Hell's Memory

A glimpse into the reality our soldiers have faced. Not all wounds are visible.

Two nights have passed since Private Douglas was gunned down, nearly sawed in half by the relentless wave of lead raining down on us. He is gone, yet, I sit here watching his chest rise and fall as if air were feeling his lungs, not the rats burrowing deep eating his flesh. Closing my eyes magnifies the sound of tearing muscle and claw scraping bone. Another wave of bullets, another cry pierces the night as the dull thud of cartridges hitting their mark reminds us all of this hell we can’t escape. Captain barks an order to advance.

Advance to what? This wasteland is littered with the bodies of fallen soldiers. There is nothing but death here.

“I said go over the top you cowards or I will shoot you myself!” Cap yells across my trench. His words more an invitation, a sweet release, than the threat he intends. However, looking back to Douglas as a rat crawls from his unhinged mouth, this is not a fate I want. More shots ring out. Whip, my M1903, has a desire deeper than mine; a thirst for enemy blood pulls him to the ready, preparing to lead me from this hole. Deep breath, steady. Our Father who art in Heaven, hallo-

Soldiers, our soldiers, screaming, tearing their own skin.

“Stand strong men!” Captain instructs.

What is happening?

A gray cloud spreads across the ground in the distance. Its fingers reaching, slowly drawing closer, limits visibility. Jenkins blindly falls from the fire step, gasping for air.

“Shoot me! Please shoot me!” He manages to whisper, but I only stare. What evil is this?

                                                              ***

Awakening, I gasp for air frantically trying to escape the sheets clinging to my sweat covered body. Where is my rifle? Where am I? Dread fills me as I desperately search.

“It’s going to be ok. You are ok.” A soft voice tries to soothe me. “Can I get you anything?”

White dress, hat, not a soldier-nurse perhaps.

“Where are my belongings? Where am I? Who authorized this?” My questions spill on and on bringing an uncontrollable tremble to my arms and legs.

“It’s going to be ok. You are ok.” The kind voice calmly states.

She obviously knows nothing of the atrocious conditions beyond these walls. Nothing about this is "ok."God has left this place; hell has taken over. The blankness in my stare brings another round of how ok I will be. This can’t be real. The covers fight to hold me, tightening my legs on the bed as I attempt an escape.

“Where are you going? You were sent here to heal. You are no good to your men in this state. Now sit back down!” She demands.

No woman other than mother has ever spoken to me so directly, but I listen slowly taking my seat on the edge of the bed, still shaking. The faintest whistle brings another nurse into the room. The small tray in her hands causes my grip to tighten on the bed-frame as my heart quickens. The stories of soldiers being taken, torn apart piece by piece, stirs deep within my soul bringing hopelessness. The pounding of my heart loses to the now spinning room.

Remember your training. Think. Breathe. Neither nurse is armed, easy success. Guards outside? Think man! I close my eyes, steadying my breathing. Voices close by. Two. Male. Objective: Neutralize nurses, take down guard, secure weapon. Liberate other soldiers in the facility.

Eyes open. The small tray on my right makes the perfect distraction as it leaves my fingers, ricocheting off the first nurse’s lower abdomen. Covers off. Feet on floor crouching down, preparing take down of nurse two but neither moves to restrain me. No threat of imminent danger. I stand, cautious. As the nurse holds her stomach and stands upright, a tray is laid at the foot of my bed. It isn’t until the lid is removed and I see the food that its smell reaches my nostrils and I realize how hungry I am. How long has it been since I’ve had anything hot, let alone a fresh meal? I look over the tray again at the meat and steaming potatoes quickly snatching it to my lap. Without waiting for an invitation or fork, I begin shoveling the food into my mouth. The tender meat is unfamiliar but melts on my tongue and brings immediate comfort throughout my body.

“Slow down, soldier,” she smiles and hands me a fork. “You have plenty of time.”

I finish too quickly and wish for more but my eyes are heavy and I feel my world fading.

                                                            ***

Gunfire rings out all around me. The blood of the soldier next to me becomes a spray covering my face and arms. Warm. Sticky. I wipe my eyes and search for my target. The gunner manning the machine has stopped to cool his weapon. Our lines close enough I hear him urgently calling his men to help speed this process. Three long strides and our eyes meet; the fear in theirs matching my own, but I fire before protest escapes their lips. Four targets down. Another stride and a tremble take over my hands. Pull it together! Focus! But the shake makes it down to my legs and I can no longer move. This wasteland turns to quicksand beneath my feet and swallows me whole.

                                                           ***

The rattling metal frame of my bed startles me to consciousness. I pull the covers finding the source of the commotion: the uncontrollable tremble in my legs. I silently stare as nurses enter the room to still me. This is madness! I push my legs firmly into the mattress but the problem worsens.

Doctors whispering amongst one another glance my way. “What are we going to do with him? There is no way he can continue fighting in this condition, yet, physically, there is nothing wrong with him.” They continue to whisper and watch as the nurse ties my legs down.

“Stop! What have you done to me?” My protests ignored.

The doors open and slap closed. A tray laid next to me is covered with syringes of different sizes. Several injections later, the shaking stops. I can see and hear others in the room but am unable to raise my head or speak. Closing my eyes, I let the medicine take over, sending me miles away.

                                                               ***

“Why are we here?” I call to the soldier across from me. His far-away gaze reminds me I am alone in this trench.

The small white corner jutting from his chest pocket calls me over, begging for its memory to be shared one final time. It’s a letter from his mother. I read aloud to bring solace to my brother’s soul.

My Dearest David,

Your father and I are so proud of the brave young man you have become. He speaks of you often and carries a picture that he shows to anyone willing to spare a minute or two.

The weather is beginning to change. The days are getting a little cooler, and night is falling faster. What is the weather there, are you staying warm?

Beth continues asking about you. She helped harvest the remainder of the blueberries today and I taught her how to make the dumplings you love so much. You should ask her to marry when you return. She’ll make a fine wife for you.

We pray Christ protects you and brings you home safely. Please come home to me, David.

With all my love,

Mom

I fold the letter and place it back in his pocket with a pat. 

“Mothers, right?” I chuckle, wiping a tear from my eye.

                                                            ***

“It’s ok! You are going to be ok!” pulls me from my dreams. To my left a soldier just brought in from the field lays gasping. The lower part of his jaw hangs, disconnected, mangled. Blood drips from his hand where fingers once were.

“You are going to be ok!” The nurse yells, driving her point further.

How are any of us going to be ok? Where is the hope; where is the healing?

Tears fall as I close my eyes and beg God to take my life.