Here the ebb and sway of war. The terrible field of mud and blood. And those blown to pieces, torn apart by gunfire, drowned in the deep brown. All sinking into the earth. All consumed and buried now. Beneath.
Here he moves from struggling pile to struggling pile. He a huddled shape on this barren expanse of churning. And a single shot rings out across the stillness of this field. Across this vast flatness. In the half light of morning. In the fog of retreat. Now he tends to the fallen. To end their suffering.
And these are not his comrades. These are not the souls of men, born and raised in his home, conscripted or volunteered to fight. For God. For King. For Country. For– . Yet he knows them like his own. He knows them like the brothers-in-arms he has seen shattered and incinerated on the field of war. And those left mere shells, with those hollow eyes that stare, faces drawn and pale, who will never speak of what they have seen and will never recover. Those who will walk into the middle of the field and blast a shot into their skull, or throw a rope over the branch of a good strong tree and swing.
Here he crouches, sinking into the mud to his knees. This land once had a name. This place once home to people and animals. Once a history, now obliterated. Under layers of shrapnel and lead; beneath the dead and dying, left here to churn forever, forgotten. Lost within the sick yellow gloom of gas, choking on leaking lungs. A clotted memory of a place.
Here he puts a filthy hand to the brow of the horse. And the animal struggles against the sinking, the moaning mud, the maw of earth that draws it deeper down. He stares into those dark eyes as he reloads his service revolver with freezing fingers. And the nobility of the animal. The pride. An ancient heart beating within its chest. Thumping hard now. Such a desperate whining.
And his shaking hand, and his tear streaked face. A low whisper in the stillness of the flat. The ground swallowing him whole. The ground claiming all who dare cross this field.
A life lived with the horse. As master, as coachman. A common respect. A life all but forgotten now in the blaze of conflict. A life working side by side with the noblest of animals. Their strength and stature. The straight shapes tall and muscular on those cobbled streets of home.
And their delicate temperament. Their tendency to panic. He strokes the long ridge of its brow, to calm the animal. No living thing should die in pain. In fear. Like this. Here.
And a time before. Before the world turned itself inside out; before the eruption of fire and blood and all this pointless fury.
There on the bare wooden floor, in the flickering orange of the fire, his daughter of a few months. And down in the stables the dying donkey. They say no one sees their last moments. They say they die alone. Those who keep the horses calm. Whose presence works to temper those proud souls.
Here there is a wager. A challenge. A call on him to stand guard and witness that which no one has. Those last moments, the dying breaths. To be the first.
And yet there is a terrible thirst. The evening is dry and the room is hot. The clock is ticking towards Last Orders, and the pub is but across the street.
He checks the donkey, lying on its side, within a bed of hay. Breathing low. Breathing slow. Still time within its body.
And he moves a filthy hand across his face, on that field in the now, remembering that thirst, feeling the same urgent dryness. How he would drink long of the golden ale. How he would relish the cool glass against his brow. The company of men not at war.
And he wipes his mouth with his hand, there looking at his daughter playing where she sits. And the fire, orange and raging before her. He feels the heat, and its fury, searing bright before him, and casting looming shadows towards his daughter, that reach but don’t quite touch. Not yet.
And so he strikes a nail into the back of her dress. She is fixed in place, and cannot crawl into those flames. He stands there and stares at the fire. Stares at his daughter. Now he stares at the horse, struggling in the mire before him.
A glance at the clock. Minutes to spare. And so he bolts the stairs. He leaps across the empty street, and quenches his thirst in the dying minutes of the hour.
And when he licks his lips he tastes mud and blood and the shock of so many corpses. Here now the horse staring back into his eyes, and he raises the pistol to its head.
Now he recalls how when he returned to the coach house, his daughter laughing, nailed in place by the back of her dress. And how the donkey lay dead, alone.
Across this flat field another shot rings out. Another struggling ceased. And his huddled shape, dark and shivering, moves again. Seeking out the next soul.
Kenny Mooney (@dragliner78) is the author of the novella The Gift Garden. His short fiction has appeared in PANK, Literary Orphans, New Dead Families, and other places online and in print. www.kennymooney.com.