Published on 2012/09/02

How the Dead Die

Troy Morash

Without a pocket watch it was impossible to tell what time of day it was. The vaporous air clung to the swampy battlefield. François could see only a few meters from the trench, to just where the barbed wired began.

It was almost an hour since the last squad had been sent out. The men in the putrid trench were straining their eyes for any movement in the vapor. It had been over a month without a major engagement with the enemy. There had been small attacks by German soldiers but they were easily mowed down. The Captain was eager to know of the enemy’s position. Previous squads sent out on reconnaissance missions, as if in recompense, failed to return. Suddenly the soldiers could hear the stamping of feet through the muck. Another attack. As usual the attack always came after the scouts had been sent out.

The French scrambled to their positions. Within moments they could see the Germans stumbling through the barbed wire. The machine gunner opened fire. The sound was splitting. François could actually see one German’s facial features, together with his uniform and spiked helmet. He took aim and fired and watched the German fall onto his side and sink into the muck.

The Captain inspected no man’s land through binoculars. All he could see was a pile of German dead. There was no sign of the squad he had sent out, not even a sign that they were dead, and as far as the French could determine there had been no exchange of fire. Maybe they had been taken prisoner? In any case the Germans and French were exchanging squad for squad.

‘François,’ the Captain shouted. ‘We must find out what the condition of the enemy is. I want you to go alone this time and report back once you’ve sighted the Germans.’

This had not been the first time François had been ordered to crawl through the muck into no man’s land but nevertheless his heart started to pound at the thought of the gruesome impressions that awaited him. He took a pistol and knife and climbed out of the trench. It took five minutes of wading through the muck to reach the barbed wire. The vapors seemed to grow denser. They were odorless and François grew nervous. He had heard of the Germans using gas and even though it would have been too late he put on his gas mask. Once past the barbed wire he came upon the German bodies. The gas mask thankfully blurred the ghastly sight and he crawled for another ten minutes before reaching a small crater. Spanning the crater was a series of rubber hoses, which he almost got tangled in. By now the vapor was thinning but he could not determine where exactly the German firing line was. The landscape was featureless, an endless wasteland of mud covered in debris that was sinking into it. As he seemed to be utterly alone he decided to crawl further as far as the German barbed wire. He was not far off and in a couple of minutes he reached a cut. Here he was very cautious. Any detected movement would mean certain death. The gas mask was by now hindering his sight and, as the vapors had dissipated, he took the mask off. He crawled through the barbed wire. It was then he came across a French soldier not long dead. ‘Odd we didn’t hear the German fire,’ he thought. But odder still when he suddenly came to the German firing line and fell into it. He drew his pistol awkwardly but the trench was deserted.

‘The Germans couldn’t have been gone long,’ he thought. It never occurred to him to wonder why the trench was deserted. He was simply relieved it was; assuming they had retreated. Nearby was a pot of steaming stew a few yards from a concrete pillbox. He tried the door. It was locked. He looked around, trying to be as professional a soldier as he could but the stew was like a drug and his mind became intoxicated with the delicious odors. It took François only a couple moments before he was gobbling it up. He was so engrossed with his meal that he failed to notice the short stout German man with long whiskers standing before him wearing a monocle in his right eye and smoking a pipe. He wore an old German imperial uniform. When he noticed the German officer he dropped the bowl and swung his pistol at the man and blushed. The German could already have killed him. The old man seemed amused and placidly said with a smile, ‘Je cède (I surrender!).’

‘You speak French?’

‘Evidemment. I highly admire your Balzac.’

‘You are now a prisoner of war.’

‘Oh I see, well as you wish.’

‘Come with me.’

‘Not across that horrid field?’

‘Yes. Now,’ François said waving his pistol in the direction of the field and French trenches.

‘Well, if you insist. But I think I had better change. Would you like some tea while you wait? I have just made a fresh pot,’ the German said glancing towards the concrete pillbox.

François hesitated.

The German officer smiled placidly, ‘I’m not really a soldier; don’t let this uniform fool you. I am a scientist. It may interest you as to how I manage to single handedly defend this position.’

François grimaced angrily. ‘Well let’s be quick about it then.’

‘Of course. Please, after you. As you can see we are quite alone and I am unarmed. You are free, at any time, to do with me as you wish, brave one.’

‘Don’t mock me, I can kill you, you know; I have killed many Germans, one more would not matter.’

‘Really? Many, you say? Where? You look fierce though, for, how old are you, eighteen?’

‘Nineteen. I only half an hour ago killed one of your men, so don’t make fun of me.’

‘An hour ago?’ the officer smiled. ‘But that is impossible; I am the only German here. I have been the only German here for months, or at least it seems like months. I have asked for hot running water but they are forever tardy with providing me with more civilized enmities. Please have a seat.’

François entered the pillbox and into what looked like a laboratory. It was warm. In the center of the room was a glowing furnace. The furnace was attached to a leather balloon the size of a car in the far corner with metal pipes protruding from it. From the balloon were attached rubber hoses that led out of the pillbox through an embrasure. But before the rubber hoses left the pillbox, they passed through some test tubes, siphons, stems, retorts, cannulas, gas heaters and droppers. In the far corner opposite the balloon was a small sofa and cushions and a bookcase full of books. The walls were adorned with art. All that could be heard was the sound of soft bubbling, the tick of clocks and the brewing of the delicious stew that François had tasted in the trench. The smell of the stew was overpowering. The German seemed to read the young soldier’s mind.

‘Would you like some more stew with your tea. You look like you could use a break from this nasty war.’

‘I really shouldn’t.’

‘Why?’

‘Well, you are the enemy and it might be poisoned.’

‘Well in that case there would be no hope for you as you’ve already tasted it. And anyway, it is not my style to kill. That I leave to professionals like you.’

The pillbox made François uncomfortable. He felt like a beggar in the presence of a king. ‘What is all this for,’ he said waving to all the apparatuses.

‘Ah this is my work.’

‘What is it for?’

The German seemed eager to explain. ‘Well I suppose there’s no harm in telling you, as you after all have captured me.’

‘Yes, you had better tell me everything.’

‘But I must warn you I have never been interrogated before so bear with me. I won’t bore you with all the science, but in laymen’s terms I reconstruct souls.’

François laughed.

The German smiled. ‘But the work I’m doing now is only preliminary. What I really wish to do is separate souls from their bodies mechanically.’

The German threw back a curtain in the far corner to reveal two dead German soldiers standing strapped to planks with thousands of pins stuck into them. They were in fresh uniforms and the pins were tied to wires that were fed to the leather balloon via an engine. One of them looked vaguely familiar to François.

‘I project the inner world of these two soldiers onto anything I want. I can duplicate their eternal image anywhere.’

‘So?’

‘So you shoot at them, thinking you are killing Germans.’

‘I think we would know the difference between a German and a picture,’ said François laughing sardonically.

‘Well, obviously you don’t. Who do you think you have been killing for the past month?’

François said nothing.

‘What do you think has been happening to the French squads you have been sending out?’

‘That’s why I’m here, to find out. We suspect they’ve been captured.’

The German smiled.

François frowned.

‘My dear boy, you’ve been killing your own men. I have transplanted the souls of my dead countrymen onto your men and when they return you kill them. Amazing, isn’t it? Finally, a machine that will bring an end to all wars, because no one will know who they are killing anymore. Let those who want to kill, kill themselves. What a solution! At a certain point we will run out of killers. I’m already becoming famous, you know.’

The German waited for François to make some congratulatory remark but François only sat silently staring at the floor.

‘It’s too difficult for you to understand? Well, don’t worry. It’s, how should I say, it’s how the dead die.’

François didn’t like this man. He spoke nonsense. There was a war going on, men needed to make sense. ‘I don’t believe you,’ he said.

The scientist smiled, ‘Well--.’ Suddenly a little bell rang. The scientist went to an embrasure and looked through a small telescope.

‘Ah, it looks like your friends have sent out a search squad for you. Six. You French certainly are an impatient lot. I will put out some more stew for them.’

The German took out a fresh pot of stew and then returned and locked the door. ‘Don’t worry; you can unlock the door from the inside.’

After a few minutes François heard his comrades outside exclaiming for joy that the Germans were gone.

The German began to turn a crank near the balloon and the rubber hoses inflated. Sparks started to fly near the dead Germans.

‘You see,’ the vain little scientist began, ‘the chemical theory of the make-up of the soul is now a proven fact. I have proven it. It isn’t difficult to control matter in molecular state. And don’t think I’m making ghosts,’ the German continued, by now engrossed in his work. ‘Ghosts are fairy tales. What I do is manipulate matter that already exists for the taking, regardless if the organism is dead or alive. Redirecting psycho-physiological electrical energy from the dead to the living or vice versa. But I can see I’m confusing you.’

Françoise wasn’t listening. He opened the door. His comrades were enjoying the stew.

‘Ah, there you are François, looks like the Germans have run away. Looks like we have them.’

The sergeant wiped his mouth and ordered the squad to head back to the French line. ‘We need more men to search these trenches.’

Françoise grew uneasy. ‘Maybe we should go back another way,’ he said. But the men had already headed up over the trench and were running back at full trot.

‘Wait!’ cried François chasing after them.

A few moments later they were in no man’s land. It was then François felt his body emptying. All of a sudden German words flooded his brain, overwriting his French essence. Then the French opened fire. But François was dead before he died. His soul had been crushed under the weight of another.

After the attack the French Captain looked through his binoculars and sighed at the sight of the German dead. ‘It looks like we’ll have to send for reinforcements. We’re getting nowhere here.’