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The Eternal Moment

by Thomas Brand 2 months ago in Short Story

France, 1916

csfotoimages | iStockphoto.com

One minute to go.

Dawn had begun to show as the barest lightening of the low, overcast clouds behind them. It’s wasn’t the pre-dawn chill that caused Fredrich to shiver. The shells had been falling all day and all night without relenting more than a moment, but he had long ago learned to sleep through the hellish cacophonies of the front line. He was just thankful that he hadn’t been one of the poor wretches ordered to slink out over the top last night to cut gaps in the barbed wire.

He could feel the energy building around him. That shared spirit of fear and excitement, adrenaline and focus that you could only experience at moments such as these. The moment where the line between life and death blurred to near indivisibility. Every soldier knew that energy. It bound them, each man to another. They had no need to speak of it. When you looked into another man’s eyes, either now, on the crest of battle, or once the waves had crashed down and you found yourself safely on the other shore, you both knew you had shared that moment.

In the last two years, Fredrich had felt that energy countless times. The feeling of stepping upon a threshold, one foot on the stair with that door to the unknown standing open before him. Once you stepped through, you knew that your destiny no longer sat in your own hands. You no longer felt fear or longing or doubt or worry. You were bound with that almost sacred energy, and if you were lucky, you would make it through to be released on the other side. For some, it was too much. Fredrich had seen strong men break under this strain. The only way to face it was to accept it. You didn’t speak of it, and you didn’t think about it. Once you stepped over that threshold, you just focused on your duty. On the goal you had been set. One step at a time. Their task was to reach the other side of No Man’s Land and take the French line. You couldn’t waste thoughts on anything else, or the sheer weight of their reality would break you.

A shell fell short, impacting close to their trench and shaking the world like a stomping giant. A cascade of dirt fell over the rim of the trench, scattering over the waiting men. Fredrich turned his face away, shielding his eyes as the loose soil pattered over his uniform. Then a whistle blew, off away to the right. The crunch of explosions hadn’t ceased, but the whistles were already blowing. They weren’t supposed to go over the top until the barrage stopped. Then the Captain, the only man before him on the ladder, sounded his own whistle to join the shrill dawn call before climbing up, leaving Fredrich with no choice but to follow over the threshold.

Gripping the rough grain of the wooden ladder, Fredrich pulled himself up and jumped over the ridge of the trench. Either side of him, men poured over the top into the quagmire of No Man’s Land. The steady chug-chug-chug of the French machine guns opened up ahead of them, followed by the crack of rifle fire. Metal sped through the air in both directions as the defenders answered the whistles call.

The sky had just enough light now for him to make out the slumped outlines of bodies that marked where the wire that had been cut the night before. Heads were beginning to show at the distant French line as men ran to the firing step.

Fredrich gripped his rifle firmly in both hands. He kept moving forward, always moving forward as bullets zipped past his head so fast he didn’t even have time to flinch. Instinct took over. He had neither the time nor the need to think. He knew his goal. To reach the trench opposite. To keep moving forward to allow the men behind him room to follow. To reach the enemy lines as quickly as possible. Just as with every attack he had ever taken part in. Just like every attack he had defended against. Once in No Man’s Land, there was only one goal. Move forward.

There was no one between him and the French lines now. The Captain’s whistle had stopped moments after he had gone over and Fredrich could see no sign of him, but others still blew their eerie noise into the cold morning air, combining with the whine of bullets and crunch of mortars to create the battle’s hellish soundscape.

Bullets filled the air around him as thick as clouds. It was a miracle he hadn’t been hit. There was a tremendous roar to the side of him. Men screamed. His ears rang as the force of the blast knocked him to the side. He stumbled, his leg jarring painfully as his knee hit the ground. Then the blinding impact as the bullet struck him in the chest and ripped through his heart.

* * *

He’d been shot. Fredrich looked down. He could see the neat hole in the front of his uniform. There was no blood though, and he couldn’t feel any pain. That was a good sign, wasn’t it? Or was it shock? Was that bad? He couldn’t remember. All of a sudden, he found it hard to keep his train of thought.

He looked around, trying to focus. The clouds overhead reflected the rich blue light that bathed the torn earth around him. Hadn’t it been dark a moment ago? A strange calm engulfed him. He could feel, rather than see, the bullets whining through the air around him. The sounds of battle, which before had been almost overwhelming, were suddenly muted. The chug and crack of enemy fire had taken on a strange quality, as if the noise came from underwater.

He could see the Captain just a little way ahead of him, still marching forward. He looked right, to where that almighty blast had struck just moments ago. Artur and Heinrich were crawling out of a fresh shell hole, their uniforms blackened and charred. Artur’s right arm had gone, and both of their faces were ruined masks of broken, red flesh. They had been on the ladder next to him. Had they been caught in that blast? How had they survived? They looked like corpses but ran on as if they felt nothing. Turning around, Fredrich watched as a man trudged by him, unrecognisable with half of his face shot away. Fredrich had seen bullet wounds like that before. How was the man still on his feet? Someone lucky enough to survive an injury like that should have been in agony, but he didn’t seem to have even noticed. All around him, Fredrich saw men lucky to be alive. Some were riddled with bullet holes. Others missing limbs or chunks of flesh. All of them running on, just as they had been trained to do.

Fredrich ran with them. Strange how his own wound did not seem to be affecting him. He fingered the hole in his coat that sat just over his heart. No pain at all. In fact, it was remarkable how calm he felt. Just a few moments ago he had been terrified, clutching the ladder and pulling himself over the top into the maelstrom of iron, his thoughts back home with his mother…

* * *

Fredrich’s hand rested on the flaking wood of the back gate of his childhood home. It hung lopsided on the loose hinges, just as he remembered it. Rich eggshell blue light illuminated the familiar setting as if all other colours had been washed out and were now only reflections of this soft illumination.

How had he gotten here? He was on his way to the front. Or the way back? He tried to focus, but his thoughts kept slipping away. Something important had happened. Why couldn’t he remember?

He pushed the gate open, feeling it drag along the ground as it always did. As he stepped through, he saw his mother’s face highlighted in the kitchen window. She looked up, and as their eyes met, Fredrich could see her face pale in shock. Smiling, he raised his hand, waving. She must not have been expecting him. Surely he had written ahead of his coming? No. He was still at the front. He didn’t have any leave coming up. There was an attack planned this morning.

He stopped and looked around. He had grown up in this house and knew every inch of this garden. A realm of childhood memories. Yet he felt a strange disconnection, as if something hung between him and it. Something insubstantial yet irrefutable.

The back door of the house opened and his mother ran out onto the lawn, looking around wildly and apparently completely oblivious to her son standing right here in the middle of the grass with his hand raised in greeting. Laughing, he called out to her, but no sound came from his lips. The smile slipped from his face as he called to her again. Nothing. Everything was silent. He watched as his mother slumped to her knees in front of him, silent sobs raking her body.

Hurriedly he stepped towards her, brushing his uniform into place. As he did so, his fingers caught in the neat hole in the left breast. Right over his heart.

* * *

He’d been shot. Fredrich gripped his rifle and ran. The sounds of battle were muted, a distant echo telling of far off conflict. Had the fighting advanced so quickly? Maybe the French were retreating. Maybe the barrage had worked, and the enemy line had already been broken. But no, there ahead of him, he could see movement in the French line. Heads lined up intermittently along the firing step. The flash of gunfire showing white against the blue-tinted landscape. There were fewer than he would have expected. There seemed to be odd gaps in the line as if men were missing from the French ranks.

He risked a look behind him. There were wounded men all around him, all of them running forward towards their goal, but hardly any in the trench. The trench? Hadn’t he got further away from here yet? He stopped. Surely he must have reached the other side by now. Fredrich tried to remember how long it had been since the whistles had blown. Seconds? Minutes? He couldn’t seem to put together a perception of time passing.

To his right, he saw Artur and Heinrich, charred and ruined, crawling from the shell crater. But he had already seen them crawl out of there. He looked closer. As the two broken men moved forward, he noticed how the crater looked old and worn. The edges were smooth. No one would believe that it had been made only moments before. Hadn’t it? Surely. Fredrich could still remember the force of the blast as it had thrown him to the side and into the path of the bullet…

* * *

He’d been shot. Fredrich looked down. How long ago had that happened? It felt as if he had been out here for hours, but he knew he had only left the trench a moment before. He couldn’t worry about that now. No time to think. No need to think. He had to move forward, to advance and give space to those behind him. He knew his duty. He had to keep moving, marching onwards through No Man’s Land. If he stopped now, he could hold up the entire battle line. He had been one of the first men over the top, just behind the Captain…

* * *

Fredrich marched, the sound of his boots cracking on the paved road in perfect time with the men around him. As the Captain called out commands, Fredrich stepped out of the barracks in perfect unison with the rest of the regiment. All around him, men stared straight ahead as they marched to war, reflected in the soft blue light that filled the sky. The rest of the world seemed dull and insubstantial, but each of the men stood out clear and defined.

As they moved out down the street and through the town, Fredrich looked around. It was hard to focus for some reason, but the surrounding buildings all seemed a little off. Not quite as he remembered them. They had marched along this road so many times over the last couple of years, to and from the front line to the reserve barracks, that he felt he should know the street like the back of his hand. He knew each cafe, each shop. Those who lived nearby were always so accommodating to the men who fought to protect them. But there had been changes made he couldn’t remember seeing before. Signs over shops had changed, and the buildings looked to be in disrepair. He tried to focus, but they marched too quickly. Always marching on. He felt his mind settle into the familiar half-consciousness that he had learned to find on these long marches. To let his mind wander while his body was guided by the men around him. He could feel the energy that surrounded them all; that shared spirit of fear and excitement, adrenaline and focus. Not as strong as in the moments before battle, but the muted tension of those marching towards the point where life and death became indivisible.

Idly, Fredrich wondered where the townspeople were. There were always at least a few of them on the street to wave them off. But then they were already at the front, weren’t they? He was about to go over the top. The whistles were blowing…

* * *

He’d been shot. Shaking his head, he pushed himself forward. He couldn’t let himself get distracted. He had to keep moving. He couldn’t allow anything to slow him down and risk letting down those behind him.

Something nagged at his mind. The ground on which he stood did not have the look of No Man’s Land. The earth still showed the craters and dips from the impact of shell and mortar, but the edges were smooth and the land around them as firm as if they had been left undisturbed for some time and the weather had been allowed to calm it. Rough grass even grew in places. The barbed wire that he knew had been strewn at his feet just moments ago was gone. The world rang with the echoes of battle and the distant whine of bullets he could hear but not feel. Everything appeared colourless and dull. Only the men around him and the bobbing heads of the French manning the trench ahead seemed clear and distinct, reflecting the soft blue light of the dawn sky. More and more, they seemed the only real things around him, as though the land itself were part of some other world.

On the edge of hearing, he could still make out the distant echoes of the crunch and scream of battle. Why was it so far away? He must have been almost to the other side by now. He had to be. He’d been running for… how long? He hoped his wound would hold until he had entered the trench. It was a miracle he hadn’t felt any pain. He would have thought that a bullet to the heart would have…

* * *

He’d been shot. He gripped his rifle as he ran. Something nagged at his mind, but his thoughts were foggy and he could not pin it down. He no longer stood in the chewed up, crater-pocked wasteland of No Man’s Land, the hell on earth where nothing could survive but rats and tattered wire. Here the ground was smooth and fair, washed even by the wind and rain. Grass grew around potholes filled with pools of rainwater. Fredrich tried to look around, but the echo of gunfire brought his mind back to his task. That blast must have done something to his hearing because everything sounded tinny and far off. Looking to his right, he saw the figures of burnt men shimmer with soft blue light as they crawled out of a shallow pond that might once have been a shell hole. How could it be so light? Hadn’t it been dark just a few moments ago? The world felt detached. Unreal. Could it be shock? That might explain why he hadn’t felt any pain yet. He would have thought a bullet wound to the chest…

* * *

He’d been shot. Fredrich looked down. He could see the neat hole in the front of his uniform. There was no blood yet. He wondered if this wound would be serious enough to get him sent home…

* * *

As Fredrich walked through the gate, he vaguely noticed that the broken hinges had been replaced. Other than this simple repair, the garden looked worn and uncared for. The edging of the lawn was ragged, the hedges clearly untended for some time, and his father’s rose garden was overgrown with weeds. He hoped his parents were well. This small garden was his father’s pride and joy, and Fredrich couldn’t think of anything that would have kept him away from his roses for long enough for them to get into this state.

He reached the house and looked through the parlour window. A coffin lay in the middle of a room filled with people clad in the sober colours of mourning. He recognised most of them, although they seemed older than he remembered. He could not see neither of his parents. He knocked on the glass, but no sound came. Beginning to panic, Fredrich banged harder until, at last, one of the mourners turned. He was certain it was his aunt, his mother’s elder sister, but her skin was loose, and her hair, always so long and thick, had been cut shorter and bound tightly at the back of her head. As her eyes caught his, she paled, her lips soundlessly mouthing his name.

Why was she so shocked? Weren’t they expecting him? Surely they had summoned him for the funeral? Why hadn’t they told him? What was going on? Where were his parents? Surely they would have sent a message if something had happened to his parents?

Fredrich felt himself starting to panic. Turning from the window, he put his hand on his chest, and as he did, he felt the ragged hole where the bullet had…

* * *

He’d been shot. Strange how it didn’t hurt. Shaking his head, Fredrich ran on. The Captain was just ahead of him, but Fredrich could no longer hear his whistle. Everything was silent. He had to advance, to make across it to the other side no matter what. He didn’t need to think about it. Didn’t need a whistle to tell him it was time. He just had to concentrate on moving forward.

He could feel the energy around him stronger than ever. The shared spirit of fear and excitement, adrenaline and focus where the line between life and death blurred and became indivisible. The bond of men who ran together along that boundary. It filled him, surrounding him and infusing the air around him. He felt it focusing him in a way he had never experienced before, not even in battle. His goal was clear. There were no distractions. No fears. No sounds. Only the echoes they left in the air.

The ground around might have been dull and colourless, but the French in the line ahead of him reflected clearly in the soft blue light. So he carried on, moving forwards, one step after the other. Just as he had been trained to do…

* * *

Fredrich marched, each footfall perfectly in step with the others of his regiment, following commands he had no memory of hearing. As they moved out of the barracks and turned into the road, each man stepped in perfect unison with the others, each footfall in step, ringing out in silence.

The men looked clean and refreshed. The soft blue light that filled them made the rest of the world dull and lifeless in comparison. Look as he might, Fredrich found it hard to make out any details unless he concentrated. Familiar buildings had been rebuilt or strewn with garish signs. Strange lights hung from lampposts that had not been there before. How had so much changed? He knew this place like the back of his hand. It can’t have been that long since they had marched out to the front lines…

* * *

He’d been shot, but the Captain was ahead of him, leading the men onwards, and so he simply gripped his rifle and kept moving. He felt rather than heard the thump of shells and mortars falling and the machine gun fire that filled the air. He was lucky only one of them had found their mark…

* * *

He’d been shot. He looked down at the neat hole in the front of his uniform. At least it was neat. His mother would be ashamed to see him with a ragged uniform…

* * *

He stood at the end of the garden, looking down the path at his childhood home.

Someone had built a conservatory right where his father’s roses had once grown. How had the old man allowed that? Those roses were his pride and joy. And there were new buildings on either side, right up close to his parent’s cottage. When had those been built? Why hadn’t his parents told him?

He could see movement through the windows of the kitchen. He stepped through the hedge and down the path. A figure came into view in the window, a young woman he did not recognise. She looked up and their eyes met. She started. Fredrich frowned. Surely it shouldn’t be so much of a surprise to see a man in uniform…

* * *

He’d been shot. He didn’t even bother to look down. What did it matter? He knew what he had to do. Ahead of him, he could see the heads of the French peeking over the top of their trench. A trench that was no longer there. The heads, highlighted in the soft, blue light, stood out from a long dip in the ground that was far too shallow. He could see that from here, for all the surrounding land was faint and insubstantial.

The ground at his feet did not seem right either. As he looked, he realised that the earth was ploughed into neat furrows, with the first shoots of early spring beginning to show. He could see a row of people walking across the field to his right, right down the centre of No Man’s Land. What were they doing there? He looked around. The others were still there behind and beside him, shining blue against the colourless world. None of them seemed to notice this strange, inconsistent landscape…

* * *

He’d been shot. Looking down, he could see the neat hole in the front of his uniform. The Captain wouldn’t like that. He was a stickler for appearances…

* * *

He marched in perfect step, paying no attention to the insubstantial buildings around him as he passed through the tall brick wall that had been built around the old barrack yard. It wasn’t important. He knew what he was doing. How many times had he walked this path? It was second nature. He could have done it blindfolded. They all knew where they were going. They were heading to the front, each man focused on his goal. His duty…

* * *

He’d been shot. He marched on, gripping his rifle and following fast on the heels of the Captain. The French were ahead. He knew what he had to do. His body was filled with energy. He didn’t even feel tired anymore. He simply ran. He couldn’t even hear the sounds of battle. It must have passed on faster than he had. He had better hurry. Having been shot was no excuse…

* * *

He’d been shot. He was close behind the Captain, the French line ahead. Everything was silent. He could feel something tugging at him. He tried to think, but if he stopped concentrating on his goal his thoughts became fuzzy. He moved on instinct alone. No need to think…

* * *

He’d been shot. Fredrich ran, the energy filling him and focusing his mind. He did not even think anymore. All he had to do was keep moving…

* * *

He’d been shot. Fredrich ran through a world that was pale and dim without paying any attention to the strange alterations that had appeared. They weren’t important. He simply focused on the shapes ahead and kept moving. Just as he had been trained. Just as he had been waiting to do. He had to keep moving forwards….

* * *

Fredrich ran on, gripping his rifle…

* * *

Fredrich ran on…

* * *

Fredrich ran…

Short Story

Thomas Brand

Blogging about polyamory, ethical-non-monogamy, mental health, and modern relationships | (He/Him) | thomashbrand.com | ko-fi.com/thomashbrand

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