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Dear Bobby,

Three days ago we arrived at the place we’re supposed to get “hardened.” It was late twilight and we were marching in file when Miller and another officer came galloping by, barking, “Off the road. Keep moving.”

When the horses had passed and it got quiet again, I could hear it: a low, far-off rumble—as full of threat as a coming Texas thunderstorm.

Riddell raised his head like he was sniffing the wind. “Shelling.”

Foy turned, his pallid face a glimmer. “Gor.”

“Keep marching,” Riddell said.

It was near dark by the time we saw it, the fire through the trees. Lieutenant told us to put our packs down and take a rest. LeBlanc leaned against a tree and took out his smokes. I snuck higher up the hill to watch, and most of the others came up with me. I lay there in the sweet-smelling grass, the earth quivering under me; and every time there was a bright air burst, we made Fourth of July noises.

It’s beautiful from a distance, war. Artillery glittered and sparked along the horizon. The strikes struck cloud-high blossoms of fire. Green flares sailed the night like drowsy fireflies.

I heard Abner Foy say, “I wouldn’t be afraid, not me.”

Then Riddell’s laconic “Shit your britches first time in a shelling. Or piss ’em. No shame to it, man. They all do.”

Foy again, in his mosquito-thin tenor. “Not me.”

Riddell’s soft “Well, still. I shit mine, didn’t I.”

No one spoke after that. From our safe perch, we watched the goings-on. I put my head on my arms and, despite the show, went to sleep. I dreamed you and me were in the house, Bobby. Outside, dark clouds were rolling in and daylight was failing and the afternoon was turning green. The air was hushed, breathless, and as heavy as water. I looked for Ma, running from room to empty room. I couldn’t find her. When I turned around, you weren’t there, either. There was a cyclone coming.


Travis Lee

* * *


Dear Bobby,

The next day we spent in a real barracks, and that night we marched a long ways across the pockmarked earth—cussing the dark and stumbling—to go down into our first trench.

I knew we’d arrived when a call rang out, “Green troops coming.”

The sky was overcast. No starlight from above, no cookfires nor companionable lights from below. Going down in that trench was like walking into my own grave. “Care with the firestep, boys,” an unfamiliar voice said.

The trench stank of dead rats and burned charcoal and old cigarettes. I hit bottom and slid in mud. Wet squished into my open shoes. Another step, and I was on the dry plateau of a duckboard. I groped for the nearest wall and found something soft instead.

“Watch the hands, lad,” a voice chuckled. “Only me wife has permission to grab that.”

I moved away, sliding in mud again, tripping over someone’s pack.

“What platoon?” another voice cried out.

Foy’s whispered “Fourteenth” struck up an answering chorus of laughter.

“No use being quiet now, is there? And the Boche miles away.”

Then from the gloom, an educated voice. An officer’s voice. “Fourteenth? You here?”

“Aye, sir. Lieutenant McPhearson here with the Fourteenth.”

“Ah. Good, Subaltern. Excellent. Corporal Jeffers will lead you to the front line.”

I heard Foy say, startled, “Front?”

Heavy footsteps clattered along the duckboards; and an answer came, too—unexpectedly close. “They gives the posh duty to the new troops, they does. Everyone here, then? Eh? It’s Corporal Jeffers asking, so best speak up.”

Jeffers was answered by a wary chorus of “Yes, sir”s.

“Follow me, boys. Instead of traveling the overland way, so to speak, we’ll be going up the communications trench, ’cause I’m of a mind today to be gentle. If you want to keep ’em on you, duck your heads.”

Jeffers lit a lamp, and we fell in more or less behind, went zigzagging down the main trench, then into a slit that was barely coffin-wide. He called back happily, “Is this the platoon with the sheeny company commander and the cowboy and the Canuck?”

There wasn’t much sound except for the wet sucking of boots through the mud, no touch except for the cold press of earth. Then I heard Riddell’s “Yes. We’re that platoon” from behind me.

“Well, best bring your cowboy up. He’s to sharpshoot, but he’s to harden himself first in the forward sap.”

“Not tonight!” Riddell squeezed my shoulder. He leaned forward and whispered in my ear, “Chin up, Stanhope. When you ’as to go, I’ll go with you.”

Anxiously yours,

Travis Lee

* * *


Dear Bobby,

Jeffers wasn’t joshing us. Front line is the posh duty. No shells, just the waiting and the rats and the occasional spat of machine-gun fire. They are so close, Bobby; close enough so that you can smell their cookfires. You can hear orders barked in German and smell the stench of their shit.

The others in the platoon are learning how to mend the barbed wire. Me, I sleep through breakfast and lunch, and as the sun goes down I squeeze myself through a narrow slit in the mud. Ahead is an old shell crater, good enough for listening. All evening Riddell and I sit and listen, Bobby. We speak to each other in whispers. We piss into empty cans.

The elms and the poppies are gone. What’s left is a barren countryside that might never have been leaf-gentled. The only thing that moves in No Man’s Land are the rats. At night when we stand guard I can hear them skitter and it spooks me. I think they are Boche sneaking up.

When the moon’s full I can see the rusted briar patch of the German wire and a marker I make as the Boche forward sap: a tree blasted down to its roots. I hear mutters sometimes in that direction.

The death of the land bothers Riddell. “Me mum says the earth takes care of its own, but see what we done ’ere, Stanhope? And all up and down France the same. I never gave a farthing-sized fart for nothing French, meself. Don’t like their food nor their fags nor their liquor. But this fair makes me want to cry. I know me mum would go all over tears, ’ow she loves the plants and all.”

“Yeah. They took something pretty and made west Texas out of it,” I said.

He shushed me. “Voice down, now. Sometimes you ’ears things.”

“I don’t understand German.”

He shook his head wearily. “Oh, Stanhope, not me, neither.”

“I mean I don’t understand what they’re saying. I could overhear them telling the Kaiser’s pecker size, sir, and I wouldn’t know what they were saying for shit.”

“Oh. Well. That doesn’t matter now, does it. Understanding, I mean. I don’t mean the size and all.” Riddell winked. “Foreign Office might ’ave themselves a cackle. But it’s not the understanding, Stanhope, see? It’s the listening.”


In the dead of night we drink muddy-tasting chlorinated water from our canteens. We listen. Not fifty yards away, Germans chatter, they laugh, they probably cuss as much as we do. And when the moon sets, it takes with it the silver glimmers on the puddles. It leaves behind a brooding dark. It’s then I’m glad that Riddell likes to talk. I’m glad the Boche laugh and fart sometimes. Still, three days listening and all I can tell you is, the Kaiser has a tee-ninsy pecker, Bobby. The size of your little finger. Bank on it. Tell all your friends you heard it straight from the source.

And speaking of little peckers, hear tell that Major Dunn got throwed and broke his leg. Not enough wounding to pull a Blighty and get him home, but it’ll lay him up and out of our ways for a while all the same.

Well, the platoon has learned to accept me. I guess I go down like the apple and plum jam and the chlorinated water. Three nights together, I’ve gotten to know Riddell real well. I respect him. I even love him in a way when we’re in the shell hole and dark’s fallen all around us. But hours listening to Riddell’s mum stories, learning more about weeds than I’d ever care to; three nights of hearing Germans grunt as they shit, and belch as they eat. Light-stepper or not, I wish I had Miller to talk poetry to. Hell, I’d let him put his hand on my leg.

I didn’t mean that.

Yours in terrible boredom,

Travis Lee

* * *


Dear Bobby,

Last night Abner Foy woke up screaming. Rats had run over his face. One had bitten him on the cheek and he was bleeding. When I opened my eyes I saw him sitting bolt upright, slapping at himself. Riddell was trying to calm him down.

“ ’E’s gone now. Look, Foy. Look about, why don’t you? See? Little bugger’s gone. Everything’s fine. I’ll make you a sticking plaster of woad an’ you’ll be right as rain. Have some comfrey in me pack, but best not, seeing as how that’s a filthy bite from a filthy creature, and we don’t want it to go oozing and green.”

Silver-tongued Sergeant Riddell. He set Foy to whimpering again.

The rats are all over the trenches, Bobby. They are born and die behind the wattles. They leave their filth and rotting stench behind.

By the time Foy finally shushed that evening, the rest of us were wide awake. Foy eyed us, one by one. He looked so silly with that steely gaze and that baby face and that weed-mulch plastered on his cheek. “Bullets and shells I can take brave as any. But it’s just them rats.”

Lieutenant told us, “Settle it doon, now. Gi’ ye tae sleep,” and we buried ourselves under our blankets. In the light of the candle I watched Foy. He was sitting, rifle in hands, his eyes on the wattle wall. He was still sitting his lonely sentry when sleep took me.

It takes me by surprise now, Bobby. One minute I’m wide-awake, thinking about home, maybe. Reciting Shelley in my head. The next instant I’m sucked into dark. Is this the way dying is to be? Shit. Please don’t tell me this stinking hole is a peek into the grave.

While the others were snoring, I dreamed of home. I was somewhere near the Perdenales and the hill country’s muscular spring had come. The knolls were a velvet gray-green, the hollows dusty with bluebonnets. Limestone extruded like bones. The dream was so real and the place so damned familiar that it seemed more like a memory.

I was standing, smelling deep of the cedar, when I noticed someone coming down the hill. They were too far away to recognize, too faint to put a name to, but I knew for certain that I was acquainted with this person, Bobby; had known ’em ever since I was a little kid. And as I watched the figure come down past the pecan trees, through lemony sunlight and mottled shade, I realized in a dream-sure way that the person was coming for me. Emotion came on me so strong that even thinking on it now sets me to shivering.

About then Lieutenant snapped me out of sleep with his usual cheery call: “Five o’clock. If ye want yer breakfasts, it’ll be oop an’ off yer arses!”

Anyway, it was a strange dream, Bobby. One chock full of passion. For the life of me, though, I don’t know what passion it was.


Travis Lee

* * *


Dear Bobby,

Don’t fret. I’m better. Just a shrapnel cut on my back, and it’s knitting. The fever’s gone, and I don’t see strange things anymore.

It was the night after Foy’s rat, and we were still in the rear trenches. Most of the men were mending socks; and those who knew how to were writing letters home. So quiet a night that if you listened hard, you could hear the first shell coming in. The 8.5 had a soft voice, like an imaginary whisper.

I knew I was hearing true when Corporal Dunleavy cocked his head. “Artillery.”

The whisper grew to a howl and Sergeant’s eyes went white-rimmed. “Eight five! On us!”

Even inside the dugout, we ducked. At the open door, night thundered. Somewhere down the trench, fire flashed and men cried out.

The Boche had found our range and suddenly the whole world was screaming. Shells pounded the rabbit-hole where we hid. The earth danced. The explosions shook me down to my core and set my bones to jittering. Sergeant was yelling something. In the unsteady light of the candle Danny Boatman sobbed. Huge, hulking Charlie Furbush crouched next to me, his hands plastered to the sides of his head, his eyes squeezed shut and leaking tears.

The shelling went on; as demented as Pa when he was drunk.

You see? It wouldn’t stop, Bobby. The shelling just wouldn’t stop and the walls kept closing in and I kept seeing the roof collapsing. That’s the worst part. I could have stood it if I hadn’t thought that any minute the roof would come down. And so when there came a pause in the shelling and Danny Boatman ran through the door, I ran with him.

Lieutenant McPhearson was at my heels, jerking at my bandolier. Outside the dugout the air was sweeter, the sound of the explosions pure, the inferno of the shells as bright as flashing day. McPhearson dragged me to my knees and we knelt together in the firestorm.

“Back in, ye bloody fool!”

“Dugout’s collapsing!” I yelled back.

He shook me. Reason dropped into place. My heart was pounding something fierce. My belly was sick with panic. I saw his disappointment and felt a fair bit of shame.

“You’ll return to the dugout, Stanhope, or I’ll put a bullet in ye meself!” Then the lieutenant was on his feet and scrambling down the trench yelling, “Boatman! I’ll have ye oop on charges! Boatman!”

I snuck back to the dugout. No one, not even Riddell, paid any attention to my return. I’d left behind my helmet and gas mask. Outside, shells whistled and screeched. The earth shook. The explosions came fast and furious. The noise above our heads was a solid thing, a ceiling you could reach out and touch.

Soon McPhearson came back, Boatman in tow. I didn’t want their company; still McPhearson sat Boatman, my albatross, down by me. Smoot and Dewberry covered their heads with their blankets. Trantham, empty-faced, rocked in a corner.

Sometime during that lunacy, Sergeant made tea. Dunleavy and LeBlanc ate quietly and alone. The shelling let up, the explosions coming farther and farther apart. In the aftermath my ears buzzed something fierce. After a bit I could hear, in the brief lull between shells, nervous coughs and mutters from our platoon, the moans from luckless soldiers, the shouts of passing stretcher bearers. Boatman leaned his head back against the filth-encrusted wattles and closed his eyes.

I listened to the individual strikes, even though I tried my best not to. The whistles get louder and louder until your nuts try to crawl up into your body. Your hair stands on end, Bobby. You’re so damned afraid that this one’s coming for you.

I’m terrified of dying. I never knew that before. The others are, too. I can see fear in every face—even LeBlanc with his pretense of disdain, even Trantham with his terrible vacancy. There we sit, crowded together in a rat-infested cavity in the earth, and wait. We wait lonely, because nobody wants to admit they’re scared.

The shell that hit us was like any other—the whisper, the howl, the skin-crawling anticipation. But when the blast came, the noise was so stunning that my nose gushed blood.

I don’t remember much except that the wind planted a hand in my back and shoved me. I remember trying to shout for help and sucking dirt into my mouth, instead.

I swear there wasn’t any sensation of traveling from life to unconsciousness nor of going from unconsciousness to home; but that’s where I was—on that hill by the Perdenales. And she was there.

I knew her as well as I know you. Maybe somehow even better. Her hair was loose and buttery with sun. Her smile was so sweet that it cut me.

They say that I looked peaceful as they took me away on the stretcher. They say I lay still as they stitched me up, and that I gave them no trouble. I don’t remember that; but I remember that the blue of her calico dress matched her eyes.

The dugout they took me to was shelled, too; and for a while it was pretty thick. All I know is, while I stayed on that hill I felt safe; and when I came to a few hours after the shelling had stopped, my ears didn’t work anymore and my back hurt and I had started a fever.

I heard they pulled Danny Boatman from under the collapsed wall, but not soon enough. Lieutenant didn’t make it, either. When Sergeant Riddell dug McPhearson’s body out, word is that he cradled him on his lap and bawled just like a baby.

Next day they moved me. I must have gone a little crazed from the fever, ’cause I could have sworn that I saw Danny Boatman walk through the hospital, up and down the rows. I even tried to call to him, but he paid me no attention. When I told a nurse he was there, they gave me something for the pain.

When I could hear better, Captain Miller came by. He stood tapping his swagger stick on his boot and looking anyplace but at me. “Well, Stanhope,” he said. “Well.” He stared hard at a table of rolled bandages. “Not quite a Blighty. Up and about soon, eh? And rejoining the old Fourteenth.”

“Yes, sir.”

The angry slap of stick against his boot. His lips tightened.

“Riddell ended up with McPhearson’s bloody gramophone, you know. Soldier’s last will and testament. One record, and Sergeant must play it. The same blasted Elgar symphony, over and over. Good God, Stanhope. Elgar.”

Whack of leather against leather. Blows so violent that they had to have stung. Miller’s jaw worked. “Elgar.” He shook his head and walked away.

Elgar. Could be worse. When I was in the forward sap, all the Germans listened to was Schubert. Still, I know exactly how Miller feels. Nothing is more stiff-upper-lip and carry-on-boys than Elgar. I bet you LeBlanc hates him like Mary Hell, too.

Tomorrow they’re releasing me from the hospital. Five days later we move out, north I hear. Some idiot of an orderly threw out my comfortable boots, thinking they’d got ruined in the explosion.

Never you mind this letter. I’ll get over my scared and get on with it. You eventually have to, you know.

Travis Lee

* * *



Got your excuse for a letter today. Goddamn it, don’t you tell me about how she feels sorry for him. Don’t you try to tell me how old and helpless he is. More than once I’ve seen Ma with blood running down her chin, all huddled up by the wood stove, cowering like a whipped hound. Shit. Don’t you think she was helpless, too?

If she’s contemplating with another part of her anatomy, then you be the one to use your head. I’m warning you and Ma both: You’d best get him out of there. If Pa wants any argument, let the 30.06 do your debating for you. Make sure he understands your meaning, boy, for I’ve had enough of his bullying ways; and if he’s still around the place when I get home, I’ll kill him.

Travis Lee

* * *



I dreamed about Pa last night. We were in the dugout together, just the two of us; and the Boche were shelling. It was a murky place, black except for a single candle. I could just make out his eyes and hands—Pa’s worst parts. He was taking off his belt and he was saying in that low dangerous voice of his, “ ’Pears you’re sassing me, boy. You sassing me?” Me in a gloomy corner of a darkened room; Pa the monster. Above my head bombs were falling; but soft and terrible I could hear Pa hiss: “You sassing me?”

Jesus. Lying here I’ve had time to ruminate about life, and I understand something about myself—why I took the whip to old man Krause the day he tortured that barn cat of his; even why I came to Europe to fight—I’ve been trying to slay the monster, Bobby. I can’t kill me any goddamned bombs, so I’ll just have to kill Pa if I see him. You tell Ma that.

Well, well, well. Of all the people to come visit. A few minutes ago, LeBlanc was here. He sat down beside the bed, lit himself up a cigarette and then offered me one. We smoked for a while, and when a Belgian nurse told us to put them out, he said, “Up your rosy red ass.”

She went away. “Not a nice thing to say to a nun,” I told him.

“No one better to say it to, eh? Except maybe it’s up her ass with Father O’Shaughnessy. Or maybe Corporal Dunleavy’s more his game. Goddamned micks. They’ll fuck anything. That’s how they take over places. Spread like weeds. Seen it happen, eh? Back home it’s got so you can’t fart without gassing an Irishman. These bastards here are probably IRA: O’Shaughnessy, every one of them. A little arsenic in your potato soup, Stanhope, just in case the shells don’t get you? Think about that. Hey. People are talking about how you and Boatman and McPhearson were the only ones who quit the dugout. It’s like the three of you knew something, eh? Trantham’s fucked.”

LeBlanc’s cigarettes are unsmokable—strong and French. “Trantham? Was he hurt, too?”

LeBlanc lit another cigarette off the butt of his first. He didn’t offer me another. “Not so’s you can see, but next time they pound us, he’s going shell-shocked for sure. He crapped his pants and then just sat there in it, even when the shelling was over. Goddamned Dunleavy had to inform him that he was stinking up the dugout with his wet brown merde. And you see that look on his face when the eight fives were dropping? Oh, yeah. Soon we’ll be seeing that stupid little smile all those poor bastards get, eh?—like their brains just took a Blighty. You ever walk into East-6? That’s where they store them. Locked away from the rest of us, so’s we don’t get ideas on how to duck the war. Assholes.”

It’s an interesting adventure, talking to LeBlanc. Most times he doesn’t say much, but when he does, it’s him that does the talking and you that do the listening, except for the detours in his conversation where you’re forced into asking questions like: “Assholes? Those shell-shocked folks?”

“Nah. The doctors. They don’t think it really happens, you know? Shell shock. Think they’re phonies. Sometimes just for the fun of it they’ll send one of them back. Saw a man walk out of hospital once, right into the trench and straight over the parapet. There he goes, wandering off across No Man’s Land, smiling that shit-eating grin like he was out picking daisies or something, everybody shouting at him to come back and him not listening, until Fritz mowed him down. Cut him in half with a Maxim.”


“Damn right. They’re all against us. Nice shoes, Stanhope.”

“Uh-huh. Somebody throwed my good ones away. You carve me another pair?”

“Just to watch the major’s ass pucker.” LeBlanc leaned his head back and blew a smoke ring. “I’m ready for a good fuck.”

My mind sort of froze on that.

When I didn’t take the bait, he asked, “What shape’s your bâton in, Stanhope? Want a little?”

All of a sudden I was fighting to keep my head above an undertow of questions: Was LeBlanc, like Miller, a poetry-lover? If he wasn’t, why the hell had he come by to visit? Just what were we talking about here? He didn’t give me any clues, so I said cautiously, “Pecker’s just fine, and thank you kindly for asking.”

“You and your shrapnel got the company a day’s leave. There’s a whorehouse in town. If you’re up for it, I’ll meet you by the YMCA pavilion at sundown.”

Oh, Bobby. Up for it? Wound or no, the acreage south of my belt sure is. LeBlanc walked away without saying another word. Now I been lying here thinking about things. And thinking. And thinking. Lord God almighty, Bobby. Real French whores.

I’ll finish this letter later. The doctor’s coming down the row. I figure he’s about to release me, stiff bâton and all.

Yours in great anticipation; and I mean what I said about Pa, I really do.

Travis Lee

* * *


Dear Bobby,

Hide this letter from Ma. Hope you hid the last one as well, or she’ll be pressing you to tell her the outcome of my excursion.

The day of the last letter, LeBlanc was waiting for me at the pavilion. We stopped by the blue-light tent to pick up some army-issue rubbers, then we double-timed it—me in the new boots he carved me—all the long miles to town.

The walking was easy, the day overcast and damp. The air smelled of rain and flowers and flourishing late spring. I drank the air and let LeBlanc jabber.

He’s an interesting fellow, LeBlanc is. A person of strong opinions. Irish should be occasionally shot, he says, to keep the population down. “Otherwise they’ll overrun the countryside like a buncha goddamned rabbits and start one of their shitting famines.”

As part of their ordination, Catholic priests’ nuts should be surgically removed. “They took an oath, eh? So what’s the use to them? Maybe that’ll keep their hands out of kids’ pants.”

“Huh. Seems you know all about this, LeBlanc. You were raised up Catholic?”

Right quick, he says, “Stanhope, fuck you and your goddamned ugly sister.”

While we passed a stone wall—one that sprouted some of Riddell’s meadowsweet from its crevasses and was polka-dotted with orange lichens—LeBlanc told me that horses should be kept out of war. On that opinion, I agreed.

“I hate to hear them scream,” he told me. “I hate the way they keep trying to run when their legs are broken in two and flopping or when their guts are dangling out. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. I’ve heard them cry, eh? They cry like a baby or something. Times I’ve sat right down and cried with them.”

“I don’t have a sister,” I told him.

He said, “Shithead. Say, you’re a country boy. You ever have a horse?”

“Lord knows I rode and broke enough.”

“No, asshole. I mean did you ever have one? Your own horse.”

I shrugged. “Had a meaner-than-cat-dirt Shetland pony when I was too young to know any better. Throwed me once, and then kicked me for good measure. When I got up, damned if he didn’t kick me down again. Then I got me a real sweet little quarter horse dun mare. Gave her to my brother when I left for school. He rides her once in a while, just to keep her gentle.”

“Horses are better than we are,” he says.

I think about it a while. I consider the Shetland pony. I think about my little mare. I say, “I know.”

Well, Bobby, it took us a whole hour of walking to get to that one-bar, two-whore town. The line into the whorehouse was three blocks long. Three companies including my own were there. From his station at the end of the line, Rudolph Pickering watched LeBlanc and me walk up.

“Whores any good?” LeBlanc asked.

Pickering took a swig out of his wine bottle. “Pranging tarts is always good. A religious experience,” he said. “How’s the wound, Yank?”

One place ahead of Pickering, Marrs turned around. “Don’t tell no one you seen me, now. I got me a nice piece at home. Pretty as a rose and a churchgoer. You, Yank? You got yourself something like Miss Lillie Langtry? Have some brandy. Makes the waiting easier.”

I took the bottle. “Hear tell she fucks around.”

Marrs’s eyes widened.

“Miss Lillie Langtry,” I explained to his evident relief. It appeared to me that Pickering and Marrs had been hitting the bottle pretty good.

“So. The whores worth the wait?” LeBlanc asked.

Pickering abruptly shrieked, “Your piece is a churchgoer, is she, Marrs? My cock’s Church of England.”

Several men up, someone started to tell a joke, his voice rising over the general mumble: “That reminds me! So ... so ... Oh, yes. I have it now. A priest goes into confession with a parrot on his shoulder, and the penitent says ...”

Loud cries of “Heard it!” and “Oh, bugger off! Bad joke from the start.”

“I haven’t heard it,” I said, but no one was paying attention.

Three more men joined the line. LeBlanc stuck his hands in his pockets and bounced on his toes. “Take shitting hours, this.”

The new men, a trio from another company, had brought armfuls of bread and cheese. I asked them if they knew the joke about the priest and the parrot. They said they didn’t. They passed food around. Pickering knocked Marrs over the head with a baguette. Marrs dropped theatrically to his ass.

“Goddamned bunch of immature kids,” LeBlanc said. “Hey, Stanhope. I’m going to find better pickings. How’s about you?”

I expected resentment from him when I said, “I’ll stay. I’ve a mind to hear that parrot story,” but he simply shrugged and walked off.

Marrs fell twice trying to get up. Finally, he gave up and sat there on the cobbles, his mouth open. “Fascinating boots, Yank,” he mumbled just before he passed clean out.

By the time I was halfway up the stairs, Pickering and I had finished his bottle. I recall things in flashes: someone yelling, “Queue up, then! Queue up!” and me shouting, “Lord God almighty! Will somebody just for shit’s sake tell me that story about the parrot?” Then me feeling sick at my stomach and trying to find a bathroom. Pickering pulling me back to the stairs.

“Got to poke the tarts, Yank,” he said. “Otherwise, what good is it?”

“What good is it?” I screeched with ill-conceived and fathomless delight. I turned to the puzzled men behind me. “What the hell good is it?”

I think I sort of passed out. In dogged allegiance to the British idea of “queue,” the men behind me grabbed me by my belt and dragged me up the stairs.

When I came to again, Pickering was coming out of a door, buttoning his pants. He grasped me under the arms and hauled me up. I couldn’t find my direction for shit.

“There, Yank,” he was saying. “No, no. Not that way. Girl’s in there.”

I ran into the jamb and banged my nose. Blood gushed.

Seemed like I’d been having a time with my nose lately. “Blighty!” someone laughed.

Pickering’s hands on my shoulders, me walking into the shadowed room. The smells of old, cheap perfume and sweat and sex. There she was, Bobby, lying all spread out. Those thighs of hers just went on and on; pale and lumpy and huge, like cheap cotton-wad mattresses. She had a pretty pink ribbon tied around her throat.

I hollered out, “Heifer!”

The whore seemed confused. Pickering kept asking, “What? What is it you’re trying to tell me, Yank?”

“Heifer with a ribbon!”

“Can’t get your pants down, then, Stanhope? It’s a crown in the box there, chap. Five shillings, or she won’t go.”

The men behind me asking, “What’s it? Can’t get his blue light on? Be a chum, man, and put it on for him.”

Next thing I know, I woke up thinking that I was being smothered. My face was wedged in the Valley of the Shadow between the whore’s sour, marshmallow breasts. My pants were down around my ankles, and I was positioned between those thighs, my pecker aimed more or less in the right direction.

Someone was dragging me off her; me all the time asking, “I come yet? Hey. Did I come?”

“You’ve had time enough for three men, mate. It’s off with you,” a new and very sober voice told me. Then I was rolling down the steps, falling easy and happy and loose-limbed. I ended up at the bottom, my face resting on top of a boot.

“I come yet?” I asked.

The line moved slowly, inexorably. The boot went away. My head dropped to the cobbles. I found myself staring down the sidewalk to the door of the bar where Captain Miller and one of his subalterns were walking out.

Miller came and stood looking down at me. “Stanhope? Your nose is bloodied. Your privates are showing.”

Drunk, but it did not miss my notice that Miller was scrutinizing my pecker. I lunged up and made it all the way to my knees. The army-issue rubber was dangling, a telltale wad weighing its end. I pulled my pants to my waist.

“And I do believe you’re quite drunk.”


“I say, Stanhope! Have you been with a strumpet?”

“Oh, sir.” Guilt made me heartsick. In my stupor, I figured that finding me whoring had irredeemably hurt his feelings. “Shit. I’m sorry, sir. It’s not like it’s anything pers—”

The swagger stick struck fast as a rattler. It caught me at the base of the throat. Not to hurt, but to stop words.

His voice was even. “That will do.” And then he called back to the bar, “Sergeant Riddell! I’ve a little lost lamb for you!”

Riddell came out, clucking worriedly. Next thing I remember was sitting with Riddell in the barracks. Except for a pot of brewing tea, we were alone. He was playing McPhearson’s gramophone and waxing poetical about Elgar.

“ ’E’s a beacon of truth, ain’t ’e? Fair knows the heart of it. Pluck and valor and all that. Like Kipling and that poem of ’is. What is it, now?”

I shook my head, and the movement nearly toppled me. My hangover headache had started. “Dunno.”

“ ’Course you do, you all the time reading your poems. A real scholar, like. You must know fair everything.” He cast a soulful look at the ceiling. “ ‘Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.’ That one. What’s it called, now?”

My lips didn’t move too well. “Dunno.”

“Still, makes it all worth it, don’t you think? I mean about dying and all. ’Spite of what some says. If you can just die for something decent and upstanding. That’s what it’s all about, innit?”

God. Not the usual Brit quirk of speech, but a true question. And what desperation it held. When I looked up, Riddell was crying. I opened my mouth intending to say something comforting, but fell asleep instead. I never heard the rest of the parrot story.

Travis Lee

* * *


Dear Bobby,

Strange what you told me. It’s hard imagining those sharp eyes of Pa’s going blind. In his glory days he could flat pick out sin, Bobby. Sins of the flesh and sins of the mind. “You’re thinking up deviltry, boy,” he’d tell me. Omniscient, omnipresent. All of creation hung on his mood. When Pastor Lon preached about God’s terrible ire, it was Pa’s scowl I pictured. I figure if God has each hair of our head numbered, He’s nothing we can hide from. And for me, God was always Pa.

God scared me a lot in those days. They say none of us can know the end, but I used to I think that if Hell existed I wouldn’t get flames: I’d spend eternity hiding inside Ma’s old dark wardrobe, trapped with the stink of mothballs and nervous sweat.

So I got to figure your letter is a lie, Bobby. Pa can’t be going blind from the moonshine. It would break every universal law. You write to tell me he’s got whupped in bars so often that he’s crippled up now. Don’t let him fool you. One day he’ll stop limping and his eyes will go keen. He’ll stand ramrod-straight and he’ll take off his belt. He always wears a big buckle—you ever notice?—the better to bruise with.

I took a walk today past the hospital and saw the shell-shocked: cots of staring men, fingers plucking, always plucking at their lips, all with dazed smiles—men stricken stupid by fear. The company priest, O’Shaughnessy, was with them. He was sitting on a cot, holding a man’s hand. Not talking. Not preaching. Just touching. It was nice, in a way. When he got up, he saw me standing there.

His voice was quiet, not like Pastor Lon’s, who seems to be always working on his Sunday delivery. “Do you have need of me, my son?”

“Not a Catholic, sir.”

“Well, I’ll be here for more than Catholics now, won’t I. You’re the Yank, I take it.”

“Yes, sir.”

We stood close, there in the ward of the lost. The barracks was pungent with the smells of carbolic and rubbing alcohol, but not a wound in sight. O’Shaughnessy had shucked his uniform for a long black papist dress and purple silk scarf. He was wearing a comfortable smile. “Calling me ‘sir’ makes me feel more the officer. I’d prefer ‘Father.’ ”

“Can’t call you that,” I told him. “You got another choice?”

He took my arm and gently steered me outside. The sunlight was dazzling. Birds chattered in the gathered trees. A clear sky, but the wind smelled of coming rain.

The fresh breeze teased the hem of O’Shaughnessy’s skirt, toyed with the ends of his purple scarf. “Thomas, then, if you’ve a mind. Some Protestants have a problem with the ‘Father,’ and calling me by my first name is no offense, to be sure. What faith are you?”

“Not much, sir. Sorry. Reverend Tom.”

“Why the lack of faith ... ah, Private Stanhope, isn’t it?”

“Travis Lee.”

His eyebrows rose. “You were the one injured. And those to either side of you killed. Was that not enough proof of God for you, then?”

“He’s a son of a bitch for irony, ain’t He, pastor?”


“God. Like those men in there, smiling so ferocious that you’d think they feel joy, but the joy they feel hurts like holy hell. Any minute that joy’s going to come exploding out, and when it does, it’ll kill them.”

A puffball cloud came over: flawless white at its top, a soft rabbit-gray at its bottom.

“Did you ever stop and think, my son, that because these men felt so much fear, God took them to someplace kinder?”

“No, sir,” I said. “I don’t.”

O’Shaughnessy has an intensity to him that’s disturbing.

Only the rumble of thunder—softer than any artillery—brought his head up and took his eyes off me. He squinted at the sky. “Great good heavens. What time is it getting to be? Nearly three,” he said, checking his watch. “Dear, dear. I’m due to meet with Colonel Caraway, and he’s not one for waiting. Travis, is it? We must talk again sometime.” He had a nice handshake—not the Baptist preacher pump I’m used to.

“Don’t want to be prayed over, Pastor. I’ve been prayed over before, and it never took,” I told him, and that’s about the truth of it.

Someplace kinder. That only happened once. And it wasn’t God I was with, but a calico-clad girl. All the times I hid as a boy knowing Pa was going to come in after, all the times I listened to Ma beg him to leave her be—God never took me away, Bobby, and I asked Him lots of times.

Early evening I was sitting enjoying a smoke when I saw Miller walking with O’Shaughnessy. Their heads were together and they were speaking quiet-the pastor with his head bent, like he was listening to sin.

LeBlanc sat down on the steps beside me. “Look at ‘em. Captain better keep his pants buttoned, eh?”

That brought me bolt upright in a hurry. What LeBlanc said next eased the startlement out of my spine. “You can’t trust micks. O’Shaughnessy’ll go hunting for some balls to play with.”

Above us, clouds had gathered, and the late afternoon was fast becoming night. A damp breeze misted my face. Cool for nearly summer. Sweet weather, still I knew a storm was coming. “You believe in God, LeBlanc?”

“I believe in a good fuck,” he said. Then he said, “I believe in horses.”

I watched Miller and O’Shaughnessy, shoulders touching, fade into the gloom. What were they talking about so seriously? Not God, surely. Why, God isn’t a serious thing at all.

Next morning all of us would move out, agnostics and believers together. I said, “I believe in horses, too.”

Travis Lee

* * *


Dear Bobby,

We made poor time to the billeting area, marching in a driving thunderstorm, pelted by bullets of rain. Wind bent the poplars this way and that. My wet pack weighed me down. Waiting for Miller and O’Shaughnessy and the subalterns at the end of the march was a warm farmhouse occupied by a cordial-looking farm family. For the other two hundred and forty of us there was a leaking stone barn and a hayrick—no place to build a fire without unintentionally barbecuing some milk cows.

We cleared a spot and heated a Tommy cooker, for all the good that did the cold tea. Sergeant sent Smoot and Dedoes to the field kitchen’s tent. They brought us back dixie cans of bully beef and hard biscuits, and not near enough of that.

When we griped about the food, Smoot chortled, “It’s the motto, ain’t it? Eat Less to Save Shitting. Get it? Eat Less to Shave Sitting,” and then he’d howl so with laughter that I knew he’d been in the rum ration.

I chipped at my biscuit with my bayonet. Foy, disgruntled, was all for stealing and eating a chicken. He would have, too, except that Riddell got wind of it. He grabbed Foy by the scruff of his neck and bellowed, “Thieving, is it? I’ll have no thieving ‘ere! You’ll do nothing in this platoon but that you’d do for God and King.”

By the time Riddell was finished dressing him down, Foy was pale and shaking. LeBlanc sidled up to me. “Riddell took McPhearson’s shouting place, you notice? Wants Miller to name him lieutenant, I figure. McPhearson’s ass always puckered for God and country, too. Say. I heard we were going to get a green lieutenant, but a whizzbang landed dead in his lap, so to speak. Platoon’s screwed. Speaking of which, your whore any good the other night?”

“Not as I recall. Your pecker find a resting place, LeBlanc?”

He shrugged. I pounded the biscuit until a piece broke off. I put the bread chip into my mouth and sucked a little flavor from it. Outside, the rain went on and on. Pickering found himself a barn cat to play with and laughed when it turned up its nose at his bully beef. The air smelled of cows and mildew. Through the chilly blue dusk I could see the welcome glow of the farmhouse windows. I wondered how Miller was faring, and if he had bread and cheese and wine, and if he was enjoying the company.

Late spring, but it was cold in that barn. I hiked my coat about my shoulders and had started writing you this letter when LeBlanc leaned over. “Hey. You’re always writing to people. What is it with you, Stanhope? You got some pussy waiting?”

“Not unless my brother’s changed in new and interesting ways. Anybody at home for you?”

“Nah. All dead and buried. But that’s the secret to life, you know—dying. Jesus and Mary. Just look around at the idiots here, Stanhope. They really think that one day the army’ll let ’em go home. You and me, we never had any illusions, did we?”

I don’t know, Bobby. I break off pieces of life and suck what flavor I can: the memory of Ma’s drop biscuits, the sheen of my mare’s hide, delicate-hued as a doe’s. The tastes of chili and cornbread. The hot straw smell of high summer.

Just a fool, I guess.

Travis Lee

* * *


Dear Bobby,

When we left the barn there was sunlight and mud; and as we went, we tiptoed as careful as we could through the farmer’s kale field. The 10th Platoon started up a song that Miller soon shushed, not from critical sensibility but from caution. We passed signs of battle: a row of saplings that had been mowed down like the troops at Shiloh. Their stumps were shattered but still standing—their fallen branches like surrendering arms.

We stopped for lunch in a meadow embellished with grassy shell holes and cheerful yellow flowers. While we lounged, one of our aeroplanes buzzed us and everyone waved. The pilot waved back before flying on. I lay back on the damp grass and thought of how free I could be sailing through that silence of air. I don’t know, Bobby. Is it better to go out and meet death head-on, or wait for it to come in and get you? Maybe I should have given myself the choice and studied flying. That pilot might have been an American himself; and nothing special, just any farm boy from Ohio, any city kid from New York.

A shadow moved between me and the sun. From a height, a round face looked down. “Sentimental me, but I can’t help thinking that aeroplane pilots are closer to Heaven,” O’Shaughnessy said. “And that to gather that man to His bosom, God need only reach out His hand.”

From the grass next to me came LeBlanc’s acid “Crashed and buried, though, eh? In the end it’s the goddamned ground that gets ’em.”

I suppose LeBlanc was hoping for an argument. O’Shaughnessy ambled away. Next thing I knew, Riddell was scowling at the both of us. “It’s a smart mouf on the pair of you.”

“He did it,” I said right quick.

LeBlanc elbowed me.

Riddell tsked and shook his head. “And you a good Catholic lad, too. Sister a nun and all. Well, me mum raised me Church of England, didn’t she. But I’ve noticed it’s not our C. of E. chaplain what goes out to comfort the wounded with the bullets whizzing and the shells flying. It’s that papist. And for all his idol-worshipping and Mary silliness, well, in the end it’s ’im what has the pluck. So watch what you say, lads, or you’ll have my boot up your bums.”

When Sergeant walked away, I told LeBlanc, “I thought your family was all dead.”

LeBlanc sat up. He tore off a stem of pasture grass and stuck the end in his mouth. I asked him, “Well, are they?” but he got to his feet, grabbed his pack, and wandered off to where the rest of the platoon were gathering.

That night we bivouacked in an abandoned chateau, its walls untouched by war, its interior stripped of furniture and paintings, its owners months or years gone. Outside was an herb garden, wild and overgrown. All during that long afternoon Riddell wandered, beaming, through its scented tangles. Later, I saw Miller and O’Shaughnessy seated in the freckled shade of a garden bench, deep in conversation.

“There goes an interesting bit of work, Father,” Miller said as I passed. “A cowboy and literary scholar.”

I turned around. They were eyeing me.

“Most of the lads will be getting off their feet now, won’t they, Travis, me boy? After the long march, I mean.”

“Well, Father, I do believe Stanhope’s enjoying a bit of sightseeing. He likes sightseeing, don’t you, Stanhope? France is new to him, you see. And if you will take care to notice the boots ...”

“Ah! And what fine boots they are.”

“Dislikes shoes intensely. That’s because he’s part wild Indian. Stanhope! Recite us a bit of poetry. I’ll start one for you, shall I? ‘O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being ...’ ”

I had to take that shit from the Harvard Congregationalists, but I wouldn’t take it from him. Heat rose in my face. Before my rage turned billy hell loose, I stalked away. I could hear them laughing all the way to the house.

Just before dark we heard shelling, muffled and far away. I thought about the farm family of the night before: craters marring the familiar places where war had brushed past. I spent the night in a grand ballroom that smelled of nothing but dust. In the dark our lowered voices echoed along the arched and painted ceiling. I wondered where the wealthy family had gone, and if it was hard to go so completely from a place that you leave nothing, not even scent, behind.

The house was too big for me: wide open, with no crannies to hide in. I don’t know, maybe I got too familiar with dark, tight places to ever make much of a pilot.

I went to sleep soothed by the murmurs of the platoon and the low booms of distant shelling. I dreamed about a graveyard, terraced and old, with peeling whitewashed steps running up and down. Low plaster walls outlined the graves, while at their heads sat attentive marble angels. Cypress stood quiet vigil at the borders: candles with melancholy green flames. Some of the graves were mounded with paper lilies, Bobby, and some had roofs of glass; and down in those beds little girls in frilly white dresses slept, encircled by dusty flowers.

It was peaceful. I fell asleep mad at Miller, but woke up not caring a bit, for those graves were soft and deep, perfect little hidey-holes; and the graveyard was so quiet, seemed like nothing could go stalking there.

Does the earth always get you? Maybe, if you end up in a graveyard like that, even falling out of the sky to reach it might not be so bad.


Travis Lee

* * *


Dear Bobby,

It’s getting worse. Can’t tell you all of it. Miller’s under pressure from high up. Yesterday he rode by and I caught him eyeing me. His position here is shaky, and he probably figures I can’t be trusted to keep his secret. Shit. Me telling what I know. Wouldn’t that bring him down.

Two days ago he sent Marrs and me out to forage for water, and we found a quaint pond with swans and then we found some picturesque Boche. They’d broken the line to the south, and Miller had sent us down to meet them.

The incursion was only about ten men or so. Marrs got a bullet in the butt, which sounds a lot funnier than it looks. We scrambled up the bank of the pond, swans flapping and honking. We ran, him bleeding down his leg. We never fired back a shot.

Why is it all of a sudden that I scare Miller? Does he feel he has to shut me up? I need to tell somebody, and I hear what’s said in confession can’t be repeated. Still, would that really be smart? All I know is, Bobby, I can’t trust Miller’s orders anymore.

Travis Lee

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