HAUNTS OF WAR

 “The face is damaged. The head will have to come off. Put him over there, and I’ll attend to him shortly.” The index finger of a blood-soaked hand holding a saw clogged with bits of pale flesh pointed to an empty table. The table was draped in white cloth and stained with drying blood.

Richard felt the strong hands of orderlies holding his arms fast and dragging him toward the table. He looked about the room, realizing it was not really a room. It was a corridor. A dimly-lit hospital corridor.

As the orderlies dragged him toward the table indicated by the doctor’s gory hand, they passed several other tables. One had legs, neatly placed side-by-side, some wearing the owner’s boot, others naked, pale blue, and lifeless. The mangled knee and lower left leg of his friend George sat at the end of the row, dressed in a boot, one of a pair especially ordered for him. In it was stitch a sheath to hold a small knife. George was left-handed so the sheath was stitched into the left boot for easy access.

Another table had rows of arms, some still encircled with a wrist watch, again neatly placed: all pale blue and lifeless.

A hand twitched, displaying its manicured nails and a wedding ring. He watched as another curl into an angry fist. The table nearest his destination held a row of heads, some wearing helmets, others merely bone, and yet others with flesh and eyeballs dangling, missing ears or hair. The head of his schoolmate, Paul, lay at the end of the display.

“My eye. Have you seen my eye?” anonymous torn lips asked.

Exposed light bulbs dangled overhead, humming with menace.

Richard licked his lips, tasting metallic red.

“That’s right. Hoist him on the table. One of you will have to hold his shoulders down tight. You take his head. Hold it firm.” The doctor’s eyes focussed on Richard’s neck, and the bloody saw lowered in slow motion.

In terror, Richard writhed against the hands that held him firm. “Shush now,” the doctor said, his voice calm. “Everything will be all right.”

He struggled against his restraints, trying to scream, trying to make them understand. Don’t take my head. He wanted to scream, but the words would not come.

The blade of the saw poked into tender skin. Richard felt the prick and rake of jagged teeth on the exposed flesh of his hyperextended neck. He screamed again in a soundless dream-voice.

  •  

“Richard, Richard. Wake up, son! Wake up,” his father urged.

Richard’s eyes fluttered. Michael knelt at the side of the bed, gently shaking his shoulders.

Richard’s eyes shot open, unseeing. “No!” he bellowed, struggling against his father’s hands and panting in fear. “No! Not my head!” He sat up abruptly, flailing his arms in defence, awareness became shock when he realized where he was. “Father!” He whispered, grasping Michael’s arms to anchor his emotions.

“Shush now. Everything will be all right.” Michael murmured, pulling his son into his arms. “It’s all right, son. It’s just a dream.” Michael’s hand caressed the back of Richard’s head. “It’s all right. I have you. It’s Father.” Familiar words penetrated Richard’s fear-filled fog.

With his free hand, Michael rubbed Richard’s back.

“You used to do this when I was a small boy waking from a nightmare,” Richard mumbled into his father’s chest.

“I did, indeed,” Michael said. “Then, you had the dreams of a small boy. Now, you have nightmares no man should have.”

  •  

In the early hours of the morning, Richard awoke with a start. As he lay still, waiting for his pounding heart to slow, he cracked an eyelid and watched the lace curtains that framed the open window stretch ghostly fingers deep into his room.

The wind picked up, and the curtains thrashed. Lightning flashed and sliced through churning clouds. He heard plops of rain hit the dry road and felt the temperature drop.

Richard rolled onto his side and drew the bed covers over his shoulders. As he drifted back to sleep, he was aware of the pinging of rain pellets on the tiled roof and the boom, boom of thunder following close on the heels of crackling lightning.

  •  

Cold permeated through the damp in his clothes. Richard shivered, chilled to the bone.

They were lying in mud, waiting for the fog to lift, but the fog hung heavy over the entire field. The occasional word drifted clearly on the churning mist, some English, a French cry of pain, a German curse. Three men to his left, two to his right. The others were there, lost in the white weight that pressed down upon them.

High-pitched whistles, flares of blinding light, and the rumbling of the earth beneath them. Screams, pain, silence. Not even a bird twittered. Moaning and crying.

Mama?

“Mommy, where are you?

“Mother, help me.

Detached pleas crying for a mother’s help. Pleas of the dying.

The fog lifted, teasing visibility, revealing bodies and mangled parts. It lowered again, covering them all in a thick death shroud, sparing them from the vulgarity of war for a few blessed moments.

“Peter! Kirk! Matthew! Where are you? I can’t see you. Paul, where are you?” Richard peered through the fog, brushing it away without success. A rolling helmet bumped his shoulder, as if in answer to his questions. Impatient, he pushed it away. Paul’s empty eyes stared past him. “Paul! No!”

The fog shifted again, swirling, lifting, revealing. The mud – it’s too thick. I can’t move. I’m stuck.

“No! No!” he screamed, “Dead! All Dead!”

  •  

Richard writhed in his bed, the sheets drenched in anxious sweat, tangling and restricting his limbs. He swam through mud, searching for his mates.

Michael burst through Richard’s door for a second time and dropped to his knees at his son’s side. “Richard!” he snapped, shaking him. “Richard! Wake up!” Richard flailed his arms, trying to break away, gasping and crying, feeling overwhelming grief. 

“Willy!” Richard issued one last plaintive cry, and opened his eyes, panting. “Father! What is it?” His voice sounded distant.

“You were dreaming again.”

Richard stopped struggling and surrendered to the stability of his father’s hands. “Father! They are all dead. My men, my mates, they are all gone! We ran together like wolf pups when we were children. We pretended to be soldiers in the King’s army. We were just boys!”

Michael’s wrinkled face wore an expression of understanding and worry.

“But we’re no longer those young boys.” Richard sat up and scrubbed his head, trying to find clarity. “They’re all dead now, except George, and he’s crippled. God, my head is all fucked up!”