by Matthew Murphy
Baraka Books, 2016
In the roomy cinderblock barn now serving as his headquarters, he ticks down the minutes till the attack, cigarette by cigarette, the burning fuse of time. Twenty minutes. Ten minutes. Soldiers come and go.
“Tea or coffee, sir?” He looks up to see Cooley.
“Coffee, please. Or tea. Actually I don’t care which, whichever you can serve me the quickest.”
“Yes, sir.” Awaiting his beverage, Jim opens his cylindrical map case and produces his copy of the battle area map and his typewritten orders, now dog-eared and oiled by the nervous thumbing of his fingers. Time to look like an officer again. There is a poke on his shoulder. Jim looks up and sees Cooley hovering over him: “Tea, sir?”
“Please.” Cooley hands him a china teacup full of steaming orange pekoe tea.
“Where’d you get a cup like that?”
“The ruins of the adjoining house. There was a perfectly preserved English tea set in there.”
“Good work, as always,” commends Jim.
Cooley smiles, salutes, and walks away. Jim tries the tea. It is surprisingly good, sugary and tempered with milk presumably bartered for from a local farmer. Real milk, not powdered milk—sometimes behind the lines miracles are worked, particularly by batmen, the de facto miracle workers of the army. Jim lights one last cigarette to go with his tea. He drinks the tea too quickly, and his stomach contracts and curdles. His cigarette, burning in his hand, is suddenly off-putting, and he snuffs it out in his teacup and it hisses with one final protest before dying, a sodden cork-tipped butt floating in a cup of half-drunk tea. God, not again …
He steps outside for air. A moment later, the attack announces itself suddenly. Seven hundred guns erupt in earth-shattering unison, a fugue of thunder. Stunned, he blocks his ears, falls to his knees. He looks up. The sky is lit by the fireworks of muzzle flashes and the consequent trajectories of hundreds of shells. The fillings in his teeth rattle. He looks above at the streaking shells as they hiss and moan and whistle through the sky, and he looks back down to his watch. It is 2101, one minute past the point of no return. The attack is on.
With the sudden discharge of artillery comes a strange elation: at last, after a week of waiting under fire for his next attack orders, he can finally consummate his fear, get it over and done with, sally forth and seek his prey, take it to the enemy, for a time his nerves no longer frittering away but their tension concentrated into trained soldier’s instincts, to be transmuted into action, correct action and reaction, a Newtonian ballet of bodies and bullets. Become your orders, carry them out, make the men instruments to carry them out, and lead bravely by example. Be an officer and all that that entails. The day he received his commission, he burned with pride. Even Marianne looked proud of him. She probably was, then. He cut an impressive figure, holding the signed scroll and wearing his dress uniform with peaked cap, posing in front of the mirror, his image as an officer rhyming back at him in a heroic couplet, compound glory, twice the man.
He absorbs the pounding pyrotechnic display about him. The sky is streaked in trajectories. The earth rumbles underfoot and the horizon flares with countless muzzle flashes that bruise the clouds in their flicker. An overbearing overture of power, the prelude to every major offensive in which he has taken part. There is a pounding in his ears, and he tears two pieces from a Kleenex tissue, wets them with his spit and plugs his ears to what little avail they can offer, the bombardment pounding at his eardrums like a battering ram at the gates of a beleaguered castle, rippling through his bones, shaking his teeth like chinaware, echoing through his head, the shrapnel of noise shearing and snapping the frail filaments bonding his thoughts, reducing the interior of his head to a crashing, jangling catastrophe of noise disrupting all possibility of coherent thought. Here and there, flash by flash, are illumined trees, houses, hills, recoiling guns and men in action, captured in flared snapshots, yellow and orange flicker, red glow, a purple bruise of clouds.