Smokes

The sky was grey. Wind moved through the soldiers crouched amongst tall grass, in a declivity ten or fifteen yards above a dirt road. Thirty yards away, the road curved out of sight, disappearing behind a steep hill. Drops of dew dotted the flora around the men. Dawn had passed, but the sun was not out and a blanket of fog still wove throughout the grass.

The men crouched still. Some moved from time to time, in a deliberate, self-conscious way, shifting their weight uncomfortably. Each man’s hands gripped a rifle, the metal barrels white with condensation. The men’s beige uniforms were dark at the knees with mud, and blended in with the grass in the overcast light.

One of the men was lying with his chest against the embankment, sighting down the long barrel of his rifle through the grass, his green, mushroom-shaped helmet askew. His gun was a bolt-action Springfield, with a black metal sight fixed to the top.

His knees were cold, sunk into the wet ground. With one hand, without taking his eye away from the sight, the man slid the bolt back and forward again deftly, locking it down into place with a click. He’d done this many times before. The other men watched him. He watched the road below, looking at the spot where it curved out of view.

A sound came from around the bend; a low droning that grew louder, accompanied by a crackling like firecrackers. A grey-green truck appeared, its tires crunching over gravel, making a popping sound and kicking up clouds of light brown dust that mixed with the grey sky. The crouching soldiers were still, but their fingers tightened on their guns, and their bent backs moved up and down with their breath. Some brought the butts of their rifles up to their shoulders, the tips of the barrels  rising, nudging the grass aside.

The sniper moved his barrel minutely. The sight was clouded over a bit with moisture, but through it he could still see the white face of the soldier driving the truck, and the men behind him, sitting side by side in their grey uniforms with their rifles propped upright between their knees. His finger brushed he trigger. He pulled it.

There was crack like a whip. The sniper raised his eye from the sight. The driver slouched, and the truck swerved. Men were standing up around the embankment, the barrels of their rifles flashing. There was noise. Guns jerked back. The truck rolled into a ditch beside the road and came to a halt, and men leaped out the back of it, raising their guns. More noise, and some of them fell. The sniper looked through his scope, bringing the barrel around and sighting at one of the men in the road. The sniper aimed at the man’s grey uniform; at his chest, between the black collar and thick belt. He pulled the trigger and saw the man stagger, saw his legs go out from under him.

There was a slapping sound, close beside. The sniper looked up as a man fell down next to him, rolling face-up. Red dyed the beige front of his uniform, spreading quickly. The man looked up with wide, scared eyes. The sniper dropped his gun and placed his hands over the red area, but it had spread too much to cover.

“George…” the man said. His words faltered, his jaw slackening, but his eyes still stared up, still wide. Still alive. His lower lip trembled, his face turning pale.

The sniper, George, didn’t say anything. William—that was his name; the dying man—had lent him a smoke once, when they first started out. George took his hands off the man’s chest. They were red now too, but he didn’t care. He was looking in the man’s eyes; blue eyes. He put a hand behind the man’s head, took off his helmet and held him, looking in his eyes. He knew there was nothing he could do. For a moment, the sounds of the battle were gone. Then the blue eyes slid away from George’s, away from everything, and William was dead.

There were no soldiers standing in the road anymore. Grey uniforms lay in the dirt, some moving, some still. The men walked down from the embankment, their fatigues stained with mud and grass and dew from lying there so long. They shot the ones still alive, and it was over.

George stood up and walked away from the dead man. Walked toward the road, pushing the tall grass aside, slipping slightly on the wet ground. The truck was sitting there, its front end dipped into the ditch on the far side. It wasn’t smoking, or anything. Just a big green truck in a ditch. The only damage to it was the clean hole in the windshield, away from which crawled thin, thin fractures in the glass, like spider-webs. The driver was still sitting there, slouched forward against the wheel, as if he was asleep. George couldn’t see his eyes, but he knew the man was dead. He walked back up to the embankment and picked up his rifle. He didn’t look at the body lying there. The gun was heavy in his hands as he walked back down to the road. There were grey bodies lying all around; face up, face down. None of them were moving anymore. He didn’t know which of them was the one he had shot, right before William had been hit. He didn’t want to know.

A corporal named Johnston walked over and clapped George on the shoulder. He had a smooth, round face. He wasn’t wearing a helmet.

“Nice shot on the driver, George,” the man said. “Got him right in the dome.” He laughed. He tapped a cigarette out into his hand from a battered paper box, and pulled a scratched brass lighter out of his breast pocket. “Want a smoke?”

“No.”

“Your loss.”

George watched the man light his cigarette. His hands were dirty, but there was no blood on them. The cigarette glowed bright red as he took a pull, expelling smoke into the damp, heavy air. The smoke’s stale smell mixed itself with the pinching odor of cordite left over from the guns.

Men were moving the German bodies, piling them in the ditch by the truck. There was a puddle in the middle of the road and George stood in front of it and looked down at his reflection, at his dirty grass-stained pants bunched up around the tops of his leather boots and his coat with all its pockets, cinched at the waist by a brown belt lined with extra magazines. At his hands by his sides, stained brownish red with William’s blood, and his long rifle. At his face, all dark and rough-hewn and unshaven, looking down at itself with shadowed eyes from under his helmet. He chewed his lip.

He thought about those eyes again that had been brighter than the grey sky, before they died. He remembered how the light had gone out of them, out of the very pupils, and how the blue irises lost their luster as if they’d turned to stone.

Suddenly he remembered another pair of blue eyes from another time, and days spent under clearer skies. Days without the smell of gunpowder, without bodies on the dirt, back when he didn’t smoke. He remembered lying awake at nights as a different man, thinking about love. He remembered a girl whose laughter was like sunlight; he couldn’t remember what she looked like anymore, just those blue eyes, and how they had made him feel like his heart was overflowing. How they had overflowed with tears, those eyes, one day so long ago.

 

That night, George sat upright on his cot with a lamp on and smoked, and thought about blue eyes, knocking ash from his cigarette into the little tin beside his bed. Then he took out a yellowed envelope and a piece of paper from his pack, and smoothed the paper flat against his knee, and took a pen, and sucked on the end of it for a while. Then he began to write.

When the tin was full of ash, he took it outside and emptied it, tapping it against the ground, his knuckles getting wet with dew. He walked a little ways and relieved himself, and looked up at the sky for a while; at the stars that were the only lights beside the lamp-lit tents around him. Then he went back to his cot, and sat there and wrote until long after he’d run out of smokes, until he’d run out of paper and the gentle light of dawn was beginning to edge out the stars.

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