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The Coward

It wasn’t a church any more — the German artillery had seen to that. Monty Laws sat in a pew. He didn’t know how far he was from the front, but he could hear the distant thud-and-shriek of big guns. They fell silent, and Monty muttered a little prayer. The lads had come through this church on the way through, when it had a roof. They’d carved their names into one of the pews, and promised to meet back when the war was over.

He stared at that carving now. Five names: Stokes, Singh, Andrews, McClintock, Laws. Something had shattered the pew, and it lay in two distinct pieces; an arrowhead pointed downwards through the brick.

He reached for his prayer beads but they weren’t there, so he toyed with the German pistol. In the distance, the whistle came: the Canadians, probably, pushing uphill across no-man’s land, into hell.

If they caught him here, they’d tie him up, arms wide, feet a few inches off the ground so all the weight was on his wrists. The officers were meant to do it with rope, behind the front lines: so the soldier could get back into the trenches with minimal recovery. As the far dragged on with no end in sight, the officers had gone mad – so rubbed raw by suffering that they’d lost sight of what it meant. They would tie men with wire, and leave them in plain view of German snipers.

That’s how Stokes had died. Not from the bullets, mind, but the wire –  his hands were purple-black below where they’d dug in. The medic said it was necessary to amputate the left. Stokes bit through his own tongue trying not to scream while the bonesaw dug in. After hours in the freezing rain, spreadeagled, his body couldn’t take it. Stokes died tied to a table, covered in mud. Monty took out his knife, and crossed off the first name.

Where to run? Ypres was near the coast sure, but then what? Take a ship to Britain, then be a fugitive in a foreign land? He put the pistol’s skinny barrel in his mouth. The cold steel against the top of his throat almost made him gag. He put his finger on the trigger, flexed it a few times, then took the gun out again.

“I wasn’t really going to do it,” he said. The words echoed in the empty church-ruin. Rifles and machineguns crackled in the distance.

Singh had died by bullet. One in the head during another push, and he fell. Not even clear it was meant for him, but it hardly mattered. Singh, who’d always been trying to get the white men onboard with his faith, and who never cheated at cards even when it was easy. Nevermind all his talk about the holy silver cord, one little piece of lead is all it took to push his soul all the damned way out of his body. Singh died well, as much as was possible. The other Indians took his body and did something special to it, with oils. They had to pull his turban down to his eyebrows, to cover the mess of bone above. Monty dragged the knife through the waterlogged wood, and crossed off Singh.

Monty imaged his father back home, asking why he’d run. It was all very simple for folks back home, no doubt: good men charged, bad men ran. Singh had charged. He’d been a good man.

Andrews had just died; he found some lonely part of the trench, and just curled up and died like an old cat. The medics were baffled. Andrews used to sing, in the early days. He’d sung on the troop-ship over, and he’d sung in the trenches, and he’d even sung while bullets whistled overhead. Eventually he stopped singing, then he stopped speaking, then he just stopped entirely. Monty’s knife stuck in some knot of wood for a moment. He grunted, and his blade broke through it. It tore away a small part of the pew, and left only REWS in the wood.

Monty put the gun down on the pew beside him, and did not look at it. A cold wind blew through the holes in the roof, and he shivered. He ran his thumb and forefinger over the blade of his knife, then ran the blade along his rest, parallel, not breaking the skin. The knife was dull, but he had no doubt he could open the vein if he really wanted to.

McClintock always ate too much. You had to keep your eye on your rations, or he’d be running off your beans. To his credit, the man was almost an artist with food; Monty had often wondered what the man could do with real ingredients. McClintock had died choking, struggling to find the straps for his gas mask. He came at the other men, fumbling, crying, spitting up blood but by the time they got to him, it was too late. McClintock died in a world bathed green-yellow, where the air itself was poison. The last things he tasted were chlorine, and his own guts coming up.

In the church-not-church, Monty Laws sat. He hesitated for a moment, then dragged his blade ever-so-gentle across McClintock’s name. The wood broke apart into a mush of little splinters, and that name too was gone.

One more to go.

Monty picked up the German gun. He held the knife in his left hand, and thought of Stokes and the wires. He leant in, and tapped his own name with the blade. The pistol sat heavy in his hand. The wind shrieked so loud through the shattered roof that he could no longer hear the sound of men dying in the distance.

He stabbed the knife deep into the pew, and dragged it across. The saturated wood tore apart, and came away — there was little evidence his name had been there at all. Monty Laws put the barrel of the German gun into his mouth, and flexed his finger on the trigger. The steel tastes bitter and metallic, like blood.

He took the gun out of his mouth, and law it on the pew.

“I wasn’t really going to do it,” he said.

The words echoed in the empty church-ruin. The wind did not reply.

Published inProse Fiction

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