Private Bradley was tired even before he got to the trenches. He had spent the two days previous running up and down the medical tents, assisting wherever possible. He had no medical training whatsoever, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t deliver messages, fetch fresh bandages, remove bedpans, push beds into new wings, restrain comrades during impromptu surgeries, and carry bodies to the grave-site.
The entire camp was overrun by the tides of wounded being brought back from the front. Either you sat in the trenches getting shelled, or you took care of those that had been shelled, while waiting for your turn to go take their place. Having two days to see the effects of where they would soon be deployed was a great cruelty to Private Bradley and his squad.
Eventually the orders came, as they knew they must, and Private Bradley left the medical tent, wondering in what manner he might return to it. He grabbed his gear, stepped into the back of a truck, and jostled shoulder-to-shoulder with his squad over muddy potholes as the sound of artillery bursting grew louder and louder up ahead. Then the truck stopped and they were told that they would have to walk the rest of the way, as the road now became too steep for vehicles.
So they crawled up the muddy incline, slipping on their bellies, and sloshing back to their knees, over and over, until by the time they reached the top of the hill they were already in full earth-camouflage. The squad were led to the fifteen-foot stretch of the trench for which they would be responsible, about a quarter mile East, and firmly in the middle of the hilltop.
“Here, you hold this,” their Sergeant said, pulling Bradley’s hands onto a machine gun that was propped on top of the earth-wall and pointed in the general direction of the enemy lines.
“I haven’t handled anything like this since basic training, sir,” Bradley said.
“Luckily for us, the enemy is not aware of that fact. So if it’s alright with you, we’ll continue as ordered, Bradley?”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”
“Just be sure to keep it clean, loaded, and pointing down that line. You’ll know what to do when it comes to it.”
“Are we going to be seeing a lot of action, sir?” Private Dunny asked.
“You saw the men brought back from the line just as well as I did,” the Sergeant returned. “It isn’t going to be any picnic, men, that’s for sure. I’m told we shouldn’t expect any heavy artillery or armor, the mud is too thick for either side to field much more than infantry. But there will be plenty of that, and apparently they rush our line a few times every day. Our orders are simple, do not let them through.”
It was a simple affair, but also a grueling one. The light artillery kept up a constant barrage, but it was less of a threat than a nuisance. It was too small to actually reach their line, and so it burst peacefully over the middle of the plateau. Its main effect was to produce enough noise that no one could get any sleep. When it finally stopped, that was the worst of all, because then you knew the enemy infantry was marching forward.
Thus the silence hit like a deafening roar, and instantly every man seized his gun and waited with bated breath, watching the plateau for dirty mounds that moved. On occasion a tumbleweed would blow past and a nervous infantryman would open fire, which would set off a half dozen of his neighbors until the Sergeants shouted at them to get a grip.
Sometimes there was no approach, the enemy had just stopped shelling to mess with their heads. Or maybe something had gone wrong with the artillery and they had to replace a part before carrying on.
Most times, though, the enemy came. Like a swarm of overgrown ants, rushing over one another, pounding for the edge of the hill. Then all the guns came alive, and bodies started dropping here and there.
Private Bradley pulled the trigger and his machine gun vibrated hard against his hands. It was difficult to aim, and he tore up more clumps of grass and soil than he did of flesh and bone.
Still, every now and then he managed to drop one of the charging horde. Then another, and another. Yet on the enemy would press. Three hundred yards, two hundred, one hundred. They started to drop more quickly, and now came the great test. Would enough of them fall to break the charge?
They were near enough now that you could hear their own commanders screaming the men forward with foreign threats. Those commanders knew that they did not have to chase their men all the way to the line, only near enough that turning and running was as sure a doom as pushing forward to the trench. Where was that point of no return? Thirty yards? Fifteen?
Private Bradley’s Sergeant knew this game, too, and he hopped up and down, shouting at his men to hold to their terrible contest.
Seventy-five yards and you could start to see holes in the enemy’s line.
Sixty-five and their barbaric shouts were starting to tremble.
Fifty-five and a few of them were starting to pull back, but the main mass had not yet noticed.
Forty-five and they flinched in unison, covering their vitals with their arms, turning, and sprinting away as fast as possible.
Private Bradley’s squad had earned the right to live another few hours. They gripped the top of the trench for support, their knees shaking beneath them as cold sweat broke across their brows. They watched to be sure that the enemy really was gone, then collapsed to the ground one at a time.
For as prickly as their Sergeant could be, he allowed them these moment to unclench. He himself clambered out of the rut, crouched down, and kept watch for another wave. He had to crouch, because his own legs were shaking just as much as the rest of them.
The relief was not allowed for long, though. As soon as Sergeant was sure that the enemy was not returning he ordered his men out of the ditch. “Move those bodies! Can’t have them blocking our sight-lines for the next time they charge.”
And so they lumbered about in the mud, one man grabbing shoulders and another grabbing feet, and hauling them one-by-one to a ditch at the end of the hill. It was long, slow work, and all the longer and slower when they were more effective in their shooting. They did not clear out all of the bodies of course, there was no time for that, but any that had fallen within the nearest hundred yards.
One nightmare concluded, only to repeat again before a quarter-day had passed. And as it turned out, the first assault had been one of the less successful ones employed by the enemy. Most times a crest or two of their wave would break into the trenches, where a vicious struggle would leave many of the men dead on both sides. How many charges could there be, Private Bradley wondered, before it was his squad’s turn to be overrun by the invaders? And what if it was not their squad that let the enemy in, but the one right beside them?
Bradley wished he hadn’t been assigned the machine gun. With its greater firepower, he felt that so much of the burden fell upon his own shoulders. Though at the same time, Bradley would rather depend on himself than upon any other. Sergeant never offered to let another man take a turn, and Bradley did not ask him too. He just silently added the crippling pressure of it to his bag of traumas.
Eventually night came.
“They wouldn’t charge in the night, would they?” Private Dunny asked.
But they would. About an hour after midnight the next wave came, and this was a new terror in its own right. One could hear the enemy thundering towards them through the mud, yet not see them to shoot properly. Only one shot in a hundred was any good now. So flares were fired into the air, and the black emptiness was suddenly illuminated as bright as day. It was a scene so strange and fantastic, that it seemed lifted straight from the pages of some ancient fairy tale.
The pink-purple tail of the flare arcing against the ink-black sky, the burning zenith like a star of glory overhead, and beneath it all thousands of shifting, black bodies, tumbling over one another, driving to spill their blood in the trench.
And then blackness again and shooting where the bodies had been, and then another flare was shot up and the dark tide was closer. Again and closer. Again and closer. And then they were so near that Bradley could see them even without the flare. Bathed in the cold moonlight they appeared less like black demons, and more like pale ghosts, and only a dozen paces from where he and his squad stood now!
Bradley forgot how chafed his hands were and gripped the machine gun all the more tightly, wildly swinging it left and right in a wide arc, cutting the men through at the chest as he had been taught in basic training. He was getting quite good at it now.
His belt ran empty and he cursed at Private Hastings to put another in while he drew out his pistol and fired at the nearest phantom of them all. Two of the enemy spilled into their ranks, but closer to Bradley’s comrades, who dealt with them as Hastings snapped shut the top of the machine gun.
Bradley grabbed the gun and began harvesting souls once more. His heart heaved within him and intoxicating blood pounded through his veins. He slipped into a death-trance, waving the gun in an unfaltering rhythm as a constant shout echoed through his dry throat.
The next thing he knew his men were crowded around him, prying his hands off the weapon.
“Save the ammo!” Sergeant was shouting. “They’re already gone!”
Hastings was given command of the machine gun and Bradley was told to get some rest.
But there would be no rest. How could he lay down with the promise of another charge in only a few hours more, and with the bursting of shells resuming in the air, and with the memories of ghostly warriors running down every time he closed his eyes? No, Bradley sat in a stupor, but he did not sleep. Though his bones were creaking and his knees were shaking he could not relax the racks in his mind.
When his brain had cooled enough to think, he at least comforted himself with the knowledge that at least things could not get any worse. He was quite wrong, though, for he had not accounted for the fog that rolled in the very next day.
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.
Some of the mortars fell directly on the trench, and some of them landed a bit before it, right in the midst of the enemy forces. All was chaotic disarray!
The enemy line scattered in a thousand different directions all at once. Some of them ran for their lives into the trenches, trying to surrender before they were butchered. Some of them ran back towards their own camp, ducking and weaving like mad, as if the dropping shells were less likely to hit them for having moved randomly. Some of them stood frozen in place, too shocked to commit to any action at all.
Meanwhile Private Bradley and his comrades swam through the dirt, beating a hasty retreat away from the explosions. Some of the commanding officers screamed at them to hold position, but to no avail. Up and down the line, where the bombardment was not striking, the allied soldiers just stared dumbly at the hole broken in their line.
In all, the shelling lasted for a one-minute-and-forty-seven-second eternity. Evidently those in charge of sending the enemy infantry out had gotten in touch with those in charge of firing the artillery, and made them aware of their scheduling error.
Of course by this point the field was long clear of any living enemy soldiers. They had all either surrendered, retreated, or died as suited them best. And so the trench-men began reforming their line where it had been broken up. It was very nerve-wracking work, for each man wondered ‘how long can it be before the shelling reoccurs?’ So each man furiously dug with his shovel, and when any sudden sounds came they would flinch, clap their hands over their heads, and make as if they would run from the spot.
Even during all that stress, though, the men spoke among one another, and hashed out what must have just happened. Clearly the enemy line had been replenished. They received fresh troops, probably an entirely new regiment, and along with it some new artillery. And not just any artillery, either. At long last they had found a way to bring the big guns through the mud, ones that actually had enough range to reach their line.
The only saving grace had been that with the fresh resources had also come fresh command units, ones that were not coordinated properly with one another. This had resulted in the blunder of the enemy shelling their own men. But right this moment they would be straightening out their agendas, and then the shelling would recommence, blast the trenches to smithereens, and the fresh troops would be sent marching over the ruin, down the hill, and into the camp below.
They would have to be pulled back now, it was the only possible outcome. And yet the orders to do so had not come yet. Every man on the line knew it had to come, so why hadn’t it come already? Why were they instead trying to repair the trench? It was pointless!
The answer to that came less than a quarter hour later. To the South they could hear the dull hum of propellers churning through the air. Every man turned and watched six bombers lumbering towards their position. They passed overhead, low enough for the infantry to make out the bomb bay doors opening as the aircraft proceeded across the field and towards the enemy lines. A chorus of gunfire and explosion resounded through the air.
“Well that’s that for the new artillery,” Private Holt observed.
“Why just the artillery?” Private Dunny said hopefully. “Surely they’re going to smash the entire camp as well!”
But they were not. As soon as the big guns were reduced to smoking, twisted metal, the planes turned on the spot and lumbered back away as uneventfully as they had come. Balance had been restored, and now it would be left to the two infantries to continue their murderous tug-of-war for the hill.
The sun was nearly set, and with it came fresh waves of exhaustion. Even if one did not look at the orange and pink streaks extending across the sky, one could feel them in his bones. The body knew that the day was retiring, and for years it had been trained to anticipate its own retiring in these hours. It was ingrained in all of the men that they should sleep now, and facts like there not being any reinforcements until the next day made no sway on the pull of nature.
“Stay alert men!” Sergeant shouted, then yawned deeply, and momentarily lost his balance where he stood.
Even worse than the fatigue was the knowledge that the enemy lines had been refreshed. If it hadn’t been for the shells breaking their charge, these new foes would have been cooling their heels over the corpses of Private Bradley and his squad right this very moment!
Fate had intervened once, but it was too much to ask her to do so again. This next charge they would have to figure things out on their own.
“Listen to me, men,” Sergeant wheezed through a dry and raspy throat. “The sun’s already on its way down, so it’s a sure thing that the enemy is going to wait until the dark of night for their next assault. One more charge in the middle of the night and then it’s morning. I’ve just received the latest word, and it says our reinforcements for sure arrive first thing in the morning. We just have to hold on until then. Just one more charge. We can make that, I know we can.”
Sergeant clasped his hands together, as if he was praying to his men.
“We’re not fighting for army, nation, or family this time, boys. This time it’s for us. Every charge before this earned you badges and medals and who-cares-what-else. But ride out this last charge…and you earn your very lives! No one earns themselves except by weathering the last charge. If you can survive this time, this one, last time, then you’re free men. You’re self-purchased through and through. Not even your own mother who birthed you will have any claim on you. No one will. This is the last night you’ll ever have to stand through, but you do have to stand through it. This is your whole life here and now, so what do you say men? It’s just one more charge!”
Not a one of them cheered. They were moved, though, and wept openly, fresh streaks burning down their dirty cheeks. It rang too true to them, and they wanted to believe every word. But at the same time, even if the promises were true, it would seem all too fitting that after the close calls and narrow escapes, that they would now trip at the finish. Such an irony as that would be the perfectly summation of their military career. They had been so tired and beaten, yet they had somehow come through time and time again. But this time? Here where it mattered most? Was there anything even left to give anymore?
Why couldn’t the soul just let go easily? Why did it have to cling to life when it would be so much easier to lay down and die? Yet it did. And in spite of all cynicism, each of the men pledged that at the very least they would try. As with before, they resolved to stand and fight and make the enemy remove them from this place by force. If what the Sergeant said was true, then let this be the final measuring. They would not be overrun while leaving any drops of blood unspent. They would give all that they had. And if it was enough it would be enough, and if it was not it would not, but in either case nothing would be held back.
And so they looked hard into one another’s eyes, then took their places in the trench. They had repaired it pretty well after the shelling. It did not extend quite as high as before, and the earth was a bit fresher and looser, but it would have to do.
Each man held his gun, locked his knees, and stared down the line for the coming reckoning. None of them expected the charge for a few hours yet, but trying to rest was unfathomable. If once their eyes were allowed to close, it was doubtful whether Armageddon itself would be able to rouse them. The body yearned for it, but the body could be denied. It already had been so many times before.
“Counting off one,” Sergeant said.
“Counting off two,” Private Dunny said.
“Counting off three,” Private Bradley said.
“Counting off four,” Private Holt said.
“Counting off six,” Private Yates said.
“No, Private Yates, five comes after four,” Private O’Malley corrected.
“Thank you, O’Malley, counting off five.”
It was a ritual Sergeant had invented to keep them awake on exhausting nights such as this. They had to count, and once every so often, one of them would intentionally say the wrong number. So you had to be listening and paying attention to call them out in it, or else you were falling asleep and every man in the squad would kick you.
Minute after minute slipped by. Time was the first enemy that they had to best. Each man’s voice was already croaky when they began, and within an hour they rasped like a metal rake over a tin roof. They took swigs from their canteens, but it wasn’t water that their throats were thirsty for.
About halfway through the night they were given a boon. At long last the fog fully dissipated. It had been teasing a retreat since evening, but at long last the final tendrils of it were flowing away.
“There you go men,” Sergeant grinned. “You stood out nature itself!”
Time was bested, nature too. Now one more enemy force to go.
“They must be kicking themselves for having missed one more charge with the fog,” Private Dunny said excitedly. “And now it’s a clear night with a full moon….maybe they won’t–”
“No, Private Dunny,” Bradley spoke over him. “You know that they’re still coming, just as sure as the rest of us. It’s how it works.”
Indeed it was. Bradley had learned long ago to stop trying to bargain with the fates, nor to look for reason in what the military might do or might not do. Fates and the military didn’t work like that, not on their side and not on the other. They just did what they did, and anyone that tried to suggest a reason behind it was a fool. The enemy wave would come because they would come, that was it.
And they would come soon.
The squad stopped counting off, and a breathless hush fell over the entire line at the same moment. There was a cool weightiness in the air, one that carried sound for miles. And while there was no sound on it now, somehow all of them knew: this hour. It was like hearing future-echoes, the pulsations of rhythms soon to be played.
Now came the click! click! as every man made sure he still had a bullet ready in the chamber. Now the shuffling of feet as each man shifted from a watching stance to a fighting one.
A small cloud passed across the naked moon, and it sent rippling shadows coursing across the ground, moving from the enemy’s side of the hill towards their own. Each dark patch that shimmered over them felt put a tremor in the chest.
The cloud cleared away…but the shadows still streaked across the ground.
“FIRE!” Sergeant yelled, and the line exploded in a burst of noise and flame.
Private Bradley squeezed the handles of his machine gun and pulled the trigger tight. His hands did not protest anymore, they did not feel a thing. Molten lead burst out the barrel, round after round, tracing out lines that for the briefest of moments–moments no longer than a crack of lightning–connected him to the lives he reaped.
The men on Bradley’s line fired true, and it seemed that they dropped a score of their assailants every second. Yet there was more of the enemy tide than they had ever seen before. The horde was first visible as they crested a sudden rise in the land about a half-mile distant, and this night the ranks seemed to flow continuously over that lip like a river. Like one pack of night wolves after another, over and over.
“SWEEP! SWEEP!” Sergeant clutched Private Bradley’s shoulder. Bradley already was, of course. Rhythmically twisting the machine from left-to-right-to-left. He had his perfect cadence now. Just by looking at how distant the enemy line was, he knew exactly how quickly to turn the gun so that each round fired no more than two feet apart from the last. It formed the ideal spread for catching the most chests possible.
And then, of course, the belt ran dry. But Private Bradley had learned the timing of that as well. He would count off in his head, and as soon as he got to “thirty-seven” he would snap at Private Holt that he’d better shoulder his rifle and get the next run of bullets ready.
“Okay, this is the last one.”
“WHAT?!” Private Bradley shrieked. Sergeant shrieked something a bit stronger. Of course new ammunition, just like reinforcements, were not due until the morning.
“Save that last belt,” Sergeant ordered. “I’ll tell you when to let ’em have it.”
Bradley let go of the handles and awkwardly fumbled his rifle to his shoulder. How had he become so unacquainted with it so quickly? It felt like hugging a stranger, bony and awkward. His blistered hands were too large to hold it correctly, and his calloused fingers gripped it too tightly.
“They’re nearly on us!” Private Dunny announced unnecessarily.
“There’s no more coming over the rise!” Private Yates announced, far more helpfully.
So this was it. Both sides were entirely fielded in less than a half-mile’s space. This was the wall they had to sledge their way to the other side of. Private Bradley pulled the stock flush to his cheek and fired.
The first three shots resounded in empty air. Private Bradley grit his teeth, cleared his mind, and went back to his basic training.
“Hold the gun firmly, but don’t clench it,” he muttered to himself. “Breathe slowly….Now exhale…” he fired and an enemy soldier’s helmet went flying through the air, exposing a startled face underneath.
Private Bradley had always been one of the better shots in their squad, he had just momentarily forgotten it while living and breathing the machine gun’s exhaust for the last few days. Now he set to work, picking his shots, following through, moving on to the next. It wasn’t a question of hitting the enemy, it was a question of how many he could drop, and whether it would be enough.
There was a sudden rise in the voices of the chargers fifty yards to the right. Of course the chargers were always shouting, seemingly in one unending cry, but there always came a sudden swell such as this when they reached the trench and leaped down to the murder. So the line has suffered its first compromise Bradley thought, then picked off another man.
The pitch in the enemies’ voices raised an octave again forty yards to the left and at another point twenty yards beyond that. Two more breaches in the line.
Private Bradley’s breath exhaled a bit more ragged than usual and his next shot went wide, two feet from its mark. He grit his teeth, furious that he had let the pressure get to him. He made up for it by firing his next round through two men running in file.
An entire chorus of waves broke up and down the trench-line, too many new breaches to count. There would be no routing the charge this time. Each squad had run out of machine gun ammunition, just as Private Bradley’s had. Without those pounding guns there had never been a chance of turning the wave. In the next fifteen seconds it would crash upon Private Bradley and his squad, too.
“NOW, BRADLEY, NOW!” Sergeant roared, pulling the rifle out of Bradley’s hands and putting the handles of the machine gun there instead.
Private Bradley grit his teeth and let loose ball and flame. The trench’s last fully automatic rang through the air like an awakened lion, bursting through men at more than twenty-five death-knells per second!
There was no easy stroke, stroke to how Bradley spun the weapon now. The enemy was so close and so dense that jerking it as quickly as he could from side to side was the only option left. For the briefest of moments the charging men’s eyes widened in shock and horror. And then those eyes went glassy and expressed nothing again forever. The men that stood next in line to catch a bullet came to a full halt, glancing side to side for an escape that wasn’t there. If they turned and ran now, they would only succeed in being shot in the back instead of the front. As they paused to consider that fact the decision was made for them.
Meanwhile Bradley’s compatriots made short work of what forces his gun happened to miss. Bradley thinned the line, and the riflemen finished it. Each following line was more dense than the one before, but each looked more timid and unsure as well.
And then, all at once, a clear hill opened to view before them.
Bradley blinked quickly, disbelieving what he saw. They had done it? They had cleared their section?
Yes, they had. Sergeant’s timing had been impeccable. Glancing downwards Bradley saw seven bullets remained on the belt. Just barely, but they had stopped the breach in their sector.
If only that had been enough.
Though no more enemy forces stood on the hill, the trench still crawled with them. In fact the squad directly to the left of Bradley’s had just finished being entirely overrun by the invaders, who were now lashing out in each direction for fresh kills!
Bradley spun to face the assailants, reaching for the firearm at his side. They leaped at him and he leaped back, firing into the heart of their pack.
“Move over here!” Private Holt shouted from his elbow.
“Pull in close,” Sergeant ordered. “We’re still on the defense!”
It was good advice. The natural inclination was to try to push the enemy, but that sort of over-extending had been exactly the downfall of many of their allies. Better to play it cool and wait to see which side had the numbers. Right now things were too muddled to tell.
Bradley’s squad pulled tight to one another, and stood back-to-back, some of them facing down the right side of the trench, some of them facing down the left. They all shouted and fired furiously into the ranks of the enemy. Half of the time the other side charged at them haltingly, and half of the time they tried to take a stance and fire back.
Such half-measures would not suffice. Bradley and his men were tight-packed and focused. They fired in controlled bursts, calling out their shots, and working as a team to drop one soldier, and then another.
“Stand firm,” Sergeant directed them. “Stand firm and they won’t charge you, no matter how many more of them there are. None of them want to be the first to meet a firm knot!”
But that knot was being untied. Rather than charge, the enemy had finally decided on taking quick shots at the bundle of men. It was dark and shadowy in the trenches, and hard for them to pick out man from mud. Even so, every now and again a lucky shot hit its mark.
A sting burrowed into Bradley’s left thigh. Another grazed over the skin of his right arm. A dull groan sounded against his back, the last complaint that Private Dunny would ever make.
Other shots sang past Bradley’s ears. He instinctively recoiled, and as he did so forgot to keep pulling the trigger. The fire from Bradley’s squad became uncertain, erratic, stifled in the storm raining around them. Then, like predators waiting for their prey to show a weakness, the other side swooped in for the kill.
Bradley caught the first man by the lapel of his jacket, and drilled with his knife until he found oil. He threw that one to the side, and barely raised his arm in time to catch the downward stab of another. His forearm seared in pain, but fortunately Private O’Malley surged forward to take that foe down for him.
No one was there to cover O’Malley, though, and a hot barrel blasted at point-blank range, blasting O’Malley backwards. The man fell right into Bradley, and the two of them fell together. Bradley’s back hit the floor of the trench and O’Malley fell across his legs. Bradley started to thrash to get back up…but then paused.
What if he didn’t? Here in the dark, who could tell a dead man from a man only pretending to be dead? There was a chance that he might be entirely overlooked. Perhaps it was a slim chance, but it was there all the same.
But no. That would leave the backs of his still-standing squadmates unprotected. That would go against his oath, that the enemy would have to cut him down by force. That would invalidate him for Sergeant’s promise of self-purchase. He had to fight his way through the night.
A dark blur passed over Bradley, an enemy making another charge. Bradley turned his gun upwards and fired, cutting the man down entirely unawares. Then, from some long-forgotten coffer, Bradley found the strength to fling back onto his feet in a single, swift motion. He held gun out in one hand and knife in the other. He fired, he cut, pushed, he grit.
The trench was narrow, and the enemy came single file to avoid crowding one another as they danced around the littered corpses. So it was an even match-up, one against one, over and over, and the only question was how long a man could stand down the tide.
A foe grabbed Bradley’s wrist while also swinging wide with a shovel. Bradley leaned back so that it cut fat air and lodged itself in the trench wall. Bradley grabbed the handle with his free hand, just above the blade, and pulled firm. The soldier, still attached to the other end, lurched forward, and lost both of his grips, the one on the shovel and the other on Bradley’s wrist. He fell to the ground at Bradley’s feet. Bradley swung the shovel around and with it dug the man into his grave.
One could not remain a man in such work as this. One had to give himself over to the machine. This was no trench of men, it was a chute on a dis-assembly line. Bradley was the mechanical arm that took the subjects apart one at a time.
Another man lunged forward with a knife. Rather than try to dodge, Bradley gripped the man’s wrist and pulled, ever so slightly shifting the angle of the thrust so that it slid in the crook between his arm and torso. He clinched down and twisted. Something snapped, metal or otherwise.
Bradley-the-machine’s limbs were creaking and sore. No matter. A machine did not complain about such things. A machine just kept at its work as bolts fell off and screw threads stripped and motors spun out of socket. Perhaps he would shatter apart, but he wouldn’t even know it. He would just keep going.
The next soldier made like he was going to lunge at Bradley, but at the last moment pulled back and fired from the hip. It was clever. It caught him off guard. Bradley felt a hole open in his shoulder and he fell onto his back.
What was less clever was that the man paused to see if Bradley was dead, giving him the opportunity to fumble his gun over from the wounded arm to his other. A crack of thunder and the assailant was down.
It was his ability to separate his mind from his body that made Bradley so adept at this work of separating limb from limb. First one had to stifle the life in himself, then he could do it in others. And so a man was always his own first casualty. It was the only way to live.
Two more soldiers advanced down the trench. Bradley was still prone and his vitality was quickly seeping through the wound in his shoulder. This was it. The fight in him was gone.
The first soldier reached him and held out his hand.
Only now did Bradley recognize the uniform of his allies. Bradley tried to offer his good hand, but it still held his gun. He dropped the weapon and let the friend pull him to his feet.
“Good to finally see a friendly face,” the soldier said. “The trench is all secured back this way, how about down past you.”
“I’m not sure,” Bradley said. He started to twist to look that way, but winced at the searing pain that came from his shoulder.
“You’re hurt,” the soldier observed. “Don’t worry, I’ll move down the line and see for myself. You stay here and Private Bailey will see to your wound.”
The man was clearly some sort of officer, though of course it was far too muddy and dark to make out any insignia.
The second man came up and Bradley showed him where he was hit, then leaned back while the man bound him up.
“You’re lucky, the shot passed clean through, I don’t have to dig it out of you.”
“A life of my shoulder always aching and never working right? Hardly seems lucky.”
“At least it’s still a life. That’s more than most of our men can say tonight.”
It suddenly occurred to Bradley to check and see if any of his squad had survived with him. One glance along the trench floor, though, and it was clear that they had not. One-by-one he could pick out each of their bodies interwoven with those of the enemy. They looked so strangely peaceful laying side-by-side with the very men that they had fought to the death against.
Maybe it wasn’t so strange, though. They had killed each other, hadn’t they? And what feud could possibly be left unresolved after such a measure as that? What more could be gained by disputing the matter any further? Here, in mutual death, they were finally all square with one another.
Of course Bradley gave his men a closer check once Private Bailey finished dressing his wounds. The two of them crouched down and felt each man’s lack of a pulse. They truly were all dead. Dunny, Holt, Yates, O’Malley…
“You too, Sergeant?” Bradley sighed. “After that speech you roused us all with? You too?”
By this point it was clear that the battle was over. The scattered din of gunfire up and down the trench had slowed and finally come to a stop. The line had been held, though with extensive casualties. More than fifty percent. Their forces were so diminished that they couldn’t hope to repel another attack. Reinforcements would have to come replace them now.
But then, of course, the enemy needed reinforcements of their own, too. All of their fresh troops were dead, and they would have to send up a new regiment before the onslaught could continue.
Sergeant had been right. Surviving this last charge had been enough. Private Bradley had earned the right to stay alive. Massaging his shoulder he turned to the East. There, searing a line of red across the green hilltop, the dawn was approaching.
Private Bradley passed the last hour in a dazed stupor. Though his veins still bulged with adrenaline, he could feel the exhaustion lurking beneath it. Though his eyes were open and his breath was sharp, he could hardly he considered conscious.
Men walked before him, but he did not see them. Voices spoke around him, but he did not hear them. A pair of hands guided him down the hill and into the back of a truck, but he did not feel them.
He had bounced around in the back of the vehicle a full five minutes before it even dawned on him that he must have been relieved. New troops must have come, and now he was on his way back to camp. Or maybe the enemy had come back and he was being led to a prisoner of war camp. He honestly couldn’t have said which.
But thankfully it was the first, and ten minutes later Bradley shuffled out of the truck and stood in front of his tent. Some officer’s voice was droning at him, probably giving him orders. Probably telling him to get some rest and then await further instructions.
Probably. But even if those weren’t the orders, that was what he was going to do anyhow. It was the only thing he was capable of doing anymore. Nothing else was possible. He was coming apart in so many ways, that it seemed to take all that he had just to remain standing in one piece. To do anything, to change anything, seemed like it might shatter him once and for all.
And now he realized that he was terrified even to go to sleep. In fact, he was so tired that he didn’t know if he had the strength to face it! It meant letting go. It meant trusting the world around him as he lay totally at its mercy. He had been clenching for so long, that now he wasn’t sure how to release.
But now the officer was finished with his droning, and marching away to other duties, and Bradley’s tent lay in front of him, its front flap waving invitingly in the breeze. Bradley didn’t think about it, he just moved forward. He wasn’t aware of his feet moving, indeed it felt as if he was levitating an inch off the ground. In a haze he closed the distance, passed across the threshold, and rotated down on his cot.
He didn’t bother to undo his belt. He didn’t try to pull off his boots. He didn’t unclasp his helmet and let it clatter to the floor. He certainly didn’t worry about getting out of his muddy clothes or taking a shower.
He just lay down, closed his lids, and let his vision turn inwards.
Bradley was unconscious. Not really asleep yet, but unconscious. What Bradley was putting to rest was not his body, it was the machine. He was powering it down. Its vise-like grip slowly unclenched. And now, at last, his mind and body had room enough to start going to work on themselves. Now, at last, all the things that he had been stifling inside began to worm their way out.
First came a series of shivers. They began across his brow, then worked their way down his body, all the way to the feet. They were involuntary shudders, earthquakes in his bones. It was his body loosening out all of the tension that he had so strictly maintained all these hours. Every inch of skin had to be shaken out and made to feel again.
Next came the sweating. Tension and strain had built up a lot of heat in Bradley, and it had to be cooled. There was so much hate and fear that had to be flushed out as well. So each of his pores opened and baptized his body with purifying water. All the grime that had been clogging him up was washed away.
Then came the crying. Bradley’s chest heaved up and down and tears tracked down his cheeks. His mouth opened wide, and through it he gave a series of long, shuddering exhales. No moans came with them, for when one wails audibly they are giving expression to their traumas, and Bradley’s mourning was too deep to be given any names. They could only be breathed, spilled out of him, a thousand at a time, in a heavy torrent.
At last the body had unlocked itself. Bradley’s survival grip was broken, and now he could feel again. Thus he finally realized how uncomfortable he was in his bed. His boots were tight and heavy, and he worked to take them off. He was still mostly unconscious, and unable to wake enough to take remove them properly. Instead he just idly swatted his hand at them every few minutes over the next hour until they were finally teased off an inch at a time. At last they fell to the ground with heavy thuds.
Then his fingers reached up to his chin and fumbled with the strap of his helmet. It too clattered to the ground. He rolled over and the lapel of his jacket dug at his wounded shoulder. He winced, and undid his belt, then shrugged the jacket away.
Now he was cold, and his hands found the blanket and pulled it up to his chin. His body curled up into the fetal position, and he reverted into his most primal instincts. Now his dreams began.
Strange, abstract shapes and colors came first. Black and red, jagged and sharp. They fluctuated and danced into one another without meaning. Then, slowly, they settled into something comprehensible. Bradley saw that they were a seascape of blood waves, reaching like teeth high into the air. So high that they pierced into the onyx tapestry of thunderclouds that made up the entire sky. And where the two bodies collided into one another there oozed out a thick mud.
Bradley was aware of himself in this space. He was soaring towards the horizon where the two dread masses converged into one. Would he be drowned in the waves or would he be dissipated in the mist? Either way, he would surely then be oozed out the dark mud between.
“Please, no!” he cried. “I fought, I won, I get to go home.”
You fought, you won, this is your home a thunderous voice boomed from the heavens. Claim the spoils of your victory!
And then Bradley saw. He was the waves and he was the cloud. He was the squeezing, choking vise that must grind wayward sea explorers between his iron mills. He saw puny sailors rolling across his undulating belly, eyes wide and full of fear. He hated them for their smallness. Hated them for their fear.
Bradley sneered and swelled himself, rushing his two halves together and bursting the vessels apart like juicy grapes. He hated them for being weak enough to be consumed by him. Hated them for dying while he lived.
And though he would dare not admit it, he feared them too. They looked at him with such terror, but why? How did they not see that they had just as much power to kill him, too?
The dream turned. He was still a phantom of black and red, but now in a loose bodily form, and he was sprinting between the walls of an eternal labyrinth. One did not try to escape a place as this. Once consigned here it was your home forever. And your tomb.
Around every few bends he came across one of the dread, blue sailors. He screamed at them and burst himself forth, trying to drown them in his depths before they could crush him.
One of them rounded the bend and hesitated. That was his undoing, Bradley snuffed him out in an instant. Bradley rounded the bend on another and the two of them burst themselves on one another at the same moment. The blow of that other was strong, but Bradley bluffed a laugh through quivering lips. The sailor drew back at that, and believed that Bradley might have some hidden secret that gave him the confidence to laugh. That moment of weakness doomed him. The man succumbed to the momentum of his despair, and knelt down and hung his head. Bradley quaked him into the ground.
It was a game of chicken. The first to show fear lost. To flinch, to admit your terror, was your own undoing. If Bradley could make them believe he was more powerful than they, then it would be so.
This is all that magic and witches are, the great voice boomed again. A spell is only of effect when the victim believes in it. Make them believe their doom and it will be so.
And what if they were made to believe in hope? Bradley wondered. Did magic work that way, too? Was Sergeant a mage? Had he cast a spell on Bradley to make him believe that he could survive that last night? Made a reality of a fiction? Convinced Bradley of it, but then died because he did not believe in it himself?
Why did Bradley get to live while the others did not? Some days he would say that it was just a matter of dumb luck, but he knew that that was not the entire story. He really felt there was some truth to this notion of overwhelming the will of others to live with your own. That will to live was like a muscle, and in some men it was stronger than others. And why was Bradley’s will to live stronger than many others? He did not know. Maybe he was just born that way. Maybe he was bewitched by Sarge’s speech. Maybe a million things. He had it though, and it was his blessing. Or perhaps his curse.
At this point Bradley turned over and nearly awoke. A faint thought crossed his mind that he was starving, filthy, and in need of a doctor to examine his shoulder. Yes, alright, he would take care of all those things. But first a little more sleep. He had denied his body this rest for too long, and now the time had come to pay the tab.
So instead he ground deeper into his pillow, pulled the blanket tight with earnest, and muscled his way back into deeper waves of sleep. The dreams here were more erratic and fanciful than before. Every now and then a vision from the trenches would arise, such as one where he was laying traps a pack of wolves that was also hunting him, but more so they were abstract and bizarre, such as one where he was carving faces into potatoes to try and get them to speak to him.
All the while men came and left from the tent. Trucks rolled by outside. Orders were shouted and people scrambled to fulfill them. None of them could break his trance, though, and everyone knew better than to wake the men that had come back from the line.
How much time passed was impossible to tell. Bradley had missed two full nights of sleep, and he more than made up for them now. When at last his eyes opened there was sunlight outside, so that he mistakenly thought that it was still the same day as when he had first laid head to pillow.
For a full hour he laid without any more movement than the occasional blink of his eyes. Indeed when he first opened them he did not realize that they were open. He just stared blankly ahead as the room slowly swam into conscious focus. He stared, and he listened. And at first the sounds seemed far-off and random, totally devoid of any word or meaning. But as his hearing also came into conscious focus he realized that there was an unusual rhythm to what he heard.
The camp had always been a busy place, but somehow it was even more so now. Trucks were rumbling by in a constant procession, voices were ringing over one another in a chorus of commands. Feet were running every direction at once. What on earth was going on out there?
Bradley rose to his feet, waited a minute for the resultant light-headedness to pass, then stepped out into the sun. If things had sounded active, they looked even more so! Most of the tents were being disassembled, the large medical pavilion was being brought down even now. Everything was being tied down, bundled up, and thrown into the back of trucks.
“Our line’s been broken!” Bradley hissed in horror. “We’re retreating!”
But even as he said that, he realized that couldn’t be right. Because even with all the hasty hustle and bustle, the men were smiling and laughing, clinking together glasses of champagne scurried up from who-knew-where.
“What is this?” Bradley caught a soldier by the arm as he passed by.
“Oh you’re a mess,” the man said, looking up and down Bradley’s filth-caked clothing. “And we’ve just taken down the showers, so you’ll just have to sail that way!”
“Sail? What are you talking about? Where is everyone going?”
The man cocked his head in utter bewilderment. “Do you really not know? You haven’t heard?”
Bradley shook his head.
“The war is over man! The old men back home have signed a treaty!”
Bradley released the man’s shoulder and stood with mouth agape. Could it be? He looked about himself in a stupor. It seemed too much to believe…yet here was his entire company beating a joyful march back home.
Two airplanes buzzed overhead, and Bradley watched them soar by. They were followed by a dozen more, all making way for the coast.
Bradley smiled and shook his head. He had slept clean through the end of the war. “So you were right all along, Sarge,” he muttered. Then he turned, and followed the procession away from that place.