It was almost time to go. His mother would see him out the door but not to the train station. She would not watch him leave on the train, his face framed in the window, his garrison cap covering his newly shorn head. She would see him to the door, where he could go to work, to school, to the store, and in the corresponding memory of her mind, he would return.
She opened the lock of the jewelry box on the kitchen table with a butter knife, the key orphaned in Reszel, Poland. He wondered whether she would produce a pocket watch, a folding knife, his father’s or his uncle’s, that he could fondle while trying to sleep on the hard earth, dirt full of blood and insides, exposed black tree roots cradling his head like witch fingers.
He opened his hand, waiting. She pulled out an envelope, old and brown, and the dark, furry object he regarded. A rat carcass. A hard moldy bread.
“Saxifrage.” She put the crumbly mound in his palm. “Most powerful herb. I save it until now.”
He glanced at the leaves and roots spread over his palm, dried like a fossilized bird. His lips tightened. His whole life to that point a stew of herbs–chalky and bitter and syrupy in his teas, his soups, rubbed onto his knees and elbows after school. He put it back in the envelope, more fragile than the herb.
“You take this.” She grabbed his palm, her knuckles blue and bulbous. “Eternal life. You take it if you are about to die. You will live. This is the only one. You understand?”
He nodded, pushing it into the pocket of his duffel bag. Herbs had not saved his father, his sister. Not spared his mother’s hands, curled and broken, her lungs, factory black. He hugged her. She smelled like garlic and dust. Then he, Stanley Polensky, walked to the Baltimore station, got on the train, and went to war.
They carried what they could carry. Most men carried two pairs of socks in their helmets, K rations in their pockets, their letters and cigarettes in their vests. That queer little private, Stanley Polensky also carried a book, and it was not the Bible.
“Polensky, throw that thing away.” With the nose of his carbine Calvin Johnson, also a private, poked him in the small of his back, where a children’s book, Tom Swift and His Planet Stone, was tucked in his pants, under his shirt. “No wonder you can’t get any.”
“At least I can read.” Polensky flipped him the bird over his shoulder. They were in a line, two men across, stretching for miles from Cerami on their way to Troina. Stanley Polensky was a boy who, back in Ohio, Johnson would have given the full order to. He would have nailed him with a football where he sat in the bleachers, reading a book. He would have spitballed him from the back of class or given him a wedgie in the locker room after track. Polensky cried in his bunk at night for their first week at Fort Benning, wrote long letters to his mother the way others wrote to their girls.
Now, Johnson stared at his slight, curved back all day, the sun hotter than fire. On narrow trails in the hills they pulled themselves up with ropes and cleats through passes that only they and their mules—the dumbest, smelliest articles of military equipment ever used to transport supplies—could navigate, driving back enemy strongholds at Niscemi, Ponte Olivo Airport, Mazzarino, Barrafranca, Villa Rosa, Enna, Alimena, Boumpietro, Petralia, Gangi, Sperlinga, Nicosia, Mistreeta, Cerami, and Gagliano. It would seem so easy if not so many men died, if Johnson was not walking on an ankle he’d jammed on a hill that had swollen to the size of a softball. And yet their toughest fighting was still to come, at Troina, with Germans shooting at them from the mountains in every direction.
But not today. Today there was sky and food and the Germans to the east of them.
“You want these?” Polensky tossed the hard candies from his K rations over to Johnson. Every day, they had scrambled eggs and ham, biscuits, coffee, and four cigarettes for breakfast; cheese, biscuits, hard candy, and cigarettes for lunch; and a ham and veal loaf, biscuits, hard candies, and cigarettes for dinner.
“I thought a Nancy boy like you liked a little candy now and then.” Johnson stuffed them in his mouth, pushing them into his cheeks like a squirrel.
“I haven’t brushed my teeth in months.” Stanley shook his head. “I’m afraid I’m going to lose them all.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what.” Johnson lit his cigarette. “If I come across a toothbrush in my travels, I’ll save it for you.”
“I think you’ll have better luck finding a Spanish galleon.” Stanley lit his own cigarette.
“What do you know about Spanish galleons?”
“What do you want to know?”
“I don’t know.” Johnson closed his eyes. He had not done well in school. When he did not get a football scholarship to Ohio State, he thought he’d become a police officer, like his father. Knowing the war would help his chances, he’d enlisted the first chance he got. “What is it, like money or something?”
“No.” Stanley drawled, smiling. “It’s a ship.”
“And commerce, too. They sailed mostly in the 16th to 18th centuries.”
“Is that what you learned in that Tom Swift book?” Johnson opened his eyes, studied Stanley lying on his back, knees swinging open and closed, smoke pluming upward between them.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Stanley stared at the sky. His eyes broke up smiling when he looked at you, happy or sad. They squished a little, the outsides wrinkling, along with his forehead, his cheeks dimpling. Polensky was the youngest of six. Johnson had always wanted siblings. His mother had him. Another had died in the womb.
He imagined Stanley as a little brother and grimaced. But one took what you got, not what you wanted.
They set the pup tent over an abandoned trench that they could roll into if any funny business found its way to the camp. They laid boot to head. Stanley was a kicker. It was easier if Johnson fell asleep first.
“Read me something from your book.” Johnson laid his arms across his stomach. When they’d first started the whole bloody business, in Africa, he’d seen a soldier trying to hold in his intestines after getting shot, a slippery pink worm pulsing out between his fingers.
“Read it yourself.”
“I’m tired. What’s it about?”
“Well, every book Tom invents something new. So this time it’s the metalanthium lamp.”
“Metalanthium lamp? What the hell is that?”
“It’s a device that emits these rays that can heal the sick and bring people back from the dead.”
“Sounds interesting. How does it work?”
“I’m not telling you anymore. You want to find out, you have to read it yourself.”
“I don’t have time to read.” Johnson rolled over, away from Stanley’s feet. “In case you didn’t notice, there’s a war on. Why are you carrying a children’s book, anyway?”
“My mother bought it for me when I was a boy.”
“Couldn’t you have brought something more useful?”
But Stanley had fallen asleep, his snoring choked with hot, dusty mountain air. The sound reminded Johnson of the clogged carburetor on a motorcycle he’d fixed up one summer in Ohio. At night, his own mind churned. The war had been hard to swallow. He did not know what he had expected, but he had not expected this. The exhaustion. The hollow fear–fear so intense it burned a hole through you and left you hollow. The walking. They walked along ridges and through valleys for miles and miles, up and up on roads that led to little towns full of rock and cement houses in which lived Italians with gaunt, piercing eyes who begged for candy or sugar and cigarettes and mostly had nothing because the Germans had taken everything.
The Italian women were attractive. Sometimes he would look at them as they took his chocolate rations, their long olive necks, the soft fruits of their lips, and he wanted to lay with one on the ground. Not anything sexual, although he always thought of that. He wanted to lay on the ground with one to feel her heart through her chest with his fingers, the pulse of a vein on her neck, the soft skin on the underside of her arm, to remember what it felt like, the warmth of living skin, the soft quiet of humanity in measured breaths. The skin on the dead looked like rubber, and he did not understand the difference, the living, the dead. So many had died, men in little piles, only boys, really, their limbs thrown about like tire irons, hoses, their mouths open where something had taken flight. If they could all only go on living, with quiet pulses in their necks, wrists, little bird chirps. If no one had to die, except the very old.
Sometimes it got so bad, the need to touch, he wanted to hold Stanley. He thought of waking him up and asking for the book, to take his mind off things. But he was too tired to even open his mouth. He thought of Spanish galleons instead. For some reason he imagined that they were gold like coins and flew across the ocean. But for one to take you home, you would have to die.
Johnson guessed that was fair.
They were on a warship stationed in the Isle of Wight. The bunkroom was still, the usual snores, jacking off, replaced by the quiet of men’s eyes blinking in the dark. Before they slipped into the sheets they had made amends with their girlfriends, their parents, with God. When they finally stepped off the landing craft the next morning onto Omaha Beach, the First Division’s fate would be clear, but they would not take any chances tonight. Stanley opened the envelope lying on his chest and felt the dry fibers of the herb in the lines of his palm, which were licked with sweat. His mother had sent him care packages at Fort Benning, North Africa, and Italy—knitted socks and dollar bills wrapped in cheese cloth, a few words written carefully on lined notepaper. But she never mentioned the herb. Perhaps it was bad luck to discuss it. He had forgotten about it completely until he sewed a torn pocket on his backpack that afternoon and discovered it pushed deep within. A bit of luck, he figured. That night, he laid it on the pillow next to him. His eyes blinked; the dark sleep, dreamless, weighed them closed.
“Wake up, Polensky.” A hand, heavy, dry, covered his face. “Drop your cock and grab your socks.”
Johnson, from Ohio. They had entered combat in North Africa, each killed their first men in the desert. They were uneasy, unlikely, friends. Johnson was tan and shiny, a farm boy who had lettered in high school before, as he explained to Stanley, a gimpy ankle kept him from getting a scholarship to college. Stanley swore he smelled like corn, although he probably smelled like Stanley and all the others–cigarettes and rotted teeth and stink.
Stanley turned in his bunk, feeling the film of sweat break from his body and release onto the sheets. His hand trailed on the pillow, feeling for the herb, but it was empty. He shot up, nearly hitting his head on the bunk above. A man stole something that wasn’t hammered down, everyone knows. Veins pulsed in Stanley’s neck, his biceps. But a flower? He might kill a GI before he killed a Kraut.
“Lose something?” Johnson, bent over, emerged with the saxifrage. “Your mother’s corsage?”
“What time is it?” Stanley ignored him.
“Four-thirty.” Johnson straightened. The doctor measured him six-foot five during their physicals. Stanley had topped out eight inches shorter. “First wave 0630 to Normandy. Better shower, get that shit off your ass.”
One-hundred thirty thousand men. Two years ago, Stanley could not have guessed so many to have existed in their divisions, much less his hometown, or the world. One-hundred thirty thousand men dragged over the English channel to Omaha Beach in battleships, landing craft, to fight like gladiators, mongrels. There were so many ships Stanley wondered whether they could just cross the channel by stepping from one to another.
They climbed down the rope ladders of the battleship and into the landing craft, a steel bread box, that would shuttle them to the beach. The chop was terrible. Each wave sent that morning’s oatmeal into the roof of each man’s mouth, and they swallowed it again. Their helmets clicked together like teeth.
But the waves were too powerful; the landing crafts could not get in close enough to the shore to let the men out. They would have to swim. One end of the craft its gate resting just under the water; the men stood and began to wade out waist-high. The first were sighted immediately by the 352nd Infantry German Division waiting ashore. From their concrete bunkers among the dunes and perches among the cliffs the Germans scattered those first hundred men like pins. Shells exploded water into the boat, and the remaining men inched back, pressing against the sides as bullets rattled off the floor, walls, men.
“Picking us off like fucking lemmings,” Johnson said from where he and Stanley sat in the back. He stood up and began to climb the wall of the boat. “Come on Polensky, you waiting to die?”
Stanley scrambled up the wall after Johnson, the weight of his packs and rifles pulling at him like children. The water stunned him for a second, and he was confused, thinking he was at Porter’s Beach as a child, the chilled water of the Chesapeake Bay grabbing through the wool of his bathing suit and squeezing his nuts, his sister Kathryn bobbing beside him.
But it was Johnson beside him, the lasso of his arm pulling Stanley away from undertow of the boat. Stanley’s fatigues stuck to him like skin. He wondered whether his rifle would work wet, if the grenades attached to his belt would go off after he threw them. He crouched in the water so only his eyes, helmet, bobbed above.
They waded to the shore, the water throwing up around them as the German shells exploded underneath, bullets flicking around them like whitecaps. No matter how fast he moved Stanley fell behind Johnson’s long stride, Johnson becoming his human shield, which filled Stanley with relief and disgust. Thirty feet in to the right of Stanley a man’s upper body rose as if being yanked from the water by an invisible hand before sinking into the sea. The men thinned out closer to shore; if by miracle one were to make it to the beach, he was fired upon from several directions, his body a dancing pile in the surf.
The water squished in his socks and his underwear, and the straps of his backpack cut against his shoulder. He thought of stupid things while in danger, like his bedding being wet that night when he unfurled it to sleep, his cigarettes gone to mush. He touched his helmet, wondering if the herb he’d stuffed there that morning was secure. Suddenly Johnson lifted his rifle, set, and ran, firing at the shore. Stanley followed, although he thought it was a waste. He wasn’t even looking at the beach. He was crouched so low that the current shoveled water into his open mouth and now here was Johnson, moving his big legs out of the water like pistons, lead flying from his rifle, a human tank forgetting it was closer to jellyfish than steel.
But Stanley followed. He moved his legs and spread out to the right of Johnson. He felt the burning in his hamstrings, the blood straining his heart, the veins in ears ready to spout like whistles. The shelling and fire screamed in his ears until it became quiet. The beach grew on each end; he could see the bunkers of the Germans beyond the dunes. Pinholes of light flicked from them; the water spit bullets around him in response. He aimed his rifle toward the holes and fired, the kick pulled him forward. He feared his skeleton, his muscles, might fall out of his body behind him. He clamped his mouth shut and felt the shells and pebbles of the surf scrape against his knees.
He had made it. He looked left for Johnson. Good fuck, the farm boy made it, too.
On the beach, they found a man who was not quite dead. They wanted to find a man who was dead, but they could not be picky. The man who was not quite dead was moaning and breathing thick, gurgly, lying on his stomach. Almost dead. He and Johnson rolled the body on its side and propped their rifles on its left arm. Above them, 50 yards up the beach, lay the Longues-sur-Mer battery, or the German bunkers, huge square cement structures that housed mortars and men. Artillery fire flashed from these holes and scattered the sand around them. Stanley reached for the dying man’s helmet to put between the rifles, a barrier so they could peer up to shoot. A pack of cigarettes fell to the beach from it, which Johnson picked up and pocketed. Why hadn’t Stanley put his own cigarettes in his helmet to keep dry, instead of the herb, he didn’t know. There was no time to mull it over. They were alive but only by luck and perhaps not for long. Around them disembodied heads, arms, and backpacks floated in the air before gravity pulled them back to earth. Stanley coughed and shivered, peering up and sighting his rifle on one of the bunkers.
“I’ll shoot and you toss the grenade,” he said to Johnson over the fire. He may have screamed it, he may have thought it. Either way, no sound seemed to come from his mouth but Johnson understood, reaching toward his belt. The body flung backward at them like a flying log, taking fire. They braced against it. If the man was not dead, he was now.
Johnson hurled the grenade. His long arm seemed to reach out and leave the grenade at the entrance to the bunker, like a gift. They ducked, felt the vibration rumble through the sand. The smoke from the grenade curled into the grey of the sky and the grey of the sky ate the smoke. It was impossible to see where anything began or ended.
Stanley felt a pull at his trousers. A tear in the side of his pants exposed flesh, blood. A bullet had grazed him, tearing a zig-zag down his leg. The Germans hidden in the cliffs around the bunkers were shooting at them. Johnson rolled to his left, stood up, and barreled for safety to a formation of rocks fifteen feet ahead. He waved Stanley on.
One of theirs, Green, was waiting there. Blood ran down his face, cleaning it of black soot on one side. Green jerked his head toward a rip in the fortified wire around the German embankments. The sand was slippery from the blood. Stanley spread his arms like a plane and continued running, his rifle flapping against his chest.
Beyond the barbed wire they waited, the men wearing the other helmets. They seemed surprised that Stanley, Johnson, and Green were there. Months of waiting at Omaha for the Allies to strike, and now they stood, unsure, like boys at a dance. Green pulled out his pistol and shot the first man he came to in the face. The man dropped, his body hitting the earth before his blood. Stanley shoved his bayonet low into a man’s stomach, avoiding the ribs. Johnson held his rifle waist high and waved, spraying all those around him with bullets.
They did this for a long time. They killed men with helmets not like theirs. They stabbed them and they shot them and they lobbed grenades at them and they twisted their necks and they did this until the other men retreated. Then they smoked some of the cigarettes they’d taken earlier. Stanley knotted his handkerchiefs, wet and pink tinged from the bloodied channel water, and tied them around his leg. He watched the cloth drink up the blood until it was full, and then Johnson gave him his handkerchiefs while Green looked for the medic.
Some other men came over and smoked their own cigarettes. Everyone was dirty and smelled and shivered. Some cried. Some prayed, their mouths wide and moving. Some went through the pockets of the Germans and put watches, cigarettes, soft-edged pictures of girls into their boots and helmets. Stanley smoked his cigarette and wished he could tell his mother he was alive. Johnson stretched out his long legs as another man squatted, fanning a fire. Stanley laid his wet, torn cigarettes on the sand to dry. Most men were quiet, although some talked. Stanley wished they would shut up. It had been two years, two continents of this shit. The only way he could get through it was with silence, the air thin and yet full of salt, the beach full of dead men and yet life still lingering. His thoughts empty, body heavy.
“Come on.” Johnson stood up. “We can’t leave them like that.”
That work they did silently. They stacked the bodies of their men in rows like one would stack cordwood for the ships to take them to sea. Then they emptied their own backpacks, their bowels, and waited again for their orders.
They spent the summer moving inland toward Germany. The war will be over soon, Stanley wrote his mother. His twentieth letter. The Germans are running like cowards. He played poker with Johnson and Ennis, throwing pennies and cigarettes and girlie pictures into a German helmet they used as a pot. I hope you are well and do not worry about me. He spent one week at Netley Hospital for his leg wound. Nothing much has happened to us in Europe, except we are getting fatter. He lost twenty pounds since leaving the States. Hopefully by the time you get this, I will be on the train home. In September, they entered the Hürtgen forest.
“I would die for a ham,” Johnson let his cigarette dangle as he settled in the brush. It was a game they played sometimes, what they would die for, since they might die for much less.
“I would die for a turkey sandwich,” Stanley answered. Spruce and balsam trees cloaked their eyes, yielding little forest beyond a few feet. The tree limbs, low, grabbed, and the men walked with a semi-permanent stoop.
“I would die for a woman’s hips. I would put myself between them and sleep like the dead.” Johnson grinned, his teeth white against the green cave. Water dripped constantly. The men could never find the source of it. Sometimes it confused Stanley, and when he slept for brief periods and woke, he thought he was at his parent’s house, down the hall from the leaky faucet.
“Stay here.” Johnson’s arm would grab for Stanley’s ankle as Stanley began to push forward through the brush.
“The sink is fucking leaking,” Stanley waved him off, before Johnson yanked and Stanley fell down into the bed of pine needles that covered the forest floor.
“I would die to get out of this forest,” Stanley said as they ate the last of their bread and coffee. The supply lines inland were farther away, their rations fewer.
“I would die for dry socks.” The mud and fog lay on them like a film. In the dark undergrowth the men rubbed against the trees and each other like ingredients in a stew. Where were the Germans? Surely not as stupid as the Americans, Stanley thought, burrowing through the forest, their tanks and artillery and Air Force stalled by the dense formations of trees and rough terrain. The Allies were all alone.
The brass said the Hürtgen Forest was 50 square miles. It seemed to stretch to 100, then 200, then 300, as late October became early November and late November became early December. Stanley did not understand how they could not see the Germans and yet the Germans could see them.
“They know these forests. They’re stuffed in bunkers while we walk right by them,” Johnson said, coughing. Johnson had developed a cough-snore-shiver in his sleep. Perhaps Stanley could boil the herb for tea, soothe Johnson’s deathly rattle. I still have the root, Stanley wrote to his mother. Although I suspect I will have no reason to use it. You never even told me how. Should I put it under my lip, in a wound, perhaps? His right foot smelled. There was no time to unlace the boot and find out whether his toes had rotted. We are warm and fat and happy. Save me some Chinina.
“Duck blood soup,” Johnson laughed later, when Stanley described Christmas dinner at home. “You eat everything, don’t you, Pole? Makes me want to come to your house to dinner after the war.”
“Right now, I would eat anything,” Stanley shivered. He shivered when he was awake and he shivered when he was dreaming. His breath staccatoed with shivers. He shivered when he peed and he shivered when he shat and he shivered when he shivered. Stanley would eat his shivers, if he could, but they would probably give him diarrhea, he thought, like everything else.
They were still in the Hürtgen Forest, pissed as hell about it. Stanley and Johnson had taken turns moving out ahead, little by little, looking for mines and trying to clear brush for a path out. The visibility was ten feet, at best, and the soldier, with his back to Stanley, appeared from the foliage like a mirage. It had to be one of their men, so close by. Stanley tapped him on the shoulder just as he realized the man looked wrong, the uniform, the helmet. As the man turned Stanley pulled out his revolver and plugged him in the right cheek. The man fell, the wound cratering inward in his face like a black hole before bubbling up, blood oozing on the smooth, unshaven skin.
He was a boy. Stanley wondered if he was lost. His eyelids flickered, and Stanley wondered whether he should touch them, hold his hand. He kicked away the boy’s rifle. The boy’s fingers opened like petals. Stanley touched the boy’s forehead with his left hand, his right cocked on his pistol, near his hip.
“Mutter,” the boy said, a whisper wet with blood. When he reached up toward Stanley, Stanley shot him. The arm fell back toward the body. Stanley shivered. He shivered in his heart and his throat and the tears from his eyes warmed his face until it grew cold and sticky and he shivered again. He thought to eat his mother’s herb, to protect himself. It could not hurt. When one no longer believed in anything, he considered, all things could possess equal power.
“You all right?” Johnson appeared from the brush, as Stanley groped in his helmet, feeling for the crumbled flowers. He put a hand on Stanley’s shoulder. His grip was gentle, as if handling crystal, unlike his usual vice of fingers that dug right into Stanley’s collarbone.
“Yeah.” Stanley put his helmet back on quickly without retrieving it and rolled the boy over, face down, in the snow.
They walked in a diamond formation: Stanley walked in the back, Johnson in the front, one man, red-haired, was to their left, another, blond-haired, to their right. Stanley didn’t know their names. It seemed a waste to learn them. Wood and shrapnel fell from the sky, mixed with snow, hitting the ground in hisses. The trees burned standing still. Stanley listened to the fire eating the wood, the snap of twigs and branches as they broke free of the parent trunks and fell down to the forest. Smoke poured from the nooks and crannies of the burning bark, and men were forced to crawl. On the ground the red-haired man, in front, would tap the top of his helmet and point in the direction of movement, and they all would crouch and fill that direction with fire, grenades. But then the blond man on the right threw a grenade that hit a tree and bounced back toward them, and they dove leftward and rolled down a small hill.
“I would die for a stick of gum.” Johnson entangled himself from Stanley. The smoke cleared, briefly, and the hard marble of sun blinked through the treetops.
“This might be your lucky day.” Stanley nodded. Before them a formation of rock appeared in the trees with a low opening, two by eight feet. A bunker. The red-haired man stood off to the side of it. He tossed in a grenade as they turned, covered their ears. Then they waited for the smoke to clear before joining him at the hole.
Stanley was the shortest, so he got on his knees and crawled in. He imagined a speckling of dead pale boys, boys with smooth faces and darting eyes, but it was empty with black. He tapped the inner mouth of the cave to make sure it was still secure. Then he pointed his thumb up, and the others joined him.
“Now this is living,” red hair said in the darkness. He lit a cigarette and stretched. “We stay here until the war ends, okay?”
“At least for a nap,” Stanley agreed, pulling his blanket out of his backpack. “We’ll take turns on watch.”
They slept on ground that wasn’t wet and in corners that weren’t windy. They slept with their helmets off, their boots unlaced, oblivious to the shelling outside. When they woke their stomachs were relaxed, growling. They wondered how to get back behind the line for rations, wondered where they were.
“I say we stay in the hole,” the red-haired man said.
“Yeah, and when one of our own boys throws another grenade in here, then what?” The blond said, tightening his laces. They were broken and did not go all the way up the boot.
“That’s why we take turns on watch.” The red-haired man shook his head.
“And when our whole company leaves us behind?” Johnson loaded his rifle. “We’ll starve to death in the woods.”
“Moving thirty feet a day?” Red-haired man sneered. “Not fucking likely we get left behind.”
“My orders were to take the forest,” Johnson craned his head out of the hole. “I don’t know about yours.”
Their mood was sour. They decided to follow the ravine that led from the bunker.
“All aboard the Kraut trail,” Johnson laughed. “Think they’ll shell us here?”
“I say we’re mighty close to something.” Stanley lit a cigarette. “Think we’re near the West Wall?”
“By God, we should be so lucky,” the blond man said. “Then we can shoot the hell out of them and go home.”
Stanley could not picture home. His mother’s face appeared vaguely, the smell of her, the sound of her. The hardware store where he worked on Eastern Avenue. His school, Baltimore Polytechnic. He could not be sure whether any of those things had happened or whether they were a dream. Whether he had always been at war and would always be. They walked along the ravine for hours. Sometimes they would come across a body of a German, always picked clean. One body was missing its fillings, the mouth open and exposing bloody stumps of gumline.
“We need to find some Krauts so we can take their braut,” The blond man said.
“I’d even eat the fucking Krauts,” the red-haired man said. “Maybe we should go back and find our men.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Stanley said. “Even if we find the Germans, they’ll probably outnumber us.”
“Our men are probably ahead of us,” Johnson said, his head nodding forward. “That’s why we’re seeing so many dead. I told you we got left behind.”
“Not likely,” The red-haired man said. “I’m going back. The whole month I ain’t seen nobody get ahead of me. If there’s somebody ahead of us, it’s a different division. Which I’m more than happy for. Let them take some shots.”
“I’m with him.” The blond turned in the slit trench.
“Come on, safety in numbers.” Red gripped his rifle. “Let’s go back.”
“What say you?” Johnson looked at Stanley. Johnson was the leader but Stanley wanted to find their squadron, food.
“Let’s go back.” Stanley didn’t look at Johnson.
“The Pole has decided,” Johnson said, spitting in the trench, kicking at the snow-dirt with his shoe. “Let’s go.”
They turned around and followed the slit trench back to the bunker. Then they climbed up the slope they had fallen down earlier.
“Let’s sweep out and move forward,” Stanley said. Stanley moved in front, Johnson in the back. The shelling shook and shredded the tree canopy above them, branches falling like swooping vultures, pelting their shoulders and arms, leaving welts. The raining wood and shells filled the air with the sound of sanding metal, and Stanley could not hear anyone, only see their jaws moving, their eyes flicking back and forth as they scanned the area for mines, for Germans, for secure ground in front of them. Stanley wished they had stayed in the bunker. He glimpsed a man running through the trees, white and red cross armband. A medic. They knew how to get back to the line. All they needed to do was follow him. Stanley motioned to the men and ran toward the figure.
He had not gotten far when the ground swelled behind him like a wave, sweeping him off his feet. A shell. His body hit the dirt at angles—elbow, knees, ankles—before rolling. When he stopped he felt for his legs, moved them, and stood up, crouched over.
“Johnson?” He called back. The area from where he had been thrown was peppered with wood and metal. Blackened bark. Gray and red snow. Johnson’s helmet.
He followed the trail to Johnson, what was left of him. Blood spread from Johnson’s left groin, his left leg scattered around him, bone broken and carved like scrimshaw and strewn with strips of muscle and skin. Johnson shivered, coughed, and looked lazily up at Stanley, drunk with shock. Stanley called for the medic. The blond man staggered up and then off, shouting for help. Stanley tore a strip of cloth from Johnson’s backpack and made a tourniquet. Johnson’s big long face caved in from his cheeks to his chin. His eyes fluttered.
“Johnson.” Stanley shook him. But Johnson was going. Stanley took off his helmet and scooped the herb out of the lining. He opened Johnson’s mouth and pushed it in.
But Johnson didn’t chew. Stanley opened Johnson’s mouth and pulled a third of it between Johnson’s gums and teeth. He picked off another piece and put in the red, beating hole that was once Johnson’s hip, leg. Then he moved Johnson’s jaw with his own hands, pushing Johnson’s tongue aside, grinding the herb with Johnson’s teeth. Johnson’s mouth was dry as cotton, and the herb coated the soft pink insides. Stanley stuck his finger in Johnson’s mouth and pushed the flakes, the unchewed pieces, into Johnson’s throat. Johnson gagged, sitting up and coughing, hands at his neck. The green-brown flakes flew out, covering Stanley’s face and shirt. Stanley wrapped his arms under Johnson’s chest and jerked upward. Stanley jerked and Johnson coughed and the herb chunk flew into the snow.
“Medic.” The man dropped his kit beside Stanley. Stanley moved back and caught sight of the spat-out herb. It glowed in the detritus, unearthly. Stanley’s heart jumped. He reached for the glowing orange saxifrage. The medic turned, shook his head, frowned.
Johnson was dead. The medic tagged him, took one of this dog tags, and scrambled back in the forest. It seemed wrong to leave Johnson like this, any of them like this. Maybe Stanley wouldn’t fight anymore, stay here with Johnson, work the herb into his wounds, down his throat. He could stick his knife into Johnson’s chest and massage it into his heart.
The trees shook around him. Men shouted in the distance, the trill of bullets, explosions. Small fires baked in pockets of black trees. When another shell landed to the left of Stanley, he could feel the warmth of it on his leg. He did what he later imagined any other person would do. He ran.
Read Jen’s interview with WIPs about “Go to War, Stanley Polensky” and her forthcoming novel, The Tide King