Thursday, February 12, 2009

No Man's Land

The following is an excerpt from No Man’s Land by Ben Shakey. It will be published by Blighty Book in March, 2009


After killing three men I wanted to die.

It was the Battle of Ypres and I shot them, one of them right in the face as he ran across No Man’s Land. After killing the first one, other soldiers told me it would get easier but it never felt better seeing German corpses lying in the mud.

I deserved to die and started making crazy mistakes to make it occur. I was first over the top and once pretended to drop my helmet.

After Gary murdered Edward I decided to stay alive and find out why.

I grew up in the Okanagan, worked in an orchard which made me a farmer even though nobody ever thought of me that way. I still lived off the land. Raised as a farmer I never met anyone like Gary or Edward.

They were Brits. Really pommy sorts from England. Edward was rich, born rich and never earned a penny of it, and Gary was a servant in their house. They were both ordered to fight by Edward’s father who served in the Zulu wars in Africa. Neither of them even thought to say no.

I don’t know Gary’s job at the house, maybe he was butler or a manservant or something but neither understood once he hit the battlefield he wasn’t at work anymore.

Edward still asked Gary to do things. Gary shined his shoes and made his bedroll and other menial tasks. When the mustard gas blew in you could counter the effects by covering your mouth with a urine soaked rag. The big joke told around the unit was that Edward asked Gary to piss on his rag for him.

When Edward joked it was the worst. Edward joked like he had something to prove. He told horrid gags about the unclean brothels in France or killing Huns. These jokes were of such poor taste that soldiers who might die that evening where offended. And everything with Edward was Hun this or Hun that. He took such delight in saying the word, as if he was afraid we might forget which side he was on.

It wasn’t even clear what the joke was sometimes. He would just talk about the graphic end of Hun’s life and start guffawing. It was clear he never killed anyone yet.

When nobody laughed his eyes darted over to Gary who belted out a rehearsed belly laugh.

The mud and the rain and the bullets continued. Edward took it worse than the rest of us. At one point his feet were rotting in his boots and he smelled of wet leather and dead skin.

Things got tense between him and Gary. Gary stopped shining his boots. He told Edward to shine his own god dam boots.

Edward started crying. “I don’t know how” he blubbered.

“You’ll figure it out” said Gary and tossed the rag at Edward “We got bigger problems, like not dying.”

The last day Edward was alive he asked Gary to check his rifle, asking for his approval.
We went over the top that day, ran across No Man’s Land and took another trench.

I was the only one that saw it.

In the grey space between the trenches, Gary ran up behind Edward, lowered his gun, and stuck his bayonet into the back of Edward’s knee.

Edward dropped.

German bullets made his body jump. He may have managed to scream once. Gary kept running to the trench.

There was too much death. Bodies decayed in the mud. Women stumbled on landmines. Whole cities exploded and poison gas tore up your lungs. Now our soldiers were killing each other.
I didn’t care if I lived anymore. I killed three men.

I made it to the trench after Gary. Dropped in and stood on the plank beside him, then grabbed him by the neck.

“I know you killed Edward. You murderer, bloody murderer”

“I didn’t kill him. They killed him. They did it”

“They killed him but you murdered him.” It was distinction that made sense then. I started climbing out of the trench. I held the bayonet close to Gary’s chin and pulled him up with me.

“You’re coming with me”

“You’re going to kill us”

“We deserve to die” I think I was out of my mind by now.

“Tell me why you killed him or we all die” The German knew where we were now and bullets were landing in the mud with soft thuds.

“He asked me to” shouted Gary.

“To kill him?”

“No, to injure him. He couldn’t fight any more. He couldn’t take it and he wanted something that would take him back home.”

I climbed back in to the trench. That seemed to satisfy my crazed mind.

“And you did it. You still think of him as your Master don’t you?”

“No, I always thought of him like a little brother.”

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