The trenches stank of death. Even after all these months the smell made James want to retch. He fought the urge. He needed his strength for tomorrow. Tomorrow he was going to die.
He worked away carefully at the hard biscuit from his ration, dipping it after each nibble into his piss-brew tea, trying to soften the bread. Lately he had felt his teeth loosening in his jaw, and somehow even after all the horrors he had seen, the thought of them ripping out of his gums still terrified him.
The Maconochie stew in his ration terrified him too. The label on the tin read: “Maconochie Army Ration,” in bold red letters. Underneath in smaller letters were the words, “Beef and Vegetables. None genuine unless with the following signature,” with “Maconochie Brit” scrawled in shaky red letters below that.
These were words unconnected and untethered. The cold lumps of indistinct fatty tissue and plant matter blackened by the preservative process could only be considered food in the most scientific sense.
He cut the can open and shoveled the contents into his mouth, tipping his head back and swallowing the lumpy slop without chewing in an attempt to minimize contact between his tongue and the wretched stew. The cold, lumpy slurry squirmed it way down his throat and splashed heavy into his stomach.
He was going to die tomorrow. He thought he might go to hell. But at least in hell the food would be hot.
He could remember a time when he would have been ashamed of that thought. When he was a boy his mother had dragged him to church every Sunday where he would sit in the hard wood pew trying not to squirm while the bishop droned on. But it was worth the suffering, because afterward he and Mama and George and Gracie would go home and Mama would uncover a huge pot of beef stew that had simmered all day long until it was thick and savory and ladle the steaming mess onto their plates. James would eat until he could eat no more, and always there was some left over. Papa used say that the smell alone was enough to nourish a man.
Not a day went by that he didn’t think about those lazy Sunday afternoons and Mama’s stew. If only there was some way to get back to that perfect time, some path through the blood and the mud that might lead him home. But now George was dead. James had watched him die, screaming and crying, calling out for Mama.
He wrote Mama about it. He said it had happened fast. He said that George hadn’t suffered too much.
In the distance he heard the deep thump of the German guns start up another drumroll barrage and soon the shells began to fall all around like rain. One of the explosions shook loose a bit of dirt from the wall of the trench, exposing the white, bloated hand of a soldier buried in the bulwarks, palm upturned, fingers curled slightly inward. James put the empty can of stew in the dead hand, and gave a mock salute. Then he started to giggle, and soon the giggling turned to uncontrollable laughter at some joke not even he fully understood.
But as his laughter petered out something caught his eye, a shape in the grey sky that did not belong there. It was orange and glowing like a piece of molten metal, and it hung suspended in the smoke of the battlefield as weightless as a balloon. But the most incredible thing, the thing he could not believe, though his eyes insisted they were seeing it, was the shape of the thing. It was the shape of a man, his legs dangling uselessly down, arms slack by his sides, floating there as if he were surveying the battlefield below.
“You see that?” someone asked, and James only nodded, his eyes still fixed on the thing.
“You think he’s one of ours?”
James didn’t recognize the man who’d asked the question, but that was nothing new. There were so many faces.
As if in answer to the stranger’s question, the drumroll of artillery fire slowed.
“Maybe it’s an angel,” the stranger went on. “I heard about that angel that helped our boys at the Battle of Mons. It was in the papers and everything.”
James had heard this story too, though he himself had not laid eyes on the paper in question.
“Maybe,” James replied. But the shaped in the sky didn’t look like any angel he had ever seen.
Just then the rattle of machine gun fire erupted from the enemy lines, sending a hail of bullets toward the burning figure. The rounds plowed a thousand furrows in the smoke around the thing, but the salvo had no more effect than a breeze on a boulder.
“Not one of theirs then,” James said.
Nevertheless, a few moments later he heard an identical chatter of gunfire erupt from the machine-gunner’s nests behind him, again directed at the flying shape, again with no effect.
“Not one of ours either,” the stranger remarked.
“I suppose they’re just happy to have something to shoot at,” James said. So-thinking he raised his Enfield, propped it up against the sandbags at the edge of the trench, and took a bead on the burning man’s head.
He wasn’t much of a marksman —for all the horrors of war, he’d had scant few chances to kill anyone— but the wind was calm, and the burning man hovered no more than a few hundred feet above them. It was an easy enough shot.
He squeezed the trigger and the gun kicked against his shoulder.
The burning man remained.
He was still there at nightfall, glowing dull yellow against the dust of stars. By now the word in the trench was that no one up to the top brass had any idea what the thing up there was. Supposedly some newspaper-men had made their way up the lines with cameras to take pictures of the figure, which still had not moved from the spot in the sky where it had first appeared.
The burning man was not completely stationary. If you watched you could see him drift up or down a few feet, and sometimes his fiery arms would sway at his sides.
James watched him as he ate his night’s ration of stew, his uncertain teeth working away at a particularly tough piece of “beef.” He wondered what the flying man might be thinking. What could he see from up there in the sky?
Did he eat?
That night James dreamed of cows lined up single-file in a switchback run constructed out of barbed wire. There were thousands of them, maybe more, the winding line stretched back into the dimness of a great room beyond the reach of his dreaming gaze. At regular intervals they would step forward through a door beyond which there burned a glorious white light. The cows seemed transfixed by that light, and in the dream James felt himself floating toward it. He passed through the door with one of the cows and found himself in the room beyond.
The cow now stood alone on a raised walkway inside of a great glass sphere. The light, which had at first seemed so glorious, now shined bright and hard from somewhere far overhead. There were figures on a wrought-iron catwalk above him, looking down into the sphere. They had the shape of men, but when James looked for their eyes he saw that they had no faces.
One of the faceless men pulled a great lever that was attached to the wall. For a moment nothing happened; then the cow screamed with a man’s voice. Something was happening now, a bubbling, bulging, swelling process as if there were some unspeakable monster writhing just beneath the cow’s skin. As the swelling progressed the cow screamed even louder, and then for a moment it fell silent. Finally the cow’s body erupted from within, geysers of blood and masses of organs bursting from beneath the skin; it tore apart into pieces large and small that slapped up against the wall of the bubble and then dribbled down to the bottom of the enclosure where a great mouth with iron teeth ground it up, bones and all, and swallowed it down into a rusted metal pipe that fed down, down, down into a dim room full of steam where a line of shiny metal cans were placed one by one beneath a spigot at the end of the pipe where bloody remains slopped out. The lids were sealed, and the faceless workers wrapped them all in labels that read “Maconochie Brit.”
James woke up covered in cold sweat. It was still dark. He was huddled against the wall of a “shelter,” little more than a hole dug in the side of the trench, wedged bodily between two other man whose names he hadn’t bothered to learn. The autumn air was chill and he was glad of their heat. He felt a pang of pity for any poor fool who might survive till winter. Through the cracks between the planks that served as a roof for the hole he could still see the flying man, fixed in the sky as if he had been pinned there.
“Whose side are you on?” James whispered.
But if the burning man heard, he did not answer.
When dawn finally broke, James lined up with the rest of the soldiers. The plan was simple. They would go up over the edge of the trench. They would run across hundreds of feet of open ground, pitted with craters from the shelling, and littered with bones of the dead who had tried this assault before. They would be completely exposed to the machine gun nests and snipers hunkered down in the enemy trenches.
They would die.
One of the men nearby cracked a joke that would have turned his mother’s ears red. The men laughed. James laughed too. Then he wondered who would write the letter telling her what had happened to him. He hoped they would lie for him as he had lied for George.
Someone shouted an order, and James grabbed the edge of the trench and hoisted himself out. He had been sequestered in the trench for the last seven months, confined to a world of mud floors and dirt walls with the low roof of the sky close over their heads. But now as he was thrust into the open, and he realized he had forgotten how wide the world was, how far the horizon stretched away. For a moment he forgot where he was, and what he had come here to do.
Then he heard the cry of his mates as they charged forward, and he charged with them into the teeth of the machine guns, his Enfield clutched to his chest. The drumroll of artillery thundered from behind him sending a barrage of useless shells into the enemy lines. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw men falling to either side of him, the storm of bullets tearing them into pieces. Ahead of him one of the hundreds of craters left by the endless shelling yawned open in the earth. He hurled himself into the hole almost without thinking and slid down the side, tumbling end over end, landing upright at the bottom only by sheer luck.
The crater was full of murky water that came up to his waist. There were bodies in the water, skin blackened with rot, their faces unrecognizable. He sloshed through the muck and the dead, holding the Enfield above the water, and tried to climb up the other side.
The walls of the crater were steep, and the earth was loose from the last week’s rain. Five times he nearly reached the top, and then slid back down into the water below. On the sixth attempt he finally reached the top. From there he could see that some of the boys had made it to the lines of barbed wire where they had gotten tangled and were being methodically picked off by a German marksmen.
James saw the muzzle flash of the gun and sighted his Enfield at the spot.
His first shot hit the sandbag to the left of the sniper’s perch. He adjusted his aim. The second shot found its mark and struck the sniper square in the left shoulder, sending the man sprawling backward. He did not have time to take aim on another target. A bullet from nowhere struck him in the jaw. It knocked out several of his teeth, his precious, feeble teeth, and perforated his neck on its exit.
James fell back from the rim of the crater clutching his ruined face with both his hands. At first the shock kept him from feeling anything, but as he slid slowly down the slick wall of the crater the pain came up in waves. His hands were soaked in blood, but he wasn’t sure how fast he was bleeding. He dimly hoped the round had hit an artery. He had heard the screams of men dying for days before and he did not want to be one of them.
His legs came to rest in the frigid water. He could hear screams, very close. He thought they must be his. His eyes rolled upward toward the sky where the burning man still floated, unknowable, unreachable.
James reached out with his hand toward the distant figure, but then the strength went out of his arm and he dropped it back into the mud.
He closed his eyes and dreamed of Sunday afternoons and Mama’s stew. But in his dream Mama had no face. And the stew was cold and bitter and full of teeth.
Albert Berg: Albert was born in the swamps of Florida and quickly developed a gripping writing style by wrestling with crocodiles. It is said that he hypnotized five gators in a row by the age of nine with his melodic prose and infinite imagination. Albert is a true menace in the arena because of a steadfast ability to remain true to his roots of thoughtful contemplation despite the hurricanes that pass all through his state. You never know what you will get from Albert, be it sentient paper products or religious squirrels, but you do know that behind the flash there will be a well thought out story that will make you reflect on your own life. Albert is the author of The Mulch Pile and A Prairie Home Apocalypse or: What the Dog Saw.