The trenches were laid out across the earth like a zigzag of scars, men huddled deep in them against the glowering sky and the cold rain that fell from it. Between them, fields of barbed wire grew from the ground like a steel harvest. Here and there, bodies bloomed on the ground and in the steel, sightless eyes staring upwards. They wore the uniforms of friend and foe alike, victims of failed charges and successful sorties. The sun had been down only a few hours, but already the temperature had dropped several degrees. A chill wind had sprung up in the interim, driving the rain into the trenches and the cold into the bones.
Down below, men dug into packs and pulled out ponchos to keep the worst of the wet off, or had erected makeshift shelters with bits of canvas while mud squelched beneath their boots. Others forwent comfort entirely, eyes or mirrors occasionally peeking above the rim of the trench, always on the lookout for any sign of movement from the Germans.
John Valentine was one of the men below. He leaned his back against an earthen wall, the bulwark cool and hard through his uniform. He lit a cigarette, grateful for both the habit and the cold. Between the two, it was almost easy to believe the smells of decay and cordite were fading, and that death could be forgotten as easily as a scent carried away by the wind.
He stood in silence, watching the smoke from the end of the cigarette rise in lazy spirals, and then get torn apart in a cold gust. To either side of him, he could hear the low murmur of conversation about home, of comforts left behind, and occasionally, of the current situation. Somewhere to his left, someone had started up a card game under their makeshift shelter, and he could hear the soft snap of cardboard striking wood, and a quiet chuckle. He even imagined that if he was very still, he could hear the wind rustling the leaves of the trees of the Ardennes – a long way off, but still visible on a clear day.
The fighting had gone on for six days. Six days of fire and blood, of the Germans shelling their positions, the explosions coming so loud and frequent it felt as though the earth itself would shake and split and swallow them whole.
John was almost grateful for these moments, as well. Fear and noise and the shouts of his fellow soldiers served to drown out the noise in his head, a constant assault of memory and vision that threatened to drown him and pull him under in its persistence.
In the cold dark though, the sounds of wind and rain his only companions, memory flooded back.
Summer, and the sun slipped across a clear azure sky, while a warm breeze stirred golden fields below. She sat across from John on a blanket they had spread under an old oak at the edge of the field. In the distance, sunlight shimmered on the roof of the old farmhouse, sending up mirage waves of heat, and off the windows, turning each into a silver mirror of light. Gnats gathered in small clouds in the middle distance, boiling in the air like steam from a kettle. John could smell wheat chaff and lilac from the bushes by the house, and closer, the scents of her hair and skin, fresh and sweet like sun-dried linen.
Under the emerald leaves of the oak, they leaned in and kissed, his hand sliding under her hair to the back of her neck, skin as smooth as flax. He tasted the apple they had shared for dessert, heated by her breath, and when they parted, she whispered his name.
The voice snapped him out of memory, and he looked around, flicking away the cigarette that had burned to a nub. He heard the sound of dirt sliding on dirt, and a soft scrabble. A second later, a hand gripped him by the shoulder, and he turned to look at the speaker.
It was Merryweather, a slight ginger-haired private with a ruddy complexion and a smattering of freckles across his face. He smiled, white uneven teeth shining in the moonlight.
“Hey man. Sorry, thought you’d checked out.”
“No, no. Just woolgathering.” John said.
Merryweather nodded. “Right. Well, Sarge says it’s your turn up top. Good luck, man.”
He patted John on the shoulder one more time, re-slung his rifle, and turned to go. John watched him walk down the trench until his back disappeared around a curve in the trench wall. He sighed, picked up his own rifle, and made his way up the embankment to take his place as lookout.
Up top, iron plates with slits in them had been placed in intervals along the trench line, ideally to keep snipers from picking off lookouts, but the idea hadn’t been one hundred percent, as some German shooters had taken to using armor-piercing rounds. As a result, John had been showered with bits of skull and brain after an over-eager private had stayed too long peering out. He could still remember the sound the bullet had made as it passed through the plate –metal on metal, making the iron plate ring like a bell – and the sound the private’s body made as it slid down the trench wall. Because of that, John only looked out when he had to – every three to five minutes, and only long enough to be sure no one was creeping across no-man’s land.
Once at the top, John settled into the hollow behind the iron plate, making sure to unsling his rifle and have it at the ready. From where he stood, it seemed the smells of decay and fire had redoubled their efforts to overpower the senses, and he had to fight to keep his gag reflex down. The rain was stronger here too, driven by a wind not hindered by the earthen walls. He shivered, and then did his best to suppress that too. It would be hard to draw a bead if he was shaking like a puppy.
John took a deep breath and took his first look through the slit in the plate in front of him. Scorched earth, craters, barbed wire, and bodies greeted him. He scanned left to right, and tried not to look the corpses in the face. When he was satisfied the field was empty, he ducked back down and tried not to think of the rotting bodies the mud and the earth were already trying to reclaim.
John looked around at the other men behind their plates, men that were for the most part, little more than teenagers thrust into adulthood by the war. Most had come into an awareness of this, men’s minds forced into young bodies by death and cruelty; others still innocent, and wearing it on their sleeves. He worried about the latter most of all, knowing that the ones who believed this was just a bad spot in a good life would one day wake up from dreams of fire and the clutching hands of dead men and realize a part of their souls had been burned away.
A cold December, and John had spent the majority of his time either looking for work or doing odd jobs and maintenance around the old farmhouse Emily’s father had left her. They had been married in the fall, and her father had passed away shortly after, cancer claiming first his lungs, then the rest of his once hale body.
He had lain in the hospital bed, his withered frame barely stirring the sheets as he breathed, tubes snaking into his body like tendrils of vine. He had held Emily’s hand and smiled, his eyes watery. Then he drew one breath and released it, a long slow rattle that wheezed from his ravaged lungs like a rusty teakettle, and when it was over, he was gone.
Emily cried on and off for three days, the sound of her sobs punctuating the sighs of the winter wind outside. John drifted through the house those days like a ghost, unsure of himself, or the comfort he could give. He would go to her at times and hold her, until his chest was wet with her tears and his arms trembled with the force of her sobs. Other times he would sit and listen to her grief, and stare into space, and sometimes he could feel a hole in his chest as though something had been lost to him too.
In those times, those dark quiet times, surrounded by grief and wind and winter, he would cry too.
His cheeks were wet. John reached up and wiped them, and felt cold on his palm. He looked up at the sky and saw a white star field falling slowly down. He watched it drift and blow and swirl in eddies, dancing in the wind.
Three soft pops, and then a sizzling sound, almost like bacon in a pan, and the night sky was lit in red and orange, turning the battlefield into neon nightmare. John looked to his left and saw a private staring out of the slit in the iron plate in front of him, his eyes wide and white. John didn’t blame him. He knew what came next. He rolled over and looked out of his own opening; to be sure the flares weren’t simply a feint by the Germans.
He scanned the battlefield – bodies, wire, and snow a blur as he ran his vision over them. He did it twice. Right to left, left to right, and halfway back he heard it – a deep thump and then a whistle that reminded him of a train barreling down its tracks. John knew what was next again – a bright flash and torn earth, and a shudder in the ground as though it too was dying.
Before that though, before the sound and the fury, he saw her. Emily, barefoot and naked and pale, walking to him in the snow. Then the tears came, moments before the whistling stopped and a white-hot flash seared her and the world from his vision.
He found her in their bedroom. While he had slept in her father’s old overstuffed chair in front of the fire downstairs, Emily had found her father’s hunting rifle, pressed the barrel against the roof of her mouth, and pulled the trigger with her toe.
John had torn up the stairs at the sound, the pit of his stomach clenched so hard he wanted to vomit, sleep still clinging to his eyes. When he got to the top of the stairs, and saw what Emily had done, he did. He looked again, and sank to the floor, his wife painted on the wall and ceiling, and his own hopes and dreams drying on the floor beside him. He sat there, and didn’t cry, and when the smells of blood and cordite and vomit became too much, he got up and called the coroner.
After all was said and done, they buried her in the spring, in a plot next to her father, but by then John was gone too. The war had come calling, and he had embraced it.
John blinked. He blinked again, and his vision cleared in fits and starts, white fading to orange fading to dim spots at the edge of his vision. He stared out of the slit. No more explosions bloomed in his view, though a haze of smoke and dirt and snow hung in the air. The wind and snowfall had died as well, and the glow from the flames was long-dimmed. Then the haze shifted, as though the wind was pushing aside a curtain, and she was there again, Emily, closer this time.
John stared, his eyes roaming her from hairline to ankles and back, stopping at the dark crease between her legs, and her full pink-tipped breasts. She was more than that to him, but it had been so long, and seeing her again had pushed those tied feelings of love and lust to the surface, rose and razor bound together. He felt himself move below the waist, that part of him defying rational thought and seeking refuge in animal instinct. He snapped a look right again and stifled his thoughts. The private beside him hadn’t noticed, and didn’t seem to care, instead huddled in his hollow behind the steel plate against any debris and shrapnel that might stray his way.
John turned back, and peered out again. Emily was still there, watching him, pale skin untouched by the miasma surrounding her. Their eyes met, and then she was moving, in stutters and flashes, first whole and perfect, then dead and rotting, as though reality were trying to remind her that she shouldn’t be – couldn’t be. Her eyes were pitch black, the color of tar in sunlight, and when they turned on John, he could feel his bowels clench. The pit was back in his stomach, and though he wanted to, he didn’t vomit, and then she was there, in front of that iron plate, and he could hear her breath, rasping and cold, behind it. Emily squatted. Perfect, rotting breasts swayed in front of her chest, her mouth a gaping not gaping wound in her skull, her eyes black pits of fever. When she pressed her lips against the opening in the plate, the pit in John’s stomach let go, and he pissed himself. He watched frost rime the opening of the port, watched her full lips open in anticipation.
So long…it’s been so long, he thought, and he felt something let go inside of him, like a gear stripped free of its machine. He raised himself up and met her lips with his own, and tasted apple and cold earth. For a moment, he thought he heard a sound like metal on metal, or a bell, then it was gone, and there was only Emily.