Western Front, North East France
In between the trenches was no man’s land, but for the trench crawler, inside the trenches was the same, if he made it so. It was his choice. That was the one thing he could revel in, in or out of the trenches. But it was difficult. Outside, he ate dirt, smelled the damp earth just to keep the bullets from scraping off his skin.
Damn, he thought. He crawled, dragging mud under his soaked shirt and self modified jacket. Bullets whined past him, mere inches above his head. The rounded tin helmet did little to make him feel safe. Mere inches.
Distant, but unnervingly close, gunfire rattled, the sporadic and sharp retort of rifles and Hotchkiss 8 mm machine guns accompanied almost immediately by the buzzing above his head, drawing almost invisible but highly tangible streaks of heat in the air. They never failed to make the hair on his neck prickle.
Earth flew up about a foot from the trench crawler. He slapped his face into the cold mud, and spang! His head was shoved sideways violently as a bullet glanced off his helmet, raising sparks and peeling the dull green paint off in a dented line. He pursed his lips against the bitter damp pushing against them, clamping his body into the ground. His neck throbbed—the bullet had jerked his head hard enough to give him a mild sprain.
More furrows in the earth, and the cushioned smack of bullets. Far off, the explosions of guns. Droplets of grey water and granules of black soil flew into his face, biting and cold.
He couldn’t stay here forever.
It was time to claim a trench.
One, two, three. He counted, pulsing his jaw, and clutching his rifle tight. Four. He ran, crouched tight and low. His boots sank alarmingly into the muck underfoot, slowing him down a fraction. The air screamed with projectiles, almost irritatingly persistent in their low buzzing. His heart pounded painfully in keeping up with pinioning legs.
Secondary trench. Quickly, he thought.
In the periphery of his vision, he saw others on the battlefield. Soldiers, misplaced from the trenches. One flew back in a haze of flying debris, his chest popping open in a crimson shower that drizzled across the side of the trench crawler’s face as he passed. Run, run. Was that one French or German? He didn’t have time to see.
Secondary firing trench, claim it.
He leapt, landing on his feet behind the crest he had propelled himself over. Wet, low, suddenly muffled. Temporary safety. He had gained a secondary trench. He let his knees buckle and send his body crashing into the dug out ground. Panting, shirt damp with water and sweat, and blood vessels still engorged with the bounty of a panicked heart, he let himself lie in the cool hollow, ignoring the stench of the corpses piled around him. The bullets flew, but above him, above the trench.
A quivering voice barked harshly, and the point of a bayonet pushed against his arm. He looked up, raising himself to a prone position. A young soldier gazed in terror, and the trench crawler found himself staring into the muzzle of a rifle, the blade below it dull with tarnish. The young man had spoken in French.
French secondary firing trench.
The trench crawler pushed the barrel aside gently, speaking slowly. “Parlez vous anglais?” The soldier shook his head. Above the trench, earth unfolded and guns cried out from afar. The trench crawler pointed to himself and shouted out.
The soldier stared, looking confused, absorbing the newcomer’s clothes—no uniform he could recognise, and he spoke English. And he just said neutral. That was one word of the language the soldier could understand.
“Do you want my services?”
But he could not comprehend what a neutral could possibly be doing in the trenches, much less understand what he was saying.
“Non? Too bad.”
The trench crawler smiled. While the soldier opposite was trying to comprehend neutrality in his trench, he snapped his arm up and pulled the trigger of his Springfield.
The soldier blinked hard and staggered back, feeling the warm spray of his own blood gently warm his shirt. He was shot, in the centre of his chest. In his trench. Two of his comrades in arms came running with heads lowered below the trenchline, alarmed at a gunshot so close. But the trench crawler was ready, rifle raised, arms steady, posture straight and firm. He watched their confusion for a quarter of a second. No German uniform. Then he pulled the trigger. Again. And again.
Smoke blurred the air, and the trench crawler did what had to be done, for he was neutrality. He knew it to be true. And he was proud of it.
On the other side of the front, the German soldiers despaired at the resilience of the Allies. They had pounded on the Western Front for endless months, and gained hardly any substantial victory, despite assurances of secret weapons from generals. And they were right back in Ypres, fighting again, this time with the Canadians against them as well.
One thing was definite. The Great War showed no signs of ending.
He walked the streets with caution; contemplating its state. It had once been a decent city, in terms of aesthetic value and living standards. Now, it lay in ruins. Ypres was one of the stale remnants of an argument too massive for words. A battlefield, no less. A bit of a shame, he supposed. But then again, it was the same all over Europe, right across the world to the Eastern Front as well. Cities broken, lives wiped out. Nothing new, nothing different. People had done this, through the principle of taking sides. Opposing sides—the common factor of all wars, including the Greatest of them all. He knew he would never take sides in his life. That was an assurance he would have the pleasure of holding forever—security during the hardest of times.
He might offer his services, but never choose a side. Never.
He also wondered when people and their opposing factions would come up with a war greater that the Greatest. Not too far in the future, he supposed. That was, if this one ever ended.
The trench crawler looked at the dismantled carcass of a horse-pulled cart, the spokes of its huge wheels eaten away by bullets. Something about looking at the impotent vehicle rang an alarm deep within his gut. The street was deathly quiet, but quiet in a battlefield was nothing short of ominous. Complete silence was impossible in Ypres at the time—in the distance, artillery boomed and gunfire cracked monotonously, albeit muffled by distance and obstacles.
He looked around.
The street was layered thick with a blanket of dust, strewn with rubble and debris. All around him, the skeletal remains of buildings loomed out of a vaguely yellow fog of thick, coarse dust that stung the sinuses and induced life-threatening sneezes at exactly the wrong times. Beyond the canyon of jagged ruins, pyres of black smoke drifted sinuously up to the sky.
He fished in his trouser pocket, taking out his silver plated watch. The chain was long gone, lost amongst the jostle of the dead somewhere in the trenches of northern France. The dial was smudged; he had to wipe it with his thumb before he could discern the needles. Even then, he had to squint. The dial said twenty past eleven. Gazing at the sky, he could barely see through the unnatural haze, barely catching sight of the late morning sun rising unwaveringly up its path across the horizons, unaffected by the violence below it.
The shadows across the cratered street were beginning to stretch.
It was here. He could see the decapitated spires of the chapel behind the gaping cavities of hollowed houses, see its paneless arches filter beams of sunlight across the gloaming. And he had to get moving.
The muzzle flash in the window caught his eye, and the bang jarred his ears just as he leapt down to the ground in a taut crouch, the bullet flying past his eye and hitting the road with a sharp crack. He jumped behind the destroyed cart, shoving the watch back into his pocket and leaning down behind one of the wheels. Once the crackling echo of the gunshot had been absorbed into the heavy air of the urban canyon, the dread quiet fell again, accompanied by the reliable background of battle elsewhere.
Sweat beaded down his forehead, dripping off his chin and jaw. The band of cloth under the helmet soaked up little of the nervous upwelling. Grunting in dissatisfaction, he pulled his Springfield from under him, the shoulder sling biting painfully on his shoulder. He peered out from behind the cannon, looking up at the window. It was dark, and seemingly empty again. He edged himself forward on his knees and began to raise his rifle. Then, the telltale glint of a muzzle. He knew it was too late, and he knew that he had been dreadfully foolish in exposing his torso.
He flew back and hit the ground roughly as the bullet collided with his chest with a loud pop. His arms lost all strength, dropping the rifle as if they were limp rubber. The pain blossomed after a pause, filling his chest and pushing out the air in his lungs. He panted, gulping in panicked breaths as he found himself losing consciousness, unable to breathe properly.
Flashes of blue danced behind his eyelids, squeezed shut as he waited for the wave to pass. Once again the rifle at the window made the very air shiver with its noise, and another spoke of one of the wheels flew back in jagged bits.
He continued to gasp, heart pounding and sweat pouring in sheets down his face. His collar was drenched. He felt like he was going to die.
Breathe, God damn it!
His lungs began to comply, slow and weak, as the throbbing began to subside in fractions. He swallowed salty fear and spat on the ground, feeling foolish and amateurish. He looked down at his shirt—behind the gently smoking and ragged hole in the fabric, the bullet was firmly lodged in his home-made jacket. Plates of tin, steel, and sawed squares of wood made up the three layered components that made up the jacket—solid armour strapped to his torso with wire and rope, safely hidden by his shirt and normal clothing.
With dirty fingers he plucked the flattened piece of metal from the tin in which it lay buried, flicking it away as it stung his fingers with heat.
The breathlessness was going down, and the pain reduced to a low, pulsating throb on the left of his chest. He flicked sweat from under his chin and contemplated on what to do, making sure he was properly tucked under the battered cart.
Footsteps; boots crunching loud on powdered stone and debris. An echoing voice filled the desolate canyon, its words lost. Soldiers; running. The trench crawler hissed in irritation and pulled his legs under the cart. Through the spokes of the left wheel he peered at the street, blinking hard against the rivulets of brine and dissolved grit that rolled into his eyes.
The soldiers thundered past, a small group of about seven, some helmeted. The trench crawler could barely make out their uniforms from his position, watching only their boots and ankles wrapped in cloth. The clatter of rifles and bayonets accompanied the thump of soles on the street—after a while, both faded away as the soldier ran towards the direction of the chapel, and no doubt towards the omniscient rumble of fighting towards the limited horizons of this one destructed avenue.
He noticed that the sniper in the window had not fired on the soldiers passing. Perhaps he was alone in the building—or perhaps he had gotten a better look at the passing soldiers, and found them of his own affiliation. But why hadn’t the sniper joined them, then? The trench crawler wondered. For all he knew, they could have been French, German, Canadian, or Belgian. And one of any of those countries could be the sniper. It was no point thinking about it.
All the same, it was time to do something. He couldn’t hide under a broken cart for the rest of the day.
He carefully began to edge out from underneath it; taking care to emerge behind it, and away from the view of the sniper. Once he was in the shade of its bulk, leaning against it in an uncomfortable crouch, he scrounged in his pockets and took out the only emergency weapon he could fall back on; the white cloth. Slightly smeared with ink and grime, but it would do. Taking a deep breath, he unfolded the cloth, and holding one corner, raised his hand and waved it. Nothing happened, no one fired. His hand tingled as it anticipated a bullet striking its tender flesh, but none did. He continued to wave, looking at his watch in the other hand. Eight…nine…ten seconds.
He stopped and put the cloth back in his pocket. The sniper should have seen it.
Slinging up his rifle and tightening the straps of his small backpack, he prepared to emerge from hiding. His chest ached persistently, and his skin exuded more sweat to sheathe his face. Once again, he counted. One…two…three.
He bolted out of cover and ran across the street as fast as he could, adrenaline lightening his head. The world reduced to a grey blur around him, surrounding the one point on which he was focused: the black rectangle of the door across. The door to the building where the sniper lay.
The blur shook with each footstep, and the rectangle grew. There was no sound, no flash at the window.
Before he knew it, he was in the cool shade beyond the door. He contracted into a crouch and regained his breath, finger poised behind the trigger of his rifle. The blur cleared again.
The trench crawler looked around, his eyes slowly adjusting to the gloom. Shafts of luminous dust hung from shattered holes in the ceiling like cobwebs—in the leaked light he could make out a rectangular room, and flimsy wooden stairs leading up. The remnants of a wall stood on his right, a gaping doorframe leading into what he could dimly discern to be the leftovers of an inn common room or a bar, with broken chairs and tables littering the floor, glowing sickly in the sunlight falling through the windows and holes above. On shelves that still stood, shattered bottles glittered stubbornly in the dimness.
He proceeded up the stairs, paying only slight attention to the dreadful groaning of the wooden planks under his feet. Some of the steps where missing, caved in, and he took care to step over them. Then, a light flew straight into face, searing an afterimage into his retina, now accustomed to the dim surroundings. There was a figure at the top of the stairs, and he held a lantern, pointed straight at him. He could also make out a rifle in the other hand. The barrel was clearly pointed towards him too.
Raising his hand to shield his face, he lowered his own rifle an inch. A painful silence followed, punctuated by their slow and steady breathing.
A low thump—the explosion of artillery fire miles away. The trench crawler, ignoring the irritating pain in his chest, spoke.
The figure did not remove the lantern, nor lower the rifle. He heard the person spit on the boards of the staircase. He got the feeling the man was sizing him up. At the same time, he also noticed that the shadowed figure was quite visibly trembling, which led him to believe that the spitting on the steps was more a forced sign of strength and fearful hostility than an actual show of aggression. He decided to probe on.
“Silénce!” the man hissed, rifle quivering, torch irritatingly bright in the trench crawler’s eyes. The trench crawler kept one hand up, flexing his fingers slowly. The joints cracked, one by one, softly. The Belgian (he presumed) continued to examine him. Then, as if he had mustered enough breath and courage to, he spoke, fast and wavering.
“Vous etes Canadien?” Canadian. He hadn’t asked whether he was Belgian. He noticed how the man was confident in his judgement that this intruder of his broken house was not one of his own stock. Not that he was.
“Non. Parlez vous anglais?” A brief pause followed. The building rumbled with vibrations as explosions shook the city, in the distance.
“Oui….yes.” The word seemed forced, formed through stiff lips, as if the man had not spoken it for a while. A rich accent underlined it. “I’m neutral. Not Canadian. I just want some shelter for a while…that’s all. Just until the battle calms.”
“Just? Who will know when this ends? This could go on for a while. They are calling it the Second Battle of Ypres, you know? How long? Maybe forever, who knows?”
“Well, I’ll borrow your roof only for a while.” Your roof and its holes.
“You are American?”
“No, I told you. I’m neutral.”
“What kind of a soldier are you?” the man stared, though the trench crawler couldn’t see his face. The lamp still glared. “I saw you fall down. I shot you.”
“That’s…..nothing. It’s my jacket, you know, armour.” He reached down slowly and unbuttoned his shirt, showing the man the layers of bound tin and plates below. And the hole, caved into one of the plates over his chest. The man’s shoulders sagged, as if in relief. The rifle lowered an inch or two. “So…where are you from?”
“I’m neutral. It doesn’t matter where I’m from.”
“Then what are you doing in a war?”
“I think….it’s getting a bit uncomfortable on these steps, sir. I’ll be going now if you don’t—” The Belgian snapped his head back, shifting the lamp away.
Went the cannons afar.
The trench crawler was wary; the house smelt of prejudice, of strong pride. There was no neutrality here. Blood and dust. His chest complained of the bruise that was growing determinedly on his ribs.
He clutched his Springfield tight, keeping his finger hovering by the trigger.
The Belgian thumped on up the dark, as if mimicking the background music from the rest of the city, from what he had called The Second Battle of Ypres. 1915, it would say on books. It felt special when you were in the middle, but the Great War had churned out many like it in the years before.
Out of the darkness came a hesitant glimmer at the head of the steps. Against it, the sturdy silhouette of the Belgian formed upon the trench crawler’s eyes. The black shape of a man, hazily shifting in the centre of a blurred rectangle of light, leached of energy by the dusty air. There was a doorframe at the head of the steps. Thump, thump, went the man’s boots. He had draped his lamp with a cloth cover, for whatever reason.
Out of the buzz of air cocooned in a shell of a house, punctuated by the thumps, there crawled out a strange and melancholy sound. A beautiful sound, the trench crawler allowed.
He strained to listen, the dust itching in his sinuses.
Out of darkness, to the thump of the Belgian shoes. The dulcet strains of a violin came floating through the cramped passages of the blasted building. A violin. Delicately played. As they moved up, the melodic sound increased in volume, threatening to overwhelm. So soft, yet so incongruous in the midst of the film of dust and prejudice. The trench crawler tried to ignore it.
But it continued to trickle against the furrows of his mind.
They walked through the doorframe into a hot chamber, once a bedroom perhaps. The light came from windows, partially boarded up with planks and bits of wood torn from the dismantled furniture littering the ground. The metallic reek of blood accompanied the warmth. The violin played on, invisible. In the lines of sunlight, the Belgian’s face was etched into visibility.
Grey eyes stared at the trench crawler. A calloused hand took of his beige cap, revealing a balding scalp frosted with white down that shone against the light. Greyed hair, but not too old. There was soothed hostility in those eyes. And in the creased face.
The trench crawler looked around. A few cheap candles burned foul curls of smoke into the corners of the room, and a small fire crackled on a heap of shattered wood, barely giving any light, but enough heat. Dusty drapes and blankets layered the floor like wrinkled carpets. The Belgian spoke.
“What?” asked the trench crawler, and regretted it, feeling foolish. The Belgian had a name now.
“My name is Serge.” The violin whined. The trench crawler looked for it, sweating profusely in the dusty damp and warmth. He nearly jumped as he saw a woman on the ground, wrapped in blankets. A pale face visible from over the edge of the cloth: jet black hair matted to a lustrous forehead with blood. The body moved up and down with soft breathing. She was alive. Serge bent down to touch the blood with his fingertips, stroke the hair. The tune of the violin quivered strenuously, edging painfully towards a pause, but then continuing.
“What is your name?” asked Serge with a hint of impatience and irritation in his voice, looking up. The rifle was clutched tight in one hand. He had imparted the information, why was the neutral not doing the same? Of course, thought the trench crawler. The violin.
“I am a trench crawler. Neutral.” In the slits of light, he saw the brows above Serge’s hard grey eyes wrinkle in a frown.
“I take no name. I belong to no country. I am one of true neutrals. We are called….we call ourselves trench crawlers. Now.” Where was the violin?
“What did you call yourself before the war, then?”
“True neutral.” Serge shook his head.
“What is a true neutral doing in the middle of the Great War?” Both hands firm on the rifle now, still crouched. The woman on the ground stirred, as if in detection of some disturbance in the air. The violin wavered in accordion with her moans.
“Good question, Belgian…ah, Serge. Serge. What can a true neutral do in this world, you tell me? Tell me, Serge. We have no choice but to wander, and even we must live. The war has made us what we are now. Trench crawlers. We roam the cracks between the battles of the Great War, offering our service to whichever side will accept it. Sometimes we steal, for few will hire us. Yes, we steal. From the trenches. What does one do, Serge?” Where could it be?
“Damn it….I….where’s the viol…we wander. Yes. We offer our arms to whichever side will accept it. We are trench crawlers.”
Serge looked down to woman in front of him, fingers loosening. The rifle quivered in his hands as he felt something cold against the back of his head. The trench crawler pushed the barrel of the revolver firmly against the feathery white of Serge’s hair. The silver plating glinted, and the gun clicked as he pushed back the hammer. One finger on the trigger. The pain in his chest was now more or less nonexistent.
“You see, Serge, no one offers a trench crawler shelter. We offer our services.”
“What do you want, you bastard? I am just a civilian, why are you holding a gun to my head?” The muzzle was unrelentingly cold, and it hurt when the circular rim rammed against bone, the metal pushing through the scant protection of skin to let Serge’s nerves jump in alarm. The man winced, a pearl of sweat falling tremulously down the creases of his forehead. “I’m offering you my services, Serge. This is manna from heaven, my dear peasant.” The last word was hissed as the trench crawler edged his flushed face closer to Serge’s neck. His lips contorted in a sudden cold fury, his voice still low. Warm breath, rancid from the fear of battle still fresh in the mind, gushed against Serge’s reddened skin. “If you don’t accept, I’ll just take this little hiding hole for myself for a while, with or without your company. Your choice, Serge.”
The violin stopped. A soft sigh left the trench crawler’s lips, and he pushed the gun harder against the Belgian’s skin.
Serge’s skin blushed as the pistol muzzle bit hard against his skull. One eye blurred with the milky birth of a tear, and a copious droplet spilled over to roll down his face. The dust swirled lazily between the boarded windows; the lines of sunlight caught on the trail of moisture on Serge’s cheek, glittering delightedly on it.
Serge quivered with contained spasms, the grip on his rifle loosening. The gun fell softly onto the blanketed ground, as Serge clasped his thighs and shook with inaudible sobs. “Who are you? Who are you, why? Why have you come? Now why in my house. Why? God, why? You bastard, what do you want? The Germans….the Germans are enough my wife, my wife is….”
“Shut up, Serge.” The trench crawler paused to think about the wife. She was young, quite young to be with a man with white hair. Serge obviously had some charm, he thought with mild irritation and stifled disgust. All the same. “Your problems are not for me to share. You tell me now, whether or not you want my services. Your payment will be this roof, this shelter. That is all. If you do not wish to acquire my service, I will take this hideout for myself. I warn you now.”
Silence. Serge cowered, the trench crawler’s revolver remained steady against his head. No violin, no moans, no sobbing. Perfect tranquillity descended, and the trench crawler relished it, languishing in the luxurious absence of sound. He nearly forgot the situation, holding his gun to a human’s head almost unconsciously.
Somewhere, an artillery shell hit the ground and exploded, heat and concussive force striking soldiers around it with frightening intensity, fragments of shrapnel flying through the air to embed themselves, red hot, within flesh and burn relentlessly through cloth and tissue.
The two seconds of tranquillity ended.
And he felt pressure on the other end of his revolver. A shadow blurred his vision, and a rifle butt came soaring out of the gloom to strike the trench crawler on his face with a dull crack. Flares of pain exploded, and he felt his body ripple through the air, falling backwards. Droplets of blood left his lips to redden the lines of sunlight in the room for a fleeting second. He landed on the ground, dazed, feeling the metal flood his mouth and dribble out over his chin.
Serge’s boot struck his gut, though the flack jacket absorbed some of the impact. The trench crawler’s hand loosened, and the revolver tumbled from his fingers. The rifle came down again, clattering against his tin helmet, which flew off to roll on the blankets.
He blinked rapidly, smacking his lips against the bitter deluge from his gums. Serge aimed at his head.
Almost with instinct, one leg flew up and hit the man between the legs, roughly striking the side of one leg to brush against the groin. Serge buckled, and the trench crawler expelled as much blood as he could from his mouth, spraying him in the eyes. Loosening his jaw to lessen the aching bite of his loosened teeth, the trench crawler pounced against Serge, slamming his fist into the middle aged man’s abdomen. He struggled, ramming the wooden shaft of the rifle under the trench crawler’s chin, pressing his teeth together. Pain blossomed, and tears welled from the neutral’s eyes. The two men grappled, crashing against the walls and landing on the ground.
Dust flew, and itched at nostrils.
Sweat and heat glowed from skin, and the rifle between them creaked. The trench crawler felt his nasal passages explode, and Serge was once again blinded by a warm metallic reek, and found himself choking as his own rifle was pushed against his windpipe.
Suddenly losing strength, he was hauled up and felt the trench crawler shift behind him, gripping a tuft of his hair. The rifle was hurled away, and Serge felt the cold caress of delicately tempered metal against his throat. A knife, gently propped under his chin. The trench crawler growled.
“This is the last chance, Serge. The last chance. I’m offering you my service, son of a bitch! Take it or leave it!”
Serge, face taut and scarlet as the knife dug pressed closer, spluttered. The trench crawler gritted his teeth, oozing dark red between the cracks, despite the pain—he was hissing, audibly. Last chance. He lessened the pressure of the knife a notch.
“Alright! Very well, I will take it. I will accept your service!” Serge whispered rapidly, just outdoing the moans of the woman in the blankets, still lying on the floor. The knife was removed, and the trench crawler let go of the man. Serge collapsed limply to his knees, coughing and grasping his head. Deep, shuddering breaths shook his frame.
“Thank you,” said the trench crawler, sheathing his knife and picking up his helmet and revolver. “I will accept your offer of shelter as payment for the temporary protection of you and your…wife, for the duration of my stay under this roof. How’s that for a deal, Serge?” He slipped the revolver into its belt holster, and wiped the rivulets on his chin and split lip. Serge winced as he got up, weakly but anxiously clutching at his rifle, retrieved from the floor. He gave a feeble nod, rubbing his bruised thigh and gulping at the air.
“No need to sulk, good man,” the trench crawler pushed the tin helmet back onto his shortly cropped brown hair and picked up Serge’s rifle. “don’t think you didn’t get in a good blow. You could have sealed the agreement a little earlier, and it would have saved us both some pain.” He massaged his chin, scowling at the Belgian and licking his reddened teeth.
He took out a match and struck it on his helmet, sparking a bright flame which he touched to a brittle candle propped on its own wax on one of the ruined remnants of a cabinet. The flame danced, and the match was discarded.
“The past is the past. Let us seal this agreement.” The trench crawler extended a hand to Serge.
He suddenly noticed the girl, standing under the battered doorframe at the end of the room. A young girl, of about six, plump face glistening with fresh tears. Her tender hands grasped a polished violin, looking impotent in its silence. Serge’s eyes widened, and he lunged towards her, gently but firmly grasping her little body in both hands.
“Joue encore! Ta mere est encore malade!” he whispered frantically to the girl, shaking her little body. Then, giving her a firm push, he sent her back into the darkness behind the doorframe.
The trench crawler closed his eyes and gritted his teeth.
And again the music started, the strains of the little violin shivering and coiling around his nerves. He shook his head. “Your daughter?”
Serge, still leaning by the door and staring into space, snapped out of his inattention, seeming to suddenly remember where he was. And who he was with. “Yes,” he snapped hastily. “Her mother is not well.” He added in a brief mutter and leant over the blanketed woman, stroking her pale forehead, his fingertips coming away red.
The music stopped with a squeal. Out on the street, a shattering sound broke the dusty silence of the ruins. The trench crawler ducked and looked through the slits in the boards, rifle at the ready. A nerve wracking rattle came from outside, and the thump of an explosion. The clatter of flying stone. Blinking against the sunlight, the trench crawler let his eyes roll down to street level, looking at the rising cloud of coarse smoke boiling out of a small crater of blackened ground. Two soldiers lay next to it, bodies sprawled carelessly in death. Their dust dulled uniforms were singed. He couldn’t make out what side.
A voice behind him, urgent, almost crying. The music began again, quickly. “God damn it,” whispered the trench crawler. There were people running down the street….gone. just background noise again. The battle continued. Somewhere. How long would he have to wait in here? On the opposite side of the street, he spotted someone. Another soldier, hunched and moving towards the safety of the broken buildings behind him. Canadian, it looked like. He was limping, and wrapped in somebody’s old overcoat, though it didn’t cover his unform properly. Probably a runaway from the nerve centre of the Battle of Ypres, Second.
Pop! The soldier fell to the remains of the sidewalk. His head was red.
The direction…from across the street. The echoes of the gunshot lingered. Across the street, opposite to the man. Which would mean—this building. His refuge. Someone was in there with him and Serge and his merry little family. He got up.
“Serge, someone just got in, he’s downstairs. You stay here…and remember, we are under agreement,” he hissed. “Don’t even think of breaking the agreement. I’m taking your rifle as well.” He slung the weapon over his shoulder and pushed two bullets into his own Springfield. Serge nodded, looking weary.
Dusty. Dark. Sunbeams, hanging like bats from the holes in the walls, the ceiling.
He crept carefully, sweat trickling down his neck, clammy palms threateningly slippery against the shaft and butt of his rifle. Who was in the building? Another Canadian soldier? A straggler, taking refuge? Insane. Why would he shoot his comrade across the street? Unless they had an argument. Yes, an argument, conflict. Two sides made out of one. Over a canteen of water, or rum, perhaps.
What? What was he thinking. The violin was playing again, upstairs.
He rolled his eyes. That was good, warn whoever it was. He stifled a sob as his teeth jumped in pain as he inadvertently clenched his jaw. His lip was swelling. Play on, little girl. Warn the intruder.
Knife, cold. Against his throat. A throaty chuckle, and he was pushed to the floor. “Bartholomew! Scared the shit out of you, didn’t I? What a coincidence…” Before the voice could continue, the trench crawler had his rifle up and pulled the trigger. Clap in the dark and blood flew up out of the intruder’s shoulder in a crimson strand, shining against a sunbeam.
The rifle rammed against the fallen one’s jaw, the trench crawler hissed. “Who the hell are you? Tell me. Now.”
“Jesus Christ! Christ, you bloody bastard, you shot me! You shit! Damn you,” rifle dug into flesh and “Oh! God you shit what you doing? I’m O’Brien! The breadwinner ohgod.” Blood seeped through the breadwinner’s fingers. The trench crawler trembled, suddenly fearful. “Are you Canadian? Who are you?”
“The breadwinner! O’Brien!” his hand came up and grabbed the trench crawler’s collar. “What’re you, mad? Bartholomew you shit you mad?”
“No! I’m not Bartholomew shut up you damn…” he wrenched the breadwinner off his feet and slammed him down into the floorboards, which groaned in protest, proceeding to kick him in the ribs, before backing away and leaving the man cursing and spitting.
“The breadwinner….ah, I….now I remember. O’Brien. That was your name, did you say your name was O’Brien? Yes, I remember you. Now I…yes…the….the trench crawler. From England.”
“That’s bloody fucking fine, you shit! Now you remember! Aaagh…bloody hell! I’m shot…not in the war, not under pay! But by bloody Bartholomew of all people.”
The trench crawler’s eyes widened. “You shut up, O’Brien! I am not Bartholomew. I have no such name. I am neutral, I have shed any affiliation. I’m a pure neutral, unlike you. I don’t partake of identity like the rest of humanity.”
The breadwinner shuffled up, swooning. “I should shoot you right now. Shouldn’t I? Bloody…pretentious shit. I’m as neutral as you. We’re all the same. All trench crawlers here in this damn mess of a war. I’m just like you, looking for the chapel. Like all the other trench crawlers in Ypres. Only some are pretentious bastards who shoot fellow neutrals without provocation.”
The trench crawler, now the other trench crawler, remained silent, gazing out into space as if remembering something.
“I didn’t mean…to shoot you, O’Brien. I apologise. It was unprofessional. But I thought you were unjustly intruding. I didn’t wait to examine any affiliation.”
“Yes…I’m bloody sure. Sorry won’t do it for me, get me some bandages.”
“I’m under a binding agreement, providing protection for a client. I had to ensure the safety of these premises, O’Brien. I’m sorry.”
“That’s fine. I didn’t realise you were under agreement. I should ha’ knocked, I guess.” He wheezed out forced laughter and lit up a cigarette, grunting as he raised the arm with the bullet slashed shoulder. The other trench crawler looked at him. “Come on. Come up, I’m taking refuge here with my client till the battle clears. The chapel’s not far. You can keep us company, and there’s bandages.” O’Brien looked up, lips whitening slightly as he bled into his shirt, but keeping the pain locked up as he sucked on the damp cigarette.
“Yeah? Well, I’ll be bloody damned. Bandages!” he grimaced and got up, dragging his rifle up. “Oh…come on. I hope your man’s a good entertainer, looks like this fight may last a while.”
The breadwinner tapped the bandage he had wrapped around his shoulder and winced slightly. A crimson spot had appeared already in the white fabric.
“Come on, come on,” said the trench crawler, the other one who was not known as Bartholomew, as he looked out of the gaps in the boarded windows. The Second Battle of Ypres rumbled on tirelessly. “Damn it…when will things calm down?”
“My man Serge, you’ve some good bandages.” Serge looked suspiciously at the breadwinner. He was beginning to despair, his daughter in the dark room tiring, his wife no better, and his shattered house and inn filling with strange soldiers who belonged to no side, one of whom had nearly killed him and stolen his rifle. Things were not going well.
“You know what I think? I think we should just go, right now. This battle is not going to end anytime soon. We should just go, right now, while we have a chance. The other trench crawlers don’t seem to be moving in yet. So let’s go! Now. There’s no one here.” The trench crawler was speaking frantically, spittle flying from his lips as he whispered hastily.
The breadwinner sucked on a freshly rolled cigarette, looking slightly weary. He had emptied half a bottle of French wine from his backpack; it lay beside him, glittering lazily in the narrowed sunlight through the cracks. He had to calm his wound.
“Barth…uhm…look, trench crawler. What’s the flaming hurry? We can wait, there’s no damn race going on here. We’re all looking for the same thing, we might as well share the prize. None of us knows too much about the chapel, you know.”
The breadwinner’s voice was slightly slurred. He closed his eyes and sucked on the damp cigarette. It glowed gently. Serge, sitting in the corner in sullen contemplation, occasionally glancing at his wife, looked up suddenly.
“What is this…chapel you want? Why are you looking for a chapel here? There are many in the world….why here? Why in Ypres? Why in the middle of the Great War! This…this is not good.” He shook his head and glanced again at the bundle of blankets on the floor, black and bloodied hair emerging from the pile. His wife’s breathing was shallow, but regular. She showed no signs of waking anytime soon.
The trench crawler started in fury, face twitching. Gritting his teeth, he swallowed the bile collecting in his throat, and hissed. “Do not complain, Serge.” He suddenly dropped his voice, as if afraid of being heard. “You are getting a service here. You are under my protection. Do not complain. We will go when the time is right, and our pact will be done. Complete. You can tend to your family and your complaints then.”
Breathing heavily, the trench crawler who refused to be called Bartholomew knotted his jaw, clutched his rifle tight and peered out of the boarded windows. His teeth still hurt from the brawl. There was nothing to see on the street, but the frustratingly tedious yet frightening rattle of gunfire and boom of explosions continued in the distance.
“Why? Why here?” Serge moaned softly, clasping his face.
“Shut up! You wouldn’t even begin to fathom why, damned Belgian peasant! Underneath that chapel, cracked open now, lies the heart of what we are, we!” the trench crawler roared, eyes glittering with tears of sheer rage.
Serge lunged up, wincing slightly. “I am not a peasant!” he hissed, his accent faltering heavily as he worked the English words in his own anger. “I am a barkeeper! I own an inn! I work to keep it clean, to keep it running. It is my family’s inn! Mine! This inn! Now…now it is destroyed, destroyed! Broken! By people, people who want to fight, their stupid wars all over our homes! People like you!”
He spat out the last word, face flushed and veins throbbing on his forehead, pointing an accusing finger at the trench crawler who might have once been Bartholomew. The breadwinner watched with sullen eyes, massaging the empty wine bottle in his hands.
The trench crawler stared at Serge, and shook his head. He replied in a far quieter voice, calm, untrembling. “No, not people like me. Not people like me at all, Serge.” He took a deep breath, flicking the sweat from his brow, and peered through the boarded windows. Nothing on the street.
“The people who fight this war…they are nothing like me, like us. They pick sides. All that means to them in life is sides. That is all. I pick none, I am truly balanced. They…all that matters to them is winning. Winning the bounty of the other side, taking all, finding….something else, somebody else. Another side. Cancel all….take the bounty. They care about material benefit, about power. That’s it. Power over the other sides. Power and bounty. Not like me…pure and balanced. I care about nothing but the balance of order……bring the balance…the balance to the world. Bounty….the bounty of a broken heart.” The breadwinner raised his eyebrows, Serge looked down to the floor, shaking his head.
“No. Nothing. What?” The trench crawler broke out of his glazed stare, looking to the breadwinner and licking his lips, frowning.
“Bounty? Broken….hearts, what was that? Ha…hmh.”
“Nothing. I told you, nothing. You’re….a bit drunk.”
“There’s a bit more wine. Tell me, Serge, how is it your dame is bedridden? Shot? No….head. Her head.”
“Brick….the bursts…the…ah…bombs. Our roof fell, and the brick….what you call. Tile. Tile fell on her. The tiles. I think….her head is broken. Broken? She…” Serge trailed off, voice shaking slightly. He swallowed the tremour, glancing towards the trench crawler. Trench Crawler, who was paying no attention, still looking out of the windows. The breadwinner thought for a while, as Serge kneaded his forehead and listened to his daughter’s music.
“That’s it? A tile?” the breadwinner shouted suddenly, startling Serge. The trench crawler frowned, but did not avert his constant gaze, directed on the street outside.
“A tile fell on her head! Ha…what a way to go in the Great War. No, no, my dear Serge. I can’t believe this….all this worry over a tile. You…you are a fool. Come, my medical services. Will suffice!” He suddenly lunged, and threw the remnant of the wine in his near empty bottle in the face of the woman on the ground. The crimson liquid sparkled, washing the dusty air, and splashed on the woman’s pale skin and dark hair to mingle with blood.
“Anaesthetic, for the wound! Simple head wound.” Serge jumped up, shock carved into every line in his face, moving in front of his wife as if to protect her. “What, what are you doing? What! Bastard!” He crouched over his wife, brushing the wine from her hair and face.
“Shhhh…..anaesthetic,” muttered O’Brien, and tossed the bottle into the corner. It didn’t shatter. The violin had stopped. The trench crawler smiled, seemingly oblivious of the commotion. O’Brien leaned on a wall and closed his eyes, sitting on the floor.
Serge, quivering with rage and concern, shouted out suddenly. “Mona!”
The music started again, off-tune at first, and then returning to its cyclical melody. The trench crawler breathed in deeply, and returned to a frown, the smile vanishing.
Serge looked at her pretty face, glistening with sweat and blood. She was waking. Was she waking? He stroked her face, gently, parting her crimson encrusted hair to smoothen the cloth tied around her forehead. She had said something. She had spoken, his name. Serge was smiling, his heart aching with hope. She was conscious, she remembered him. He touched her hair, lightly running his finger down to her closed eyelids. She was half-asleep. But he knew now, it was only sleep. Her breathing was improving.
A tear fell out of his eye, Serge sniffed and brushed it away, moving his thumb down to wipe her tears, brushing away diluted pink droplets of wine from her moist skin. He caressed her cheek, her lips. She would wake.
Serge bent down to kiss her mouth, crying openly now.
“I knew it….my anaesthetic. Its my medical care, the woman’s alive and well. Pfah! Broken head indeed, nothing but a cut,” the breadwinner smiled and said.
The trench crawler was crying, helpless brine flowing down his cheekbones and dripping off his chin, flooding his nasal passages. He sniffed, swallowing hard and trembling to keep from turning around and shooting the sleeping O’Brien ten times in the stomach. The tedium. He couldn’t manage it anymore. The battle of Ypres, Second, continued. What was happening? It would never end, perhaps the rest of the crawlers of the war were already moving in. Moving in on the chapel. They would steal what lay within. He watched the empty street, as Serge embraced a waking wife, and the little girl of the Eternal Violin ran out of the shadows. To hug her mother. Not yet awake, but alive. And then, she returned to her place in the darkness beyond the doorway, to coax the woman who had birthed her out of her breaking sleep with the music.
Encore. And it began again.
The trench crawler wondered, if only briefly, whether he would escape the situation in Ypres. Whether anything would come of the chapel. He wondered if, when it all ended, he would start a cult in the streets of Paris. A religious sect of sorts, devoted the mysterious deity born in the ruins of Ypres, 1915, known only as the Little Girl of the Eternal Violin. They would worship her with broken hearts, kneel to her endless music, the devilish one of the Violin, a little succubus in the darkness of broken doors. They would sacrifice humans, pour blood under the full moon. They would be a cult, and he would worship for his broken heart. She reminded him, perhaps, of another. Who had played the violin.
He dismissed his wandering thoughts are ridiculous delirium, and dug a nail into his palm to stop the trembling sob that was building up inside him. Nothing came out, and he stared, shivering slightly, out of the boarded windows.
“O’Brien. That’s it. Let’s go. Now.”
“Hm. B…..what?” the breadwinner’s eyes flickered open, face pasty in the dim light, lips dry. The wound on his shoulder had marred his sleep somewhat.
“You’re drunk. But we have to go.”
“No….I’m not. A bit tipsy, maybe. But not drunk.”
“Fine, let’s go.”
Serge looked up, still seated on the floor by his unconscious wife, eagerly awaiting her awakening. He was clearly afraid to wake her up, but anxiously expecting her to do so any moment—her breathing had was regular and deep now. The little girl, Mona, had her name been? The little girl kept playing in the dark, never faltering.
“Looks like the deal’s done, Serge. We’re packing up and leaving. Here’s your rifle back.” The trench crawler handed the weapon back to Serge, who took it slowly, a bit confused. Still running the words through his head, he said “Thank you. You…you are leaving?” The tone of his voice was suddenly eager, but seemingly forced. There seemed to be a hint of regret in it, something the trench crawler did not miss, and frowned at.
“Here ends my service to you, Serge. You have paid for it in shelter, as was agreed,” he stopped to massage his chin. “And sorry about the sore thigh.”
“That girl,” O’Brien suddenly spoke, slinging his rifle over his unscathed shoulder with a wince. “How old is she? Seven? Eight?”
“She is…eight years old,” mumbled Serge, stroking his sleeping wife’s hair.
“Well, take care of her. She plays marvellously. I just realised….she’s been playing for what, hours now? Its astounding, Barthol…don’t you think? She’s a prodigy. That’s right. That’s what they call children like that, Serge. You’ve got a prodigy in your hands.”
Serge nodded quickly, looking down. “Thank you.”
“Anyways, we’ll be off then. Goodbye, let’s go….trench crawler.” The trench crawler broke out of a vacant stare and nodded, and the two walked across the room sluggishly, joints stiffened from their cramped wait.
“Wait. Where are you going?”
The trench crawler looked back, eyebrows raised. “The….the chapel. About two blocks from here.”
Serge cleared his throat, looking at the woman at his knees. “I….I can show you some better way, to get to that one. The chapel. There are some….small roads I know…the alleys, they will get you there quicker. There may be the soldiers on the main roads. And…you are neutral, non?”
O’Brien smiled. The trench crawler mumbled. “Yes, yes we are. Thank you, Serge. Are you sure….your…family…we do not fight this war, Serge. There are other things in Ypres, besides the Allies and the Germans.”
“The chapel is not far….I can take you, and come back quickly. My family, they are safe here. The battle is not here itself….”
“Very well, let’s go.”
Serge nodded, with a hint of gratification. He was a man of honour, and he didn’t know why he felt indebted to two neutrals who had assaulted and then occupied his shattered home. He did not think of the things he felt, did not ponder on words like companionship and frustration. His wife was recovering, she had not broken her head after all.
The three men had walked out, all neutrals in the midst of a devastating war, though two had labelled themselves so, and wore guns and uniforms of a sort to declare themselves as such.
The street was empty, deathly still, the gunshots and explosions of the actual battle close enough to be loud, but far enough to be muffled. Their boots crunched on debris and gravel, the shadows carved on the dusty stretch lengthened as the morning raced towards noontime.
A window on the other side flashed and winked at the three, and a staccato rattle shook them out of complacency as the ground spit bits of stone at their feet, shattering. Serge was gunned down immediately, his chest shredded in seconds by the machine gun fire. The other two ran for cover as Serge’s torso was ripped open from shoulder to hip, sending the man hurtling down to the ground without so much as a scream. Bullets whistled past the breadwinner and the trench crawler, who split apart and ran for the nearest shelter from the fiery hail. The window beside the machine gunner’s perch, on the northern side of the road, flared for a moment and the air was lined with a brief streak of acrid smoke that lasted less than a second. Following a deafening thump, the second floor of the already broken inn they had stayed in for god only knew how many hours vanished in an explosion of flame and dust.
Ears buzzing, trapped in a strange, buoyant world of blurred sound, the trench crawler ran behind the broken cart (or was it once an artillery cannon?) he had hidden behind earlier in the morning, shot down by Serge, who lay bleeding on the ground while his inn collapsed in a shower of smoke and bricks. The air stung, thick with smoke made yellowish by the sunlight. Where was the breadwinner? He had gone into the inn. The second floor was gouged apart by the explosion and
The music stopped.
It was gone. The violin was broken, and the music stopped. The trench crawler’s heart seemed to stop. He tried to smile, but grimaced instead, trying to concentrate of the bullets flying through the sickly smoke cloud rolling over the street. There was cacophony, and no music. Finally, it was gone. O’Brien! He screamed, unable to hear himself properly, his voice sounding like a dream. Bartholomew! I’m here! Came the voice of a second dreamer, out of the gritty air. The breadwinner was tucked firmly behind a pile of mortar and bricks near the centre of the street, probably once a part of the inn that was now once again birthing pieces of itself over the area. He had barely missed being engulfed by the rain of bricks from the second floor.
Serge, sprawled across the ground in the centre of the canyon of incomplete structures, was bubbling from the mouth. His body shook and another spray of bullets sliced his legs open. He was still, the ground under him dark red. Dead. He was barely visible under the blanket of smoke.
The trench crawler thought through the daze; across to the end of the street was a perch, inside the ruin of a small house, was a manned Hotchkiss 8mm and a cannon. They were manned by other trench crawlers, maybe competing to get to the chapel first. They had probably followed him and the breadwinner and set up a stakeout, marked the inn as a hideout and rendezvous for other crawlers, and destroyed it. And they were now aiming for the two identified neutrals.
The music had stopped.
The dust, like a blanket over the street. It made the world a dream, nothing was real. The trench crawler sweated and lost focus, his pupils dilating and turning the world even hazier. The music had stopped. They were under attack. One last thing left to do.
He waved the white flag. Truce.
Out of the gloom came the figures like wisps of nightmares. Guns held up high. The breadwinner came out from behind his cover, hands up, one still holding his rifle with strain. The bandage on his shoulder was mottled with crimson. He was panting almost inaudibly, looking grave and in pain.
Four came out of the dust world, to venture the truce.
Reality submerged. The buzz was still there in his ears.
Why did you attack? Breadwinner.
Keep your hands high, breadwinner. That’s right. We’re here for the chapel The chapel. Of course they were. Far away was the Battle of Ypres, Second. Here amongst the ruins was the Battle for the Chapel. And Serge was a casualty. His wife too. So was the little girl, the music. It was dead. Mona?
You two planning to beat us to it? Getting local help? Serge the once innkeeper sprawled across the grit of the blasted road, bleeding slow rivers across the sandy grey.
No! We weren’t planning anything. No, no, God damn it this…this bloody…he. He was just a man, he offered us shelter. Until the battle eased a bit, we weren’t planning anything, I swear.
What’s in the chapel, then?
Come on, mate, stop playing games. Let’s go while we still can. What with this godawful commotion you just created here, there’ll be more of us coming down in droves. Maybe even non-neutrals. Let us go with you. We’ll find the chapel together, its not far.
Silence. Wait for a response.
Up inside the hollowed, caved inn, a wife and a little girl. Charred carcasses, knifed by the brunt of the explosion. Smoking, curled black commas in the gritty blur of the collapsed rooms. Dead. A tiny violin once polished with the sweat of a tender chin, blown to bits and burnt to cinders.
Alright. Let’s go.
The breadwinner had managed to get them to survive, though his eyes were cloudy with tears that he could excuse as side effects of the dust. A prodigy, perhaps, had vanished from the world.
The cloud began to lift, ever so slowly. They walked through it, a team of neutrals who had nearly slaughtered each other mere minutes ago. They entered another ruin, where the shadows were deep and the light slanted through windows like the trench crawler was used to. Inside, the Hotchkiss mounted machine gun, stolen from the French. And the cannon, its great muzzle propped behind a window. Stolen from the French. Or the Canadians. Or the Germans. The trench crawler wondered how they managed to steal that heavy thing and wheel it into the centre of the city. Too many people now.
Their new allies showed them around the little temporary stakeout. The breadwinner treaded carefully, knowing very well the spitfire alliances of their profession. Or faction. Or side. No, or group. What were they? Just neutral. While he did so, the trench crawler lifted his rifle. The neutral beside O’Brien jerked and fell to the ground. The other three looked round, one falling down almost immediately as his tin helmet flew off his head with a red retort. The breadwinner gazed in horror.
The trench crawler shot the third one just as he raised his weapon and fired, missing the man who was not Bartholomew by an inch in his panic. O’Brien, in the seconds of desperation, grabbed the fourth and pushed him to the ground before he could fire his weapon. The trench crawler did not hesitate, and a hole appeared in the man’s chest in unison with the gunpowder stench and puff of smoke.
Reality still hovered like the cloud over the streets. Unable to touch the ground.
It was back to just the two of them, O’Brien and the trench crawler who was not Bartholomew.
“What, what in God’s bloody name did you do that for, Bartholomew?” spat O’Brien, lips sheet white.
“The less, the better. Let’s get going before the rest close in. And my name is not Bartholomew.” The last words spoken through closed teeth still aching from Serge’s attack. A dead man’s mark. They went, scouring the bloody hideout clean of old biscuits, cheese, and ammunition. And a canteen of water.
The chapel awaited.
THE APOCALYPSE OF YPRES
On their way across the streets, they cast their final glance at Serge’s ruined house and inn. And his corpse lying silent amongst the dust and pieces of the city. There was no music, only a dirty silence squirming beneath the nerve wracking tremble of the war along the frontlines. The trench crawler wiped a tear viciously from his cheek, scathing his skin with the pressure.
The chapel approached them, as they walked towards it. Not the other way around. There it was, magnificently destroyed. Looming above the rest of the ruins in its splendid deconstruction, arches naked and windows gaping without their panes. Spires shattered and crumbled, their portals glowing with sunlight, their interiors hollowed.
Yet, it approached.
The square was empty. Trees twisted in scorched agony and blasted clean of leaves, the remnants of which sifted across broken cobblestones as sullen ash. A horse lay dead by the steps of the chapel, leaking fluids along the cracks in the ground. The air stank of its hide, its fur now dotted with insects and matted with the ubiquitous dust of the splintered land. The dead horse. A warning?
No, it was a warzone. What more could you ask, than at least a dead horse by the chapel steps.
The building waited as the two neutrals stood at its foot. O’Brien looked at the trench crawler, wiping his wan forehead. “This is it.”
“Yes, it is.”
They observed the imaginary vacuum the chapel seemed to have created around its wounded self. Death, the still horse by its toes. The trees in the square, silent in their pain. Flies buzzed around the horse incessantly, breaking the image of their vacuum, but comforting them none. Yet, they had to enter. Inside lay what they all looked for. The key. To neutrality? They walked up the steps and entered.
Inside, they were swallowed. By the dank stillness of the ruin, its collapsed beams and shattered ceilings creating a web of overlapping shadow and rods of light that speared the darkness in a chaotic pattern that confused the eye. They proceeded with caution, absolutely clueless as to what to do. How to proceed. Where to go. They were in the chapel, and now they would find the key. This was the chapel, and now, broken open by war, it would reveal what it held readily.
It was dark, and empty.
The trench crawler tremblingly lit a match, sending yellow slivers of light springing along the shadows of slanting woodwork, and crushed pews. “Here,” said O’Brien, fishing out a damp taper of cloth. It was oily, and pulled out of the depths of his backpack. The match sent it springing into smelly flame, and the darkness was pierced to some extent by its acrid illumination.
At the end of the hall, they found the main altar, disintegrated. And the floor, caved in, gaping open like a broken toothed mouth. The hole in the ground, and below it. Darkness, pitch black. Not a shred of light reached within. O’Brien held the taper over the crater in the floor, but saw nothing. What was beneath the floor was deep, and dark. There was something below. They knew, without a doubt, that under the chapel was the answer. The floor had opened, and revealed the secret.
A stale gust moaned from the maw, fading the taper.
Then, O’Brien made a choking noise and stumbled into the shadows. The taper dropped to the ground, where it burned gently. The trench crawler whipped around to see the curved blade of a hooked knife pushed clamped over the breadwinner’s throat, and a figure coiled behind him in what looked to be extreme hostility.
The trench crawler raised his rifle, as O’Brien’s clattered to the floor, his arm wrenched behind his back. He spluttered, unable to speak and wincing in excruciating pain as the bullet wound on his shoulder opened anew into the bandage.
“Who are you?” asked the trench crawler.
“You…you are the neutrals. The trench crawlers. Yes, you are.” A rich voice emanated from behind O’Brien, slightly accented. The man was Belgian.
“Shhh. Shhh! You are fools,”
“Drop the knife now, or I will shoot you. This I swear.” The trench crawler propped his finger against the Springfield’s trigger.
“Fools….you come here under cover of the Great War, not even knowing what you seek. Have you any idea, any idea what lies beneath this chapel? What you come to free?”
The trench crawler’s trigger finger twitched as he hesitated. The muzzle lowered an inch. O’Brien was gasping, spittle flying from his lips. The man holding him did not relinquish his iron grip. The taper on the ground danced, revealing sky blue eyes behind the breadwinner’s bleeding shoulder. And gloved fingers holding the knife.
“What do you know about neutrals? Who the hell are you?” the trench crawler ventured, speaking softly.
“Of course not. You have not even the faintest clue. None of you do. Behind the curtains of this wretched battle you neutrals have arrived from all the corners of the world, and not one of you knows why they have come here. I should slit this one’s throat, yes. From ear to ear, such is your foolishness.”
“What do you know about this, God damn you?”
“Now you ask, of course. When the steel touches your skin, you stop to ask.”
Silence. The trench crawler’s trigger finger trembled.
“There is another, hidden in the shadows, by the way. He is armed with a gun, aimed at your back. So I would caution your finger.”
Bartholomew. No, he who wasn’t Bartholomew’s back prickled with gooseflesh. A bead of sweat trickled down the back of his head and into the valley of his back. He shivered involuntarily.
“Now that I am understood, I will explain to you, trench crawlers.”
“Please do,” the trench crawler swallowed against his fear. Like bile at his throat.
O’Brien suddenly sprawled on the ground, coughing and spluttering. The man had tossed him aside. The breadwinner massaged his throat and sprang up unsteadily, grabbing his rifle with a yelp of pain. His shoulder bled into the bandage.
“Shoot me, you two, and you will be shot in return.”
It could be a bluff, but neither of the neutrals called it, instead scrutinising the man. O’Brien, still weak and trembling, face white.
Their opponent wiped the blade of his curved knife. In the taper, his gaunt face seemed hollowed and pale, handsome but sallow. He wore a long black trench coat and boots, and the hands that clasped his long blade were gloved. The trench crawler realised with dull surprise that beneath the coat the man wore the black vestments of a priest.
“You two, along with the rest of your pretentious lot, have ventured here,” the man gritted his teeth manically. “No idea, you have none. You would doom the world without realising what you were doing. But I will not let you. Curse this war for breaking this sanctuary…”
“What are you talking about? What lies beneath?”
“Oh, you want to know, do you? Bastards!” the man hissed, eyes glazed in the light of the taper. He suddenly calmed himself, clenching his jaw. “I…I am also a neutral. Very unlike you, you trench crawlers. My ancestors, they doomed the world. Nearly destroyed it. They were the first. The true harbingers of neutrality. I’ll tell you what lies here under the chapel. I guard it, we guard it. For years we have, years and decades and centuries. Our order is responsible for the fate of this world. We bear the mistake of our ancestors of our shoulders.”
“Who are these…”
“Shhh! Shut your mouth, trench crawler. There is much here, much. It would…..you would free it. I will not let you. You would free it, like my ancestors summoned it into the world centuries ago. They were the true neutrals. They were druids, of the Gallic lands before the coming of the messiah. Do you know what they sought? They did, unlike you. They did—order, balance, neutrality. They summoned something together, by the blood of their own people, they brought something into the world. The very essence of neutrality, the key to balance. Only, only they did not expect what they brought forth from the void. It was….neutral.” The man shook his head.
“We guard it with our lives, our Order.”
“What Order is this?”
“Oh, I would tell you, some fool, of my Order? Our name is not known to others, lest it poison our purpose.” O’Brien looked up, scowling, coughing dryly.
“God damn you, what the hell are you on about? What is it? What do you guard, what is it that your bloody ancestors conjured up?”
“I have told you. It was, it is neutrality. They summoned a beast like no other. It was not a beast. They summoned the apocalypse. The end of the world. If you freed it, it would consume the world as we know it, and end all life. The end of the world lies beneath this chapel, and we guard it. We stop any from freeing it. Our ancestors wanted balance, but not at the cost of the human race. So they imprisoned it here, crossing over from their homeland. Over the centuries this site has changed, and now, now it is this chapel. And we still guard it, as priests of the religion that this house pretends to preach.”
“What?” The trench crawler frowned, and shook his head. He felt slightly dizzy.
“Beneath this chapel, is the apocalypse? That’s it? The secret of neutrality?”
“Yes. The end of the world. The apocalypse takes no sides, it is neutrality. It will wipe clean the world, and restore balance anew. Perhaps in a world without humanity. If neutrality is what you truly wanted, the apocalypse would be the key. And my ancestors summoned it. It was not what they truly wanted. They realised that. And now you should, and get out while you still can. Forget all that you have taught yourself, forget what you have heard. And you can leave here alive. Do not try and free it.”
The trench crawler was blinking rapidly. There was no music here either. Just the end of the world. Who could have known, that it was right here all along? Kept under a chapel in Ypres. They had found the apocalypse. And they were the first. The first to reach it. He wondered whether to laugh, though he felt like crying a bit. His mouth was suddenly dry, throat like sandpaper.
O’Brien seemed to be crying. He spat, and spoke jaggedly. “This….what? This is ridiculous. How do we know this isn’t shit? Huh? How do we know that you people aren’t all mad, that your ancestors were not delusional occultists? What if there’s nothing but treasure down there?”
The man smiled, with no humour. “Treasure. Is that what you expected? A neutral?”
“I…I don’t know. No….it….not this! This is not it. The apocalypse? Under this church? No, I did not expect this. Anything but this. Tell me, how can you prove it? How do you know whether or not there is even anything down there? Have you been down there?”
“No. I have not. Do you wish to, perhaps? Go ahead.”
“Oh, that’s bloody fine. Did your ancestors even tell you how one would be able to free this end of the world? Did they give you instructions on how it can be set loose?”
“No. Perhaps to keep from tempting any madmen in the Order? It is no matter, the apocalypse is chained beneath this church, and going down is to risk freeing it.”
The trench crawler could feel his heart thumping tremendously. He suddenly fell sick. The realisation had hit him. All his life, he had been crawling for this. He had braved the battlefields of Europe to find this. Neutrality came crashing down, the ultimate meaning delivered. And devastating his mind. Tears began to spurt from his eyes, sliding copiously down his cheeks to drip off his chin. The music, torn apart in seconds. Bomb hits house, violin flies. No more music. Mona is dead.
It was gone. Everything collapsed. Neutrality caved in on him. It meant the end of the world. That was it. That was why the music had died. He had hated it, but it died, and he felt pain like no other. He felt hollow. He hadn’t hated it after all. It was killed, and all he was left with was the apocalypse.
“You cry, young fool. You believe, do you not? Leave now, and bury the mistake you have made, the path you have taken.” Shuddering, the trench crawler looked up.
“Bartholomew, you don’t believe this, do you? Why the hell are you crying?” O’Brien squirmed in pain with each word, looking shocked and bloodless.
“No, I will not leave.” The band of cloth underneath his helmet was itching madly, but he kept his grip on the rifle.
“I will not. The music……it. The girl is dead. They died for nothing. I cannot believe that, I cannot believe they were killed for the end of the world. It is my mistake. I have never been happy, never. Never! I did not know why, but now I do. It was this, this wretched road. I am no neutral. That is why, that is why. Why I could not be happy. I never took sides. If Serge’s da-daughter died, if the m…music….died, I will make sure it was for something. For a cause. Not for neutrality. Not for the end of the world. It is time I took a side. Yes yes. Ye sss. ”
“I will make sure they died for something. For the German cause. Yes, that will do perfectly. The Germans…..they will pay excessively for a secret like this. For a weapon like this. I am leaving now, I will leave, and I will sell the apocalypse to the Germans. They will take it gladly, and I will be happy,” spittle flew. The priest glared.
“You are a fool. And mad as well. Do you think the Germans will even believe you? No one, not the Germans, not the Allies, will even consider the fact that you are handing them the apocalypse on a platter. They’ll have you dead or put in a madhouse before the day ends. And how did you plan to present your offer? Go up to the frontlines of Ypres in your uniform that belongs to no country? They’ll riddle you full of bullets before you can say a word, and that is if you survive their poison bombs.”
“Bartholomew, what the hell are you talking about? Have you gone insane?”
The trench crawler glared at the breadwinner through eyes slick with tears and bloodshot with confusion. “You…do not understand. You never did. With your Bartholomew…you don’t even believe in the this. You came here for treasure, breadwinner. O….Brien.” he raised the rifle.
The breadwinner stared at him with open mouth, looking genuinely disappointed and shocked.
“Is that it, now? You’re going to kill me because I don’t believe this madman?”
The trench crawler nodded, and the grimace on the breadwinner’s face disappeared, replaced with an infinite sadness as he realised that he had not yet fulfilled anything in his life. Then, bang! His brain caved in the next moment as the trench crawler pulled the trigger. The breadwinner died immediately.
The trench crawler stifled a sob, and licked his lips. “Now you, yes. They will believe me, and I w-will sell it to the Germans. It-it, is a w-worthy cause.”
The priest shook his head, eyes cold, hands raised now with a slight note of caution. “No, you know they won’t. And even if they did, what then. No one even knows how to control it—they would end the world, including themselves. Where will your newfound side be then? As a bargaining chip, it would be useful. No doubt. If anybody bothered to believe it, that is. But never mind that, even. They would execute you the moment you turned your back, as a threat to the integrity of this secret weapon. You see, you might notice that you are not German.”
“You lie, it’s all….you lie. I will be rich, and happy. I will sell it to the Germans. I will give them the apocalypse. And they can do what they want with it, yes. Bargaining chip! Of the century! I will be happy, retire. Retire happy, with a side.”
“Reconsider, trench crawler. Leave here. What afterwards, neutral one? Suppose you do successfully sell It to them, and they do use It as the ultimate threat. They will take over the world, I suppose. Create a German empire? What would you be then? Would you live wilfully in their grasp?”
“What do I care, what do I care? I will retire. Shut up! I’m going to sell it.” He raised the rifle to his face, aligning the barrel with the priest’s head. The priest clenched his jaw, glancing behind the trench crawler with wide eyes, hands still raised above his head.
“It was a bluff….” The trench crawler grinned through the tears and spittle streaked across his face. “There is no one else here, no other man with a gun. You die.” The priest gazed at him benevolently.
The trench crawler once known as Bartholomew felt a sting and went blind. A crack and flash in the dark, and the back of his neck was quickly pierced by a bullet. On the ground, his body shook as another shot hit his chest.
The priest walked up to him, and saw the eyes of a corpse, the teeth of the trench crawler’s leer tinged with upwelling blood from his tunnelled neck. A drop brimmed over the corner of his mouth and trickled a dark bead along the line of his jaw to soak into his collar, stained with the final seconds of his life.
The priest and his unseen guardian survived what would be known in history books as the Second Battle of Ypres. They oversaw the rebuilding of the chapel, and saw to it that what lay beneath it was sealed away. They valued their decision to kill the intruders in the chapel that day, and lived in the satisfaction of having saved the world from the apocalypse. They never ventured beneath the chapel to find out whether it existed.
After a while, another World War shook the earth, bigger, bloodier, and Greater than the Greatest. The man who shot the trench crawler in 1915 died of untreated typhoid in 1932. Not long after, the priest died of a heart attack, and his Order vanished forever. The Second World War was in full swing, and carnage swept the world.
A chapel remained in Ypres, untouched.
Copyright © 2002 by Indrapramit Das
An avid reader, Indrapramit Das is an 19 year old from Kolkata, West Bengal, India. He is currently taking time off from to write, draw, and do social work among other activities and is also preparing to apply for higher education abroad.