Roland Allnach, 2010
Dawn came with the cold stark light of winter, a low slice of weak yellow color under the heavy gray sky. The countryside beneath was shrouded in the muted brown of its hibernation, secluded from the fantasy of spring and its long awaited thaw, but it held the rumor of its potential, of sweet fragrant flowers, of tall sturdy trees with shady canopies for refuge from a hot sun, of rolling green fields and a soft warm breeze. But that was all far off, and perhaps would never be again, and those good memories lost in time.
So it seemed within the distant thoughts of one man as he drove a rugged army truck along an old farm road. His eyes fell to the door mirror, the large rectangular pane dark with the night far behind him until it was pierced with the strobes of artillery shells, too distant to be heard over the steady growl of the truck’s motor. Somewhere beneath those seemingly harmless flashes lay the desolation of the current front. He had served his time in that maelstrom, met the duty he had once felt obligated to meet in a reality that felt as a life other than his own.
With a brief frown he ran his hand over his face, blowing a warming breath into his palm before returning his hand to the glove nestled under his thigh. He then settled his hand on the steering wheel, removing his other hand to bury its glove under his thigh and slip his frost numbed digits into the warmth of his armpit. He looked across the fields to either side, their bare brown turf still dappled in spots with frosted snow. As the warmth returned to his fingers his eyes caught the outlines of some of the old farmhouses, their skeletal walls charred and broken, the small groves of trees that used to shelter them shattered and bare, the few remaining branches reaching out like twisted claws.
He slowed as he approached a column of men marching towards the front; the men parted to either side of the narrow road to let him through. It was cold in the truck with its broken heater, but he knew well enough the wretched cold of marching exposed with only a heavy overcoat for shelter. The men in the column looked to him, but their gazes fell when they realized the cargo his truck bore. It registered little with him, just as he failed to discern any difference in color between the brown coats of the column and the frozen landscape.
With a grunt he silenced the thought and looked off to his right where one of the fields had been leveled and dotted with perfect geometric grids of small white crosses, linear no matter the angle they were viewed. It was the cemetery of his army, of men like him, yet at once not like him. Somewhere within he was appalled by the vastness of those rows of crosses, not necessarily for their number, or how they came to rest in that field, but for all the energy of those many who had lived lost now to a singular vast silence, a deafening silence- so many thoughts, both the low and petty and the noble and elaborate, but once nevertheless alive, now all stomped to silence.
Like him, but not like him, he decided again.
At the end of the cemetery a road opened on his left. He turned onto that road, a narrow bulldozed track through a fallow field. He grimaced when he slipped his hand from his armpit to downshift, forgetting his glove before grabbing the painfully cold shifter. He stuffed his hand into his glove and followed the gully-torn road as it crested a hill and sank into an immense pit. Other trucks were there, bulldozers as well, but he waited until a miserable looking man waved to a spot over to the left. He turned the truck and drove across the grade of the pit before slowing and turning to point the nose of the truck to the rim of the pit. Then he put the truck in reverse, glanced into his side mirror, and let his foot off the brake. The truck crept back at first, but then quickly began to pick up speed. After three lengths of the truck he slammed on both the clutch and brake pedals and looked away from the mirror.
The truck bumped to a halt and then rumbled as its burden spilled out the open back to roll down into the pit. After several moments he stepped on the parking brake until it clicked secure before slipping from the truck’s cab. With a heave he pulled himself up the side of the truck and hopped into its bed. He kept his eyes down as he pulled out the heavy shovel he kept wedged in the slats of the truck bed and walked to the end of the bed where the last of the truck’s burden still lay. His nose wrinkled against the stench that assailed him, but he set the shovel’s blade down and pushed.
The last of the bodies tumbled out of the bed and into the pit, rolling down its slope to land on a wide pile of corpses. A bulldozer crept by, packing the bodies down with its weight as it covered them with a fresh layer of dirt. Scattered tendrils of vapor from rotting flesh rose through the packed earth.
They were the defeated of the enemy, those bodies. For them, there was no dignity of small white crosses, there would never be any sympathetic acknowledgement of lives lived and lost, of dreams dispelled, of passions hollowed to unheard echoes. It mattered not whether it was the pit or a small white cross, for the vast majority of those who went into the ground were merely caught in the wave of time’s tide and drowned by war. For the living that remained there was a distinct difference, a distinct meaning, something to cling to in the growing loneliness of time’s wearying forgetfulness.
To the victor went not only small white crosses, but justification.
For the vanquished, there was only disillusionment.
Like him, but not like him, he decided again.
He made his way back into the truck cab and drove away, passing several more trucks bumping along the rough road towards the pit. He looked ahead to the main road and across to the neat lanes of white crosses.
To the just go the spoils, he thought, and turning, rumbled away.
Later he found himself driving some other country road, lost in emptiness. His thoughts, in the past always riotous guests within his mind, were silent. His inner question of their absence served as the one minute ripple to disturb the dead quiet within him, and that too served him little. Perhaps it was the dreadful melancholy of his current duty, but he understood how he had come to this position of his disposition. Misfit, unfit; the labels had come to be meaningless.
He trembled with the cold, breaking from within himself to look outside the truck. The sky was a heavy featureless gray, the country about him a bleak, barren brown. He realized he was stopped, pulled over on the side of the road. He blinked, his eyes focusing on the bodies strewn across the road before him. Their coats were still loose. The bloat of rot had not set in yet. The cold served a purpose too, after all.
With a rub of his gloved hands he slipped from the truck. Beyond the ruined trees, in the dark haze, the horizon flashed with artillery and explosions too distant to hear. By the time he had paced over to the bodies he recognized them as nominees for the quaint cemetery and not the waste pit, most likely victims of a stray shell, evidenced by the shallow crater in the middle of the road. He frowned, shaking his head at the insanity of it, the harsh reality of the death of these men on a quiet back road beyond any discernable, causal connection to the mass violence far away at the front. It made little sense to him by way of logic, yet at the same time it felt quite fitting.
When existence ends, this is how it will look, he decided. All living things will be stripped of their vitality; all will be a shadow of what was, all matter will be shorn of its spirit to leave the world hollow and cold and its remaining cursed inhabitants lone starving wanderers in the bleak void.
He stood transfixed in the wake of that thought, bleak even for him. The truck’s engine idled behind him. His eyes rose to watch the chaotic flashes along the horizon. And then he did something that even in the wake of his former life he thought would be impossible for him to do.
Hands in his pockets, he put his back to his truck, and walked away.
Not along the road, for he recalled the general area and one particular part of that area he had taken pains to avoid. It was to that area he now felt himself drawn, propelling his cold tired pacing across the rolling brown fields. He walked until the sky dimmed with evening, and only then sought shelter in a bombed out grain depot, a solitary stone structure left among the flattened ruins of an old farm.
With evening slipping away to night and its threat of frozen, still air he gathered some hay and some wood that was not completely charred and retreated to an inner corner where the light of a fire would not be seen. From his breast pocket he produced a lighter. He did not smoke, having considered the habit to be unhealthy, despite the denial of men he had known. Those men were all gone now, not from their habit, but from the war. It made his resisting the practice feel somewhat silly. What concern for health, in that place, in that time?
Shaking his head he lit some hay and worked the wood until he had a small but warming fire glowing before him. The crackling embers startled him, their little pops seeming like thunder in the perfect quiet of the night. Soon enough he adjusted, the way he knew people could always adjust, one way or another, to their surroundings.
The thought forced his eyes down to the lighter in his gloved hand and the engraving on its side. He did not understand the words- they were in the local tongue- but he knew well enough what some of it said: names, a date, a town. After several moments he frowned, reaching inside his coat to pull out two worn pictures, both folded in half. In his typical fashion he ran a finger around the folded edges of the pictures, familiarity discerning one from the other. One picture he returned to his pocket, the other he opened to reveal a man and a woman in simple wedding attire before a small house. Handwritten at the bottom were a date and a town, matching the date and town on the lighter. A simple rural wedding, three years ago, to the day. He pursed his lips, staring into the picture until he could stand it no longer and returned both lighter and picture to his pocket.
He pulled off his gloves and put his face in his hands. He thought of his canteen, wishing it held something more potent than cold water, kept from freezing only by the heat it leeched from his body. Wrapping his arms about his chest he ignored the rumbling of his hunger and slumped against the rough stone wall behind him, stretching his feet out toward the fire and using the thickness of his knit hat as a pillow. The stars peered down at him, remote and dim, from a rare break in the overcast night sky. His eyelids began to droop as sleep neared, but rather than slumber he found himself in the stupor of his memories, cursed from sleep by both the painful memory of the warm star-filled nights he had known and the barren dark cold he had come to occupy. It was the source of the cancerous lethargy that had slowly subverted him, reducing him from a young, vibrant, noteworthy junior officer of promise to an undead relic discarded as a body reclamation driver.
So much waste. He thought of his past- not in a personal sense, so as to insulate himself- but rather as a simple story. He had possessed good humor, had even been told he was witty, and had enjoyed the workings of a quick clear mind, complimenting rather than conflicting with the wild sways of his young passions. His life had been without turmoil- ‘charmed’ some had said- and from his early childhood it had settled deep within him that the world was his plaything, warm and welcoming and willing to excuse any blunder. The ideals behind the call to war he had readily embraced; he had swayed his childhood friends to follow his high minded, ignorant, but innocent zeal to the war. Their subsequent deaths he now counted among his worst sins. Yet in the beginning he did not fear the violence, nor was he stunned by the shock of war; rather he seemed to feed on it, to swell from the bloat of all excesses of the human condition and experience around him until his own inevitable implosion. For the disastrous spark that had burned his emotional self to a charred husk came from a source he had never expected, had never even considered in his blind arrogance and reckless confidence. But pervasive and insidious Death, caring little for borders, waited; waited with maddening patience to pounce on any unsuspecting fool.
And he had been such a fool, a fool of fools.
Nevertheless it was all over now, and he had become what he considered an echo of his former self- hollow; a mocking reverberation of the source. What had not been consumed of him in the funerary pyre of his emotions lingered, only to be obliterated by the unseen whiplash at the tail end of his foolishness. Where he had only known exuberance, exhilaration and optimism, he had been leveled with lethargy, indifference and pessimism.
The deeper his collapse had grown, the greater his withdrawal from the convenient, tinted and tainted world of his perceptions. Where he was once popular and well received, he became one to avoid, one ostracized: the men of his command came to hate him; fellow and superior officers grew at first critical but soon as well came to despise him. He did not resent it, but took it as accepted and understood. He was no longer part of their world- part of his old world- for death and despair clung to him, and even though he walked and breathed and on rare occasion would utter a word or two he belonged more to his new world, the world of waste and ruin.
And in that world, he found it a bitter work of irony that the particular lighter he had come to possess would set a fire to save him from freezing to death on this particular night.
Such ruthless, ruthless, irony.
Clouds came. The stars winked out one by one.
To read the conclusion of "Memento," visit http://www.reedmag.org/drupal/?q=node/141