Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
Wilfred Owen, ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’
It Will Kill You
Private Donalson sat in the deep mud, his legs pulled up to his chest, his hands wrapped tightly around his shins. Rain fell down around him, tiny payloads bursting cleansing fire across the battlefield. As Sergeant McNamara walked through the desolation, mud pulled and sucked at his boots. He sat down next to Donalson on the ravaged earth.
“It doesn’t get easier. I won’t tell you that lie. You might feel it less some day,” the older man said. “A little less, maybe.” Donalson sat silent and unmoving. If he cried, his tears were mixed with the rain, hidden on his wet face. McNamara’s face was drawn and weathered and though he was older than Donalson, he was still young. “You lose a piece of yourself with them. With every goddamned one.”
Across the field Private Wells and three French soldiers were pulling the bodies of the dead into a mass grave. “It’s fucking terrible,” McNamara said. “That’s the truth and there’s nothing else to it. It’ll kill you quick or kill you slow. But it will kill you. I’m sorry to say it but that’s the truth.”
Donalson watched as Wells and the Frenchmen dragged Private Leary onto the pile of the dead. He had been Donalson’s bunkmate. “No better time to learn that than now,” said McNamara.
The Same River
Wells sat on an overturned box while Privates Kitchner and Smith sat before him on the ground. They were tossing their cards into a helmet, playing a game of Wells’ invention. He’d lost so many cards from his deck that all pre-existing games had been rendered unplayable.
“Napoo!” Wells and Kitchner shouted. They laughed and Smith frowned. He couldn’t seem to comprehend the ever changing rules of the game.
“You can’t play the jack of hearts there, buddy,” said Wells. “That’ll cost you every time.”
“But I thought that eights were trump so-”
“Come on now, big guy, you gotta be fuggin’ kidding me. You been thinking too hard and now you got yourself all turned around, see?”
Wells shuffled the battered cards while Kitchner fired up another cigarette. Donalson walked past their game and scuffed his shoes in the dirt. “You wanna play?” Kitchner asked. Donalson shook his head. “Suit yourself,” said Kitchner between puffs.
Past the card game, McNamara was discussing tactics with Corporal Gilson. Carle, Isaacs and Mitchell were standing in a loosely formed circle nearby, unsure of what to do with themselves. The new recruits had only just arrived.
At the edge of the camp, Donalson sat down with his back against a yew tree. In front of him the hills rolled away to the south and in the distance he could see the blue vein of a river. He had never learned much geography and didn’t know the river’s name but he liked to look at it. It seemed still from where he sat but he knew that it was moving, always moving. There had been some line about that in school. Donalson struggled to remember it, thinking back past explosions and planes and uniforms to a day that seemed a lifetime ago. You can’t step in the same river twice. That was it. Who said that, he wondered. Shakespeare? It seemed older than Shakespeare. It sure was poetic, though. Donalson made a mental note to look it up once he was back home. He knew he would forget.