“Push forward. Keep pushing forward!”
The words were firm. I did not want to move in that direction but I had no choice. Ahead of me and over the small embankment behind which I hid was a grinder, a mass of potted land and whizzing rounds all conspiring to slow me and my comrades down to a point of nothingness. I desperately held on to my rifle as one holds on to their life. It was the last vestige I had of a life far removed from the front, a vague memory of peace and naiveté that I sorely wished I could reach back and touch. In an odd way the lacquered wood suddenly came to life, breathing life into me through my hands, up into my spine and comforting my trembling body. Crouching their I felt the ground shake as massive shells pounded the earth around me, reducing the groans and shrieks of those men whom I had briefly known to a silence awkwardly out of place. In those short moments I found myself longing for their cries. They signified life, a dying struggle to continue forth in their meager existential plight. Oh, how it accentuated my circumstance! As they cried for help, for their mothers and for medics I would remember that I was alive and not alone.
“Get the hell up, chap! And move! Move, move, move!” His hand grasped my collar firmly and dragged my to me feet, but my feet instantly gave way.
“Damn you boy, what did we train you for? To lay here like a rotting corpse? Get up and over, now! You are shaming all of us.”
Like a corpse. Like a rotting corpse. So I was dead before I had even sought death. This man looking down on me was disgusted by my limp body. His eyes were full of fire and excitement and I could only imagine that mine were empty and fraught with fear. Where did he get his strength and his conviction? Where did he find the will to stand firm in the face of enemy volley after volley. I watched him as he stared at me, dirt crisscrossing through the air. I had no words to share.
“Boy, if you don’t get up I will shoot you myself. This war won’t end with you lying here. Now move it or I will shoot you, god damn it!”
I opened my mouth to say something but only gurgled a quiet sound. I wanted to beg with him, to ask him to let me stay here. I wanted to tell him of my childhood and of my friends, of my family and of being free in a land of peace. I wanted to reason with him, to somehow convince him that I did not deserve to go over these trenches and be brought to justice. But nothing would come forth so I lay there and stared at him. Again he grabbed at my collar and tried to yank me to my feet, but this time I could not assist him. I was exhausted. Getting down on his knees he drew his face in close to mine and growled at me.
“Have it your way, you coward. But on my dead body, I will have you court-martialed for dereliction of duty. I swear this to you boy. You will face hell once you get home. If you get home.” With that he jumped to his feet and disappeared over the trench.
I lay there watching as man after man ran forth into the hail of bullets that shot over my head. I clutched my rifle as close to my body as I could and buried my head into my chest. Perhaps I had a vague hope that if I curled up enough I would suddenly be transported to a far away land, away from the carnage and the chaos of the battlefield. A place were I could lay in a bed rather than in a muddy trench full of water and the stench of death.
As I lay there I heard a hard thump, and looking up I came eye to eye with a boy. His mouth was agape, his shirt bloodied in a splotchy mess. He seemed calm in his reclined state across from me, his arms slightly outstretched with his rifle still firmly held in his right hand. In some odd fashion he had found a way to lay his eyes on me. I wondered if my little body curled up desperately against the embankment in a vain attempt to avoid it all was the last image he saw. I wondered what he thought at the sight of me, if he thought anything at all. If he had an instant of disdain, of anger, of malice. I wondered if he envied me in my state.
It was then that I found myself surging with excitement. It was not a joyous excitement; in fact it was an excitement that I did not recognize at all. It madly drove my limbs in ways that felt totally outside my own volition. I stood up, and then with a brusque movement I found myself toppling over the embankment. There in front of me lay the misty killing field; ragged trees and deformed earth all beckoning to me to move forward. About me the dirt continued to fly and the rounds continued to whistle their grotesque songs. I was over now and I had to push forward. There was simply no other alternative.
So I ran as fast as I could, dumbly dipping and weaving in what I hoped would prolongue my little adventure towards the end. The bodies of my comrades reached up to me and sought to catch my feet but I ignored their corpses and carried forth. As I moved further into the field I began to see the sparkle of rifles and repeater fire, all spraying wildly in every which direction. One no longer had to aim but only to fire. This great maw ahead of me beckoned eerily, pulling me closer down its gullet and into the cesspool of its stomach. I began hearing the voices of a foreign army yelling wild incantations to one another, more desperate than anything else.
Then in an instant I found myself standing at the top of their trench, staring down at their frightened and astonished faces. They all looked at me incredulously, neither they nor I knowing what to do. I had made it across but had forgotten what my purpose was. So I only stood and watched. Watched as the men suddenly sprung to action, some scattering, two others charging with outstretched hands and then violently yanking me into their trench. A flurry of fists pounded down on me but let up quickly as I did not put up a defense. There we three lay, eyeing each other like children meeting for the first time. We could not communicate verbally, but through their eyes I saw that we shared a common plight despite our differences. Their fears were mine, mine theirs, and sitting up we found ourselves staring blankly through one another.
We had each sought purpose yet had found emptiness. So went our gaze, lost in the space between ourselves and the world. An immaterial void where men go to recede from humanity and enter the realm of dreams. A place where being human is no longer truth, where one is not alive yet not quite dead.
A towering officer finally came crashing down their trench, barking loudly at the two men across from me. Their trance broken, if only momentarily, they jumped to their feet and wrangled my limbs painfully, binding them tightly together. So they dragged me off, to a place where I was to await my final verdict.
“Push forward. Keep pushing forward!”