Claude had not slept well in the muck and soot, dreaming feverishly of home and his village being swallowed in imaginary flames. He did not wake from the sound of artillery fire, though of course it was there, always, like a ticking clock. Instead, he woke to men debating.
“This whole business is like mixing oil with water,” Jacques said. “Now I have to walk around at night to the smell of Tommies, like wet dog.”
Another infantryman brushed off the French sergeant’s comments, pulling his goatskin coat closer to his body as if that might do something to ease the cold. “Surely us Brits aren’t all that bad. The latrines are what really do us in; all that flooding makes a mess of things.”
“I was talking about the dead ones,” Jacques said, almost smiling. “You all know how to take a bullet in the head if nothing else.”
The Brit frowned, a heavy disgust spreading across his face. they both moved on down the trench and Claude felt sick at the thought and the smell.
There was no sun at dawn, just gray powder that sped forward in the wind. It was the debris of whole nations, Europe itself, floating through air as civilization collapsed into pinched moments of gunfire. It rained a deep cold, crusted into slush, then stopped, freezing hell over again. Claude attempted to ring out his clothes, but they were soaked and stiff; the clay and blood stains would not come out. Fresh mud seeped into his boots. Claude did not bother to move, letting the chill sweep over him until he shivered.
Everyone shivered in those days, pressed between the pastures of Flanders, and the icy bristle of the sea. The men, hardly boys, shifted about in slow clumps of frost and weaponry. They were worms gnawing holes in the soil, searching, blindly grasping about in darkness for a place to hide from the tremendous weight of war.
Claude exited the dugout as officers called for inspection. They had new paths to shovel before it got too light. The troop’s breath were plumes vanishing in the air around them as they ladled out dirt. Claude slipped into the work, tunneling on muscle memory alone, gripped with the unshakable thought that they might be digging their own shallow graves.
At break, men complained about flooding, how the mud and holiday parcels were slowing carts down, and now rations were already dwindling this week. But mostly they complained about each other. The story went that toward the start of the war, French and British regiments had been fighting the Germans close by. There was a dip in the land. Like marbles rolling down opposite ends, they clanged into one another and by sheer force of momentum had merged into a single unit. The battalion was a total oddity, a beast patched together from separate parts and now left stuck and misshapen in the haze of war. Claude didn’t mind the company; the French always played good poker.
The complaints went on while Claude picked at a canned collection of old vegetables in a rancid broth, stuffing the end of a carrot and a rotted cube of turnip into his lapel for later. The grease of the tin-meal congealed into fat on his fingertips. He pulled his fingers together, rolled the fat into a waxy ball, and stuck it with the vegetables.
Soldiers were clustered together in a narrow space along the trench. They chewed the food like cattle, heads bent down against the wind. Claude tapped the shoulder of a tall French lieutenant with cigarettes to trade for the bulk of his turnip. The Frenchman was gaunt, a skeleton under faded colors of a blue and red uniform.
He spoke musically in his French babble. Claude pieced words together. The Frenchman divided the turnip into slivers and handed Claude a cigarette. Claude lit it silently, squatting behind a wall of sandbags, holding it away from the sky, cupping fumes with his palm so it did not all trail out at once. The bitter-warm taste, like toasted birch, was still new to him. The way it massaged the brain was desperately familiar. His father was there with his tobacco breath, pacing back and forth in Claude’s bedroom, railing against the Boers and lost battles amongst green hills from his own youth, then the image was gone. Several men gravitated toward the smell, huddling near Claude, wordless.
A fellow Brit, barely recognizable, with sunken eyes and curled hair approached Claude, taking in the nicotine.
“Sometimes,” the infantryman said, “I think the explosions have made silence uncomfortable to me. If you ever put me in a silent field, I will kill everything that moves.” The infantryman turned back toward the front. A shower of heat and radiant beams replaced the dim sun and rumbled. “If you put me in a noisy field, I will kill everything that moves…but only because I am ordered to.”
He winked at Claude.
Claude puffed his cigarette, eyed the strange infantryman, and shrugged. The others stared at them both. A fat Englishman, a Frenchman built like steel, and two more bony Parisians who gazed with a hollow presence at the world around them.
“Artillery,” the infantryman continued, “it is a symphony.” He demonstrated, thumbing through air. Hands moved in smooth invisible waves.
This should have been amusing, but it was not. Claude shuffled away an inch. The strange soldier pulled a carrot stick from his pocket and stepped up a ladder out onto the parapet, hands whipping around faster in the wind. He acted like he was composing in front of a grand orchestra of kindled sod and iced earth, swinging his arms as shells dropped up ahead.
The men, gathered in their nicotine-orange glow, ran toward him. The large Frenchman was there first tackling the infantryman into the puddle at their feet.
“Keep your hands down, by God!” the fat Brit yelled.
A quick tap of bullets flew overhead, everyone crouched down expecting death. Claude followed their example. The infantryman lay still. His uniform was soaked, a drab thread of khakis and badges that meant nothing now. He stared unblinking at Claude and would not stop. Claude backed away further and put his cigarette out against the trench wall; they all did. The winds changed, and the smoke was pushing too far upward. Taps of bullets traced back toward them, then faded away again. One of the gaunt Parisians took the carrot from the ground. He did not wipe off the grime but just stuck it in his cheek and gnawed.
“What’s wrong with him?” Claude asked.
A brash soldier appeared strapped with extra bayonets, the French sergeant who Claude recognized with a lurking disdain as Jacques.
“He has gone mad,” Jacques said. He spoke in loud accented English. “It happens to everyone eventually.”
Jacques walked over the soldier’s body and toward the Frenchman with cigarettes. The other soldiers dragged the madman to the side where he sat up and fluttered his hands in tiny circles, still composing his melody. Claude’s breath increased. Plumes grew hotter on his tongue. He couldn’t help himself and followed Jacques.
“You say eventually?” Claude sputtered this out and almost walked into Jacques as the sergeant stopped and turned back. “But this has to end soon. I’ve been hearing words of possible peace.”
Jacques looked Claude up and down, like admiring a porcelain doll.
“There is no end to war.”
Jacques grinned; his teeth had a sharpness to them. “Victories, defeats, armistice, these are just words. They mean nothing. But guerre, guerre means something. It means a going on. That is what is expected of you and me. You go on, and when you don’t go on there will be no words because you’ll be dead.”
“So what of peace?”
It was Christmas Eve, Claude had silly thoughts coursing through him. He wanted to be preparing a round slick pheasant with his grandfather, heating vegetables until onions caramelized in the iron pan, whipping the plum pudding together with candied raisins and sugared milk. He wanted to be in church pulling his sister’s hair to the sound of a cedar-box organ until his mother smacked him. He wanted to feel the seaside bustle when they rode into Portsmouth, where he would press his face against a shop window full of tin soldiers and a Meccano construction kit.