The cold cuts through my threadbare coat and straight into my bones. I clench the rifle in my hands, keep it close to my chest; it’s the only thing that might save me in this trash-heap of a city
We have been tasked to secure the square. Above, the sun hides in the clouds. Thin light peeks onto the rubble. The men around me don't speak, don't even look at each other. Ahead lies a weathered clearing of some sort. Someone mutters something. We stop where we stand.
It’s the square, or rather what's left of it. Bodies lie twisted over each other the ground, littered with bits of stone and spent shells. Tattered tents cling to their poles like trees stripped of their branches. Overhead looms a clocktower. Below it, a great leader salutes the congregated dead. He has been waiting for us, I know. I stare into his bronze face and wonder how many others have met those eyes, rapped the stone stand for luck.
I wonder how many are still alive.
An order is passed down the line. I fumble with my rifle as we move forwards. It looks like we're alone, safe, but still my heart pounds in my chest, every beat a drum, like a mortar, a thunderstorm in the making. I'm waiting for shots to come, for the bullets to spark and metal to flash and a bayonet to be shoved into my chest and the blood, a river of blood –
Nothing happens. We secure every inch of the square. The man in charge says another word, and most move to follow him; the rest of us stay behind. I stay with them. When the group is out of sight, I take a seat and lay my rifle on the ground.
Other than the bodies, the square is empty. I need only to look at their uniforms to tell them apart; it’s about half and half, ours and theirs. Most are piled around the centre, and so I edge towards the sides, sit down beside a wilted tree and look around. No one looks scared anymore. Most of the men are smiling.
Someone yells for us to eat and I dig through my pouch, bring out a half-ration and bite down. The stuff is flaky and dry, but I'm drooling as I chew, wetting the meal as I go along. And for dessert —
A crack rings through the square. I throw myself to the ground – another crack, pop pop in reply – another. Shots fill the air in double time, even and sharp, whoever shooting not missing a beat. Beneath the gunfire – screams. My regiment.
I peek out just in time to see an older man running towards me, eyes wide and mouth gaping – and then his face disappears in a flash of red and a dull thump. I stare at the headless thing, the flat-necked thing in front of me and it topples, spurting, and I drop to my stomach, the ground hard beneath me. Another shot rings out, they’ve never stopped, they keep coming, steady, one after the other –
In the tower, a man chambers a round.
– and another, and another, so many shots ringing across the square and then there’s silence, dead silence, and I look up and no one else is standing; nothing moves. There are only the bodies, the bodies on the ground, some of them twitching, and as I lower my head something glints in the clocktower and there’s thunder, something hot and snarling throws me to the ground.
Pain courses up my side, hot like acid. I press my hand to the throbbing and when I look down at my shirt there’s no more grey; it’s all red. I can just see a dark hole in the fabric, and beneath it something darker. The blood wells up and I stare as it leaves me.
My head hits the ground, the world shakes. I’m on my back. The clouds are one gray sheet. My pulse marks the time; thump thump, missing a beat, then too fast; time is expanding and dilating and then racing. Each beat betrays. I can feel it, all of it running down my skin and caking my shirt but I think I’ve lost too much, the edges are going black, and then a blob, a dark blob opens up in front of me and I squint and it’s a man, a man with streaks of dirt on his face. He’s looking down, he’s kneeling, he’s reaching into his pocket –
He leaves the clock tower slowly, rifle slung his shoulder and a pistol in hand. He prods the corpses as he passes. None of them so much as whimper. The only sound is the distant crack of mortars… and then another sound, coming from the edge of the square. The man heads towards it.
It is a soldier, an enemy soldier, young and shaking, his uniform bloody, torn, and much too large. The man holsters his pistol and kneels, then from of his pocket brings out a tin. He takes a cigarette, lights it, and puts it in the young soldier’s mouth.
The boy has the decency to take a drag. His lips clamp down on the butt so hard it’s a wonder the thing doesn’t split in half. As he smokes, the tears dry up. Wet lungs suck in and blow out, working for each gurgling breath. The tip flares, smoke billows out through his nostrils and into the air, clouding over bone-white cheeks.
Halfway through the smoke, the young soldier stops shuddering. He lets out a sigh. The cigarette stays where it is.
The man takes it out of the young soldier’s lips and places it back in his pockets. A quick pat-down reveals a small parcel; yellow pictures, a broken watch, and,wrapped in silver foil, one half-finished bar of chocolate. The man pockets this and leaves the rest. He looks first east, then west, then gets up and heads for tower.
Sitting on the scrawny roll, the man with the rifle watches below. The bodies are shapeless lumps in the dark, soft rotting things beneath a moonless sky. Sometimes at night he hears skittering below, and jumps up, ready for the bullets and the tanks but it is only the rats, certainly not men; the men are all dead, it cannot be them, crawling for the clock tower with their puffy faces and their swelled tongues, ragged hands and dull, dull eyes. It is only the rats.
The man lies down. Against his skin, the breeze is cold, but gives the place some freshness. Dust stirs about; ash has settled in a fine layer over everything. Soon the wind stops and the room presses down, thick and dry and smoky. He draws the sheets around him but they are too thin to offer any real comfort.
The man turns, then turns again, closes his eyes and relaxes his shoulders, stills his mind and steadies his breathing, but sleep, as always, eludes him.