Thursday, April 18, 2019
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Estimated reading time — 12 minutes

The Old Lie of the Dead Lands

‘frankness as never before,

disillusions as never told in the old days,

hysterias, trench confessions,

laughter out of dead bellies.

There died a myriad,

And of the best, among them,

For an old bitch gone in the teeth,

For a botched civilization.’

– Ezra Pound (Hugh Selwyn Mauberley [Part I])


Part I.

When the Moon Shines Bright on Charlie Chaplin

The guns fell silent against the slow dimming of the light, leaving only the mist. Eerie stillness punctuated by the odd cough, an errant moan, the flick of a lighter lighting a cigarette, an orange spark breaking through the white, and then, nothing.

We had been at the Front for fourteen days, fourteen long, ageless days. Those who came in as young boys full of youth, Angustam amice pauperiem pati, now were aged and stern. Hid away in burrows with names like King’s Cross, Rats’ Alley, Piccadilly Gardens. The irony was palpable. We had halted our advance near Pozières, the Germans were dug in well. On quieter nights, you could hear them sometimes. Snatches of song or a chuckle at a joke, laughter, screams. I didn’t hate them then, as I came to later.

Sergeant Sherriff, a portly man with a thin moustache and cheeks like butcher’s meat, interrupted my thoughts.

“Sir”, he said.

“Do you think the attack will come soon? We’ve been waiting too long and I’d like to get it over with, give the huns a kick. I can’t take all this waiting. Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.”

I gave him a strange look, hearing these last words, tinged with familiarity, but the thought was soon lost and I told him it’d be any day now, and his fat cheeks puffed with the vague satisfaction of someone in a hospital waiting room who knows he’s to be called up soon enough.

I was lighting a cigarette when Private Evelyn, my runner, a young Lancastrian lad, came full-pelt into me, knocking it out of my hand and into the thick mud.

“God damn it man, watch your bloody step!” I roared.

“A message from Captain Brideshead, s-sir”, he said, panting.

“They want us to make a push to capture the German’s forward trenches at first light, in preparation for the Aussies’ attack in the next few days.”

“I see.” I said, pulling another cigarette out from a dog-eared packet and putting it into my mouth.

“Right then. Sergeant Sherriff, make the men aware of the situation. Issue them a glass of wine each. We’ll attack at first light. Private Evelyn, inform the artillery.”

“Aye sir”, the fat sergeant responded.

Private Evelyn too, nodded, before snaking off through the labyrinthine pathways of the trench. The trenches like arteries; red with clay, winding through the ancient lands.

The rain fell in sheets, carrying with it the ominous smell of pestilence and death, bully beef and phosgene gas. I sucked the smoke from the cigarette deep into my lungs, letting the foul tobacco stench wash away the smell of decay and death and lifting my head to the rain, I let out a sigh, watching the darkening clouds.

The silence of the night carried with it the anxiety of a thousand undead men. Those, in limbo, waiting for the moment they passed. Nobody spoke about it, but we all expected to die. Carried too, on the silence, were the sounds of a radio far off, somewhere in the distance; distorted and vague.

“It’s a long way to Tipperary. It’s a long way to go. Goodbye Piccadilly, to the sweetest girl I know.”

Lance Corporal Bogarde shifted in his bunk.

“Oh, what a lovely war”, he uttered, before passing back to sleep.

I stayed a while, listening to the words of the song, listening and unlistening. Sleep did not come easily to me.

The morning was marked by darkness and mist. The first few shafts of light were beginning to be seen above the horizon, penetrating the black-blue gloom with hazy orange light.

The men were already at attention, awaiting the whistles’ knell, to charge towards the enemy, to that Hellmouth. Many fumbled at letters, or with their rifles, but most just stared at nothing, eyes glazed over with the false bravado of the damned.

“Right lads.” I started. “The huns, they have a shortage.”

“Of what sir, ammunition?” Private Phillips joined in, to this old joke.

“Negative Private, of corpses. So we’re going to charge over there, and see if we can help them out.”

This elicited a few false chuckles from the men.

“If we can capture, and hold, their trenches, then we’ll be in a fine position to support the Australians as they assault Mouquet Farm. Our artillery boys will support us before the attack, and then we’ll take ’em. Ten minutes tops. Not too bad, right lads?”

The men shuffled and murmured, and stared at their feet.

“Corporal Toplis will provide you each with a cigarette and a glass of whiskey. Compliments of Captain Charles Ryder, and we know how much those front-dodging bastards back at headquarters love their whiskey, so you can feel ruddy special, lads.”

Cheers and jeers resounded down the line as the whiskey was poured out to tremulous hands. I too, took a cupful and drank it in one firm, foul gulp.

Then the laughter and talk dissipated and once again there was silence in the mist. I shouted to the men to ready arms, the clacks of reloading rifled echoed down the line. I put the whistle to my mouth, took a shaking breath, breath unsteady in the frosty air; hands trembling and blew.

II.

Strange Meetings

It was privates Howard and Philips who got it first, I saw. Stumbling, falling back into the trench like sack-cloth dolls. I pressed on, blowing the whistle and holding my revolver firmly in the air, the cold metal felt leaden in my hand. Machine-gun fire erupted and tore up the ground in blankets of chaotic dirt, it tore through men like rain through newspaper and then came too, the shelling.

For a moment, a glimpse of Corporal Manning, red-faced and screaming against the tide. Then, a screeching across the sky. Whirlwind of dust and blood, kaleidoscope of gore and then, the silence, the ringing in my ears. Corporal Manning, nothing but one scorched patch of dirt on a bloodied battlefield. Corporal Manning, gone.

We were many, and then we were few, and the few separated from the many found themselves stumbling blind through the chaos. I fired a few shots ahead of me and groaned, the earth shifting under foot as the barrage rained down upon us.

Further into the fog, I saw a Brodie helmet. Running towards them and diving to the ground, I realised it was Private Evelyn and somebody else I did not recognise.

“Who wouldn’t be a soldier, eh?” Evelyn said, bitterly through broken teeth.

The other soldier raised his rifle and fired aimlessly into the blinding fog. Then came once more, the screeching. Time appeared to hasten, I heard the crash, felt the shrapnel and dirt land upon my body, raining down hot and painful. I saw the unknown soldier crawling on the dirt. Crawling away from his lower half, separated from the upper. Long, red intestines trailing like fat ripe worms. I felt too, the bullet pierce my shoulder, saw the screaming mouth of Private Evelyn, shouting wordlessly to me. With nothing better to do, I tried to laugh. I blacked out.

I awoke coughing, amid unnerving silence. Sand filled my mouth and rained down upon my body. The sky overhead was a dim purple. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a cigarette, placing it in my mouth and lighting it with the flick of a match. I wanted to smoke a Vogue, I thought. I wanted a pretty young mademoiselle I thought. I wanted to be back in Oxford with Professor Pound, and Mr. Shadrack. I smoked the cigarette and looked at the purple-red sky, undulating like waves above my head. It didn’t occur to me then, that this was not where I had been ten minutes ago. I smoked the cigarette and thought of little winding avenues to ride one’s bicycle down, of the bookstore and tea-room, the public house with the wooden walls where the undergraduates drank pints of bitter and discussed poetry. I thought of my old roommate, good old Larkin. He’d been killed…or had he? What regiment was he in? What was it that I’d studied? Had I studied? I sat up.

I was sat on one patch of sand of many. A vast, golden desert. A soft wind blew grains of sand through my fingers. In the distance there were dunes. Figures, too, I saw. It was Private Evelyn with Sergeant Sherriff, unpacking their kit, using their greatcoat in what looked like some perverse picnic.

I wandered towards them.

“I do believe we’re fucked sir”, Sherriff said matter-of-factly.

“Fucked?”, I asked.

“Buggered, sir” Evelyn added.

“The lad’s right, sir” Sherriff said. “I might never have finished school, or went to university like you sir, but I am decent enough at geography to understand that this ain’t France.”

“Quite right…” I said. I reached for a cigarette but I was out. Through gritted teeth, I cursed under breath and wiped a hand across my forehead.

“Well…chin up, let’s try to find some others. See if they know anything we do not.” I said.

For what felt like aeons under that blazing purple sun, we wandered. I, at the head of the column, followed by the young private, and the portly sergeant in the rear. Find others, we did. First just the odd soldier, stumbling lost through the sand, clawing, half-mad. Then clumps of them. I recognised a few: Corporal Toplis, Lieutenant Crouchback, Private Morrissey.

We were camped under red-purple skies, a fire blazing from the few scraps of wood the men could scrounge. Private Evelyn lay on his side, staring off behind the dunes. His soft melancholy voice sang quietly.

“There’s a long-long trail a-winding, to the land of my dreams.”

Other men joined in, looking dejected. Faces half-lit midst the tremulous light.

“Where the nightingales are singing, and a white moon beams.”

I was smoking from a wooden pipe I’d found in an abandoned kit. I exhaled and joined in the song.

“There’s a long-long night of waiting, until my dreams all come true.”

All the men sung, forceful and melancholy, interspersed with the crackling of firewood.

“Till the day when I’ll be going down that long-long trail with you.”

The singing gave way to whistling, and I could have cried. I curled up into myself, away from the men and that madding crowd, my eyes fixed on that nightmare sky and my thoughts of half-remembered home. Why could I not remember it? I wanted to see my mother again. The men were so very young, and I was young too, I thought. To them I was ancient. I fell asleep and the sand blew faintly over us as we slept.

The day started well. Sherriff and Toplis had found a uniform in the desert, laid out in the shape of a man. Brodie helmet, khaki, boots. In lieu of a face were stones. Two for eyes, and a number of them arranged in a grim smile. It was not this disturbing discovery that made the day well, but rather the four bottles of wine also there. Two for hands, and two for feet.

I let the men drink the wine, morale was low enough in this hellscape and I too, partook. The day started well, but that did not last very long. We were half-cut when we found it. The men sung bawdy songs and threw the empty bottles across the emptier horizon, to be swallowed up by the sand. This ceased when we found the monolith. There, in the empty plains, a sunken monolith which stretched improbably up into the sky, adorned with crude carvings of faces; laughing and screaming, surrounded by chunks of stone, and the desert, barren and bare.

“Signs of life, sir?” asked Sergeant Sherriff.

“If this can be called life” added a dour-faced private.

“Aye, at least they’re happy to see us” laughed Corporal Toplis, pointing at the smiling visages on the stone monolith.

“Kinda looks like your sister, Sergeant!” said Evelyn, drunkenly laughing.

He pressed his lips to cold stone and in an instant, became one with it. His hand stuck to the stone and it pulled him in, skin expanding. He screamed. His body was dragged further into the monolith, absorbing his flesh; it stretched out like puddles, the bones cracked and rippled as if they were water. He screamed and his his eyes were wide with unending horror.

“God, no! Please, sir! Oh god, help me!”

The screaming went on, until only Private Evelyn’s face was left, slowly turning to stone, the terrified eyes becoming hollow and grey as he was fully absorbed into the monolith, his face twisting, turning, widening in the gyre. Some men took out their revolvers and fired upon the monolith but achieved only dust, and those two bullet-holes that were his eyes. Private Evelyn’s visage a portrait of eternal agony. A faint gurgling from the monolith, and then, silence. Naught but the faintly blowing wind across the endless golden dunes. I lit my pipe, and we moved on.

That night at camp, we did not speak. Each man was left to their own, private thoughts. Beside our campfire, I sat alone, caressing the barrel of my Webley revolver, aiming out at the nothingness, mimicking a shot. I drank the dregs of the wine and succumbed to an uneasy sleep.

I was awoken suddenly by the scrambling of men and the cocking of rifles. I jumped up and held my revolver out.

“What in the hell?” I heard one man say.

Figures, faces, figures in their thousands were shambling across the sands, tumbling down dunes, towards our camp. A hundred feet from us they stopped, and they stood still, looking at us. The gun trembled in my hand.

Out of the horde came a man in a strange green uniform. The inscription read ‘U.S. Army, Cacciato’. He spoke with an American accent.

“Relax friends”, the man said.

“Address yourself at once, soldier!” I insisted with shaking breath.

The man laughed.

“Name’s Cacciato, first name Timothy. Master Sergeant. United States Army. I too fell in fire and smoke, I saw the napalm as it lit up my friend, my Captain. Oh, Captain Benjamin Pierce, how he screamed. I too felt the bayonet as it pierced my guts and the screaming face of the slant-eyed bastard that killed me. I befriended him later though, now we’re inseparable.”

“What the bloody hell is this place!” I said, half-mad, my revolver pointed at the man’s face.

“This is the place beyond the Valley of Dead Roads, beyond the Western Lands, after the fall of The Cities of Red Night, this is the Desert of Shadows and we are its Shadowplay. We are not meant to be here, but we cannot pass through. You’ll understand, my friend, in time.”

And then as if out of nowhere, thousands of figures stepped forward, some ancient, wielding swords, some in uniforms of bright red and hats of white, some I could recognise in Pickelhaube or Stalhelme, some in uniforms of metal I could not describe, carrying weapons beyond my comprehension.

Another man stepped forward. He wore a blue shirt and a slouch hat. He spoke with an Australian accent.

“Aye, the man’s right, mate. Name’s Sutherland. We’re not meant to be here, and neither are you. What did you do to end up here, ay? Me? Well, me and me mates were in trouble, so I shot dead a stupid sergeant, but I got hit in the crossfire. Woke up here.”

The Australian soldier lit a rolled up cigarette and exhaled casually, as if bored by all this.

The American placed a hand upon my shoulder, as my men readied their rifles at this ungodly mob.

The American spoke again.

“This is your world now, my friend. Come join us in this procession of the damned.”

“No, no! You’re all wrong! This is madness! There is another world, there is a better world! There must be! Damn you and this foul place! This nightmare! This madness! There is a better world! Oh, there must be! Stop!”

I could not take it, and in short, I was afraid. I ran. I heard the clambering of men behind me, I knew not if they were my lads, or that nightmare army, that damned procession of hell’s soldiers.

I heard the American’s voice shouting after me.

“What is your name, officer and gentleman?”

I stumbled in the thick sand, twirling back, firing two shots of my Webley with mad carelessness. The American did not stumble.

“What is your name mon frere, mein bruder! Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, — mon frère! Did you have a pretty mademoiselle, a little tight Fräulein? Did you meet by the cinema and smoke a cigarette and talk about nothing?”

He laughed further.

“Does that take you back to Oxford? What was it you studied under Professor Pound…was it? Or Professor Shadrack? Why can’t you recall, o’ brave Captain? Or is it Captain? What is your rank? What, pray tell, even is your name?”

I screamed something incomprehensible, and I ran, for aeons I ran, across that endless sand, that nightmare realm. Sometimes I’d sight spires of spiraling stones, far in the distance; reaching up beyond the purple-red sky, sometimes at night, I’d hear the beating of lungs, so loud in my head as if they were larger than the desert itself. I ran until I lost all sight of the unreal soldiers, and of my own men. I left them to rot, back there in the dust.

My uniform half ragged, clutching a rusted revolver, I fell face first into the sands. The sand from the dunes swirled around me, covering my body, I was too tired to fight against the tides. I closed my eyes.

III.

Living too Late

no, you see, I had to leave them, nonononono

it was necessary

me or them

private evelyn is one with the stones

private screams blank agony no one hears no one hears

i am in the valley of dying stars

the hollow valley

of dead man’s dreams

fat man with cheek’s like butchers meat

devoured by the lungs

such is life in the dead land

the land of no cactus and no rocks’

– Unknown (found scribbled on a parchment in a bombed out farmhouse, 1916)

The guns fell silent against the slow dimming of the light, leaving only the mist. Eerie stillness punctuated by the odd cough, an errant moan, the flick of a lighter lighting a cigarette, an orange spark breaking through the white, and then, nothing.

The sky above no-man’s land was a purple-red. We had been at the Front for a hundred days, a hundred long, ageless days. Those who came in as young meat full of youth, memento mori, were now aged and stern. Hid away in burrows with names like King’s Cross, Rats’ Alley, Monolith Mile, Piccadilly Gardens. The irony was palpable. We had halted our advance near Pozières, the Germans were dug in well. On quieter nights, you could hear them sometimes. Snatches of song or a chuckle at a joke, laughter, screams. I hated them, the bastards, I wanted to gut them and hear their anguished cries.

Sergeant Evelyn, a young Lancastrian lad with a thin features and wild, staring eyes, interrupted my thoughts.

“Sir”, he said.

“Do you think the attack will come soon? We’ve been waiting too long and I’d like to get it over with, give the huns a kick. I can’t take all this waiting. Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.”

I gave him a strange look, hearing these last words, tinged with familiarity, but the thought was soon lost and I told him it’d be any day now, and his gaunt face quivered with the vague satisfaction of someone in a hospital waiting room who knows he’s going to die soon enough.

I caressed the barrel of my Webley, and stared out across the blood-red sky, tinged with spiraling hues of purple, far across that waste land. I pulled the pipe from my pocket, matches trembling in my hands as I halted for a reason I could not explain, before lighting up and exhaling, against the endless dimming of the light.


Credit: Sheridan Shadrack (WattpadInstagramRedditPatreon)

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