We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields.
(In Flanders Field, excerpt, John McCrae, 1915)
"Help me. It hurts so much. Please help me!"
The words are soft, a strained hoarse whisper. The two soldiers carrying the stretcher take no notice of them. Their job is to bring in the wounded, not talk to them. They put the stretcher down in the middle of a table in the dark, damp tunnel which substitutes for an aid station.
"Got another one here for you, Doc. Took it in the stomach, he did. Doesn't look good. He screamed for hours before we could get to him. Poor bugger!"
The doctor in the other room waves a weary hand to the soldiers and they head out again. Moments later, he comes into the surgery, wiping his hands on the front of his crimson stained army jacket. He takes one look at the boy lying on the table; his eyes closed, colour grey and half of his insides leaking out through a massive wound in his stomach and he knows that this boy will not live through the night.
The medic closes his eyes, leans back against the wall and sighs. No matter how often he'd seen it, nothing prepares a person for this. The boy was done for, even if they were in the best hospital in London, he was done for. There was nothing any doctor could do.
He hears a strange gurgling sound and his eyes snaps open to look directly into the pale blue eyes of the wounded soldier. His mouth is open and moving, but nothing comes out. There is a pleading and terrified look on his face and his arm lying by his side twitches but does not move. Defeated by his body, the boy on the bed closes his eyes again.
Going to the next room, the doctor heads over to the table in the far corner. This is where he keeps his aid bag, the only dry spot in this wretched place. He grabs the bag and begins rummaging through it. He finds what he is looking for; the supply of morphine. Picking up the bottle, he peers into the dark glass and puts it down slowly again.
It's not enough. Well, that isn't strictly the truth. He doesn't have enough to waste. An overdose would have been the best he could do for this boy. He would have fallen asleep and never woken up, he would have been at peace and without pain. But there isn't enough.
He goes back to the surgery, his steps slow and reluctant. The boy on the table is still and for a quick second he wonders if his dilemma is over, if the boy has died on his own. But as he reaches the table, the boy's eyes open, those same pale blue eyes, streaked with red. The boy opens his mouth again and croaks out some words, but the doctor cannot decipher them. He lifts one finger and puts it against his lips and the boy quietens.
He takes the boy's hand in his, and feels for a pulse in the wrist. He doesn't know why, what he hopes to find, he just knows that he has to do something. The pulse is so faint that he can hardly feel it, and he knows in his heart that the poor thing hasn't got much longer to live. Perhaps a few hours, certainly not more. Standing by his side, he looks down at the boy. He is young, perhaps still a teenager. A strapping young lad, perhaps a farm boy judging from what you could see of his face under all that mud. And a private- from the 89th Battalion according to the insignia on his uniform. Ah! A Canadian regiment. He nods to himself and sees that the boy is watching him now. Those Canadians: he has never seen anyone fight like they had. Brave men! Smiling, he points with his finger to the Maple Leaf emblem sewn on to the shoulder of the boy's uniform.
"Canada!" beams the doctor, and the boy smiles a watery smile and nods, the pain of that motion making him grimace. The doctor reaches out and steadies him again.
Going into the other room, he brings a chair, one of the few pieces of furniture in the tunnel. He places it next to the table and sits down and brings out his book, the boy's eyes watching his every move. He can't save the boy's life but he would sure as hell not let him die alone.
There is a crash and shouts from the front room. The doctor leaps up and runs towards the hole which is the entrance.
"Doc, it's a shell! It just exploded! I've got dozens of injuries!"
"Right, my man! Bring them in!"
Walking briskly now, the doctor comes back to the bedside of the boy. The boy's eyes are wide open now and he looks so innocent. The doctor feels a lump in his throat and suddenly cannot remember what he means to say. Goodbye? I'm sorry? Tears well up in his eyes and he turns away. Army men do not cry. He hears the soldiers bringing in the first of the injured and quickly blinks his tears away. Loud cries of pain fill the small room. A quick press of his hand to the boy's shoulder and he dashes off. His first duty is to the living.
For the next few hours, he is too busy to check or even think of the boy lying in the next room. He is sewing up gashes, bandaging wounds, putting in splints, applying tourniquets. He is glad that he saved the morphine.
As he is working on his last patient, a young Englishman with a leg full of shrapnel, he glances over into the now dark room. He is surprised to see someone there with the boy, a fellow soldier, sitting in the chair he left there. He pauses and frowns, the red scalpel poised in the air. He hadn't heard anyone go pass him, but then again he was too busy to notice anything. The man in the chair looks up and catches his gaze. He nods and gives a small wave and the doctor is relieved.
When he finishes, he washes his hands and heads over to the table. The man stands up, his face sombre and offers his hand. The boy's eyes are closed and his breaths shallow.
"Allo Doctor. I hope to not disturb you. I know this boy; we are from the same place back home."
The medic shakes the man's hand, noting his uniform with the same Maple Leaf emblem and the red cross just beneath it. This man is a combat medic too.
Looking down at the boy, then over to the man, the medic feels the need to explain. "I'm sorry about your friend. There was nothing I could do."
The man nods and lays a light hand on the boy's sweaty brow. The boy stirs and whimpers.
"I know. There is nothing anyone can do."
The medic fetches another chair and sets it on the other side of the table. They find a blanket and lay it over him so he could be warm. The two sit in a comfortable silence, sharing a certain solidarity; two medics with all the technology of the day, but still powerless in the fight between the beast that is war and the fragility of man.
Sometime in the middle of the night, the medic falls asleep. When he awakens, he sees the light of dawn coming in through the hole in his tunnel. He stretches and groans aloud at the stiffness of his body. Remembering the events of the previous night, he glances quickly across to the other chair. It is empty and he knows without even touching him that the lad is dead. His face has been scrubbed clean and looks peaceful in his repose. His hands are clasped on his chest. The friend must have done that.
Hearing a noise, he looks up and sees the two stretcher bearers from last night. They come in, bringing him a cup of tea in a battered tin cup. He takes it in silence, nods his thanks and sips a little bit at a time. It is dreadful, but he is grateful for something warm in his belly.
"Hard night eh?" they ask, looking at the boy on the table and he nods. Every night here is hard.
"Where is that Canadian medic?" he asks, setting his cup down as he turns to them. "I think he would want to know about the burial and so on."
"What Canadian medic?"
"Oh you fellows must know him; you know all the medics! Small chap, dark hair, strange accent. He was here last night."
The two soldiers look at each other, foreheads creased in puzzlement.
"No, you must be mistaken, Doc. There are only two Canadian medics. The one who fits your description is Lt. Mercier. We know him well. But it couldn't be him!"
"Of course it's him. He's a friend of this poor lad, he said. Tell me where he is, I'll go talk to him myself."
The two men look at each other and the older one speaks in a softer, gentler voice than before.
"Doc, it couldn't be Mercier because he died last evening, in the shell explosion. Blown to pieces, he was. We buried what remained of him last night ourselves."
The medic stiffens, his eyes widen. He rises slowly and wanders over to the table where the boy lies. His head is spinning, his heart flutters like a frightened bird. The man from last night seemed normal enough, for God's sake; he was a doctor as well! They understood each other, they had connected.
He looks down at the boy, at the soft tranquility of his face and begins to see the light. He knows without a doubt that it was Mercier last night. His breathing comes back to normal and his hands warm up again. The lines flow away from his face and the ghost of a smile plays on his lips.
He knows why that man, why Mercier came last night, why he had made this detour on his final journey. This boy, his friend needed him, needed comfort, warmth, humanity. And yes, truth be told, he needed that too last night.
Mercier had come back to fulfill his duty, as a friend, as a soldier, as a soldier and as man. A medic always thinks of those in need first, he would do the same thing if he was in his place. The medic smiles and nods his head. Those crazy Canadians! A strange feeling of warmth and peace seeps through him and he welcomes that after so many long days of cold mundane terror.
He turns back to the two stretcher bearers who are still staring at him with wide eyes and mouths ajar.
"Go get the burial team, boys."
They nod and leave without a word and he wonders why they are not as affected as he is. Perhaps they have seen too much, have forgotten that the men on both sides are after all of this, just frightened little boys. For the first time in years, he clasps his hands together and breathes a prayer of thanks to his God, and to Mercier.
A/N Thanks to my beta Blackcat Frodo for proofreading.