Each blast separate, unique, the bombs falling from the sky and getting nearer. After months at the front Sam could tell roughly where they’d land, how far from him they’d be. He ducked, dirt pattering down, plunking on his helmet, dusting his shoulders. He didn’t bother brushing it away.
At first he’d covered his ears, hunched his shoulders, pulled his head in like a turtle. Not now. The man beside him coughed, hacking blood. He’d been too slow with his mask the last time they’d been gassed. But he hadn’t told the commanding officer. The man wanted to stay, half buried in the earth, sweating and bleeding and dying by inches in the trenches.
Sam touched his pocket, felt the wad of paper there, the comfort of civilization when nothing else appeared sane. The words were a lifeline, a rope, to a world that he’d forgotten. He knew, he had to believe, that it remained, past the machine gun nests and the field hospital, away on the hazed horizon.
His belief alone would make it real.
He fumbled the packet free, digging out the stub of a pencil he’d kept, whittled, and preserved.
He began to write.
They wrote the poetry of the war and I collected it. Going from man to man, taking pages, rustling, clutching them to my chest as explosions rattled my bones.
In all those faces there was one – as there always is, as there always has to be. I pressed my lips to his eyes, expecting to give him sight. But he couldn’t see me and his well of sorrow that overflowed dropped me to my knees.
In a moment they would launch themselves, breath and bone, soul and tender heart, over the lip of the trench and into barbed wire hell. The bombardments had come to a halt, the silence in their wake eerie, expectant.
I watched him scribble a few last words on a scrap of paper. The pencil blunt, the pages greasy. The words were almost unintelligible, blurred and run together with haste and the shaking hand of adrenaline. I crouched, the hem of my nurse’s uniform sinking into mud without being stained by it. I brought my face to his, looking past the layer of grime, through tanned flesh to the mind twinkling behind bone. He sparked, he shone, his verse coming from a place I couldn’t go. I hadn’t touched him, hadn’t made a gift of my services, and still he wrote.
Down the line, past bent helmeted heads and rifles topped with bayonets, a man with Captain’s bars stood, smoking. His hand remained steady, his eyes squinting at an unseen point. Then he called it, ordering them to stand, the boys and men, the soldiers dressed in khaki. A rattle of gear, right to left, past my line of sight, they moved, becoming one being.
My poet slipped the packet of pages into his breast pocket, careful to button it closed. I eased my hand in, took the sheets so that they wouldn’t be lost. Mine leaving just as his came up to pat the spot, keeping the small piece of heart he carried outside of his body safe.
I did this each time. I took the words he carried into battle, fearful that he would fall and they’d be lost. I couldn’t bear the thought that our eyes would be the only ones to see his work, to absorb the greatness in simple lead. Each time he came back I replaced them, breathing out a sigh that wasn’t quite relief – who am I feel such things? A muse, the flash of inspiration, nothing substantial.
But this time, this time, it felt different. The air smoked and steamed, hot with anticipation, the fetid mess at the bottom of the trench, knee deep in places, crawling after the soldiers as they rushed over the top and into enemy fire.
I followed, not onto the field, but to the lip so that I could watch their progress, see the bodies fall. Bullets whizzed, whining through me, past my cheekbones, through my gut but I remained, silent and ever watchful.
Death and I, we were friends in those days – much closer than we are now. He came to stand beside me, leaning on the silver bayonet-topped rifle he’d fashioned, leaving the traditional scythe at home.
“One of yours?” He nodded at the advancing line, the men crouched, ducking shells and fire, the world coming apart.
I shook my head, unable to look away for fear I would lose sight of him and in that instant he’d take his last breath.
Death snorted, “Why watch, then?”
“He writes beautiful poetry.” I held the smudged pages aloft.
“Let me see.” Death took them, the sting of it leaving my hand reaching all the way to my soul.
He flipped through the little packet, mumbling as he skimmed, one finger tapping against the rifle. He shrugged, or I imagined he did because I didn’t look at him, “It’s good. And you didn’t help?”
“How often does that happen?”
“Maybe he’s someone else’s then. Seen any of the others floating around the place?”
Out of the corner of my eye Death leaned forward, glancing left and right, up and down, as if he might catch sight of another on the battlefield.
“Not lately,” I said, hand going to my mouth. My poet had fallen, tripping over a body, a shell exploding close, too close. He didn’t move. I started forward.
Death stopped me, a hand on my arm, his cold infecting me. “He’s fine. He’ll get up in a minute.”
I waited, watching, until he did and then I let myself breathe. Death tapped me with the packet of pages; I accepted them, clutching them to my chest as if by saving them I could save the flesh marching across the field.
“I could tell you,” Death leaned closer, tilting his voice at me, creeping up on me, “you know, when it’s going to happen. Might take some of the worry away, the wait.”
I shook my head, “I don’t want to know.”
The battle raged. I’d never understood that term, a battle raging, as if this experience had a life and anger and fury all of its own. But here, watching, the world around me imploding only to expand in a shower of mud, blood, and shrapnel, it felt as if the earth had coughed up all the hate and malice, the anger and fury that a universe could hold and unleashed on the little figures rushing across the surface. It was hard to believe that man could choose this, could hunch in trenches and wait for the call, to go over the top and run screaming at each other.
“You’re really sure?”
I turned to Death, wrenching my gaze away to stare into his pale face. He smiled at me a little sadly, as if he pitied me or, as if he knew I’d be taking on a weight I couldn’t carry.
“I’m sorry,” he said, not unkindly but business like, reaching out to pat my shoulder. I pushed his hand away, turning back to the field. It had changed, just in that instant, my poet, my rushing heart disappeared.
“Why did you do that?” I searched the spot that I’d last seen the man but he was gone. A crater, larger than the rest, dirt still falling, occupied that space. I balled my hands into fists, “Why?”
“No one should have to watch someone they love die.”
I ran, stumbling for an instant in rutted earth until I willed myself above it, my feet barely touching the ground as I propelled myself forward. I leapt, brushing a jangling barbed wire fence, floating over fallen soldiers. I passed through them, they passed through me, until I found the one I sought. Several yards from the crater, mangled and broken, his skin so pale it was almost blue. His face was turned to the overcast ceiling of the world, the sky above lit with flashing and popping explosions.
I knelt beside him, touched my lips to his temple, tasted blood. He couldn’t see me, would not. In my hand his pages rustled, a song for the dead, the dying, and gone. I held them tighter, promised life, the only kind that I could give.
“He was young.” Death was there, bayonet at the ready, sharp silver point reflecting some other place than this. “Ready?”
I nodded, reaching out to take the poet’s hand. Not that he would feel it or care but to comfort myself, to feel the weight of this a little less.
Death plunged the bayonet into the ruin of his chest, cutting his soul lose, freeing it for what came next. There was an instant, an almost, a shade, then nothing. I was left with the cooling body, bloodied uniform, and Death with his clean bayonet. I looked around, deaf to the screaming, the crying. None of them belonged to me.
“You’ve got a lot of work,” I said, letting the poet’s hand drop, pushing to my feet. I brushed a hand against the white cotton of my dress, smearing blood and dirt across it.
Death nodded, glanced around. “I do. No rest for the wicked, as they say.”
I smiled, weakly, tentative because my face hurt from holding back tears. “Better get to it.”
He spun his rifle like a trained cadet, shouldering it as if he intended to march off to some private battle of his own. I didn’t stay to watch him spear the rest, to collect them, to move them on.
I walked away, stepped off the field, leaving the sounds of it behind me. I walked until I could no longer smell the decay, the muddy feces and fear.
I walked until around me a city blossomed, shooting great stone stalks out of the earth, stained glass petals shimmering.
I found a place where I could wait out time.
Later, oh so many years later, I discovered a poet I liked. He wasn’t as good as the natural, his talent needed something, a push that he couldn’t give himself. In a café, surrounded by excited voices, ideals and art, unseen I whispered him my natural’s words. I read them into his ear so that no else might hear.
I made my voice the music of loved pages, worn words.
Ink flowed, words appearing across the new paper in a bold strong hand. I smiled when I saw his lips move, smiled as he read them aloud and marveled that he could write something so striking.