The army had been moving now for fourteen hours straight across tortured fields full of the dead scythed down two days previous in what had started out as a skirmish but had ended in a major engagement. Though it was almost midnight the stench from the moonlit blackened bodies was near to choking and sporadic coughing could be heard up and down the line of the living. A grim harvest had proceeded nearly minutes after the killing had moved on from this field and over the ridge down towards the stream that led to the major tributary. Given the number of corpses posing as logs in the intransigence of the absence of light one could easily have the impression that a forest had been neatly chopped into man sized planks that littered underfoot. The dry bellies of the living ached but the legs that strode in unison with so many others defied them. The matter of an immediate bivouac was out of the question as there was no room on the ground below. The NCO’s voices were stilled barely a fatherly whisper above the sound of moonlight upon lifeless sunken flesh. The hollows left by the birds staring back from below suggesting one’s probable fate if one dared to look below the waist belt of the soldier moving steadily on before him.
Morel’s feet ached and his overstuffed pack was cutting in deep into his shoulders through the worn threadbare tunic that had lost a button in the front so that the cold air poured in every time he turned his head. He unlike many around him was not well acquainted to slaughter. Certainly not at the close distance of the length of a bayonet. Nasty weapon, it could cleave cleanly through you when wielded in expert hands. Unlike many about him on all sides he was used to street lamps and a warm bed at this portion of the night not the barely discernible shadows of rats running here and their carrying off small portions of other brothers in arms. But what did he care for the loss of humanity afforded these wax statues who were now no longer accorded the dignity of men. Collectively, they were just carrion for the every present vermin that followed the columns of soldiers on either side of this meaningless conflict. There was no simple reason why for all this but some complex bit of nonsense that had to do with the fulfillment of financial speculation as much or more than the bruised feelings of any sitting monarch. Death was a business and they were the fodder to feet it.
Was it any wonder that many men stayed as drunk as they could at any and every opportunity despite the ever present threat of near lethal martial punishment for the smallest of infractions. Being seen to drink while on-duty would bring a series of stripes etched in one’s flesh by the lash or possibly something worse? The corporal with his detachment was a sadist who took relish is hiding anyone so unfortunate as to be caught by the lieutenant tippling away. The crunch and squish of bone and rotting flesh part of the rhythm. Thank God no one could see too much! They would have to stop soon and the low shadow of a ridge was growing ever more prominent in the dun of night. The last hundred yards brought them to a demolished hedgerow and a dirt road just beyond. The strident bark of several platoon commanders rustling up the much louder cry of each of their NCO’s. The men fell upon the unleavened dirt on the other end of the road. Some not even bothering to unbuckled their packs. So exhausted was the column from what had seemed another useless trek. The sentries were set at the expected intervals and a few unlucky men detailed to drag off the few corpses that had managed to make it over the barricade that artillery barrage after artillery barrage had made a mess of what had once been trees.
Strange dreams seemed to hit the young man immediately and it was impossible to determine if he had fallen asleep or simply sunk into a stupor. Though the shattered remains of the hedgerow prevented anyone to catch sight of same, it seemed the bones were casting a glowing light from just beyond. Odd how one’s mind is a natural trickster? The mind so accustomed to these sorts of misreads that one never thought to question the strange anomalies that occurred in nature when viewed from betwixt. The random flicker of light ver the row giving credence to one’s imagination that the dead had come back to life to gather themselves for the long voyage to eternity. The time honored business of slaughter setting up an impromptu community to populate the darkness and scare to death those easily intimidated. He wasn’t intimidated! He prided himself on his lack of imagination. Such inexplicable displays of the macabre were lost on his cultures. Sleep came heavy and fitful and he was transmitted by exhaustion back to the eve just after battle when the field seemed filled with moaning crawling hulking shapes. The rasp of a voice here and there. The final passage of breath caught nearby in a sudden choking sound or a final sigh.
Morel rolled to his side to see a figure that scrambled over from one corpse to the next. A hulking presence that seemed to be transacting some form of business at every station the shape hesitated by. The pattern of its travel seemed to suggest that the shadowy creature was being drawn by the last earthly struggles of each twisted mound laying prone and horizontal. Sometimes the shadowy mound would shiver for an instant as the small figure approached. But within a moment or so would become terminally inert. Though his body was already cold the sight of the ministrations being conducted made his own blood seem like ice water. Something deathly and unholy seemed to suggest that this was no mere robber of dead of dying men but something much worse. What could such a creature want on such unhallowed and battle befouled ground beyond the remnants of suffering that still lingered after hours of agony. A sweeter form of meat for it? The smallish thing was now closer perhaps only a matter of several yards.
The fickleness of the light of the moon refused access to it’s visage but its form was more easily visible. It looked to all one could fathom like the remnants of a woman. Not a conventional sort of broad hip slight shoulder hoop skirted ‘frau’ but the partially unclad remnants of one wasted by the grave. It’s sagging skeletal attributes occasionally revealed beneath the torn sections of a long trailing gray Potter’s earth stained shroud. He could see it bend down to rest upon one bony knee by one quietly sobbing soldier taking his hand in its own meager grasp. Then as the poor man shivered it bending over to kiss him full upon the mouth. The most horrible aspect of the true nature of the entity being its face revealed by this action. It’s feature were not distorted but on the contrary eerily comely and when fully revealed momentarily by the selfish moonlight stunningly beautiful. This seemed unsettling enough to comprehend that something so obviously contradictory that in its decrepit physicality it should possess such vibrant radiance in only its continence? The conundrum of this hellish fiend being amplified when having leaped from the now fully dispatched remains of its last client its face seemed instantly transformed to another serendipitous female persona that it plied to the next barely stirring candidate. The foul thing was the worst form of nocturnal predatory thief. It was snatching souls!
It was now only several feet away and Morel felt stirred to the point of boiling over by a terrible inner rage. A thought most singular flashing bright in the sky of his mind illuminated as if from a bolt of lightning. He must continue the ruse of his own near to fatal disability until this terrible presence was upon him and sent it back to Hell with his own sharp pointed bayonet. His grip as those things went in barracks lore was considered exceptional in contests of strength even against those from more hardworking pastoral settings. He would grab hold of the bitch’s long thin neck and throttle the thing until his other hand could find purchase of his own dirk and ram it home. As the thing stirred and cavorted over to the bundle beside him his own mind swelled with the venom of a building hatred at the temerity of this ghostly female’s guile. His eyes burned as the features of an otherwise perfect porcelain visage supped upon what was once a young and vigorous youth cast be the vagaries of combat into despair. How many instants longer did Morel have before the spectral presence made a leap for him. His own heart loudly beating like a military band’s bass drum on parade. His own time imminent within an indeterminate number of seconds cleaved by the vagary of this carnal creature’s current intent.
Without Morel knowing it a woman was now upon him. Much to his shock she was no longer the sallow fleshed skeleton but his own beloved Marie. Her glowing radiance offset by the summer Sun upon the park of his almost forgotten home. The familiar sights of the neighborhood that he had known as an adolescent framing the smile of her just above him. Her bare breasts swinging over her belly with haunches tightly upon him as if he was her saddle. The promise of a rising warm imminence of his lower torso quickly rising as he unexpectedly found himself fully committed in this bout of coitus. She rocked harder and harder upon him as if the two were engaged in a gallop across a field. A sense of anticipation growing that the conclusion of same would result in some leap from the earthbound into the air over the barrier of a stone wall the conclusion ending into a crash as hoofs hit unbroken in rhythm upon the other side. Startled, Morel found himself unprepared for enacting the final battle that he had assumed would be engaged. Instead he felt himself rising as the urgency of his own belly was rising to the expected explosion of release. The heavens were golden and he was flying high about the earth the wind sounding in his ears in that one long instant before a final conclusive jolt.
The sun’s presence was duly noted by the company’s NCO as he went from man to man rousing them roughly with a shake and a fatherly bark. Each of the men stirring from a moment of stupor to replace the buckle of a cartridge belt or now risen to their feet swing up the burden of their packs upon their shoulders. Some quickly sauntering to the roadside to unbutton and quickly let the flow. The predawn now lit here and there by pipes and rolled tobacco in its many forms as men grumbled and were grudgingly arranged into the expected formation by their impatient subalterns. Man by man they loudly counted off as a corporal called their names from the small leather bound regimental digest that he kept as part of the duties of his rank. “Morel”, he shouted out receiving only silence. “Morel” he reprised in a slightly louder tone with the same empty interval absent of a response. His mouthing of the name caught by the interdiction of another anonymous voice from within the assembled ranks. “Dead!” “Killed by a sniper on the far side of this field!”, it quickly offering. “Poor bastard!”, mumbled the irritated corporal almost audibly under his breath. “Form up by fours!”, came the command and the column unsteadily at first fell into a gait down the road marching in step towards the newly awakening sun.