No Man's Land
by J. B. Toner
“That’s why some wanker shot Ferdinand.”
“Well not directly, obviously. But it’s the little things, y’see.
Everything’s so big now, we forget ’em.”
Another shell hits, and a great whump of earth goes up. We duck our
heads and it rattles on our pots. Flenk and Roper go right on chatting.
“You take that poem Sarge keeps quoting, right? Theirs not to reason
“Theirs but to do or die.”
“Exactly, but that’s not how it goes! It’s theirs but to do and die,
that’s the whole bloody point. Single word changes everything.”
I miss colors. The only color in the trench is dirt. The only weather
is smoke. Sometimes I like to see the shells come down because of the
“Here, lad.” Flenk nudges me. “You’re always quiet, you must have some
deep thoughts in there. You reckon a word can make a war?”
“. . .Mum says it takes two to quarrel.”
“Ha! You hear that, Rope, the boy’s a genius. There it is: one man says
yes and the other no, and next thing—”
Sarge’s voice: “Here they come!”
This war is grey fire. There is no warmth here, no light: only ruin,
only ash. Crouching behind twisted wires and mud, striking men down
with poison—I’m a schoolteacher, no warrior, but I feel the weight of
In a better century, as a skinny, squinting boy, I stood up to Dietrich
and the others to stop them teasing my friend Maria—even when they beat
me and tore my books. I made believe I was Wotan, charging down the
serpent’s throat to undefeated death. And I swear I would do the same
now, for the glory of my country; but Maria waits, and I have promised
her children when I come home.
“Hey Professor! Where’s your bayonet?”
“It is, ah—in my pack, I believe.”
“Well, quit mooning about and fix it on! The sun’s almost down.”
A charge: one of my two great dreams! But the other, a life with my
love, is greater. Perhaps it is too much to hope for both.
The cold dead sun goes to its grave in the west. We fix bayonets, and
our rifles are a spectral thicket in the rising shadow. I have never
been so afraid. Then Gefreiter Holst paces to the front of the line.
Draws his saber, slowly.
And roars: “Charge!”
And we roar in answer, my comrades and I. Up the ladder, over the lip,
into the no man’s land. I did not know I could howl so loudly, run so
fast. My puny muscles take the fear and turn it into rage. For my
country, for my wife, for the children I will father, I will crush
these English pigs. I am strength, I am honor. I am Germany!
Machine gun fire: a scythe in a wheatfield. In the flare-light, for an
instant, I see Holst’s chest explode—then I’m blinded by the splatter
of his lungs. I don’t stop running, mustn’t, can’t.
The shells keep falling, ours or theirs, it doesn't matter. When I see
the crater before my feet, I’m already falling.
Mum says the Germans are people just like us. Flenk and Roper say
they’re monsters. I wonder who’s right.
The flares keep going up, and the 16-pounders. No man’s land is lit up
like a purple nightmare, and the Germans are coming through the flak
and the barbed wire like nighttime creatures that can’t feel pain. I’m
a good shot, but its so hard to aim right now. Just keep steady. Keep
shooting, don’t stop shooting.
Then Roper’s voice: “Yeah, run back to your Kaiser, ya poltroons!”
They’ve stopped. They’re retreating. But no time to think—Sarge is
shouting, “After ’em, lads! After ’em!”
Scrambling up over the lip of the trench. Sprinting out into the
smoldering mud. Monsters, poltroons. Filthy Germans, I’ll kill them all
Oh God, too fast—too dark—falling—
Oh God, a German—lunging—I fire one shot—
He falls from the sky.
Dazed by the plunge into the crater, I’m just getting to my feet when
he comes hurtling towards me, backlit: black angel, red devil. I drive
my blade through his heart as he shoots me in the throat. He’s just a
boy. I hear my own gurgling voice: “Maria.”
And his: “Mama.”
I settle to the earth, weightless, and we stand facing each other in
the solemn light. The war-strife is faint around us, the sound of a
wireless in another room. Shyly, he smiles. “I’m Danny.”
I find myself smiling back. “Gunter.”
“What do we do now, d’you think?” I don’t speak English, but I
“Not sure, but—” I point. The sun has barely set, but a golden
luminescence is growing in the east.
He nods, and I put a hand on his shoulder. We rise from the crater,
side by side.
© 2018 J. B. Toner
Bio: J. B. Toner studied Literature at Thomas More College and
holds a black belt in Ohana Kilohana Kenpo-Jujitsu. He works as a
groundskeeper in New Hampshire and just had his first daughter.
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