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The Black Poppy
The pen zoomed across a page so spotted with mud he wondered if it would even be legible. He had time to write another, if, by the time he was done, it looked to be unreadable. Having the time didn’t mean he had the paper. His eyes danced from his paper to that of the boy’s next to him. His sheets were pristine. How was that possible? Filth was all around them… He went back to writing, cursing under his breath as the tip of his battered fountain pen plunged through his sheet.
“Psst. Hey.” Something smacked him on the head, landing in his lap. He looked down and spied a parcel wrapped in grimy brown paper. Cocking a brow, he looked up at the soldier across from him who sat grinning in a self satisfied way. “Open it. I seen you eyin’ some paper, figure you might be out. Gimme about half, keep the rest.” After a moment, he nodded, digging out his share of the paper and giving the rest over.
“Yeah. Sure. Just trade me something for it.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
“Like that pair of clean socks you got stashed away somewhere,” Thomas said quietly, shrugging. He crossed his arms and tilted his helmet down over his eyes. “Your mother send you those extra socks, Johnny?”
“No. Just haven’t worn them,” Jonathan muttered, digging around in his pack to find the pair. He wore his socks as long as possible before changing them. It was based on the principle that having clean socks to wear would somehow keep him going. There wasn’t a lot of time to change socks in a trench, either. His fingers wrapped around the heavy woolen material, and he chucked them over at Thomas Riley, laughing quietly as they glanced off the helmet and bounced into the young man’s lap. Jonathan Alexander tucked away the new paper and the letter he’d been writing, resting his pack against the wall of the trench along with his head, his eyes watching the clouds drift lazily amongst a sea of cerulean sky.
“Why’d you join this thing? You get drafted?”
Jonathan sighed and turned his eyes toward Thomas, thinking. He hadn’t been drafted, and he hadn’t exactly joined willingly. It had been his father who had made up his mind for him. He seemed to think it was noble to die for your country, seemed to think that having a son in the military made him better somehow. Jonathan seemed to think having a son in the military made his father feel better about himself. Like he was helping the cause.
“My father,” Jonathan said quietly, his voice holding a note of finality. Thomas picked up on it and nodded.
“Huh. I got drafted. You think if we had had a choice…we would have stayed out of this?”
“I dunno. I don’t think we could have if we’d tried. This war sucks you in; it makes the outsiders rally, the insiders depressed.”
“I read it in the dirt over there. That Irish guy’s writing poetry again.” Jonathan grinned before tilting his helmet down again, shrugging his shoulders. “Just because the guy’s crazy, doesn’t mean whatever he wrote wasn’t true.”
The sky which had once been dark burst into light before him, causing a scream of fright to issue from his trembling lips. He’d drifted off in a doze, thinking about the streets of his hometown in the fall, how the leaves fell in blankets that rivaled the snow. He looked at his hands, checking himself for any wounds. A piece of shrapnel has glanced off of his palm, and what felt like his cheek. He looked around him at the men gathering together and collectively firing back. He caught Thomas’ eye and stared at him, watching him mount his gun on the sandbags and fire.
“Get up, Jonathan! Don’t just sit there! Get up!”
Mutely, he stood and unslung his gun. He felt trapped in slow motion, seeing flashes of light from mortars skew his comrades, making their actions slower and slower. He looked down at his feet to grab his helmet that had somehow fallen off with his fright. In the insubstantial light he saw his pant leg slowly, agonizingly, soak through with crimson. He dropped his gun as well as his jaw, his gray hues searching out his friend. Thomas flickered a glance at him, shouting for someone to help Jonathan. Did he need help? He wasn’t sure… He felt a deep, clear fluttering in his stomach that meant faintness or queasiness. He turned and stumbled into the middle of the narrow trench, emptying the contents of his stomach onto the mixture of sand, mud, and what looked like a pile of spit chewing tobacco.
“Jonathan! Steady yourself and get over here!”
He could barely hear Thomas. His ears felt stuffed with cotton, his legs replaced with gelatinous mess. He turned and tripped over his pack, landing with his face in the mud. He closed his eyes and became deaf to the world.
He felt smothered. His fingers closed over the heavy woolen military blanket covering his face. Light flashed in his eyes, and instantly he froze. Was the attack still happening? Had someone covered him, thinking him dead? Tentatively, he uncovered his face again and opened his eyes. Sunlight blazed before him. He tossed the blanket off of him and looked to Thomas’ accustomed spot across from him. He sat sharpening his pocket knife, watching Jonathan. He stayed silent and kept sharpening, the sound of grating metal becoming methodical and almost painful to hear. He looked down at his leg, seeing a hurried bandage.
“You didn’t lose too much blood, you know,” Thomas muttered. “Not enough to make you collapse like that. Coulda kept fighting.” The metal grated again and Jonathan winced. “You got scared, I know you did. Doesn’t mean you can just flop down whenever the hell you feel like it.” Sssp. Sssp. Sssp. The knife connected with the sharpening tool. Over and over. Jonathan winced his eyes shut. “The attack didn’t last long. Next time it could be longer. Next time it could mean something. If it had, who knows what would have happened with you out cold, lying in your own sick.” So that hadn’t been mud. Sssp. Sssp. Sssp-
“Stop it!” he said loudly, getting brutal stares from the others. He sighed and banged the back of his head against the wall of the trench, causing dirt to crumble into his already filthy hair. Thomas stopped, tucking his knife and tool into his pack. He chewed the inside of his lip before speaking carefully.
“Alright. I’m just sayin’. Maybe one person don’t make a difference, maybe they do. I dunno. I don’t have a say in how the war goes, none of us do. Not even the officers. We just go on and do what we have to do to end this and go home. Sometimes that means dead or alive. I’m not perfectly fine with that….but if that’s the way it has to be, I guess I can live with that.”
“You can live with it? Dying away from home, in a strange place where everyone hates you and is out for your blood? I don’t like it, not a bit. If I had a choice-”
“If I did! If I did I’d be back home, running the little store we had. Nice set up. Plenty to occupy my time. I wouldn’t be sitting here in this filth, talking to you about dyin’ and sleeping in vomit.”
“We do have interesting conversations though, you have to admit that,” Thomas said with a grin. Jonathan laughed.
“Yeah? Doesn’t have to be that way. That crazy Irishman talks to himself all the time; bet if I was like him I’d have loads of interesting conversations with myself.”
“Ahh.” Thomas took out his morning cigarette and clamped it into his teeth, lighting a match with his thumbnail, a trick Jonathan had never been able to do. “Too bad ye ain’t Irish, then.”
A weird scuttling sound awakened him. He lay in the dirt halfway between wakefulness and sleep, trying to figure out the noise. When it paused, he shifted against the wall of the trench, making himself comfortable.
The scuttling persisted, causing his brows to scrunch in his sleep. He had limited time to sleep as it was; why was someone moving around like an idiot, causing a ruckus. It was bad enough he felt repulsive for not showering the past few weeks, let alone to be deprived of sleep…
Something with claws dug into his face. His eyes opened as well as his mouth, letting the clawed paw of the largest rat he’d ever seen sink into his mouth for a split second, before it scampered off of his face to drop beside his pack. He began to scream, spiting long strings of salvia into the dust beside him to rid himself of the taste of rotting flesh and garbage.
A hand clamped over his mouth.
“Shut up, shut up, shut up! You want to get us all killed?!” Thomas whispered furiously. He kicked the rat aside and dragged Jonathan farther away. He kept his hand fastened on his mouth even though Jonathan struggled. “Yeah, okay. A rat got on you. I get it. Calm down! Make too much noise, you get an air raid forced on us…or…or worse! Get yourself under control, or you could get us both into a heap of trouble.”
Slowly Jonathan became limp, taking Thomas’ hand from his mouth. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “I could get something…rabies….or-or worse-“
“Yeah? Wouldn’t kill you as fast as an air raid, would it? Wouldn’t kill all of us…”
Jonathan grinned without mirth. “So you do care about dying over here. Said you didn’t. What a great liar you are-“
“Of course I care about dying over here, are you insane?! Dying over here means rotting in hell. If the Germans don’t get my body, the rats will. You think I like thinking about that? You think I enjoy it here? I’m afraid. I just don’t show it as well as you do.”
“You’re saying I’m frightened of my own shadow, while you bravely go and do your duties.”
“Nah. I’m saying you’re frightened of rats like the rest of us. You‘re just more vocal. I dunno.” He smiled slightly and plopped down beside Jonathan. “Either way…we’re stuck here ‘til it ends, or we’re dead. Not much comfort in that, I’m afraid.”
“Yeah, well…,” Jonathan said, trailing. He shrugged after a moment and rested his head against the trench wall again, rubbing his lips. He could still hear the scuttling of rats behind him, far off in No Man’s Land, where they chucked their breakfast cans after eating. The rats were looking for spare bits of food. He supposed if they didn’t find any…they would dig into the many bodies stretched out across the barbed wire. He wondered why he had never noticed the sound before. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
His spoon clattered in his can, spooning meat into his hungry mouth. He finished quickly, and tossed the can over the sandbags, thinking back to the night before. He cringed, his body shaking for a minute. He licked his spoon clean and tucked it into his pack, taking out his letter again. He licked the tip of his battered fountain pen and thought.
So far while writing home, he had not mentioned a single thing about the conditions they were under. He had written that he was, obviously, still alive. He had asked after his mother, his sister. He never wrote much, and when his father replied…his replies were just as short. Somehow he felt disconnected to family life, and somehow he wasn’t sure how he’d be able to face his father (if he went home alive) and tell him the war had been a success (if it was…)
Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Thomas walking toward him, his hands stuffed inside his pockets, his head down. Frowning, Jonathan stuffed his letter back into his pack, and sat with his arms propped up on his knees. Thomas slowly made his way over and plunked down beside him, his arms now crossed. He opened his mouth to say something, but shut it.
“What is it?” Jonathan asked.
“The officers heard you screaming last night,” he said quietly.
“They also heard me yelling at you to stop.”
Thomas sighed and picked up a rock, chucking it to the other side of the trench. “They want us to patrol tonight.”
“Well, that isn’t so bad, right? Better than sitting around waiting for-“
“No, you don’t get it. They want us to patrol No Man’s Land. They said it hasn’t been patrolled in a week or so…and since we’re so bent on creating “unneeded stress and conspicuous noise”, we could learn from the patrol. You know, because if we alert the Germans…we’re done for.” They sat in silence for a moment, Jonathan trying to grasp the situation. They all knew about patrolling No Man’s Land. The place had to be silent; you had to be silent. One gunshot could trigger a barrage of machine gun fire. One false step and you could face the enemy patrol yourself. Only two choices came out of that meeting; you walked away, or you fought, hand to hand.
He did not want to be in that situation.
His breathing was panicked and harsh. He crawled underneath the barbed wire, reattaching piece after piece, taking shrapnel out of the earth in chunks just to do so. Thomas was a few yards ahead of him, skirting lifeless bodies in order to do his part as well. Jonathan picked himself up off of his stomach and sat in a low crouch, rubbing his forehead. His heart was beating a mile a minute, his breath getting even more ragged every moment. The threat of being attacked was enough to scare anyone. The added psychological impact of bodies littering every which way made it even worse, almost unbearable.
“Thomas,” he whispered, edging toward his companion. Thomas motioned for him to hurry up, pliers in his hand. As Jonathan neared, Thomas repaired the last bit of barbed wire in reach.
“What is it now?”
“I can’t do this. I have to go back. There’s too much….too many…and the smell…I can’t. I won’t. I-”
“Just because you aren’t like me, doesn’t mean-”
“No! Shut up, I think I hear something. Crouch lower!” Thomas whispered frantically, ducking down. Jonathan followed his lead, put peeked out from underneath his helmet. Not even a hundred yards away, two figures were walking and crouching at the same time. Their uniforms differed the ones he and Thomas wore, and they spoke in a rough language that was somehow powerful and melodic at the same time. He didn’t think that could have ever been possible…
As the men neared, Thomas began to get up. Jonathan tried to pull him down by the pant leg, but Thomas kicked out and loosened his grip. He kept in a crouch, moving against the barbed wire to an area with a multitude of corpses. Jonathan took a breath and followed him toward the bodies, noting that they had accumulated in a rough circle around a blackened and shrunken poppy. All but one of the petals had fallen from the flower, the last petal hanging on by a slim piece that still held a pinpoint of crimson.
Just as the German men neared, Thomas popped up and faced them. Jonathan did the same, standing beside his friend awkwardly. Silence fell over the four of them. One of the German fellows took to staring down Thomas, who was perfectly at ease to do the same. The other looked as if he wished to run away screaming. Jonathan kept his eyes on this one, who flickered glances at his partner in a way that suggested he was asking what he should do. The silence seemed to stretch on for eternity. He blinked for a second, his lids feeling heavy.
Thomas lunged and head butted the German, who spat a tooth to the side. Their tussle neared the blackened poppy. Just as Thomas was about to roll over it, the German grabbed his head. Jonathan watched in excruciatingly slow detail as the man twisted Thomas’ head to the side with a resounding crack, and Thomas fell limp, his hand outstretched toward the poppy.
The German stood, brushing himself off. He stared at Jonathan, who stood shell shocked and too numb to move. Without another word, the German turned and headed back the way the other soldier had run. He disappeared into the vast wasteland and the darkness moments later. Jonathan looked to Thomas, then to the poppy. He stepped over his friend’s body, and yanked the poppy up. The last petal fell, swooping back and forth through the air as it fell. Jonathan tucked the rest inside the lining of his jacket and headed back toward the trench amongst the scurrying of the rats.