It was a dense and gray thing, utterly impenetrable twenty yards in. The morning light was a cool gray, diffused through the fog until it became ambient volume. The illumination didn’t appear to have a single source, seemingly emanating from every direction at once, so that there weren’t any shadows to be seen in any direction. It made the setting dream-like, ethereal and tranquil if not for the knowledge of what was coming. It was a single, mutual death-shroud, draped across them all.
“Fog? How can we have fog way up on this hill?” Private Holt asked incredulously.
“You’re from Minnesota, Holt,” Hastings drawled. “Not all fogs are mists sprung out of a lake, you know, some of them are clouds dropped down from above.”
“They wouldn’t charge in the fog, would they?” Private Dunny asked.
But they would. It was still early when the shelling stopped, and then it didn’t take long to hear the churning of boots. But of course no matter how hard you peered into the gray no forms could be made out. Even the sounds were muted and diffused through the mist, seeming to come at them as a formless wall, impossible to make out distance or direction.
Private Bradley pulled his rifle close to his cheek–Hastings was still in command of the mounted machine gun–and had a brief fantasy that there was no army coming. They existed behind a curtain, and that curtain might as well be an entire world. Yes the enemy marched, but only in his dreams.
“Ready! Fire!” another Sergeant some forty feet away called, and then all the other squad leaders echoed the call, their voices running on each other like the lapping of a brook. All at once the crack of gunfire rang out, and streams of bullets fired into the mist.
Though they fired blindly, sharp cries of pain rose up to mingle with the steady rhythm of marching. Of course Bradley never knew if he had been the one to hit his foe, or whether the man next to him had. So each successive shot was just as much a roll of the dice as before.
Fiery tracers scorched further into the great marshmallow than the other ammunition did. Sometimes they would make it eighty yards before their ember was snuffed in the soup. And then, all at once, one of those tracers from Bradley’s own rifle made contact with an enemy helmet, eliciting a bright shower of sparks against the void of white. Just like that the trance was broken and the threat was real. It had been seen!
Bradley fired again and again. At the end of each clip, as he rammed in the next, he would glance to the side where Hastings manned the big gun. Was Hastings sweeping the gun at the right height, Bradley wondered? Was he taking down enough of their foes?
It seemed that more bullets than usual were raining around Hastings, and the thought occurred to Bradley that the machine gun’s muzzle was probably the only one bright enough for the enemy to see. He was about to say something to that effect when one of those bullets cut Hastings down without so much as a whimper.
“Oh–” Sergeant began, but before he could even process what had happened Bradley dashed over to take the gun. He didn’t even pause to check whether Hastings was already dead or not. He knew.
The familiar rumble of the gun’s handles reopened the blisters that had been forming on his hands since last night. He grit his teeth, pressing his helmet tighter on his head, so that there only existed the narrowest slit between it and the top of the trench for his eyes to rove behind. Ricocheted bullets clattered against his skull like a haymaker, and flecks of rock and mud kicked into his face.
The enemy was shouting now, and Bradley kept expecting to see them burst onto the scene, a thousand men right in front of them all at once. His hand was shaking, and his grip on the trigger slipped. He clutched back on to it, and pressed his elbow against the earth wall for steadying support.
Through his narrow line of sight he could see the first evidences of the approaching enemy. It was grayish patches against the wall of murky white, oversized forms, not yet recognizable as human. But as the soldiers that cast those shadows drew nearer, the forms grew smaller and more like a man’s, so that when at last they did burst out of the mist it seemed as though the shadows had given birth to flesh and blood.
Which blood flowed in stark ribbons of crimson against the pillow of white. Bradley kept his gun on its steady swivel. His arms ached, his fingers bled, and he ground his teeth together to keep his aim straight. He held the line, not out of loyalty, but out of purebred terror. Vaguely he sensed the enemy flowing into the trench just twenty feet to the left. No matter, he couldn’t worry about it. They would have to deal with it there, just as how his squad had to deal with the soldiers leaping in front of them.
Another foe burst out of the mist after another. Three of them all at once. Bradley cut them all down, but in the meantime another five had sprung out.
He took four of them and Sergeant took one.
Another seven appeared.
All seven were cut down by their joint effort, but now there were nine, and they were already half of the way from the fog’s end to the trench.
Then Bradley knew that there would that there would be fighting in the trench for his squad, too, and the only question was how long he held to his machine gun before turning to his knife.
Could he let go of his gun at all? For if he paused to cut down a man beside him, the benefit of it would be undone–and then some–by the greater number of foes that would make it to their line a second later. He would have to hold to his station, and hold to it until he was cut down. It would be up to his comrades to–
The belt ran out again, and there was no more Private Hastings to replace it!
Mad with terror Private Bradley kicked open the box of ammunition and seized a fresh line. He felt the forms of four enemy soldiers spilling into the trench. His comrades fought them while his back was turned. He raced the belt up to the top of the gun, opened the top, threw the bullets across, closed the top, pulled back the ball, and…
There was no one before him. In those critical moments without his aid, the enemy had still made their retreat. His knees buckled before he knew anything, and his arms threw into the muddy wall for support. His face pressed into the moist earth, cooling his feverish brow as his air exhaled in great gusts, as if it hurried to escape him for want of a safer host.
“Up! Up!” the Sergeant cried. “Shoot them as the run! Don’t let them think about turning around now!”
It was the only notion that could have roused Bradley back onto his feet. Fresh fear pumped through his veins, and gave him strength to stand and shoot another five minutes until they were truly sure that no more specters would emerge from the cloud.
“Why–why haven’t they started shelling again?” Private Dunny asked after another quarter hour had elapsed.
Strangely enough, the sound of shells had become a relief to them, as it had proven the final confirmation that no more waves of enemies would approach them for a few more hours.
“You men better stay hot on your feet now!” Sergeant ordered.
In his head, Private Bradley knew that this was probably just a mind-game from the other side. Save their shells, but send no men. They knew the prolonged terror that would evoke, constantly staring at the fog, straining one’s ears for an approach, and unable to rest the nerves because of it.
But what else could Bradley and his men do? The entire value of such a tactic was to leave the trench-defenders exhausted, so that they would be easier overrun when the assault finally did come. And so the assault would come, sooner or later, and a constant watch had to be maintained for it.
Or maybe the artillery had broken apart. Or maybe they really were trying to mount another charge right now, before the fog had wholly lifted.
What else could Bradley and his men do other than wait and watch?
And so they stood there, peering out into the whiteness, each minute feeling like an hour, and going past one-by-one until actual hours had elapsed. Then the deep exhaustion began to set in. This was no run-of-the-mill fatigue, either, they could feel the weariness deep in their bones. Every muscle was at least doubly-expended, every nerve had been fired to the point of burning out. There was nothing left to give.
Still they didn’t dare lower their heads, but they stared forward with blank and vacant expressions, unseeing though with eyes wide open. No words escaped their lips, neither idle chit-chat nor irritated grumbling. They did not live in this moment, they merely occupied a physical space for a time.
They did not even stir when a courier came down the line, passing a message along to each Sergeant. Though words were spoken audibly enough for them to hear, they did not process them.
“I’m sorry,” Sergeant said to his men. “It seems we won’t be getting relieved today. More fighting off to the East and they had to take our reinforcements down that way.”
“Mm,” Private Bradley said. Really a part within him felt very sad about that, but he just didn’t have the strength to do anything about it.
There was only one sound that could pull them out of their reverie, and at last they heard it: the stomping of boots in the distance.
“How are they able to keep sending men at us?” Private Dunny asked. “It can’t be the same ones over and over, they couldn’t possibly get anyone to do that fool charge more than once!”
“Oh no?” Private Holt replied dryly. “Yet how many fool charges have they been able to get you to repel?”
Now there was no more discussion to be had. Once more the trenches came alive in a row of fire, a thousand burning bullets streaking into the mist, lost from sight, to puncture bodies and kick up mud in another world. Another world that was invading on their own, and growing closer every moment to breaking upon them.
Private Bradley’s hands protested as soon as they touched the rough iron of the machine gun’s handles, his blisters burst in bloody fountains immediately, knowing it was vain to try and hold out against the constant chafing of the machine rattling back and forth a million times per second. But there was nothing for it. Private Bradley couldn’t leave the line, so his hands couldn’t leave the gun. Both of them just had to see the ordeal through.
And the worst part was knowing that as much terror as he felt now, this was only the beginning, and that even if they made it through this charge as well, that success wouldn’t be achieved for another eternity. He would have to swallow an entire epoch of trauma, much too large for any man to stomach, just as he had each time before. Each time he had known he didn’t have it in him to see this through, and perhaps this time he would be right.
Even so, that inconvenient instinct to cling to life still persisted, and somehow made him shoulder the burden of his own survival. If he was going to fall, it wasn’t going to be for a lack of trying to stand. They may cut him down, but that is what they would have to do: cut him down. No one would walk by him easily.
Suddenly the cloud burst apart in a thousand warriors all at once. New troops, fresh troops, ones that had sprinted all the last fifteen minutes to catch the trench-men unawares!
“Oh no!” Private Dunny screamed beside Bradley.
And then, there came the most horrible miracle that Private Bradley had ever witnessed, a blinding yellow light blossomed at the feet of those men and heaved them into pieces. A terrible shockwave rent the air, and spat mud and dirt like shrapnel into Private Bradley’s squad. They were all flung backwards in an instant, nearly buried in the avalanche of filth.
And then another shell pounded into the turf. And then another.
I mentioned last week how I wanted the audience to feel the depth of Private Bradley’s struggles, and how I was attempting to accomplish that by presenting a detailed description of all that occurred to him. We’re now several thousand words into his experience, and still going strong. I personally feel that all this material is interesting in its own right, and so I don’t mind that it’s taking its time.
This ability to stretch plot points into full and interesting narrative requires an unusual skill that I am still trying to develop: that of making lists interesting. When you get right down to it, everything that takes place in stories can be reduced into a series of lists. The overall outline is a list of plot points, the dialogue is a list of information to be exchanged, and even character arcs are a sequential list of changes that happen over time.
In the initial stages of developing a story you have to review those lists, fill in the ones that have holes, and make sure that each item logically follows the one prior. And then, after you’ve gotten everything into a nice and tidy list format, you then need to relate them to the reader in a way that hopefully doesn’t sound like they’re just being read a list!
On Monday we’ll discuss a bit more of how lists work in the structure of a story. We will also consider what makes the difference between a “good” list and a “bad” one. I’ll see you then.