“When you see millions of the mouthless dead” — Charles Hamilton Sorley, 1915
War stories? Now, a man like me is full of them, and some that can’t be told until I’ve had a pint. You’ve stood me three and so I’ll tell the best o’ them. Not that you’d be able to write it down and publish it. Some things are not ‘fit for print,’ you know.
A borderline there is when it comes to sex, and death, and there are things to say that are so horrible that the mind erases it. This one story, I swear, an’ it happened — as I was the one to which it happened — I can tell a stranger the tale entire, and at the end he’ll pale up, excuse himself, go to the loo for a good up-puke, and then come back all smilin’ and like “So weren’t you going to tell me that ‘worst thing that ever happened’ t’ya?”
“I did,” I say. “I told it all and it sloughed off your mind like rain off a well-oiled slicker.”
“Did not,” he says, and wants a fist in his face before he goes off sputtering. “You cheat,” he grumbles, “I doubt you even saw the War.”
So you, with that shiny new tape machine, maybe you stand a chance to hear it and not to go amnesia on me. Private O’Brien I am, London Irish, and here’s my medal. That? That is my tag, O’BRIEN, you see. That’s for Roman Catholic and proud of it, rank, serial, unit. Out you went with two around your neck, and wi’ two you came back, or not at all.
We were north of Loos, west o’ Hulloch. Our own gas had swept before us, bad stuff, and had accomplished little. The Boche dug in. Half of the gas blew back into our faces; the gas masks fogged so bad you went insane from not seein’.
You heard o’ Loos? I’m not surprised. Ten thousand went up and over, first wave — eight thousand lay dead and dying. The Boche had never seen so many casualties, not crows enough in Europe to peck their eyes out. A halt was called to let us retreat with our wounded.
An’ where was I? In the thick of it. A shell concuss’d so hard nearby it threw me from a hilltop into a muddy ravine. I could not feel my fingers and toes. I thought me spine was split and that would be the end of me. No more O’Brien, no more eels, pubs, ales or whiskey.
All I could see was the gray-green cloud of the gas and gun-smoke, all underlit as now and then a flare went up. The sun was like a glowing coal behind it, and set. Night came. No moon. No stars. Damn if it didn’t storm a bit. A thunderclap and two trees toppled over me. Blighted, scarred and already leafless poplars they were.
And in that flicker-flash of flare and lightning I made out a fellow soldier, flat like me, but free o’ the tree’s wreckage, knocked out or dead on the ground, face up. “Ho!” I called, but he could only groan at me. A goner, I thought. All had gone quiet. Cease fire? But would the medics come? Would they see me down this blasted gully?
An’ so, alone I lay. Nothin’ to think on but the slow way my arms and legs came back into feelin’. I could move! I could move. I started to push the fallen tree above me, so I could clear enough to crawl my way out. But still I had no strength. I could not raise myself. So I fell back to thinking and remembering and how the mind turns in a time like this to ‘what’s the worst that could happen’?
It was McGregor, our battle-scarred Captain, who took his turn at horror-telling, late of a recent night on the last dregs of tea, who told of a recent wave of mutilations. “Casualties come back in such a state, the stretcher bearers pile them up like logs. One look and you know they’re goners. Men with no faces left, no way to stitch or heal. If not already dead they’d be gone within hours.” —
“No faces left?” young Sorley challenged. “What does that mean?”
“Flesh torn clean off,” McGregor said. “Mouthless. Noseless. Earless. Blood red, a death mask, white eyes and gaping teeth.” —
“The mouthless dead. The mouthless dead.” Sorley repeated it twice. Taking his notebook, he wrote that down. “Would not a mortar —”
“No explosion did that,” McGregor insisted. “Some screamed as they were carried in. Bitten, they said. Bitten. By what, I ask?”
Sorley had lived among the Germans, knew them. “Dogs, then,” he offered. “Boche dogs. The Germans and Austrians are keen on hunting. The officers are seen about with mastiffs. Trained to kill, they go for the face.”
McGregor grunted at this. “Some dainty Boche general in lederhosen and hunting horns prancing around the battlefield? Setting his dogs on supine, wounded soldiers? What sport is that? Is that what war has come to?”
Sorley went on about The Iliad, of warriors left on the field of Troy that went to dogs’ breakfast if they were not collected.
The Scotsman would have none of it. “’T is something else, I say. ’T is someone else.”
Talk turned to ghosts, Valkyries and Norns, but no one’s mythical monster could rob a man of his face, his very soul, it seemed.
My eyes were closed, I guess, as I brooded on Sorley and McGregor, two Captains of different minds. My blood ran cold at the thought of a pack of mastiffs loose and smelling out two men in a ravine. I reached for my gear. I found my rifle. My ammunition was safe and dry. Even this prone I could fire a shot.
And then the branches stirred above me. Up in the toppled tree there stood, in silhouette against the chlorine-colored cloud, a woman’s figure, an apron white, wide skirt, a glowing cap. She had a swaddled infant close to her, looked down upon my misery. “Nurse!” I called.
But who would send a nurse out here amid the shells and bullets? Where were the medics, the carriers? Nimbly she descended the fallen trunk, then stood above me. Gently she lay the sleeping, silent infant beside me and crouched there attentively.
“Help me!” I pleaded. “I need to sit up.” I strained to get my nonresponsive muscles working. Almost, but no.
She shook her head. Her dress, I saw, was not a nurse’s uniform. A peasant dress it was, a farm woman’s apron over it, not virgin white but soiled and stained. She put her face close to mine. “Afraid,” she said, with no accent. “I am alone. Afraid.”
Her hand touched mine. Cold, it trembled.
I took it, held it. Poor creature, some dweller of a nearby hovel, some wood-hut they missed in the evacuation, she had walked every which way in the battle, shell-shocked and mad with grief and fear.
“What is your name?” I asked. « Comment t’appelle ? »
She smiled a little “Michelle.”
She lay next to me on the damp earth and like a trusting sister lay her head upon my shoulder. I did not resist. A shell burst somewhere. Closer she came as if to hide her face in my uniform.
And then, as if of its own accord, my arm so gently enfolded her, and I felt down there a shameful stirring, no more nor less than what a man should feel with such a soft creature again’ him, but here, now, terrible and wrong. Yet part of me exulted to know the shell-shock was wearing off.
As if she knew what I was about, her mouth went up beneath my ear, which she so playfully licked, then bit in a teasing, kitten way, my earlobe.
Though I protested, “No!” and turned my head, she was not turning back. Her mouth found mine, a tongue-dart and another playful bite. Has any man ever been so tempted, to lay with a woman amid a battlefield? Who would not want to have that as a story to tell?
The lightning came once more, and lit us up. Her eyes reflected red. Her face, I saw, was not a pretty one. Hard lines, a scar, pock marks and hairy patches, a nose like a sculptor’s accident, and what for hair I cannot reckon. Has any man not lain with any woman at hand, any at all, if he thought death upon him? The thing down there still wanted her. The thing at the base of my skull would rip her peasant garb aside and take her, beast to beast. This what men are, and doubly so when soldiers together, and angry.
I do admit, as I have said back here to my confessor, that I both wanted and loathed this desperate creature. But when her hands deftly and expertly undid my trousers, I froze. Not even the Paris prostitutes did such a thing. You got a woman ready. You showed yourself. If she approved, you gave it to her. A woman who went for you that way was worse than a beast. I did not know the word, then — a succubus, the kind of demon that takes you sleeping.
With all my strength I pushed her away. She hit a rock and was stunned for a moment, then, smiling as blissful as a convent nun, she took up the swaddled infant and left me. I was sitting stock upright. My lip bled; I tasted my own blood on the back of my hand.
How much time passed, I cannot tell. Perhaps her spell was still upon me. A thousand times I have regretted this — that I did not rise, and follow, and kill her. My knees did not quite work. The tree that lay upon me blocked my way, but did not stop her from moving on.
There is a dream that every dreamer knows, where one foot goes in front of another, yet nothing changes. I know I stood. I know I freed myself from branch and root. I found my rifle and I re-loaded it. I moved to where the other soldier had fallen.
One step. Another. She got there first. One step, And then another. Dawn came before I had moved a meter. I dragged my right leg forward, leaned to run, but I ran not. The succubus was on him.
“Push her away!” I screamed. She laughed. She rode him. His eyes had never opened. Their bodies undulated, backs arched, their loins entangled. I raised my rifle. I thought she ducked, but what she did instead was to lean down — o monstrous kiss! — only to come back up with mouth engored. Torn flesh hung down her chin, then vanished.
How long it would go on, how many times they’d rise and fall, Hell’s carousel, until he would expire, a screaming skull, and she would move on to — another?
My finger tensed the trigger. I feared she would be gone before I pulled it. Then what should happen, by God’s will, was that none other than Captain McGregor came up behind her, his bayonet in one great thrust impaling her. Clear off the ground he lifted her. Still I can hear that loathsome wet sound as she was pulled away from her unconscious victim, how she expired with one sick gurgling gasp. No brimstone, no fairy light, no utterance. She was just as dead as any dead thing here.
I was not fit for battle again, they said. The experience had quite unhinged me. McGregor, by letter and telegram, told me the results of the “Inquiry.” “The work of an escaped madwoman” was the official conclusion.
These facts I know. The medics took her. A full autopsy was conducted. McGregor himself presided. “Open her belly,” he told the doctor. Out poured the scraps of human visage: cheeks, noses, ears, lips and mustaches.
“Open her bowels,” McGregor demanded. It was human flesh all the way down. She had gorged herself for days, it seemed.
As for the “infant,” that pile of rags was but a doll-head and windings, from which unraveled, came forth a heap of things: name tags and coins and keepsakes, buttons and watches, lockets and compasses.
“How many?” I asked McGregor. “I cannot say,” was all he told me.
McGregor was dead soon after. And as for Sorley, he had vanished in the battle at Loos. They found his last sonnet in camp, where he had put those very words “When you see millions of the mouthless dead.”
You’ll not forget this tale, I take it. Your mind may blot it out, just as I go and re-confess it each week at St. James’, and the old priest just plumb forgets he heard it.
I don’t know which is worse: to have no face, or to have a story that no one wants to hear.
Copyright ©2020 by Brett Rutherford. All Rights Reserved