an extract from the novel
by Patricia Anthony
In 1916 Travis Lee Stanhope, a young hell-raiser from central
Texas, joins the British Army. In a series of letters to his brother
Bobby, Travis Lee comes to terms with the memories of a drunken,
abusive father. He fights his own disturbing appetite for drink.
He learns the callousness of expediency and anti-Semitism.
And there, amidst the horrors of the trenches, Travis Lee realizes
that he may have a function in war besides the killing of his
enemies. For in his dreams he guides his dead comrades to a tranquil
graveyard, a peaceful, drowsy respite from war. There the dead
can sleep, a gentle presence to watch over, a vision he calls
"the calico girl."
He learns the callousness of expediency and anti-Semitism.
And there, amidst the horrors of the trenches, Travis Lee realizes that he may have a function in war besides the killing of his enemies. For in his dreams he guides his dead comrades to a tranquil graveyard, a peaceful, drowsy respite from war. There the dead can sleep, a gentle presence to watch over, a vision he calls "the calico girl."
You could hear the wounded moaning long before we ever got there. They were lying in the grass around the portable buildings. Men, towels over their eyes, were sitting dumbfounded and gasping in the road. We picked our way around dead still on their stretchers, left where they were dropped when it was seen they were without hope.
And there wasn't much hope, Bobby. In the yard, the freshly wounded; inside, men were puffed grotesque with rot: fingers the size of pickles, arms and legs like blood-sausage balloons. God, it stank. The air was close and suffocating with the greenish, cloying odor of spoiled meat. I wondered if those boys knew they were death-bound, or if they were still hoping.
Riddell stopped a doctor to ask directions. Marrs's face had gone pasty. Pickering kept looking at the ceiling. I tried the best I could to hold my breath, tried not to meet any of the bedridden's eyes. Then I saw a familiar figure in a corner. O'Shaughnessy was comforting the dying.
"This way," Riddell said.
We hurried after him, escaped past a canvas building and barrels piled high with bloody pus-stained gauze to another cheap canvas and wood barracks, one filled with the drowning-man sounds of the gas victims. That's where we found Foy.
He was sitting up on pillows. His arms were raw and oozing. He'd crusted his sheets, and in places they were stuck to him. His eyes were swollen nearly shut, dripping and thick with pus. It looked like he was crying amber.
"'Ello, there, Foy," Riddell said gently. He went up to the bed when none of the rest of us would.
Foy kind of tilted his head funny, squinting sideways at Riddell. He whispered something, I think. At least his cracked, swollen lips moved, and bleeding fissures opened. Jesus. He couldn't be hurt that bad. It was just a little sniff of gas. He'd got his mask on in time.
"You're right, Foy. 'Course I brought the others." How could Sergeant understand that dry-leaf whisper? How did he have the heart to smile? Riddell turned and pointed to where we stood in the safety of the aisle. "See, lad? Brought you Pickering and Marrs and old Stanhope, too."
I looked away. Toward the back wall, yellow-blistered men were strapped to their beds, trying their damnedest to scream. Nothing came out of the wide dark of their mouths but hisses.
"Brung you a comfrey poltice," Riddell was saying. He took a paper packet from his uniform blouse. "An' horehound and licorice for your cough."
I swallowed hard.
"No, no, it's all right, lad. Needn't try to speak. We'll do the speaking, won't we?" Riddell looked at us, warning in his eyes.
Pickering said in a wild, bright voice, "Got yourself a Blighty!"
The little joke went through me. Foy's grunting pain made me shiver. He was trying to smile. The effort cracked his skin apart again. Don't, I wanted to tell him. Don't you dare. Don't you go smiling at Pickering's lousy jokes.
Marrs's turn. The best he could manage was a nod and a wave.
"We miss you," I told Foy.
Pickering looked at me in surprise.
"We got us a new guy, name of Calvert. He's nice, I guess, but I miss you. I thought you should know that."
Pickering let out a high insane giggle. "Long as he doesn't fart in the dugout, like Marrs."
Then Marrs asked the unintentionally cruel question: "When are you coming back, then?"
What was left of Foy's mouth moved. His throat must have been all blisters too. I couldn't hear what he was trying so hard to say.
Riddell didn't either. He bent down. "What is it, lad?"
It was a stupid question that Marrs had asked; and the answer cost too much. Foy's struggle made me look away. In the corner hissing men were lashed tight to their beds, their raw, blistered tongues protruding. I looked away quick, and that's when I saw them.
They were just standing there, Bobby. Not pale like you'd expect, but hazy all the same, like they didn't have as much stuffing as the living. God. There were so many. They must have stood more than a company strong, shoulder to shoulder. A silent parade of dead men.
A shock wave of despair went through me. Not my despair, but theirs. I felt their loneliness. Their confusion. Felt the combined fear of over two hundred strong. And through that attack of emotion came a barrage of other people's memories, too--hand me downs, all sepia and faded: snatches of nursery rhymes I'd never known, a fierce mother-bond at the sight of a woman I'd never seen. Dozens of little boys and little girls, pictures of my children, each and every one of them a stranger. Grimy English streets and smoke-filled pubs. Wide sleet-spattered moors. Trout fishing with a father who loved me.
I felt a tug at my sleeve. Heard Marrs's concerned, "You all right, Stanhope? Need some fresh air, then?"
I shut my eyes quick. When I opened them, the ghosties were gone.
I left, too. Left Foy with his prolonged and hideous dying. In the fresh air of the yard I bent double, sucking air. A passing nurse eyed me. I stood up again and started walking fast, past the surgical hut, toward the road.
O'Shaughnessy's call stopped me. "Travis!"
I watched him scurry over the grass. He had a purple stole over his shoulders. It flapped, its embossing scattering the light. He was holding a Bible in both his hands. When he reached me, he didn't speak. All around that meadow I could hear the low, sad song of the wounded.
"Magnificat," I said.
He cocked his head and squinted, a gesture so near to what Foy had done that ice balled up in my belly: O'Shaughnessy trying to see me through the crust the both of us had built.
"Tell me what it says."
He smiled. "Ah. 'My soul doth magnify the Lord,' lad. 'And my spirit hath rejoiced.' Was that what you were seeking?"
"Yeah. Thanks." Nearby were piles of garbage from surgery: red mountains of gauze; a blue-white arm, its graceful fingers splayed.
"Will you not sit down and have a chat with me, Travis?"
I took a deep breath. Rotting flesh, but under that, the sweet smell of damp earth, the perfume of crushed grass.
"You've been to see Foy I take it?"
"Good that you did, lad. He'll be appreciating that."
Foy's slow march of the hours. None of us could go with him, not even those poor bastards whose screams had been stolen; not the ghosts who had already passed through these painful billets and were awaiting orders.
"A hard death," O'Shaughnessy said. "And hard to look at. Don't go blaming yourself for turning away."
Wide of the mark. Like Miller had been that time. Misunderstandings from men who should have known me better. "It makes me mad, sir. That's all."
"Don't be mad at God, lad. Wasn't Him sent Abner Foy to war. It was the British Army. And still, Travis, you see the horror of it surely, but you're a thinking man, and so I know you see the glory, too. Suffering the more to appreciate Heaven. Suffering as Christ Himself did. Seen that way, why, pain becomes a blessed thing."
"Should tell Foy. He'd like to know that."
"I have told him. I tell them all. Come now. I can see how distressed this has made you. Come. Sit down and let's have a chat."
Misunderstandings. He put his hand on my arm. I pushed it away. "You talked about things I told you private-like. I thought priests weren't supposed to do that."
"And what would that be?"
"About the whore. You told Miller, didn't you?"
O'Shaughnessy's attention wandered from canvas hut to dying soldiers to a far line of trees. "I could tell you that what we had was nothing that near to confession, neither the form nor the fact that you're not of the Faith. You're apostate, lad. And there are ten bishops at home who would pass over what I did without a squeak about my breaking the seal. Well, truth is, there would be ten bishops as well who would tell you that I'm a poor excuse for a priest. But it was just that Captain told me what the police had found, you see. Then he told me you had scarpered off somewhere that night. He was horrified by the implications, I can tell you, and frightened what the rest of the officers were gossiping. He asked if I thought you could do something so terrible."
I felt the first strong emotion since the ghosties' hand-me-down despair. It was rage.
He said, "I told him no."
Coming out of a door into the cleansing sunlight were Riddell, Pickering, and Marrs. Foy would still be inside, his leaking body on its stained bed.
"But I had to tell the captain the rest, Travis, for you're a puzzle whose pieces don't quite fit. And if it meant breaking a vow and taking on the sin of it, I intended to save your soul."
"The Army would have give a ten minute court martial, then took me out and shot me. What about trying to save my life a little before you went off blabbing about me, sir?"
"Ah, lad. If it was lives I wanted to save, I'd be telling all these boyos to go home."
Marrs, Pickering, and Riddell were waiting. By them, an officer. I ached to confess to someone, anyone, about seeing the ghosties, but it was too late.
I had started away when I heard O'Shaughnessy's quiet, "Sorry, lad."
Said serious enough, but he was grinning. In the middle of screaming and dying men, talking about suffering and glory. Smiling forgiveness for his own sins. In his purple stole, magnifying the Lord.
I trotted across the grass to Riddell. The officer with him turned to watch my approach.
". . . a week, I shouldn't guess." The officer was a major, one with medical corps insignia. "A bit of bad luck, that."
Foy's body weeping into his sheets. Bad luck. A blessing.
From Marrs a shockingly irate, "But I thought he was getting better."
The major didn't take offense. Get used to gassing victims, I suppose, you can get used to disrespect. "Um. Yes. Looked better for a while. Thought he'd turned the corner, what? But it had worked its way into the lungs. No way to know until the lesions started suppurating. Still, a kind word, a familiar face. Cheering them up does wonders, I always say."
"It's possible, then? He could get better?" Marrs asked.
The major cleared his throat. "Well! I'm sure that he enjoyed his little visit. There's that."
I left Pickering shaking his head at Marrs's question. I went back into the ward and closed the door behind me. No one, not the patients trapped in their grotesque bodies, not the overworked nurses, paid any attention to my entrance. No ghosties came to lend me memories. I walked over to Foy's bed.
He was either dead or asleep. I stood and watched until I saw the slight rise and fall of his chest. Too bad. Poor Foy, brimming over with blessings.
I reached down and took his swollen, scaly hand. "There's this graveyard, Foy. Look for it, will you? You'll know when you get there, because there's no other peace like it. There's marble angels and a mausoleum with a glass ceiling, glass so thick that light from it shimmers down on the tiles a pure water blue."
I couldn't tell if he was hearing me. The tip of his dry tongue came out, licked his lips. The inside of his mouth, I saw, was bleeding.
"There's a woman," I said. "You'll like her. Tell her I sent you. Tell her she needs to take care of you special. She'll do that for me. This is the truth, Foy. I'm sure of it now."
I started to leave, but he held onto my fingers for a heartbeat, so light and brief a holding that it might have been reflex.
I squeezed back, careful not to hurt him. "That graveyard. It's a goddamned beautiful blessing."
© Patricia Anthony 1997
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