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  Table of contents Issue Twenty CHRISTMAS 1916

by
BART MEEHAN
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D

id you hear that?” Flanagan peaked nervously over the edge of the trench.



Behind him, Jackson, the Australian, looked up from his lukewarm tea and said:



“Keep your head down, Sam. It might be Christmas but there’ll still be a German ready to snipe you if he gets half a chance.”



Flanagan slid down the muddy wall into crouch.



“Did you hear it, Jacko?”



“Hear what?” Jackson’s tone reflected his impatience. The Irishman was always hearing things. It had been endearing once, now it was just annoying.



“A woman’s voice. I think.”



Jackson shook his head, his frustration obvious.



“What would a woman be doing in No Man’s Land?” he snapped.



“I don’t know,” Flanagan said, defensively. “It’s just what I heard, is all.”



He closed his eyes and leaned back, his head sinking into the mud.



“It sounded like something my mammy read when I was a boy,” he said, his voice drifting into the memory. “Come away oh human child to the water and the wild, with a faery hand in hand…”



He stopped for a moment and shivered against the night air, then opened his eyes and stared at Jackson.



For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand. We know that don’t we Jacko? The whole fecking world is full weeping these days.”



The Australian didn’t answer. Instead, he swirled the remains of his tea in the bottom of the mug and lifted it up to his lips.



“Is there any of that left?” Flanagan asked.



Jackson shook his head.



“That was the last of it,” he said, then nodded towards No Man’s Land. “One of the boys out there might have a packet in his pocket. We could toss for who goes out to check.”



Flanagan shrugged, losing interest.



“I’m not that desperate. D’ya think the shelling’s over?”



“They’ve just gone off for some Christmas pudding. They’ll be back at it soon enough.” Jackson stared at his empty mug, then set it down by his foot. “All we’ve got is piss weak tea and bulli beef. What sort of Christmas dinner is that?”



“You could pop over and see Fritz,“ Flanagan said, smiling. “I’m sure he’d let you have some of his supper before he shot you. It being Christmas.” He looked up at the sky. “Clouds have cleared. That’s why it’s gone cold.”



“It’s not cold, son.” Jackson slapped his hands against his thighs, trying to get some feeling back into them. “It’s fuckin’ freezing. I don’t know how you blokes put up with it. Back home we’d be swimming in the river now or playing some cricket.”



Flanagan shook his head slowly.



“It’s a bloody strange place Australia. All arse about.”



They sat quietly for a few minutes before Jackson finally spoke.



“My people will be having dinner about now. A lamb roast, big enough to feed everyone. The uncles, the cousins. All of them.”



“It’ll be a pig for us. We didn’t have much when I was growing up, but we always had a pig at Christmas.” Flanagan ran his tongue over his dry lips. “There’ll be a plate of spuds you can’t see over. And cabbage and black pudding. It’ll be a mighty feast.” He looked up again. “It’s funny to think they’ve got the same sky in Limerick.”



“It’s different down home,” Jackson said. “We have different stars.”



Flanagan shrugged.



“Like I said, it’s all arse about down there. Makes no sense at all.” He stopped and sat up twisting towards No Man’s Land. “Did you hear it that time?”



He edged up to the lip of the trench and looked out.



“I think I see something. Over there.”



Jackson climbed up beside him and searched the darkness.



“There’s nothing but the boys,” he said. “And they won’t be moving before Judgement Day.”



They both slid back down into the mud.



“It was there. I saw it.” Flanagan rubbed his eyes and fought against a yawn.



“Shadows, that’s all.” Jackson said, then softened his voice with good humour. “Still, it’s easy enough to see things at this time of year. Ghosts of Christmas Past and the like.”



Flanagan nodded.



“My da use to put a candle on the mantle at Christmas and tell us every time the flame flickered a dead man was passing through the room, trying to find his way home.”



He smiled at the memory. “He was a good one for that sort of thing, especially when he’d had a few pints. It was great craic. But they were just stories to scare children. That’s what I thought. Just stories …”



He stopped for a moment and when he spoke again his voice was so low Jackson had to lean in to hear it.



“There’s a spot back home. At the crossroads behind the church. It’s where they bury the babbies, the ones that died without being baptised. That’s what they have to do, because they can’t bury them in consecrated ground. “ Flanagan crossed his arms to stop himself shivering. “Well one night I was walking home and I heard something. It was them crying. The poor wee things, cold in the ground, crying for their mammies.”



Jackson smiled.



“Coming home from the pub, Sam?”



“Don’t make fun, Jacko. There are things in the world no one can explain.”



The Australian nodded.



“I wasn’t making fun, Sam,” he said. “Truth is I saw something myself once.”



He pulled a cigarette out of the packet in his pocket and lit it, cupping the match with his hand so the flame was hidden.



“Back home we have a farm out in the bush. A long way from the city. A long way from anywhere really. Still it’s a pretty place, the way the wind sounds in the long grass and how it looks as the light’s going.” He puffed on the cigarette and then blew the smoke out in a steady stream. “But it can be hard, too. There aren’t many years when everything goes right. Sometimes it floods and then there are droughts. And after the droughts there are fires. You think its hell here, Sam, then you want to see a fire tearing through dry bush. The trees exploding, animals trying to outrun it, birds flying out of it and being sucked back in. “ Another long puff, dragging in the smoke as he remembered. “The worst was when I was 8. It burned for a week or more and all we could do was cut back the grass and hope it’d pass us by. Then one day I was out with my father and uncles cutting a break in one of the paddocks, when I heard this screaming. I knew it wasn’t human straight away and when I looked through the smoke, I saw a herd of wild horses that had been trapped by the fire. The poor devils were surrounded and they were panicked, rearing up. But then something happened. It was like they realised there was no hope and they went quiet. They just pushed together and rested their heads on each other and waited.”



Flanagan shook his head.



“That’s a terrible thing,” he said. “Horses are fine animals, finer than pigs and cows. I hate seeing them drowning in mud here. That look they give you before they go under. A bullet’s the only decent thing to do.”



“We couldn’t have shot them, even if they were in range. It all happened too fast. The fire jumped and swallowed them whole. I swear to this day, I still smell the hair and the hide burning.”



Jackson finished the cigarette and crushed the stub into the mud with the heel of his boot.



“Anyway after a few days, the winds changed and fire burned itself out, but for a long time I could still hear that screaming. My mother said I’d grow out of it. But one night when it was too hot to sleep, I went out to the veranda and while I was standing there I saw this light moving in the darkness, moving through the bush. It was small at first, like a match, but it got bigger as it got closer. Then I heard the sounds. Branches snapping, hooves kicking into the dry dirt. And that’s when I saw them, breathing hard and running towards me, their heads rocking from side to side, trying to shake out the fire in their manes. They were running like the devil was chasing them.”



He paused for the moment, caught in the memory.



“And then they were gone,” he said finally and shrugged. “But I was a boy. And I suppose you imagine things like that when you’re a boy.”



He stood up and rubbed his hands together, trying to generate some warmth.



“Fuckin’ freezing,” he said. “I don’t know how you blokes can live in this cold.”



“It don’t bother most of us now.” Flanagan nodded towards No Man’s Land.



Jackson smiled and without thinking climbed up to the edge of the trench and looked over.



“Gallows humour, Sam. I didn’t know you had it in you,” he said, then stopped suddenly and dropped down, grabbing his rifle as he did.



“What is it?” Flanagan asked.



“I thought I saw something moving out there.”



“I told you there was, didn’t I?” There was more fear than satisfaction in the words.



“It might be the Germans. The bastards might be trying to sneak across.”



Jackson climbed up and aimed into the dark, moving the barrel of his .303 in a slow arc, before sliding back again.



“Must have been the moonlight. There’s nothing there now.”



“I’ve heard about these men who live in the tunnels under No man’s” Flanagan said, his voice shaky. “Deserters. They come up at night and steal off the dead. Cigarettes, chocolates. Anything they can find.”



Jackson nodded.



“I’ve heard that story as well,” he said. “But how could they live down there? There’s barely enough room to move. Besides, who’d want to be buried before you were dead?”



He lay back against the trench wall, cradling the rifle in lap.



“No it’s just our imagination. Like I said, it’s the time of year for it.”



They sat quietly for a long time, as clouds moved across the sky covering the moon and shadows crept through No man’s land swallowing the bodies and filling the trench.



“I heard a story once, from a fella in the Scots Guard, “Flanagan said, after a while. “He was saying how he fell into a shell hole once, during a charge, and there was this other fella sitting there, quiet as a mouse, staring into the dark. Well the Guard asks him if he’s alright and the fella says: Do you believe in ghosts? Now the Guard, he thinks that’s an odd thing to be asking in the current circumstances, so he says: Do you? And fella looks at him and smiles. Yes, he says and disappears.”



Jackson started to laugh, but Flanagan’s face was serious.



“Thing is, that’s got me thinking,” he said.



“About what?”



The Irishman leaned forwarded and whispered like he was sharing a secret.



“It’s been quiet for a long time, Jacko. Do you ever remember it being quiet this long? It’s like the war’s over.”



Jackson took a deep breath that he turned into a sarcastic sigh.



“And they forgot to tell us?”



“It’s not that.” Flanagan looked towards No Man’s Land. “I was thinking. What if we’re dead, Jacko. What if we’re dead and don’t know it? “



Jackson started to laugh then cut it short.



“Are you serious, man? We’d know if we were dead.”



“How would we know? You’ve seen it as often as I have. One minute you’re here and then you’re gone. Who knows what happens after that? Maybe it’s like this.” He looked at the Australian and asked: “Do you remember what you were doing before the shelling stopped?”



Jackson thought about the question for a moment then responded without confidence.



“I was laying wire, I think. What about you?



“I was having my dinner. Some bulli beef.“



Jackson jumped on the answer.



“Well there it is, “he said. “I had some of that as well.” He smiled as if he was relieved. “That’s all this is, Sam. Gravy not the grave. We’ll be fine once it passes through us.”



“Maybe so.” Flanagan stood up and stared into the darkness, looking at the shadows of the boys shaping the land as far as he could see. “Still, tired as I am, I’m too scared to go to sleep.”



Jackson said nothing. Instead he lit another cigarette and lay against the wall of the trench, sucking in smoke until it filled his lungs. He closed his eyes and started to drift towards home. To warm days and lamb roasts. But before he could reach them, something pulled him back.



A voice. Soft as breeze in the long grass.



“Come away,” it whispered.



Jackson opened his eyes.



Flanagan was gone and everything was quiet.



Quiet as the grave.



   
   

 

endmark



Bart Meehan lives in Canberra Australia and has published several stories over the years. Bart has also written a short radio play about World War 1 that was broadcast on Australian radio and is now available for free download here. A second play on the London Blitz during World War 2, will be broadcast in the coming months. Bart's micro 40 Years and Counting appears in the April 2013 issue of HelloHorror and his story The Lesson appears in the Winter 2015 issue, The Last Words appears in the Spring 2015 issue and Jigsaw appears in the Spring 2016 issue of HelloHorror.



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