by Paula R C Readman
In the clear night sky, the moon hung high above like a silent watcher. It casted long shadows over no man’s land as Harry stood, saturated by the heavy dew, peering over the trench walls, watching, knowing at last that he could do his bit for King and country.
For so long, he had hated the faceless enemies. Night after night with his rifle held high, he watched, while all around, the sounds of bombs and gunshots thundered in the darkness, only punctuated by the screams of dying men. For him there was only gloominess reflecting in the endless dips and hollows that pitted the once beautiful landscape, caused by the bombs that fell as they tried to win back the land lost to them on other such nights.
Sometimes, he was sure he could hear them laughing above the sound of carnage.
“Are they laughing at us, George?” He ground the words out through clenched teeth to his comrade-in-arms at his side, before lifting his rifle higher and steadying his aim. “Good men are dying because of the likes of them? I see no fun in that!”
Anger tore through Harry’s heart, his conscience would be clear;he would never allow another man to suffer, unlike the enemy. No, not until he saw the whites of their eyes would he fire a single shot.
“I know,” George said, stifling a yawn. “But don’t let them get to you.” He patted Harry’s shoulder as he squeezed past him, “I’m off to get some kip, if the buggers let me.”
At the first light of dawn,through the misty haze that hung over the few feet of no man’s land, Harry caught sight of their ghostly shadows moving amidst the foggy vapour.
With aching muscles in his back, the tops of his arms and legs, he tightened his grip on his gun while steadying his aim. His chest and head knotted as he felt his face grow hot as his temper inflamed by their disregard to the raging turmoil around them. He watched as they lazily drew on their cigarettes, sending up clouds of smoke while their muffled voices carried across the land to torment him.
One night, on watch, Harry became aware that the man, who stood with his gun pointing at him, was the same man who had been there on previous nights. He wasn’t sure how he knew, he just did.
Was it the way the enemy stood, so still, unwavering in his aim? Maybe, it was the way he held his rifle, with just as much determination as he did, for that he respected him. Harry shivered suddenly aware that some sort of familiarity had passed between them.
The days passed into weeks and the summer became autumn. The dried soil soon became a sea of mud under foot as rain mixed with the blood of the men. Bullets and bombs rained down on them along with the last of the falling leaves from what was left of the bullet-ridden trees that edged the trenches. The stench of death mingled in the air, along with the decay of the year as the trees stood like wounded guardian angels with their limbs torn away as they tried and failed to protect the lost souls in their care.
Harry stared at them briefly and shivered, touched by their sadness. They reminded him of the large ancient oak trees that edged the fields and meadows of a long, forgotten world lost to him now. Warmed by thoughts of home washing over him, he tried to forget the damp that ate its way through the soles of his boots, and clawed up his legs. He shivered again, this time touched by the coldness of the racing wind that whistled along the trenches in its bid to escape the surrounding madness.
“Here’s something to break the monotony, Harry.”
Startled out of his thoughts, he turned to find George holding out a letter. “Thanks, George,” he said, lowering his gun.
“God only knows what will kill us first, the boredom, stench, rats, or mud. Sometimes, I doubt the enemy will get a look in. What do you think, Harry?” George said as he squelched his way along the trench to the next man.
Harry wiped his hands on his jacket sleeve, and using a knife slit open the letter. Guiltflooded him, with every word he read.
I hope this letter finds you well.I’m sorry it’s short, but I’ve been busy helping in the fields. Dad has more than enough work to keep ten men going. It’s been a good harvest this year, with a high yield. Though Tom is getting to be a big lad, he’s not strong or tall enough to swing a scythe yet.
I’m hoping that I’ll find the time to write you a good long letter soon.
Must go now, my dearest, Harry.
Watch out for a parcel, we sent one, but maybe you have already received it. Please don’t say you don’t have time to write, if it’s only a postcard, I will be satisfied. Are you in the trenches again?
Dad & Tom send their love. Keep safe & make haste to come home.
Harry folded the letter carefully and slipped it into a waxed paper envelope with the others. He tucked it into his breast pocket, hoping to keep them safe and dry, before picking up his gun again, reasoning as he focused on the enemy’s line, that his father needed him far more than his King did.
Surely, the country needed him to plough the fields and harvest the crops to feed them all during this time.
That last Sunday, a lifetime ago, the family had gone to church before they waved him off to join the army along, with many other young men from their village. He still could feel the sweetness of his mother’s embrace as she kissed him goodbye. Tom just a kid,at eleven, was too young to die for King and country and of little help to his parents too. Harry had been relieved that his mother would not lose both her sons to the war as she proudly stood waving him goodbye.
The hardest thing Harry had found was trying to snatch sleep at anytime during the day or night. When given notice to leave his post, he’d hurried dog-tired back to his bunk.
The shelter of the bunk carved into the trench wall,hadn’t the power to block out the noise to allow his body to slip peacefully into the arms of Morpheus as the world screamed for him to stay and fight. When his exhausted body and mind finally gave into sleep, he dreamt of home. He felt the warmth of a sweetly perfumed summer breeze across his bare back as he bent hoe in hand, helping his father.
Tom, thin arms and legs, ran like the wind he chased, across the field at the back of the house, with a homemade, paper kite in tow. In the yard, he saw their mother standing tall and slender, her black hair swept up and pinned in place. At her hip, she held a basket from which she tossed grain to hungry clucking chickens that gathered round her feet.
Catching sight of the kite riding on the warm air currents above her head, she shielded her eyes, and looked up in time to see the kite dancing on the perfect, summer breeze.
Father resting a while,straightened too, before leaning on his hoe. A deep, caring chuckle broke the silence between them as they worked.
“I see the lad has made another one. My, my, that boy has determination, I’ll give him that.” He turned, and Harry felt his father’s strength as he patted him on the back, “You, my lad, are strong both in mind and in character. I’m so proud of you both.” With that, his father carried on with his toil as though nothing had happened. As the power of his father’s love and pride flooded through him, Harry felt himself smiling, knowing his father was not one for fancy words.
A terrifying scream tore Harry from his father’s side as the dream faded. Startled awake, he almost fell from his bunk. For a moment, he lay stunned by the agonising noise, his breath catching in his throat. His heart hammered in his chest as he tried to open his eyes, but something wet and sticky covered them.
At first, he thought, he was screaming. Terrified, he wiped at his eyes, realising that the stuff covering his face was the cause of his sudden blindness. Now that he could see, he looked down at his hands, to his horror, saw the blood, and checked himself.
It wasn’t his.
A scream rang out again,piercing, pitiful and nearby.
Harry peered over the side of his bunk and found a boy lying in the mud.
“Tom?” he heard himself saying.
The boy’s head turned slowly. Then with pleading baby blue eyes and a lost expression, he stared up at him.
Harry stood, trying to catch his breath.
The round, soft-faced boy-child, looked no more than seventeen; lay where he had fallen with half his body torn away. What was left of his torso sat propped up against the wooden bargeboard of the trench wall. Between the boy’s legs, his guts spilled out snake-like in a pool of red and white matter across the duckboards mixing in with mud and dirt from where the bomb had blasted the trench wallaway.
Transfixed by the fallen boy, Harry felt a sense of tranquillity even though all around the sounds of the big guns continued to rain chaos and hellfire down on them.
Harry stared fascinated at seeing no sign of pain or tears in the boy’s eyes as he held up his hand to him. Dropping to his knees beside him, he took it and leaned forward to hear him plead, “Help me,Mister. I can’t move my legs.”
“I’m sorry Lad, there’s nothing I can do, but pray to God for you.”
The boy closed his eyes.
Relief washed over Harry, believing the boy must have slipped away to somewhere far more peaceful.
Then a low groan emanated from the boy and he opened his eyes again.
A sickening bile rose in Harry as he realised what he had to do. The boy suddenly spoke his thoughts aloud.
“Please kill me, Mister. I beg you. I can’t stand the pain or noise anymore.”
Harry closed his eyes in a silent prayer as he heard the boy cough.
Harry opened his eyes, stared into the boy’s eyes as thick, red blood oozed from between his pale lips. Without a second thought, Harry lifted his revolver to the boy’s head.
A gentle smile flickered across the boy’s thin bloodless lips,and Harry heard him say, “Oh, thank you, Mister. I can go home now.”
The sound of Harry’s revolver echoed around the trench, and seemed to block out the roar of the big guns too. Harry lowered his gun. As a tear rolled down his cheek, he quickly wiped it.
Startled by a voice from behind him, he flopped back on his bunk, as a brother in arms pushed by him.
“Poor sod, isn’t much else we could’ve done for the little bugger. Don’t you go worrying yourself.It’s what he wanted. None of us would be that lucky. Come on,George, give us a hand. We’ll see if we can find a hole somewhere for him. You’ve done enough,Harry; you’re a braver man than I’ll ever be.”
Harry stared at the gun in his hand, and tossed it away aware that he hadn’t killed one of the faceless enemies, but a boy. Shot as though he’d been nothing more than a lame dog.
Harry pushed his revolver back in its holster, picked up his rifle, and took his place back at his post. As he looked across no man’s land, he saw his enemy at his post on the far side, his gun focused on him. No longer, did Harry watch with a keen eye, or hold his gun with a steady aim; he hadn’t the stomach for it.
Laughter echoed along the trenches. Perplexed he looked around to see where it came from, and curled his lips in disgust, when he realised it came from his own trench.
“Had everyone forgotten so quickly? Are we so numbed by death that we no longer care about one of our own?”
He lifted his gun, and stared across to no man’s land.
Confusion filled the blood-scented air as Harry became aware that his enemy no longer stared at him, but stare towards the clear blue sky, with his hand shielding his eyes from the autumn sun. Harry lowered his rifle slightly, and followed his gaze until he saw what had caught his attention.
There fluttering over no man’s land, high up in the sky, hanging on the warm current was a white kite. Its brightly coloured tails seemed to dance in numerous twists and turns as the wind dipped and flowed.
Slowly, along the trenches on both sides the men of the frontline began to shield their eyes and look skyward, before nudging their comrades to look. Harry followed the string to earth and found no one held the kite. He checked the frontline again, reasoning aloud, “Surely someone held it.”
Glancing at his enemy, he watched him gesture with a shrug of his shoulders that he too was puzzled. Harry found himself smiling, and returned the gesture.
In that moment, he wondered what else he shared with the enemy.After all, they were both men with parents and maybe siblings too.
Did he watch the kite in the same way as him? Had he spent time with his father, in a garden, in some distant time and place? Maybe he too had a kid brother, who played with a kite on a long hot day, when the world rested peacefully in some past life.
Harry laid his gun down, and climbed over the top of the trench. Standing with his arms outstretched, he walked towards the enemy line.
“Come back you stupid bastard! You’ll get yourself killed!”he heard his men calling with anxious voices from behind him,but he kept on walking.
He passed the fallen, broken bodies of men from both sides. They seemed to stare vacant-eyed at the hovering white kite with its crucifix-stylized cross made out of thin canes while the mud, the only decent thing on the battlefield, tried to swallow them up.
Suddenly, the guns fell silent as Harry stood in the heart of no man’s land staring up at the dancing kite. Then out of the opposing trench came the familiar stance as his faceless counterpart walked towards him with his arms outstretched. In the middle of all the madness, two men embraced like old friends.
No words spoken. There wasn’t any language left to express the sorrow, or anguish felt by them both. Harry’s adversary took his hands in his, pulling him onto his knees. Harry sensed what the Unknown Soldier wanted of him, and placed his hands together; closing his eyes, he lifted his head towards heaven, and offered up a prayer to God for all the lost souls on the battlefield. The man pulled Harry to his feet then after embracing him tightly for a few moments he held him at arm's length.
Harry found himself bathed in a golden light as he stared deep into the soldier’s sky-blue eyes. For a briefest of moments, he was sure he saw the dancing kite with its fluttering multicoloured tails reflected within them.
After another quick embrace,the man turned, and walked away, leaving Harry with a deep sense of peace washing over him.
Just as Harry returned to his trench, he glanced back over his shoulder, and noticed that both the soldier and the kite were gone. He stood stunned for a moment, wondering if it had all been a dream when he became aware that the big guns with their dragon-like mouths roared fire into the sky as the sounds of war filled the air with death once more.
“Wake up, Grandpa!” The excited child called, rushing into the quiet study from the garden.
“Hush, my dear child, you’ll startle Grandpa,” came the softly spoken voice of a woman.
“But, Mama, he mustn’t be late for church.”
Harry opened his eyes slowly to see his grandson watching him with bright, baby blue eyes and a soft baby-boy smile.
“Grandpa, I knew you were not asleep. You must be ready to go to work soon.
Harry laughed and sat up in his armchair before straightening his clerical collar.
“It’s lovely to see you, Thomas, and your dear mother looking so smartly dressed and ready to come to church with me.” Harry stood and embraced his daughter, before lifting his grandson to kiss his cheek.
The memories of the war to end all wars would never leave him. He knew it had marked him in so many ways, as it had done many others, but he’d been one of the lucky few who had survived. He looked down into the bright eyes of his grandson and hoped he would never have to take another man’s life for either the right or wrong reasons.
“After church, grandpa can we fly my kite again?”