And The Lord Taketh Away
Chapter 5: And The Lord Taketh Away
I had never seen Lieutenant Durand looking so frightful as the day, face black with soot, he came stumbling into the monastery to deliver the message which would change our fortunes forever. It had been a tranquil afternoon, and most of the people in the monastery were busy with their evening prayers.
I began ushering him through the hallway into Father Matthews’ “office.” It hardly deserved the name, being a small, humble room, barely larger than a closet. Lieutenant Durand had a peculiar expression on his face. I hesitated to disturb the contemplation he had clearly settled into, but my curiosity got the best of me.
“If you don’t mind me asking, Lieutenant,” I began, shakily. “What’s going on?”
The old soldier wiped his eye with the back of his hand. “The Germans. The line. It...” he took out a hip flask and took a long pull. “Sorry. It’s been one hell of a day. My nerves are a little frayed,” he gave me a tired smile.
“It’s okay,” I assured him, clearly sensing that he was in no state to discuss it. “You need to rest.”
“They just kept shelling us,” he said, as if to no one in particular. “I did everything I was supposed to do, didn’t I? Tactically it was textbook. Why did they die, then?”
There was no response to a question like that. It was shocking, in a way, to even my rusty military sensibilities, to hear an officer speak that way. It was almost like seeing one’s own father weeping.
“What do I tell the families? There’s...” he stopped mid sentence, cut off by a suppressed sob.
“You tell them that they died defending their country,” I offered, knowing it was a weak reply.
“Jesus, it was a slaughter out there. They died defending a few cubic yards of dirt!”
We had arrived, mercifully, at our destination. I offered Lieutenant Durand a seat, which he accepted. I couldn’t help but continue to be unnerved by his appearance. He was also possessed of a distinctly hollow manner.
“Lieutenant,” Father Matthews said, in greeting.
“Father,” he replied, as if forming the word required intense effort.
“What brings you to our little corner of the world?”
The military man straightened his shirt - an absurdly ineffectual gesture.
“The war is not going well, Father. We’ve been ordered to retreat.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“And...” the Lieutenant continued, “you’re directly in the line of fire. We’re supposed to leave you behind. To the Germans.”
Before Father Matthews could respond, he continued, “But, I’m not going to. You’ve treated us better than any General in Paris. So many of us owe our lives to you.”
There wasn’t much to say to something like that. Durand’s statement spoke for itself.
“Thank you,” Father Matthews said, eventually.
“No,” the weary soldier replied, weeping, “Thank you.”
I found myself in the sanctuary later that day. There was no reason in particular for me to be there. In fact, I felt as if I was sleepwalking and only beginning to wake to an unfamiliar environment. There was a moment of panic, and then realization.
People pray in the sanctuary in different ways. Some kneel, some stand, some pace, some even get emotional. But all are silent. It’s an unwritten rule.
Which is what made Lieutenant Durand’s presence there that day so uncomfortable. He walked in shortly after me, and sat on a pew. He was hardly noticeable for awhile. But then he began muttering to himself.
I didn’t think much of it in the moment, but that was because I was wrapped up in my own pitiable mental state.
I’ve lived in this place for so long it may well be more a part of me than my home. It’s more than sanctuary from the army, or from prosecution for desertion from that army. It is home now. It’s home.
It was a beautiful day. The evening outside my walls was one of the most picturesque I could remember. But it was like ashes in my mouth. The golden sun was a puddle of curdled cheese, the birdsong a screeching violin bow. I saw a young man in a soldier’s uniform and a young woman pass us by. She laughed and he silenced her with a kiss.
I hated them both with a burning passion. What gave them the right to happiness? Why wasn’t my misery at the forefront of France’s collective attention?
Suddenly, my rage grew to cosmic proportions: a fury at existence itself and its disastrous dialectic with consciousness. I wanted to shatter the glassy, burnished surface of its intersection with humanity. Our lives, eked out on the flat, limited space of our mortal knowledge drag against the unknowable volume of that greater nature. Could we ever see it? Could we ever understand? No! And yet the friction between our pathetic being and that plane of existence invariably produces agony. Pain, I acknowledged ruefully, was a human universal as necessary consequence of existence in incommensurate contradistinction to a recondite conceptual framework.
I spent many hours consumed by self pity in those days. It was easier to retreat into the recesses of my own mind: even the dark ones, rather than face reality. Soon, though, Durand drew the attention of us all, and even I could not ignore him.
He was sitting on the other side of the room, head bowed and face covered by his hands. His muttering had grown to the level of a loud conversation.
People shushed him, but he didn’t even acknowledge their existence.
“Tell me why God?” he began to ask, at a louder volume. “What kind of world have you created that would allow such things to happen? I’m a good man! Why must I suffer?” by now he was pointing and yelling at the ceiling. I was beginning to worry that he had really gone mad.
“Why?” he continued to ask, in futile appeal to a cold, stone roof. Silence was his only reply: the sort of silence that drives the pious to blasphemy.
I stood, shaken, and walked over to him, hoping to defuse the situation. “Lieutenant, I think it’s time to go, don’t you?”
He did not hear me: his eyes were glazed and he seemed very far away. He was wheezing out a name, one I could not, at first, make out.
“Dahlia, Dahlia, where are you?” the pitiful wreck on the floor wept into the unresisting wood of the pew. I did not know who he was calling out for. I gently pulled on his arm. There was no resistance, but neither was there acquiescence.
“Dahlia!” he said, with sudden volume. His eyes grew sharp for an instant, and then returned to their previous far-off stare. I did not know what I could do for him. There was something deeply disturbing about his manner: and not simply because he was behaving strangely and disruptively. It was more of the sense of a terrible premonition, as if I was being visited by the Ghost of Christmas Future. How different was I in that bar when Father Matthews had been forced to take us both away?
Some nurses had entered the room, and I felt a measure of relief. They would know what to do. They, unfortunately, had essentially the same idea as I had on first encountering the creature that used to be a military officer, cowering on the floor. They tried to pick him up by the arm.
“No! I have not yet had my answer. I will have my answer!” the madman yelled, standing and tilting his gaze skyward. “Answer for your crimes. Answer for your complicity!” It might have been comical if it had not been so frightening.
“In life you give me anguish: in death only despair. Why is your world so cruel, your ways so callous?” I felt a tug at the back of my throat, and a small stinging in my eye. I saw it in some others as well. The suffering of a human spirit, in some sense, is not distinguishable from the suffering of the human spirit.
“Dahlia, Dahlia!” Durand’s lamentation echoed as he was picked up and dragged away.
I was haunted by those cries for the rest of the night: so much so that I almost distracted myself from Durand’s proffered military aid and the oncoming siege. Dimly, and in fits, these pains were traded in my consciousness one for the other and vice versa.
What agony was contained in that single word! “Dahlia.” I did not even know the body attached to the name and yet I felt physical discomfort at even considering what Durand must be feeling for her. But, more so than that, the image of his vain questioning, his hopeless interrogation of thin air had a kind of existential dread attached to it. And yet, I was forced to wonder if it was not the rest of us who were mad, and he who was sane.
I determined to visit him, on the pretense, within my own mind, that I was concerned for his health. In reality, my curiosity to know the story behind the name had overtaken me. So, I made my way to the infirmary, passing groups of huddled people as I did who were no doubt gossiping about Durand at that very moment.
He was lying in a bed at the end of the room under the watchful eye of Sister Roslyn. She needn’t have worried. Durand was spent and could not have raised trouble if he had wanted to. Nevertheless, I approached him warily, afraid that I may set off his wrath once more.
His frail body was covered by a thin blanket, and his gray face had a dismal pallor. I could see the weight of the years etched into his brow. His hands were shaking slightly and his overall appearance was one of exhaustion.
I felt a flash of pity, but realized that sympathy was not what Durand wanted. He wanted to be stron
“Lieutenant?” I asked.
“Yes,” he hoarsely replied.
I felt foolish for a moment, realizing that I had no idea how to ask him the question I had come to ask.
“How are you?”
“Better,” he said, the only statement available to him which was both personally true and optimistic.
“It’s been a difficult day, so I’d understand if you don’t want to talk to me...”
The military man pushed himself up in his bed a little. “I think I’d rather not be alone right now anyway. There’s... too much on my mind.”
I nodded, and then asked, rather tactlessly, “Who is Dahlia?”
He was not offended. I could not help but savor a private moment of relief. “Dahlia was my wife. I just got word via letter that she’s died.”
“I’d just finished another pointless day out there, beating my head against the wall of the German trenches, when I come to that little piece of comforting news.” The bitter irony in his voice made me uneasy.
“How did she die?” I asked, pressing my luck, but impelled by that same strange curiosity as I had experienced earlier.
“She was old. Old people die, it’s what they do.”
“Yes, I suppose they do.”
Durand sat fully upright. “Why does it have to be that way? Why are we stuck with these useless bodies?” he contemptuously jabbed a finger into his chest.
I had no response.
“We’re weak and stupid and eventually we die. What’s the point of that?”
“There is no point,” I told him, matching his tone. “We’re born to this Earth for no reason, we suffer pointlessly and we die tragically.”
“Yes, that’s the conclusion I’ve come to. But someone so young, you should not have such thoughts.” “And why not? I’ve lived long enough to see how it is. I wake up every morning, Lieutenant, and wonder why I’m still alive. I’ve done things. Terrible things. Cowardly things. Maybe they wouldn’t be so bad if they had had any sort of impact: if I had committed great evil, if thousands of people knew me as the butcher of such and such a place then maybe my suffering would be for a cause. But, cowardice is the worst of both worlds. I have no claim to victimhood, and yet I’m drowned out by life. Everything I do is swallowed up by the mist of the universe: it’s a long, unending shout into oblivion with no echo.”
Durand began to weep softly. I immediately felt guilty: “Don’t cry, Lieutenant. I didn’t mean to upset you. Here,” I handed him a handkerchief which he used loudly.
“It’s not your fault. You have nothing to feel sorry for,” he informed me. I put my hand on his shoulder nonetheless.
When Durand spoke again, it did not appear as if he was speaking to me, or to anyone at all: “How can it be that our souls are confined to these bodies: these prisons? I can cast my mind out into the universe: I can pluck a piece off a distant star in my imagination, and yet I’m forced to drag this useless bag of bones along with me: like an anchor...” he trailed off. When he spoke again, it was very softly.
“Dahlia withered. Dahlia died. None of her grace, none of the wisdom of her mind could stop her from fading away into dust. And every failure of her physical form, every betrayal of her body was analyzed with perfect clarity: understood, but still inevitable.” I was struck by the impression that Durand’s tirade in the sanctuary was being continued here, abetted rather than suppressed by the reemergence of his rationality.
“Tell me about the battle that’s coming to us,” I said, changing the subject after an unpleasant silence.
“I expect we’ll be able to stop the Germans from capturing this place, but it will cost us.” I knew exactly what sort of cost he was referring to. And, I’m ashamed to say, that my foremost concern was with the mental toll the whole affair would bring upon me. I did not like to be reminded of what I had run from.
“Yes, I expect so too.”
Durand was demonstrating more confidence than I’m sure he felt. War is the ultimate gamble, and the stakes are high enough that no odds are good enough to erase the dread which surrounds it. There were storm clouds gathering and I could already feel their oppressive shadow.
“Have a good night, Lieutenant,” I said, standing up.
“Wait,” he called out before I could reach the door. “Do I know you from somewhere?”
I froze. My blood turned to ice. Did he know me? My knees went weak.
“No, I think not,” I managed to choke out, hoping against hope that my voice was less tremulous than it seemed to me.
Durand nodded slowly, “You’re probably right. Good night.”
I left the room, closing the door. It took a moment for my heart to calm back down from the war-drum pace it had leapt to. I was struck, once again, by the realization of my own fragility. Anything, however small or trivial was liable to send me into a black spiral. How could I ever hope to stand up to the oncoming siege?
Sleep seemed as far away as the heavens as I made the way back to my bed. An evil trifecta of worries and sadness swirled around my mind: war, Dahlia and discovery. My earlier state of existing half in one pain and half in the other was now distributed across these.
As I lay with this mental turmoil, becoming increasingly convinced that no earthly power could relax me into rest, I heard a voice raised in song drifting down the hall. I did not recognize the English lyrics, though I knew enough to understand snatches of it. The chorus, repeated over and over struck some chord in my brain:
“And he died
Oh, and he died
With her name
His secret shame
On his lips.”
The melody was soft and sad. I felt its young, female singer imploring something transcendent for a solace beyond my powers of comprehension. Reaching... grasping... coming ever closer but not daring to touch. Infinite reverence... Like a glass, china bowl.
And through it all, a tiny light was lit somewhere deep inside me. And all at once, I understood Durand’s outburst in the sanctuary. I understood his pain and the world laid itself out before me and loomed large in my consciousness. It was too much, I could not hold it all. The burden of my past, his past and of humanity’s future was contained in a single word, a single, futile entreaty which had to be made nonetheless. Perhaps even because I knew it would go unanswered, dashed against the cold, unfeeling rocks of reality and leave no imprint.
“Dahlia,” my soul burst forth. “Dahlia!”