Back | Next


Dear Bobby,

Sorry I haven’t written, but the army’s kept me busy. Three days up, three days back, three days in reserve. When I’m “up,” my job is to run along the front-line trench, jumping on the firestep and looking for targets. The other sharpshooters need a man to compute range and bearing. Me, I always find my target, and I find it alone.

See, Bobby, the Boche stick their heads above the parapet once in a while. Some have to, for standing sentry or fixing sandbags obliges them. Some get lazy and just plain forget that I’m there, or forget where the parapet ends. Riddell keeps bets on how many I’ll take down that day. When the boys in the company win, they give me spoonfuls of their jam or stuff their folks sent from home. I finagled myself in with Dewberry, our rum wallah, so everybody can bet with their issue jiggers, too. The work’s not bad, really. The Boche fall clean and sudden, just like bottle targets at a fair.

The bad part comes on the third day when they pull us back. The rear trenches are sons of bitches, the dugouts cramped and wet and leaking. The walls are sandbagged mud. They shell us nearly every night. All that stands between us and the explosions is a slab roof “elephant” of poor-fitting iron.

The first night I was there I was picking lice and listening to the whizzbangs when from behind me came a ringing uproar loud as all of Judgment Day. I jumped up so fast, I knocked my head against a bunk.

Sergeant calmed me. “Well, ’course it’s loud, lad. It’s our own artillery, ain’t it.”

Our own artillery. Good. They’re giving some of the same back, like I give bullets. Still, I get tired of the noise. Trantham must have, too. Last week we were in the front trenches, mind, just the front trenches, when we heard the Boche start up their big guns; and even though everyone knew they were aiming for the rear, Trantham went running out of the dugout, up the ladder, and straight into our own wire. I don’t know where he thought he was running to, but that’s where the Boche sniper got him. You couldn’t expect us to go out and fetch him down, so Trantham hung like a piece of windblown trash on a fence. Flies landed. It rained and washed the blood and drove some of the flies away. It rained harder, and we went into the dugout and left him dangling. When night fell, Marrs and Smoot cut him down.

Later I thought that I caught glimpses of him on the wire, hanging skin-tattered, the way dead cows look if you leave them awhile. Since then, I’ve dreamed of the pretty graveyard with the dusty paper flowers and the rain-stained angels. From beyond the cypress I hear a voice calling for help. It sounds like the voice might be Trantham’s.

Lucky I don’t dream of everyone. We’ve lost eighteen out of our company; but except for Trantham our platoon is more or less intact. We had us a new lieutenant for about a week. Forget his name now. A Boche sniper took him with a head shot. It’s the damned scopes they have, Bobby. Any asshole could shoot with a scope. I told Riddell to get me one, and then I’d show those Boche. Shit. I could take the Kaiser from here.

You never told me if you got Pa to leave. Is he needing a white cane and a dog yet? You know what I’ve a hankering for is some of Ma’s molasses cookies. You never send me anything, Bobby. Why is that? Must be because you’re a no-account little son of a bitch. Why don’t you send me something? I’m hungry all the time. The others get packages from home. It’s the only thing we have to look forward to; and every mail call I stand there with nothing but my pecker in my hand. If I’m lucky, you send me a one-page letter. I put up with the hard biscuits and the lice and the flies and the shelling, the whole shit stink of it. I wiped your snot when you were a baby. I sheared Ma’s goddamned fancy goats. I stayed up nights when they were born. I wore blisters on my shoulders from toting them goats water, and I never once asked you nor Ma for fucking nothing. Can’t you just send me a goddamned package

Travis Lee

* * *


Dear Bobby,

That cocksucker Corporal Dunleavy. I’m sick of him and his bullying. This morning he came by and pulled me off the firestep. “Drunk!” he was yelling. “Drunk in the trench! Who gave you that liquor?”

“Not drunk, sir! And this is mine. I been saving this up.” I was no more drunk than he was. The rest of the men were lounging around. I was holding onto the rum ration I’d just won; and I was sprawled in the mud where he’d thrown me.

“You’ll not give me that smart look like you gives the other officers. Up, Stanhope! Off your bleeding arse!”

I got up. I didn’t mean to jostle him. The trenches are pretty narrow there.

“Cheeky bastard!” He knocked me down again.

I came up angry and quick this time and butted my helmet into his stomach. I drove him so hard into the wall that one of those floral sandbags the women make us broke. We were both avalanched by stinking black dirt. It was funny, Bobby. That was all. I didn’t mean nothing by laughing. But next thing I knew, the barrel of Dunleavy’s side arm was shoved into my stomach.

“I’d shoot you soon as look at you, Stanhope.”

The rest of the platoon started to yell, “Stand down, Stanhope, yer bloody fool! ’E means it, ’e does!”

Then Riddell was there, saying in that calm way of his, “Put your pistol away, Dunleavy.”

“He’s drunk in the trench, sir.”

“Will you shoot ’im, then? Well? Go ahead and kill the man, if you’ve a mind to.”

I went cold. Dunleavy and I were face to face, me so near him that I could smell his gamy breath. In his eye was that killing urge I’d seen so many times in Pa’s. Funny. When I figured I was about to die, you’d think I would have struggled; but I went helpless, just like I used to do.

The hard ugly thing left Dunleavy’s stare. He stood back, let his pistol hand drop.

Riddell said, “Best you’d take ’im to see Captain,” and his voice was placid, like no worry had ever broke his surface.

Dunleavy, his side arm aimed more or less in my direction, marched me down the trench and into Miller’s dugout. Miller was reading by the light of his lantern. His batman was mending a shirt. The dugout was huge, larger than what we had for six men. There was a real bed and a real table and chairs. It had wallpaper, too, Bobby: green leaves on one wall, pink roses on the other.

When we entered Miller put his book down. I kept looking at those dainty roses, those green leaves.

“Drunk in the trench, sir,” Dunleavy said.

Vines curled about cracked and ancient columns, and if you looked close, you could see birds hiding there. A quiet place Miller had made himself, a spot like my graveyard.

“What have you to say for yourself?”

“Wasn’t drunk, sir.”

Dunleavy said, “Won’t say who he had it from. And he’s a smart mouf on him.”

“Yes. That he does. Stand on one foot, Private.”


“One foot, please.”

I couldn’t balance for long. “Got a cold, sir. Makes me woozy.”

“I see. Count backward from one hundred if you will, Private.”

It was slow going, but I reached eighty-six when he told me to stop. Then we stood around and waited a while.

“Sir?” asked Dunleavy.

Miller said, “That will be all. Harter? Dismissed.” The batman put down his mending, got up, and followed Dunleavy through the door, closing it quietly behind him.

Miller never took his eyes off me. “You are skirting the edge of drunkenness. Next time I might have you shot.”


“At ease. You’re an interesting problem, Stanhope. I did not give you permission to sit.”

My leg ached something fierce from where Dunleavy had thrown me down. “Yes, sir.”

“You are perhaps the most amusing person I’ve ever known. And your cloddishness does not serve to completely disguise your intelligence.”

“Thank you, sir.” The roses bothered me—they were a faded dusty color, as if the flowers had been too long away from sun.

“It was not meant by way of compliment, Private. I intended to point out that you are smart and perceptive; and therefore I believe that you will take this suggestion in the manner in which it is meant: Do not spend so much of your free time around Private LeBlanc. He is a bad influence. I see that surprises you.”

It shocked holy hell out of me. “Sir. Can I speak frankly, sir?”

“I was under the assumption that this is a friendly talk, Stanhope. Not quite a dressing-down.”

The dugout smelled of Earl Grey tea. A kettle sat on his primus stove, a plate of sugar cookies by it. If it was a friendly conversation, he would have asked me if I wanted a cuppa and a biscuit. I could near taste those cookies of his, Bobby. Sugar glistened like ice across their tops. They were yellow with butter, the way Ma likes to make them. I imagined my teeth sinking into the soft dough, crunching through that hard sweetness.

“So what is it, Stanhope? I’m attentively waiting.”

“Who am I supposed to talk with, sir? I mean, if it’s not LeBlanc, who else?”

“Um. Odd. I was not under the impression that LeBlanc was acquainted with the English Romantic poets. Is he?”

“No, sir.”

“Then what is his attraction for you?”

“Well, sir, he’s funny.”


Miller saw everything. Hadn’t he seen the humor in LeBlanc? “That boy cusses up a storm, sir. And he’ll flat say anything that comes into his head.”

“I see.” Those watchful eyes. Not like Pa’s, but something in them scared me. Abruptly he said, “Sit down.”

My leg gave out. I aimed for the chair and collapsed, leaving Miller shaking his head and smiling. Well, I amused him.

“Stanhope? I will tell you something in confidence. LeBlanc did not join the Canadian forces willingly. He was running from a spot of trouble. No. Don’t ask. I will give no details. But other than his brush with the law, I also find him—as did his fellow Canadians—insolent and surly to the point of boorishness. He does not follow orders and he fails miserably to get along well with others. He is an excellent killing soldier, but a poor excuse for a man. You are not. I need your cooperation, Stanhope. You would do me the favor, please, of helping your platoon run smoothly.”

“If you need me so bad,” I asked, “then why the hell did you try to kill me?”

Not as much guilt as I’d hoped for. The skin between his eyebrows creased. “What are you talking about?”

“That time you sent Marrs and me for water, sir, and the Boche were waiting, and Marrs got shot in the butt. You had to have known they would be there.”

“Is that what you’ve thought? Good Lord. I ... Why would I take it in my mind to kill you?”

“You’d know best, sir.”

He sat back in his chair and regarded me, perplexed, like my face had just sprouted a hairy ass. Finally he said, “You are the best sharpshooter in the battalion. Because of you, my company totals are extraordinarily high.”

“Yes, sir. I’d heard that.”

“So how did you come by your odd conclusion?”

“Somebody in Ninth Platoon told Dewberry who told Thweat who told Smoot that you’d gotten an updated message about enemy positions, sir.”

There was a pencil on his desk. He picked it up and toyed with it a while. “Do you know what I am, Stanhope?”

And so I said, “Sir, I’m real glad you brought that up. This ought to be right out on the table, far as I’m concerned. It don’t matter to me one way or t’other, and I want you to believe that, sir, I really do. Also, I want you to know I have never once spoke about you to nobody. Way I feel, it just ain’t nobody’s business. I considered at the time that you were a real gentleman about it, and didn’t push or nothing. And you don’t go flaunting it, not like some I’ve seen. I like you. I really do, and predilections aside, I think we ought to get together more. Not suggesting we ... but, hell, a good conversation about literature every once in a while wouldn’t hurt nothing, right?”

The pencil tapped the desk firmly. Once. Twice. “I am a Jew.”

The roses on the wall were dusty, like the flowers in the little girls’ graves. A Jew. Simple short words; still, I couldn’t quite understand what he was telling me.

“And as a Jew, Stanhope, I am disliked and distrusted by many of the other officers. It is more difficult for a Jew, you understand, to establish an army career, as I fully intend to do. I will succeed here, Stanhope. Despite them. Despite you. Despite Private Pierre LeBlanc. I would prefer, however, if I had your good will.”

I nodded. “Sir.”

“Needn’t be so lackluster about it.”

“Sorry, sir. It’s just ...”

“Well, right you are. All settled.” He got up. I did, too.

“Do take a biscuit with you, Stanhope. My mother sends them.” When I bent to select one, he said softly, “A long way, America. Difficult to mail things, without them going bad.”

The compassion in his voice. It surprised the hell out of me. And because it was so unexpected, it was needle-sharp with hurt, too. Tears came. I didn’t dare straighten up.

“I will give you an order that you may not care for.”

Gaze still on the cookies, I said, “Sir?”

“I wish you to counsel with Father O’Shaughnessy.”

I blinked away the last of the wet and turned, my cookie fast in my hand. “I’m not a papist, sir.”

“Neither am I, but I’m not thoroughly convinced that O’Shaughnessy is quite the good little Catholic, either.”

The cookie was damned tasty. I’m to meet with O’Shaughnessy day after tomorrow. Confession is sacred, Miller assures me; but what does he want me to say? Should I confess how I lie in my cot and think about him? Not the way you’re thinking, nor the way he’d like; but just wondering what he’s doing, if he’s reading or maybe what he’s eating. Oh, shit. That doesn’t sound like something a normal man would do. I’ve never had a problem. Ask around, Bobby. Near every lady in town—married or single—could tell you that. Still, do you think there’s something about myself I haven’t learned? I hope to God not.

Considering everything I’ve said here, I believe this is a letter I’ll hold onto until we see each other face-to-face.

Travis Lee

* * *


Dear Bobby,

A comfortable cot, a tent over my head, but still last night Trantham walked my favorite graveyard. At least I think I heard his voice. I yelled back, loud as I could, “Couldn’t expect us to go get you!” but he kept calling, calling, and I don’t know if he was calling for me, or for his ma, or for somebody just to for Christ’s sake go out and take him down off that barbed wire. He sounded so lost, and the dark by the cypress is so deep, like the shade in the thicket where I used to take Imogene Blaylock so I could sweet-talk the drawers off her; a place so secretive that you felt you could hide from God.

It was in the safe, bright morning of the reserve area when I asked O’Shaughnessy about my ruminations; and I was pure scandalized when, instead of answering, he took a cigarette out of his tunic pocket and lit up. He offered me one. They were expensive English smokes, smoother than the half-manure ones I’d gotten used to. The damned cigarette was so good that we just walked and smoked for a while.

It was leafy summer in the reserve area, with everything that had been budding a month earlier in full flower now. Nature was pushy and prosperous. Larks circled, singing up the sun. My counseling time with O’Shaughnessy had got me out of a session of rifle cleaning and enforced sock mending. Having some time to myself without shells and bullets or busy work was pure glory.

“Can one hide from God, I wonder,” O’Shaughnessy said. We passed under an ash’s cooling splash of shade. “Or does He come in to gather you up?”

I thought of Pa and got a chill up my spine for my trouble.

He must have caught sight of that. Come to find, nothing misses O’Shaughnessy’s eye, like nothing much misses Miller’s. “That disturbs you, then? The persistence of salvation?”

“Just that you ought to be able to hide somewhere, Reverend.”

“Ah. Ought one? And would you hide from forgiveness or from damnation? What terrible sins are you guilty of, my lad?”

“Not my goddamned sins,” I said. It’s tough when you get took out from your hidey-hole; but maybe it’s worse to be lost in the place Trantham is. “I dream sometimes about Trantham, Reverend.”

We passed a hedgerow where a troupe of acrobat stalks balanced flower heads like white plates.

“I seen Boatman once, too.”

“Do you think it’s ghosties you’re catching sight of?”

Trantham’s lost-sounding call.

“No shame nor terrors in it. I’ve seen them meself, lad. Ah! And what a reaction to confession! Can an Irishman not believe in ghosties?”

“You can, I guess. I don’t know if I want any truck with them.”

To one side, a velvet green pasture; to the other, a sleepy stagnant-looking bayou, the kind you’d go catfishing in. I wondered if they had channel cats, and then for a minute I imagined I could see old Charlie Whalen with one of his cane poles and that blue tick hound dog of his, and I got to missing home so bad that it felt like memory was burning me inside-out. I wanted to see a friendly black face, Bobby. I wanted to hear the music of Charlie’s kids’ laughter. It ain’t natural for a Texan to go off living someplace without coloreds and tortillas, catfish and tamales and cane poles.

“Travis. What is it you’re afraid of?”

“I’m in a damned war, sir. Jesus God almighty. Isn’t that enough? And, look. Thanks for getting me out of cleaning duty, but with all due respect, don’t go pretending there’s something between us just to get up next to me. I don’t plan to tell you much of nothing. Next thing I know, you and Captain Miller would be making more fun.”

He looked utterly stricken. “Ah, lad. Was it our laughing at your shoes, then?”

There were spotted milk cows in the pasture and a calf with buds for horns. I thought of the innocence of white-faced Herefords; the rambunctiousness of Ma’s fancy goats.

“Come now. I’ll be giving you my sincere apology. Mea culpa. There. Is that enough? Now I’ve a mind for a bit of conversation, Travis, and Captain says you’re quite the philosopher. Would he be lying, then?”

“Look. I don’t know.”

He whispered sadly, “Whose sin is it, Travis? What terrible thing are you hiding from?”

I was anxious all of a sudden; memory itching at me bad. “I don’t know.”

I started back fast.

Behind me came O’Shaughnessy’s voice. “The first time I was in a gassing, I nearly took my mask off, for I saw ghosties: German and English and French. Oh, but there’s a great many ghosties here.”

His voice was getting fainter all the time; still, what he said sent a shiver of cold right through me. I stared hard at the dead calm surface of the bayou where no fish jumped, no dragonfly hovered.


I didn’t stop. I couldn’t.

“Tell me the sin, Travis, for I fear you’ll be seeing the ghosties, too!”

I have these dreams, Bobby. They’re only dreams. Besides, there’s no sin left to punish. It was over long ago. The best thing to do is forget. Christ help me. Why can’t I just forget? Pa’s going blind, Bobby. He can’t find me anymore.

Travis Lee

* * *


Dear Bobby,

Major Dunn is back, and on crutches. Hear he goes around telling everybody who’ll listen that last year the king got his fat self throwed by General Haig’s chestnut mare, so Dunn figures as how he’s in good company. Today he called us in for a little talking-to. We stood at attention by the YMCA pavilion while a sweet light rain was falling. I watched the foliage near me shiver under the gentle blows of the drops.

Dunn talked about duty and honor and of how virtue was expected from us, seeing as how we were in an insolent and discourteous place. It was all very well and good, he said, for a Frenchman to go around doing wickedness, but the English must set an example. He called our battalion, that bunch of whore-fucking lice-infested bastards, “Guiding Lights.” He rambled so that this particular Guiding Light got tickled. To shut me up, Dewberry stomped hard on my foot.

When the flowery prose all ran out of him and Dunn finally dismissed us, I ducked Corporal Dunleavy’s stare and double-timed it to the meadow where our company team, the Jam-Pots, was fixing to play Captain Dunston-Smith’s Maconochies.

Marrs caught up with me there. “Lay you half a crown on the winner, Stanhope.”

Knowing our players, I took the Maconochies. I watched both sides kick hell out of that ball. The game didn’t make a damned bit of sense.

Surrounded by a crowd of ass-kissing officers, Major Dunn was grinning like a fool. “Sound body; sound heart,” he was saying, like their idea of football could drive back the Boche.

Smoot ambled up, eating peaches out of a tin his ma had sent him. He passed the can around. “Think it was the Frenchies, meself,” he said.

Marrs, chewing open-mouthed on a peach, told him, “Nobody I knows would do it.”

I poked my fingers around in the syrup, fished myself up a slick bite of fruit. “What?” I asked.

“What Dunn was preaching about.” Smoot took the can from me. He laughed. “Had to be pitch-dark for a poke like that.”

Marrs flushed, angry. “Not proper subject for a giggle, Smoot. Bashed her eye out, I hears, and her a grandmum.”

The problem talking with Brits is being lost in conversation all the time. “What?”

I got their attention.

“What the hell you boys talking about?”

“Well, it’s the old lady, ain’t it,” Smoot said. “That French old lady that got beaten and worse.”

Marrs shook his head. “Wasn’t you listening, then? We been talking it up in the tents.”

“Our little Yank’s been skulking about the side of the billets drinking his winnings, is what. Why go sneaking your drinks, Stanhope? ’Fraid them temperance ladies back home will see?”

“Shut your goddamned mouth, Smoot.”

Smoot pushed me. I pushed back. Marrs stepped in between. I saw O’Shaughnessy giving us the eye.

“Anyway, had to be dark,” Smoot grumbled. He lifted the can, drank the syrup. “I seen her. The one who ran the bakeshop. The one with the yellowish gray hair that stood up like a brush all ’round. She had a great bloody wen on her cheek. Even the fat whore’s a sight better. And the sod nearly beat her to death just to get his bird in. So who was the buggering bastard? Was he blind? Or did he have great sodding bad taste? I says it has to be a Frenchie. Wouldn’t be one of us. Was you drunk enough to give an old lady a tumble, Stanhope?”

Goddamn him for asking me that question, for all of them staring at me, waiting to hear my answer. When Smoot passed me the peach can, I shoved it at Marrs and went back to the tent.

To my disappointment I saw that Riddell was there. He was listening to Elgar, his eyes closed, his expression blissful. At my entrance he raised his head. “Stanhope. Best mind your manners about Major Dunn. Major’s after excuses, ain’t ’e. I know Captain’s a Jew, but ’e’s a bit of all right. I won’t have you cocking things up for ’im.”

I went to my pack, got out my canteen and my dog-eared, musty-smelling copy of Shelley.

“You mind what I said?”

“Yes, sir. Going back out to watch the game, sir.”

“Must take your rum with?”

That went all over me like a cold-water shower. “Look, Sergeant? Can I speak frankly, sir?”

Riddell shrugged. “Bloody ’abit with you.”

“I don’t know what you folks expect. And it’s not like I drink a lot, not like you boys do when you’re kicking up your heels. Hell, I never touched a drop before I came here, but you were always pushing it on me, remember? I figure you didn’t want me to notice I was sitting in a hole getting shelled, or you didn’t want me to notice I was being fed shit. A little swaller of rum every once in a while don’t affect my aim, sir. Don’t I shoot enough goddamned Boche for you?”

In the corner, Elgar played on in a proper and upstanding major key.

Riddell lay back down, closed his eyes. “You’re such the Yank, Stanhope. Always fighting a revolution, even one you’ve just concocted. Seriously lad, me mum ’as a recipe to ’elp the craving. When you want for it, ask. But don’t let this go on, for as it sits now, I can picture the day that you’ll end up arrested and thrown in the glasshouse, or worse, me or Dunleavy will ask you out for a summary execution.”

He wants to put a scare into me. But hell, Bobby, it’s not like I get drunk or nothing. Not like Pa. It’s just that I’m hungry and cold all the time. Seems, too, like I’m either scared shitless or bored. They drink and nobody says Jack Shit about it. There’s nobody here to talk to, Bobby. Lord, how I miss home. I hear the rain sometimes when I’m half asleep and think it’s a creek flowing clear and clean through limestone. I smell onions cooking and imagine it’s a pot of pinto beans starting. Damn it. It’s not like I’m fall-down drunk or nothing. It’s not like they make it sound. The rum ration is just a little something to keep my mind off things, Bobby, that’s all. It’s just a little something to do.

Travis Lee

* * *


Dear Bobby,

It was Sunday when we started back. Each time we leave the safety of the reserve area I want to grab hold of the earth and not let go.

They held church before we started the long march. I stood by a crumbling stone wall near the YMCA pavilion and listened to a choir carol that damned lie: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

That’s where O’Shaughnessy caught up with me. He’d shucked his British Army uniform for that black dress of his, and he was wearing what looked like a girl’s lacy nightgown over it.

“Well, isn’t it a perfect symbolic sight I’m coming across: God and men within, Travis Stanhope without. ’Tis your choice, lad. God and those men would accept you.”

He was the brightest thing in the world that morning. The linen shone like sun on snow. His skin was so pale and cheeks so ruddy, his face glowed like a lantern. “You’re all dressed up to go out, Reverend. Don’t you have something to do?”

“A dismissal, is it? But Mass is over. Missa est. You have a grand romantic loneliness in you, Travis. It’s that you needn’t, is what I’m saying.”

A pert little sparrow lit on a nearby branch. Not a Texas sparrow, but near enough.

O’Shaughnessy said, “Have you noticed that the world is full of symbols, Travis? Of course you have, you loving poetry like you do. And did you know that Martin Luther gave us that lofty hymn you’re hearing? But Luther was a terrible wastrel of a man. He threw away the finest parts of the Church: the symbols.”

Way beyond the pavilion, I could see LeBlanc standing. He was looking my way, probably wondering why I’d been snubbing him; why, this near eternity, he suddenly found himself alone. Men die here. They lose their arms, their legs, their minds. There shouldn’t be any fretting over Martin Luther or bad influences. In Flanders, nothing matters much.

O’Shaughnessy clapped his hands. “A boy of few words, I see. We must discuss Emily Dickinson one day. A fine, precise use of words she had. Keen as a paring knife. We Irish love the language, but it’s our habit to run on and on.”

The hymn ended, and following on its heels came the doxology. I picked up my pack and settled its load across my shoulders.

“And a heavy weight it is, Travis,” O’Shaughnessy said, “with the sin of rum filling your canteen.”

I threw the pack down. “Goddamn it! So that’s why Miller wanted me to talk to you! Well, you can just tell him to keep his damned nose out of my business. I won these watered-down excuses for rations fair and square. So I add a couple of drops to my canteen. So what? It cuts the taste of the chlorine. Besides, you don’t have no right to talk. You’re the one who gives out wine to folks, and to little kids, to boot. The church where I grew up, it was grape juice. I’ve seen how you papists work. You smoke. You drink whiskey. Don’t you try to put no hellfire and brimstone on me.”

He laughed. The company began filing out of the pavilion into the light. I shouldered my pack and hurried fast as I could away.

An hour later Uncle Miller called us into formation and I was glad to go. We were shelled all the way back, but it was such a slow metal rain that we didn’t bother to take cover. We walked, listening to the whistles as they came down, flinching at the crumps and spurts of dirt when they hit. Light artillery, and you could hear death coming so slow that you could step out of its way. We stopped to rest with shells falling all around; and when we got to the trenches, we found that the cooks had fixed bubble and squeak. Riddell rhapsodized about it so, that it must have been to him like Ma’s venison chili is to me.

“All that’s needed is bangers or a bite of toasted cheese, maybe an egg sandwich.”

And down in that slime trench with the stench of shit and the rot of old French corpses, the rest of the platoon agreed. Bubble and squeak. Tasted like death to me.

I dreamed about Trantham and the graveyard last night. He was calling something pitiful. I started to go get him, but the place beyond the cypress was too dark, like the spot where the world ends. I yelled for Trantham to come out. He didn’t. God, Bobby. He’s in the place ghosties come from.

Travis Lee

* * *


Dear Bobby,

Pickering thinks they’ll be sending us over the top soon. Him and Smoot are having us make jam-pots and Battye bombs, ’cause there aren’t near enough real grenades. Old Uncle Miller’s been bearing down on the inspections, and yesterday he cut poor, shy Marrs a new asshole for having dirt in his gun.

Something’s for sure going on. There’s rumors all up and down the line, and I hear tell that when we left the rear area, Riddell left his precious gramophone and Elgar behind.

Keep Ma’s church group praying hard, ’cause you just can’t never tell.

Travis Lee

* * *


Dear Bobby,

We moved out a few days ago. Got us some new trenches.

They aren’t half bad. Food still tastes like what you get mucking out the chicken coop.

Kiss Ma for me,

Travis Lee

* * *


Dear Bobby,

One day we’ll sit down on the front porch swing. We’ll have ourselves some lemonade and crack us a bowlful of pecans. When the sun goes down, we’ll light the coal oil lamps and listen to the frogs croon by the stock tank. We’ll count June bugs. Some easy evening when we’re together again, Bobby, that’s when I’ll give you this letter.

On the last night of June we went over the top. It was still that morning, but by afternoon the wind had kicked up.

“Don’t like that wind,” Foy said. “Coming straight at us.”

Unless the wind changed, Fritz would use gas.

Marrs wrote a last letter to his girlfriend. “How many Maxims you think?” he asked, and tucked the letter in a pocket near his heart.

“Lots and lots. Why, you’ll have blood all over, that way,” Pickering said. “She’ll have to wash it to read it, Marrs, and the ink will all run.”

Dunleavy snapped, “Shut up. Fasten that webbing.”

I checked my ammunition, checked it again. My hands shook, and I hoped no one could see me trembling.

Pickering punched Marrs in the side. “Just don’t get shot in the brain, like you were last time. As soon as they start firing, Marrs, sit your plump bum down.”

Quiet. I never heard the world so quiet. Standing shoulder to shoulder with a thousand men, but not a cough, not a mutter. Then from that hush came a low mosquito buzz. Everyone looked up. Overhead was an aeroplane, one of Fritz’s. The batteries set up a thumping barrage, over as quick as it started. It was a little yellow plane, Bobby, tiny as a toy; and it went down in silence, painting a thin black line of smoke down the blue wall of the sky.

When the sun was low and the light was brassy they ordered us up the communication trench, jostling, single file. The hole stank of last year’s corpses. Behind us our own big guns rang out for the fourth time in as many hours. As the sun set, British fire lit up the gray dusk.

Whispers approached up the trench. A hissed “Stanhope!” from Smoot in front. “Forward companies ready, pass it on.” I turned to Marrs and gave him the message, and the message was carried back to waiting officers by a thousand voices, one by one. The earth shook. The walls of the trench crumbled. Dirt spattered us. I fingered my gas mask just to make sure it was there. I clutched my rifle tighter.

The Boche couldn’t survive that shelling. Nothing could. The Tommies gave them earthquakes of artillery, geysers of dazzling fire. I pictured the Boche cramped together in their small dark places, terror-stricken by noise. God, Bobby. The bright, dreadful beauty of it. I wondered if the barrage that had killed McPhearson and wounded me had looked as awesome from a distance.

In too short a time—but it had always seemed so far—we were at the front-line trench. Riddell barked: “Fourteen here, sir!” and I shouldered my way into the crowd. The sun had set. The only light was the flickering orange glow from the English shelling. Dunleavy handed out the rum ration—unwatered this time—a scant jigger for each. A jigger. And I wanted so bad to get drunk.

Riddell climbed halfway up the ladder and took a quick peek through the trench periscope. I would be climbing that ladder myself in a minute or so. I’d go sprinting across a place only fools set foot. I doubted I was brave enough, and that scared me even more.

Strange, Bobby, seeing yourself as a feeble collection of meat and bone. A bullet could stop me in a heartbeat, shrapnel silence my brain mid-thought. Gas could burn my lungs; I’d drown in my own juices. And I would do it to myself, just because I’d climbed a goddamned ladder.

Riddell barked out an order: “Masks on!”

The mask smelled of new leather; the valve tasted like old pennies. The goggles made me half-blind. I tucked the hem into my collar and wondered if I had fastened it well enough.

A hand touched my back. In the flashing light of the barrage I turned and saw the insignia. Miller, only the sad eyes in his goggles recognizable. He squeezed past me.

The Boche returned fire, a lackluster, light artillery. Above No Man’s Land star shells burst into pale greenish light.

Time. Miller was at the ladder and we were going and there wasn’t any time. Cold settled in my lungs and I started to shiver hard. Around me a collection of faceless waiting men. Smoot—I think it was Smoot—fiddling with his bandolier.

Miller’s hand lifted to the rungs. Another deep-throated barrage, then the sharp icy shrieks of the whistles and Miller was up the ladder and gone, another soldier behind him, another.

I touched the wood. I’d lose strength at the last minute. I wouldn’t have the heart. I wouldn’t be able to make it up the ladder, and they would call it a Blighty and send me home. One, two, three rungs. The ladder shuddered under my weight. Ahead was our wire and the holes our sappers had cut. Beyond, the lumpy expanse of No Man’s Land.

It wasn’t real. Nothing was real, not the battle litter that made me stumble, not the rat-a-tat-tat of the machine guns, not me. Especially not me.

Soldiers ahead broke into a run, so I did, too. Was anyone beside me? With the goggles, the sides of the world were gone. There was a slow rolling yellowish fog on the horizon, and all of us were running to it. I sucked air and wondered if the metal taste was the valve or fear or if I was drinking gas.

The fog bank swallowed Miller. I stumbled into the mist after him. Was there anyone beside me? Was I running in the right direction? I could be heading back toward our lines. I’d be safe. No. I’d be caught and court-martialed. God. I could be running on the diagonal and never reach the other side.

The low hum of falling shells. Tooth-rattling blasts all around. And then a figure through the fog, one of O’Shaughnessy’s ghosts.

No, just Smoot, the eyes behind his goggles wide. He tripped over something and went sprawling. I pulled him up and we ran on. We ran until a furious ratcheting of machine-gun fire sent us diving for the nearest shell hole.

We kept our heads down. Around us, bullets slapped the dirt. Should we be stopping here? Would we get in trouble for this? The gas was so thick at the bottom of the shell hole that it had to be seeping through the canvas sacking. I sucked air through the metal straw of my mask. My throat tightened. My lungs ached. I was already dizzy. Smoot stayed where he was, hugging the ground, so I did, too.

The wind picked up. The fog thinned, dark smoke billowing. Someone threw himself into the hole with us.

“What in bloody ’ell’r—” Riddell. He paused, sucking air furiously through his mask’s valve. When he spoke again his words were muffled and strained. “—you doing?”

I saw Smoot hesitate. Then he spit out his valve and said, “Waiting.”

“For bloody what?”

Not me. I wasn’t about to answer. There was too much goddamned gas. My teeth bit down on the valve, the metal sending a shiver up my spine.

Smoot said, each word a risk, “Well, they’re firing ... at us, aren’t they.”

“ ’Course they’re firing ... at you! Christ! You a ... nutter or sommit? ’Course ... they’re firing.” Riddell took a Battye bomb from his pouch and threw it.

The Battye bombs. The grenades. The jam-pots we’d spent time making. Under fire, we’d forgotten.

I chucked a few toward the machine-gun emplacement. Smoot did, too. We either got the Boche or he moved, for the Maxim went silent. Shells kept falling.

Up and out of the hole, back into dream. People moving ahead. The dying glow of the flares cast green fire down bayonets. My gas mask was heavy. It made my world tiny, cramped, and hot. The breeze blew; black tarry smoke thinned. I caught the tastes of pineapple and pepper. Chlorine.

Gunfire, not the spit of Maxims but the pop-pop of rifles. Riddell fixed his bayonet and started to run. Smoot did too. I tripped and fell over a corpse with a coal-shuttle helmet. Where was I? What was he doing here? Then the breeze blew the smoke to me. Smoot had left me behind and I was alone. Where were the Boche trenches now? I didn’t know what else to do, so I got up and went on.

The flares had gone dark. The only light was that from the explosions. A Maxim started up, this time from a different direction; and I found myself a crater and took cover. Someone was in the hole with me. Not much more than shadow, his gas mask gave him a pale lollipop of a head. To my left an orange flash, bright enough so I recognized the eyes in the goggles. Smoot was watching me.

I reached out to touch him and my fingers sank. My hand was up to the wrist inside his guts and he was still alive and moving around a little; and even when I wiped my hand on my pants and wiped it and wiped it I could still feel the wet heat of his insides. It took everything I had not to throw up in my mask.

What did Smoot expect me to do? I wasn’t a doctor yet. He kept looking at me and I could see the hole in his belly now and his dark glistening liver and his pale guts dangling out. Jesus. How could he be wounded and live like that? Where was Riddell? He was the goddamned sergeant. Riddell would go find a weed for him.

My chest felt jittery inside, like I was going to laugh.

He was trying to get his mask off. I spit out my valve. “No! Shit! No! Don’t do that.” My mouth went searching for my valve again, like a baby hunting for a teat. I took a hurried breath that tasted of pineapple. “Gas in the hole ... All right. It’s okay.” Jesus. Chlorine. You didn’t feel chlorine happening. You didn’t know for sure it had worked until your own lungs started to drown you. “Stretcher’s coming.”

Guts hanging all down his leg.

“No! Don’t look.” I sucked in a thirsty gasp of tin-flavored air. “Just pulled ... yourself a Blighty.” Around me bullets punched the dirt.

Smoot’s weak fingers tugged at the mask. I’d have let him take it off if the gas would have killed him any quicker.

Since we couldn’t talk, I lay down beside him so that I could look him in the eye. I thought if I was dying that’s what I would want somebody to do. He reached out and held my hand. He held on tight, and I let him. His fingers were cold. I lay there until the whine of incoming shells started coming farther and farther apart. I stayed until the Maxim went still. By then Smoot was still, too. His eyes were fixed. I pried his stiff fingers off me, stood up, and started walking.

I walked around shell holes and through a ruin of wire. I nearly fell over the German parapet. Except for the bodies, the trench was empty. Nearby, fires smoldered and cast a tense and uneasy light across the corpses.

Down the trench, Tommies were milling. We had taken the forward Boche position, and the sun was coming up.

Miller was there, his gas mask off, regrouping to move forward. The shelling had stopped except for mortars. When I took my mask off, the air was cool. The breeze smelled clean and safe, something like the air after a bad storm. Then it was up and over the muddy parados and the long tiring slow charge to the Boche rear, at a walk. Feet moving: That was all I knew. I didn’t have the strength to lift my rifle, to hold my bayonet in position. I was so tired, I didn’t care if they killed me.

We arrived in the afternoon and found the rear trenches deserted. Miller said we could stop. I sat with LeBlanc on the parapet of the Boche trench and drank the tea Pickering made our six platoon survivors: Foy and Riddell, Marrs, me and LeBlanc.

“Assholes,” LeBlanc said. “Goddamned Brit artillery falls short all the time. If they hadn’t been using those American sawdust bombs they would have killed the rest of us. Hey, Stanhope. Here’s to American capitalism, eh?” And he drank a toast. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. What do you think, Stanhope? Think we should have kept advancing? Miller was for it. Half his company down, but he borrowed some balls from the old Fourteenth. Christ knows, Dunleavy didn’t need his anymore. Think Miller was trying to prove something? Stanhope? You listening?”

I didn’t know what to say. The world was strange there on the other side. I could hear the slow thump of my heart. The remains of that morning’s sweat lay clammy on the nape of my neck. I was happy, Bobby. That’s the strange thing. I felt life so keen—why didn’t I feel death any sharper? All the platoon but six. Smoot’s blood was caked under my nails, and I used my penknife to clean it. After a while LeBlanc went away.

We rested, and after O’Shaughnessy blessed the corpses, the cadre was ordered up. They buried our dead; then they buried the Boche. They sent the handful of tired-looking prisoners to the rear. Some of the Boche didn’t seem to know what had happened, and had to be led away.

That evening in an intact officer’s dugout Captain Dunston-Smith found a piano. He sat and played Chopin. The music drew Miller and me and three men from another platoon. We all stood, tired and mute, listening to etudes.

It was odd in those tumbled-down trenches that we’d won. Where the dugouts were still undamaged, we found books and letters and pictures: odds and ends of the lives of those who had retreated. Most of the ones who stayed died when the earth caved in. Some died from simple concussion, and we found them gathered in their dark holes, curled up like little kids sleeping, blood caking their nostrils and ears.

We slept, and I didn’t dream, and the next morning Command issued sandbags. We’re to rebuild the trench. Looks like with the ghosties is where we’ll stay.

Travis Lee

Back | Next