A dank fog lurked through the trench. It consumed everything, limiting the world to the nearest surroundings. A young soldier stood huddled in a corner trying to keep warm. The fog crept its way through his clothing, mocking him. He was trying unsuccessfully to light the damp tobacco in his pipe. His shivering hands didn’t help matters. He lit another match covering the flame with one hand and held it to the end of the pipe. It went out. He tossed the match to the ground and spat black phlegm out onto the duck boards. It mingled with the filth that floated among the dark pools of mud along the trench floor. Rotting duck boards lined the ground, battling to stay above the mud that squelched beneath them.
Everything was wet, his threadbare gloves and socks being the worst. The rest he could get used to, but the constantly wet hands and feet were always on his mind. Changing and hanging up his sodden clothes was no use. He was soon wet again and nothing dried. At first when he came to the front he used to complain. He barely did anymore. He’d become accustomed to the constant tiredness, wetness, and general discomfort. It was normal now and he’d accepted it as if it was the way things had always been. He was already dirty, and he no longer worried about getting dirtier. He was already wet, so what was more rain? He was already beyond tired, so what did another sleepless night matter? He just carried on.
He clapped his hands together. He couldn’t see anyone further down the trench. Usually he could hear or smell something from down the line, but the all swallowing fog kept it hidden. He listened. Everything was so quite. It was as if the war had ended and everyone had packed up and gone home and no one had thought to tell him.
He thought he heard something. He strained to hear it, it sounded to him like a flute. Only ever so softly and not from along his trench but out from over the parapet and across No Man’s Land swimming through the mist. He turned to face the sniping loophole and raised his rifle so as to look through the scope. It was pointless, only the faintest outline of the troglodytic enemy trenches could be seen. Somewhere over there a soldier much like himself, probably feeling as if he also was the last man alive, unable to see or hear anything around him, had decided in the somber atmosphere to lighten the mood and play his flute.
He wondered about the man. Who was, and who had he been? He wondered where he had learned to play. Was he sent to lessons as a young boy by his mother? He was very good and played flawlessly. Perhaps he was a musician in the other world. He must have chosen above all else to bring this one precious possession with him, to have kept it safe throughout the war. Did he play now in this strange place to remind himself of home? Did he play to remind himself of the pretty streets of some Bavarian town and the warm meals and fresh clean linen that were lost to him? What waited for this man back home? A pretty girl he’d promised to wed? Perhaps a wife and kids? Perhaps no one? He himself sometimes found he could barely think beyond his immediate actions for the effort was too tiresome, but this man, despite it all, was creating something beautiful amidst all that was so ugly.
Ever so slightly he could see something in the fog. He knew the landscape well as he watched it every day. He saw a slightly darker spot in the distance that was out of place. He fired. The music stopped.
Another day dragged itself around and brought with it the rain. He stood in his corner shivering. His muddy coat was wrapped around him, it’s collar pulled up high, and he looked like a part of the ramshackle trench walls. The constant drone of the rain thudded off his Brodie helmet. Lumps of earth saturated with rain water would lazily drop from the trench walls every now and then. He watched mesmerized by an earthworm that worked itself out of the earthen wall. It writhed against the side and then fell to the ground joining an empty can of beans in the puddle below.
He fiddled with a lump in his coat. Underneath the layers of his grubby uniform, protected from the rain, he kept a creased envelope that contained his last letter from back home. It had been from his sister. Everyone was well she had said. The farm was busy and doing well despite the loss of Tom and Fred to the army. They had had some heavy rains themselves and the stream had overflown. Bingo their Border Collie sheepdog had fallen into the stream and almost got carried away by it, but father had jumped in and pulled the silly dog out. Her big news however was that she was to be wed. Pip was a good man. He’d been injured in Ypres the year before and needed a cane to walk now. The church was booked and she’d implored him to get leave to make it to the ceremony.
She had not wanted to go ahead with the wedding until he was home but he had convinced her to do so whether he made it or not. He knew he would not. She asked after George. He’d mentioned him in a couple of previous letters. George had been a bricklayer back home but over here was a trained observer, scouring the enemy lines through his periscope with an eye as keen as a hawk. His observer. One week ago he’d been shot through the head by a sniper. He hadn’t mentioned that in his return letter. He hadn’t been joined yet by George’s replacement.
The letter, as usual, reminded him of home and also the tune from the day before. It seemed familiar. He remembered the fair that would come to the village every year. There was one tent he’d never dared go into as a boy. ‘Lady Gloria’s Mysteries’ it had said on the sign above and from within came that same melody. Strange scents of something exotic and a flickering light from behind it’s curtain was all he knew of what lay within. That was where he recognized it from. It reminded him of home, but also made him feel strangely uneasy. He’d gone to the fair every year as a boy and into adulthood. He’d missed it the last few years, of course.
The rain showed no sign of letting up. Dark grey clouds towered above. Miniature rivers formed along the edges of the trench, carrying with them the detritus of an unwashed, un-moving army. With the waters came back a hint of the awful smell he’d encountered on his first arrival to the front. He’d grown used to it now and barely noticed it, yet that smell had stained his memory forever. The stinging pong of overflowing loos, the musky sweat and grime of a thousand men, the lingering stink of death. The stench had burnt.
A large rat swam by half drowned by the rain. He stepped back. He hated the bloody rats more than the Germans. He stopped. He heard it. Through the barrage of rain that the bleak clouds had let loose on them he heard the playing of the flute. It pranced across No Man’s Land across the torn up ground and over the lines of mangled barbed wire. He turned and looked through his telescopic rifle out over to the other side. The German trenches looked as if some great creature had burrowed its way along, throwing up the earth into great heaps here and there. Nothing stirred. If not a hit, it must have been a near miss yesterday. Yet he played again. Was he taunting him?
The music was louder today, he could hear it clearly. There was no sign of movement or anything amiss on the landscape. He waited and watched. The music played on. Hours went by and the rain and the playing refused to let up. As the day began to turn and the light faded he saw a movement ever so slight on the far edge of his line of sight by where some German had hung a cloth out on a piece of wood. It was so far it couldn’t possibly be him playing this tune that seemed so close. But what once had seemed beautiful now irked him, and he was determined to put an end to the incessant tune that played on and on and on. He trained his sight on the spot. He fired. Again the music came to an abrupt end.
The rain had not let up all night and carried on into the next day. He stood in his spot. His eyes were wide and he stared at the ground. He had got into his bunk the previous night and tried once again to unsuccessfully sleep. The smell from a cooking pot mixed with sweat, old socks, and soil filled the dug out. As he had lain there staring into the light of a flaring, smoky lamp trying to ignore the tremors and thunderous booms of shelling nearby that had gone on all week and wishing he could sleep, he found something worse had entered the room with him. The flautist’s tune came through the doorway and danced around the flame. It drowned out the sound of everything else, as if the player was there in the room with him beside his very bunk. He clasped his hands to his ears but it played on and on and on and on.
He stood now, the rain dripping off the edge of his helmet, the tune still playing. His unlit pipe hung from his lips. Why wouldn’t he just stop playing? Some soldiers came trudging past in the mud but he did not notice them. It was as if the player was standing out there in No Man’s Land. Had he crawled all through the night, through sludge and filth, risking the sentry’s rifle just to taunt him? Did this man not need any food or sleep? Did he never stop? Why wouldn’t he stop? Why wouldn’t he stop?
He found himself holding his rifle, looking out over No Man’s Land. He scanned every torn up bit of earth, every dead tree, every rotting body half buried in the mire. Something glimmered in the hands of what was once a man. He fired. The music played. Something shifted in the waterlogged slope of a crater. He fired. The music played. Something blew, tangled on the barbed wire fencing. He fired. The music played. He fired. He fired. He fired. He fired. The music played on.
“What is it?” said a voice behind him. He turned. A soldier stood on the duck boards, a periscope at his side. His new spotter. The man looked confused. A little weary.
“It’s that incessant music,” he replied
“All I hear is the bloody rain, I don’t hear any music. Who would be fool enough to play in this?” The soldier looked half bemused, half terrified, unsure as to what exactly was going on.
“I can hear it,” he replied, “and I know the hands that play it. It’s Old Scratch who haunts me”
With that, before the other man could stop him, he pulled himself up over the sandbags that topped the parapet and climbed out into No Man’s Land. He stumbled as he lost his footing in the mud. Dragging himself up he looked around for any sign of where the playing was coming from. The barbed wire that guarded the lines tore at his soggy, heavy clothes and cut into his flesh. The music was close. It was if the player stood by his side.
He turned his head quickly and it was at the other side. He raised his gun and fired. He had worked his way beyond the twisted barbed wire. His clothes were ripped and his exposed flesh was torn and dark with blood and dirt. He stumbled forward his rifle raised. He fired. He fired. He fired. He fired. Someone else fired. Something stabbed him hard in the chest. His knees gave out and he toppled forward. His face landed in the mud. The rain trickled off of his back. His rifle lay by his side. The dark grey clouds rolled on over head. The music stopped.