The Great War
Red Collins opened his eyes just before dawn. It was still raining but at least the downpour had diminished to a fine drizzle. The thunder had ceased and Red was grateful for that. The sky-bursting crashes and flashes of bright lightning had become enemy shells in his fractured, fearful dreams. Even in sleep he couldn’t escape The War and the fatigued fear it brought. Red felt as if he’d been both nervous and exhausted for months. It was no way to live, even if all one wanted to do was live. The war inhabited his aching head so thoroughly that Red worried it would continue to rage there - howling and flashing - even after the last battle had been fought, even after he was safe at home.
If he even made it home. He was no longer as confident about surviving the ordeal as he had been at the start. How stupid he had been! How helplessly, hopelessly naive. He wanted to stab the horseshit romanticism of war in its black heart. Kill the evil lie.
He pushed himself to his feet. His comrades were still sleeping in that shallow, intermittent manner that they’d all mastered. Another habit he’d be bringing home with him after The War. How different would he seem to Mary and their daughter, Celeste? Celeste had been only 18 months old when he enlisted. Would she even remember him? The thought of walking back into his daughter’s life a complete stranger broke his heart. He hated the War, and he hated that the War was stealing so many of life’s little gifts from him. Gifts he’d never get back; fleeting little moments that fade and pass like steam from a teapot, often too quickly to seize.
He walked slowly along the length of the trench, the mud sucking at his boots.
He climbed a short set of sandbag stairs, and then four rungs of a wooden ladder. He looked out over the edge of the trench, at the dark flat expanse of puddles and mud. A silent burst of lightning flared in the distance, illuminating the scorched, bare-limbed trees of the Polygon Wood.
Red stood on the ladder and waited for this dismal, broken landscape to fill with light.
Grey fog arrived with the grey light of dawn. Red remained perched on the ladder, surveying the muddy plain. The only sound in the world was the crackle and churn in his head.
Then he heard a distant explosion. A last blast of thunder from the retreating storm perhaps? He waited, listening.
Then he saw the horizon move.
Like a soundless, breaking wave of slow ocean foam, it rushed at him, roiling and tumbling upon itself. A heavy, low-hanging cloud of pink smoke.
Gas! It was a gas attack! He turned and yelled, “Gas! Put on your P-helmets! It’s a gas attack!”
He turned back to the onrushing chemical cloud as it swept into the trench and he felt it fill his lungs. He coughed and clambered up the ladder.
Once out of the trench, he could breathe again. The thick vapor hugged the ground and swirled in slow pink eddies around his knees. He turned toward the trench and tried to warn the others again, but the strange gas had paralyzed his vocal cords and all he managed were a few wheezing gasps.
Red took three steps forward and the world tilted and spun. Needles of blue light skewered his vision. He lurched forward, swallowing deep inhalations of fresh air, trying to purge his lungs of the cotton candy gas.
The mud sucked at him, as if trying to drag him down into some black, worm-ridden underworld. Red felt as if he were attempting to flee a bad dream, wading through thick narcotic sludge.
And then the dream turned strange. He looked up as the sky opened like a smoked-glass lens sliding aside, revealing a domed ceiling of igneous rock. Red suddenly realized the entire sky had been a lie. The earth was a concave hollow, its core the surface.
He entered a grove of thin black trees hanging with what appeared to be pearls the size of apples. He plucked one and studied the strange, nacreous fruit. It was soft and smooth and the mere act of holding it left deep finger-sized impressions.
He bit into it. Warm juice spilled down his chin. He tried to define the taste. It was like the world’s most intense cotton candy eaten on the strange surface of an alien planet. Or something close to that.
As soon as he swallowed the sweet pulp, the cumbrous fear that had burdened him for months evaporated. It lifted like a curtain at the ballet. The sea-grey fog twisted around him like a warm, living blanket. Soft whispers and light floated through him. The fog raised him up and he floated on vaporous waves, his tissues dissipating and merging with the ethereal stream. He let himself be carried; evincing a trust he thought The War had robbed from him.
The fog released him at the edge of a pond - a thick black pond, shining with a miasma of colors like an oil slick.
A hunchbacked gnome, dressed in muddy rags, watched him from the other side. Red waved. The gnome didn’t wave back.
Red picked up a white rock and tossed it into the pond. It splashed soundlessly into the water, sending expanding rings rippling across the surface. When the perimeter of the first ring landed on the shoreline, Red felt a sudden drag of apprehension. Something was coming.
He bent down to look for another stone - a flat one that he could skip across the surface.
Something shiny caught his eye. Be squatted on his haunches and picked it up. It was a gold coin, about the size of a pound and heavy, its edges roughly forged and worn. On one side, a lion with two horns reared up, surrounded by a cross-hatched background of what looked like wheat. Beneath the lion were the words, Ultra Diluculo Quod Nox Noctis. The U’s looked like V’s.
The other side had been etched with the image of a slender tree hanging with round fruit. There was no date, no country of origin.
He slipped it into his pocket.
The hunchbacked gnome had vanished. The rings he’d triggered in the pond were still multiplying, beating against the shore in silent black waves.
He felt and heard a churning beneath his feet. He stepped back and looked down.
A small, mud-crusted hand pushed its way out of the ground in front of him.
He stepped back again.
Another hand groped up from the mud. Then another. And another. Soon dozens of tiny arms were flopping and clawing out of the mud like huge, Hell-birthed worms. Red felt something change inside him. Like sudden sickness he experienced a strange and desperate craving in the center of his chest. Like hunger but more. Like love but more. Like fear but more. He wondered if this was death, finally. He felt as if his heart were in danger of exploding out of his chest.
Bulbous misshapen heads appeared, rising from the mud. Small faces covered by masks of muck, rose like sprouting seedlings and soon the shore was crowded with pudgy, mud-covered children. They stood as silent and still as a military regiment at attention. They had no eyes. They didn’t breathe. They had no navels or genitals.
And Red felt nothing but love for them.
“My children,” he said and then they were upon him, arms extended, smiling warmly with thin, slitted mouths.
Red opened his eyes at dusk. He had curled into a shivering fetal ball behind a barbed-wire entanglement.
He struggled to his feet. The sky was still clouded and the world was quiet. He started slogging through the mud, back toward the trenches. The pink fog had dissipated.
His tongue still tasted of cotton candy.
He climbed down the wooden ladder and came upon bloody and frozen illusions; a twisted, muddy daisy-chain of broken limbs and fear-filled expressions. Raw meat and bone. All dead.
The cotton candy gas had made them crazy and the Germans made them dead.
A gas that turned the world into an illusion. What a dreadful invention. Red was convinced that war spawned only evil ideas.
Red dropped his weary weight on a pile of sandbags and looked at the blind, grotesque faces of his comrades.
Then he felt in his pocket and brought out the coin.
And looking at it, he couldn’t help laughing.
He suddenly knew where it had been forged and what its true value was.
He laughed. He had the golden ticket, the brass ring. A booked reservation for the vast madness that surged beyond the illusion of the stars.
He laughed. And when they found him, he was laughing still.