Rain poured in torrents. The merciless winds knifed through the swarm of soldiers. A clamour of shrapnel erupted far off from a distant landmine. Soon, they too would be travelling down that same fate forged path. Flights of bullets streaked the silence of the air. Rifles clenched by quivering hands, as sacred as the letters they’d crammed in khaki pockets, a guilty comfort. The vicious gales struck rain against their mud-stained faces, masking the droplets of grief flowing down their cheeks.
His heart pounded in his chest. He looked down at his palms, blotted with sweat, his shoes, stained with dirt and blood, his clothes, worn and torn, telling the tales of battles won and lost. “What are we doing here?” – his mind was plagued with thoughts of death, honour, dignity, death. In the distance, he could see the horizon lined with trees and grass, stretching endlessly beyond the battlefield, an oasis compared to the ditch in which they were crouched. He waited. He waited to fulfil his death-marked duty. He waited until commands were given. His thoughts dwelled on family meals, Christmas time, the warmth near the fireplace – all dropped like luxuries – was this really worth it?
* * *
A mass of onlookers gathered near the platform, an array of red, white and blue flags waving goodbye, as mothers masked their grief with a steely expression of pride. After all, they were the pride of the nation. Sunlight leaked through the windows of the train, and maybe, there was a futile hope that they’d return to see their families, as heroes. He reached out through the window, tightly grasping his mother’s soft palms as the whistle was blown, unwilling to let go. Tears brimmed in her eyes as she forced composure, knowing that an outpouring of grief would consume her as she’d travel home and release the songbird within her. The grip of their palms loosened and a bustle ensued as the train prepared for departure. He slumped back into his seat and touched the poppy that was pinned to his lapel, avoiding any eye contact with his mother who yearned to take him back home. But she knew he had to fulfil his duty. The crowd erupted into cheers once more, flags waving back and forth as the train began to move, the future overflowing like a treasure chest.
* * *
Silence emanated the atmosphere as they waited for the final order. His body quivered like a leaf in the autumn as he longed for an escape. He looked into the distance once more, catching a final glimpse of the line of trees before him, branches outstretched like hands, beckoning him to alter his fate. “Carlton!” An echo of panicked voices melted into the cacophonous silence as his mind narrowed towards one goal: freedom. In a split second, a stampede of weakened legs hauled themselves towards no man’s land. A fury of screams and cries erupted. A scene of devastation unfolded, bodies instantly tossed to the ground like rag dolls, spasms of red, as explosions strangled the air, concocting into flames and scorching heat. Soldiers scrambled closer to death. But his legs were frozen. His hands no longer clenched his rifle. And whilst a hundred agonies and cries resounded through his mind, his stare remained fixed upon the horizon, which remained untouched by death, blood, terror. And then he realised, this was his chance.
Suddenly he awoke and was running, as he took one last glance back at the battlefield where bodies were left lifeless. No honour. No value. Just corpses that would soon rot. And he turned his back to it all. Rifle plummeting to the ground. Death shrinking behind him, disguised by the petrified voices of his comrades, shrieking his name as he darted towards the distant oasis of trees and fields, cowardice plaguing his thoughts.
It was too late to turn back. He couldn’t. He didn’t want to. Eventually reaching the open field, breathless, his legs collapsed into the comfort of the long strands of grass, releasing a heavy sigh. He had made it. A feeling of relief engulfed him. He looked around the verdant landscape – no life, no bullets, no screams, no blood. Just silence. But it wasn’t the ‘peaceful’ sort of silence. It was one that rung in his ears. One which forced him to think of his dying comrades, lying lifelessly: a fate which he had cheated. The warmth of the air was slowly negated by a bitter, cold breeze. The wind howled as leaves fluttered and tossed, leaving the branches barren and bare, inviting a maddening chorus of crows. And he sat there, all alone, while they turned back to their dying.