The Soldier’s Last Sleep: Part Three

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Part One
Part Two

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.

Click!

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.

Part Four

 

Well I didn’t plan this episode to resolve one battle, only to then leave right in the middle of another. It feels like I’m writing an old black-and-white serial that ends each week’s chapter on a cliffhanger. Maybe that isn’t such a terrible thing, though, it means the story is pacing through natural rises and falls. After all, even without careful pacing a story can be well-intentioned…but it can’t be interesting. Or put another way, it doesn’t matter what you’re trying to say if you aren’t saying it in a very good way. This is an idea I’d like to examine more on Monday, and how one can achieve a well-paced story.

Before that, though, let’s touch briefly on what I wrote last Monday about listing out the individual pieces of your story, to ensure that they hold a natural tension and escalation. Today was the moment where all of the tension of The Soldier’s Last Sleep escalated to its maximum, and now all that build-up is releasing in the story’s rousing climax!

There are several threads that I have woven together to achieve this effect. Obviously the first of these is the enemy assaults, which have incrementally pushed closer and closer to overwhelming Bradley and his compatriots. Then there is the thread of physical and mental deterioration, where I have listed out the deepening states of chafing hands and racked minds. There has been a thread about administration becoming more and more chaotic, where each new day denies them the relief that they so desperately need, while the other side inadvertently shells its own men! All of these threads has escalated in their own right, let alone when twisted all together.

There we have it, a list of lists that make up a story! And not only do they escalate, but each one creates tension by being at odds with the others. Bradley wants to live, his body wants to give up, the enemy horde wants to kill him, and the administration seems to want the struggle to continue endlessly. Not all sides can win this fight, and so the conflict heightens as each pushes its own agenda. Next week we’ll finally see which thread emerges as the victor!

The Soldier’s Last Sleep: Part Two

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Part One

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–

Click!

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.

Part Three
Part Four

 

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.