I failed to get this into a WWI anthology and it’s been sitting in a drawer – virtual drawer, I suppose – for a year without me doing nothing with it, so I thought it’s probably time I set it free.
The fighting was half a year over, it was spring, and like the saplings that had started to appear amid the wreckage of the forest, the world as it used to be was beginning to break in small ways through the layers of dirt and ash. Jonas Welby, a Lieutenant in the 116th Labour Corps, stood at the foot of a sloping field where the northern edge of the Moué wood had once been, gazing up the slope, shielding his eyes. A little French girl had come from nowhere, skipped along the ridge of the hill in silhouette: a shadow puppet in her long dress against the bright grey sky. The appearance of the girl jarred—the kind of sudden incongruity that would cause one to lurch from a dream into the waking world—and Jonas was overtaken immediately by a fit of violent, uncontrollable sobbing, the likes of which he had never experienced.
Jonas had to steady himself on the splintered stump of a birch. The section of forest in which he stood had been utterly ruined by the last ferocious months of the war. Further to the south, trees remained, but here, where the birches were younger, every one had fallen, blasted apart at the trunk, their stumps white and frayed like shattered bone ends protruding from a wound. Life persisted—birds pecked grubs from the dead trees, and there were pattering disturbances in the shrubs—but the scene overall was of devastation.
Jonas waited until he was composed again, long after the girl had gone over the ridge of the hill and out of sight, before he went back among the tree stumps. A little way into the forest was a crater, and the crater was filled with water, and there was a body in the water. He had come for the body.
He found it soon enough. The body had been identified as British by its coat and helmet, had probably died in whatever blast had created the hole, had lain beneath a layer of soil until the frost had thawed and snowmelt filled the hole with water and loosened the earth enough to free it. The identification would likely never progress beyond its country of origin. Its flesh had in places bubbled out from under its clothes, puffy and white around its waist and ankles. Its hands, huge and fingerless, like rugby balls. Its head, mercifully, was turned-down in the water, but Jonas had seen enough corpses in enough water-filled craters to know that beneath the surface its face would be featureless and doughy, just as he knew that when he recovered the body from the water, its flesh would fall away from its bones, cloud the water briefly pink, and then dissolve altogether.
He spread his canvas by the edge of the crater and dragged the body out of the water by the heel of its boot, the ankle of its trousers, the tail of its coat. The clothing had enough integrity to gather around its bones and hold the remains together. On the canvas, the remains spread out flat. Jonas put his hands through the coat. The pockets were filled with silt. He crossed himself, gathered the thing up in the canvas and tied it off with a length of rope.
There was a movement in the trees: something small and dark. His first thought was that the little French girl had come back, and he felt glad that the corpse was in the bag and out of sight. But the forest was deadly, pitted with bomb craters that were filled with freezing water. And everywhere were unexploded shells. He shouted, “Come out! It isn’t safe!”
His voice came back to him in pieces. Something moved again between two clumps of ferns, lurching, black and shabby. It was not the girl. He was seeing the ragdog again.
For his friends and family at home, the war had ended in November. Not so for Jonas. The work of the 116th—recovering, retrieving, repairing—which was almost as old as the fighting, had no end so easily defined as the firing of the last rifle.
Jonas had learned this when his senior, Captain Marks, triggered a detonation while surveying an old trench outside Reims, lost a leg and bled to death in the snow, a month after the armistice. There were others before Christmas: a boy in another unit sucked through the wet turf into a flooded mine and drowned in mud; another explosion; two suicides. It seemed to Jonas that it would never stop, just as he and his men would never stop plucking bones from the fields of France. There would always be more bones, more friends to bury.
They stopped digging when the frost hardened through the day as well as the night. There was other work. Through the winter, Jonas and Bill Canning, a lad from Sunderland who had fought in Ypres, carried out eyes-only searches of the fields, marking graves and retrieving what they could from the surface. Bill was not someone Jonas would have encountered in his life before the war, a colliery boy with a thick, dark accent who had received only a whisper of a schooling and had never needed more. He was good company. He had a dog—a Labrador he had inherited from an officer who had gone home to England—and when he was not talking to Jonas, he was talking to the dog. At Christmas dinner, Bill got up and sang I’m Henery The Eighth, I Am, and the dog joined in, and by the end of the second verse neither man nor dog could be heard over the company’s laughter.
They were out on New Year’s Day when a shell exploded in Bill’s face. Jonas, though sheltered by the side of a hillock, was knocked from his feet by the blast. He got up, deaf and dizzy, and staggered in the direction of the explosion. Jonas found Bill kneeling in the dirt, his back turned, his torso swaying rhythmically from side to side, giving Jonas the fleeting impression of a snake he had once seen charmed by an Indian piper in Piccadilly Circus. And he saw that Bill had lost both of his arms. Jonas edged around to Bill’s front. He began to have difficulty then, in understanding what he was experiencing. Bill’s face was gone. His jaw was missing. He continued to sway, side to side. He was a creature in the dirt, no longer human. Jonas would come to understand that what he experienced in those moments was disgust.
Through the ringing in his ears, Jonas heard a sound that did not belong. He thought it was a baby’s cry: a scream, urgent, in greater need of attention than the pitiful thing that had been his friend. He followed the sound and abandoned Bill Canning, left him on his knees in the mud, and never saw him alive again. That sound took Jonas over the knoll that had sheltered him from the blast, and into a furrow in the ground that might once have been a trench or a cattle track.
The explosion had changed him. In ways he was numb, seeing the frosted field as if from a distance, through binoculars. In other ways his senses were exaggerated, or altered. He felt the contours of the ground through the soles of his boots, guiding him on his course. He saw sparks of colour in the frost. The sky seemed to bulge and throb. And he could almost see the insistent, agonised cry as he followed it down the hollow, like a ragged black shadow that receded with every forward step he took.
He came to a place where the hollow opened out into a circular crater. Muddy water had welled in the centre of the depression and frozen into a smooth, black circle of ice, in the centre of which stood Bill Canning’s dog. The explosion had not, as it had the dog’s master, transformed the Labrador into something monstrous. It was recognisable as what it was. But the dog’s fur was hanging from its back in tatters, rags of wet, black pelt that dangled and shivered. Its mouth hung open in distress, puffing clouds of vapour as it screamed. It had never occurred to Jonas that dogs could scream.
The dog staggered to Jonas and lay down in front of him. Jonas drew his pistol, aimed at the creature’s head and fired. The ringing in his ears became a cacophony then, but through it he could tell that the dog’s cries had stopped. It lay still, its blood pouring out steaming hot onto the black ice. He turned and walked back along the furrow, but had gone less than ten paces when the scream started again, more pained and desperate than before. And it was clear to him how he was able to hear it through the sound in his ears: the screaming was not coming to him from the world outside. It was coming from within him.
He turned again. The dog was on its feet, staggering away from him. The scraps of flesh and fur that dangled from its back seemed to be multiplying, seemed alive, snakes of shadow that danced to the sound of the dog’s howls. The ragdog limped up the far side of the crater, stood at the edge, glanced down at Jonas for a moment, and limped off. Jonas ran after it, but it had gone. By the time he got back, Bill had died, but Jonas could still hear the dog’s scream.
He saw the ragdog again twice before the spring. On the first occasion he had been in a trench, planting flags beside human remains for retrieval by the company. He climbed a ladder out of the trench and saw the dog at a distance, across a field, where it was not much more than a black smudge in front of a line of trees, but he could see its one eye twinkling and feel the sound of its cries trying to invade his thoughts. He turned and ran, and it did not follow. The second time was on a weekend’s leave in Paris, late at night, where it came shambling towards him among a crowd of revellers. Then, he sidestepped into an alley, and when the crowd passed, the dog was not with them, but its cries lingered.
He could hear them still in his bed that night, and still, if faintly, in the morning.
The French girl was the daughter of the family who owned the neighbouring farm. When Jonas returned with the fallen soldier’s remains, she was standing outside the station, in her pristine blue dress, holding the hand of a tall, white-haired man. Jonas smiled at her as he entered, but did not say anything, as he could not imagine that she would know any English, and he would not know what to say to her if she did. Later, Captain Walsh told him that the family’s name was Lejeunne, and that the older man—the girl’s grandfather—had invited the officers to the farm for a meal, as a token of thanks for the company’s support in restoring the farmland. He and the Captain went on the Sunday morning, after service, came up the long lane that traversed the hill on which the farmhouse stood, in pressed uniform and polished shoes, carrying wine and tinned meats as gifts.
The farmhouse was a squat stone building which had been left almost untouched by the fighting. From the outside, Jonas could see that someone—perhaps the old man—had repaired part of the roof with wooden boards, and the same type of boards had been used to cover two of the windows. The walls were intact. They were mossy, and a sort of vine had started to climb the doorframe. There was an overgrown lawn in front, and a weedy gravel path from the lane, through a wooden gate, to the front door. The door opened as the Captain and Jonas arrived and the old man stepped out, introduced himself as Arthur, and welcomed them. Jonas followed the Captain and the old man inside and was enveloped as he came through the door by the warm, moist air of the farmhouse and the thick smell of wood smoke and sweet onions.
There were four at the table: Jonas and the Captain, Arthur Lejeunne, and the little girl whose name was Élodie. Jonas noticed that the girl was wearing the same blue dress as she had worn at the station the previous day. Lunch was a chicken stew, and when Arthur brought it, steaming in a clay pot, to the table, Jonas said that it might have been the most welcome meal of his life.
Arthur insisted on using English. As he lifted the lid on a dish of roasted vegetables, he laughed nervously and said, “It is very little.” The old man poured the wine. “The herbs are ours. In the garden, nothing else is left. And the markets in Reims are— ” he struggled for the word, “very bad now.”
“It’s wonderful,” Jonas said. “Thank you.”
“Things will be better this year,” Arthur said.
“Well, let us drink to a better year,” the Captain said.
They raised their glasses, then took turns in spooning the stew into their bowls. Arthur passed the girl a golden loaf of bread and she cracked it open. The Captain grunted with approval, grinned at Jonas and elbowed him excitedly in his ribs.
The stew was as good as anything Jonas had ever tasted, although there seemed little to it: soft, sweet chunks of carrot, floury potato, and little onions that dissolved in his mouth, bound by a rich wine sauce that glistened with the fat from the chicken. After a minute in which the only sounds were of cutlery and breaking bread, the girl, who had not spoken since the officers had arrived, said, “I see you. In the trees.”
Jonas did not at first notice that she was speaking to him. He was preoccupied with his bowl of stew. He had unknowingly given himself both of the chicken’s legs and was considering whether it would be polite to put one back.
“You,” the girl said.
Jonas looked at her. “Me?”
“In the trees.”
“Yes.” While the others looked at the girl, he tried to lift one of the chicken legs and drop it back in the pot, but the meat fell from the drumstick into his bowl and he found himself holding a bare bone. “In the trees,” he said.
“With the dog.”
“What dog?” The sharpness of his tone startled her, and she looked down at her bowl and shook her head.
“I am sorry,” Arthur said. “My granddaughter is learning English.”
“What dog? What bloody dog?”
“Pipe down, Welby,” the Captain barked.
He was ashamed to look, but he could feel the old man staring at him. He laid the chicken bone at the side of his plate and hung his head, and ate the rest of his meal in silence, while the Captain complimented the Arthur on the food and the furniture. Once or twice he glanced at the girl and she looked back, her eyes wide, like she was a party with him in a dangerous secret. At the end of the meal, while the Captain collected the plates, the girl turned to Jonas and said quietly, “I am sorry,” and he felt a stab of guilt.
“I am sorry,” he said.
The men went outside and stood on the small lawn in front of the house. The sinking sun had painted the landscape in warmer colours than were present in the full light of day when Jonas and the Captain had arrived. The wasted fields were copper and gold. The forest had a silver glow. Arthur Lejeunne produced a pouch and a pipe which he prepared with deft, well-practiced motions, scanning the fields all the while.
“We were in Troyes, with my cousin,” he said. “The fighting here was…” He shook his head. “I have not seen like this before. I am happy my grandchild was away from here. There, they said that where a man fell, a flower grew, and that our fields would be fields of flowers when we returned.”
Jonas had read the same stories in the letters from home, but had no appetite to write and tell his parents what he had learned, that one could tell where a man had fallen only by a protrusion of bone, the ragged corner of a coat, a chemical blue discolouration in the blades of grass.
“We’ll sort this mess out,” the Captain said. “Right, Welby?”
The door opened behind them and the girl ran out, through the men, through the garden gate, across the lane and down into the fields. The old man laughed, but the Captain shook his head. “It isn’t safe,” he said. “Bring her back.”
“She is a child. Let her be a child.”
“No.” The Captain followed Élodie through the gate and stood on the lane, yelling at the girl to come up off the field. Jonas followed and stood with him, struck again by the incongruity of the carefree child on the ravaged landscape. The field sloped gently down from the lane, and the sun was low enough behind them that their shadows stretched out across the field and surrounded her, though she was fifty yards or more down the hill. She turned her head over her shoulder towards them and smiled, but ignored their calls and walked casually down the hill towards the forest.
“I’ll get her,” Jonas said.
He was conscious that he had already managed to frighten the girl over lunch. He vaulted the fence into the field, but then approached her as casually as he could without losing ground on her as she carried on down towards the woods. He was more than halfway down the field when she cast a glance back and, seeing him, sprinted into the trees. He ran. With what little height the slope gave him, her path was easy enough to follow; she was taller than the ferns, and what trees the war had left intact were bare. Although he could not see the girl, he could easily make out her bright blue dress, darting through the trees like a sprite.
But when he reached the foot of the slope, the hedgerow at the end of the field obscured her, and by the time he found his way through she was lost. In crossing the hedge into the trees he felt he had passed from afternoon into twilight. The low sun strained to reach through the bare trees and the shadows were deep. In the half-light, movement seemed to be everywhere around him. He shouted the girl’s name, and somewhere ahead of him she responded with a giggle.
Somewhere nearby was the crater from which he had pulled the decaying body of the soldier. He imagined the girl stumbling in, falling silently into the water and sinking, and having to pull her out by the ankle, and the skin dropping away from her bones.
He began then to hear the scream, and knew it was not the girl because she was still giggling somewhere in the bracken. The shadows that moved around him were coming together, taking form: low, limping shapes that were scattered and yet whole.
He wandered further into the forest, no longer sure if he was really following the girl’s laughter or if he was simply avoiding the dark movements that converged around him, that threatened to adopt the shape he feared to see. The scream grew louder all the while, and it also began to take shape, became something outside of him, as it had not been since the day he had seen Bill Canning maimed and killed. He could feel his heart quickening in a way that was familiar since his days in combat. It was a sense that, after the long waiting, things were about to happen. And there was a perverse comfort in that. Around him, the forest was becoming a world out of time. The Captain and the girl’s grandfather on the hill were a universe away, in another place where there was light and colour and hope.
At last, the ragdog came, staggering along the trail in front of him, dragging its broken leg, its bloody tail, leading him into the trees, away from the last of the day’s sun. The scream was the same as it had always been: pained and pleading. He could not help but follow.
Then, a flash of pale blue. Élodie Lejeunne darted between two clusters of holly in front of Jonas, and in front of the ragdog. She came around and stood in the trail, twenty or so paces ahead, turned to face him. She smiled, seemed to glance to where the dog was, but without reacting to its grotesque appearance, smiled again, turned and ran on.
The dog picked up the girl’s pace, galloped gracelessly along the path after her, its pads making a sickening wet sound where they struck the soil. Jonas followed again, half-walking, half-running, mesmerised yet determined to keep at a distance from the dog, straining to keep sight of the blue dress beyond it in the failing light, until abruptly the girl vanished from view and he and the dog emerged from the trees into a large clearing where the ground fell away into a crater, two or three times larger than the one from which Jonas had retrieved the body.
The dog stopped and stood on the crater’s edge. It was brighter here, and Jonas could see the light from the sky reflected in a large pool at the centre of the crater. And there was the blue dress, and the girl, her arms stretched out like wings, silently struggling to stay afloat in the water, her desperate eyes sparkling in the dark. He came to the edge of the crater but the dog jumped, stood in his way, staring at him with the one bulging eye that remained in its socket, mirroring him, blocking him. He stamped his foot. The dog pounded the soil with its front paws. Bloody saliva ran from its dislocated jaw. There was no way down to the drowning girl except through the dog. He took a step back. The ragdog rocked backwards onto its broken hind legs, the scream now unbearable in Jonas’s ears.
He screwed up his eyes, sucked air into his lungs, and—astonishing himself—he let out his own scream. It began as cry of frustration, but the frustration dragged anger along with it, and grief followed, and he felt emotions spilling out of him that he had long forgotten were there. He screamed until his lungs were empty, and then filled them and screamed again. He opened his eyes, channelled everything at the dog, howled until his own sound was all he could hear and the dog was cowed into silence. And again. He felt the tissues of his throat tearing under the strain, heard the bubbling of blood in his own cries.
The dog shrank back, then shrank, physically, into the ground, and became shadows again, and the shadows dispersed.
Jonas threw himself into the crater, skidded down the side and up to his chest in the icy water. Straining to breathe in the cold, he thrust his arm towards the girl, and grasped her hand, felt it grip him, cold and weak. He pulled her from the water and laid her on the steep bank of the crater. She gasped, looked at him and smiled. Jonas fell down on his back beside her, exhausted, unable to speak.
Then the girl laughed, and the forest and the sky swallowed her laughter entirely, so that when she stopped, it seemed she had never laughed at all. And then for a long time there was silence.