The old man was trying to remember his wife’s epitaph as he clutched clumsily at his walking-stick. His memories were getting as cloudy as his vision these days. The ebb and flow of time had chiselled away at his wizened face, ravaging it with careful patience. It was as crinkly as faded parchment now. The chapters of his life were written there to read; strength of character and memories of lost loves tinged with sadness because he was alone in the world now.
He had done nothing base or ignoble in a lifetime of happy mediocrity and he was proud of that. He appeared sluggardly and spiritless to the people who rushed past him in the street. Although he was ashamed of his threadbare, tatty clothes and their musty odour, it was a choice between dog food and washing-powder these days. His bones ached constantly and his soul was weary occasionally but the desire to live still flared as bright as star-flame. He was a product of his mother’s quote.
“You are a precious gift of the womb, Luke”, she had told him daily.
He had been the only child of a widowed mother. That was a long time ago. His neighbours weren’t sure now if he was as old as the village over the hill or older than the hill over the village. He had outlived everyone who could say. His knobbly and gout-swollen fingers found it difficult to grasp the stick in the rain. Once the cold got into his bones it was difficult to get it back out. Wracked with ague and gnarled with age, his thoughts drifted more and more to his wife lately.
When he had first met her, her electrifying smile had completely won him over. So too had her cupid-bow lips, her coral-black hair and her eyes of paradise-blue which glittered as clear as a mountain stream. Her memory would never leave him even though many others were becoming hazy. His stomach ached with pain and his left leg throbbed. Tap. A pause. Tap-tap. A longer pause. He thought of his dog at home, hungry and dreaming his doggy-dreams on the cold floor, probably shivering. The old man decided he would light a small fire tonight with the last few sticks. He could cope without it but the dog deserved. . . . . THWACK!
He felt an acute pain and a ringing sound filled his head. He tried to stay upright and summon strength and for a brief moment he did. Then his left leg betrayed him and he felt a hard rap above his ear. The only sense he had was of the cold concrete against his wet hair. . . .
“Man up, soldier!”
The sergeant was the first person he had ever known to use that phrase. He had Hercules shoulders and a hard stare. When he raised his voice, it was as loud as bottled thunder. He glared with contempt at the young recruit who was cowering in the trench.
A soldier called out to the sarge from the end of the trench. “Man down, sergeant!”
The sergeant cursed and leaned into the ear of the recruit. He said something to the novice and made his way down to the medics.
Luke could see that the young tyro had the thousand-yard stare common to most of the new soldiers. They always took time to adjust to the trenches and the whims of war. War was a harsh master, totally indiscriminate. It didn’t matter sometimes whether you were brave or craven, vigilant or lax. At any moment a stray shell or gas canister could send you on your way to the Maker. It was a lottery of lives and that single, salient fact seemed to unman even the best of soldiers.
Conditions in the trenches didn’t help either. Corpse-engorged rats, beady-eyed, ring-tailed and as big as cats, waddled past with their bounty, heedless of the men. The arachnid-cold defiance in their eyes made the men feel like potential prey in a reversal of nature’s laws.
It was forbidden to shoot them as bullets were scarce. You couldn’t bayonet them either as their swollen stomachs burst open, spreading disease. Some of the men, hunters and poachers from country villages, caught them with blankets and threw four or five into a barrel for weeks on end and sealed it up. Eventually, one would emerge, huge and vicious. ‘King rat’ had become a cannibal and would be set free to terrorise the other rats. Men grunted with satisfaction that nature’s laws had been restored; rats should eat rats, not men. It never fully solved the problem but it gave the soldiers peace of mind. To Luke, the real problems weren’t the rats.
Trench foot was a constant worry. Standing in a foot of mercury-red water every day made the skin doughy and inflamed, leading to amputation for the afflicted. Hair-lice, gum disease from a lack of vitamin c, hypothermia and cholera from infected water were all daily battles. The worst by far was what the experienced soldiers called ‘zombie sickness’. The constant whining of bullets and screaming of clod-thumping bombs made some of the soldiers owl-eyed from lack of sleep. That’s when a sly German sniper was only too happy to punish you for a simple mistake like not keeping your head down.
There weren’t too many left now from his original company three years ago, which was why he was a corporal, ranked just below the sergeant. Every day, the new recruits kept coming in, getting younger and more naive. It was up to old hands like him to try to keep them alive as long as possible. He edged over to the shell-shocked recruit.
“How long have you been on the front, private?” he asked.
It took a moment for those horror-filled eyes to register that someone was talking to him.
“Just five days, sir” and he gave what could only be described as a fatalistic smile.
There was a nervous tic under his left eye as he spoke. Some men became doppelgangers of what they once were in the terror-filled crucible of war, mere mannequins cast adrift from their souls. It could be the constant, mordant smell of death. It could be the sight of men being blown apart or their faces turning to jelly if they lost their gas masks, liquefied from the inside out. It could even be a lack of contact from family if the letters didn’t get through.
“Any secret loves back home then, private?” he inquired, anxious to break him out of his reverie. He got a faint smile, slightly dreamy, in return.
“A girlfriend who wants to have a child whe- if I get home. Didn’t have my mind on the job earlier. That’s why Sarge was giving out to me. Forgot to put the rifle back onto safety and it went off. ”
“What’s your name, soldier?”
“Billy Highcross, sir. All the men get a great kick out of it. Want to know was I at the crucifixion of our Lord, that kind of thing. ”
“Well you mind yourself, Billy Highcross. If I can, I’ll keep an eye out for you.” Luke moved on, talking to his men, accepting cigarettes even though he didn’t smoke himself. Comradeship was all that separated them from beasts.
Two nights later it happened. The Germans had a crack sniper with an unusual technique. He was brave and the soldiers who caught a glimpse of him swore that he was uncommonly large, a big, hulking figure who came into no-man’s land when the days fighting was over. He was also a sadist. He would crawl up to the wounded and torture them as they lay dying, daring his comrades to attempt a rescue. Many had tried and all were dead. In Luke’s company alone, nine soldiers had died. Eventually, the sarge had been issued orders from command that no one was to engage in rescue missions any more. It grated with the sarge, but orders were orders.
Night after night, the screams and heart-rending cries of their comrades could be heard, shaming them all to silence. That days head count listed six men dead but only one missing- Billy Highcross. Luke was sitting in a puddle of water, rifle resting on his knees, when the roll was called. He thought of Billy’s girlfriend back home but he also thought of the promise he gave his mother before he left.
“Promise me you’ll come back alive, Luke. You’re all I have in the world.”
Those two words were ringing in his head and had kept him alive when most of his company had fallen like jerking puppets around him. He sat there for a long time. He heard a heart-rending scream coming from the German side.
He rose up, taking off his greatcoat, leaving it slide into the puddle. He put his rifle aside and took out the large skinning knife he had found on the battlefield months before. He rubbed some fire-ash on his face and, placing the knife between his teeth, climbed a few steps up the ladder and was gone. Not a soul saw him leave. The ground was cold and slick. It was a chilly December night, banks of clouds blotting out the moon and stars. Craters full of icy water littered the battlefield. Tortuously, cautiously, every sense honed, he crept like a phantom through blood-soaked puddles and quietly-misting pools. He stopped only once to cut off the bottom of his shirt. He placed the strip around his mouth to block off both the noise and smell of his breath. It took him twenty minutes to do this for fear of discovery.
The knife was in his right hand now, his elbows aching from the effort of crawling and his heart was hammering like a piston in his chest. His pupils dilated with the intensity of his gaze, trying desperately to locate his quarry. His nostrils flared. Even amongst all the ichor, his hair matted with congealed blood and rotting corpses all around him, he detected the faintest scent in the air. It was the odour, barely discernible, of body sweat. He froze. Somewhere out here, in the midst of all the death, was a living being. At the same time, a soul-harrowing howl rent the air, a dreadful imprecation that chilled him to the marrow. Evil was abroad this night. He moved towards it, not giving into his fear.
His next decision would determine whether he would live or die that night. The gentle breeze was in his favour but the sniper had the advantage of immobility. He could work his dark arts on Billy Highcross and move to another location to wait for his prey, gun at the ready, blending in amongst the corpses. Luke decided to lay stock-still also, hoping against hope that his adversary would reveal himself. A puff of breath, a stifled cough, a small movement- anything.
Time dragged on in a way he had never experienced. Occasionally, Billy would scream, not forty yards away but still an eternity. Luke prayed. He cursed inwardly and he waited. He was just about to break when the barest whisper of cloth fluttered not five yards from him, coming from a sunken bomb-crater. He moved his head what seemed like a millimeter a second and it finally came to rest on a monster. The German had Samson shoulders and a tree-trunk neck. Hugging the ground, he resembled a cunning gorilla, sliding over bodies even more carefully and slowly than Luke had done.
When Billy screamed again, the German’s mouth opened up in a goblin-grin, revealing canines like broken glass. Luke could swear he moved his head to watch Billy’s pain and chose that moment to act.
He pounced on the German, springing like a tiger but silent in his fury. Before the German had time to react, Luke had skewered him with his knife in the shoulder, just missing the jugular. The German hissed in shock but at the same time whipped his right hand around and caught Luke in the temple with the butt of his rifle. Luke fell back and immediately felt two boulder-hard hands around his neck, the nails burrowing into his flesh like shards of flint. He tried to groin him, tried to push him aside, tried to butt him. Every effort was repelled with ease. As he slipped into unconsciousness, his mind registered two things. He had never seen eyes as cruel as the barracuda-black coals of the German, two pitiless pools of death. The other was that the coming dawn above the German’s back was the most beautiful he had ever seen; clouds of dusky-pink drifting past a slash of molten-gold in the sky.
Little stars, conflagration-red, flashed on and off in his mind, through a murky haze of black. Then the pressure on his neck eased and he heard the disgusting sound of grunting and growling. He opened his eyes and saw two shadowy titans rolling and grappling on the ground. One was on top of the other with his hands around his neck, their two noses almost touching. The sounds of their rage, muffled but murderous, was terrifying. Both were bizarrely trying to avoid the morning guns homing in on their position. There was one final gurgling, a bloody, rattling throaty sound. Then there was a very eerie, very sad expulsion of death-breath from one of them. A pregnant pause followed and Luke tried to get his breathing back. His throat passage felt reduced to the size of a penny. Someone hissed in his ear:
“Can you make it back on your own, corporal?”
It was the sarge. He had Billy Highcross tucked in under one massive paw, one hand on the ground for balance. Luke nodded.
They made it back just before the dawn volley erupted. Billy had a ruptured lung and didn’t see any more of the war. One question nagged at Luke for months. He finally summoned up the courage to ask one night when the sarge was on his own.
“Why didn’t you just knife him, sarge? Why kill him with your hands?”
The sarge took a while to answer.
“For all of our lads who died suffering… I wanted him to see my eyes. It’s what men do, isn’t it?”
Two days before the war ended the sarge was killed trying to rescue a soldier pinned down by enemy fire. As far as Luke knew, he never got a medal. Luke was decorated twice afterwards for bravery as sergeant of his company
There was a crowd of young people around the old man. The same stars were flaring in and out of his consciousness, winking then disappearing. He could see the emblems on their trainers-Nike, Reebok, and Adidas. Snatches of conversation came to him, mostly boys and one girl. There seemed to be an argument.
“. . . . shouldn’t have done it,” said the girl.
“. . . . an accident”, said one of the boys.
“. . . . did the same yesterday. . . at least call an ambulance”.
“. . . . . got no phone credit, have I?”
A deep, male voice shouted in the distance and the trainers disappeared.
He remembered his dog was alone and sadness overcame him. The words on his wife’s epitaph came to him then:
“I loved you so
‘Twas heaven with you”
and he cried for the first time in over half a century. A couple of adult voices were getting closer and he could hear fragments of their conversation as he drifted in and out of consciousness.
“. . . . who were they?”
“. . . . that Billy Highcross and his gang”.
“. . . why would they do something stupid like that?”
The last words the old man heard before he slipped away was. . . . “It’s what they do around here, isn’t it? The saddest part about it is that his grandfather was a war hero. ”