How Sweet and Fitting
We were tired, if you could even believe an understatement like that. Our limbs were like jelly, the muscles devouring themselves with every step we took. My knees knocked together, bending wearily at their young joints, as if some invisible force was trying to suck me into the ground, burry me alive. What a sight we must have been , stooped and weary, hacking and coughing like withered old men. We were the proud liberators, the upholders of freedom. Patriotism shone from our very being. We were old men, old men too soon.
Our camp was further than any of us wanted to imagine. We put the front line to our backs and we carried on, some blind with exhaustion, some were even bootless. It didn't matter. Their feet were caked with blood, a rough casing that kept out whatever pain depravity and hunger couldn't quash. The fellow next to me stumbled, his skin green in the light of the flares that illuminated the sky around us, threatening to give us away, make us visible to the enemy. We would be an easy target, vulnerable and weak, us defenders of freedom. I caught him beneath his elbow, surprised that my arms even responded to my cranial commands. I had been thinking too long and hard on other things, more pleasant things, to consciously command my body to move. Marching was second nature now, like breathing, only less dangerous.
"Thanks," he coughed, wearily carrying on, gripping to my arm for a moment longer.
"I've got a girl, you know," he rasped, so quietly that I could hardly hear him over the whistling of Five-Nines that fell just short of us. Fucking Germans. We were, even in our sad and sorry state, to quick for them.
"Her name's Cathy. She's lovely."
His groan was a combination of longing and pain, and it scared me more than the screech of a gas bomb, because I felt it too. I missed Laurie, and my baby boy, our Patrick. Would I see the kids first birthday? He was my imprint, and I may not live to see him make a mark greater than my own.
"What's your name?" I asked him, keeping him awake, keeping him alive with my questioning.
"A-Alexander," he answered, wracked with a cough mid-speech. "Alexander Bruce."
"Where are you from, Alexander?"
He rattled in to a long and glorious speech, taking me back with him to the wild highlands of Scotland, to his pretty little village, the house he'd been building for his Cathy, to whom he intended to propose, and all of it's lush greens and blues and reds. There was no colour here. Just mud that sucked you southwards, like a clammy sea creature with more arms than a kind God would have intended. He confessed to me his sins, his hopes, his dreams. He wanted a house full of girls, girls who would never see the horrors of war, nor lose a love to a death he didn't deserve. We walked on, a huddled, mossy green group of men, who's faces cast long shadows in the killing light of the flares.
"Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!"
The voice pierced Alexander's rhetoric, his story interrupted by the clumsy clatter of gas masks and frantic shouting. I leapt for my own helmet, the faces of my wife and child flashing before me. Your mask on first, yours on first. As I lashed it to my skin, saved by seconds from the sneaking, filthy smoke, my vision cleared, and I was aware of my mortality more than ever.
I looked across myself, to Alex, who stood stunned, breathing shallowly, his eyes glazed over in a hopeful manner. I lunged for him, gesturing to him to get the mask on before it was too late. It was like moving underwater, in a world of kelpy green that my body wasn't designed for. Alex's face twisted into an expression of hideousness I had never imagined existed. His mouth, which had dreamed of kissing her lips once more, curled into a fevered scream of terror, his arms taking on new life as he clawed and swam for air. It was fruitless labour. The gas was in his lungs, the chlorine, or phosgene, or whatever it was, filling his lungs like liquid, drowning him before our eyes. He lunged for me, desperate to be saved. It took all my will not to turn away, to banish him to a solitary death. He had picked me to be his saviour, his confessor and friend. I caught him as he lunged, holding his tremoring body to me in its dying moments.
For a band of men who called themselves brothers, we were merciless in our treatment of him. He was a dead man, though we can give ourselves some respect for not leaving him behind to be stripped of what little left he had.
I followed the wagon he lay in, my stomach curling and churning beneath my tattered jacket. Each rut it bounced over, my heart pinched, guilt pricking me like a needle. Could I have saved him? Could I have pulled his helmet over his face in time to save him from drowning above ground?
His face was tormented, the whites of his eyes glaring at me as he jolted over the rough terrain. At each leap, the sickening sound of blood bubbled forth, spilling over his foamy lips, coupled with the regurgitation of whatever crude meal he had last eaten, be it a bit of hard biscuit, or a handful of muddy grass that had been plucked up along the road for something to chew on. He was Death incarnated, Sickness and Sin flanking him, unseen to the common man. I saw them. I still see them. I wake at night, covered in a sheen of sweat, fearful for a moment that I'm still trapped in my thin, coarse bunk, the threat looming above me, beneath me, beside me.
I mop my brow, and roll over on my clean sheets, pulling the soft, sweet-smelling form of my wife into my arms, thankful for her cool skin and comforting embrace. I think for a moment about Cathy, who never got her house, or her daughters, or whatever she had Alex had dreamed up together.
My wife stirs, and for fear of waking her, I let her go, and leave our room to lean over the cradle of my son, who is three years old, and the spitting image of his mother. I pray fervently for men to come to their senses, and forsake violence as a form of resolution. I banish the images of guns, of gas masks and trenches, hoping my son will never see these things, only hear of them as stories of days gone by, like I was told tales of dragons and knights in armour.
I'm reminded, suddenly, of stories and morals, one in particular coming to mind.
Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori. It is sweet and proper to die for your country.
How sweet and fitting that we have lied to our children.
Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.