Skeletons in the Mud
by William Lapham
The rains came cold off the North Sea. Drops felt le pellets, found the narrow slit of his open trench, and bit his exposed face. He turned away. Mud flowed down the sides of the trench, around roots and exposed bone. It pooled on the bottom, sucking on his boots, penetrating the leather, and soaking his feet. His socks bunched up in places; grit rubbed his feet raw. He heard the mechanical noise of machine guns rattling in the distance, bullets snapping overhead. The trenches stank like rotting flesh, the lingering scent of mustard gas, wet dirt and ash, burnt hair and tissue, and curdling blood. This was Passchendaele, in Belgium, northeast of France and the rest of the civilized world. The enemy was in the next trench. He could hear them cough.
If I get out of this place, I am never coming back here. If I get out of this place, I am not even going to think about coming back here. If I get out of this place, I’m gonna find a peaceful place, and stay there until I die. If I get out of this place.
The rains came, slackened, and then came hard again. He shoveled bottom slop and flung it over the edge of the trench, careful not expose his hands above the rim. The face of a skull emerged from the mud. Erosion exposed its forehead, eye sockets, mouth and teeth. He stopped shoveling to look at it, tried to imagine it covered in muscle and fat and skin. He lit a cigarette, saw where lips and ears and eyeballs would have been, tried to imagine what color they were. Red ears, blue lips, gray eyes, maybe baby-fine hair, blonde and wispy in a breeze. He tried to imagine a brain inside the skull, an organ that Skullface had used to think. His brain might have gotten him killed, or it might have had nothing to do with his death. They would have been friends, Skullface and he, no matter what their nationalities.
He packed a handful of mud over the face to hide it from the others. He smoothed the mud over, blended it in, marked the spot with a stone. A tombstone, he said to himself.
He felt better, but hungry. The cook would come along soon, bring hot soup and a piece of hard bread. He tried to clean his hands before supper, but it was no use. Everything he had to clean himself with was as dirty as the parts he tried to make clean. When the food came, he gave thanks for the nourishment which human hands had made, and which God had blessed so that he might live another day in this hell hole. He checked on his friend, removed some of the mud so he could see one eye socket. What killed you, old friend? he asked. What mayhem took you? There was no way to tell which war had taken Skullface’s life, of course. Europeans had fought so many wars here; this soldier, if he was a soldier at all, if indeed he was a man, could have died last month, last century, or a millennium ago. Such was the awful nature of the place. The skull could have been that of a prince or peasant, a knight, soldier or serf. He could have been a general, if this patch of land was far enough behind the lines. He could have been a private, a pawn, if the battle had happened here. In any case, it did not matter what manner of man he had been. He was dead, the same as all who had preceded him, the same as all who would follow.
He bit into his bread and scraped the palate just behind his teeth. He took a sip of soup and burned the same spot. He lolled it around before swallowing. The pain superseded the taste. He repaired Skullface’s tomb while he ate. His teeth crunched on dirt his hand left on the bread. When he finished his supper he prayed again, thanked the Lord for the pain he had brought into his life, and his mouth, a reminder of the pain his only begotten Son had endured on the Cross. He prayed fervently and long, with his eyes squeezed shut.
He chose not to make friends with the other men in the trench. He talked to them very little, and only on official business, to give or take orders. Accordingly, the other men, replacements for his dead friends, left him alone. To the others, he seemed immortal, a ghost, impervious to steel. He knew otherwise, of course. It did not take much time in the line to realize how nasty, brutal, and short life could be.
Teamwork did not ensure survival in No Man’s Land. He had seen groups of men mown down as easily as any solitary figure standing against the odds. When all the guns were firing, he had survived by crawling, imitating dead men at times, lying limp until nightfall, then crawling back to his trench. The friends he had known, the ones who had seen it, had called his crawling cowardly, but he was alive and all of them were dead. They were skeletons in the dirt, faces of skulls in the sides of trenches he had left behind. They were floating in bomb craters half empty of dung-colored water, their lungs half inflated with stagnant air, their legs missing in action.
He had been lucky, though. The crawlers usually died from gas attacks. Poison gas was heavier than air. It filled voids in the mud where he sometimes hid his nose to breathe. He kept his gas mask handy and clean. He kept his face shaved so his beard would not interfere with the seal. He had read the books on soldiering; his friends had not. He had paid attention when he stood for inspection and instruction. He listened when the old veterans spoke, asked quiet questions when he was unclear and had survived by the slimmest margins his instructors had provided.
Yet he was not naïve enough to believe that skill was all there was to survival in this quagmire. He had been lucky to the extreme. He had learned that the worse conditions got, the more luck plays a role in survival. He had no control over luck, except for maximizing his chances for it to come into play by staying alive. There was no reason to believe that eventually only bad luck would catch up with him. Good luck had an even chance. Still, he always prepared for the worst. He practiced donning his gas mask twice for every time the company held a gas drill. He could do it fast. He practiced while the others horsed around. They thought he was crazy with fear, and laughed. They were the skeletons in the mud now.
He patted more mud around his bony friend’s face. “You need to eat more often,” he said. “You’re getting a little thin.” He leaned against the opposite wall, closed his eyes, and tried not to think. His thinking was a constant annoyance. He thought about how much better it would be to serve in a submarine.
Seawater, white and broken, howled down the bridge hatch, splashed and bounced roaring on the deck, and cascaded toward the lowest level in the boat. It glanced off machines and bulkheads and ran down passageways to the bilge. The boat pitched and rolled at wild animal angles. Seafroth sprayed off the tops of towering waterwalls. The boat’s screws alternately bit and then sprang from the ocean, nearly tripping the main engines on overspeed protection. Men’s stomachs heaved their contents on the deck where they stood, the vomit mixed and ran with rotten vegetable soup, seawater and despair. The sea pummeled the men on the bridge against steel railings meant to keep them from falling overboard. It cracked their ribs and bruised their arms, yet nobody complained. Such was the nature of unrestricted submarine warfare. All in a day’s work, they told each other, rubbing the latest bruises. Only toughs survived it, men who knew how to cover their true feelings with a veneer of stubborn fortitude.
They searched the long, empty days for ships to sink. They hunted across ancient trans-Atlantic sea-lanes, and once finding smoke on the horizon, tracked its relative motion, calculated an intercept point, and drove ahead at flank speed to attack. When they had closed to torpedo range, they shot a salvo into their slower targets’ broadsides. They watched as their weapons sank ships in pools of flaming oil. They watched the silhouettes of men jumping from slanting decks, screaming in the dancing flames. Those who managed to swim away found no relief. Machine gunners on the submarine had orders to shoot them in the water. They had no spare bunks, no spare food, no spare water to sustain rescued survivors aboard such a small boat, the captain had said. When the screaming and shooting and sinking had stopped, and a few stubborn flames floating on oil were all that illuminated the night, they turned the submarine and slipped away.
They had attacked entirely on the surface. Those who did not have the mid-watch slid below decks to drink a cup of hot tea, slam down a shot of schnapps, pat each other on the back, and set a course to continue the hunt. The captain hoped for a long war, happy to be at sea, and not stuck in some godforsaken trench in Belgium.
On the bridge, the lookouts marked the hour of sunrise. They marveled at the colors, a war wrapped in pastels blooming over a steel and green roiling sea. The black smoke of burning oil had dissipated in the darkness as if it had become the darkness with no sign of the previous night’s trauma. Lookouts scanned the horizon for contacts, any hint of another vessel in their vicinity. The officer of the deck had promised an extra ration of schnapps to the man who detected the first contact, thus stoking their vigilance.
It was the starboard lookout, scanning the sky, who reported seeing an aircraft, two points off the bow, just a dot. The officer of the deck quickly confirmed the sighting and ordered a crash dive over the announcing system heard below decks. Within a minute, the submarine slipped from sight.
The pilot loved flying dawn patrol over an empty sea. There was very little chance of encountering enemy action. He practiced his aerobatics; flew loops and barrel rolls, dove to the wave tops and climbed to the clouds. He tried to strike the edge of a cloud with the tip of his biplane wings. He was a bird, gliding blithe and light, absorbing the beauty of the day, the sharp coldness of the air blowing wild through an open cockpit. The empty space of sea and sky lent a feeling of freedom, a total absence of war. This was living, he thought, as he used up precious fuel practicing for the air circus that would surely follow the war. This was where life came up to the edge of death and cursed it, grew hostile and indignant with it, and pushed it back for a day, at least.
Leveling off to look around, he caught a glimpse of what he thought was the bridge of a submarine. It had disappeared so fast he could not be sure. He dismissed it as the play of light on waves, and decided not to investigate. A waste of fuel and time, he said to himself. Still, he flew over the spot and haphazardly dropped the single bomb he carried. Releasing it would lighten his load for the trip back home, he justified. It would give him a slight margin for error should he decide to do a loop or two on the way back to the aerodrome. The explosion in the water sent up a bright white spray. He circled it once; saw a black oil slick form, bubbles surfacing, and pieces of wood floating, ship-like debris. Did I hit a submarine? he wondered.
He marked the spot on the chart with a light pencil and decided to report it to headquarters. Sinking a submarine was a big deal, a very big deal. If a surface ship could confirm a submarine sinking, there would be a very high-ranking medal in it for him. Unless, of course, it was one of our submarines, he thought. He banked for home. The allure of a heavy medal draped over his collar was strong; to be a national war hero could set him up for life, make lucrative deals easier to close. He could even wear the medal with his civilian clothes. It was hard to say ‘no’ to a war hero. Women could not do it. He smiled. He was getting excited about the possibilities once the war was over. He would make a fortune in speculation, buy a chateau in the country, marry a beautiful woman, make a dozen happy children, fill a cellar with fine wine, and fill a garage with half a dozen shiny new automobiles. He would have hangars of surplus warplanes, and travel first-class by train and yacht. They would eat in the finest hotels and restaurants on the Riviera. And all for sinking one submarine, by chance, by dumb luck, and for no other reason.
Of course, prison could be a possibility, too, maybe even a firing squad, if the boat had been one of theirs. He could not be sure. Nor could he fly around the spot any longer without risking running out of fuel on the way home. He hated uncertainty, ambiguity and the fog of war. If he did nothing, the boat simply would not return to port. The Navy’s report would say the submarine was late, and assumed lost at sea, no matter whose boat it was. There would be no questions asked. He could report he had dropped the bomb on a suspected ammunition depot on land, but had been wrong; there would be no secondary explosions to report. No harm done, nobody would question his veracity. He would go on living as he always had, broke and flying.
If, on the other hand, he did report the sinking, two possibilities existed: one very bad and one very good, depending on verification by a surface asset. He had thirty minutes to decide. He could see the beach ahead.
Across the coast, inbound, he spotted planes ahead of him, higher. He hoped they did not spot him. He did not have the time to defend himself. Fuel was critically low. He crowded the ground, flew nape of the terrain hoping to blend with the ground vegetation. His chances were slim, he knew. The human eye noticed motion. It was a self-protective feature of evolution: Things that move present an existential danger to humans. Predators move. Therefore, anything that moves is a potential predator.
Adrenaline pulsed through him when the planes above attacked. They dove out of the clouds and flew straight at him; he had no choice but to engage. He yanked back on the stick and jammed the throttle forward. The engine roar and the shriek of wind through the wing wires made it impossible to hear the enemy’s bullets snap past his head. He fired his weapons. The noise was deafening as the planes closed at nearly 200 miles per hour. Seconds before they would have collided, the enemy planes split. One flew to his right, the other to his left. He chose to do an inside loop hoping to come back down on the one to his right. He pulled back on the stick and started the loop. As he reached vertical, his engine coughed and stalled. His plane started falling toward the earth, tail first, without power. As the free fall gained speed, he kicked the rudder and pulled the stick to command a right bank. The plane responded by jolting its nose toward the ground and accelerating. The propeller was freewheeling in the rush of air so he tried desperately to restart the motor. He was still trying when the plane hit the ground.
The operations order came at 3 a.m. They would go over the top at daybreak after a three-hour artillery barrage softened the opposition. Of course, he knew by now that the enemy knew by now that an artillery barrage softened nothing. Rather it steeled their resolve, alerting them to an impending attack. He readied his gas mask, checked his rifle’s action, made sure it was clean and well oil. He loaded a shell in the chamber plus a full clip in the magazine holder. He checked his spare clips, all full. If he needed more, he would find them among the dead. He checked his first aid kit and bandages.
The barrage started at 4 a.m. Hundreds of artillery guns opened fire to the rear. He could hear the shells whisk through the dark. Horrendous explosions erupted to the front. There was no way to tell what effect they had. Surely, some enemy soldiers would get lucky and die. Others would have their eardrums ruptured. They might smash their faces into the mud, try to get low, to bury themselves before someone else had to do it. Nobody would sleep. When they went over the top, everybody would be fighting two foes: enemy soldiers and sleep deprivation.
The sergeant approached him. “I’ve heard you prefer to crawl through No Man’s Land, ‘at right?”
“Seems to help keep me alive, sergeant.”
“And what about the attack? What does it do for that?”
“Nothing, sergeant. They all fail, you know that.”
“Not this time. This time you run and shoot, or I’ll shoot ya.”
“You’ll shoot me, sergeant? From where?”
“From behind ya, lad.”
“You’re going to follow me, then.”
“We’re all going to follow you.”
“I’m first up the ladder?”
“Right, well then, I best get prepared, eh?”
Then the sergeant turned away to tend to his other duties.
He swiped the mud off Skullface, all of it. What do you think about that? Did you hear? We’re going over first. Do you want to come? No? Been already, you say. I don’t blame you for not wanting to go again. I would not dare call you a coward or anything. You can’t be a coward and dead at the same time. Do you suppose our countries will have days of remembrance for us? Whole days devoted to our memories? What memories will they remember, for chrissakes? We haven’t lived long enough to have created any memories much to remember. I hit a baseball over the fence once. I remember that. I fell in love with a girl once, but she didn’t fall in love with me. Will they remember that? I remember my sister when she was little. We used to play kickball in the yard. Eat apples from the tree. Will they remember I won’t be able to do the same thing with my own kids? What will they remember? That I was one man in a million dead men? One strand of straw in a bale? One star in the night sky? He shook as he sobbed. He turned his collar up, tried to hide his face. Whatever happens this day, they will not remember me as a coward. I swear to you. Then he buried Skullface as deep as he could in the wall of the trench.
When the whistles blew, he scrambled up the ladder and ran a zig-zag course. He saw a plane spin out of the sky and crash in the distance. It did not explode. He thought all planes exploded when they crashed. He fired his rifle as he ran. He could hear others firing behind him. He looked to his left and saw men running and shooting. He looked to his right and saw more men running and shooting. He tripped and fell in a swirl of barbed wire he hadn’t seen. He felt a boot smash into his back, then another, and another. He had become a bridge over tangled wire delivering youthful bodies into the mechanized maw of war. After several dozen men had stomped on his back, there was a pause, and he started to rise. When he got to his knees, he heard a voice behind him, “I told you, you son of a bitch!”
The sergeant had been trailing his platoon. He raised his rifle and fired a shot at the soldier’s back. The bullet burst his heart, and he fell face down dead where he had been lying across the wire. The sergeant ran over the dead man’s back and linked up with the rest of his decimated company.
William Lapham resides in Brighton, MI. He is a veteran of the US Navy submarine service and a graduate of the MFA program at Goddard College. He teaches composition at Davenport University.