As I blogged previously, this story first appeared in Boston Literary Magazine. Now you can read it here. It’s called Storms, and like a piece I’ll be posting on Halloween called The Symphony, it’s about war. I don’t know why I have two flash fiction pieces about war, but I do. I had just got done reading Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant The Road, and wanted to see if I could steal elements of its style and make them my own, purely to challenge myself. This is the result. Enjoy. (This also appears in a previously mentioned but as yet unpublished collection of short fiction I’ve put together.)
By Eric San Juan
A week in a trench. Mud. Every little while a machine gun barked. Chattering teeth that killed. Lieutenant strolled the line sometimes, reminding the men of why they were here. Why people were dying and about the line.
Six months ago it was an English sunrise, gold veiled by grey, and her blonde hair. Blanket. Apples on the hillock. The fragrance of her.
“Must you go?” she said.
“It is my duty,” I said. “For the good of the country, the world, of all.”
“But what about the good of me?”
“All I do is for the good of you. Do not fear. I’ll be back for you.”
“You are never coming back.”
That morning making love. Tears at the train station. Then all was cramped and sweaty, men pressed together and into a ship and from there into lands savaged by whatever machines of death man could imagine. Rains were a tide. Shovels bit into wet earth and long holes were bored into her. From train to ship to trench, they crowded. The stench of them unnoticed. Eyes without hope. She was left behind.
It’s late June now, and he wants to go home. Doesn’t even know why he’s here. To draw the Germans away from Verdun-sur-Meuse, they say. Hard to know what that even means. It has been a week, maybe more. The trench is cold. He plays cards in the morning. When the sun climbs he’s on watch. The fields are a sea of fading brown. They struggle for green but man denies them. When afternoon comes the green is washed away as the batteries open fire. Men make thunder. Eighteen-pounders to cut wire. Howitzers to cut men. More than a thousand of them scream. He does not quail only because those around him do not quail. They all wish to. But if one breaks they all break. They all know this, and so their world is orders.
Rawlinson wants to hold. Haig wants to break through.
The men want home.
The thunder comes and it is relentless. The green cannot last in this storm.
By the third day he has had enough. Thoom. An endless storm. Thoom thoom. Heaven has not known this since the fall. Thoom thoom thoom.
He waits for the storm to end, knowing another shall follow.
One year ago. Word had come. He was going. Form letter by post, his name within. She wept. He did not. Took it in stride. What else to do? His duty as a citizen, but she would not listen. She saw only withered flesh.
“How many are already dead?” she wondered. “How many are still to die?”
“Many. There are many, but I will not be one of them.”
“How can you know?”
“I just know.”
She did not see me talking. She saw only a corpse. “What about the gas?”
“What about it?”
“They say they used gas at Ypres. It … it chokes you.”
“We will have masks. I do not fear the gas.”
Her eyes were distant that day. They changed, and did not again smile, even on that morning six months later when we made love after the bleak English sunrise.
Thoom. The thunder still came. It is the end of June. A sort of madness has come over him. Eyes in a perpetual state of alertness. The storm has crept forward and turned the struggling green fields into a stew of mud and debris and, sometimes, but not often enough, men. Thoom thoom. How could men abide such a cacophony? Thoom. How could they bear such a song? Thoom thoom. Tomorrow the storm would break. A new storm would begin.
The night is long and cold and he shivers and somewhere in the shuddering murk a man weeps for his mother, dreaming, and the other men know the taste of despair.
Dawn. It’s July and there is a smell in the air. New weather. He fixes his gear and looks upon his companions. They are empty. Their eyes fight to see. At 7:20 there is a faint rumble, different than that of the storm. The mine. It has been blown. The first step. Ten minutes later there is silence. Seven days without and now comes silence, but it is not freeing, it is heavy. It presses down on his shoulders and he sees from their slump that it presses on them all. Everyone. And then the order comes. Whispered rush or shouted at them. Hard to tell. Doesn’t matter. The order comes. Up. Onto the parapet. Climb up, out, into the open. Over the top. Beneath the torn sky. No Man’s Land lays before them. The order has come. Break the line. Move forward.
A new storm sweeps in.