2 comments

Suspense Drama Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Under the shelter of the old wooden wagon, peering between the wooden spokes of the wheel, caked in mud that had hardened by the freezing temperatures, the dark cold icy scene outside the crude shelter was flecked with falling snow flurries. Prince felt the bitter cold creeping inside his fur, there was no shelter from the wind, the snow flurries falling like sifted icing sugar over the black sticky mud, imagined in his desperate hunger; it looked like the surface of a chocolate yuletide log. The thought sent shivers of hunger pains inside Prince’s empty stomach, he daydreamed of days gone by, watching his mistress in the small kitchen; baking, and waves of sadness, brought the freezing temperatures closer to Prince’s beating heart, only his memories of those days in Buttevant, County Cork, sent warm comfort into his starved weak body. His emancipated body, weakened by the journey, and lack of food, only his resolve, his mission kept the dog alive.

Those days of baking, the fire roaring, the smell of burnt peat heavy in the air. The signature smell of Ireland, the smokey, sooty smell of peat fires lingered in the air above the island like a hidden sheet, never disturbed by wind or rain, that hidden signature of a smell, never altered by blue or cloudy skies. Inside the kitchen of the small farmhouse Prince reminisced of the weekly baking days, the smell of fresh sourdough bread, the sweet fragrance of sugar and flour forming hovering clouds of misty white dust, in the light of the small window light. Most days in the kitchen it was an entirely different smell, the smell of boiled cabbage and potatoes, but these were crumbs of comfort, as Prince crouched under the wagon, pulling his tail and hind legs into a tight circle, tucking his face into the middle to protect himself from the cold, the freezing temperatures of the dark night. The one smell he couldn’t trace that night was the smell of his master, but Prince knew he was close by, and he knew he was in danger.

He fell into brief periods of unconsciousness. In those moments, the familiar nightmare came to him. It was the same repeated nightmare since his master had left Ireland. It had triggered his travel over foreign lands, foreign seas, the nightmare came with images, and sensory details that frightened Prince. Prince: in his primitive mind understood danger, and the threat to any creature’s life. But Prince could not comprehend the details beyond the feeling of imminent danger, the yellow smoke was alien, not like the friendly peat fire smoke, the familiar peaty smell was replaced by alien smells, smells of garlic, onions, mustard, and chemicals. Not only were these visions, and smells alien, there was danger attached to their existence, to life itself. Most importantly, there was a sense of danger to his master. He must save his master from this alien mist, and the alien smell.

He dreamt of the streets of London, Hammersmith, those recent brief days with his mistress, the journey with his mistress to be closer to the front, the war. Leaving the fields, and small farm building of rural county Cork for the noise and unfamiliar sights and sounds of the city, his mistress’s sister’s house was full of the unfamiliar. Compared to the easy fields, the easy soft winds caressing the green lands of Ireland, London was ugly, and a heartless, restless, and noisy place. Prince: waiting to see his master’s smiling face, but on every opening of the door being disappointed that his master’s figure never returned. Only the endless sad face of his mistress, her sobbing as she cried before sleeping, even her silent dreaming was punctured by sighs, and sobbing. Prince lying on the floor of the bedroom, heard it all. At night his own nightmares returned, the yellow mist with its many faces of death, haunted his slumbers. His master, wherever he was, was in danger. Those visions were headlined in bold black letters; Prince had a mission to save his master from the obituaries.

In London Prince remembered the horseless carriages, the unfamiliar sight, and the smell of the exhaust fumes. Sometimes a loud bang, as the cocktail of fuel and electric spark, combusted and exploded in the engine, and threw explosive noisy residue along the exhaust pipe, shattering the normal hubbub of the London Street sounds. His dreaming morphed into reality as the cold silence of the dark night exploded by a bright flash of lightning in the sky. This was no thunderstorm, this no lightning, it was a barrage of exploding shells from the heavy artillery guns, the earth heaved as the shells burst and thudded into the mud, Prince jumped up, he had no other experience that could compare to the fear that the incoming shells created. He wanted to run, but where could he run, the explosions were all around, destroying the cold icy darkness, instead being replaced by chaos and destruction. The dog stood up, and froze in utter shock, his body and mind locked by fear.

The barrage stopped as suddenly as it started.

The mist of propellent, unburnt chemicals from the explosion remained in the freezing air, the hot gases of compressed air, now turning rapidly to vapour created artificial clouds, from artificial substances, harbingers of death, projectiles from the long muzzles of huge artillery guns, build for death and destruction. As Prince looked at the mists, he was reminded of the sea mists, the complete opposite to the mists above his head now, as under the camouflage of darkness he hid on the boat, crossing the English Channel, hiding in the canvas of the sail, as the boat with supplies for the front softly slipped over calm seas, a stowaway on the ship as it made its journey to France.

Prince had no comprehension of Ireland, England, France, the war, anything in a human’s world. His world was watching humans, his world was dependent on humans, and human kindness. He watched their moods and emotions, sometimes his master would talk to Prince, he never understood a word, but he did understand his master’s moods and emotions. Sometimes better than a human being, with their superior vocal communication. His understanding came from an intuitive primitive animal sense of human emotions. Unfortunately for humans the art of direct meaningful human conversation has been conjured and pressured by many forms of societal traits, humankind would disguise their true feelings and emotions, replaced with forked tongues of hypocrisy.

This war was a testament to human hypocrisy. A waste!

Direct and honest vocal communication was lost in time as was the law of karma regarding significance and inspiration. Giving oneself to the greater whole, for the common good of humanity.

Now, Prince standing, swaying after the recent ballistic attack, that night in Armentiere, near Lille in France was so near to his destination. His master. He was the canine instrument of the ancient karmic law, his journey would be written in World War one folklore, in a famous poem – “A Soldier’s Dog”. A much stronger and profound statement to life, than the futility and hypocrisy of humankind with superior intellect, now at war, destroying each other in the name of right and fighting for peace. If the canine community was blessed with gifts beyond its blind loyalty to humankind, he would undoubtedly find it all ironic, but sometimes animals demonstrate the laws of karma more naturally than humankind, who are still struggling to find or understand the basics, supposedly with a higher level of intellect.

“Captain Newell, your unit is tasked with the dawn raid before light. It will be a big push by us and the Royal Irish Fusiliers. This could be the big one that gets us back home for the New Year!” Lieutenant Condon said enthusiastically.

“Yes, SIR.” Captain Newell stood upright and saluted. He swiveled one hundred and eighty degrees and marched out of the cave tunnel, into the high forbidding trenches, oozing and sweating mud, wooden duckboard planks littered the trench floor, ladders leading upwards to the ground level, where death lingered, rubbing its hands, warm blood dripping from its calloused, muddy hands, black dirt under its long nails, these hands ready to grab the brave soldiers into its deathly clutches as the soldiers continuously mounted their suicidal attacks. Death’s hands had helpers, barbed wire, bomb craters, rifles and machine guns; all ready to kill, to feed death and perhaps seal a bargain between the gods to capture these brave human souls, to create a balance not in this realm, in another realm, where another conflict, a power struggle beyond humankind comprehension, where humankind playing was playing a minor role, the role of the victim, their souls being traded to appease the beast. It was blindness, naivety, the same as the dog’s loyalty to its master, but the dog’s blind loyalty was humbler and more honourable. Humankind was misguided by stupidity, ego, societal pressures, and influences.

“Sergent Barry, get the men ready, we are going over in one hour, directly after the barrage, which will start in forty-five minutes. This is the big one, Sergeant!” Captain Newell said.

“Yes sir!” Sergeant Barry replied.

Sergeant Barry saluted and then went to tell the men huddled in the freezing cold, their breath steamed through nostrils, and open mouths into the cold icy air. In huddled groups their combined body warmth kept the damp, freezing air at bay to slightly improved levels. A level just above frostbite.

As the message from Sergeant Barry was passed around the unit, lingering looks started to stare at the ladders ascending to the battlefield. The faces of the soldiers were haunted, they had seen so many climb the ladders, as the screaming whistle blew, only to be brought back later, their dead lifeless bodies punctured by hot exploding bullets, their uniforms caked in mud, and dark crimson stains of blood, before the crows and rats could claim a meal. The waiting soldier’s minds were crazed, they had to push those visions backwards, the rising panic was pushing to the front of their minds, invading their sanity. Their natural instinct was to stop this craziness, drop their guns, and to run away into the cold, freezing night. To flee death’s waiting clutches. Discipline and stupidity replaced their natural instinct.

The barrage started. The earth shuddered, as the shells hit the trenches of the enemy, no more than one hundred yards from their own. Wayward shells would sometimes explode close by. The soldiers envied the artillery crews safe behind the lines, their only concern was to be careful not to get fingers and hands trapped in the recoil of the snapping closing of the breach, as the huge heavy shells were loaded into the darkness of the gaping hole of the huge muzzle, the long muzzle of the guns pointing into the dark night sky. The dark clean metal, sometimes being spotted for a millisecond by the falling snowflake, which was instantly dissolved into water and steam from the hot muzzle of the huge artillery gun.

The soldiers waited in a line ready to climb the ladders. Waiting for the artillery barrage to stop. It was ironic, they wanted the artillery guns to stop, to stop the deafening noise, the explosions, the night sky illuminated as the shells exploded on impact, it was living in a deadly box of fireworks. But they didn’t want it to stop. The silence of the guns meant it was the next chapter in the deadly story of the attack, their stories, their fate at the mercy of the enemies’ guns.

Sergeant Barry stood at the top of the ladder; his periscope of mirrors allowed him to see the battlefield without the danger of getting his head blasted off. The grey smokey mist in the black night air was artificially made from the recent barrage of artillery guns. Sergeant Bary didn’t see something more sinister, under the camouflage of the dark skies, amongst the carnage of the aftermath of the artillery barrage, the enemy had started to fire canisters or tins onto the battlefield. It was a new weapon, a deadly weapon that would kill and maim many soldiers in World War One.

Mustard gas.

Sergeant Barry blew his whistle loudly, unaware of the Mustard gas canisters breathing their yellow mist of death into the oncoming soldiers, the night winds with their snow flurries lifted the yellow smoke from the canisters and carried into the oncoming charging soldiers.

As the soldiers started to appear on the battlefield the rattling of machine gun fire started.

The soldiers’ shouts, some of agony as the machine gun fire hit soft flesh, their bodies dropping to the floor, some were roars of anger, the primitive mind taking over from the sane mind, the hunter, and the hunted became one in some of the soldiers, the insanity of the battlefield obliterated all thoughts, only primitive savagery remained. But it only remained while they missed a bullet.

Those that avoided the machine gun fire, hiding in the bombshell craters, hiding behind the wooden frames of the barbed wire, had another silent enemy to deal with, being carried by the soft wind. The deadly mustard gas would find any soldier hiding, sheltering, it was an indiscriminate harbinger of death.

Sergeant Barry became aware of the danger as the soldiers in the dark started to cough and splutter uncontrollably, that and the pervading smell of garlic, onions, something chemical, different from the smell of the artillery barrage, a new smell, but still the smell of death. He was unsure. He had led many attacks on the front line, from the trenches, he was unprepared for this new situation. His instincts were shouting at him to be aware; this was a different danger than the deadly sound of the machine gun, the whistling of the projectiles, the thud, or fleshy explosion as the metal bullet hit flesh. This was a silent enemy but more sinister.

His men started to go in convulsions, the coughing became incessant, and the moaning louder, distressed men gasping for air started to pierce the sound of the distant gunfire. Before Sergeant Barry could blow the whistle to retreat the hidden yellow mustard gas invaded his surroundings, its pervasive chemicals attacked his body, and his body convulsed, he collapsed into a uncontrolled fetal position, as his lungs stopped breathing. There he lay on the battlefield, under the dark cold skies, as the snowflakes gradually started to settle on his prone unmoving body.

December 07, 2023 07:32

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

2 comments

John Rutherford
06:41 Dec 08, 2023

Thanks Mary.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Mary Bendickson
19:36 Dec 07, 2023

Whoa. Another thought provoking history lesson. These are running deep this week. It started out with hope that a starving brave dog would find his master then, boom, mustard gas doom. Your descriptions were so heart rendering.

Reply

Show 0 replies

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in the Reedsy Book Editor. 100% free.