Written by: HR Arswyd
He wasn’t dead, he knew that. He knew that because he could still see and eventually his hearing had come back, although his head still throbbed miserably. When he finally regained consciousness, he couldn’t understand why he seemed frozen in place, unable to move anything but his eyes. He tried to reason it out, but everything was muddled and he felt sleepy. It was hard to gauge time; he tried briefly to count to ten but gave up, deciding that it was no use since he couldn’t calibrate whether he was counting quickly or slowly.
Occasionally, comets seemed to float regally over his head, flaring to brilliance then slowly fading out as they gently drifted. Brilliant stars chased one another across his field of vision. It all seemed festive and cheerful but somewhere deep inside he felt an instinctive dread of them, especially the white-hot tracery of the stars.
He realized the night was darker now, and that gave him further proof that he was still living–but why couldn’t he move? Panic suddenly gripped him; he tried desperately to get back on his feet, willing his body to get up, but to no avail. He could hear his breathing coming now in gasps and pants as the panic surged. He tried to move just an arm, nothing. Wiggle his fingers, nothing. In growing terror he turned his head–no, he tried to turn it but his eyes remained looking in the same direction they had been staring since he had awakened–who knew how long ago?
Hysteria and terror poured over him, suffocating him like grave dirt. He wanted to scream, but some primal survival instinct suppressed his urge to cry out, to make any noise at all. Another comet burst forth in bright brilliance, suffusing everything with a stark, silver -white light and momentarily distracting him. By its light, he became aware of a mist slowly rising from the mud around him, its vapor shimmering brightly. Again the stars chased one another, other stars chased each other the opposite direction, crisscrossing the sky like a confused, angry meteor shower. He became aware of the cacophony of loud, rhythmic booming that accompanied the shooting stars. He heard the sharp snap-crack as stars flew close past his head and the strange, wet, thud-sizzle when they sometimes flew into the mud near him.
The comet abruptly burned out and, for a moment, the shooting stars burned all-the-brighter, then they, too ceased; leaving him alone in the dark, still unable to move.
God, dear God, why can’t I move? What’s happened to me? he thought, over and over as his eyes slowly readjusted to the darkness. He tried again to move, something, anything but only his eyes were capable of any movement and they darted desperately through his field of vision, frantically searching the darkness for some clue or explanation for his predicament, but to no avail.
He decided to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be…my lips! They’re moving! At least they work! I can TALK! I can hear myself!” he said aloud, but at once regretted making the sound as another comet burned into brightness and again the mad dash of shooting stars and the raucous rhythm that accompanied them split the darkness.
Away to his right, rising up from the mist he saw a hunch figure. Some of the stars converged on it and there was a scream as it disappeared back into the thickening vapor. For a flash of a second he remembered who and where he was but it faded out too fast for him to latch onto it and extract anything meaningful. He tried to concentrate, but it made his head throb worse so he stopped and instead just watched the comet until it went out.
A sudden howling scream tore him back to consciousness. He realized he must have drifted off at some point but the noise was so pitiable and horrific he was immediately awake and on his guard. He once again discovered he couldn’t move and suddenly remember it at the same instant. Before he could process the information the scream again pierced the night. Another comet blossomed overhead but this time there were no angry, streaking stars.
He noticed that the mist was much thicker now and hugged the ground more tightly. That made him realize that his head was a foot or so above the top of the mist. He tried to work out what it meant but his attention was distracted by movement out ahead of him.
He stared into the distance, a fragment of the mist, tattered and torn, seemed to have risen above the rest and was slowly drifting away to the left, almost as if it were bobbing or hobbling limply. Occasionally it seemed to stop, almost as if it were listening or sensing somehow. The comet extinguished and he lost sight of it.
It was a trick of the light, that had to be what it was! he told himself. Even as he said it, he realized there was something flawed with his thinking, but he couldn’t deduce what exactly. He was feeling sleepy again, and somewhat giddy.
Time passed, he didn’t know how long, if he had slept or just floated in the darkness. There was a whooshing sound and another bright- burning comet gently rocked and swayed as it floated on its path. Looking out over the mist he saw the same ragged fragment of mist, much closer now, only thirty or forty yards away. It was still bobbing and hobbling, periodically coming to a halt. When it did this it seemed to slowly turn side to side, as if it were searching for something.
What the hell IS that? He wondered. His grogginess and muddled thinking struggling to process the primal, instinctual fear he felt welling up inside his otherwise insensate and numb body.
He blinked a few times, it looked like, well, mist! No, more like a threadbare, mangled, shredded and tattered old sheet or, no…it was filmier and more gauzy, like a… a shroud! he said aloud.
The “thing” snapped round as if it had heard him, which was impossible, he told himself even as he heard his blood pulsing loudly through his head. He stared at the mist- shroud. Perplexed, it seemed to be moving straight at him now, with halting “steps,” bobbing as it came.
This can’t be real! I am imagining this. Oh God, maybe I am in Hell! Maybe I died and… What is this thing? his mind raced as the wisp came slowly toward him.
Between them, slowly rising out of the thick mist, a hand clawed and struggled upward, its fingers writhing as if mutely imploring God or the Devil or anyone for succor from appalling torment. The “thing” seemed to see it and spring toward it as the comet snuffed out, leaving him once again in darkness, terror and confusion. He heard a snuffling in the darkness, like a bloodhound casting for the scent of its prey, then another piercing shriek that died to a sobbing gurgle before going silent altogether.
Oh God! Oh Jesus! Oh Christ! The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He heard a wet, tearing sound. His mind froze. He tried desperately to remember the next verse as the tearing noise ended in a sickening “pop” followed by a rhythmic crunching.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want… The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want… he chanted in a hushed whisper, hysterically trying to remember the rest of the prayer. He wanted to stop his mouth from speaking the words aloud but he couldn’t and over their muted rasp, he heard the snuffling again, moving side to side yet coming closer. He willed his mouth to be as unmoving as the rest of his body, but to no avail.
The air changed, as if a door had been flung open to a long-disused cellar, rank mustiness and decay swamped over him with a chill that was colder than the mist.
Another comet popped and flared above him and there before him he saw two red, beady eyes staring at him full in the face, long teeth chattered and it hissed. A big, gray, foul rat stood before him, grown fat on unmentionable feasting.
Fucking rat! he muttered, almost in relief.
Rising up suddenly behind the rat, towering over him so that he could only see a part of it, the tattered mist-shroud floated toward him. The rat scampered away, squeaking and chirping with frustration and fear. Even in his utmost desperation he was unable to move, his eyes struggled to see upward at the thing looming over him, but all he saw was a blurry wad of gray as it leaned over and took his eyes; then he saw only fire, pain and darkness and a second later, as he screamed, it took his tongue.
Shortly after dawn, under a flag of truce, a burial detachment and stretcher bearers came out to collect the remains and the wounded from the night’s failed assault. The Turks readily agreed as, like all Muslims, they had an intense fear and dislike of dead bodies. The Allies readily reciprocated all such reasonable requests. It was a perverse sort of chivalry in the otherwise hellish brutality and vicious butchery of the fighting at Gallipoli.
A pair of stretcher bearers approached him as he lay at the lip of the shell hole.
“Cor! Poor bugger!” the one called Scully said, kneeling beside him, ” ‘E’s got shrapnel in his back! ‘ere, look, Ginger, mate, right below ‘is collar! Bloody paralyzed ‘im, I bet. Wha’ a bloody awful way to die, God rest ‘is soul!”
“You seen any good ways to die ‘ere? Short o’ coppin’ a whizz-bang in th’ ‘ead? Come on, let’s take ‘im in, ‘e’s out of it at least,” Ginger replied, grabbing the ankles and turning over the body.
“Jesus wept!” Scully gasped, as the face rolled into view. Two cavernous, empty sockets where the eyes had been and an ant-infested, black-crusted hole marked the mouth, minus the tongue.
“Fuckin’ rats!” Ginger replied, aiming a kick at a bloated and particularly vicious looking red-eyed brute.
They loaded the body onto the stretcher and began the miserable process of carrying him over the slippery, muddy, shattered and broken ground.
“‘Ere, ya know them Johnny Turks what we brought in last week? One of ’em spoke proper English an’ all. ‘E says this ‘ere grove is ‘aunted from ancient times. Some sort o’ demon or the like lives ‘ere,” Scully said.
“Oi! I’m only tellin’ you what ‘e said, not sayin’ I believe it myself. ‘E said there was some demon what lived here ‘n that in olden times, their pagan priests would frow criminals and evil-doers down from tha’ peak yonder, an’ the demon would come out at night an’ eat ’em, leastwise the parts ‘e wanted to eat. Long as it were fresh.”
“Scully, mate, you shouldn’t be payin’ ‘eed to the blasphemies of the heathen. Now come on, lift yer bloody end up, will ya?”
“Wonder if that’s why the Johnnies kept shootin’ flares all night after our attack went to ground?”
“Nah, that were just them and us bangin’ away with the machine guns all night tryin’ to catch one another off guard in case of a counter-attack or the like.”
“All them tracers flyin’ back an’ forth made for a pretty display though, like fireworks on Guy Fawkes’ Night.”
“Scully, you don’t lift up yer end and I’ll give ya a penny for the guy right up yer backstrap.”
“Criminy! Yer bloody foul this mornin’!”
“Sorry, mate. Didn’t sleep much. I had a bad night.” “This poor bugger had a worse ‘un, I’ll wager.”