Each morning was a reprise. A sharp replay of the heat and noise, the infinity of war that had brought him here.
In the dark of predawn he was lost, he remembered nothing of himself before the flesh flaying heat of desert sand and the ripping and rending of the scalding mine.
Peter woke slowly, the taste of grit in his mouth and the echo of mortar fire, a crescendo echoing from a nightmare and turning his guts again to liquid.
The sensation of loss. His hands slick with a memories of wet and sticky. The scream of pain and terror ripped from a hoarse dry throat. A ring of noise surrounding him and hemming him in. Agony, and an anchor of blood pinning him like ballast to the sharp hot sand.
Not a memory then but his own voice, pulling him from the nightmare of slow waking. The awful dream of not dying, of surviving, that came with each dawn.
The sheets wrapped tight about his ruined body, wet and slick with sweat and twisted into the contorted shape of the half dead.
At ten miserable months he still couldn’t sleep without returning to the hot sand and the frying sun, the noise, blood and terror of the ambush.
The scene before he opens his eyes is unchanged. A desert strewn with the ruined bodies of the dead. Victims of a cleverly laid web that drew men in to its vile centre, a trap baited with a promise of safety.
When the first of the mines tripped those fleeing left and right were drawn into a fist of hot stinging iron and steel. Only the ground they had already travelled was safe but that was now a biting beast of strafing enemy fire.
Men were herded, bullets flailing like thorn sticks, beating them as cattle, into a field of pain and suffering.
Peter recalled the horrified screams of young bulls driven to the Iman’s knives in Istanbul. The screams of men was were far worse.
The gates of hell opened and swallowed them whole, the men he had marched with, ate with, shat with, brothers in pain and suffering died in crumpled lines of flesh and guts. The losses were horrendous, so many ripped to unrecognisable chunks of sizzling meat.
He now thinks of the dead as the lucky ones. Those, like himself who survived would never leave the killing ground. Part of each would be stretched on sand, burning and screaming until the death they earned, final came to claim them.
He had lain in the Sudanese sand slowly cooking for three days. Delirious, fever, blood loss and dehydration, the sun sucking his life into the cruel blueness of a perfect sky.
His tongue chewed and thickened in his mouth searching for water or spit but unrewarded. The torture of flies sucking moisture from his lips and eyes and massed in a seething mess about the ruin of his hip and his left foot.
He woke sporadically, angry with God that he is still alive, disappointed with his own bodies stubbornness, wanting to die, to slip away in the moments of incomprehension so as not to face this awful visage of reality. Not wanting to wake again to the pain and the heat and the sprawling mess of limbs and torsos and heads blown to hell. The stench of butchered meat and rotting flesh consumed by maggots under the furnace of sun. The yearning to vomit from guts stretched and empty.
On the morning of the fourth day he woke to hands firm but not rough and voices he could understand, men speaking French and one speaking English, a cockney accent with a tinge of Irish.
He was transported by open jeep across a desolate desert, barren but hard packed, rough terrain where each bump and jolt brought a plea for an ending to a mouth swollen beyond speaking.
He felt the wound seep again. The English man leaned over him, “You ain’t the best mate” the voice rough but the eyes young, soft and gentle.
“Shoot me….. please” the words ripped from a ruined throat incomprehensible and ragged. He looked with imploring eyes trying to make them understand him, imploring them to end the pain.
He woke on a bright cold morning in a bed, hard but clean, his tongue, no longer swollen, it immediately started probing, exploring. His lips were cracked but clean, teeth, all intact. His hand moved down to his hip which was bandaged, he poked but felt nothing but numbness. He tried to move toes and an ankle that he knew were no longer there. Tears had come unbidden. He was only twenty two, a farmer back in Wicklow before he was conscripted.
He would never be able to walk behind a plough or ride a horse. He would be left like so many others, useless. Half a man, an encumbrance, at best a beggar on a mean flint road to an early death.
He wrote to Alice in the first week of August telling her he would not be returning, that he had found someone else and she should forget him. He had made his words as terse and blunt as he could and held back the tears that threatened to choke him, blur his eyes and dilute his resolve.
He wrote to his brother also, telling him that he was sorely wounded and not expected to survive. He would write no further and they would assume the worst and life would continue without him and once he was discharged he would make his way to some cliff or high building and he would end this sham of a half existence.
He resisted the chair at first, a contraption of steel and woven fabric, wheels and handles which meant he could be pushed onto the lawn. They rolled him out each day like an exotic plant that needed sun and water to grow and bloom. The thought almost brought a laugh to a tortured throat but erupted rather, as a sob of resignation and regret.
He sat on the rough grass overlooking the ocean, feeling the wind that blew across the channel, the same wind that caressed the peak of mount Leinster and the thatch of a home he could hardly remember.
He looked inward only, his eyes forever careful to avoid those others who were his broken companions, the walking, laying, crying wounded. The men who lost legs and arms and eyes, or worse those who had lost their minds, the mumbling idiots who relived the horror even while awake. He heard their cries in the night and they drew him into their terror. The sound of mortar and shell, the screams of men caught up on barbed wire and shoot to hell by enemy infantrymen as scared of war as they were.
The futility of war. No man could return from this and be whole and unchanged. He would die here in France, it was his right. He had earned it in the desert. He refused to live like this. The war was over. Dover’s gleaming white would welcome other men home to lives, once lived and to whatever peace they could achieve after the nightmare of this. But he would not go, he would die here.
Aurelia watched the Irishman, saw how he failed each day, the pain in palest blue eyes that nearly brought tears to her own steel grey. He had decided to die, a decision easily taken when his body was already broken and food turned to ash and dirt on a tongue that thickened for the want of death. He had simply stopped, he didn’t sleep or eat, he refused medication and he slipped quickly and quietly towards the death that he was deprived of in the desert. The death that by right was his. She understood every part of his desire, felt it herself sometimes. War kills people, not just with mortar and bayonet and bullet. It killed you from the inside out, showed you things no human should see.
She had heard the stifled sobs, of men cut in half and kept alive by medicine and care which would not be available to them beyond this building, she understood.
Life, so precious before had been made small by bloody immersion in death. She had witnessed a passing parade of men leave this awful place, some left with lives as artificial as the patriotism they displayed when they saluted the flag and a king that cared for them not one jot. The Irishmen who were forced into a conflict while at home there fellows rebelled against the very nation that they fought and died for. Aurelia understood that tragedy and irony often went hand in hand, a comedic farce that would be amusing but for the death and the maiming of heroes.
Second Lieutenant Peter Flanagan would die here in France, be buried with the unknown and the uncared for and be forgotten in the fullness of time. Unidentified but for a white cross in a field where poppies would grow on the green grass and brown dirt, Aurelia turned and walked from the room, she could not help him anymore than she could help herself, the war had damaged them both.
The Irishman’s body proved stubborn, the wounds healed slowly, he became gaunt from starvation but she saw he had not the strength of will to deprive himself completely. His body craved life even if his mind rejected it, eat he must and eat he did.
The first day she left him alone with some amalgamated mess that was called meat. Unidentified as to its origins, If it was beast or man or bird, she didn’t know nor did she care. But the Irishman ate the meat and most of the bread on his tray. She had left him to the solitude of the gardens, September had arrived warm but at last comfortable, the killing heat of summer gone at last and with it the hospital slowly became again a graceful country house.
Most of the injured were already gone, shipped to homes or hospitals in England. Soon they would close this place and the last of the men would be sent to god knows where. Aurelia watched from the window as the Irishman threw bread to the scattering flock of doves that were daily visitors to the overgrown lawns. He was watching them intently, for the first time he was showing interest in something other than his own misery. He was young, had the look of a boy, his face not yet calloused from the razor. His wounds were healing but he was dying, he was not fatally injured and had no terminal disease, he was dying because he had surrendered to death.
He was not the first that she had seen who made that awful decision to die. But he would be the last. In six weeks she would be free of this awful place and she would find some other occupation, she would spend no more of her days among the scarred and the broken. She would not allow them to suck her into their sordid hell.
The damaged dove hopped close to Peter’s wheel chair. It eyed him with avian intelligence that Peter found disconcerting.
He tossed a small piece of bread that landed half way between the wheelchair and the bird. The other doves ignored it entirely but the plump cripple immediately and without fear hopped awkwardly forward and worked busily with her beak gobbling the morsel of bread.
Peter believed the grey dove with the black neck band was female, he had no good reason except that its tenacity and bravery reminded him of Alice.
Peter began to save his bread from breakfast, he was curious to see just how brave this crippled bird was, how far it would go to survive and thrive in a world where the odds were stacked heavily against it. At first the creature had been just a distraction but over days it became an obsession, he felt connected somehow to the bird as if their injuries made them kin, brothers of the un-whole.
Peter wanted to identify the bird’s injury, at first he had believed its wing to be broken but he had seen it fly as well as its companions and yet on the ground it held its right side wing low to the ground and moved awkwardly as if the weight of the wing pulled her off balance.
One morning he came earlier, enthused now, determined to lure the bird close enough so he could examine it in detail. He took an extra robe to keep the early coldness at bay. The French nurse pushed him to the lawn. He was disappointed to find the doves where not on the green. “It’s too early for them perhaps” the nurse suggested, her accent soft and intimate in the way only a French girls can be. Peter nodded, he didn’t mind waiting, he had no pressing engagements, no meeting to attend or friends to visit, he would wait on the lawn for the doves or for death and would entertain which ever arrived first. The doves landed close to midday. She, the object of his obsession led the parade across the lawn. Grey cloud scudded overhead making the green of grass and leaf sing and zing in the backlight of an impending storm. The shadows fell long as if the moving flock were gigantic prehistoric birds, flightless pterosaurs.
Peter remained quiet, wrapped within the blanket that the nurse had draped about his shoulders. Intelligent eyes watched him again from a distance of only a few yards. He still could not identify the damage or cause of her injury. He could see clearly that she used her right wing as a prop but could not fathom the reason. She was as big if not bigger than the other doves, he supposed the ration of crusts and titbits gave her an advantage. She was, but for the lob-sided gait, healthy in all other respects. Her head bobbed with curiosity, eyes piercing black, regarding him with the same interest he demonstrated towards her.
She watched and she waiting, she had learned early the rules of the game and knew if she waited patiently at the edge of her area of comfort that eventually the reward would come. Peter tossed the first piece of crust close to his dead useless stump. The bird waited to see it he would toss more. She was not yet comfortable enough to approach so closely. Like a fish on a line she would need to be drawn in slowly. Peter tossed a second piece a little further away. She weighed the risk in this new proximity, eyes, black beads looking rapidly from chair to crust and finally deciding that she was happy with this arrangement she hopped forward. She moved in her habitual shuffle to claim the prize. Peter could see more of her now. The patina of glowing pinkness in feathers that at first glance appeared grey. Her brown ruff below the definite black of her neck band. He could see the reflection of sky in eyes that close up reflected a glow of sepia or desert redness. He could still see no reason for her injury or her gait.
For many days Peter saved bread and fed it to the dove, every day he tempted the injured bird closer and closer to his chair. He was testing her, wanted to see how far she would go to achieve her goal. He had already christened her, “The dove of war” but in his mind he called her Alice. He wondered if perhaps the injury to the bird was internal or even psychological. Had she flown to close to a big gun or been caught in a blast. He had seen men walk in circles and talk to ghosts after the guns had sapped their minds of all reason. But she didn’t seem in anyway simple or insane, to the contrary she displayed intelligence and resolve way beyond that of her companions.
The main body of the flock she flew with were losing condition as winter approached but the invalid was still fat and sleek. Peter knew that she had altered herself, changed her nature to compensate for her injury. She had learned to play this dangerous game with another creature that by all the natural laws should be considered her enemy. The dove fascinated him and as the fascination grew so did Peters appetite, not just for food but for life and for conversation and interaction.
October landed with darker colder days and yet Peter insisted every day that he be pushed to the lawn early. He waited for them to come and was never disappointed.
Then the final day came, the other doves collected on the lawn, picking grubs and flying insects from the dry soil. Chattering with the anticipation of travel, the long trek to Africa. Worms would rise soon sensing the rain to come but for now pickings were limited so Peter tossed a handful of crumbs among them. They immediately fled in a scatter of wings, lifting high, wheeling and disappearing into the grey blackness before reappearing and settling and fighting their fellows for the crumbs.
The single injured bird ignored them, she remained on the ground. She showed no fear now, had become almost brazen, Peter waited and as he did an idea he was hardly aware of began to coalesce, a realisation of the similarities between himself and his feathered friend. A truth in reality that he had known for some time. The reason he was so fascinated by this damaged dove was that it represented all he was. But the bird was brave and he was not. He was, in spirit, less than this simple creature, he surrendered but she found ways to fight and thrive.
Peter again scattered crumbs about his missing feet, that one place she had not yet dared, the proximity to much for her, and each day he had relented and fed her crumbs at a more comfortable distance, had allowed her to eat in that no man’s land between his chair and the other birds who would surely steal from her were they brave enough to approach a man. Today he threw no further crumbs than those at his feet. He waited and he watched and she did the same until at last she decided, she hoped again, closer, never hesitating as other birds did, a decision made, decisive, she pursued her goal, the prize too much for her to refuse.
Peter held his breath as she came within just a foot of him. She snatched her reward but she did not flee with it as he had expected. She stood her ground a she devoured the crust. Peter quietly drew more bread from his pack, scattered it in three piles right beside where his hands could reach. He held his breath waiting again to see where the limits of bravery ended. He knew then that if she was brave enough to face this challenge and the danger it represented then he too would have to be brave enough to face his challenges. He would accept the limitations of a broken body, he would find a way to be of use.
He thought of the banjo and the violin he had left in a cottage below Mount Leinster, he could still play them, he thought of prose and poetry, he could still write, he could perhaps be a little above a common beggar, at least one who paid in kind for charity. He waited, his life in the hands of fate, or rather in the wings of a bird that was so much more than just a creature. And then in a moment she was there, pecking at the crumbs below where his feet once were. Devouring and striving to survive just as he must. And the he saw her injury revealed, his breath exploded from burning lungs, he saw clearly a stump of gnarled and contorted pink flesh, no toes splayed under her and yet she had developed this gait which kept her upright, used her wing as a crutch. Peter called for the nurse who came running across the lawn thinking that he had hurt himself some how. “What” she cried, her eyes sparkling with tears and her words breathless. “Teach me to use the crutches” Peter answered.
Aurelia smiled as she watched him progress along the pathway, tomorrow he would return to England and from there to his home in Ireland. Once he was gone she would pack her few things and board the train for Nantes, life was slowly returning to the burnt spectre of Europe.