by Stephen Faulkner
Word had not even come down from Command and yet we all knew that something was afoot. No mystical light had to shine down from the heavens for us to be aware that something unusual had occurred. All we had to do was bask in the uncommon silence to sense that something right had happened for once. The absence of the roar of the artillery, the blast of mortars and the pop of grenades being lobbed into No-Man’s-Land was sufficient evidence, the realization that the customary background rattle of rifle fire, theirs and ours, had been stilled.
Billy Bantlor had run the entire length of the trench from his radio shelter to bring me the news. Before he could stop panting with the exertion of his race, I asked him, “Is it over?”
Billy knew what I meant right away: the war, the fighting, the whole mess out there in the trench-crossed and muddy field. Would we be shipped back home again soon? Was it really over and done with? Armistice, peace, normality, all the less violent, merely sneering hostilities to be resumed?
“Not likely,” Billy managed to get out between gulps of air. “It is a cease fire, though, Yank.”
“Good news,” I allowed. “But why?”
“Now that’s the puzzle of it, Freddy me boyo,” said the bandy legged radioman. “Can’t really say. Just that it is, that’s all.”
“Can’t say? What is it, then, Top Secret or something? I mean where’s the order come from? Who’s truce, ours or Jerry’s?”
“Well,” he said, plainly abashed. “You know us Limeys – do without asking and all that. Tea at four and no questions as to why even if you can’t stand the bloody stuff. Do as the leftenant says with a ‘very good, suh!’ and leave him to worry about the need for whatever damn fool thing he’s told you to do.”
“You mean you just don’t know,” I said, stating the fact.
“About the size of it,” he said, one of his puckish smiles itching at the corners of his mouth. “But that’s what she says.”
“Hey, cut the dirty backtalk, Billy,” I told him, giving him a playful swat on the arm. “Just get yourself back to your squawk box and see if you can find what this is all about.”
“Will do, Guv,” he said, ready to spring. “’Fore I go, though, you got one o’ them Yankee fags?”
“Camels,” I said, fishing the pack of cigarettes out of my shirt pocket.
“Humps to you.” He accepted the butt and the light.
“Tell me if it hurts.”
“Ooh, now, that’s kind of nasty, Fred. I throw a little jest your way and you and go make it sound’s like I’m some kind of poof lookin’ for a bugger. Not fair, Yank. You gotta be kinder wit’ yer funning’. Cease fire or not, we got a while together in this cesspool. Pays to keep your friends and not go insultin’em.”
“Sorry, Billy. It just came out wrong. In America what you call a cigarette—a fag – is what we call a poof. Thought it was fair game, that’s all. Especially when you passed that comment about humps.”
“Humps? You thought I was talkin’ the dirty stuff? Backsides and bollocks and like that? No, mate, I was talkin’ humps. You know….” He hunched over like an old man laden with a brick hod and slapped his back in illustration. “Camel humps. Like the fa…. Like the cigs. Camel, humps – get it? Boy you sure are dense sometimes, you Yanks. Real straight line thinkers, you blokes.”
“Accepted. Now gimme a slippery kiss on the phiz and I’ll get back to me post.”
“Come here, darling,” I said, smooching the air.
Billy was off like a shot. I could hear his receding laughter trailing behind him like smoke all the way down the trenchline to his radio shelter.
Billy had only just left me to see what he could find out about this mini-peace we had been awarded. Now, the air was talking to me as if the absence of the incessant bang and call of enemy barrages had to be replaced by noises and voices of my own making. I shook my head and rose to search out some company. There was always someone at hand with whom I could pass a friendly hour of talk and commiseration. For some reason, the sudden silence had given me a renewed need for that kind of easy company.
“Amerikanischer!” came the voice again. “Englander!”
I was relieved. It hadn’t been a figment of my imagination. It was a voice; far away and weak, but it was real.
“Deutsche? I called out.
“What do you want?”
All I got in answer was an indecipherable prattle of rapid German. The phrasebook I had been given to study in preparation for the possibility that I might have to deal with German prisoners of war hadn’t covered even half of what this man was saying. Gefahrte and freunde figured largely in his shouted soliloquy but I still couldn’t make any sense of it.
“Quit! Stop!” I yelled. “Nicht Sprechen!”
The man stopped his nervous calling. Silence was back like a hand covering a clamorous child’s mouth. I looked around me and found a ladder laying nearby in the mud. I set it against the wall of the trench, steadied its legs in the soft earth and climbed until my head was above the level of the land. One-hundred-fifty yards away, across the pocked and scarred expanse of what had once been a pleasant French meadow now the contested stretch of barren waste called No-Man’s Land, I saw what looked like a row of melons lying on the ground. They were, in fact, the heads of men, enemies to my country and my country’s allies in this war. They were men like myself: curious about those against whom their bombs, grenades and bullets were being thrown and fired.
“Amerikanischer?” came the voice again, made frail by the distance. “Ve tok?”
I made what in retrospect might be considered a foolish decision. Raising a hand to show my willingness for communication, I climbed the last few rungs of the ladder to the top and took a few tentative steps forward. “Jah!” I called with both hands in the air to show that I had left my rifle behind. “Come, Deutsche. We talk.”
He rose from his own trench and approached, his hands waving high above his head as if in surrender. We both trotted toward one another like old friends meeting after a long separation.
His hair, what little of it that had come untucked from under his helmet, was blonde. His face was broad, handsome and friendly. He was about Billy Bantlor’s age, perhaps about nineteen. (Billy would only answer questions about his age with a suspicious sounding “old enough;” I suspected that this bright faced youngster would probably do the same). His hands were beefy, his right crushing mine as we clasped them in greeting.
“Cigarette?” I offered.
I handed him the pack and remained ready with the matches. He held up two fingers and eyed me questioningly. I nodded. He removed two of the Camels from the pack before returning it to me and slipped the extra butt behind his ear, hiding it under his helmet. He dragged the smoke deep into his lungs and let out a rasping cough. “Rauh,” he said when he had regained his breath. Harsh. He nodded his thanks as he continued to puff rather than inhale.
His eyes brightened as a thought came to him. He rummaged in the pockets of his greatcoat and pulled out a paper wrapped item. “Schokolade?”
I accepted the morsel and unwrapped it. It had taken on a crusty layer of sickly pallor from the cold but it was delicious, nonetheless. I nodded, smiling and smacked my lips in appreciation. My companion’s expression turned to smug understanding as my delight in his little gift became apparent to him. “Deutsche schokolade,” he said proudly. “Der beste.”
There was nothing for me to do but agree, nodding my head like a happy dolt. “Danke schon,” I said. “Sehr gut.”
This made his smile even broader. He held up the stub of the lighted cigarette. “Amerikanischer zigarette – sehr gut!” he said, trading compliment for compliment. He threw the spent butt down and crushed it under his heel.
“Heinrich,” he said as his foot pressed the burnt paper and tobacco into the mud. He put out his farmer’s hand for me to shake again. He wasn’t so rough this time or perhaps his first hearty squeeze had numbed my hand to all subsequent pain.
“Frederick,” I said as I surreptitiously wiggled my fingers at my side. I was glad to see his nodding and smiling was equally idiotic as my own.
I wracked my memory for some appropriate German word or phrase for the occasion. All I could think of to say was “Eheleute?” With bad pronunciation and probably even the wrong word, I hoped that I had asked this peach faced kid if he was married. He laughed delightedly at my foolish question and shook his head.
“Und du?” he asked.
“Jah,” I sad sadly, suddenly homesick.
“Kinder?” he asked with gentle concern edging his voice.
I held up two fingers. “Zwei jungen,” I said. Two boys.
“Ah,” He said softly, unsurely. “Gut.”
And your family?”
He didn’t seem to understand even though I knew that the same question in German (Und eure Familie?) would sound much the same as it does in English. His reticence was momentary. His lower lip receded into his mouth and his eyes glistened with tears. He rattled off a list of names, brothers and sisters, most likely, and then some little speech I could only guess was an impassioned explication on his need for them, for home and its warmth and how he missed it all. Happy memories suddenly became burdensome. He stopped abruptly and turned away from me. He threw his right arm out behind him in a repeated gesture for me to leave him alone.
“Heinrich?” I muttered to his back. He didn’t seem to hear me. My voice broke a little when I said his name louder. He turned around. The sun had burned away the ground fog and dew. No-Man’s-Land was dry but for our shared tears.
“Mein frau,” I said, letting the words suffice for I could think of nothing to say in any language that would truly express the pain of that separation. “Mein kinder….”
Heinrich’s long strides brought him close to me with one step and we embraced. “Bruder,” he whispered hoarsely as he encidrcled me with his powerful arms. “Mein Amerikanische bruder.”
“I hope you won’t say anything about…. About what you saw to any of the fellows,” I said to Billy when I returned. As soon as I climbed back down into the trench, there he was. His impish smile, ominous and suggestive, worried me a little.
“You mean some kind of tit for tat about that poof jest you had going on me a while ago?” he asked, serious mischief apparent in his eyes. “You think I’ll spout something about your huggin’ a Jerry lad like you meant to take him home to Mum? Now why would I do a thing like that?” His tone implied a joking, veiled threat, that what he was saying was precisely what he intended to do. He had me worried; my standing with the men, already rather tenuous due to my being an American, would suffer even further were rumors to be made rife about my consorting with the enemy. The joking in Billy’s eyes soon turned to seriousness, however, and he got down to his real feelings in the matter. “What would there be to say?” he said. “Twenty yards to either side of you and all up and down the line it was the same thing. Brothers in arms or across the sea or something. Seen a few kisses exchanged meself, I did.”
“Yes, really. So tell me – nice chap, was he?”
“Yes, very nice. You’d have liked him too.”
“Maybe I would. Seems he liked you well enough from what Fosters tells me.”
“What would Fosters know about anything?” I was worried again; there were rumors, questioning and vile, about Foster’s tastes in matters of the flesh.
“He heard what that Jerry said just before you two parted.”
“I heard him, too, but he spoke too fast. My German’s none too fluent I’m afraid. “Something about kopf, my head.”
“Fosters heard the whole thing. Understood every blessed word.”
“Fosters speaks German?”
“His mother’s folks come from Bremen, I b’lieve,” said Billy. “Speaks German like the Kaiser’s son. Heard the kid as clear as rainwater.” Billy waited and said nothing more. I waited him out for as long as my nerves could stand it. Just his sort of jest: add a little malicious drama to make your audience plead for the punchline.
“Well?” I demanded finally.
“He said the kid said that if he ever had you in his sights, he’d miss you on purpose, shoot over your head or aim for the dirt.” He paused for a moment, then added thoughtfully, “And I ‘spect you’d do the same for him.”
“I expect I would,” I said. “You know, Billy, we should schedule these cease fires at regular intervals. They seem to bring out the best of us on both sides of the line.”
“Maybe,” he said. “But you can be sure none o’ the uppers will go for it.”
I sighed. “Of course not, but it’s a nice idea, anyway.”
“Yah,” he said, the odd inflection he placed on that single syllable making me start. “But not for now. Word’s finally come through. ‘Nother half hour and we’ll be back at it.”
The familiar cranking shriek of a fifty pounder passing overhead preceded the harsh crump! of its distant birth by fire. The explosion sounded well behind our position.
“Well, shit in a spit bucket,” Billy yelped, ready to run. “If time don’t just fly!”
And he was gone, rushing back to his post in the radio shelter. Fastest man in the British Army when even the mere thought of the threat of punishment for tardiness is upon him, that’s my Billy Bantlor. I smiled at the boy’s peculiar charm as I downed the ladder I had used to go over the top. I had just located my rifle, stashed for my uncontested AWOL, when the muffled bang of a mortar explosion sounded to my left. The resultant shock wave reached me with a rain of dried mud clods.
It was an hour or more after the fighting resumed before I missed Billy and began asking whoever happened to pass my position if he had been seen, There was a shared concern between the two of us, Billy and me. We constantly checked on the other’s health and whereabouts despite the strictures imposed by our distance from one another in the trenches. I could usually count on an occasional scrawled message, passed down the line, giving me a joke or a reassuring word about his circumstances. Lately he had taken to writing cryptically worded missives about his alleged shenanigans and exploits with his girlfriend back home in Manchester. (“Molly sweat the sheets as she chatted on about Yeats, nearly drowning me in her talk. But you should know about women like that, Freddy – deep in more than just the usual way.”) Two and sometimes three such notes would reach me in a day, more if he couldn’t wheedle the stand-down time to be with me himself. An hour wasn’t a whole lot of water passed under any bridge but I was becoming concerned. None of the soldiers who passed me to take up their positions further down the line had heard anything about him and fewer even found his name at all familiar.
I asked my C.O., a middle aged major, for some stand-down time of my own. The request was uncharacteristic of me, he knew, and he granted the requested hour off without argument. I saluted and was off down the noisy, dug-in line at a skittering trot. Billy’s radio shelter was a good half mile away.
I approached the flat roof of damp timbers a bit apprehensively. From a hundred steps away I could discern nothing out of the ordinary but I could not shake the disquieting feeling, a bizarre lightness that had developed just beneath my ribs, that everything was not quite as it should have been.
“One hit,” said a soldier to his companion as I passed them by. “And boof! Like it was nothin’ worse’n a pig bladder bursting. Just threw up a bunch o’ dirt. If it’d hit one of the beams the whole thing’d’ve come down. Radio’s still working right and proper. Real surprise, that.”
What “that” was no amount of eavesdropping on the two men’s conversation could tell me. The shelter itself, an expanse of square beams bracing a row of flat boards and stretched over the six foot width of the trench to form a roof, was unharmed. A shallow pit dug into the earthen back wall of the trench farthest from the line of attack was the only evidence that something had happened. The mortar must have flown in at a severe angle, coming in under the wooden roof of shelter to explode against the back wall. The radio, set against the front wall of the makeshift tunnel still crackled out orders and sloppily intelligible readings on enemy positions.
“You Sergeant Calloway?” A British private asked me. When I said that I was he handed me a scrap of paper. “Bantlor was just about to hand this down the line to you when the explosion took him.”
“Took him? How?” I said as I unfolded the note. I glanced over it quickly: Molly and her talkative love-making again. This time dear old Mum (whether his or hers, he didn’t make clear) found then in “locked and sweaty clutches.” The phrase “slithering me into heaven” nearly jumped off the scrap of paper to meet my eyes. No dandy poof or fairy was my Billy B. Not at all.
“Shrapnel,” answered the private. “He was so close to the source, it plastered his back. Made a real bloody mess of ‘im. Few of’’em went real deep. Don’t know but one might’ve hit his heart.”
I thanked the man and turned away. I trudged, walked, trotted, ran. Tears the second time that day. A thin, misty rain had begun and for that I was grateful. My grief would be well concealed.
Words came to me as I hurried back to my post; reasons for the emotions that were welling up within me. Mein frau, I thought, starting a list of what was at stake racing through my brain. Mein kinder. My brother and sister, Mom and Dad. General Pershing, President Wilson. America, home, freedom, inalienable rights. Britain, London, my last long leave in Brighton before being shipped across the Channel. Billy Bantlor and Molly Nameless and their getting caught in the throes of carnal debauch by dear old Mum. Accretionary guilt and grief – mine, his, hers, ours, everybody’s. Reasons for illogical, runaway emotions and madness. Whatever excuses I could find to give reason to my growing rage.
I reported to my CO, who was surprised to see me back so soon. My stand-down had been for an hour and I still had half the time left.
I took up my rifle and vaulted the side of the trench without bothering with a ladder, finding that I could easily produce toeholds in the soft earth of the walls with the softest of steel toed kicks. I popped my head above the level of the field and pulled back down again like a gopher as soon as I had drawn fire. From the muzzle flashes I had seen I mentally calculated the approximate positions of five men across the wastes: enemy soldiers, nameless but for one.
I rose again and fired wildly but with a purpose: hit something, someone, anyone. Enemy, German, human. My reasons were confused and flimsy but they were real. And in my anger and my grief I didn’t care who might be my victim.
Some badly aimed enemy rounds hit the dirt ten feet in front of me, others to my left and right. Fools, I thought of them as I fired in several very general directions, wherever a head or a shadow or the glint of sun off a rifle barrel might show itself. “Goddamned idiots!” I yelled as I fired, certain that no one near me had any idea who I was shouting about. But my aim was true though unspecified but for that one word: Enemy.
“Don’t the idiots understand?!”