Ass over tea kettle, Francis plunged into the trench, its existence in the darkness signalled by nothing but a lack of anything, his fall broken by ice-crusted water and gelatinous mud.
Spewing the filthy frigid water from his mouth, Francis tried to regain his footing, his body too cold, his mind too much in shock, to tell if anything was broken. Every movement, however, was a mired mess as the cloying mud that perpetually threatened to steal his boots worked in concert with the glass-sharp ice to hold him down.
Francis wasn’t a weak or timid lad by any estimation having learned some hard truths about life while fighting to survive in a Welsh orphanage before finally relocating to a rural town outside of Ottawa in Canada. He knew what it was to toil in the fields, to be completely responsible for your own welfare, to stay alive. But this, this was stupid.
How could a month of running around a farmer’s field in full pack have prepared him for this? Better to have him run up the Ottawa River in full flood that teach him to worry about gopher holes and broken ankles.
This wasn’t the France he had read about. The France of Dumas and Monet. This was some sort of crazed underworld that only the cold and wet prevented him from calling Hell. Perhaps this was Canadian Hell, he thought as he tossed his gun to the side of the trench.
Using his knife to clutch the dirt, he slowly achingly pulled himself from the muck. His hand struck a fragment of barbed wire that used to sit atop the trench wall. A barb pierced his skin but he actually found the pain refreshing as this was the first thing that had broken through the numbing cold. The wire also gave him a bit more leverage.
Francis scooped a seat out of the mud wall and rested. He was uncomfortable. He was miserable. But he was out of the water and out of the line of fire.
The night was overcast—he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen the sun—and was illuminated sporadically by the distant blast of artillery. A thunderstorm that perpetually threatened but never actually rained.
As he chewed on a piece of meat that he had found in an abandoned farmhouse—it could be cow tongue or boot tongue for all the flavour it had—he smiled at how blasé he’d become about artillery bombardment in six short months.
The noise used to terrify him as he’d watch the ambulance corps bring the still-breathing remnants of soldiers from the front. He remembered several times feeling the sudden warmth of his own urine as he moved from trench to trench in his first days in battle. He quickly learned it was possible to be proud and experience wrenching fear at the same time.
Now, he was completely fatalistic about his chances. His hope was that should he come under bombardment, it be swift. This was not to say he was suicidal, however. Francis very much wanted to live.
More a feeling than anything concrete, Francis turned rapidly toward a sound in the darkness, knowing there was only a 50-50 chance his rifle would fire if called upon.
It was a low noise, the sound of something being tugged in the darkness. Short bursts of sound followed by silence. The sound neither receded nor approached, however. Whatever was being moved and by whom, the going was hard. That and they hadn’t noticed him.
Keeping as still as he could, Francis craned his sight into the shadows, focusing as hard as he could when the distant flashes gave him a moment of light. The noise continued its ebb and flow, unphased by the chaos around it.
Just as he thought his eyes would leave his head for the strain, he caught a furtive movement. On the next distant explosion, it was clear he was watching a rat. For its size, it could easily have been a raccoon, but its scraggly state and focused snout clearly suggested a rat.
With rabies running rampant throughout the front, Francis would normally have steered clear of the animal or tried to shoo it off. These were anything but normal times.
Slowly moving from his perch, Francis slid down the trench wall to the mud’s edge, creeping slowly toward the rat, rifle barrel firmly in hand. A couple times, the rat froze as though ready to run, but then resumed its activity as the artillery covered Francis’s approach.
In a fluid motion, the rat’s skull crunched under the butt of Francis’s rifle. Death swooped in so quickly, the rat never flinched or made a sound.
Grabbing its tail, Francis flicked the rat into a puddle, immersing it to drown any fleas, knowing in his heart that he was more likely to give fleas to the rat than the other way around. He then raised his prize into the air, letting the muddy water drip for a moment, as he pulled his knife back out.
Life on the farm paid off handsomely, as within minutes, he had successfully gutted the rat, throwing the offal as far as he could to avoid unwelcome family members. He had also peeled back the skin to reveal what he knew to be pink protein-laden meat.
Between the wet and the lack of fuel, a fire was out of the question, but Francis had his lighter, which he used to char segments of the rat before he bit into the flesh. The flashes of warmth and juicy flesh revived his spirit somewhat.
As he roasted his fifth piece, however, his eyes focused beyond the burning flesh and fire to take in what the rat had been tugging at.
Through the muck and mire, Francis stared at the toothy grin of a German soldier, drowned in a muddy avalanche of a collapsing trench wall. The soldier’s bottom lip was flayed while the left top lip was completely missing. No wonder the rat had struggled to bring its find home.
Francis stared at the death mask for a moment, before shifting his gaze to the rat remnants in his hand. As though scalded, he threw the rat down the trench and doubled forward, fisting the mud at his feet.
His back arched violently several times as he convulsed a wretching wail, but his starving body refused to release its cannibalistic gains. Instead, from deep within came a mournful cry that rose in volume and violence until it seemed he might turn inside-out.
Part Two in the next post.
(Image is property of the owner and is used here without permission, but a lot of respect.)