Writing grows more complicated after you’ve killed someone’s son. You come to recognize the line dividing truth and fiction as a convenient tool for those still capable of sleeping with closed eyes. When you lose friends to the enemy, literature changes on you. Words mean very little six feet beneath cold earth. It becomes important to reinvent what might have been. Writing is resurrection. And there are so many dead.
Battalion, Regiment, Company: These terms skew the faces I have come to know in this tired war of ours. The year is 1944. We’re in Europe, crouched in the bowels of the Ardennes forest. I’m holding on, winning something, and losing more. Our reasons for fighting have become more important than staying alive. A lack of life ceases all need for reasoning.
Beyond that, I can only tell you this: Things are getting very strange. I’m progressively more inclined to embrace an underlying suspicion. Much is amiss. I find myself less concerned with our objectives, whatever they are. Rather, I’m drawn to the notion that there’s an unnatural manifestation. It’s in the trees and snow and earth. And it has every intention of spreading far beyond this place.
The days pass, and the men choose not to speak of such things. Despite their indifference, I cannot ignore the brooding thickets of trees. They’re like wooden soldiers, flanking us in every direction, at times like soldiers who seem to shift and change with the wind. They grow long faces not unlike our own. Nor can I forget the snow beneath them, beneath us, that slowly disappears during blinding blizzards. It reveals a hungry soil that prefers to bury on its own. It steals the dead from beneath our weary feet.
As much as I want to ask the men about this, and about so many other things, I cannot. I’m unable to express my thoughts. Likewise, no one shares his own concerns. What few questions we have are restricted to the simple things. And they’re always the same. The sun comes up. The sun goes down. And I see the faces. Our words, much like the faces, somehow manage to escape the light. They choose, instead, to travel by darkness. They visit us only at night.
It’s then that I hear the screams of many, carried by the wind through the trees. Bursts of machine-gun fire illuminate their disfigured features: jaws torn and pale against the falling snow. They advance through our lines and beyond, always chattering, as if intent upon escaping such unrelenting cold. I exhaust my rifle and pistols, hitting and missing. Then I turn to my knife, and to its blade. I slice into my fright, cutting through flesh into bone. The killing brings me warmth. I go crazy for a while, as any sane man should. I fight the faces with all that I have, until I can fight no longer. Then I rest.
When I want to escape such reality, I retreat into the dying. I wonder how they might have written their own stories, had they been given the chance. I’m left with the smooth flow of canteen cognac, while the insistent scent of ancient pines dances in my nose. There’s the bitter-sweet taste of my final, lucky cigarette. The one my father slipped me before the war, my handsome father. Its nicotine softens the understanding of blood. My own hot blood, spilled on powdery German snow. I’ll be left here, as simple as that, rotting in a dark and haunted forest, reduced to cold bone while a sweet mother, so far away, anticipates my smile. She’ll worry and cry and think of future grandchildren. She’ll bake delights her son will never know.
The light fades as I watch my friend slip away. He’s an anomaly: an introverted skeptic indifferent to pain, a fatalistic humanitarian, and prone to monumental misfortune. I recognize an intellectual curiosity, belied by circumstance, and have come to appreciate his thoughts. His last sips of cognac are a first taste of something he has never experienced. And the timeless stench of death overpowers everything, even the ancient pines. I know he lost his lucky cigarette long before this icy-hell came upon us, perhaps somewhere in France, if it existed at all. I know his father was never handsome, but a toothless monster of one sort or another. And I know that one day, for no particular reason, the monster took a rusty five iron to his sweet little wife. He killed her before their son was old enough to recall loving flavors in a warm and cozy kitchen.
I know the truth. Ideally, I’d like to weep and help my friend. Tell him things will get better. That he’ll heal up nicely. Then make it back to the predictable buzz of civilization—to the city—where he’ll find sanctuary in a kind woman’s love. Unfortunately, I know better than this. So does he, or he will soon enough, and tears will freeze my eyelids.
I’m palming a mirror, cracked down the middle, and looking at my unfamiliar reflection. I catch a glimpse of the hole in his neck. It isn’t clean or surgical. Not like the bullet wound in my abdomen. It’s more of a rip, a jagged tear to the jugular. It happened in the night.
His unsteady hands grip a dirty-grey compress. It’s heavy and bright with arterial blood. His pale-grey helmet is removed. Short-cropped hair, as black as lava rock, crowns his hollow face. His pallor is almost yellow, and worry lines lie like trenches across his clammy brow.
Aside from some labored breathing beneath his filthy fatigues, he looks very similar to the decaying corpses randomly decorating our position. I become curious for some reason, perhaps morbidly. Then I acknowledge a sudden need to question his situation. I notice the men are preoccupied with something out in the woods, and begin my inquiry.
I say his name, softly. From his back, he trails his gaze to mine. His eyes are dilated pupils and chunky blue ice. “I’d ask you how you’re doing, but at this point, we’re beyond trivial conversation,” I say. He laughs slightly. “I’m almost out of here, thanks,” he says, gamely. “Listen,” I say, “Our atypical discussions have proved unique among men largely devoid of literary sophistication. Taking that into consideration for the both of us, while embracing our tradition of frankness, I’d relish the opportunity to ask you the most significant question of your life.” His lips part in a half-smile. “Interesting,” he says; “I’m listening.” I inhale through my nose. Fresh, wintery air expands my lungs. With careful articulation, I breathe out my question. “If each moment in your life, that is, each moment preceding this one, delivered you from both everything you never cared about, and everyone who never cared for you, to this war, and to this lonely forest, where you’ll die along with these trees, as black as the earth that gives them life, then how can you expect any future moment, that is, anything after this, to be at all dissimilar from the host of perpetual sufferings with which you have become so well acquainted?”
He says nothing, but his eyes are large with complex ponderings. I know he is thinking harder than he ever has. A moment passes. Hot tears bring fresh steam to his cheeks. He speaks: “I’m not expecting anything better or worse than what I’ve experienced up until now. It would be unbecoming of a man, if not grossly vain, to presume he’s entitled to so much self-consideration at a time when the last thing he should be thinking of is himself. What I’ve done is history. What I might have done is now left to others. I’ve killed many men. Men will kill after me. The cycle is detached from our control. Things were never easy for me, and certainly not fair, but no one who’s had the misfortune of seeing with their eyes what I’ve seen with mine can consider life anything but a swift lesson in undeserved tragedy. Not without coming across as a fool. Nobody is born with a guarantee, and the world has no kindness for those who think otherwise. The way I look at it, I’ve been giving up my life, piece by piece, and in order to replace a chunk of evil rooted far deeper than these trees. And in doing so I may have contributed to the possibility of someone living a far better life than I have been able.”
I realize my friend is even smarter than I thought, consider my own need for confession, and ask him a second question. “What exactly do you feel?” He sighs deeply. “What I feel is largely irrelevant – how I feel is another story altogether. As a whole, our most primal desires are fulfilled through both our disregard of morality and the unflinching application of conscious pain. Consciousness and conscience are more closely related than we’re willing to admit. We enjoy being cognizant of what—or who—we have no feelings for. Hurting one another is business as usual. It’s all in the nature of blood. Blood is our nature. It’s what we fight for. War isn’t about territory or the power that comes with possession. That definition is too simple and clean. It’s about blood and nothing more. We drink it and spill it. If we bleed out, there isn’t enough, and we die. If we become fond of its taste, others pay the price. And everyone becomes fond. Blood is a drug, an addiction, and there are never shortages. When you accept that as truth and become willing to sacrifice your own, for the sake of others, so they may keep theirs for at least a little while, and have the temporary means to enjoy pretty things, then the knowledge of your positive contribution amidst such cruelty can afford you the luxury of maintaining sanity in all this madness. It’s the only love I’ve known. It’s what I’ve given. And its how I feel. As far as what I feel—if you really want to know. It isn’t anything these boys rotting around here didn’t feel at least once”.
I pause, kneel beside him, and consider his answer. Catharsis can be beautiful. Snow is falling and I decide to press him further. “Are you afraid?” I ask. He looks at me without blinking, as if shocked by my words. “I came from filth, lived purely, and nothing went my way. I suspect I may very well have fallen short of a higher expectation. Upon arriving here, in this war, I made my first and only friends, most of whom were shot to pieces, and just as they were becoming interesting. Beyond our conversations I have nothing, and I’m not complaining, but it certainly makes me ponder the possibility that life was merely a drawn-out penance for mistakes I made before I was myself. As for fear, I dislike the word. When my heart-rate is enhanced with adrenaline, it’s an animalistic experience. We’re animals. So, if anything, fear is truth well disguised. I’m unafraid and ready for truth. And I’d like a chance to apologize to my mother, to tell her I wish I’d been old enough to intervene. I’d have taken that old golf club from father. Or, he could have killed me instead. Perhaps then she’d have had a second, better son—one who might have made it home. I believe she’d appreciate those words. If, however, I’m headed in the other direction, that’s fine by me. I’m dreadfully sick of this cold. Now, listen. My eyelids are growing heavy. Seeing as ghosts don’t talk very well, I believe I have my own question. It’s one I’ve been harboring for quite a while. Longer than you’d ever believe.”
“Okay,” I say, intrigued. “Shoot.” “Well”, he says, “Say our war is over, long over, and other wars have come to pass; that 1944 is a distant memory, time is irrelevant in a place such as this, and we’ve been dead much longer than is conceivable. Say we were killed here, in this forest, our dark haven. I took shrapnel. You were shot. Others were blown into the skies. Say we didn’t recognize death, but it came, as it does, and captured us in a heavy cloak. Then it carried us here, to purgatory, where we’ve been trying to reach an internal balance—a final equilibrium. Say we’ve been shedding our earthly demons, so we can move on, unobstructed, along our separate paths, up or down, possibly in the same direction. And say one of us is unwilling to address a crucial step, the remembrance, a refusal which will keep him here, tortured among shadows. Now, tell me, old friend, if what I say isn’t true, if it is in fact a lie, then why are we alone in this clearing, with the others gone, somewhere into those woods?”
I get shivers. There is no wind. His words bother me. I pull up my shirt and inspect the bullet hole in my side. It is no longer bleeding, but I feel as if it’s been there forever. And he’s correct about the men. They haven’t been around for awhile. I’m confused. Were they here last night? If so, what did we discuss? We always talk at night, only at night, huddled around the fire. But I recall no topic of conversation. I don’t remember their names, either. I only see their faces, each of them pale and staring, looking at the crackling embers—red-hot and hissing in the darkness. And what of the others, the faces not unlike our own, chattering through snowstorms, jaws torn, and penetrating our lines? Do they not also come in the night, each night, escaping the cold to meet our resistance? Don’t we always defeat them? We must. We’re winning the war. It’s coming to an end. I remember hearing something. Remember….It can’t be. He’s delusional. He’s hallucinating. And he’s dying, right? I choose my words carefully.
“If what you are alluding to is correct, if we are in fact as you suggest we might be, then I haven’t the slightest idea where I’ve fallen astray. However, if you have a unique understanding, I pray you’ll share what you know, or what you think you understand, and quickly, so I can accomplish what I must. Please, let me find my peace, and leave this place, wherever we are, before the sun rises again.”
His eyes grow darker, a steel-blue. He is losing the battle. I grab his wrist, squeeze firmly, and think of three words. “Please, tell me,” I say. “Delusion lies in the heart of the beheld,” he says with conviction, then fixes his gaze above my head. I have no idea what he means. My frustration mounts. I squeeze again, much harder, and get nothing. He is no longer blinking, and no longer there. I can’t see his breath. I feel more alone than I ever have. “Hello!” I yell as loudly as I can. Then I yell again. I hear nothing. The trees are thick around our clearing, perhaps thicker than before, and I see only jagged branches dancing high in the night breeze.
At once my friend gasps, a final release. “Remember,” he says. Then he’s gone through the snow and into the soil that prefers to bury on its own. For a moment I panic, as if suddenly tossed into a dark chasm of flesh. Shaking fingers rise above my face. I touch the cold steel surrounding my head, and then take it in my hands. It’s my helmet. I study the chips and dents that make it mine. I remember it once saved my life. And I remember her. The life I took from her. It was before the war. There was a beach party. We met on sun-baked sand. She had hair as red as summer strawberries. Her eyes were Key limes. Things went fast. My parents loved her. So, I bought a nice ring. We had plans to marry. And then I found her with him. They were in my car. It was raining on that cold night. I watched for a while. Then beat them to death with my hands. I was always strong. Cleaning came next. I was methodical. There were some old dinosaur print sheets in my closet. I wrapped their bodies like mummies and buried them by the old water tower. It worked beautifully. Everyone thought they ran off together. I faked some good tears. First I got sympathy. Then I got a new girl. I took her to the spot. She had no idea. It turned me on. We made love on their graves.
The wind has picked up and in the swaying trees I look for the face of my friend. He isn’t there. I see the others, though, their faces in the pines. I see all of them. Their twisted sneers beckon me. Sharp chuckles mock my nervous breathing with a secret knowledge of things to come. They want to know if I’ve accepted my condition, but I remain quiet. There is fantastic excitement in the hollows of their eyes, and they offer to introduce me to their leader. Through their cackles, they tell me he is anxiously awaiting my services. I say nothing. They ask about my writing, and insist there are plenty of words waiting for me, so much to write about, and if I’ll only let go they will show me the depths I’ve been seeking. I look to the trees, wondering how far their roots must reach. “Why retreat when surrendering to us will bring you so much more?” they say, still laughing, and I realize some choices are made for you. Their horrid tales fill my head, and there are so many, I weep. I reach for a pencil, find nothing, and then let wooden fingertips trace stories in the snow.
Copyright ©2008 Jon Neralich