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.