Unteroffizier Erich Lang awakes long after the dawn to the distant sound of artillery. The gunmetal sky ripples with threatening black clouds, and the dusty smell of rain hangs in the chill air. He is slumped back against the earthen wall, his left arm crooked and folded behind him. It comes awake in a flare of pinpricks and fire, and he winces as he works it free and shakes. His slender frame is wrapped in his thick woolen coat, sodden and heavy with mud, and he feels cold water seeping in through his threadbare trousers. Besides the upturned helmet lying in the mud a few yards away, he is alone in narrow trench.
He pulls his long legs toward his body and stands, feeling the cold air glide through the shifting folds of his clothes. The coat tugs at him as he stands, weighted down with filth. There is water in his boots, running down his legs as he stands to soak through the layered socks that protected the last bit warmth and dryness. He scowls at the mud and the sky, and they are unmoved.
He winces against the sudden pain in his head and chest as he tries to sort out the jumble of memories and awakening thoughts. He wonders idly what day it is, but he cannot recall the chaplain’s last sermon, the only landmark he has to mark the progress of the days. He tries to remember the night before, or at least some small hint of how he’d ended here, soaking up rainwater in the trench. The preceding days are a monotone fog, a jumble of images and impressions of mud soaked boredom and terror.
“Thought you might be dead, ” comes a voice from his left. He turns to see a figure, leaning on the wooden post at the crook in the trench. His face is obscured by a gloved hand gripping a smoldering cigarette. Erich blinks and strains to focus on the man, but his blood is now surging in anticipation of tobacco.
Nadja doesn’t make it. I turn at the steps of the bunker and watch as the artillery shell lands on the shattered street between us. I hold our daughter and watch my wife smolder in the crater, deaf to the thudding concussions around us. Someone grabs Inna from my arms, thrusts cold gloved fingers in the neck of my jacket, and pulls me back into the black throat of the small shelter. I see my last glimpse of Leningrad’s cracked and wounded skyline, and then it goes black. The door slams shut, screeching steel and spinning locks clattering in rhythm with gun fire. I finally find the voice to scream Nadja’s name.
Inna is crying in the dark, cradled by the last of Svetlana’s daughters in the small entry way. I suddenly find I have no knees and I am on the floor with a hot choking hand around my throat. Boris and Grigory slide away from me in the darkness, I can hear them averting their gaze, necks scratching against thick coats as they twist away from me. I thrust my tears into my gullet and gag, retching and heaving up the thin watery remains of my last meal. Inna needs me, and I need strength.
The rosy cheeked boy that led our last charge, all ill fitting uniform and tilting helmet, doesn’t have the grace to leave me be, and puts one soft hand on my back. I shrug him off, and stumble to my feet. In the slowly seeping light of his oil lantern, I see his face and his fear, and I look away. He backs away from us, turning down the long dark featureless tunnel ahead. Turning back, he surveys the dozen survivors before him, shivering and broken. The short run from the grand ballroom has taken its toll on our weakened bodies. The last of the ratty birds in the hotel’s eaves had been caught a week ago; a chorus of hollow sunken eyes now stare back at the trembling child clutching a rifle.
The last storm was already on the horizon when I woke on Sunday morning. It hung in the south, a solid black wall of dust, churning and motionless. I’d every intention of sleeping late into the morning, as had been my Sunday custom since Adele and the girls had left, but the distant rumbling and crackle of lightning drug me from the bed just after sunrise. I shuffled around the farm in the early morning, lashing the doors of the barn, rounding up the two stubborn hogs, and shuttering the windows.
I found myself rooted in place, captivated and entranced by the writhing shape across the sky. It stretched impossibly wide over the horizon, rolling across the border from Nebraska. The air had a dry, electric chill, and the sickly yellow wheat swayed in anticipation.
To the west, I saw a small, light plume, picked out in stark contrast with the black beyond. The horse and rider at the base of the little dust devil approached the farm at a sharp trot, and my dust-bleary eyes registered the silhouette.
Carl Jordan owned the farm next to mine for as along my family has been in the Dakotas; I grew up with his great booming laughter warming our home nearly every night. His usual broad, yellowing smile was absent beneath his trimmed mustache and broad-brimmed black hat. His dark suit was blotted with fine layer of grit that he brushed at absently.
“Eddie.” His voice was tired and small as he looked down at me. “No church today?”
A polished and updated version of this story will be included in the upcoming Cruentus Libri’s anthology “War is Hell”
I never saw the ocean till I was nineteen, and if I ever see it again it will be too goddamn soon. I was a child, coming out of the train, fresh from Amarillo, into San Diego and all her glory. The sight of it, all that water and the blind crushing power of the surf, filled me with dread. I’d seen water before, lakes, plenty big, but that was nothing like this. I don’t think I can describe what it was like that first time, and further more, I’m not sure I care too.
You can imagine the state I was in when a few weeks later they gave me a rifle and put me on a boat. When I stopped vomiting up everything that I ate, I decided that I might not kill myself after all. Not being able to see the land, and that ceaseless chaotic, rocking of the waves; I remember thinking that the war had to be a step up from this. Kids can be so fucking stupid.
I had such a giddy sense of glee when I saw the island, and it’s solid banks. They transferred us to a smaller boat in the middle of the night, just our undersized company with our rucksacks and rifles and not a word. We just took a ride right into it, just because they asked us to. The lieutenants herded us into our platoons on the decks and briefed us: the island had been lost. That was exactly how he put it. Somehow in the grand plan for the Pacific, this one tiny speck of earth, only recently discovered and unmapped, had gotten lost in the shuffle; a singularly perfect clerical error was all it took. It was extremely unlikely, he stressed, that the Japanese had gotten a hold of it, being so far east and south of their current borders, but a recent fly over reported what looked like an airfield in the central plateau.
September 2nd 1868
Arrived in Cheyenne in the new Wyoming Territory early this morning on the new Union Pacific line. Has been three years since I rode the locomotive. Did not realize it would remind me so strongly of Atlanta. Spent the last day of the journey with the phantom smell of blood and iron in my nostrils, and the bile rising at the back of my throat, but it is over. God willing, I will never have to ride the train again. Cheyenne is new born and mewling like a babe. Immigrants from the east and across the seas teem here, filling the streets with a babel of tongues and the raucous laughter of drunken listless youths. The hound I purchased before leaving tugs at his leash with delight at the sights and sound.
The plot of land is still two days ride across the border and to the Southwest, but true to his word, the man from the bank has hired a guide to take me there. Sent a last letter to my wife and boys with instructions to meet me here in the spring, and have purchased a wagon and the supplies for construction. The guide, a half Indian fellow, I’d wager by appearance, but civilized in tongue, has helped me hire two young men: a Irishman with a sullen chinless face, and a German, watery eyed and stinking of bourbon. Both despicable wretches, but they have agreed to work for a pittance, and both claim to have experience in homesteading.
They may intend to kill me, seeing an easy mark in a naive settler, but I do not fear these drunken children. I’ve seen a generation of these boys spilled open, and I know what they are made of.