was already in Hell, and anything after this would be a welcome respite. He would meet the Devil on the field of death, not hiding in his own shit, cowering like some terrified animal. He stood, slowly and deliberately. Every movement required all this strength, all his purpose, just to complete.  He slung the strap of his weapon over his shoulder. He would need it if he met Lucifer; no not if, but when he met the horned Lord of death, the King of Flies. He imagined himself slaying the mighty creature, like some knight of old battling alongside the archangels of heaven.  The thought gave him the boost he needed, God’s hand lifting him over the lip of the wall of mud, onto the flat expanse of suffering.

      No Mans Land. That’s what his Captain had called it, before his head was blown off by a stray round. Truly it was a land where no man lived, but each man came only to die. He was sure he would not return to the Trench, but it did not bother him. He felt some of the weight lift from his shoulders as he crawled under the coils of wire strung across the trench lip, as much to keep people in as to keep them out. It clung to his skin, biting like a thousand flesh eating termites, but he waved them off as if they were butterflies. The ground began to slope beneath him and with one final pull, his body slid down the small hill beyond the human snares of barbed wire.  He’d seen logs do much the same thing back home, sliding down the flume on their way to the chopping saws of the mill, not unlike his destination.

      Reaching the base of the hill, he saw an outcropping of rock. It gleamed out of the night at him, an aura of hope surrounding it like shimmering moonlight on a lake, bright and beautiful.  He pulled himself towards it, through the mud and gore of the battlefield, all his will and might focused into one purpose, against the hope of safety in the rocks, like the people of Israel and the mountain where Moses spoke to God.  Reaching forward, he found purchase against a piece of wood, perhaps the post of an old cattle fence. But as he pulled his weight on it, the arm in his grip ripped from it’s place in the mud, lonely and separated from it’s body. He could see it, even in the dark, the arm glistened red and black in the moonlight.  His revulsion took over, pushed what little resolve he’d had over the precipice of insanity and he wretched.

      What had he done, that he deserved this punishment? Had he indeed died in the Trench already, relegated to wandering a battlefield and behold its grisly horrors for eternity? Would the anguish, the terror, ever end, would he ever be free of this false reality? His mind groped for purchase against the gravity well of madness that pulled at his consciousness, his humanity. He gazed skyward, searching for the angels that would surely come to rescue them all from the demons, but no answer was forthcoming, just darkness.  Then the earth began to shake once more, the sounds of demon guns sounded in the distance and cries of his countrymen sounded all along the Trench.

      He turned to watch the volley of fire rain down upon the heads of his fellows, fountains of dirt and limbs exploding where shells hit their marks squarely.  One man was lifted completely from his hiding place, fully intact, only to be hurled into the spirals of razor wire. As he shrieked in agony, hurriedly attempting to free himself from the torturous trap designed to protect him, the bullet bit into his helmet like a rabid wolf. He died then, trapped in wire as more bullets struck his mangled body. The demons took sport in shooting their finished victims, he’d seen it before.

      The moon was out now, he could see it as it peaked through the smoke every so often. Its soft, white glow almost had the power to lift his spirits, almost gave him hope, but each time it fell prey to the clouds of red smoke, his heart sank again.  Each time it peeked in from behind the curtain of death, it cast a ghostly glow across the field. Perhaps it was the Lord, reassuring him that the Devil never triumphs, that good always defeats evil. A spike of hope sprung up within him, like some well nurtured by the waters of the Holy Spirit. He could feel his courage rising, his strength returning. They could hold the demons at bay. If only they fought a little harder, they could hold back the tide of death from washing over their lands.  He reached into his jacket, feeling for the small cross knitted to the inside, and ripped it out with a swift tug.  It was a small thing, made of wood with a small gem set into the middle of the cross, the heart of Christ as he thought of it, and he gingerly wrapped it around the stalk of his weapon.  It had been a gift from his wife’s family on the day of their wedding, his with a blue stone for his eyes, hers with a green stone for hers.  He kissed the cross, thinking of her smile, her blond hair and green eyes, crinkling as she laughed at an unknown joke he’d said once in the past. The past, almost another life time it seemed now. He pushed the thoughts down, afraid he might drown in the reminiscence of it all, suffocated by memories of those he loved and had had to leave behind.  He needed to fight now or all he loved would be swept away in a torrent of bloodshed and death.

      With grim resolve, he set himself behind the rock, the grip of his weapon resting lightly on the edge of the boulder for added stability. Surely his fellows would answer the bark of his weapon with their own, a volley of vengeance to be rained down on the enemy like a metallic hailstorm.  He peered through the weapons sights, searching through the murk of the battlefield for a target, yet all he saw was smoke and ruin. He felt the rumbling then, not the instantaneous shift in the ground when they were shelled, but a low, dull rumbling of the earth. It felt as if the entire earth trembled, as if the demon army were breaking through from the bowels of Hell in full force. He held steady his aim, determined to find a demon who might hope to flee the rumbling and run for the Trench. But instead of cries of sorrow and fear, cries of joy and exuberance sounded from all along the enemy line.  Perhaps they cheered the arrival of their master, perhaps Lucifer had indeed come to oversee the battle himself.

      Then the beast came over the hill, behind the enemy line but moving slowly and deliberately forward.  It was terrifying, he thought, his gaze transfixed on the massive thing that moved so effortlessly over the mud, like Jesus walking on water. No, not like the Lord, for this was a thing of metal and death, clearly the makings of Satan.  Strange belts held it’s wheels off the ground as it creaked towards the enemy line and then, to his astonishment, it seemed to simply pass right over the slit in the earth, and stopped.  Large tubes mounted on either side swiveled up and down and he immediately knew what would happen next.  He flung himself away from the boulder mere seconds before it exploded in a rain of dust and lead, chunks of what had been his protection now scored across his body, raking bloody lines in his flesh. Darkness came.

      He opened his eyes, knowing some time had passed since the world around him had exploded. He blinked several times, as he stared into a sky quickly brightening, the new day dawning on this land of sorrow. He wiggled his fingers, then his toes.  Good, no paralysis.  But when he tried to move, pain shot through his body from every direction. He relented, instead shifting his head to see where the pain was coming from.  The sight of it nearly made him faint; his body was a mess of cuts, some deep, many shallow and all bleeding. He fought through the pain, struggling to open his jacket, to find the letter he’d written his wife and the one to his parents.  He pulled out the paper, but it was so bloodied he barely recognized it. He thought of grabbing his rifle, but knew it would do him no good, he would simply lay there, waiting. Had the men at his back fallen as he had, to the metal beast with its immense guns.

      The first footfall he heard echoed across the field, as loud as any explosion he’d witnessed, or so it seemed to him. Then more of the same sounds followed, thick sloshing sounds like churning butter, as the demons trudged across the field. They were coming. So he waited, with little fear, for he knew he would not live to see the sun set on the field once more, let alone return home to the pastures in the hills. Would they kill him when they found him, or let him die slowly?  He could not be sure which he preferred as he waited; more life meant more pain, but no pain meant an end to life. He listened hard in the direction of his own lines, but all he hear was the wind. And the sloshing of the boots approaching him from the other side. He could hear voices now, voices of the demons who sought him, though he did not speak their language.

      The first demon to come within view visibly jumped, perhaps frightened by the man lying in his own blood on the field of misery.  No, not a demon, a man, close to his own age by the look of it.  That was a strange sight to behold; perhaps the demons had employed men to do their bidding.  But as more of them approached, he quickly realized those he’d thought to be demons had been men all along. Men who, like him, had faces stained with sorrow and caked in despair, scarred with anger and wrinkled with grief.  Their eyes carried the same haunted, thousand meter stare, as if they weren’t really looking at him, as much as past him, to another time filled with happiness and peace.  He felt sadness then, for these men and for himself.  Had there been a purpose to all this, more than gaining a small measure of distance in a war dictated only by the overwhelming necessity to obliterate the enemy?

      But those thoughts faded now, as he struggled for life. He reached up his hand, the letters crumpled and bloody within his grasp, the crucifix hanging over his thumb and down towards his face.  He heard himself whisper something, though he could not be sure what it was.  Apparently one of the others understood what he meant, handing his weapon to a comrade and making his way to the dying man’s side.  The man on the ground looked up, he could see the other’s face now; light brown hair, dirtied by war set against eyes as green as any field or pasture, as green as his wife’s at home.  Those eyes were reassuring, that this man would not simply kill him and leave his story untold, lying in the blood and ruin.

      “I will tell her,” said the man with the green eyes in a language clearly not his own, but one he was accustomed to speaking.  The man on the ground simply nodded, the cold slowly creeping through his body.  But, cold as it felt, the light seemed to be growing; for every degree colder he felt, the brightness of the day swelled until finally there was nothing but white; white and the man with the green eyes.  “You shall not be forgotten.”

      He died then, the life passing out, spiraling upwards away from the heaviness of the besieged and embattled earth.  Hans Luddendorf, Sergeant of the Imperial German Army, left the world that day in September of 1918, bid farewell by an angel with green eyes.

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