L'Enfer

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V

19 September 1914

We were in Sébastien’s home province, at this point. It is called Picardy, and it is just north of Paris. We did not pass through the capital, however, as that would require a grandiose show to rally the people, something for which we did not have time. Instead, we headed straight to the battlefield. Just before we left Lorraine, it was to my great surprise that I found Alain was joining us once again in battle. He had managed to lie his way back in, convincing the officers that he was completely capable of fighting. It seemed to have worked, as he had sat beside me on the train going to Picardy. It was several days’ travel, but no one seemed to mind. The exhausted attitude that had taken hold at the beginning of the month was beginning to ebb, and the chatter and songs were reminiscent of the first few days of war.

Perhaps it was travel that eased the mind of the soldiers; watching the countryside fly by in a frenzied whirlwind most certainly had a sort of hypnotic effect for me. My gaze was distant as I looked out the window, by eyes refusing to fix on anything in particular. In my hands, I clutched the latest letter from my wife, which I had received just the day before we got on the train. It gave me plenty of time to memorise each word. Yet, I adored her writing to such a degree that I simply had to read it again.

Thirteenth day in the month of September, year nineteen hundred and fourteen

Love,

I am glad to know that my letter has made its way into your hands. I know the type of men of whom you speak; the ones who think of other men as you would women. It is not the same as an act of depravity, but perhaps love, as odd as it sounds. I do not blame you, dear Armand. For if I did, then I would most certainly be a hypocrite. Plenty of men have made advances upon me, and so of course, I refused them all. A man made an advance upon you, just the same, and you refused it. Therefore, I see no need for me to forgive you. Instead, I can only thank you. You have committed no sin. I know, I am not as devout a Catholic as you are, but anyone can testify that I love God with all my heart. And if God loves me even half as much as I love Him, I know that He will not judge neither you for adultery, nor the other man for homosexuality. God is full of love, and he is merciful. He will bring you home, and He will grant us happiness once again.

I do hope to see you soon. It is incredibly difficult to not be able to kiss you, hold you close to me, love you as I once used to, all those weeks ago. It seems like a lifetime, does it not? Now, looking upon our barren town, the days when we loved in peace are nothing but distant memories. I know you have these same memories, love, so please; do not forget them. They are all we have, now. I only hope that you imagine us living happily together after the war, as I do. If this is the case, keep doing so. I know that it may become hard, as the war gets worse, but just know that I will always be here for you, waiting patiently. I am eternally yours, dear, and I will protect you, even if I cannot be near. I have heard of soldiers who keep photographs of their wives in the breast pocket of their uniform. Several times, it has saved their lives by slowing the bullet so that it does not reach their heart. Perhaps, my photograph shall save you!

Your uniform sounds absolutely charming, Armand. I expect to see you return home wearing it, no matter how dirty it is. I shall wash it, and then you will be able to wear it with pride. All of France should know how bravely you fought for our country, and I shall be proud to call you my husband. Of course, I am proud of you now, since it is quite an act of bravery to go into battle so fearlessly. And do not get confused, dear husband. Fearlessly does not necessarily mean that you are not scared – I know that your heart races, your stomach churns, and all your senses are on high alert. But I also know that you have a need to protect those who matter to you, and I have heard that they have returned the favour. Your friend Mercier seems to know me quite well. You must speak of me to him quite a lot. He seems very grateful, and he thanks you deeply for saving his life.

Take care of yourself, Armand. I love you and treasure you dearly.

Caroline Lacroix.

With a fond smile, I was pulled back into reality from my letter at the familiar screeching of the brakes, resounding throughout all the train’s cabins. Alain gave me a friendly nudge, and I smiled absently at him. “Readin’ that letter again from yer wife, are ya’? Good on ya’, lad. It’s rare to see a man who loves his wife so much. She must be a real stunner, eh?” I blushed, nodding meekly. Had I not gushed about how gorgeous she was enough? Perhaps not. However, when a man asked me about my Caroline, I felt as though I was put on the spot, and words seemed as though they did not want to come out. Love is poetic, meaning that the words shall come by their own accord. Who am I to force the words of love? When they come to my mind, and feel the need to make themselves known to others around me, then they shall.

“I… Caroline is an incredibly beautiful woman, yes.” But how exactly, could one describe her? Her smooth skin was not pale like the pretentious bourgeoisie women of Paris, as she always insisted on helping me with our crops. She usually kept her hair up in a bun, hiding the greatest characteristic of her unruly hair; the gorgeous curls into which they fell. I sighed as I imagined her smiling and laughing, in the characteristically innocent way that she always did. Alain could only roll his eyes fondly, and got to his feet to follow the other French soldiers shuffling out of the train. When I at last got up, it was after I had let everyone leave before me, since they all seemed far more eager than I to engage in yet another fight. All, except for Mercier, who was looking at me patiently. I smiled at the young man, motioning for him to go. When he did not, I shrugged and began walking.

It was only a few moments before I heard his light footsteps behind me, and I smiled. “I have received a second letter from my wife. In it, she has mentioned you, and she spoke rather fondly of you. Thank you for writing to her, for she must be so lonely.” I sighed, tugging at my cap absentmindedly. “If she has not yet responded to you, I am certain she will soon,” I reassured the little soldier. As usual, he said nothing. “What I think is incredible is that she does not know that you are mute. I’ll wager that you are an incredible writer, as most silent people usually are. I shall have to ask Caroline.”

Stepping out into the cool air, I smiled as the sun warmed my face, taking a deep breath. As usual, we were handed shovels, and I knew that we would have a lot of digging to do. I gazed over the still-green grass, reminiscent of warm summers and a good, rainy summer. It had left all plants healthy and lush. “Such a shame that this field will be reduced to nothing but mud,” I noted to Alain, when I was beside him and Sébastien once again. The burly man only shrugged in his usual nonchalance, and even Sébastien was seemingly indifferent. The man was far quieter after I had told him that I was married. I only hoped that I did not upset him, of course, but if I had, it could not be helped. I doubted anyone would be happy if I had accepted it. At any rate, there were plenty other men for him to choose from if he wished. Why he preferred me, I have no idea. “You are both farmers! You should be able to know fertile land when you see it,” I continued, trying to get from them at least a bit of a conversation.

“Aye, but y’gotta do whatcha gotta do,” Alain replied, pulling out his rifle to examine it. “I don’ like it, killin’ all these people. I thought t’was only gonna take a few months, n’ then I could go home and see m’family n’ all that… s’pose not.” He looked down at his lost leg, smiling bitterly. “There’s no way m’gonna abandon you, not while this war is still goin’ on.” Alain nudged me and Sébastien. The smaller man looked up at Alain quizzically.

“Why not?” he asked, though there was an undertone of appreciation in his voice. Of course, Sébastien did not wish to be left alone, no matter how solitary he was.

Alain scratched his beard, looking down at Sébasten. “T’wouldn’t be fair, y’know. You get to kill all the Germans while I’ve got to sit at home, tendin’ to the crops.” Winking, Alain chuckled. Once they, too, were handed the shovels, we went where directed, and began to dig. I always wondered why we were unable to build trenches as well as the Germans; while we had nothing but paths of mud and small, dug-in nooks in which to sleep, they had perfectly-build steps, rooms with shutters, and walls with straight edges. It was almost as though the Germans had been training in making trenches. The French tried their best, of course, but it was incredibly difficult to even attempt to replicate the craftsmanship of the Germans.

It was late into the night before we finished digging a segment of the trenches that would soon become our sleeping quarters. Dozens of other regiments had joined us during the day, and more would be on the way. With each fresh wave of men, the digging became easier, but the work was still strenuous. Only when we received the command to rest did I drop my shovel, groaning as I felt a stab of pain run up my back. Years of farming had already made those muscles sensitive, but the digging had only made it worse. Sleep was exactly what I needed, and I passed out, more or less, in the mud, hugging my shovel as though it were my wife.

I woke with a kick to my side, and glanced up in confusion, blinking the sun out of my eyes, to see an officer. His deep frown was only barely visible under his large moustache, but I could still tell that he was not pleased in the slightest. “I was only checking to make sure you were alive, private,” he stated, before turning to go off and repeat the action to several other soldiers who had fallen asleep directly after they had been given the order to stop digging. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, still somewhat confused, and gazed around at the half-constructed trenches. It was only then that I became aware once more of the acute pain in my back, and made a surprised noise at the ferocity with which it hit me.

Struggling to my feet, I leaned against a muddy wall, looking around for anyone who could assist me. Since the fighting had not yet commenced, not all the nurses had arrived at the trenches, as it was difficult to transfer the wounded from one place to the other. It was pointless to speak to a nurse, in any case, as what could they do to help me? There was nothing in me that was broken; rest was all I needed, but rest was indeed hard to come by. Nonetheless, I knew I would have to sleep it off. I felt a hand on my shoulder, and turned to see Mercier. Gazing into his blue eyes that reminded me too much of those of my wife, I barely noticed that he was holding his hand out, motioning for my shovel. Taking a moment, I looked down at the shovel, nodded, and handed it to him quickly. “Thank you so much, Mercier. I am in an incredible amount of pain… I believe I shall have to lie down…” The other soldier only nodded, and set to work obediently. I knew that there was some way in which I had to pay him back, but I simply could not think of anything more than I had already done. He had saved my life several times, and I had saved his, but was that the only way of repaying each other?

Suddenly, I remembered the lighters we were given. The soldiers enjoyed carving small images into the soft metal, whether it be a portrait of a political figure, various images representing France, their wife, their child, or, of course, a naked woman. Perhaps Mercier would appreciate having an image of Caroline, as well, since I did not know if the man ever wrote to any other women. Besides, if he did not like it, I could simply send it to her instead. I slipped into the newly-made sleeping quarters, unrolled my bed, and sat upon it with a determined expression upon my face. Taking out my lighter, I lit a candle so as to give me more light with which I could work, and dug through my bag for a sharp object that I could use to carve my work. It did not take long before I had everything I needed, settling comfortably into a corner, and starting on my task with dedication.

I worked throughout the morning; none of the officers noticed that I was in the sleeping quarters, as I was quite quiet, and they had more than enough to worry about. This gave me the peace I had been wanting for so long, as every man outside was far too exhausted to talk in any more than a murmur. Around noon, a few men of the 92nd infantry regiment entered the sleeping quarters in order to set up their beds, as well. They hardly gave me any notice which I thought quite strange. After all, I was slacking off, meaning others were doing my work for me. Supposing I was not in any trouble with them, I greeted them with a ‘hello’ and a warm smile. If there was any benefit to living and fighting in the trenches, it was that I was significantly less shy than I used to be. This made me more amiable, or so I thought. I never could have dreamed of having as many close comrades back at home as I did in the trenches. Of course, the situations were drastically different, but I was glad that I could at least adapt to each one.

After eating lunch, I felt much better. The rest and food seemed to have done me much more good than I had thought they would, and, ready to continue my work in the trenches, I tucked the lighter under my pillow so that I could continue it later. When I stepped out into the warm sunlight, I smiled sleepily, and walked over to Mercier, who was working fastidiously. I pat him gently on the shoulder, as a sign to tell him that I was ready to take over. “Rest now, friend. You must be exhausted.” With his back turned to me, Mercier nodded, and dropped the shovel before quickly moving to the sleeping quarters. I watched him go with a sympathetic sigh; if men such as Alain were getting exhausted, then I simply could not imagine how difficult it would be for Mercier.

At last, the trenches were complete to the satisfaction of the officers. At that point, all we had left to do was wait. It seemed impossible that there was any way for the Germans to defeat us now, as we were so incredibly prepared. We knew that they had already started building their own trenches by the occasional shot fired in our direction, but it was not enough of a threat that we had to counter-attack. However, there remained one final step in the completion of our defense. A heavy pair of cutters was suddenly placed in my hand, and I looked up at the man who gave it to me. “Monsieur?” I asked, confused. I only hoped that they did not mean what I thought they meant.

The officer looked at me with an indifferent expression, before giving me a small shove towards the wall of the trench. Climb up there, cut some barbed wire, and affix it to the wooden posts,” he ordered, and I felt my blood run cold. Setting up the barbed wire was one of the most dangerous things a man could do, as it left him utterly exposed to the other side. There was no available armour for the man, and the only way he could survive unharmed was if he was incredibly lucky.

“But surely… can you not send a nurse out with me? Or a priest?” No German soldier would shoot at either of those; indeed, they were the best defenses, but the man shook his head.

“You were given an order, private, and I do not expect you to disobey; unless, of course you would prefer to be made an example of.” I shook my head fiercely. “Right, then. It is pointless to waste the life of a nurse or a priest on you, so move out!” Nodding quickly, I scampered up the wall, directly into No Man’s Land. Clutching the wire cutters tighter in my sweaty grip, I gazed fearfully out across the field, at the German soldiers who, no doubt, had seen my presence. Swallowing thickly, I took the barbed wire from my haversack, keeping my eye on the German trenches that were being constructed all the while. It was difficult for me to cut the wire with my shaky hands, but I eventually managed to do it.

Next came the most difficult part; attaching the wire to the wooden stands. I would be completely exposed, with my attention more on myself than anything else. Like a mouse being hunted by a wild cat, my terrified, darting glance flicked across my field of vision as my muscles tensed, waiting to dart at any moment. As though I could almost hear the sound of my inevitable death, a gun being shot from a distance resounded throughout the afternoon silence, piercing my false image of piece. It was followed by the sound of a bullet landing right beside my hand, and I could feel the slight tremor run through the ground as what was happening finally registered in my mind. It was dangerous, and I was being shot at.

I jumped in surprise, yelping as I realised how close it was. Still absolutely petrified, my hands began to tremble, and I looked back into the trenches. “P-please, do I have to stay out here?” I stammered in a small voice, and another bullet buried itself deep into my haversack. Feeling closer to death with each shot, I gathered up my strength and finished my job as quickly as possible, the bullets suddenly becoming more and more frequent. Another landed in my haversack, piercing my water flask and ruining whatever I had in there. I was so incredibly grateful at that moment that the letters from my wife were in my breast pocket, as she had so wisely suggested to me in her letters.

At that point, I knew it was time for me to get back into the trenches, and as quickly as possible. I leaped back in, pursued by bullets, my heart hammering inside my chest, as though it would break free at any moment. By the grace of God, Mercier was there to catch me as my knees gave out, and the boy held me upright with what little strength I knew he had left. Shaking like a leaf, I helped myself out of his arms, so incredibly close to tears. At that moment, I had seen in my mind’s eye everything that I would have lost, should I be killed on the battlefield. “I don’t want to die,” I whimpered, sinking to the ground. Mercier kneeled beside me and took my hand, squeezing it gently. His comfort was welcome, of course, but there was no one that I wanted more than my wife. The next few months, possibly even years of war would be terribly difficult, indeed.

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