A Scattering of Seeds by Roger Woodcock

The horse explodes in front of him, raw flesh cartwheeling through the air momentarily blocking out the newly-risen sun. Corporal Timmins, `Timmy` to his mates, watches in fascinated horror as the body parts crash and slither along the mud-encrusted field. “Another bugger we shan`t be able to eat,” the Corporal croaks. This is what they do, stuck in the rat-infested shitholes they call home. Joke. It`s the only way they have learned to cope with the carnage unfolding daily in front of them. Somewhere beyond the horizon the sound of a German howitzer rents the morning stillness. The corporal and his men freeze, their shoulders hunched, faces peering beyond the rim of their trench. For several seconds there is silence. Then they hear it, the low menacing whine of the incoming shell.  Instinctively the men slide into the bottom of the trench, their knees pulled tightly into their chins. The shell strikes the elevated bank of the newly-dug trench lifting and dropping several tons of stinking earth onto the crouching men below.

  The sun is sinking below the horizon, a shimmering haze making the field oscillate like an undulating sea. In the trench men dig, some with spades others with rifle butts a few with just their bare hands. Every so often they stop and listen. Four hours they have been digging, scrambling amongst the rubble and detritus like lost moles. They have recovered one body, his limbs so crushed he looks no more than a newly-born child. They angrily load him onto the ambulance cart before turning again to the obscene pile of earth.

  They begin digging with a new will, a new determination deep within them to do whatever they can to recover their entombed comrades. Then they hear it again, the pow-wow of the big guns, the whine of the incoming shells. 

    “Wouldn`t you think the bastards would let us try and safe our mates first!” the plaintive cry of a fresh-faced Private echoes along the trench walls. The shell falls short and the men carry on digging.

It is now six hours since the tragedy. Tilly lamps hiss in the darkness, forced laughter drifts up from the hastily dug tunnels sheltering the men from the now driving rain. Across the lines the Marshall songs of the German soldiers fill the empty spaces between the opposing forces. In the trench the men continue to dig. They have recovered six men, their bodies mutilated beyond recognition, the only means of identification the dog tags slung around what remained of their necks. The Padre stands over them, his hands clasped in prayer. All around him rescuers stand, some listening some half-asleep on their feet. They have taken a tally of the missing men. Only one is still missing. Corporal Timmins. They mumble their amens and get back to work.   More than half the deluge of mud, rock and earth has been cleared, an ugly slash of clay and stone scarring the trench like an open wound. They look at one another before fixing the Padre with pleading looks.

“Keep going lads, whilst there is life there is hope.”

They start again to dig, backs straining against the heavy weight each shovel-full brings. Above them the moon appears, a pale orb hanging in a brooding sky. For a moment it throws an eerie glow over the men before disappearing again behind the skittering clouds. Another shovel-full of earth slumps against the rim of the trench.

New men have now joined the dig. On the horizon morning is breaking, a slash of crimson across the battlefield. Soon it will begin again, the heavy bombardment, dulling the brain, making a broken jigsaw of the mind.  The smell of bacon and eggs waft along the trench, men salivating as the crouch in their own filth. No one told them it would be like this. They were going on a jolly, a chance to see a world beyond their scattered villages and smoke-laden towns. `Don`t worry lads it`ll all be over by Christmas.` 

  The mountain of earth has now shrunk to a quarter of its original size. Men can now attack it from three sides, slicing into it like a piece of ripe cheese. They have still not given up hope. A man could survive for days buried under debris, given a pocket of air in which he could breath. The soldiers dig on, the constant boom and whine of shells bursting all around them. They watch with seething anger and frustration as several more tons of debris fall on top of the existing pile.

“Why doesn`t someone tell the bastards that Timmy`s still buried in there,` Private Taylor spits, plunging his shovel once more into the mountain of earth. “Come on Timmy lad, let`s be having you!”

     “Leave it son.” A Lieutenant stands over the Private, his hand firmly on the man`s shoulder. “We can`t spend any more time looking son, I`m sorry.” The Private turns, shakes off the hand before plunging his shovel yet again into the stinking morass.... 

  The Manor house stands in a valley at the head of a long winding drive. Ivy grows round the windows, Wisteria clinging tenaciously to the mellow stone walls. In the house, beyond the panelled entrance hall and the pompous statues of past incumbents lie the rooms, the smell of disinfectant and festering wounds pervading the air. He lies in bed number seven, bandages covering three-quarters of his body, his unblinking eyes fixed on the ornate plaster ceiling. An orderly steps up to the bed, an enamel beaker in his hand. The man smiles thinly and takes a sip. The orderly touches his shoulder briefly before moving down the line of beds.

  He does not know where he is or how he got there. He dare not close his eyes for that is when the nightmares come, the fetid darkness, the feeling of something wet and coarse like sandpaper pressing against his face, forcing itself into his mouth, choking him dragging him to a place he does not want to go.                                                                                                    

    The man in the white coat listens to his chest, gently lifts him from his pillow and taps his back before lowering him back down again. He smiles at the white-coated man, watches him as he talks to a girl in a uniform. He knows the colour but cannot bring it to mind. She is pretty, the girl, a tumble of auburn curls spilling from her cap. He closes his eyes and hopes the nightmare will not return.

He is on the terrace now, the warm rays of the sun burying itself in his soft, pallid skin. They have taken some of the bandages off, said he can spend a little time in the garden. He still has the nightmares but they are more infrequent now less terrifying in their visual content. They have told him he was on the front line, that he was buried under tons of earth, given up for dead when...what? Then it comes to him, the voice, gruff, cajoling, the hands rough, dragging him out into the daylight, the gulps of clean, fresh air....                                                 

    The lane is narrow, potholed,  hawthorn thick in blossom lining its sides. Somewhere a bird sings, its repetitious song echoing out across the neatly ploughed field. The young boy skips along its perimeter, pausing for a moment as he stoops to plucks a dandelion clock from the tall grass. He puts it to his lips and blows gently, watching excitedly as the seeds flutter higher and higher until they are lost in the quiet vastness of a cobalt sky.

Published in Issue #26

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