This has since been rewritten and published on the main site, where it has been generally well received! You can see the new version here: What A Lovely War – thanks, Len!
I hate it here.
I think everyone does… I dunno. Maybe expect Len, but he’s a freak so whatever. Shit… where are we? I keep forgetting. Belgium? I dunno all these Europe shits are the same. Why are we here? Why the fuck are we honestly here? Why am I here? I haven’t seen a German in weeks. They should at least put us where we’re needed. But no I’m stuck here in my own shit and everyone else’s shit cuz everyone keeps shitting in the holes instead of a lavatory! I really hate it here. And now I’m stuck crouching like a jackass waiting for one kraut head to pop out cuz we’re supposed to be on watch or sumtin’ and I haven’t seen one fuckin’ German in weeks! My back hurts my feet hurt my head hurts and it smells like shit! Fuck I just wanna-
“Yo Fisher shut the fuck up!”
“I know you think you’re havin’ your cute little inner monologue there but we can hear every fuckin’ word. Jesus Christ you’re loud!”
“Oh uhh sorry Len”
He laughs, “I’m a freak huh?”
“Well excuse me for tryin’ to enjoy my little vacation here! Y’know ya should be grateful, ev’ryone dreams of seeing Europe once in their lives”
“Real funny Len”
He suddenly becomes stern, “Hey… Fisher… asshole, look at me!”
“Some of us gotta keep watch Len”
“Krauts ain’t comin’ for a fuckin’ thousand years now look at me!”
Reluctantly I actually do. There he was freak that he was, just sitting in the shit-filled trench. He’s supposed to be keepin’ watch. But no he’s just sitting in his little cave with his friends; we all had our little caves we called home. When I say friends I mean his fuckin’ heads, he just sits there all day with about a dozen German heads and helmets he found in the field one day. He claims he killed them singlehandedly, I don’t buy that for one second. Asshole likes to talk big make noise and shit in my cave. I don’t know why but everyone else loves him, says he’s the “adorable douchebag.” Every day he just sits there with his heads banging on them like drums. Has a few drum recitals the company likes to listen to. Fuck him, all I wanna do-
“Hey, yo asshole! Ya done there?”
Now I was certain I was just thinking that.
“Fisher, asshole, listen ta me. Callin’ me a freak is like callin’ the Germans our fuckin’ enemy. Guess what? No fuckin’ shit! I take what I am with stride, and I encourage you kids to say it straight, cuz if you say it any other way, its bullshit! What I’m really insulted at is that you called me a freak in the same breath as your adorable little rant there. We all know, it smells like shit, we feel like shit, Germans haven’t been here for weeks. That’s shit. Believe me I’m more hurt by that than anyone, see I wanted a few more friends here-” he gestures to his head collection, “to join my band, but the reluctance of both sides to actually do something, has robbed me of that luxury. In that respect I hold Pershing in the same light as I do our kraut neighbors, the fuckin’ enemy. I digress though. We all have the same concerns Fisher, but the fact that you havta remind us of it every single day is not exactly appreciated. And I especially don’t appreciate the fact my name was held in the same light as your whiny little bitching. So some advice-“
I was really fuckin’ tired, “I never asked for your advice Len, so shut the fuck up”
Our sergeant was walking through. The rest of the company (who was rather awkwardly watching our little altercation) stood straight despite our cringed and deformed figures, courtesy of the rather uncomfortable positions involved with keeping watch. Three however did not stand. Two we’re Pvt. Laurel and Pvt. Harding, who understandably so had trench foot, and thus could not stand. The other was of course Len, asshole as he was just continued to sit with his head collection.
“Shut up Fisher” the sergeant said exasperated. He then noticed Len, “Private Lye!”
Len stood up with a smirk grin, “Yessum Sergeant Sassoon?”
“Why are you not keeping watch?”
“I was just chattin’ wit my friends here”
Sergeant looked at me, “Sounded more like a fight, save it for the krauts”
Len smirked wider, “Sir I didn’t mean Fisher there I meant chattin’ wit my real friends”
Asshole as he was, gestured to his heads. The sergeant sighed, then went on with his report, “Pershing has ordered the 5th Riflemen Battalion to assault the German positions at the Somme River, aided by a joint coalition of the US II Corps, Canadian and Australian Corps, and the British Third and Fourth Army!”
“Hey serge wanna say that louder for the krauts to hear?”
“Don’t complain Private Lye I’ve heard you itching for some kills for weeks now”
“You know me serge, I can’t live a day without a kill”
“Since we’re closest to the basin we’ll be spearheading the charge with several Canadian battalions”
“Can Maple Leafs even fight?”
“Let’s hope so. We’re moving in 1400 hours!”
At that he marched back to his cave and we followed to our own, packing any and all of our few essentials into these shitty knapsacks that can hardly hold a lunch. My canteen, check. My ration, check. My disinfectant, check. My flask, check. Spare ammo, check. Combat knife, check. Pipe grenades, check. Mustard gas, check. Picture of Jenny… where is it? Under here? No. It’s not in my bag. It’s not in my chest. Shit! Where the fuck is it? Where is it! … Len!
I stormed into his little alcove, there he was on his cot. Just staring at it, staring at her. Smiling.
“Y’know Fisher I gotta hand it to ya, she ain’t bad”
He laughs while licking his lips.
“Give that back in three seconds or I’m gonna take it off your corpse”
“Nice titties too. Bet ya sampled that, eh?”
I could hardly hold myself back, “Now”
“Aww look at this, ‘To my dashing sergeant,’ haha what bullshit have you been telling her!”
“I just feel bad she got stuck with you eh? Where does she live I think she needs a real man”
At that I clocked him in the face with the fist I unknowingly made. He fell straight to the ground in a puddle of mud, with a large welt where I decked him. Unfazed, in fact amused, he simply kept laughing and looking at the picture, still licking his lips. I grabbed him on the ground, but he would have none of it.
“Ya shouldn’t have done that Fisher”
In a split second he got up and twisted my wrist, throwing me to the wall. He met me there and grabbed my throat before I could even react. He held up an axe. He always carried it around wherever he went; never had a knife said an axe was better. More efficient. I believed him.
At that moment I had one of those moments of… premonition or enlightenment or whatever. Took me back to a few months ago. Krauts were desperate so they decided to rush our ranks at the trench; we had so few our guns could only take out a dozen or so. They swarmed into the trench by the dozens; they ‘naded us pretty good so anyone who tried to rush them were pretty much torn apart by shrapnel and bullets. Me and Pvt. Owen were the second wave. Before we could even get our rifles the Germans threw in mustard gas. You should’ve seen us, what a fucking scramble. We didn’t organize the masks so everyone simply scrambled for the nearest mask they could find. Pushing, decking, kneeing each other to the ground to get to the masks in the middle. One of us even pulled a knife, then was shot with someone’s pistol. Me and Owen were the few lucky ones, we managed to store our masks in a safe place in the event of the worst-case… this. Just in time we got on our masks, even then my eyes were burning up a little, but I could manage. One of our mates, Lt. Spiegel, wasn’t so fortunate. It was a fucking sight, his eyes seemed like they were rolling to the back of his head, foam was gurgling out of his throat; the sound he made was… well let’s just say a sound like that sticks to you. A half-scream half-guttering, like he was drowning in air. In desperation and half-insanity he charged at one of our boys, Boyle I think. Spiegel tackled him to the ground and with all his remaining strength tried to pry off Boyle’s mask. He succeeded, but it was too late to get it on. Both men succumbed as their eyes literally melted out of their sockets and the foam in their mouths turned into a stream of blood. Me and Owen didn’t have enough bullets to put them out of their misery.
All that was left of the second-wave was me, Owen, and Martinez. Len was supposed to be with us so I just assumed he was a goner. I fucking wish. Seemed like the end to us, so we figured it made more sense to go out fighting than to just crouch in our caves. At that we charged into the cloud of gas towards the Germans. Looking back at it I realize there should’ve been more shots, there were hardly any. Even stranger I realize the Germans never charged where my platoon was. Normally mustard gas is thrown as a prequel to a charge but this time they just let us go to them. In fact they only stayed concentrated in one area of the trench throughout the entire attack, like they were after something specific. Guess it didn’t matter then, we were just fighting for our next breath, if breathing through a mask counted.
We were fighting through the thick of the cloud, didn’t seem like it was subsiding yet. Just as well, there wasn’t any wind that day. By this time me, Owen, and Martinez were at a slow pace, looking in every direction, listening for even the slightest footstep. It was so bizarre; there were no more gunshots, no more shells. Just silence. Like this godforsaken war killed every last human being on this fucking planet, except for us three. At least for a moment serenity lasted.
The next moment two Germans charged at us from above the trench walls. One landed right on top of Martinez and stabbed him on the ground. The other landed right next to me and bashed me to the ground with his rifle. Still holding onto my gun I reacted quick and shot the kraut through the leg. He fell to the ground and began tackling me; both pinned we kept rolling in a stalemate. The other was already in a knife-fight with Owen, his gun jammed. Looking back it probably looked fairly comical; neither fights able to accomplish anything other than a few bruises. Eventually my new friend and I rolled close enough to be in reach of his rifle; we both grabbed for it, he reached it first. As he was about to turn the barrel towards my head I played dirty and swiftly pulled off his mask, suffering him the same fate as my squad. Quickly I got up and looked towards Owen; he already had his knife up the kraut’s neck. We continued onward leaving Martinez to rot. Without any more incentive to do anything else but slaughter Germans, we marched through the gas cloud up to the other side. Expecting a fight… we found nothing. Not a body, not a shot, not a single German. The cloud dissipated enough that we could partially see across out of the trench. Looking above the walls out to no man’s land we saw it; the entire German battalion retreating, as in legitimately sprinting back to the other side, like they were scared. Looking at Owen and me it couldn’t have been us they were scared of, as much as we liked to think so.
Suddenly another kraut charged from one of the caves. I guess he didn’t get the memo to leave us the fuck alone, just as well though. We were all dead men anyway. With the element of surprise he made quick work of turning Owen into Swiss cheese. I was next; he aimed his barrel at me, I couldn’t run away or charge. Like a deer in the headlights, I was beat with no way out. What happened next I’m still not sure of, I don’t know why either. It was just so surreal, a moment in itself so abstract I couldn’t fully comprehend it at the moment it occurred. The kraut aimed his rifle at me for what seemed like an eternity. I’m not sure if it was either reluctance on his part or an absolute breakdown on mine. It was as if time froze in itself; I was trapped in my own eternal purgatory of looking down the barrel of a Gewehr 98, reflecting on what little life I had left and even smaller life I had before. I didn’t think of my home in Springfield, Vermont, I didn’t think of my ma, or my pa. Not my first kiss, not my first car, not that time when I was eight and I hit that softball right out of the park, the only time pa ever said he was proud of me. Not my first date, not the time I was with Charlie and the boys and for the first time laid eyes on a perfect pair of D-cup breasts through my neighbor’s window. I didn’t think of August 4, 1911, the day I first laid eyes on the greatest girl I ever knew. I didn’t recall our first conversation; she was reading a Tale of Two Cities, her favorite book, I pretended it was mine too. I didn’t remember that first time we… I didn’t think of Jenny. Why didn’t I think of Jenny? Why didn’t I?
The only thing I thought about was why the fuck did I come here? To this piece of shit continent in flames? To fight a war that wasn’t mine to fight. To save people I didn’t know and never would. Why did I come here? Why can’t I remember…
Needless to say the kraut didn’t fire, at least didn’t fire in time before Len charged at him from behind armed with nothing but his axe. His axe… soaked in blood. His uniform… splattered with enough crimson to fill ten men. Still in a frozen daze I could hardly make out as Len swung the German at his gut and let his entrails spill out. He was so fast I could hardly make out his movements. I blinked once; the kraut’s head was off. Twice, both arms. No man could go that fast; at least I thought it was just Len. Maybe it was me; maybe the gas was getting to my head. I don’t know, I don’t fucking care. By the time the German was on the ground he was already in pieces; Len didn’t stop swinging. He kept chopping and chopping ‘till the corpse was mash and bone. Not one day did he go anywhere without his axe; it never dulled, never failed.
And now his axe was on my head.
“Fisher, asshole, I tried to tell you before. I was gonna give you some advice, you didn’t want it. Trust me… ya did. But just to be nice, I’ll say it again, more clearly this time. Some advice-”
“Some advice, Fisher, asshole. You listen to every… single… fuckin’… word I say,” he flashed Jenny’s picture in my face, “When I say I want to know where she lives, you tell me. When I say I killed every single one of those krauts I said I did, you believe me. And when I say to shut the fuck up, you shut the fuck up. Comprende?”
“Fuck you Len”
Suddenly we heard the distant sound of an artillery shell. Then we heard it again, closer. And another, closer. Then the sound of dozens of voices wailing at the top of their lungs.
We heard Pvt. Laurel, “Krauts movin’ in!”
I panicked. I tried to move or run or get my gun but Len was still holding onto my throat.
“Len, let go! Let me go!”
His eyes were stern and cold, “No, we’re not done”
“Len! Jesus Christ Len get offa me we need to fight!”
“Not yet Fisher, asshole. We still got this to finish”
The relentless sounds of our machineguns were drowning out our voices. I heard Sgt. Sassoon screaming out orders from the top of his lungs. I heard our boys crying out in terror while unloading their clips and belts on the approaching enemy, who’s cries were now more distinct, more numerous.
“Very poetic Fisher”
Despite the ear-numbing noises Len spoke the same volume, a near-whisper. Yet I could hear every word, as if it was coming from inside my own head.
“Lemme show ya sumtin’ asshole”
He threw me to the ground flat on my face. He then turned my head to look under his cot, and stepped on my head so I stayed there. There I saw under his cot was a massive ditch, filled to the brim with heads. Rotted, skeletal, months old. The most recent however still had their flesh, they were fresh. A week old, max. Bile filled up to my throat, I’ve seen some fucked up things but the entire nature of the situation hit me at once; the smell, the sight, I nearly vomited. How could I have not have smelled this? Am I that accustomed to the smell of death? After a few moments of analyzing I noticed something; I thought it strange he had such fresh heads, as we hadn’t seen a German in weeks until now. Slowly it came to me as my mind was clearing up. I finally realized. Every head, every single one, had our helmets. Ours, not German. Us.
Len was no longer stepping on my head, he was no longer holding me down. I just couldn’t move. I just kept staring and staring; dozens of them, more. I never realized until now how small our current ranks were, I never wondered where they went, or how they were. I never stopped staring at the no man’s land, simply reasoning they died on the front. That they for some reason just up and left our trench walking to the German fronts, never to return. None of us thought different; it’s been a year now. We stopped caring what happened. We’ve seen every possible death a man could possibly endure. Men we knew for minutes, men we knew for years. Gone in the same instant. To say they simply died on the front is just the easiest way to think now. Never once considering what really happened.
Len then spoke right into my ear, “I get what I want. No matter what. When I want a kill… I get a kill. I always did at home, it was easier at home. Funny right? It’s harder to kill here, because they pay attention to who’s missing. But me, I don’t care who, even if it’s you”
He grabbed my head and plunged it straight into the mud puddle in the middle of his cave. I didn’t fight back, I don’t know why. But right as I went under, I started to think. Why did I come here? Why the fuck did I honestly come here?
Len however let me go, I heard gunshots. Immediately I picked up my head, breathing heavily and coughing up pieces of mud and shit. I looked at what stopped him. There in the doorway was a dead kraut, and another standing right above him. He looked no older than sixteen, probably younger. He had his gun aimed high, smoking from the barrel, shaking. He was shaking. His eyes, they were, wide, tearing. Afraid. I never saw fear so distinct, so… traumatized. I turned around. He was looking straight at Len. Len had a bullet wound in his arm where he was still holding his axe, the other arm aiming his prized Lugar at the German. He was breathing heavy, his sleeve gradually becoming saturated in red. But he maintained a stare. What a stare. Eyes pure malice. If there was an official look for evil that’d about take the title. I honestly think I pissed myself; I didn’t know it then but I was as frightened as the kid was.
Len simply said, “Leave”
The German kid seemed to be trying say something. He kept stammering, unable to keep a straight face. It looked as if he was trying to stutter an apology, or surrender. Or something. I don’t know.
“I… said… leave”
With tears in his eyes the kid quickly nodded and ran off. Len maintained his stare, still looking through the opening to the cave. Suddenly I could hear the kid shouting, screaming really. Something in German I couldn’t understand. But as he screamed, the gunfire gradually ceased. And then the shooting stopped. Everything stopped. Even a photograph wasn’t quite so serene. To this day I will never recall a more peaceful moment. I will forever be haunted by the wailing of oncoming shells, the popping of a machinegun barrage, the gurgling of a suffocating comrade. Not once will those horrific sounds ever leave my head, not ever again will I have a silent night or a peaceful sleep. But that one moment, that last moment, was perfect silence. Serenity, purgatory, peace. I don’t know what silence is anymore, but every time I look back to that memory… not a shot, not a shell, not one fucking scream. Not one sound of suffering and decay. The last time I ever heard nothing. It was over quickly. I could hear dozens of footsteps, walking away. Not a sprint, just walking. In no unison or uniformly fashion, just casually moseying back from whence they came. Satisfied, their mission complete. It must’ve been the Germans, we have nowhere near that many. They just kept walking away, I could hear them. Climbing back out of the trenches, out to no man’s land. Then gone.
Len kept staring. As soon as the last of the footsteps ceased and were gone back from whence they came, Len just stopped staring. He blinked, then smirked, then laughed. Just kept laughing, asshole that he was. He then looked at me again, still on the ground.
“Now… where were we?”
As he plunged me back under the mud I didn’t resist. Not one bit. I still don’t know why. But I kept thinking. Why was I here? Why the fuck was I stuck in this mud puddle, fighting a hopeless cause? Why… why?
Then I remembered. I finally remembered.
It was morning, October 15, 1917. One year ago. Me and Jenny were eating breakfast of cornflakes and bananas. It was only… I dunno half a year since Wilson declared war. By then practically every able-bodied Joe in Springfield enlisted, said it was for the good of mankind or some bullshit. I never bought into it. Not sure why, I was just never inspired. Didn’t see much point in traveling to the other side of the world, risking my life in a shit-filled trench for no reason whatsoever. Apparently I was a “non-conformist” for being satisfied with my already-existing life, not eager to drop all things I love for a canteen and a trench knife. I decided it was more worthwhile investment to be with the person I love, so I guess I’m just a selfish prick. I didn’t fucking care. Long as I was with Jenny, we could manage the distant shouts of “coward!” and the occasional rock through the window.
But one day there was a knock on the door. Nothing malicious or deliberate about it, just a simple friendly knock. Usually the neighborhood kids liked to have fun by banging the sides of the non-conformist’s house few times a week. But no, it was a neighborhood knock. Even then I reluctantly went to answer it; I figured it’d be another priest telling me to repent of my sins of standing idly by as evildoers took over the free world. I suppose it is my fault; after all I am benefitting from the double-standard of American freedom by choosing the way I want to live. What scum I am. Fortunately no such figure was at my door… in fact no figure at all. Not a soul answered the hollow doorway. Just as well, I thought to myself. However looking down I noticed something.
A feather. A white feather. Wrapped in the most beautifully colored ribbons and glistening with sprinkled glitter. It was neatly placed in the smallest of toy chests, with brightly glittered paint and a piece of paper. Sure, I’ve gotten white feathers. Dozens, all of ‘em either soaked in spit or accompanied by an obscene remark. But this one was… different. It had no sign of malice, no ill-will, no obscenity to be found. It was… beautiful in fact. Sure, the quality of a fourth-grade art project, but beautiful nonetheless. At least in comparison to some of the other… packages I’ve received. I stared at it for a long while, not quite sure what to do with it. Eventually I crouched down to it for a closer look; I noticed the piece of paper was actually a note. I picked it up, it read,
…“Life is too beautiful to waste with those who don’t want to live it”
Handwriting unrecognizable. Signed only,
I had no friends. They were all at the front or dead. I mused over the note for a long while, entranced really. In a daze quite frankly, I must’ve been out there for at least twenty minutes crouching down looking at that tiny slip of paper; what a sight that must’ve been. Jenny calling me dropped me back into reality. I took the feather inside. Questioned Jenny about it; she predictably had no earthly idea who it could’ve been from. Literally, as practically no one in Springfield would give us something so nice. Who could it have been from? The entire afternoon I sat at the table, musing over the plume. I looked and I thought and I looked and thought again. I don’t even know what I was thinking of; but I think the point was to make me think.
If the plan was to guilt-trip me into enlisting… it worked. Early the next morning I was loading my gear, essentials, to be off to the nearest recruitment station. I wanted to leave before Jenny woke up; I-I didn’t want that talk to happen. But she caught me. Heh, she never let anything slip her by.
“So you’re off then”
“I don’t have a choice, Jen, I-“
“Course you have a choice! We talked about this Marc, remember? We said no matter what… no matter what we wouldn’t let them”
“It doesn’t matter anymore! I-I can’t just keep living like I have a choice”
“I don’t! We don’t. This is what was decided our lives would take, the day the war started this-“
“The war will be fine without you!”
“It’s not about the fucking war! I couldn’t give a bigger shit about this fucking war. We can’t survive assuming promises will be kept, assuming people would just understand. It’s bullshit! Complete fucking bullshit! We gotta get our heads out of the clouds”
“There is nothing wrong with living life the way you want to. Our lives are our own to live, and you chose to live it with me!”
“Life is not something we can give or take! It’s something we’re part of, and witness! We have to play with the cards we’re dealt”
“There’s no shame in choosing your own way! To get a new hand”
“Jenny… p-please. I have to do this-“
“I do! Please… please…”
She knew I was resolute. Determined to be a part of a life I didn’t want to live, no matter how much I wanted to believe I did. She wanted me to figure that out for myself. We kissed, one last time, and I left. Left to this… godforsaken fucking rock they call Europe! And all because… because one person told me to go. It wasn’t all the others, spewing their hate and their spite. It was that one, who took the time to make me a pretty little plume and a pretty little note. I fought this war to please that one person, that one mind intent on getting me here. Here… in this shit-filled cave with this fucking psychopath and several dozen human heads. Smirking I bet.
Who? Who could it have been?
“You really haven’t figured it out Fisher?”
I wanted Len to hear it all.
“That dramatic moment of climactic realization hasn’t dawned on you yet?”
I stared at Len for a long while, matching his twisted grin.
“You’re such a freak Len”
He seemed to chuckle at that, “Oh?”
“Don’t ask questions you already know the answer to, Len… asshole. When you say you wanna know where she lives, I don’t answer assholes who ask rhetorically like a premium douchebag”
He smiled wider than ever, “Is that so?”
I matched it, “Who could it have fucking been, Len?”
“Don’t be like me Fisher,” he chuckled, “don’t ask rhetorically like an asshole”
He began to step towards me again. I didn’t look at him. I only looked straight down, down the shit-filled mud puddle at my own face, looking back at me. Smiling, content. Because floating right beside it… was Jenny. Wrinkled and smudged from saturation in excrement and mud. You could no longer make out the note in ink, not even most of her body. Only her face… her beautiful face. So… beautiful. Still the same from the day I left it, always will be the same. She and I, next to each other, smiling, content at last… inside a shit-filled mud puddle.
Then down the puddle I went.
Credit To – Len Lye
Credit Link - firstname.lastname@example.org