Songs of Steam Lungs (Part 1)
D. D. H. Lee
My officer training had placed me in charge of Squad 13 of the 213 Company, a sergeant in charge of a group of snipers. Hardly the fate my father had in mind -- me, leading a squad of hated men.
My father was a veteran of the Gaudlund-Dermank wars; he was a hero, even though he fought on the losing side. He told me tales of his years as a chevalier, one of the elite men who wore beautiful sets of armor and wielded dragon rifles that breathed fire and lead. At night in the living room, he would brag to me and my brothers of the times he had escaped death and saved his fellow men, and wondered when I too would possibly become a great chevalier, and perhaps more. I was, after all, his oldest, even though I was still barely even old enough to graduate from the academy when he told me these things.
I never thought that I would follow his wishes. My riding skills were poor and my aim terrible on horse. In my spare time, in Chattenburg where we lived, I tinkered with bikes, and worked with toy steam engines, and read books on clock making. My instructors in the university often praised me for my knowledge of mechanics and were surprised when I told them of my wishes to become a chevalier.
"Dear boy," they would usually say, "a man like you would be more useful building artillery or designing firearms."
They were right. My knowledge, quick eyes, and nimble hands had made me an officer a unit of snipers instead. Of course, it was a disappointment to the family, and most of all to my father.
To his eyes, a sniper was nothing more than an assassin, a rude creature that hid in his hole to pick off the unwary like a wolf spider. Some of the tales he had told me of his past told of their kind, and how they used their rifles to murder the most honorable of men without even the pretense of a fair fight.
"They would take the most recognized of men," he told me "and stab their beautiful chests of polished iron and gold with their long, long blades of fire and lead, killing them without ever showing themselves. Never would we have a chance for revenge as they would often hide among the other common dogs to let someone else take their blame. Snipers are the lowest of men, the most despicable, the hateful and godless."
I never could tell my father what I was, even though I did tell him that I could not be a chevalier. He thought I still had a chance to show my patriotism and win back what the Dermanki stole from our mother country. After I told him this, I used my bike to reach a church and told Pastor Neitz, in the quiet darkness of the church, about being something my father has considered godless.
"My son," he told me in a voice that sounded warped from the weather, "you will not be godless unless you refuse to believe in Him."
Immediately, I asked, "But then why must I disappoint my father and be the very thing he hates?"
"Perhaps you are to be a hero in some other small way. You are given His miracles in many mysterious ways."
Perhaps it was to be. Thirteen was a lucky number, and they said that our snipers were lucky. Sergeant Mogul said we had the devil working behind every shot we had. Perhaps it was both, or perhaps just one.
The troops of Squad 13 were mostly boys, conscripted from the parts of Gaudlund that never knew much of the war then, save that we lost it. They were all named Smith, and every one of them had been recognized for his marksmanship in some queer way or another. I suppose then it was a surprise to many, but something in my head reminded me otherwise.
When I was a child, my governess told me about the Smith name. It was when I was too short to be able to reach doorknobs, on a winter night when the fireplace was filled with wood and the windows were covered in red silk that gave off shadows. "In the ancient times," she told me in hushed whispers "there were those that worshipped gods of all forms. Some worshipped the trees, the sky, the fields, and of course, the sons of the True God." I could remember how her voice took on a dramatic tone when she said, "But among them were also the sons of metal, who were born with the talent of shaping metal. They could listen to it and craft the most beautiful or useful things from the talent they were born with. Some crafted gold, others iron, but all of them carried the same last name of Smith."
Those were children's stories, though, old wives' tales, full of knights and swords and dragons and witches. My snipers were boys, perhaps more skilled than most soldiers at their hated craft, but nothing more than boys.
I taught them stamina through running, crawling, repairing their rifles, hiding, cleaning their uniforms, and routine. There was no honor in being snipers, but there was always some honor in routine even though I could tell from the look in their eyes that they thought it was petty. Perhaps it was, but we were not murderers; we were men that fought for the Gaudlund and what it meant, even if we were deemed godless and there would be secret words told behind our backs.
The old rifles I trained them with were Frauben long rifles, far from the best. They were among the earliest and least reliable bolt-action rifles; the bullets were fired with a pin hammer that would always get too dirty too quickly or snap away when it was used too hard. The spyglass sights we were given were caked with bits of rust and where there was no rust there were stains of mud. It was the weight that was the worst; each Frauben with its sight weighed twenty pounds, a burden I trained them to carry through hills and fields and rain and snow and exhaustion. I carried one always, but I was older and bigger, and there were times I had to carry the children's guns with me. The machines -- and machines they were, machines made for killing at a distance -- sometimes felt lighter, perhaps because of my age, though it may have also been because I could feel vigor come with me as I learned to travel with the machine on my back, the sound of its rattling bits playing music to me as I would march orders to them.
When one did not loathe carrying them, one could see that the rifles were at least fascinating, and I taught them much on how to clean them. This may have been one of the few things I enjoyed. The Fraubens had a complexity that was not unlike the bicycle I had left at home, combined with a fragile firing system that was as intricate as it was beautiful. But it was also harsh.
The first time using the long rifles was a difficult time, as I recall. Between the cleaning, I remember Herman standing up to complain to me how he thought the rifles were no good. I told him there was nothing else to be done about it, but he said he could not use a rifle like this easily. I asked him why and he answered me as he began to stroke his fingers against the barrel.
"The metal is old and cramped. The barrel is complaining to me about how poorly treated it has been and the pin tells me that it can not work with so much pressure in it. Even the scope tells me it was been mistreated and that it can only cry of rust."
I told Herman to accept it and gave him duty cleaning the mess hall. Although I understood his words, they were words that meant little for all the rifles were the same. Queerer still was that he said the metal complained. I laughed at the thought, though it reminded me to clean my rifle’s barrel.
Herman was a strange one. His past records stated that he was a blacksmith’s son who was conscripted because of his strong body and young age. He was bright and mentally fit, though he had never had an education outside of working a blacksmith’s son. His record in marksmanship was considered exceptional even though he said he had no history using rifles or muskets, which was also strange. His family traded in metal or lived off of what they grew. Herman was the strangest of the eight handed to me, and this may have been why he also was the one that greeted me with the strangest tale of them all.
It was during our third training with the Fraubens, lying on the grassy floor of the firing range aiming at paper targets held up with blocks of straw and a clay cliff that I learned Herman's secret. Every so often, someone would stop part way through because the pin-hammer of his rifle would fracture, or the rifle would jam, or the bullet would misfire. Herman was the only one of the eight (no, nine for I was with them) who managed to fire all his shots without stopping. Then he sat up, clutching the long rifle butt-down, and pressing the hot barrel against his face while the rest of us tried to remember how to disassemble our rifles or put them back together again. It was strange, but expected for I had seen him do this before.
I sat up and watched him before I stood, and approached, the used firing pin of my rifle still held between my lips. "That gun of yours was the best of the pile." I told him.
In response, Herman stood up and offered the rifle to me and then said, "It is no different from yours, sir." Then he sat down again and looked at the machine with an expression like that of a child reading to his class.
I looked at the rifle and found nothing different about it. The inside of the hammer looked no different, but I took it anyway and loaded a fresh bullet into the barrel and aimed before I pulled the trigger and heard the sound of the pin snap in half.
Herman stood up and then said, "Sir, you must listen to the sound of the gun."
Ridiculous, I thought, but I decided it would be best to humor the boy.
Herman nodded and then looked at the others who were either still firing or repairing their weapon. "If you keep your ear close to the barrel then you will hear something. Even in the bullets, there is a sound you can hear, sometimes feel, if you pay enough attention."
It all sounds so childish, even as I tell this, but his words reminded me of those tales I was told as a child. I looked to the rifle and then to my own, that rested on the ground.
"I can hear the stress in the steel in your gun. In all of them. I have heard this same sound from old horseshoes fitted on a new horse. The steel is willing provided the soul of the rifle is treated right."
Of course, it sounded silly. I gave him my rifle.
"Then take this and show me how you would treat that target. Stand if you like, I do not care." I then reached into my ammunition bullet and gave him three bullets.
He looked at the bullets for a moment and then nodded, saying, "The metal is still strong in the bullets."
He aimed the rifle, loaded it with one of the bullets and aimed. The first bullet flew easily into the target. He quickly forced the shell out with a quick shove of the bolt lock and then loaded it again and fired, again finding its target, this time in the center. When he fired the third round in an easy center, he handed the rifle back to me with those patient eyes looking back at me.
"Can you really hear the metal of the rifle?" I asked him again.
"Then I will file my papers to promote you. It is your duty to teach these men and your superior how to properly handle our firearms." I then looked at the men, who had all stopped to watch us. Perhaps they were already done firing, or perhaps it was because they had finished firing. I had not paid attention, and Herman saluted me as though he did not notice either, like I was a nonentity.
Learning to listen to the sound of metal was not hard for them. The others seemed to take to this philosophy easily, and soon we were not only one of the few sniper squadrons that had performed well with targets, but also one of the few snipers that only requisitioned for ammunition and a very small number of firing pins, for I was still incapable of finding this talent.
In the mess hall where we sat with plates of warm beans and cold sausages, I asked him why I was unable to do this. Herman, a ravenous man, spoke between the food in his cheeks whenever I spoke to him at the mess hall. When I asked him this, though, he did not eat but only look at his plate as though he wished to wolf it down but held himself back.
"You do not know it, but your blood is tainted. You are a Wright, not a Smith. You bear the blood of a cult of men that decided to create life with iron instead of from it."
I did not understand what he meant, but then he told me. Smiths believed in a god of metal that taught them the art of creation through fire and hammers and prayer. His voice was strange, becoming like that of a pastor as he told me this. "The God of metal brought the world from the darkness and fed men’s desires for power and wealth and we were the clergy that gave them their wishes and it was only through these hands that could wield iron, and we kept our blood in families. In time, the blood dissolved with the forgetting of scriptures. The God never forgot us, but we had forgotten the God for earthly pleasures or the one God."
I told him how silly this sounded, but he did not believe me, and he did not touch his food, only told me to listen to one more thing. "The only time the God of metal left us was when we performed the blasphemous and used the gift to create life."
He looked away then, stood up without a word, but saluted me before he left. Herman’s food went cold.
Later on, we would be known for stranger things. Herman would sometimes sort ammunition from time to time in his belt, or trade bullets with others. During the weekends I would see him explaining how he felt about the rifle he carried as though it was a living thing, and the others soon began to believe it, understand it, and even copy it. Eventually, I received a message from Captain Friedrich about how one of my soldiers, Gaul, was seen attempting to trade bullets with the other members of the company. Embarrassed, I apologized even though he had told me he just found it curious. Besides, our rifles were too old to use their bullets.
After the marches, the shooting ranges, the rain and the mud and the field exercises and the nights spent outside sleeping in dry or wet clothes without fire or cleaning the rifles, it was already a year that passed and we were ready to fight for our Gaudlund. By then, the boys, all of the Smiths, could handle their rifles with exceptional skill and their rifles never complained. My superior, Captain Harlowe often complimented the skill these men had but nothing more, for snipers were not the sort that earned promotions. I wondered then what would have happened had I been a cavalier or even a lowly foot soldier, and what my father would have said had he found out about these compliments I received and the promotions that this would have given me.
In the morning we walked one last time through the hills of the training camps to reach a train that would take us to the outskirts of Gaudlund, in the Northern borders where the fighting had already began. I remembered the words of Herman and looked at my squad as they stepped into the car, silent but not objective to being carried by the ugly creature made by the hands of the fathers that betrayed their God. He was silent though, with the expression in his face that was as tired as it always was. Perhaps it was because this world of creation already was one that had tired him. It made me wonder if he should have ever been conscripted, and what his family was like, but I only kept silence and took comfort listening to the sound of the engine running its tireless legs against the iron tracks.
A war started within that year and we were to continue something we had never been told. Already the news of the front has become told to us like ghost stories in the night as we sat in boxcars like cattle with some of the few men that we meet along the trip. Mortar holes, trench lying, the ground swallowing you. The Northern borders were mostly bogs, and tales ran rampant of people lost in the fog never to be found whether one claimed themselves from the Gaudlund or Dermanki. It was sad news, but there was little else to talk about on those cars, when we sat half-asleep with blankets over our cold uniforms, and carried our dreams with us in sleep, or fought them off with a lit cigarette.
The nights were never ones I could think well of. When I closed my eyes to sleep, the noise of my father and his tales of honor, or the words of Herman at the mess hall, or the endless thoughts of my Frauben long-rifle cradled in my arms failing me like a lover betrayed in endless scenarios: sometimes in the field, sometimes as I ran, sometimes as I began to sink into bog sand, or bog water, or mortar holes would rouse me. Instead I would sleep in the day, and at night I would watch the starry night through the drafty pockets in the car, listening to the idle snores drowned out by the sound of the beautiful monster that rocked our bodies and veiled our roofed heads with its song of steam lungs. A child of my fathers, and a child of mine.
The only day that I remember differently, I heard Gunther screaming, to the laughter of the squad. Outside, it was a beautiful sunlit day and around us was a small town of tiny stone cottages and endless wheat. People were waving at Gunther, perhaps at us.
"Tell Marie to keep her health up!" He screamed to them in a slurred Dermanki. Gunther did not even look like a proper Gaud citizen with his olive skin, thick shoulders, and curly sun-baked hair. I wondered how they thought the war would affect them to see war close enough to mix our stray bullets with their wild fields. Gunther was still talking to the others with an excited tongue about how not far from here was a battle that occurred twenty years ago. There was a grave of stone on the ground where a hundred were buried that we passed, covered in weeds with words that already looked faded with time and would have been mistaken for a common pile of rocks had he not told us.
When the train had finally stopped, we arrived to the sound of pocket thunder in the sky, continuously playing in the air like the patter of drums. It was not raining though, and then I knew it was because it was the sound of the mortars.
The air was cold and the sky looked cloudy and infested with the smoke of black soot. The only sign of civilization from where we stood was in the form of tents, hundreds of them, clean and breathing with the afternoon air. The superiors told us this was base for now. Tomorrow we would travel to the front to replace the men that protected there.
In the day we enjoyed warm food and I slept in a comfortable cot so the dreams did not visit me that night. In the morning I remembered the war when I heard the early shots of mortar awaken me like the bleat of a bugle or the call of a morning cock. It was heavy with fog then, and the wind seemed to trouble itself all this morning in a sky that was not night but not day.
My Frauben was cleaned early in the morning before we marched to the front. Along the way, the sound of thunder became louder, and already we could see the first casualties of war in the form of makeshift graves marked with planks. By then a cold draft came to me as we passed it and I knew it was not only my eyes that continued to stare at the graves as we passed by it.
"Restless spirits," I could hear Hernz say quietly to himself. Even though he did not mean to let us hear, I could hear those words, and I was sure others could have as well for there was no other noise that day other than the sounds of our boots, the beats in the sky, and the chatter of my rifle as I walked with it strapped on my shoulder.
The sounds then changed and we knew it was the front, for we could see more tents, some of them resting by the barn doors, but it was because it was to be used as a commanding office and a stable for horses and any messengers. A thin line of trenches and sandbags had rested in the muted distance. I thanked god that I would not have to see the chevaliers on that day. Those we passed by greeted us warmly with eyes that told us how tired they were.
We were to be spread along the trench. It was no worse than the foot soldiers who also rested there, as it meant we were to mingle with them. The ground of the trench was always uncomfortable, however, and I then understood why we were trained to sleep without fires in wet clothes. The Fraubens would not normally like these conditions, but the weather was also too pitiful for me to do anything more. Mortar fire would come ever few seconds as though we were planning to cross that border of fuzzy weather and idle pieces of earth and shrapnel would come crashing and scrabbling into the holes and cover our uniforms with stumps of mud. We were told it was worse, though, when they instructed the men to run and body parts would sometimes fling into the trench. Herman was somewhere else. I was the only member of Squad 13 that was stationed along this part of the border.
The night was terrible. The drafts were worse and the cloud cover made everything even less visible. The sky was blanketed in the old breath of mortars and it only made things darker. Everyone was instructed to stand or rest in the darkness and to sleep in the puddles of the trench floor. I did not sleep, though at times the endless beating of mortar strikes became hypnotic, until it felt like the coos of the machines entrancing me to rest, the idle shards of earth becoming a reminder for the soft warmth of the earth. I would not have given in, though, for Lieutenant Deiter came to check on me.
Lieutenant Deiter was from Squad 41 whom I shared the trench with. Because I kept conversation with them, they decided I was not so bad for a sniper and spoke with me through the night whenever he looked over his soldiers. He was the son of a bicycle shop owner not too far from Chattenburg, so we would talk fondly of the machines. He too was a Wright, and it made me wonder what brought him to become a lowly foot soldier when men like him were meant for the beauty of life in motion.
He laughed when I asked, then asked me, "What are you doing in a squad of snipers? I too have seen you with that rifle and I would think it was your pet more than a rifle. It is a beautiful machine, but I have seen you enough to know that you are the only reason the quartermaster ever gave your squad new pins for those finicky things." He gave my rifle a look then looked back at me with a hand on his chest and then I realized it was a cross he was holding belonging to the One God.
A mortar shell struck overhead nearby and showered wet peat over our helmets, but it did not make him remove that hold. His eyes looked like they were in a trance.
"Don’t you believe, my son?" Those were his only words after that. He did not say anything else and I was not sure what to say and although I was unsure what had happened, I then felt something that told me something else, a strange tone that reminded me of someone else and then I remembered. It was something that told me it was the same voice from Pastor Neitz.
"Yes, I do." I did not want to ask if this meant something more, for it may have been a dream, or a delirious state I was in.
"You must always believe. It is why you have my talent."
Another flurry of peat dusted over us. Somewhere, a pebble fell with the peat and struck his hand, releasing his grip over the holy symbol was released. Lieutenant Deiter blinked and I could see that the person I had spoken to was no longer there.
"I need to check on the others. Don’t have too much fun here," he said as though nothing had happened. Perhaps nothing had happened.
He returned, but it was with news from command and in my half-awake state I knew what they wanted.
"In early morning we break the trenches and storm enemy lines. The signal will be sent by flame. After that, we move in as quickly and quietly as possible." The order was passed from one soldier to the next in whispers, to everyone except the lucky ones who had to stay in the infirmary. My Frauben rifle clicked readily. Tonight there was almost no moon, and even if there was, we would have barely seen it through the veils of the mortar breath. The cold darkness of the trench was not something that I wanted to stand in forever in this half-sleeping state, but it was safer than outside. Shapes of the others were not so hard to see in the trench because I stood still and their rifles talked to me, told me where they were with the same chatter my own Frauben would tell me. I wondered if anyone else could hear it, but there were few people who walked here, and those that did, did so slowly. My hand went to a pocket that held a lighter and I continued to clutch it, wondering when I would need it to speak for me. My rifle clicked as I leaned back and stretched and my body clicked and clacked back towards it, noisy from stagnation. It was the only comfort I had when everyone was focused on the side of the trench and kept their eyes to the side, waiting to see the voice of the light.
Then I saw it. A tiny flame in the endless darkness. In response I reached my hand out and pushed the lighter’s wheel into life and lit up my arm, part of my face, and the air. Another light appeared to greet it.
And then we climbed the trench.
The ground sank into us as we moved. Someone made a sound of screaming and I knew it was because they fell into a deep patch of mortar-softened peat. The ground wanted to devour me, but I continued, the sound of the Frauben my own consolation as we continued to step. Somewhere above the drums of thunder hit the sky and I had began to wonder when the touch of the shell would make us like the ground.
Each step may have as well been through the pooling fens, through the sands of a desert… each step made travel a sinking one that promised to push you back. Sometimes I would feel something snag with each heavy foot, but it was few and far between. We continued to move, and the thunder continued to sound.
When the ground stopped being soft, it was sharp. There were barbed fences ringed around the ground. Trench wire, adorned with machined razors, hungry for blood but patient to trap you before it sapped your wounds from its sharp fangs. I could hear rifles going underneath, but I walked across. The wires spoke to my Frauben and she protected me with each rattling sound that came from them as I walked among the metal. Thoughts came to me of Squad 13. Would they have had an easier time crossing? Would the metal have spoken to them and allowed them to move like a prophet walking on water? The thought later escaped me when a metal snag bit my leg. The rattling shatter reminded me where I was, and then there was the sound of voices in the darkness. Rifles barked in the air with the thunder and I knew I had to speak back at them.
Although I could not see anything, although I was standing in a crossfire, in a field of razors, there was safety where I stood. There was no other chatter from me and it was too dark to see anyone. I stood, listening to rifles call into the air and I responded by firing back at one.
The shell sputtered out with my bolt switch, for I could feel its hot shell molest my arm before I replaced it with another bullet and then let my rifle speak into the sky again.
When it felt safe, I walked again and fell into a pit. Then there were screams again. My rifle spoke to me to turn and the darkness grew bright to me when I saw the demonic glow of fire invade my eyes. A demon walked to me with a hot red flame in his arms, ready to breathe into me like a creature of an infernal nightmare. The bullet went to my hand like breath, the bolt replaced itself, and I fired. The demon fell before he bathed me in fire and then I remembered to breathe. The air smelled like grease and sweat and gunpowder.
Then I could hear someone scream in Dermanki. "The armor!" The drums sounded again and my rifle told me to look. Fire began to spout again, and I could see more men wielding the breath of fire in their hands; fire-breathing children that shouted continuously into people. I aimed for one of the men and downed him before the child was forced to speak anymore. The screams of the burnt replaced the sounds of the children and I continued to watch outside the trench as I stepped past the sound of quiet rifles around a loud world. There was nothing here anymore that mattered, so I stepped out of the grave trench and stepped past those who ran with their weapons, some of them screaming in victory or in pain or in both.
Then I heard the sound of lungs breathing in the air, but they were not of steam. Fire flared into my eyes again when I saw the behemoth stepping towards us. It spoke with loud thunder and silenced those that would dare to walk up to it, or those that would dare to fire at it. It was beautiful and terrifying and ugly and wonderful.
I stepped up to it and people continued to fire. It continued to walk, as though it did not recognize me. A child lost to its father. Voices called to run back. My Frauben chattered in my arms in fear, but only because it did not understand what stood before it.
I could hear bullets ricochet into it. Its turret refused to see me, only to speak to others with belched lead. I continued to stand. A bullet ricocheted and flew by my shoulder. Its legs hungrily ate through the field and I could tell that it had eaten the rifles of several men as it came. I could smell its greasy breath. I continued to stand. And then I slung my Frauben onto my back, its little pin hammer scared at what stood before me. I could feel its heat begin to touch my cold face and it continued to come.
The child turned, tilted its face towards me. Somewhere, I could hear screaming. The legs came closer, until I could feel them begin to reach for the toe of my boot.
"I said stop, child."
The child continued to look at me, its one eye reaching into my face in the darkness. My naked hand reached out and I felt the hot metal flesh reach back towards me. The behemoth grew peaceful, and all became silent except for the sound of the greasy breathing it gave, its song.
In the morning they found me sitting on the creature. The ones who had held the reins to it had died inside, incapable of listening to its songs, sitting in its womb, or breathing its air. The creature had been long asleep now, for I watched the sun rise with it until the child felt it should rest. The thunder of the mortars continued to play in the air and somewhere the faint call of rifles still went on. In the first traces of light that began to sift into the air, I saw a cross baptized on the head of this child and I remembered the words of Paster Neitz and Lieutenant Deiter told to me from the One God. Miracles are received in many different ways, and his talent was one of them: his talent to love the children he gave me.
I knew that these were not the fields of my father. These fields of metal, of strangers that walked in the desert of mud. I could not have been my father on a stallion spouting fire and lead with a dragon in my arms, but I could fight them. I was just a man who spoke through my children, through my rifle, for I was not a chevalier. I was a Wright.
© 2005 by D. D. H. Lee
D.D.H.Lee is currently a student at Rutgers University, hoping to finish up soon for the sake of a financial career (but mostly for his personal sanity). His current project involves rewriting a manuscript that he hopes will bring a little more of the postmodern world into the fantasy genre but also is planning for the moment to make this piece ('Song of Steam Lungs') into more than just one short story. Mr. Lee's story For the Love of Chicken appeared in the August 2004 Aphelion.
E-mail: D. D. H. Lee
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