3LBE #9
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All That’s Best

by Stephen Minchin

 

“She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes.”
— Lord Byron

 

6th March, 1916

After three days of travel, we have finally reached the front. Our arrival was by cover of darkness, an eerie calm as we sneaked along the trenches, conscious that Fritz slept but a hundred yards away. In our haste we saw little of our new home, but I had a few moments to look around this morning and it seems that we missed nothing more than acres of burned and muddy ground dissected by countless miles of trenches. The front stretches across what was once beautiful and fertile farmland. Now, there is nothing to see.

The men who we replaced looked happy to see us. These heroes of England were tired, dirty and hungry, but still managed to offer a few words of encouragement before they left for some well-earned rest. From what we hear, they have seen much in the past weeks. My friends and I were transfixed by their stories, and we are now more eager than ever to gain some experience in this war we’ve heard so much about.

I am excited to be here. We all are.

 

8th March, 1916

I was on watch last night, a few hours spent in a silence so thick my own pulsing heart seemed to ring in my ears. There are no birds out here, no owls calling in the darkness, and no one speaks louder than a whisper for fear of attracting the enemy’s attention. As foolish as it now sounds, I feared a German marksman might somehow hear my heartbeat and hunt me out.

While on watch I saw stars more beautiful than I have ever seen before. Perhaps it is because we are surrounded by so much destruction, but the little beauty I saw last night was magnificent. If nothing else, it seemed better to watch the stars than see what waits for us across no-man’s land: the enemy in his trenches a stone’s throw away, the dead hanging upon the barbed wire which separates us, or the other visions of death that wait, prowl, and plot.

My watch ended just before dawn, so I crawled off to my dugout and tried to imagine that I was in my bed at home. I was drifting off to sleep when the shelling started, the Germans throwing everything they had at us for the better part of three hours. Needless to say, I slept not a wink.

Our life here seems better than my family and I had feared. The men are brilliant, the camaraderie greater than I have ever seen before. Nationality, class and race play little part in our dealings. As one of my company said, we are all equal in the eyes of God, the eyes of Fritz, and the eyes of the rats. We are all friends here, and we still manage to share a few laughs in spite of our situation.

I tell myself that this war is a worthy cause, that the lives being lost are not wasted. Everyone misses their homes (although few would admit it), but none would want to abandon this battle. As long as this war is won and we are home before winter, I shall be happy.

 

18th March, 1916

We have been here less than a fortnight, but our lot has become grimmer with every passing day. Our rations often fail to reach us, and although we can find precious little clean water to drink, our trenches have turned into a bog as the rain sets in. There are rats here such as I have never seen before, crawling all over us while we sleep, and there are lice everywhere. Still, I doubt that the Germans are enjoying their time any more than we. As perverse as it may seem, this thought makes our discomfort slightly less.

The mud that we have created covers everything and everyone, head to toe so that one is unrecognisable. I fear that I could come face to face with the enemy and not realise it, thinking he was just another filthy Tommy. The maze of trenches is such that I have heard a story that a German became lost and somehow ended up in our trenches by mistake! I can scarcely believe this story, but it did have a ring of truth about it.

Early this morning, the German artillery came alive once more. It was extraordinary to hear the shells as they came in, the whistle as they fell from the sky to thud along our lines. None landed too close to our own stretch of trench but the earth shook when the shells exploded, tremors which brought down half of the roof in the dugout next to mine. It was miserable to have to spend those hours under ground, but I would rather that than venture out as hell rained down.

Once the shelling had stopped, Fritz came across. A great rush of men charging forward a half mile or so south of here. From what we have heard, two or three hundred of their men died before they crossed even half of the land that separates our lines. The survivors fell back, defeated once more, and left their dead where they fell.

Even from this distance we could see the death, and feel the fear as though it was carried on the wind. An hour after the attack, people walked amongst the dead and saw to the wounded. Thank God that we are still decent enough to let their doctors and stretcher bearers onto the field, although I fear that they did little good. I saw no survivors being carried away.

Today has been terrible. This was the first time that I have seen someone die, and today I saw hundreds fall. I am worried about what might become of me, and I am terrified of how I will fare when our time comes to attack. Although I know that we are here for a cause as good as any, I cannot help but question what our deaths will achieve. None of us want to die. Especially not here.

 

20th March, 1916

I was on watch again last night, and saw a dozen Germans prowling no-man’s land. The man I was on duty with, a man who has been at the front far longer than I, ignored them and would not even look in their direction. I assume that these were nurses, or others sent to identify the dead, but it was terrifying to see them there, picking their way between the corpses, between the coils of barbed wire, where the living should not be.

They moved slowly through the mud, whispering to each other and making their way back and forth across the land, pausing to crouch over each body before moving on. I wish that the sky had been clear last night for I couldn’t see their uniforms or what it was that they did. Another mystery of the front, and one I am sure will eventually become clear.

 

22nd March, 1916

Precious little has happened since I last took the time to write in my journal. This is perhaps a good thing (I would be more than happy to spend the remainder of the war without participating in an assault), but leaves my diary slim and rather erratic. Others here write every day. I have no idea what it is that they write, as nothing happens here for days at a time.

I am well. The weather has improved somewhat — no rain, but the skies remain choked with cloud. The nights have been cold out of doors, but it is surprisingly warm when one shelters underground. Sometimes, the days may be almost pleasant, and as I drank a cup of tea this afternoon I would almost imagine myself sitting under a tree back home.

While there has been little action in the past few days, we must maintain our watch and never let our guard down, for Fritz could attack at any time. Those not on watch have had some time to relax, however, and we have taken to games of cards. It is most peculiar to sit in ones trench and be so civilised as to play bridge, smoke a cigarette and drink tea while the enemy waits but a few yards away. I wonder if they do the same.

The one thing I truly miss is being out in the open, and I would sorely like to see the horizon. I have never suffered from claustrophobia, but the trenches seem to have brought it on in spades. If this war ever ends I will try to find a house on a hilltop, so that I can see for miles in all directions.

 

25th March, 1916

The past day has been the most terrifying of my life. Yesterday morning, we were sent over the top in a drive meant to punch through Fritz’s position. I was spared death, but witnessed things I had never thought possible.

The assault began as it always does, the artillery boys firing countless shells onto the enemy’s lines. The barrage lasted somewhat more than an hour, time we spent thinking of our loved ones and praying that we might live to see them again. When the artillery came to a stop, the whistles sounded and we went forward.

This was my first assault, and I shall never forget the moment we clambered over the tops of our trenches. The clouds had lifted to reveal a sky which was a deeper blue than I have ever seen before, and it was the first time in weeks that any of us can had seen the heavens from horizon to horizon. All I felt was a sickening sense of exposure, of having no protection against the enemy, and it was ghastly. All the more so, of course, because it was completely true.

I was one of the first up the ladder, and we rushed forward in silence. We couldn’t see any enemy soldiers, and the muddy ground was so broken and cratered that their trenches were invisible.

It was then that these things appeared in front of us, rising from the mud like fog. They looked like women, tall and thin as though starved, and they were quite naked, with skin the colour of a raven’s coat. Their eyes glowed white from their faces, and when they opened their mouths their teeth gleamed and I could see the bloody red of their tongues. I cannot imagine what they were, but these black creatures were something ungodly, of that I am certain.

I had scarcely a moment to react, and without pausing to think, threw myself to the ground as my friends ran on so bravely around me. I can hardly believe that I was so cowardly, but if it wasn’t for this I would surely be dead.

The German machine guns lit up a moment after I dropped. I raised my face from the mud and saw our men cut down in seconds, these friends that I had known for the past few weeks, with families who waited on their return. They were punched full of lead before they could even react. One man, I have no idea who he was, fell less than a foot from where I lay, and never moved again. As far as I am aware not one of us reached the German trenches.

A dozen of the women-shapes walked calmly amongst us, with smiles on their faces as they watched these poor men die. These creatures were immune to the bullets that roared all around them, and they seemed to enjoy the sight of all this carnage, one even rocking her head back and laughing soundlessly. It was a terrible, sickening thing to see, and their reverie did not stop even when the last of our men fell and the assault ended. The tar-black figures stayed in no-man’s land, picking amongst the dead and dying.

Soon, the wounded began to cry out. Some screamed in pain, a few calling for help they must have known would not come. As the women walked among the injured, one saw me lying there, alive but unmoving in the mud.

I could feel her watching me, and I looked up to meet her gaze. She was a dozen yards away, but in an instant strode across to cover me in her shadow. She crouched and reached her hand out towards my face. I pulled away, rolling back from her touch, and a German must have seen me move for the earth a foot from my face exploded as a machine-gun purred. I couldn’t get away from this monster, and I think she knew it. She smiled and reached forward once more.

Its touch didn’t hurt as I had feared it might, didn’t burn me or freeze my skin, but simply filled me with a weird peace that I had never felt before. I lay there as my head filled with visions of war, of a thousand explosions and deaths that I had never seen, and the deaths of my friends a few moments ago. I could only see a simple beauty in those terrible moments; the blood a fantastic red, bullets becoming streaks of silver fire, and the screams a musical symphony.

I have no idea what happened, for the next thing I remember it was dark. Night had come, and the black thing that had crouched over me was gone. The muddy field was silent and lifeless once more.

I crawled back to my trench, inching the twenty or thirty yards through the mud to drop at the startled watchman’s feet. The poor man would have shot me had he not been so surprised. When it was realised who I was I was sent, exhausted, to my bed.

Now, the day after our attack, I sit in the sun and wonder what it was that I saw last night. I fear that my terror brought these visions on, that I am losing my sanity in this muddy hell. More than that I fear that these were no visions. I fear that I have seen something I should not.

 

2nd April, 1916

This afternoon finds me back where I was weeks ago, among a fresh set of men, and awaiting a new assault.

I woke this morning when I heard the new men shuffle into our section of trench, and I crawled out of bed to join the others in greeting them. Even as we shook hands and exchanged whispered 'hellos’ I could somehow feel the women-creatures watching me. I did my best to ignore the prickle of their gaze, but it was like an itch I couldn’t scratch, frustrating and maddening.

I risked a look over the edge of the trench and saw them walking no-man’s land, checking on the bodies that lay there. One of the creatures stood unmoving, facing me across the muddy ground, the rolls of barbed wire, the faceless corpses. Her skin gleamed like silk under the moonlight, and I knew immediately that this was the one that had touched me. I shivered, then, and went back to bed. Sleep did not come for the rest of the night.

We have spent this morning repairing the trenches, shoveling out the dirt which has fallen in over the past few days, a job made much easier with the aid of the new men. They have so much energy it’s almost embarrassing; I feel as though I’ve aged twenty years in the past month. It’s strange to see these men, to hear them laugh and to have them ask us about the war, about the German assaults. I must have been the same a few weeks ago, but now I am only tired, dirty, and sick of wondering when I will die.

Now, resting in the afternoon sun, I wonder how long it will be until we attack again. I heard a rumour that our forces are moving south, and another rumour that more men are being sent here to strengthen our lines. We know nothing. It is as though we are being played with, chess pieces in a game larger than we can imagine.

I pray that our leaders know what they are doing, for I have no wish to die any time soon.

 

8th April, 1916

Yesterday morning, when the German cannons roared again, a shiver of excitement passed through each of us. Those of us who had been at the front long enough to know what was to come were terrified, while the new men were so eager for battle that they could scarcely contain themselves.

The shells raining around us set the ground shuddering, and the noise was something indescribable. After the better part of an hour the silence returned, and we had a taste of war once more.

When we ran from the dugouts, along the winding trenches to take up our positions facing east towards Fritz, we saw the awesome devastation that the artillery had wrought. Great sections of our trench had been demolished, leaving nothing more than a wide and shallow crater for the men to lie in. One shell had hit a dugout thirty yards from my own. There was only a hole in the ground, burned and sterile, and no sign of the men who had sheltered there.

The hundreds of dead who had fallen in no-man’s land had been swept away, the shells which fell short of out position churning the ground into a sick mix of bodies and mud. Our barbed wire had been torn apart, leaving the land free for Fritz to charge into the teeth of our guns.

It was an extraordinary sight to see the German’s flooding out of their trenches towards us. One had to almost feel sorry for these men, slipping and falling in the mud even before we had begun to shoot. When our machine guns came to life I could see fear on their faces.

As they shouted and ran towards us, we shot into the throng without even needing to aim. A dozen of the women climbed from the mud in front of me to pace among the dead and dying. One of the creatures ignored the Germans, though, and stepped down into the trench to stand at my side. I could feel the chill of her presence.

The woman watched as I shot again and again, and it did nothing for long minutes as the bodies piled up in front of our lines. I could feel her watching me. I couldn’t stop myself from looking up to meet her gaze.

As I turned, it reached out slowly and placed a hand on my shoulder. I was again filled with the vision of how beautiful this war could be. My eyes saw the battlefield in unsurpassed splendour, with flaring light and drifting smoke combined as though in a dream. For a moment, I was stunned by the stark beauty surrounding me, the colour and music of battle. I had to look away, shaking my head to clear it, and when I could concentrate again I went back to my task, picking off the men who sought to kill us.

Blood fountained everywhere I shot, one German falling to drape across one of the few lines of barbed wire that still stood in front of our position. He lay there gasping as his fellows rushed past, and fell themselves to leave a carpet of bodies such as I could never have imagined. Seeing his comrades drop around him, he must have known that he would soon be dead.

I fired again and again at the seemingly endless ranks of Germans, the woman still standing beside me, watching. The men all around me screamed and shouted as they fought on. There were explosions, grenades and artillery, and bullets thudding into the earth all around us in a rhythm of death. Soon, no more than five minutes after the attack began, the charge ended and our guns went quiet.

For a few moments there was no sound, a collective breath held by the men who lined our trench. Somewhere in the mud before us a voice cried out in pain, joined by another, and yet another. We had barely begun to relax when the air was split by the crack of a single gunshot.

It felt as though I had been hit in the shoulder by a cricket ball, a thick bolt of pain and then nothing but a sick numbness. I looked down and saw blood pumping from my shirt. The German who lay draped across the wire was watching me, smiling as he dropped his pistol and slumped into stillness.

A moment before I fainted, I glanced across and looked the woman in her eye. She was watching me, her face blank, and she reached out, slowly — cautious or curious or both — and touched a finger to the blood welling from my shoulder. As I fell to the ground I thought that I must be dead, that the last thing I would see would be this strange creature and the exquisite, muddy patch of hell our armies had made.

 

10th April, 1916

I did not die, however.

When I woke it was morning again, and I found myself in the field hospital with a priest standing over me. It was peculiar to hear his poetic prayers while I woke, to feel as ill as I did, and to suddenly remember what had brought me there. The woman stood beside the priest, smiling down at me.

A few weeks ago, I wrote of how beautiful the stars looked when they are the only thing I could see that the war had not fouled. Now, having almost died, everything I see and hear is as though touched by angels.

I walked in the gardens this afternoon, and the woman walked at my side. After my few weeks at the front, the grass, the trees and the flowers were too pretty for me to take in. She crouched beside me and smelt the rich soil. I swear that there was a tear in her eye, and that she did not wish to move on.

Perhaps, if she has come away from the front to be with me, she can accompany me when I return to England. I think that I would like that. If she can show me the beauty in this hellish war, I cannot imagine what we will share when I see my home again.

 

 

Stephen Minchin is twenty-four years old, lives in New Zealand, and is working on his Master’s degree in ecology. Since he learned to hold a pencil, Stephen has been fascinated by the written word — when he was five he once vanished for a few hours, but was eventually found sitting in the cellar, copying wine labels into a notebook. This is his first horror story to be published.


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ISSUE #9

December 2001

FICTION

ART