By Sherry Cortes
The guns stopped firing right as the rain did at two pm. Private Muller lit a cigarette scavenged from a nearby body—a boy, couldn’t be a day older than seventeen. Muller appreciated a moment of relative silence. Somewhere far down the line, he could still hear the big guns going, the gray horizon lit with bursts of red and orange glow. Here it was quiet.
The other soldiers hunched in the trench with him, ignoring the ankle high slop of mud and piss, taking Muller’s lead and enjoying the moment. Even if they had not been jammed in close quarters, they would have huddled together for warmth. Some spoke in low voices, afraid to disturb the quiet, their mumbled conversations barely registering to Muller.
“It’s going to rain again.” Kruger had set his gun across his knees as he crouched and leaned back against a sandbag.
Muller nodded in silent agreement. There were three certainties in this war: artillery fire, death, and rain. He offered the fag to Kruger. The older private took a deep drag from it, letting it out with a sigh.
“I thought we’d run out of tobacco,” he said, smoke pluming from his nose in a blue mist.
“Got it from the kid. He also had a blade,” Muller said, holding up a small pocket knife. There was an engraving set in delicate silver on the handle. ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? Psalm 27:1’. It had to be a present from the boy’s parents; a saying meant to give him strength in this place. The blade was too small to use in combat, but it would be good for trade.
Something scurried by his foot, disturbing the sewage, and Muller kicked out at it reflexively, grimly satisfied when his boot connected with something solid. Goddamn rats.
“Look alert, boys!” The command cut through the air, disturbing the moment, and both men looked up, irritated. ‘Herr Junger’, a beefy young man with a shock of blonde hair and ruddy cheeks stood straight, staring at them with his arms folded over his chest. His real name was Lieutenant Otto Schmidt, and compared to soldiers like Muller and Kruger in their late thirties, he was an infant. Junger continued speaking.
“We move out in an hour. Eat some food, get back your strength.”
“Hear that, Muller?” Kruger said cheerfully, “We get to have a fine meal. Which would you prefer: roasted or braised?”
Muller snorted, snatching back his cigarette before Kruger could finish it off. They had run out of rations days ago, Junger knew that. These same sullen looking soldiers had given up on the possibility of getting resupplied and taken to eating rats. The rodents were plentiful and fat from gorging on the dead. Muller often sat at night picturing the other side having trenches filled with food; sausage, cabbage, his mother’s strudel, chocolate and barrels of beer, the enemy happily feasting and waiting for their next useless attack, not a damn rat in sight.
“We’ll take those bastards today, I swear it,” Junger continued on, and damn if the man didn’t manage to sound confident in the face of hopelessness. “Artillery fire’s been ordered to start at fifteen hundred; we’ll charge while they’re cowering in their shitholes over there.”
Junger stood for a moment, mouth opening and closing as he struggled to find more words to inspire and encourage his men. But there was nothing to say. Any battle determination had disappeared weeks ago, each new body count ensuring it would stay away. The young officer closed his mouth with a snap and spun on his heel, stalking away through the mud to his own little cave scratched out of the side of the trench.
Kruger was already up and hunting for his meal, but Muller wasn’t hungry. He hadn’t been hungry for days now, and only took water sparingly. Sometimes he simply turned his face upwards, catching rainwater in his mouth and that was all he needed for the day.
So, he sat, puffing the bare remnants of the cigarette until the paper had burned down to his fingertips, and waiting for the orders to move out.
It started as all advances did, with a round of artillery fire to keep the enemy’s head down and allow the Germans to rush the field. Muller ran as fast as the thick mud allowed him to, focused more on avoiding shells from the other side than actually reaching French lines.
Even experienced soldiers could not dodge the endless barrage forever. A shell slammed into the earth, the impact sending out a deep shock that rattled his bones and nearly deafened him. Muller struggled to focus, to keep a clear head, but everything was sluggish and muffled as though underwater. He did not hear the whistler coming in until it landed, mere yards from him. The gun was ripped from his hands as he toppled back and landed hard at the bottom of a muddy fox hole.
Blackness engulfed him.
When Muller’s eyes opened and stared blankly at the gray sky, he could not guess how long he had been unconscious. A small eternity passed before he remembered where he was, what happened, even who he was. He eventually recalled he had a body when pain sliced through him, snapping him out of the haze.
Muller sat up, a sucking noise sounding from where he pulled free of the mud. The pain grew sharper and he looked down, trying to find the source. A piece of metal jutted from his leg, just where calf met knee, the fabric of his pants stained dark from the rain and mud.
He touched it. Lightning lanced up his spine and he let out a cry, hand falling away immediately.
“Fuck,” he moaned, “Fuck.”
The soldier sucked in shuddering breaths, looking around for another person, but he was alone, save for a French officer lying on his face in the muck near him. It didn’t take a hardened veteran to see the man was dead. It was difficult to stay alive with your legs and most of your back gone.
“Medic. Medic!” Muller shouted, not caring if the other side heard him. If they found him and killed him, well, it would be better than dying alone in this shithole. “For the love of God, medic! I’m down here!”
Silence met his shouts, the eerie silence that hung between skirmishes. Before it had been a welcomed respite, but right now it rolled over him like a thick woolen blanket, making it hard to breathe.
He fell back on his elbows, eyes shut tight against the rain, the mud, the dead soldier. They had not taught him in basic how to survive something like this. They had not taught him about the whistlers, the trenches, the barbed wire, the gas, and infection, all of the things that could kill him in grisly ways.
There was no one coming for him. Not now. Sucking in shallow breaths, he opened his eyes again, straightening slowly. He gritted his teeth, reaching out again, and this time holding onto the shard of metal until the pain became a sharp ache and gave a forceful tug. It ripped free, tearing out of flesh and fabric. He screamed long and hard. He screamed at the sky and the mud and the damn war. He screamed until his voice gave out and his chest heaved with the effort.
Shifting as best he could, he dragged himself through the mud to the body, hands scrabbling at the wet wool of the brown uniform as he scavenged until he found a handkerchief. It worked as a temporary bandage, tied tightly around the wound.
Something shifted in the mud near him, and he instinctively kicked out with his uninjured leg and the movement stopped. Standing was not an option, and Muller started dragging his body by his elbows towards the steep side of the hole.
Every motion made his nerves scream in agony. But he continued on gamely until he could reach up, fingers clawing at the soft earth, trying to find purchase. If he could only get out of the hole, he would be able to take stock of everything and get back to the German line.
There was something moving again by the French officer’s body, but his concentration was on the slow process of hauling his wounded body up the embankment. If crawling through the mud had been difficult, climbing was nearly impossible. It seemed that with every foot gained, he slipped back three. Little grunts escaped him as he used his arms and uninjured leg to push and pull himself slowly to the top.
Minutes could have past, or it could have been hours. Sweat soaked his entire body as he panted and strained. The pain grew worse with each movement, but he pushed it to the back of his mind until his hand reached over the top of the hole, finding somewhat solid ground. With one last heave, he hoisted himself up until he could rest on his torso, half in and out of the pit.
The battle ground was empty of life, littered with shells, bodies, and barbed wire. Muller felt a drop of water hit his head and he looked up at the darkening sky. Sure enough, the rain started, a slow heavy drizzle, drowning out the silence.
As Muller began to pull his body the rest of the way free, something caught the corner of his eye.
Twenty yards away a man crouched over the body of a fallen horse. Muller blinked water from his eyes, wondering how he had missed that before. Maybe because the soldier was hunched near the horse’s belly, the rest of the animal blocking a clear view of him. Raising a hand, Muller called out to him above the rush of the rain.
“Hey! Hey you there! I need help!”
The man did not look up.
“Help me out of this damn hole!”
Finally, the man moved, slowly lifting his head to stare at Muller. He had blood smeared slickly over his mouth and nose. Before Muller could tell if he had been injured, the man stood, something falling from his hands. In a sickening moment, the he realized it was the horse’s intestines as they flopped over its body.
The man stumbled around the carcass, walking towards the hole. He moved like a drunk, swaying and stumbling, arms hanging limply at his sides. His eyes were fixed on Muller, the skin on his chest flapping around a gaping wound as he shambled closer. He hobbled on a stumped leg, where the foot was completely gone past the ankle.
Muller reeled back in terror, losing his grip on the ground and rolled right down the hole’s embankment, landing with a squelching sound at the bottom.
“Oh god, oh god, oh god,” he gasped. He had seen so much in this war. Men exploding into sprays of pink mist, men cut wide open and moaning piteously while trying to push their spilled bowels back in, men caught on the barbed wire lines like ragged, torn dolls. But they had been dead. Not wandering around gutting horses. He choked back acid bile.
His head snapped around when something stirred in the pit, splashing water. The French officer was moving. His hand reached out towards Muller as he lifted his head out of the mud, turning in that same slow motion towards the German. Half of his face had been ripped off.
Muller scrambled away until his back hit the wet earth of the wall. The officer continued reaching out to him, purple tongue hanging free from the side of his mangled mouth. A sound like a groan and wail escaped the moving corpse—a sound so terrible Muller covered his ears to block it out.
Dirt hit Muller’s shoulder, and he looked up to see the other dead man standing at the edge of the hole, staring down at him, expression as blank as the French soldier’s. It stepped out into empty space and fell straight into the pit. There was a sickening crack when it hit the mud, and Muller could swear it had been the spine from the way it landed. The world seemed to hold its breath as he waited to see what would happen next. Surely the thing would not be able to recover from a fall like that.
He almost allowed relief to sink in when the body moved, sluggishly pushing itself out of the sticky floor of the hole, looking at him with its head hanging at an odd angle now, neck broken from the impact. The thing moved again, taking a stumbling step towards him. Muller stared at its face, gaze locked on the eyes clouded with death. There was nothing there. Yet it came towards him, inexorably urged on by something.
Muller pushed back against the wall again, fingers scrabbling at the soft dirt as though he could dig right through the ground away from it. It would pause, then step, pause again, as though trying to sniff out its prey. Or perhaps it knew he wouldn’t be able to go anywhere and was taking its time. The dead Frenchman was making guttural noises and Muller realized with mounting terror that it was actually pulling its mutilated body along with its hands, intent on reaching its goal.
He had to get out of there, Muller knew that, but how could he get away from these things when it had taken so long for him to pull himself out of the bloody hole before?
Muller could smell the putridity rolling off the dead body in waves as it approached. In a flash, he felt anger start to rise in him. The man had been killed already—he should have stayed dead. He had no right to be walking around while Muller struggled to survive.
His hand closed around the pocket knife in his trousers. He fell forward, and the blade of the knife buried itself deep in the dead man’s eye. The thing stood for a moment, swaying drunkenly on the spot before it crumpled to the earth, a marionette with its strings cut.
Muller stared at it, the breath whistling in and out of his lungs in hoarse gusts. It wasn’t moving. He reached down, wrenched the knife free and turned to the other dead man in the pit.
It was closer, but not by much. It was completely unfazed by its companions’ recent demise, one clouded eye staring at Muller with dull intent, thick purple tongue lolling about uselessly. Maybe it was the adrenaline, the pain, the anger, or a combination of all three, but Muller found himself standing and hobbling the last few steps between them, kicking away the hands when they reached for him. One boot pinned its head to the mud, holding it in place while the knife rose in the air and slammed into the exposed skull, right in the soft spot behind the ear. Not even a gurgling noise sounded as its limbs stopped moving.
Muller waited, the rain a shroud around him and the two corpses.
A noise caught his attention, but it wasn’t a noise coming from the bodies. It sounded across the battleground, and Muller shouted back at it. Any live person, even the enemy, was better than the recent company he had been keeping.
The noise came again, this time closer, and Muller yelled in response, calling for help. A moment later and yet another person was standing at the edge of the hole, looking down at him. He was wrapped in a gray woolen overcoat that had seen better days. But he was most definitely alive.
Muller waved up at him frantically, pointed at his bloodied leg. The stranger gave one nod and disappeared. A moment later, he was back, and a rope of some sort fell just within reaching distance against the wall. Muller stumbled to it, hands groping at it until they closed around it, gripping it tight. It wasn’t until he was being pulled half-way out of the hole that he realized the rope was actually the undone leathers of a horse’s bridle. His stomach churned, but he held onto the strap gamely.
He pushed at the wall with his good foot, trying to speed the process along, until he felt someone grab the back of his coat, hauling him over the edge of the hole, back into the world. Muller collapsed on the ground, panting. His savior stood nearby, looking around anxiously. Another Frenchman, this one whole. He was tall and reedy even with the bulk of his uniform. Muller could scarce believe he had been able to pull him out on his own.
“Thank you,” he said, breaking the silence. The tall man looked at him and nodded. It was just this man and him now sitting on the blasted and torn field.
“God, I have to get back to my line,” Muller muttered, pressing a hand to his knee when he saw there was fresh blood seeping out. “Need a medic.”
France stared at him uncomprehendingly.
“I need to get a doctor,” Muller said louder, pointing towards the German line, then back at him. Something clicked and France’s face cleared, and he nodded understandingly. He spoke, but Muller could not make out a damn word. He did not have the energy or patience to try and work through the muddled memory of vocabulary.
“Take me,” pointing, “There.” Pointing.
The tall man finally shut up and leaned down, hauling Muller to his feet. The German bit his lip to stop from crying out and swung an arm around the narrow shoulders. It was slow going, as the Frenchman tried to walk them across a shredded landscape. The ground was slick with mud and pieces of shrapnel and body parts made walking difficult.
Muller was determinedly not thinking about what happened back in the pit, focusing as much as he could on stumbling along with one leg, France’s deceptively thin frame providing most of the support. Time ticked by as ponderously as Muller’s steps, the landscape around them barren of life.
They were still hundreds of yards from anywhere when France halted abruptly, startling Muller out of an almost trance-like state.
“What are you doing?”
France was staring straight ahead, lean face tense. Muller realized it had been growing steadily darker—night was coming. The dull shadows were stretching across the field, and it was in one that Muller saw what the Frenchman had spotted. By the wheel of an abandoned cart a figure huddled. It wasn’t until it moved that Muller realized it was a person.
The two soldiers looked at each other warily, and then his companion drew his pistol out, cocking it. Muller could feel him shaking as he raised it and called out.
The person jumped, head lifting immediately and looking their way. Muller nearly sagged in relief. That shock of blond hair was recognizable from anywhere.
“Herr…Schmidt!” Herr Junger had almost rolled off his tongue, but he had caught himself just in time. He raised his hand in greeting. France was still trembling and had not put his gun away.
The lieutenant stood slowly, and started to approach them. It wasn’t the drunken stumble of the dead, and he continuously looked about as though expecting an ambush at any moment.
“Lieutenant,” Muller called as he drew closer. “Lieutenant, by god it’s good to see you.” ‘Alive’ hung unsaid in the sodden air.
“Muller? Muller, is that you?” Herr Junger’s normally robust voice was dry and seemed to crack with the effort of speaking.
Muller glanced up at his new companion.
“A Frenchman. He got me out of a hole and was taking me back to our lines.” He was not about to go into what had happened in the hole. Junger stared at the tall foreigner as though he were some sort of ghost.
“And you’ve…you haven’t…seen anyone else?” the lieutenant ventured hesitantly. There was something there behind the blue eyes that Muller recognized as the gnawing fear he had known since first seeing the dead man with the horse. It was far more insidious than the fear of battle. At least one could understand war.
“Not since the hole.”
“They didn’t do that to you, did they?”
“No,” Muller shook his head, “Got thrown by a whistler and landed on some shrapnel. Went straight through my leg. We need to get back to our lines, Lieutenant.”
He wasn’t going to ask why the other man had been hiding behind a wheel when he seemed perfectly uninjured and able to move on his own. He thought he knew the reason.
Junger seemed to finally snap to, woken from his haze.
“Yes. Yes, of course. Come, Private, lean on me as well—we’ll carry you.”
France accepted the help and addition of Junger to their group without a word. They moved faster with an extra set of hands, and it was only then that Muller wondered what would happen if the Frenchman were to come with them into the German trenches. Well, they couldn’t very well send him back across No Man’s Land with those things out there, could they?
Junger talked as they went, describing what happened to him during the skirmish. Like Muller, he had been knocked out by a shell, and when he had come to, he was alone in the field in silence. It was only minutes before he first encountered one of the dead, a German corporal shambling along with no arms.
Muller listened in silence to Junger’s description of how he dealt with the corpses that came his way. Young men needed to be able to tell their stories. But it did not take long before he was out of bullets, and his knife had disappeared somewhere in the muck. Which was when they had found him crouched by the cart.
“How did you survive?” Junger asked when he was done. “Injured and alone.”
Muller opened his mouth. But something stopped him from telling the story. He had never been one to shy from violence or gore, but there was some part of him that wanted to put that memory away until it was erased by time. He shook his head, and Junger allowed them to fall back into silence.
“By god, it’s Kruger!” The shout made Muller jump and Junger released him, taking off and running in the direction of something moving through the rain.
It wasn’t Kruger. Although his eyesight was not the sharpest, Muller saw that the second Junger started towards the former lieutenant. He shouted a warning, but it was too late; Junger was within arm’s reach and Kruger almost fell onto him. Its mouth opened wide, and Muller saw teeth flash in the dull light before sinking into his neck. Junger screamed in agony. It was a terrible sound, like the shriek of a gutted pig.
Junger’s scream became a wet gurgle when the thing jerked its head back, a chunk of the man’s throat in its maw. Muller stared in horror as blood spurted from the torn veins in Junger’s neck. Kruger’s corpse let out a grunt as it swallowed its mouthful and then went in for another bite. Junger wasn’t struggling anymore. He hung limp in the creature’s grasping hands.
France released Muller and the German all but fell from the sudden lack of support. He struggled to remain upright, putting his weight on one leg, watching the tall men stride towards the feasting Kruger. It did not even bother to look up as the Frenchman took his pistol out, held it against its head and pulled the trigger.
Muller stared in the silence following the gunshot, staring at the bodies of two men he had fought side by side with. France holstered his pistol and stepped back. He turned his head towards Muller when there was a soft click of metal, and Muller saw the brief moment of realization on the other man’s face before the explosion. The shock of it threw the German soldier onto his back, leaving him stunned as bits and pieces of what remained of the Frenchman rained down on him.
They spattered over him wetly, the warmth a contrast to the cold rain. Muller closed his eyes, not wanting to see more death when it surrounded him on all sides. It was a silent night on the field of blood, save for the steady thump of rain as he was once again alone. As his mind teetered towards despair, Muller heard something, something barely there. It was an odd crackling, like a radio. When he lifted his head, he saw a reddish light glowing from near the German lines.
A fire was being kept lit even in this downpour. A big fire, at that. With a low moan, he pulled himself up, forcing himself to his feet. The pain had become a steady ache. He was almost used to it by now, although he was certain he would be losing this leg once he found a medic. But that did not matter so long as he survived. So long as he escaped death this time.
He grabbed a discarded rifle, using it to support his weight, and started hauling himself towards the fire.
As he neared, he could see figures standing around the blaze. The wind changed direction and sent the smoke billowing in his direction and he nearly gagged from the smell. Rotten, burning flesh. He had smelled something like that once before when they had burned a pile of rats before they started using the rodents for food.
Moving through pure tenacity now, Muller stumbled forward, reaching out with a free hand towards the soldiers by the fire. One turned his head and shouted something lost to Muller under the loud crackle of flames.
Blinded by the choking smoke, Muller did not see the soldier raise his rifle and aim it. The shot hit him square between the eyes. Muller toppled to the ground, eyes open to the rain pouring down on him. When they dragged him to the pit and rolled him onto the pile of burning bodies, they did not see the penknife fall from his pocket, silver words glinting dully in the orange light until the wash of rain and mud had swallowed it whole.
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