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L'Enfer

By Rileigh Ellefsen All Rights Reserved ©

Drama

IX

12 January 1915

The New Year did not bring half of the happiness that I thought it would. Fighting only increased, and with the higher-ups strongly opposing truces such as the one at Christmastime, it was harder to get a break from the perpetual explosions bombarding No Man’s Land. It did not seem to ever have an end, and I increasingly became more terrified. My thoughts had started to become more troubled at this point, and I often found that I had spells of confusion, where I could barely comprehend a simple sentence. I could tell from the worried looks of Mercier that something was terribly wrong, but I simply was not able to comprehend. Looking back to this past month, I can tell that there was definitely something wrong with me; perhaps it was the lack of sleep, or God was finally punishing me for all the sins I had committed. A particular instance I can remember was when I was on the battlefield, and for an instant, I saw my wife before me. Caroline, in all of her feminine glory, stood before me in No Man’s Land, protecting me from the bullets. I gazed up at her, smiling, before I felt a sharp tug at my shoulder, dragging me behind a mound of dirt.

It was as though, with that action, I was pulled into reality. Mercier was looking at me with a dark severity in those usually-clear eyes, and the face of my wife flashed before me once again, before I was aware of my comrade’s muddy face. After that point, I started seeing in Mercier, my wife, as odd as it may sound. I wish I was able to say exactly what it was about the little soldier that reminded me so much of the woman I loved dearly; it had only been but a few months, could I truly have forgotten her face so quickly? I supposed so, if I mistook a simple, clean-shaven young man for the gorgeous woman I had fallen in love with. Even now, I look upon her picture every night before I go to sleep, so as not to forget her face, yet the confusion still occurs, somewhere in my mind.

It was upon the day of the twelfth of January that I knew something was wrong with me. I went to the priest, with my hands clasped together, begging him to purge my sinful soul of the demons that had possessed me. He made me recite several prayers after him, and blessed me with holy water. After that, I did feel somewhat better, but there was a part of me that felt the demons were still somehow clinging to me. My only escape from this Hell on earth was the letter I received, about once every three weeks, from my dear Caroline. That day, I had checked the mail with the same surprise as always to see something addressed to me. The letter was quite generic, much like what one would find here in the trenches, and she seemed to re-use the stamps I sent to her – how clever! I admired how she always knew what to do to save money. With eager hands, I tore open the letter, and unfolded the paper inside.

Third day in the month of January, year nineteen hundred and fourteen fifteen

Dear one,

I am so heartened to hear that your Christmas was somewhat pleasurable. I can only hope, at least, that any time without guns is a gift from God whoever is watching over us, if anyone. I know, I know, dear, your faith is waning. In this time of such sorrow, and death tolls that are so incredibly high, one can only wonder where God is. If you ask me, I am afraid that I cannot give you an answer. I still pray to Him, every single day, that you will come home safely, yet, with each day that passes, you must know that I worry so much. As always, I ask that you take care of yourself before anyone else. That may sound selfish of me, and perhaps it is. Save the lives of others when you can, but remember, love, that there is someone at home who is waiting eagerly for your return.

If you wish to know how I spent my Christmas, it was incredibly lonely I thought only of you, love. My parents, though I wrote to them, have no desire to visit me. That is the impression I received, at least, from their lack of response. It is all very well, however. I know that you will be with me, most certainly, next Christmastime. I shall make the cookies and pastries you enjoy, and we will sit cozily by the fireplace in the dead of winter, holding each other close…

I paused in my reading to note that it was at this point that the letter was stained with tears. The thought of Caroline crying pained me deeply, and I wished to return home to her as soon as possible so that I could comfort her. She deserved all the hugs, kisses, and warmth that a husband could give, and at that moment, I was not giving her any of it. She deserved so much more than the life I had left for her back in Clermont; if only I had known-! Known what? That the war would be so deadly? War always was. That it would be so long? Who could tell the length of a war! Putting aside my own worrying questions, I dedicated myself to finish reading what my wife had written.

Please do forgive me for crying. I know that paper is expensive, and that not a single piece should go to waste. Oh, I do hope this is still legible. It would be such a shame for this whole letter to be written in vain. I love you, Armand.

It was as though I could see Caroline’s resolve collapsing in the letter. Her neat handwriting gave way to almost unintelligible scribbles, and I found it harder to decipher what she was trying to say. This worried me greatly, and at that moment, I was prepared to do all that I could to return home to Caroline. There was a considerable space between one broken paragraph and the next; I could only guess that she had taken a break to collect herself before starting again.

On another note, the weather is incredibly chilly. I bought a new coat with the money that you sent me; I hope you do not mind. I am warm now, but not as warm as I would be if you were here beside me. I love you. Perhaps that makes me sound like I require too much; first I want a coat, and now you. But what sort of world do we live in, where it is preposterous for a wife to want her husband? Why should we be separated in such a cruel manner? I never know when I send these letters, if you are alive by the time they arrive. When I send them, I can only hope that these words are read by you. Is that wrong to think? It is not out of place, these days. But only two years ago, I could see nothing but a perfect life, forever and ever.

Forgive me for not making sense, dear. I hear of the direness of the situation in the battlefields, and I feel as though I must get every word in that I possibly can before sending a letter. I must say anything and everything, or else the letter would be pointless. How foolish of me, I know. Yet, with each day that goes by, I become less and less certain that you will return home. The hopeful wishes I had for our future, the ones that seemed like such easily-obtainable realities, are now distant prayers. Please, do not leave me, Armand. Though, if you should die to-morrow, how morbid a thought, I want these words to stay in your head. I want need you to know that I love you more than life itself.

Yours eternally,

Caroline Lacroix.

What struck me the most with Caroline’s letter was the tone of utter desperation within, between those hastily-written words, tearstains, and smudges. Was she in turmoil, every day, wondering if I would live? It was almost sickening, to be aware of the stress I was putting my wife through. She had never been anything but good to me, and she did not deserve to simply not know what was happening to me, and to my comrades, in the war. Of course, I sent her letters as often as possible, but the post was slow, and I could only reply as fast as I received her letters, thus, making them quite inefficient. It was frustrating, certainly, as I only wanted her to know, on a daily basis, that I was perfectly alright. In fact, if I could have but heard her voice again, I know that I would have seen all of my problems disappear before me.

It was then that I got it into my head that seeing Caroline would solve all of my problems. From that day, not only would I think of her, but I would picture her as vividly as possible, spending long times at night gazing at the last photograph taken of us. Memorising every detail, I could reproduce that image of her in my mind, even upon the battlefield. However, this came at a price as well, as I began to think that I truly saw her before me, such as beside me in battle, or watching over me as I slept.

The next morning, amidst the familiar sounds of shells exploding outside, to which I had become accustomed, I had arisen in a sort of trance, where I had forgotten where I was entirely, albeit momentarily. It was almost as if, at that moment, I was being taken to Heave, and I smiled at the warmth that enveloped me. However, I supposed that it was not my time, since, as soon as I felt myself start to slip into that eternal sleep, I became aware of the sounds around me once again, and Mercier’s arms around me. I blinked in a drowsy confusion, and saw Sébastien looking over me with worry, as well. “Get some more sleep, friend,” he insisted. “You will feel better then.”

I almost protested, but knew better, and curled back up under my blanket, cuddling against the warmth I had created as though it was the warmth of my wife. Sébastien’s voice once again faded out of my consciousness as I fell asleep, not bothering to question what had just happened. I would have much rather stayed wherever the angel had been taking me, until I remembered the letter from my wife. She needed me, and terribly so; to the point where I was not certain what she would do without me.

When I woke again, it was already early in the evening. However, following Sébastien’s advice had done me much good, and I was feeling well enough to go out and help both him and Mercier repair the walls of sandbags in the trenches that had been destroyed by shells. It was no easy task, lifting the heavy bags so that they stacked upon each other securely. Sébastien and Mercier seemed to appreciate my help, and I felt the former’s arm around my waist as he acknowledged my recovery. “You are looking much better,” he noted, and I smiled shyly as my only reply. After all, what could I say to such a compliment? Was it even a compliment at all, to begin with? Perhaps I was much too sensitive to these sorts of things.

Satisfied with my work, I leaned against the muddy wall of the trench, already exhausted, even after only a few hours of labour. I blamed my lack of sleep, and poor quality of food for the lack of energy, and resolved to sleep as much as I could, and spend whatever I earned on food that was better for me than the bread we were given on a daily basis, at every meal. I wondered, during one of my odd disconnects, where all of that bread came from. Was it made by women, toiling away day and night, who did nothing but bake bread for hundreds and thousands of soldiers? Then, how far did it have to travel to get to me, only for me to complain? What if my wife was making this bread, as well? The thoughts were strange ones, indeed, but at the time, I thought them incredibly important to ask.

“Where is your mind going, Armand?” I heard Sébastien’s voice beside me, and I glanced up at him in confusion. Sensing this, the Poilu clarified, “You are becoming terribly distant. I do not doubt that the officers will start to notice soon, if you aren’t careful about it.” Not doing one’s work was a display of cowardice in the army, punishable by death. I, of course, did not want this, as it made everything for which I was staying alive useless; what was the point of fighting so hard, when a man would be killed by his own country, in any case?

Smiling weakly, I pushed myself off of the wall, though I felt myself lurch forward, as if my legs did not want to work on their own accord. “My mind… it seems to want to try and escape this war,” I admitted, albeit reluctantly. Sébastien seemed to understand, and supported me willingly. I could only look around, hoping no one else could see my dependence. I did not want to be sent to the hospital, only to be scolded and punished for faking an illness. No, I was perfectly fine, and though my mind buzzed with explosions, thoughts of my wife, and the gins, and my fingers no longer wanted to pull the trigger on my rifle, I was fine. It was all in my head, and injuries were only the wounds one could see. There was no doubt that I was being an idiot, and I was too sensitive; that is what the officers always said to the soldiers with distant gazes and dumb smiles. They looked for an escape from this war. I refused to be one of those men.

“We all want to escape, Armand,” he told me gently. “No sane man enjoys killing people like this. But we must do it, and you must be here entirely, or else your wife would miss you terribly.” I knew immediately that he was talking about the penalty for cowardice.

“But I – I do not think I am a coward,” I protested weakly, and Sébastien only hushed me. In the army, it truly did not matter if one thought he was a coward or not; this was at the discretion of the officers. I looked over at Mercier, who was also eyeing me with the deep concern that he had acquired recently, the youthful face he once had now replaced by an expression deeply lines with worry. He had aged at least fifteen years in these six months, and I wondered if I, too, had changed.

The sound of Alain’s unique gait alerted me to his presence, and I turned to see the large man in all of the splendour that he had possessed on the first day of war. Though his large beard was somewhat more gray, his dark eyes still sparkled with the youth that I did not doubt he had had back in his village. “Are y’ready to go back out n’fight?” he asked me, and I glanced to Merc, then Sébastien, who both nodded. I could only repeat the gesture, and Alain made a motion with his hand, bidding us to follow. I took my gun and followed him up the trenches, and I was immediately pulled into war. All my senses alert once again, I crawled across the battlefield with all the bravery I could muster. With Alain beside me, I felt safer to an incredible degree, as he was much more skilled in combat than I. He called out shells and artillery that would hit us, and we made our way closer and closer to the Germans’ trenches. Perhaps, I thought briefly, we would win this stage of the war.

Jumping into the well-constructed trenches, both Alain and I bayoneted to Germans, and I no longer felt any remorse or guilt for doing so. Suddenly, I felt Alain tense up before me, and he turned sharply on his heel. “Shell!” he cried, as a shell from our own side came hurtling in towards us. Alain pushed me out of the way violently, and I stumbled ahead, turning back just in time to see the explosion that I did not want to see. When the smoke and dirt cleared, I looked upon the crater where Alain had once been, which was replaced by a gruesome sight. There was too much blood, too much for hi to still be alive…

“Alain? Alain!” I cried out, searching for my comrade in the German trenches. I knew that reinforcements would be there soon, thus I scrambled out as quickly as my trembling legs would allow. The sacrifice of my friend finally sinking in, I became aware of nothing anymore, as I crawled aimlessly forward to the French side. Suddenly, I felt arms around me, and, though I was not aware of it at the time, Mercier had carried me to the safety of a deep crater. Once again, I saw the face of my wife, and the way she looked at me with such care and affection. I may have been out of my mind, but I saw her there, right before me. Without hesitation, I pulled her in for a kiss, which was loving and tender, yet, at the same time, hungry and needy. To my utmost delight, this kiss was returned, and I pulled her on top of me, the sound of warfare no longer audible to me.

After what seemed like a pleasant lifetime, Mercier seemed to become aware of what had happened, and pulled me up, into the trenches. “Come on,” he said, the first words I had heard the mute say since the beginning of the war. Utterly confused, I obliged, until I felt myself being tucked into my bed, the rustling of the straw lifting the haze of unreality. Mercier had taken off his helmet, and I saw before me no longer a young man, but – my wife?

“Caroline?” I mumbled, only half-conscious. “How are you… here?” She hushed me gently, with a tenderness that I missed so dearly. “Caroline, why did you wait – so long? I love you…” I did not bother asking many more questions, as there was so much on my mind that I doubted I could properly get anything across.

In the voice that I thought I would never hear again, my wife replied, “I told you I would keep you safe, did I not?” In a stupor, I gazed up at her giddily. She had, indeed, done a wonderful job of taking care of me. Yet, as the moments passed, I realised that this could not be my wife before me. Mercier’s worn features began to take over, and I no longer saw Caroline. It was only the simple mute, silently tending to me.

I blinked several times, but the vision of Caroline had dissipated entirely. Perhaps I was missing her far too much, as I knew it was impossible for her to be here, with me. Mercier was a mute young man, and I was a crazy, lovesick fool. “Sorry for kissing you,” I mumbled, yet I was unsure if I had done it at all. Mercier looked at me with a furrowed brow, but said nothing, just as I knew he would do. “I thought – you were my wife for a moment. You look like her, a little bit…” I admitted reluctantly.

That night, I settled down in my bed, trying to get my thoughts straightened out. I needed to write a letter to Caroline, to know that she was safe and that she was, indeed, at home. It was imperative that I do so, for my own well-being. I could not bear to know that she was in battle, even as a nurse, putting her life at risk.

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