As with most of the other projects I have going, this one started with a writing prompt from a professor at Johns Hopkins. The prompt was to write about characters in a setting and have the setting dictate how they behave.
“Dumb sonofabitch was standing straight up.” A corporal pronounced, crouching in the dark.
Heads shook. Knowing glances were exchanged. You didn’t stand straight up here. Ever. The poor bastard they were crouched around knew that. He’d had time to learn. He’d been here four months. Plenty long enough to learn that this place had rules. Inviolable ones. Rule number one: Never stand straight up.
The sergeant looked right and left, eyes straining in the dark, taking in the details around him, thinking. To either side, the trench wandered off into the blackness, just a narrow corridor carved into the French countryside, a scar on the once immaculate fields of lush, emerald grass and crisp, golden wheat.
Away to his left, about a mile south, he knew that a large cut-out in the trench existed. Men could gather there, ten abreast, among hastily-built shacks of wood. There, in the cut-out, hot meals and coffee could be had while crouching in the mud and muck. Here, less than a mile away, was the land of cold food and water. With the same mud. The same muck.
The mud was everywhere. It was unavoidable. The whole trench was nothing more than a gash in the ground which flooded quickly during rainstorms. The waters would wash down the dirt walls of the trench, filling it with an ankle-deep river of muck; a heavy, slow-moving mire that made walking difficult and sleeping treacherous. The sludge also created breeding ground for all manner of ailments. Trench foot, typhoid, fevers, gangrene and were just a few of the enemies prevalent in this filth. There were others, the sergeant knew. More readily visible ones. Rats, lice, and wasps loved it down here.
Mud aside, the torrential rains were a curse for another reason. The spring downpours frequently washed the air clear of gas, making it breathable again without having to wear a mask. That was the good news. The bad news was that mustard gas didn’t just go away. It left deposits and those deposits had to go somewhere. In daylight, you could see the residue everywhere, especially in areas where little pools of water collected.
The sergeant shook his head. It was so different from home, where a spring day was something to be appreciated. Everything here is malevolent. Everything here tries to kill us. The air is full of gas and bullets. The water is diseased, at best; poisoned, at worst. The critters range from generally annoying to murderous. This place is so different, and it forces us to change.
He looked at the dead soldier and mouthed the words.
“Adapt and overcome.”
His reverie was broken by speaking in the dark.
“M-m-medics are comin’ Sarge.” One man, a new private, reported somberly, his voice quivering.
The sergeant nodded. He spoke in a quiet voice. It sounded like gravel flowing in a landslide.
“Take a good look, gents. This is what happens when you ignore the rules.”
They all looked one last time at the body, arms and legs awkwardly askew in positions unachievable by the living. The sergeant spoke again.
“Back to your posts, boys. Carefully. Private?”
“You stay with me.”
Men began moving off along the dark trench, crouching low, bent double. They crept off, vanishing from view like horrid creatures returning to some dark abyss. The sergeant watched them disappear, looked at the young private, and sat back against the dirt wall.
The private sat, back against the opposite wall of the trench, facing the sergeant.
“Private. You just got here yesterday?”
“Yes S-sarge.” The voice still wavered. This had, the sergeant knew, been the young man’s first encounter with the dead.
“Do you know why we have rules?”
“Son, I don’t care a lick for winnin’. We have rules so’s I can send you home in somethin’ other than a coffin.”
The kid’s eyes went wide. The sergeant kept going.
“Here’s how it goes. We have rules out here. You break ‘em, well, you saw what happens.”
“First rule. You don’t stand up. Ever. Always move in a crouch. Millions of folks’ve already died on account of all the bullets flying around. Stay down. Don’t stand.”
“Don’t stand up. Okay.”
“Next rule. We don’t have nice days out here. If it’s sunny, wear your mask. Expect to get gassed. Jerry likes gassin’ us on nice days. Especially if the breeze dies down. If it ain’t rainin’, and the wind ain’t blowin’, the gas stays put. Here. On us. The Corps gave you a mask. Use it.”
“M-m-mask. Yes sarge.” The kid looked panicked, even in the dark. The sergeant kept going.
“Third. Rain is just fine back home. Here, it’ll kill you. Rain causes mudslides and makes little pools of residue from the gas. Almost as bad a breathin’ the stuff in. Watch where you sleep and where you step.”
“Yes sarge.” The tremor was gone now. He had the kid’s attention. The private spoke.
The sergeant thought, looking the young man over.
“Private. How tall are you?”
The private looked confused.
“About six-foot sarge. Why?”
“Seriously kid. Don’t ever stand up.”