Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity.
- Coco Chanel
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Sam and I moved along the trenches. Last night’s heavy rain had made the ground extremely difficult to walk upon. Every now and then we would slip or our feet would get stuck somewhere, but this wasn’t even the most troublesome part. Once in a while, our feet would step on or trip on dead bodies, sometimes we even fell down on the top of bodies. The stench that invaded our nostrils then nearly choked us, made us want to throw up, but we hadn’t eaten since yesterday morning, what would we throw up?
Despite all this, Sam and I continued to hurry along the trenches, without any light. We moved along in the utter darkness. But more than this darkness, the dead bodies strewn all around us or the mud, what discomforted us the most was the silence, the ‘pin-drop’ silence. We were in the middle of a war, in the middle of a place where just till this evening, a terrible battle was being waged, a battle which was guaranteed to drag for a few days. Yet, now there was nothing but silence. Had everyone died off so quickly or a ceasefire had been initiated?
“Something’s terribly wrong, Mark.” I heard Sam’s voice between his heavy intakes of breath.
I knew something was terribly wrong, but how was I supposed to respond to this statement of his? With speculation? I didn’t care for all that stuff, not anymore. There was too much going on right now on the continent, for anyone to even make a remotely correct speculation. And so, Sam and I continued moving in the darkness, in the silence.
There had been eight of us who had been sent behind enemy lines this morning, to take out some mortar posts of the enemy. We had taken out the first one with little difficulty. Sam decided then that we must use this mortar to take out the other sites, while a few of us would go to another site, making our work shorter and our return to the warmth of our bunkers that much quicker. We all had agreed. I and another soldier, Philips, stayed with Sam to control the mortar while the others leapt out of the trench to approach the next one, only to be instantly cut down by machine gun fire.
A faraway sound of a machine gun brought me back to reality.
“Is it us or them?” Sam asked.
“How the hell am I supposed to know?” I replied to him, irritated at him for asking these stupid questions.
“We must find out because that is the direction we are heading towards. And if those are our friends, then I don’t want to get killed just because we were wearing the enemy’s uniform.”
Surrounded by the enemy forces, we had decided that to survive in that mortar site we would have to wear the uniform of the enemy. And so we had exchanged our uniform with those of the dead enemy soldiers.
“How are we going to find out who it is?” Sam asked again.
Nearly shouting, I replied, “If the machine gun is on the right of us, then it’s them and if it’s on the left then it’s us. And if it’s ours, then we would shout out our regimental details so that they don’t fire at us looking at our uniform.”
It was not that I was frustrated with the war, no. I was simply frustrated at what Sam had earlier done. After the incident of the mortar site and the exchange of uniforms, the three of us had been making our way towards one of our trenches. And we had nearly reached one when Sam in his excitement unpinned one of his grenades. Whether it was done deliberately or by mistake I don’t know. But by the time Sam was able to get it out of his pocket and throw it away, it was too late. The grenade burst in front of Philips' face, showering the surrounding with his blood and brains, and threw Sam and me off our feet and knocked us out cold. When we woke up, we were greeted by this silent and dark world.
We were walking in the direction of the machine gun fire, which still seemed far-off when we saw a flare light up ahead in the sky. The flare didn’t manage to light up our surrounding, but it did reveal to us soldiers moving about up ahead. But which soldiers those were, I don’t know.
“It’s a search party! Colonel Higgs was telling us that he would send out search parties tonight. Those are our people, we are saved!” Sam shouted and began running towards the flare.
I for one couldn’t make out who those soldiers were neither did I remember colonel Higgs saying anything and right now when we were so close to returning home, I didn’t want to commit a mistake that would get me killed. So, I ran after Sam, to subdue him.
The flare was gone by the time I caught up with him and tackled him down on the mud.
“Just shut up!” I said to him and punched him in the face. It was an involuntary action, there was nothing I thought about it.
But Sam in retaliation punched me in the gut and began screaming out his regimental details. Suddenly, a madness took hold of me and all the irritation and anger I had for Sam, came out. I grabbed his head by the hair and began mercilessly punching it, all the while saying,
“Just shut up! I don’t want to die because of a foolish mistake of yours.”
I continued punching his face long after his body stopped squirming. I continued punching his face long after its hard features had become pulpy. I only stopped when another flare lit up in the sky, this time right above my position. And I didn’t stop because I saw the mess I had beaten Sam’s face into, I stopped because standing in front of me was one of our soldiers, a soldier who was seeing a man clad in the enemy’s uniform, a soldier who had just seen a man beat another to death.
Before I could speak out anything, he fired a volley straight at my head.