The Courage of the Cowardly Soul

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A Snake in the Garden

Chapter 2: A Snake in the Garden

There was no shortage of horror in the trenches of war. It was a place choked with human beings but utterly devoid of humanity. And yet, strangely, the most disturbing sight I saw at the frontier of conflict had nothing to do with bullets, gas or grenades. I didn’t know and didn’t want to know if there was more to this story than I observed.

Our company, at last relieved of active duty, was enjoying a desperately needed respite. We had been given permission to move freely between the military encampment and a small village not far from our position. It was comprised of not more than a dozen small hovels, some of them now abandoned. Those who remained were the type of people who could not be removed from their homes because, in the most real sense of the term, they were one and the same.

One of these men, an elderly veteran of numerous conflicts, graciously agreed to host myself and a friend of mine named Peter. Friend may indeed be putting it a bit strongly; Peter and I fought beside one another, and the experience of surviving the hellfire of combat made friends and frequently even brothers of men who in any other circumstance would have treated each other with derision.

Peter was imposing: tall, strong, and was possessed of a permanently self-satisfied expression. He had a scar along his left cheek which left the eerie impression of a ceaseless smile, a cruel irony which cut as deeply as irony could. But it was just a scar, after all.

He and I walked to the old man’s home together, but of course at that point it was just a house. Peter had a habit of breaking long silences as if continuing a conversation which had been taking place for hours. It was an idiosyncrasy with which I never grew accustomed.

“So, how long do you think this break in the fightin’s gonna last?” he mumbled around the tobacco in his cheek.

“Until they need us again, I suppose,” I replied, honestly unsure.

“Well I say fuck ’em all. If they want me back they’re gonna have to come and drag me back.”

“You don’t mean that.” Peter gave me a queer look, “I’ve never said a damn thing I didn’t mean, Jacque. I’m not starting now.”

An awkward silence ensued. I did my best to ignore the intensity of Peter’s demeanor, but I sensed something hostile from him nonetheless. The silence was broken by a sudden outburst of laughter from Peter. He clapped me on the back hard enough to put a stumble into my step.

“Don’t be so serious all the time. Serious is for the trenches.”

“There’s not much to joke about nowadays.”

“You can joke about anything if you try hard enough and don’t care what people think.”

“Well, shouldn’t you care what people think?” I asked, though I never had.

“People don’t know shit about shit.”

That was one of the wisest things I had ever heard anyone say. Or, at least, that’s what I thought at the time. Peter took advantage of the break in conversation to pull out his cigarette lighter: a small, brilliantly blue device.


The old man who greeted us at the door of his house was an unremarkable person, or so he appeared. He had a kindly face and a neat little hovel. Books were stacked against the wall in orderly piles, the table was arranged just so, the whole room just worked.

“Our unit has a break from active combat, and we’re looking for a place to stay,” I told him.

“Fine by me,” he smiled slightly.

And so we walked into the house, put down our things, as few and insignificant as they were, and set about making ourselves comfortable. The man’s name was Jacob. He had stayed behind, against the urgent warnings of the French Army that the village wouldn’t be safe if the Germans broke through the front lines.

“If they want to take me outta this house, by God they’ll have to burn it to the ground and carry away my charred corpse,” he declared melodramatically.

“No one’s talking about burning down houses, Jacob,” I carefully prodded. “But don’t you think it’d be safer to go someplace else?”

Jacob put his hand on his chin, “Safer? Maybe so. It’s not about being safe. It’s about being me.”

Peter, who had been busying himself inspecting Jacob’s pantry, suddenly spoke up.

“You’re not going to be ‘me’ if you’re dead either.”

Jacob opened the door and let his dog, who had been pawing at the side of the house for the better part of ten minutes, into the room. He sat down at the table, absently scratching at his ears.

“Let me tell you the story of how I got this dog. I stole him when on a trip to Paris. I was walking in an alley one night, trying to find my way to a friend’s house, when I heard a terrible racket from inside one of the buildings. Somebody was shouting and cursing, and I heard these high pitched yips. The door opened in front of me, and a large man ran out, chasing after the dog with a pan. It was obvious what was happening and I was having none of it. I threw myself in front of him.

‘What are you doing?’ I asked.

‘Teaching that fucking thing a lesson!’ he answered, obviously very drunk.

‘Go back inside; leave the dog alone.’

A tense minute of silence followed as we sized each other up. Finally, he eased his way back to his back door and then into the house. When I was sure he was gone, I followed the dog and tried to coax him to me. He was suspicious, and who could blame him? But, I finally worked my way up to him, and took his leash in my hand.

What really struck me about the whole episode was how resistant that dog was to be dragged away from his house. Why? Oh sure, there’s that bit of it that women feel trying to pull themselves out of an abusive relationship. A strange connection with their abuser. But there’s something deeper I think, so deep even a dog can sense it.

People prefer painful order to unknown chaos. There’s something so terrifying about the ocean of the unknown that it grips us even more strongly than the pain of our daily lives. So, you tell me. Am I like the dog? Better yet, tell me this. Is it that unreasonable to be like the dog?”

I nodded, though I wasn’t sure I had understood the point of the story. Peter, as always, spoke as if he had an opinion in mind even before the old man opened his mouth.

“Who cares if you’re like the damn dog? We’re talking about life and death here, old man. Your philosophy’s not going to do you very much good 6 feet under, is it?” Peter spoke with a sudden, intense hostility.

“Young man, when you pass a certain age, you make your peace with death. It doesn’t scare me any longer.”

Peter shook his head, “Death doesn’t make pacts. It just takes what it wants.”

Jacob stood and collected the plates, making a neat pile in the middle of the table. He shuffled about for awhile, putting everything back into its place.

“Nobody is kicking me out of this house, it’s as simple as that.”

Peter pounded his fist on the table “Fuck your code of honor. You need to get out of here before it’s too late!”

Jacob did not look up from the plate he was washing, “I think it’s time for bed. It’s been a long day for us all.”

I grabbed Peter by the arm, and led him to the back and onto his straw mattress.

“Stop antagonizing him, do you want to get us kicked out?”

The fire in his eyes died out. He sighed, “No. I can’t help myself, you know?” I did know, “Try, at least.”

He nodded, but didn’t make any promises. We both tossed and turned for a while, until Peter gave up and excused himself. The frigid night air rushed in as he opened the door and stepped through it. I considered joining him, but decided against it.

Instead, I pulled out a letter I had just received before making the trip to Jacob’s village. I opened it haphazardly, and a picture fell out onto the ground. It was of my father and mother, standing in front of their house. I smiled. In their last letter they had mentioned that they were trying to save enough to pay for a photographer.

They were standing in front of their house, in simple dress. My father is a tall man, and juxtaposed against my 5 foot mother the pair always seemed comical. But, they were generally serious people: hard-working and diligent. They were caring in their own way, but many people simply wrote them off as austere.

I was suddenly overwhelmed by homesickness. I realized that I hadn’t seen them in almost a year. I tried to sort through the tangled web of memory, to tease out exactly how long it had been, but there was too much that stood between the present moment and the past. All I could conjure up were images of fire and explosions.

I followed Peter out of the house, and took a moment to stare at the night sky. I became self-consciously aware of the silence. How could this place be so tranquil? People, even now, were fighting and dying. There was so much suffering it seemed impossible that the same Earth that contained it could also house peace. Life truly is a paradox.

I ran into Peter as he was returning to the house. He had a strange expression on his face.

“How’s the rest of the village doing?” I asked.

“Seems quiet enough to me,” he answered disinterestedly

“Have you cooled off a bit?”

“Literally and figuratively,” he cracked a rare joke.

I nodded. Peter took out a cigarette and lit it, cupping the small object in his hand.

“I can’t wait to get out of this shithole,” he mumbled around the cigarette.

“The village?”

“France.”

We both laughed at that. Peter clapped me on the back and meandered back into the night. I stayed for a while, head tilted upwards and my mind lost among the stars. I knew that I would not sleep that night. I’ve always suffered from bouts of insomnia, and I could tell when one was about to strike. It’s an especially dangerous condition for a soldier. Sleep deprivation and firearms make a poor pairing.

There was a pond in the center of the village, and for some reason it caught and held my attention. It was dirty and grimy and I can’t imagine it provided any potable water. But, on those hot days when the sun laps up both energy and sweat, the temptation to drink it regardless must have been immense.

I’m always on the lookout for life’s little ironies, and this one struck me as nothing short of hilarious. But, of course, I wasn’t the one who had to deal with it day in and day out. It was my privilege to be able to mock the living conditions of this little village. But, at the same time I knew that I did not have the strength to live there.

My mind kept returning to Jacob’s story and the image of the dog struggling not to be dragged away from its abusive owner. Peter had dismissed it, as he normally did, as useless sentimentality, but I didn’t think so. There was something deep about it. What Jacob himself had said made sense to me, after I had turned it over in my mind for a bit. But there was more, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing something profound, something staring me directly in the face.

I shook my head. I was no philosopher or deep thinker; there was no way I was going to arrive at some deep state of enlightenment by meditating on the problem. I sighed, turned around and walked back into the house. Still, for hours afterwards, and no matter how hard I tried to focus my attention elsewhere, Jacob’s story rattled around my mind, clattering against my memories and logical being.

As it turned out, I was right the first time. All I managed to do was give myself a headache. But, I suppose a headache is better than nothing at all.


My instincts were correct; I couldn’t sleep that night. Something about our conversation and our interactions precluded any possibility of tranquility. Instead, I decided to take a walk around the village, however I didn’t make it past Jacob’s front lawn. There was a quiet sound just on the edge of hearing that stopped me dead in my tracks.

Curious, I poked my head around the corner, and had to stifle a scream. I’ve dreamt of this moment so many times I can picture it clear as day if I close my eyes. It’s a part of me now. As much a part of me as my hands or feet.

When I looked around the corner, I saw Peter standing next to a fire, holding a hunting knife in one hand, and a leash in the other. Jacob’s dog lay on the ground in a state of mutilation I had never before seen any living thing exist. Its chest heaved with heavy breathing, its eyes stared glassily into the void of the night.

Peter had fashioned a muzzle for the poor beast which stifled its screams of agony. He hummed to himself as he waited for the fire to sufficiently heat the knife. I wanted to do something, to scream at him, to throw myself on top of him and beat him senseless. But my entire body was frozen, paralyzed with a crippling fear I had never felt before.

And his body while he was engaged in the brutality... That image has never truly left me. It’s melted into my being and taken up a station alongside my deepest fears and instincts.

Peter’s limbs contorted into a cruel dance: an expression of unbelievable malice. His arms beating down with their full force, his mouth opened in a half snarl. His body burned; it burned with an intensity and power far beyond the humble capabilities of human beings. It was a conduit of evil: of unadulterated hatred and viciousness.

I watched him take the dog’s life, one agonizing piece at a time, and in a strange way it felt as if I too was being mutilated, as if it was my life seeping onto the ground. A deep stinging sensation penetrated my chest and stomach, my ears rang terribly; I tasted bile.

“Why?” I repeated in my mind, over and over, “Why?”

Peter threw himself into his work with gusto, raising the blade over his head and stabbing it down over and over. He poured every last drop of his mortal strength into the act, drawing from that deep reservoir of human vitality usually reserved for self-preservation.

Blood spattered the ground, and with every downward stroke the dog’s eyes widened and then grew a bit more dim. I viscerally recall his outline against the flame, every shape and line of his frame during this process, outlined in fiery red against the fire: demonic and otherworldly.

“Why? Why?”

When the grisly work was at last done, when the final drop of suffering that could be squeezed out of the beast was, Peter calmly wiped his knife on his shirt, and went inside to pack his things. I remained statue-still, not daring to move or shift my physical form in any way other than to blink and breathe.

That was the moment I made the decision to desert the army. It wasn’t the trenches or the gunfire, or the blood and death, it was this punishment of a creature so obviously innocent, an act of simple cruelty more pure and potent than any evil I had ever witnessed. I always thought evil was something reserved for the realm of mythical figures: like the devil. Not so. I realized then that ordinary human beings carry it within them, integrally within their own hearts. The desire to kill and destroy, to oppose life and goodness themselves.

It wasn’t until later, and upon much reflection that I realized that I understood, and perhaps even sympathized with Peter and his barbarity. It’s not that hard to feel betrayed by the world, and to therefore feel justified in waging war against it. There comes a point when you have suffered sufficiently that the concept of goodness itself becomes an affront to your fundamental conceptual framework. Take a look around you, and then within yourself and you’ll see it plainly. The spirit that possessed Peter that night is that same one that allows you to sleep at night, knowing perfectly well that others in the world suffer greatly.

It’s the spirit that possesses men during the heat of battle, compelling them to lunge headfirst into enemy fire. It’s the spirit that drives the rape and pillage of peaceful civilians. There’s a place within us, myself certainly included, that’s so angry and resentful with life that it would rather tear it down. The temptation to succumb to that instinct is more attractive than most of us realize. All it takes is allowing yourself to become resentful and then it will manifest itself, whether bidden or not. That spirit, when it takes hold, will destroy everything and everyone around you.

Nobody ever considers these questions until they loom so large within their lives that they can’t be ignored. Because we all tell ourselves that we’re the exception; because it’s a simple matter to see the evil in others and frequently an impossible one to see it within ourselves.

It wasn’t because what Peter did was inconceivable to me that I was traumatized by it. It’s because for a moment, and perhaps even more than a moment, I felt like joining him.

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