The Soldier’s Last Sleep: Part Five

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Photo by Bastian Riccardi on Pexels.com

 

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

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.

 

And that brings us to the conclusion of The Soldier’s Last Sleep! On Monday we discussed the idea of a final act prolonging the themes of the story’s climax. Previously we experienced the rousing apex of action where Bradley defended the trench through the last night of his shift. That sequence concluded, and today I sloped the story into a long tail before the finish.

In this final act I have used Bradley’s subconscious to reiterate the themes of my story to the reader. Even as his subconscious is trying to process the events within him, I am doing the same thing for the audience. Through this I emphasize the ideas of force of will, of trying to control oneself with a vise-like grip, and the toll, physical and mental that comes with that. I speak of tension and release. I point out the idea of men overpowering one another by a show of strength, or more accurately by a facade of strength. I finish up with a discussion of influence and inspiration, which suggests a more gentle way to impose one’s will upon another.

And then, to cap it all off, I talk about the calm after the storm. For after each charge of the enemy came respite, after the fog came clear skies, and after the war there must come peace. Which was meant as a meta-commentary on the calm-final-act-after-the-climax-of-a-story theme from Monday.

This dream sequence that I concluded with also allowed me a pleasant opportunity to delve deep into the rabbit hole. Throughout the story I presented the story with dramatic prose, painting the scene of war as some sort of exaggerated fantasy. That same idea is more deeply explored in Bradley’s unconscious visions, where fantasy finally becomes his reality. With my next blog post I’d like to go deeper into this idea of going deeper. I want to consider how a story can present an idea, and then really dive into the meat of it. Come back Monday to hear about that, and have a wonderful weekend in the meantime!

Three Variations on a Theme

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The Stone)

I had a dream that I was an explorer in a new land, traveling with a party of adventurers, all fair-haired, young, and beautiful. We were pioneers, pilgrims, fearlessly carving a new course through the world! I had the sense that we had traveled for a long while already, but that the real journey was only just now about to begin. For we were on a ledge overlooking a lush and green valley, and we were happily describing how we would go into this place, stake our claim, and forge our futures. One ambition would be succeeded by another until we would make this place shine as a beacon to the world, the star that dwelled on earth rather than the heavens above.

As the rest of our group continued with their enthusiasms I noticed a cave standing on the ledge a little bit back from the rest of us. Something deep was pulsating to me from there, and I found myself growing intensely curious. I informed my compatriots that I was going to see what was inside, and they cautioned me to hurry as they would not wait for long.

I entered the cave and found that it was not very deep at all. Just a few yards in and I came to its back, against which their lay a single, massive slab of onyx stone. It was from this stone that the pulsating rhythm emanated, a deeper frequency than I could actually hear, but which I could feel.

I was seized by a strange desire to possess the stone somehow. I reached to my side and drew my knife out, then proceeded to carve an image of myself into the rock. The stone was surprisingly soft, and easily received my image onto it. I was able to make my likeness with perfect ease, even down to some of the most minute details.

With a shock I realized I had been here in this cave for far longer than I had intended and I turned to rush back to my companions. But as I tried to move my legs I found that I could not. Glancing downwards I was shocked to find that my legs had changed, somehow they had been transfigured into motionless stone!

I tried to reach down, to pull my legs free of their earthy confines, but my arms would not extend down to them. I looked to my hands and they were as sculpted stone as well. As panic set in I tried to shout out for help, but no sound emerged from my mouth, for it was stone as well. I tried to look around for anything to save me, but my eyes would not shift, for they were stone as well. All of me was stone.

Though I could not move I was now somehow back on the ledge looking down into the valley. I was an immobile statue, yet still cognizant and aware. I saw my dear friends making their way down the path without me. They went into the valley and began to build their homes, their farms, their mills.

They developed and grew, they married one another, they had families and established a community. They were happy. They were successful. And not a one of them paused to wonder about me. Once every so often I saw one pause as if trying to remember something lost in the periphery, but then they would always shake their heads and go back about their day.

I wanted to cry. But rocks cannot cry.

 

The Mud)

I had a dream that I stood in a muddy field, grouped with a great mass of individuals who were carrying thick and long beams of wood to a far off destination. Every person was being assigned a single beam, their own personal cross to bear. They all received it, bore it on their shoulder, and then made their way with it down a grassy trail.

I received mine and felt the weight of it push me an inch down into the mud. It was about half as wide as a man, and long enough that its end dragged along the ground. I turned and began to follow the others, filing my way down that same long road. In time I became accustomed to the labor, and after shifting the beam around found a position that was stable. I peered ahead and saw that the way continued for quite a long while, round bends, up and down valleys, and at times the road would became narrow and pockmarked, though never entirely broken.

I made good progress, and even passed a few of the other journeyers along my way. I saw that the road would soon follow a hill that rose, curved right, and then dropped back down to our current level again. I had the realization that I could make better time by taking a shortcut through the field at the base of that hill, which would rejoin the road at the far end of the hill. And so I turned away from the main thoroughfare and ventured out over the unbroken ground.

At first the going was easier. The grass was less beaten down here and provided a firmer foundation for my heavy steps. As I continued, though, the grass became increasingly sparse and my feet began sinking into the soft earth. I had to pause and catch my breath as each step required extra effort to first dislodge from the vacuum of muck and mire.

I had extended about twenty yards out into the field before my first real misgivings began. The effort of lifting one foot out of the mud was driving the other a little deeper in return. Thus each step went further and further, and if that continued I soon wouldn’t be able to lift my way out of the mud at all. My beam was now slowing me like an anchor as well, its long end dragging through the soft earth with every step.

I began wondering about heading back the way I had come, but turning this my wooden keel seemed far more difficult than continuing, so I took a few more tentative steps. Perhaps I would find my way to a drier patch of ground soon?

But no, I had barely gone three paces more and I was already dropping all the way to my thighs. My last step never stopped sinking, it just kept descending slowly and so I floundered my legs, pumping them as if swimming upwards. It made it hard to keep my balance, especially with how the beam jostled and thudded across my back.

I lost my posture entirely and fell forwards. My hands flung out instinctively into the ground, the fingers splaying out to keep me stable.

There was a sense of dread growing that I refused to acknowledge. I had been stupid, but I was going to wriggle out of this and–

I realized that I was still continuing to sink. Even with all four of my limbs pressed into the ground the mud continued to crawl up  my skin, cold and sinister.

“NO!” I commanded, feeling the panic setting in. The weight of the beam was just too much. Until now I had had a sense that I mustn’t lose it, but now that didn’t matter. It was pressing me down, burying me in this mire and I started rolling my shoulders, trying to dislodge it.

It would not move. It was planted too firmly in the soil.

I tried to duck down and roll out from underneath it, but it dropped with me and only pinned me still lower. The scent of the moist earth was filling my nostrils and I felt it crawling up along my belly and chest.

Just my neck and head remained above the earth. My arms and legs churned violently through the mud to no end.

“No! NO!”

The cold sludge crept up my neck. Closed across my chin. I could taste it.

“NOOOOO–”

My cry became a gurgle as the filth flowed its way into my mouth, and filled my vision with darkness.

 

The Vulture)

I had a dream that I was at the bottom of a large crevice, a shaft in the rock that had plunged a few hundred feet down to where I stood. I had no knowledge in the dream of how I came to be here, but here I was and with no way out.

I did not even need to ascertain that there was no exit in this dream, somehow I knew it was so. There would be no scaling the rocky walls, no friend to lower me a rope. This was my world, though I was not discontent with that fact.

What was troubling to me, though, was the intense hunger that I was consumed with. These were no common hunger pang, either, they were sharper than any I have ever felt before. I felt that if I did not find any food soon I would collapse and perish.

Desperately I looked all about me for something to eat. At first I saw nothing, but then as I looked upwards I noticed an immense number of plump white birds roosting in the holes of the rock. They looked extremely fat and delicious, and I tried throwing stones to hit one of them. They were too quick for me, though, and too clever to ever stray far enough downwards where I might reach them with my hands.

In desperation I began rooting around in the dirt, looking for any mushrooms, and I was even considering trying to eat the moss that grew along the rock walls. Before I could, though, a single black vulture slowly wafted down the chasm and landed at my feet. It was a massive fowl, standing as high as my own waist. And in its beak it held one of those plump, white birds.

It looked me in the eye, then dropped the carcass at my feet, taking a half-step backwards as if to make clear that this was meant as an offering. It never took its eyes off of me, and there was something deeply unnerving in its look. There was a deep cunning in those eyes, a frightening intensity, and a hungry desire.

Even so, I wasn’t about to pass up my only opportunity for a proper meal, and so I cautiously lowered to a crouch, extended a single hand out, and took the gift. I never took my eyes off that vulture and it never took its off of me.

With our gazes still locked on one another I tore into the flesh of that white fowl and found it was ever more delicious than I had hoped. The meat was soft and succulent, and at the slightest pressure of my teeth it burst apart in a torrent of sweet flavors. Every succeeding morsel was the best I had ever tasted, and all too soon I held the last remaining bite of the meal between my fingertips.

Though I wanted to devour that morsel as well I knew I should be gracious, and so I placed it in front of the vulture that still waited at my feet. The vulture hissed, seized the piece and flung it to the side. Evidently it could not eat the flesh of the white birds itself, though it could catch them. With a sudden pity I realized it must be hungry as I.

The vulture hopped forward, extending its mouth out towards me expectantly. With that clarity that exists only in dreams I understood it meant for me to give it a bite of my own flesh. That was the meat that it could eat. Though that naturally gave me pause I knew that if I refused then the vulture would not bring me anymore food. And so I extended my arm and watched as it plunged its beak into my flesh. It tore off a chunk and swallowed the whole thing down at once, then happily flew away.

The next long while continued to pass like this. The vulture continued to bring me the birds, I ate them, and converted them into human flesh that the vulture could take from me. It was a horrible dependency we had for one another, I suppose, and yet I somehow found it deeply satisfying.

Unfortunately my ravenous appetite never was abated. Whenever I was not feasting I sat with my head turned upwards, waiting to feast. The vulture was a skilled hunter and soon learned to never cease in bringing me my next meal. At first I tried to ignore the fact that the number of those birds was beginning to diminish, but after only a matter of weeks I could not deny that my gluttony was driving us to ruin.

Where before every nook and cranny of the rocky walls had been overflowing with my winged dinners, now I could scarcely see so much as a feather in all that schism. The vulture struggled to find them, too, and more and more regularly it would come to me exhausted and empty-beaked. It would still approach me for its regularly-scheduled feeding, but I would kick at it and drive it away.

“You can never have anything from me until it you have made payment first!” I would shout at its retreating form.

When it did find food for me I now devoured the entire thing in haste and was left all the more dissatisfied for having tasted so little… with so long to go before I would eat again. I grew faint and weary, and took to sleeping while I waited for the vulture to return.

One time I awoke to see it looming before me, slowly approaching with that same sinister glint in its eye. It paused when it had seen that I had awoken, but after a moment continued forward again. I tried to lift my hand to shake my fist at it but I found my arm would not move. I tried to kick out at it but my leg refused to answer.

I glanced downwards and saw all of the vulture’s bite marks up and down my body. I realized it had systematically weakened my sinews, devoured my muscles, damaged my nerves. All to the point that I now lacked any power to fend it off. It was in that moment I realized my body was more the vulture’s than my own any more.

And still it came forward.

***

On Monday I mentioned that myths commonly abstract a story’s themes, which signals to the reader that its topics are universal principles rather than individual narratives. It’s important to do that early in the myth, so that the reader understands the proper frame of mind to read from.

In each of today’s piece my intention was to present a sequence of events that was too bizarre to be taken at face value. I did things like beginning each by saying it was a “dream,” I made strong use of supernatural events, I limited the use of character and plot, and I used a narrative voice that was emotionally distant from the intensity of the moments being described.

Most commonly when a reader picks up a new story the main driving question that pushes them through to the end is “what happens next?” But by utilizing these specific tactics I hoped to change that question into something more like “what is this about?” Thus the different experience presented in a myth has something to do with how the writer writes, but also in how a reader reads.

The other thing I wanted to accomplish with this piece was present the same theme in three different ways. There are shared elements between the details of each, such as a solitary central character and a setting based in nature, but what ties them together most strongly is the themes that they all share. Each features a character with initial promise, who encounters something new or strange (a slab of rock, an inviting field of mud, a vulture), and who ultimately loses their way. These are myths about losing one’s place, of being distracted from the right way, of being overwhelmed, and of being consigned to a destruction.

These are sobering ideas, and frankly myths often are. Even the ones that are happy tend to be happy with a heaviness. There just seems to be little point in engaging the reader’s intuition to teach a principle, unless it is a principle that carries some weight.

Before closing, I need to mention one other element shared in these stories: the way that each of them introduces the reader to a new idea and then asks them to follow the logical continuation of that novelty. In fact this is a tool of story-writing that I’ve been using in all of my pieces for this current series. Come back on Monday where we’ll examine this more fully, and until then have a wonderful weekend!