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The Bird-Watcher's Brother
Your limbs spasm as the raw, relentless wind lashes against your back – scratching down your spine like nails on a blackboard. You wince and grit your teeth: watching the oily twirls of scarlet and ebony, like marble, around your feet billow with each gust. The stench of decaying filth is all around you – the ragged limbs strewn across the battlefield, and the mangled faces staring up through blank eyes. Your trembling fingers reach down in front of you, to fumble for your rifle, and you can feel its cold, heartless body: gritty with grime beneath your fingertips. Above you, shells scream and the endless rattle of machine gun fire punches out a disjointed rhythm above the low roaring of bombs. Poppies dance. Like a choir; deranged voices cry out all around you:
“Oh God, help me! Please dear God save me…”
“Soldier… get up, please get up. Harvey… please, Harvey, open your eyes mate…”
“Jesus, where’s my rifle? Jesus Christ WHERE’S MY BLOODY RIFLE...”
A blinding wail jolts your dark eyes back into focus, as they shift into an animalistic state of wild fear utterly stripped of all rational thought. You hear a screech. Your head whips up. And you watch as a crow soars ahead. It is a strange and eerie sight – a bird in the middle of a battlefield – and your streaked face gapes up in awe. The bird ascends – its inky body vivid against the stark, white sky lit with shellfire. You watch it swoop over the hedge of barbed wire about half a mile away, before it disappears from sight. As your tormented eyes are drawn unwillingly back to the chaos surrounding you, they suddenly notice one particularly lacerated form a few yards away. No… Your eyes swell as you lurch to your feet, and stumble – using the length of your rifle for support – across the torn field towards the terribly unfortunate sight.
The… the pain… oh G-God the pain… I can’t feel, no wait I can fee- no, no, no MAKE IT STOP. All I can… remember is seeing…something, tearing through the sky above me. It made this low drone like a siren, like it was warning me – run. Only… only I couldn’t. I just crouched there in the shelter while this... over-bearing, black monstrosity fell right beside me. My whole body felt like it was being ripped apart, from my fingers to my ribs. When the dust settled, I was left there – my ruined body tossed into a ditch of mud, which brings me to where I am now. I open my tattered eyes and look dow– where is it? WHERE THE HELL IS MY ARM?
You saw him. You saw his bloodstained, hacked up body lying – twitching – a few yards away. A minute ago a shell had fallen there – the shell that had thrown you off your feet and left you disorientated and breathless. You trip over a hanging arm in the mud as you scramble toward him… your little brother. Your little brother who just ten minutes ago you’d stood by as you said,
“This is it… over the top. Don’t worry Will, I’ve got your back. I’ll be right here.”
Your little brother who just a year ago spent his sixteenth summer with you wading through a river in North Yorkshire under the glimmering sun. After, you sat together under the shade of a maple, as honeysuckle grew around and as brambles sewed themselves to your lolling bodies, and there you watched as a bird humbly gathered twigs and leaves for its nest. Your little William… You are nearly beside him now, and the shrill fanfare of ammunition announces your arrival. Your war-stained hand reaches out to him, as your knees buckle in the mud. You feel only an undisputable, agonized wretchedness as you see him. A flash of shell-fire from above illuminates his deformed features – a snapped nose, a burst, trembling lip – but by far the most prominent amongst them were the two, silvery blue, terrified eyes glaring up at you.
“W-Will… no, no,” you drop your rifle and grab frantically at his chest and neck, “Oh God, no… Will it’s me - I’m here!”
The diaphanous eyes dart around your face, as light flashes off the seen of crimson blood slashed across the now hollow cheeks. The scene before you is an evil mockery of your precious memories. Will tries to clamber up out of the ruptured bodies and shattered limbs just like he was a year ago; trying to get out of the river onto the muddy bank. His success is limited by the fact that he has now only one arm and two splintered legs to call a body. He stops – wheezing.
“Frank,” the mouth with blood dripping from it says, “I-I’m so cold.”
You sit there for a moment – both trying to find the right words amongst Slaughter’s brutish massacre. The younger one between you uses his hand – his only hand – to clutch at yours whilst spewing some kind of prattle about his arm. A shell falls. You nod and leave the twisted body to run your hands through the foul, lumpy mud amongst the odd dash of red poppy in search of something. Eventually your fingers grasp at fingers, and you lift the smeared limb out of the dirt, taking it to its owner - you had tripped over it merely a moment ago. The mangled boy sees it. And he shrieks. The hand grabs for its brother as the baby blue eyes become frantic and the bloody lips quiver and sob.
“My arm! W-why is it not on me?” the boy wails as he hits the lifeless thing on the hard mud beside him, “WHY CAN’T I FEEL THIS?”
“It’s going to be okay, Will,” you stutter, “I promise I’m going to get you home.”
You watch your brother weep pitifully: desperately thumping the limb against the stump where it used to be, tears streaming down his 16-summer face.
In desperation, your hands fumble under the young boy’s arms as you attempt to heave his body away. He continues to struggle in defiance with his arm and its former stump as he is dragged over corpses, mud-mounds, shell casings, hacked poppy faces, and blasted identity tags. You finally trail him into an abandoned trench, marooned, and away from the butchering shells. The deafening booms become soft echoes… wailing screams become gentle whispers… brutal artillery fire becomes broken metronome beats.
My arm… why won’t it just go back? It was there just a moment ago, and I could move my fingers and twist my wrist but WHY CAN’T I NOW. I am so lost. I do not understand. I do not even know what is mine anymore… I do not know where I am.
“Frank…” I mumble. He comes into my line of view, panting, from behind me. I feel the anguish of this execrable, murderous war shatter as he heaves my now vile body against his chest and cradles my broken frame. My head falls against his chest as the tears trickle out one by one. Our brotherly bodies heave and shudder in unity as we cry and cry and cry. The salty tears run down our vulgar, wax-like faces as we cling to each other – family.
“I’m, so sorry Will,” he cries, “I was supposed to protect you – I-I promised. That’s what Ma said… didn’t she Will? She said now don’t you be going and leaving each other now – you two brothers – got to look out for one another.”
“Frankie, it don’t matter now,” I say, shoving a quavering hand down into my pocket, “but this does.”
You stare at the shaking piece of tattered paper in his hand – its once clean, smooth surface now engraved with the vulgar elements of war. It holds in its lines the words that would liberate your Mother – the simple words that would let her fears die with him, but her sorrows live forever.
“No, Will. I won’t take it,” your voice breaks and cracks with emotion. “Put it back, it isn’t time yet, Will. It isn’t time.”
His wisely youthful eyes look up at you through lashed clumped with tears. Your face is contorted with pain – scrunched up with a child’s scorn. Blast this damned war, you think. BLAST IT ALL TO HELL AND BACK.
“Frankie, you know as well as I do that it’s t-time,” his chattering teeth try to string together a smile, and though it is heartfelt it is smeared by the fact that he can no longer control the disintegrating condition within him. His eyes twitch. His hand holding the letter is quivering – his other lying, discarded, on the mud – and tremors tear through his body. You stare for the final time into your brother’s eyes, as you take the letter from him. Your mouth trembles before it distorts into a vulgar shape, as a moan escapes it – like that of an injured animal. No… no they can’t take him from me, you think, almost pleading.
“I l-love you, Will,” you whimper, still clinging to your brother.
“Don’t worry, Frankie, it’ll all be okay. You will… get out o' and go see Ma again. But tell her – tell her I love her alright.”
You cannot manage words, not even the unutterable ‘Goodbye’, so you merely force your head up and down in a distressed nod as you try to contain the leaking sorrow by biting your lip.
“Frankie…” the dying boy stammers, “Do you think D-Dad’s proud of me?”
A despairing sob leaks form your lips at your sibling’s words of innocent hope.
“Yes, Will. I know he is.”
The dying body issues a final, feeble smile – a splutter of scarlet blood choking out - then slumps against its brother. The harsh crack of nature’s whip slashes against the corpse as a blast of wind that carries away what ever was no longer needed.
At last. It is over… lost. Complete. And I am free.
Your fingers grip so tightly to the lifeless body in your arms – so tightly that your bleached-white knuckles strain to the very bones within them. Your shaking shoulders cave in, and you hold his slashed face against your bloody cheek. You frantically, feverishly stroke the matted hair beneath the splintered helmet, whilst your heart-rending shrieks cry out across the wailing battlefield, and as the uncontrollable sorrow consumes you. From a distance – a crow screeches.
For this is not the conquest of faithful devotion, nor the gallant sacrifice as some may say it is; but these are the cruelest fractures of perception – and they are our reality.