Sunday
Nov142010

Lambs of Men

By Charles Dodd White



Casperian
November 2010, Paperback
160 pages
978-1934081273

 

 

1920

When there was no one awake but the sentries echoing slow steps across the floorboards of the squad bay, Hiram Tobit would sit at his desk in the duty hut still dressed in his sergeant’s uniform. Sleep sometimes swooped in on him unawares, but never for long, and when the brief rest fled, he wondered if it had truly visited or he had given too much of himself over to waking dreams. It had been that way since he came back from the war in France.

He sat up full in his chair, stretching the muscles in his back and neck. His bones popped.

I’m nothing but an old skeleton.

He struck a match and lit the coal-oil lamp at the edge of his desk. With the wick turned up high, the pale diamond flame shivered up through the waisted globe. On the desktop sat a single manila file. He opened the front leaf and read the orders that he knew well enough to recite word for word. Home to the North Carolina mountains to recruit boys into the Marine Corps. Bring them in with promises and lies. He shoved the file back, his conscience itching. One thing to beat the hard sense of the world into boys as a drill instructor, another to hook them like bream.

He placed the campaign hat on his head and moved out into the squad bay. The sentry trotted up and reported the sleepers all secure in their racks. Hiram nodded and stepped outside, not interested in proper customs and courtesies at this hour.

The night was cool, the wrack of the marsh heavy. A chevron of geese cut noisily overhead as they passed across a gibbous moon. Hiram paused to gather their direction. Within a day or two they would cross the mountains where his mother lay buried. He knew he would be joining that course within the week: his first chance to see where his father had put her in the ground.

 

On his last afternoon on the island, he saddled up the gray gelding the command was giving him to travel his recruiting district. His mother would have approved. Him coming home like an old time Methodist circuit rider. He rode out past the rifle range with the February wind batting at his hat and the sun just beginning to set, the surge of the offshore breeze sharp. He rode through the sand and palms and stopped outside the whitewashed chapel where a flight of chimney swifts roosted in a dogwood tree, their bodies twitching in the branches.

His mother had always been fond of any kind of bird that flew in patterns. Said it was one of God’s true wonders that a creature of boundless flight should seek the direction and comfort of its kin. Hiram didn’t know if he agreed with that, but he was certain there were times when a man had to look deep into nature to remember where he stood in relation to it. He watched the birds for a long time and then rode back toward his duty hut. He needed to see that everything was ready for him to leave the next morning.

That night he dreamt of the war. Sometimes the visions came back in grotesque shapes that were but masks of the waking world. But this night memory returned as clear as a newsprint photograph.

The edge of Belleau Wood, France, in late May of 1918: the forest was a wall of scorched timber, ragged with stalks of smoke. Hiram’s squad, just one of so many of the teeming Fourth Brigade, moved into the woods at regular intervals. The orders were to maintain silence, but none needed to hear that command repeated. Silence rose out of the earth in a fog that rubbed itself against any living thing. A voice was simply poisoned. The only thinly heard sounds were the slaps of rifle straps and the gritty crunch of deadfall beneath the men’s shoes.

The Maxim machine guns opened up when the marines entered the valley. The whistling shot whipped down on them a split second before the report hammered through the forest. Dirt danced. Hiram deployed his men along a sunken road protected by the natural scoop of the hillside. The bullets carved air and slashed at the trees overhead. The incoming fire reminded him of being inside a sawmill.

He ordered his men to dig a hasty entrenchment along the muddy road while Platoon Sergeant Carson led the rest of the squad around an abandoned earthworks to probe for a possible flanking movement. Hiram’s team returned the German machine gunfire, picking their targets carefully. He watched the woods down his gun sight for any brief muzzle flash. As soon as one appeared, he cradled the tip of his finger to the trigger and eased his breath away. The rifle jolted and then the flashes would stop. He chambered another round and waited, growing hungrier for each new opportunity to kill.

They moved through the woods, wriggling on their cold bellies and taking shots at the entrenched machine gunners. The platoon would have gone on but received the order to hold where they were or risk overrunning the advance.

The German infantry counterattacked the following morning at first light. They rushed like lunatics from the trees. Hiram fired first, crying out with a mad fear in the back of his throat that sounded like rage. The German infantry tried to push the assault but eventually melted back beyond the clearing, dragging their wounded behind. The dead remained.

They advanced and retreated and the days and nights swapped places, wrapped up in one another like smoke curling into the flames that generated it. Hiram and Carson and the rest of the platoon grew tired and hungry but they continued to push, driven by a need to remain in motion against the unnatural stillness of the forest.

On the fifth day, they took a heavy shelling. They fell in love with the earth, digging as far down as they could. They cast off their rifles as they flung dirt over their shoulders by the fistfuls. The shock of each impact made them shit their trousers until they had nothing more to void and they were left to wallow in their own reek. They cowered and wept while the barrage walked back and forth across their lines for most of an hour.

When the first of the marines broke and ran, Hiram knew it was only a matter of time before the others followed. He backed them out as orderly as possible, withdrawing along the broad shoulders of a crater. When they had nearly cleared the area of impact, he heard a deep warble, almost a moan. He knew it was one of the ninety-five-pound shells fired from the big howitzers. He screamed for his men to seek cover, but before they could, the shell splintered an ash tree as big around as a boiler pipe.

The impact slung out a shower of tipped beams. The concussion of the explosion threw most of the men clear to the other side of a small ridge. But a boy named Givens was run through by one of the biggest splinters, pinning him straight through his gut to the ground. Sergeant Carson was the only man near him. He tried to work the splinter free, despite the man’s screams, but the sharpened end was driven deep in the dirt and would not budge. The barrage intensified, and Hiram believed that the Germans were intent on pouring all of their evil into this one patch of the world. The ground liquefied. Carson’s eyes took on a blind panic.

Givens reached out and gripped Carson by the wrist with iron fingers. Carson tried to wrench away, but the dying man would not release his hold. Carson kicked to escape, but still the hand would not let go. It happened very quickly, but even so, Hiram would remember it for the rest of his life. Carson clawed open his hip scabbard, drew his bayonet and began to hack away at Givens’ arm. Why he didn’t simply cut the dying man’s throat, no one knew. Instead, he chopped into the buckling skin and bone while the dying boy’s eyes walled like a horse.

Once clear of the artillery they scrambled back to higher ground. Along the way there were no sounds other than the hushed clattering of their equipment. That night, no one spoke above a whisper. Hiram tried to sleep but could only stare at the unstarred sky.

 

When he left the island the next morning, a warm front had moved in and the fog lay heavy over the sound so that when he led the gray horse onto the ferry, it looked as though he had dragged along a piece of animate and rebellious weather as his lone companion. The animal stamped and nickered, afraid of the same air it snorted.

"Shut up." Hiram pulled down hard on the bridle. Once the animal quieted he struck a match three times in the damp before it flared and he lit a cigarette.

The ferryman turned his head over his shoulder. "You might try talking sweet to it."

Hiram looked at him. "I might."

The deck moved under them, the hull slipping through the slack water like a chilled kiss. The old man had a way of not talking that made him seem hurt.

"How long you been ferrying?" Hiram asked.

"Twenty-five years, I reckon. When the Marines moved in in ’91. I guess it’s about that. What year is it now?"

Hiram laughed quietly. "You mean to tell you don’t know the year?"

"Naw. I never took much account of the calendar."

"Well, I guess twenty-five years is close enough, then."

The old man nodded, studying the fog he piloted through. "Twenty-five years is an awful long time standing. If I had my count of boys younger than you I’ve hauled crossed this water in that time, it would be something else."

"How many, you figure?"

The old man stared dead on, seeing shapes out there Hiram did not. "Well, as I said, I ain’t no man of accounts. I don’t know that numbers would tell what I’ve reckoned. What other things has I seen in that number to compare?"

"Not many, I suppose."

"No, not many. I did dream them once, though. Each blessed one of them, saw their faces just as clear as I see yours. They was strung out on the far bank standing next to one another, not saying a word, just waiting for me to carry them over to the island. I would take on as many as I could and try to catch the tide, but sometimes I would have to wait and that was the worst part ’cause they just stood there looking across the water at something I couldn’t see. I began working faster to try to get them over, just so I could be shed of them. But the more I crossed over, the more that kept coming down to the far bank. The whole country had bust a dam and instead of water it was pouring out all its boys wanting to be soldiers. In time they weren’t no room on the bank and they started walking down into the water until it closed over they heads and they drowned. But still them boys kept coming until the next ones drowned too and more of them still until they was enough dead boys down there for the new ones to stand on they backs without getting they shoes wet."

The old man was quiet for a long time before he spoke again. "What do you make of a dream like that?"

"I don’t figure I can make anything of it. That’s something else."

The ferryman nodded, distraction blunting the cut of his eyes. "You wouldn’t have one of them cigarettes I could borrow, would you?"

Hiram passed the ferryman a cigarette and together they smoked, watching where the sound met the banked air, listening to water rending beneath the ferry’s bows.

When they reached the jetty Hiram led the shying horse out of the gangway and over the slick planks and dropped the looped reins over one of the bollards while he dug out the coin for his passage and carried it to the ferryman. He held the money out to him, but the old man waved it away. "You paid it already, friend."

"Why, hell. That cigarette didn’t cost me nothing."

"I ain’t talking about the cigarette," the old man said as he cast off to make headway on the turning tide.

 

By midday, he had come onto a wind-scoured road trafficked with every sort of commotion bound in or out of the Carolina Lowcountry. Even the occasional Model T truck gave a cheeky honk as it flew by, raising small whirlwinds of dust. The daily mania of commerce in the vicinity of Beaufort was a stark contrast to the regimented order of a training day on the island. Here, men and women in sundry raced along the road, their colorful clothing whipped by the breeze. The variety was something of a poke in the eyeballs for Hiram, having been for so long accustomed to a shallowly deviating hue of green.

He turned down Depot Road, passing a few haggard mansions with their diminished plantations reaching back into the cane-choked bottomland. Some were immense and impressive, but to Hiram they seemed more like museums, preserving a specimen of living that no longer bore a claim. He rode past.

He had nearly an hour before the train was due to leave. He stood on the platform holding the gray horse, watching the few men in business suits who watched him. It made him angry. A stranger’s eyes were no better than rifle bores. They never simply looked on. They wanted something more, some clue or detail of the man inside, a betrayal of outward appearances. Men who wore expensive suits enjoyed pretending their place in the world was justified, earned, not a pitiless spin of the roulette wheel. So they carefully styled themselves, cultivated their false humility and bedrock arrogance.

He approached a circle of fellow marines waiting to embark. They stood smoking at the far end of the platform. None were familiar, but still they welcomed him. He didn’t care, as long as he was among his kind. They asked him about the horse and tried to pat it along the withers, but the horse tossed its head and nickered and they stopped. Only two of the marines were veterans. The others, all privates, were going along the rail as far as Columbia on their way home on leave and were anxious to hear stories of the Fourth Brigade they could tell their friends. They admired the ribbons hung above Hiram’s heart with faces broad and smooth, unscored.

Hiram turned to one of the veterans. "What is it with all these young sons, always wanting to hear stories about killing?"

The veteran laughed down at his shoes and stamped his cigarette butt. "They think it’s how you get to be a hero."

Hiram shook his head. "There were a mighty lot of heroes over there," he said. "They’ve got nice little crosses above their heads to prove it."

The boys tried to laugh, but after that no one again mentioned anything about the war.