Dawn came with the cold stark light of winter, a low slice of weak yellow color under the heavy gray sky. The countryside beneath was shrouded in the muted brown of its hibernation, secluded from the fantasy of spring and its long awaited thaw. Nevertheless, it held the rumor of its potential, of sweet fragrant flowers, of tall sturdy trees with shady canopies for refuge from a hot sun, of rolling green fields and a soft warm breeze. But that was far off, and perhaps would never be again, and those good memories lost in time.
So it seemed within the distant thoughts of one man as he drove a rugged army truck along an old farm road. His eyes fell to the door mirror, the large rectangular pane dark with the night far behind him until it was pierced with the strobes of artillery shells, too distant to be heard over the steady growl of the truck’s motor. Somewhere beneath those distant, deceptive flashes lay the desolation of the current front. He had served his time in that maelstrom, and met the duty that had bound him. He found it hard to remember that life was his.
With a brief frown he ran his hand over his face, blowing a warming breath into his palm before returning his hand to the glove nestled under his thigh. He settled his hand on the steering wheel and removed his other hand to bury its glove under his thigh. He stuffed his frost-numbed fingers into the warmth of his armpit. He looked across the fields to either side, their brown turf still dappled in spots with frosted snow. As the warmth returned to his fingers his eyes caught the outlines of some old farmhouses, their skeletal walls charred and broken. The small groves of trees that used to shelter them were shattered and bare, the few remaining branches reaching out like twisted claws.
He slowed as he approached a column of men marching toward the front. The men parted to either side of the narrow road to let him through. It was cold in the truck with its broken heater, but he knew well enough the wretched cold of marching exposed with only a heavy overcoat for shelter. The men in the column looked to him, but then looked away when they realized the cargo his truck bore. It registered little with him, just as he failed to discern any difference in color between the brown coats of the column and the frozen landscape.
With a grunt he silenced the thought and looked off to his right where one of the fields had been leveled and dotted with perfect geometric grids of small white crosses, linear no matter the angle they were viewed. It was the cemetery for his army, for men like him, yet different from him. He was appalled by the vastness of those rows of crosses, not for their number, or how they came to rest in that field, but for all the energy of those who had lived, lost to a singular vast silence, a deafening silence—so many thoughts, both the low and petty, the noble and elaborate, but once alive, all stomped to silence.
Like him, but not like him.
At the end of the cemetery a road opened on his left. He turned onto that road, a narrow bulldozed track through a fallow field. He grimaced when he slipped his hand from his armpit to downshift, forgetting his glove before grabbing the cold shifter. He stuffed his hand into his glove and followed the gully-torn road as it crested a hill and sank into an immense pit. Other trucks were there, bulldozers as well, but he waited until a miserable looking man waved to a spot over to the left. He turned the truck and drove across the grade of the pit before slowing and turning to point the nose of the truck to the rim of the pit. Then he put the truck in reverse, glanced at his side mirror, and let his foot off the brake. The truck crept back, but then picked up speed. After three lengths of the truck he slammed on both the clutch and brake pedals and looked away from the mirror.
The truck bumped to a halt and then rumbled as its burden spilled out the open back to roll down into the pit. After several moments he stepped on the parking brake until it clicked secure before slipping from the truck’s cab. With a heave he pulled himself up the side of the truck and hopped into its bed. He kept his gaze down as he pulled out the heavy shovel he kept wedged in the slats of the truck bed, and walked to the end of the bed where the last of the truck’s burden remained. His nose wrinkled against the stench that assailed him, but he set the shovel’s blade and pushed.
The last of the bodies tumbled out of the bed and into the pit, rolling down its slope to land on a wide pile of corpses. A bulldozer crept by, packing the bodies down with its weight as it covered them with a fresh layer of dirt. Scattered tendrils of vapor from rotting flesh rose through the packed earth.
They were the defeated of the enemy, those bodies. For them, there was no dignity of small white crosses, there would never be any sympathetic acknowledgement of lives lived and lost, of dreams dispelled, of passions hollowed to unheard echoes. It mattered not whether it was the pit or a small white cross, for the vast majority of those who went into the ground were just bystanders drowned by war. For the living, though, there was a distinct difference, a distinct meaning, something to embrace in the growing span of time’s wearying forgetfulness.
To the victor went not only small white crosses, but justification.
For the vanquished, there was only disillusionment.
Like him, but not like him, he decided again.
He made his way back into the truck cab and drove away, passing several more trucks bumping along the rough road toward the pit. He looked ahead to the main road and across to the neat lanes of white crosses.
To the just go the spoils. He turned the truck and drove away.
He found himself driving some other country road, lost in emptiness. His thoughts, in the past riotous guests within his mind, were silent. His inner question of their absence served as the one minute ripple to disturb the dead quiet within him, and that too served him little. Perhaps it was the dreadful melancholy of his current duty, but he understood how he came to this position of his disposition. Misfit, unfit; the labels were meaningless.
He trembled with the cold, breaking from within himself to look outside the truck. The sky was a heavy featureless gray, the country about him brown and barren. He realized he was stopped, pulled over on the side of the road. He blinked, his eyes focusing on the bodies strewn across the road before him. Their coats were still loose. The bloat of rot was yet to set in. The cold served a purpose too, after all.
With a rub of his gloved hands he slipped from the truck. Beyond the ruined trees, in the dark haze, the horizon flashed with artillery and explosions too distant to hear. By the time he had paced over to the bodies he recognized them as nominees for the quaint cemetery, and not the waste pit. They were most likely victims of a stray shell, evidenced by the shallow crater in the middle of the road. He frowned, shaking his head at the insanity of it, the harsh reality of the death of these men on a quiet back road beyond any discernable, causal connection to the mass violence far away at the front. It made little sense to him by way of logic, even though it felt quite fitting.
He came to a stark conclusion. When existence ends, this is how it will look. All living things will be stripped of their vitality; all will be a shadow of what was. All matter will be shorn of its spirit to leave the world hollow and cold and its remaining cursed inhabitants lone, starving wanderers in the bleak void.
He stood transfixed in the wake of that thought, bleak even for him. The truck’s engine idled behind him. He watched the chaotic flashes along the horizon. Then he did something, something he would’ve thought impossible for him to do, even in the wake of his former life.
Hands in his pockets, he put his back to his truck, and walked away.
Not along the road, for he recalled the general area and one particular part of that area he had taken pains to avoid. It was to that area he now felt himself drawn, propelling him across the rolling brown fields. He walked until the sky dimmed with evening, and only then sought shelter in a bombed out grain depot, a solitary stone structure left among the flattened ruins of an old farm.
With evening slipping away to night and its threat of frozen, still air he gathered some hay, and wood that wasn’t charred. He retreated to an inner corner where the light of a fire wouldn’t be seen. From his breast pocket he produced a lighter. He didn’t smoke, having considered the habit to be unhealthy, despite the denial of men he once knew. Those men were all gone now, not from their habit, but from the war. It made his resisting the practice feel somewhat silly. What concern for health, in that place, in that time?
Shaking his head, he lit some hay and worked the wood until he had a small but warming fire glowing before him. The crackling embers startled him, their little pops seeming like thunder in the perfect quiet of the night. Soon enough he adjusted, the way he knew people could always adjust, one way or another, to their surroundings.
The thought forced his gaze to the lighter in his gloved hand. The metal case was engraved, and he rubbed it clean with his thumb. He didn’t understand the words—they were in the local tongue—but he knew well enough it listed names, a date, and a town. After several moments he frowned, reaching inside his coat to pull out two worn pictures, both folded in half. In his typical fashion he ran a finger around the folded edges of the pictures, familiarity discerning one from the other. One picture he returned to his pocket; the other he opened to reveal a man and a woman in simple wedding attire before a small house. Handwritten at the bottom were a date and a town, matching the date and town on the lighter. It was a simple rural wedding, three years ago, to the day. He stared at the picture until he couldn’t stand its sight, returning both lighter and picture to his pocket.
He pulled off his gloves and put his face in his hands. He thought of his canteen, wishing it held something more potent than cold water, kept from freezing only by the heat it leeched from his body. Wrapping his arms about his chest, he ignored the rumbling of his hunger and slumped against the rough wall behind him, stretching his feet out toward the fire and using the thickness of his knit hat as a pillow. The stars peered down at him, remote and dim, from a rare break in the overcast night sky.
His eyelids drooped as sleep neared. Instead of slumber he found himself in the stupor of his memories, cursed from sleep by both the painful memory of the warm star-filled nights he once knew and the barren darkness he came to occupy. It was the source of the cancerous lethargy that had subverted him, reducing him from a promising, vibrant junior officer to an undead relic discarded as a body reclamation driver.
So much waste. He thought of his past, not in a personal sense, so as to insulate himself, but rather as a simple story. He had possessed good humor, was even told he was witty, and had enjoyed the workings of a quick, clear mind, complimenting rather than conflicting with the wild sways of his young passions. His life was free of turmoil; charmed was the word he often heard. From childhood it settled deep within him that the world was his plaything, warm and welcoming, and willing to excuse any blunder. The ideals behind the war appealed to his high-minded zeal, ignorant with its innocence. Nevertheless, he managed to sway his childhood friends to join him in the gathering recruitment calls. Their subsequent deaths he now counted among his worst sins. Yet, in the beginning, he didn’t fear the violence, nor was he stunned by the shock of war. Instead, he seemed to feed on it, to swell from the bloat of all human excesses and experiences around him, until his own inevitable implosion. For the disastrous spark that had burned his emotional self to a charred husk came from a source he never expected, had never considered in his blind arrogance and reckless confidence. Death, pervasive and insidious, caring little for borders, waited; waited with maddening patience to pounce on any unsuspecting fool.
And he had been such a fool, a fool of fools.
Nevertheless, it was over, and he became what he considered an echo of his former self, a hollow, mocking reverberation of the source. What hadn’t been consumed of him in the funerary pyre of his emotions lingered, only to be obliterated by the unseen whiplash at the tail end of his ignorant contempt. Where he only knew exuberance, exhilaration and optimism, he was leveled with lethargy, indifference and pessimism.
The deeper his collapse grew, the greater his withdrawal from the convenient, tinted and tainted world of his perceptions. Where he was once popular and well received, he became one to avoid, one ostracized. The men of his command came to hate him, and fellow and superior officers, at first critical of his behavior, soon grew disgusted with him. He didn’t resent it, but took it as accepted and understood. He was no longer part of their world, or part of his old world, for death and despair clung to him. Even though he walked and breathed and, on rare occasion, uttered a word or two, he belonged more to his new world, the world of waste and ruin.
In that world, he found it a bitter work of irony that the particular lighter he came to possess would set a fire to save him from freezing to death on the night of his desertion.
Clouds came. The stars winked out one by one.
He rose in the twilight, stomping out his little fire before the smoke could be seen, only to pursue his course from the previous afternoon. In short time he paced over several rolling hills until he came to another road, less used, but torn with deep gullies from the last thaw’s frigid rains. The sky above remained a heavy leaden gray that spoke of certain snow. Keeping his focus forward he followed the road, passing a decrepit town marker. He knew the town’s name; it matched that on the lighter and picture.
Traversing a slow rise in the land he followed a turn in the road to reveal a loose cluster of farmhouses about a narrow, winding creek. If it was once tranquil and picturesque, it was now dismal and foreboding. The farmhouses were all in various states of disrepair, the fields were pockmarked with shell craters, the winding creek was a frozen spillway of dark mud, and the little stone walls separating some of the fields were toppled.
As he trudged along the road he peered between his misting breaths to survey the houses, having little trouble discerning the one that was in the background of the marriage picture. What he saw of that house was much different. The bloom of spring was inconceivable, and the heavy frigid silence of the air ridiculed any idea of warmth. Nevertheless, he pressed toward the house, his gaze darting to either side to catch the furtive glances of the remaining town dwellers. He felt no fear, even as an unarmed foreign soldier in their midst, forgetting his memories of similar towns where he had treated the local people with contempt for their simple life, where he gave little thought to appropriation of supplies and dwellings as an occupying force. His army’s occupation of a town—‘liberation’, as he had been taught to think—always earned a short-lived welcome.
Those were old sins, though, of a different life, and he was a different person. He was a footsore, frozen straggler. Not him, and yet still him.
He halted at the door of the house, fighting to unravel his arms from their constrictive wrap of his chest to knock on the heavy wooden door. The windows were shuttered against the cold, and no doubt the glass was long broken, stolen, or bartered. A thin wisp of smoke rose from the chimney at one end of the small house. He could imagine what anyone inside would think of him. He was gaunt, unshaven, caked with field filth, his empty gaze burning in his eye sockets. His lone, unarmed presence confirmed the obvious suspicion that he was a deserter.
After some hesitation the door opened a crack, and he was met by the drawn face and silvery beard of a balding, old man. The elder’s eyes narrowed on him, studying him, the elder shifting to make clear the length of an old rifle, held in the crook of the elder’s arm. There was a single tip of the man’s chin, and the message was clear enough: Go away.
As a deserter from a foreign army, there was no reason to expect sympathy, nor hospitality. But he was humbled by his reality, and conveyed it the only way he could figure, given that in his former complacency he never bothered to learn the local tongue. He put a hand on his chest and gathered his voice. “Henry,” he croaked, but then cleared his throat, and repeated his name. Then he reached into his coat with trembling hands to produce the old wedding picture. Keeping it folded, he pointed to the bride.
The elder, perhaps her father, studied the picture, his bushy brows settling before his dark gaze rose to Henry. The elder looked over his shoulder and said something.
Another voice replied. It was a woman’s voice.
She emerged from the shadows, her face poking out beside the elder’s shoulder. Henry at once recognized her as the bride from the picture. She was thinner, and the glow of her eyes, which he had so often studied, had faded. She looked to the picture, and her rapid blink spoke of some expectation Henry was certain he was soon to disappoint. He extended his arm, but she snatched the picture, unfolding it and devouring it with her eyes before pressing it to her chest. She looked up to him and blurted several quick questions, to which Henry could only shake his head. She spoke with some urgency to the old man. The elder, scratching at his silvery beard, and with clear reluctance, opened the door for Henry to enter.
The house was cramped and tiny, but the details of a subsistent existence were lost in the dancing shadows of a meager fire. With a quick nod to her and the elder he sank to his knees before the fireplace, closing his eyes before opening his hands to receive the thawing warmth of the flames. After several moments he opened his eyes and peered over his shoulder to find her watching him, keeping her back to a rough wood table. Two stools were at either end of the table. A small basket with bundled blankets sat atop the table. The elder, his gaze fixed on Henry, settled on one of the stools, his hand still on the rifle as he rested its length across his lap. The woman glanced at the basket before shifting to hide it with her body.
Henry shook his head and held his open hands before his chest. The palpable prospect of his being a thief, given his wretched state, and the past behavior of the army from which he had deserted, seemed to ease somewhat between the meek look of his eyes and the slow tap of the elder’s leathery finger on the trigger guard of the rifle. The elder turned to the woman and gave a small nod. She took the other stool and set it before Henry.
Only then did he lower his hands, nodding his gratitude. Grunting against the stiffness of his legs he sat on the stool, surprised as she stood across the hearth from him. She began to speak, but he shook his head, understanding none of what she said. She relented, but then pointed to a small pot set on a rack over the fire before gesturing the spooning of soup. He nodded, but his guilt swelled as he watched her spoon out a watery brown mess into a simple bowl. She offered it to him. His hunger took over, and he forced the soup down despite its burning heat.
After several sips from the bowl he realized she was watching him, and the guilt rose higher. More than ever, he felt himself a contemptible thief, but rivaling that swelled another temptation, one at once so seductive and vile that he was willing to surrender to its calling, the call to fill the emptiness of the house, to supplant the elder and rediscover his own youthful vitality. It would be a humble existence, but Henry was a humbled man, and it wouldn’t be the first time servile humility had served as redemption. A slower, yet stronger, impulse saved him from that damning shamelessness. He clung to the last shred of humanity he possessed, the dignity held in a tattered semblance of honesty.
He stood and made to put his bowl on the table. He froze when she bolted and the elder slapped his hands on the rifle. Henry turned to look at her wide-eyed gaze on him, but then he looked back to the table, to the basket, only to see an infant’s peaceful sleeping face nestled in the blankets.
The bowl fell from his hand to clatter on the stone floor.
The elder held a steady gaze on Henry, but his bony hands eased on the rifle.
The baby stirred. The woman stepped to the table to pick up her child and cradle it to her chest. Henry pushed his stool over to her side of the hearth, to which she smiled before sitting. He watched her rock on the stool, and cupped his hand over his mouth as he sank to his knees. He felt his eyes well up and fought hard not to crumble, but there was no hiding the devastation in his eyes. She looked to the elder, and then to Henry, her eyebrows falling in curiosity until he reached into his pocket and produced the other picture. Her eyes filled with pity, but she stared at him for a long time after he put the picture away, watching him with his face in his hands as he stared at the fire.
She nudged his boot with her foot, drawing his attention from the fire. The baby was fast asleep again. She shifted her stool closer with her other foot, and leaned toward him so he could look upon her child. He gazed at the little face, and the pain that seared him was at once so welcome and so bitter he gasped. He squeezed his eyes shut to hold back his tears.
Without looking at her he reached into his coat. Hands trembling, eyes downcast in the filth of his shame, he produced the lighter and offered it to her in his open hands.
It was quiet for several moments, but when he opened his eyes he saw her outstretched hand frozen before her, her lips quivering. She took the lighter, clutching its silvery body in her hand as her gaze settled on him.
When the elder realized what she held, he stood, his hands constricting on the rifle.
Her voice returned, tight and low as she forced out several words. He didn’t need to understand her question, and the horror restrained just beneath. Was the picture given to him as some message? Had her groom parted with the lighter, a gift of exceptional value, given the simplicity of their pastoral life? Or, had Henry, this ragged deserter before her, found these two things—worse, had he taken them? Had she just offered him warmth, sympathy, the comfort of her child, when he was the one who had threatened the very existence of those things?
He dropped his hands. With his head still bowed, he let his silence answer her. What was he to say? How could he confess, and would it justify what he had done? Would it excuse him in her eyes?
Her answers, as he imagined them, her disavowals, were the final hammer blows of that slow, invisible hand of eternal justice he felt he’d summoned upon himself. One night, in the dark confusion of battle, he shot this woman’s husband as the man tried to surrender. The first hammer blow came several mornings later while he stared at the wedding picture and played with the lighter, only to learn the undoing of his own existence. The heartless, cruel leveling of life’s frailty struck him not on the field of battle where he knew Death was ever-present. Instead, it impaled him in the fold of his greatest vulnerability and his only refuge from the madness around him. His wife, his child—the infant he knew only as a picture—were consumed as his house had burned down in the far away night of home. Lightning had struck during a storm, he was told, a bolt that tore through time, space, and circumstance to skewer both him and the unknown man he had killed.
There was no sense to it, only waste. He wept with the madness of it, and his tears burned like hot acid.
Cold tendrils of air crept around him. He opened his eyes to see her peering from behind the open door, her child nestled to her shoulder, her shoulder turned away from him. The elder stood over him. Despite the level of the rifle barrel to Henry’s head, the elder’s face was full of sorrow, the sorrow only wisdom could afford. Henry nodded, understanding that he must go. He reached into the collar of his frayed coat, yanked loose the necklace with his dog tags, and tossed them in the fire. Then he set his jaw, nodding once more before struggling to gain his feet. To his surprise the elder grabbed his collar and hoisted him to a full stance with surprising strength. When Henry looked to the man’s eyes, though, the elder only frowned, and the helping hand turned into an abrupt, but not quite so forceful, shove.
Henry shuffled to the door. When he looked to the woman, he met an opaque gaze of wide-eyed outrage. He lowered his head and stepped out. The door slammed behind him.
He lingered. He heard the door open. He closed his eyes, expecting the elder to shoot him. The moments mounted, but the shot never came. He looked over his shoulder. The elder stood in the doorway, rifle pointed, his rigid finger held away from the trigger. The elder lowered the rifle then, the balance of wisdom stilling him. He held steady before waving the rifle for Henry to leave.
The door closed.
Henry looked up. The sky was loosing its burden, the gray wash of clouds seeping to the ground in a torrent of snow. The flakes as well seemed gray beneath that featureless sky, falling thick and heavy. They would soon blanket the land, a blanket that would cover the waste and ruin.
Henry decided it would be a fitting shroud. He blinked and wrapped his arms about his chest as the cold pierced him. His feet moved beneath him, carrying him through the falling snow toward the rolling hills. It would be his last walk, he knew. He chose anonymity in that gray expanse, and found his rest, far from dark pits and little crosses.