Prose – The Sea-Gods of Somme

     Artillery startles me from light sleep. Captain Langley sits wrapped in a blanket, a letter from his wife on his lap. He tucks it into his breast-pocket and pats my leg.
“I was lost at sea”, I mumble. Did I dream? These days, death seems to have replaced sleep and I can no longer tell either from waking. The wet, the constant wet eats at our flesh until it rots us alive. Like ocean creatures gnawing on drowned fishermen.
Langley gazes ahead to hide his bad eye. Shrapnel tore off much of the left side of his face and the wound struggles to heal. Despite this, he keeps the remaining half of his moustache well-groomed. Many of us see a beacon of civilization in his straight-backed dignity.
“They don’t want to hit us, just shake us up. Get some rest while it’s still daytime.”
I curl back into my foxhole. No longer do any of us bother with shivering. We have offered ourselves as sacrifice to the mist and perpetual damp. These trenches keep taking water and I fear the sandbags will soon give under the mortars. Angry sea-gods wait just below the surface to pull us down deep.
A shell explodes close-by. It mangles my eardrums with intent: It wanted to rip us all apart. The ground sways and earth settles on me like seaspray. Men shout from my left. I stand into the trench passageway and watch the sails of grey smoke rise above the barbed wire. The ground groans and support beams crack like snapping bones. Captain Langley stands to join me. I hear him cough into his hankerchief, his ribcage rattling with infection. His good eye burns with Greek fire.
“Sir, are we being gassed?”, I ask, hand twitching over my bag.
“No, they’re only warning mortars, but this section of trench looks unstable. That last shell loosened up the ground. Get to the second line and let them know we need men and sandbags.”
I turn right and run as fast as the mud and my trembling allow. Silt gushes through the gaps in support boards; water saturates this whole ground into quicksand. I reach the nearest passage wet to my thighs. The tunnel stretches for three-hundred yards through to the second trenchline, narrow and straight-backed. Only two oil lamps illuminate the whole passage, but I am able to see the pinprick of light on the other side. As I prepare to enter, the ground moans behind me like an angry sea-god. Someone shouts for a medic. I turn back; only I can reach these men if the mudslide cut off their passage. Waves of dislodged water hamper my progress; I sink knee-deep. Silence fills my ears and I hear nothing but the rushing of my own blood. Beyond the corner I find Adams, stuck in the section of collapsed trench wall, his arm in Langley’s grasp. Langley stands straight-backed, impaled by a support beam tucked through his breast-pocket. I find myself lost at sea without buoy, anchor or beacon, and the sea-gods have their jaws stretched wide just under the surface. Langley now has no good eyes left, and he is still, like ocean down deep.
Silence fills my ears and I hear nothing but sea. Should I follow? I wade through these shores with mud up to my lap like letters from Langley. Excess water put out the two good eyes that illuminated the tunnel, but still I see the pinprick of light at the bottom. I plunge, three-hundred fathoms deep, with enough air in my lungs to rattle my ribcage with mortar fire.
Is this where Langley dived to steal the fire from the sea-gods? Will I find Adams down here, in this Atlantis of earth and roots? The light at the bottom of the tunnel grows brighter and wider. I hear nothing but the singing of the sea-gods as they rise out of cannons. I resist their call and persevere on, straight-backed.
Strong fishermen’s arms pull me into sunlight and I collapse onto the deck. They surround me, shouting. Their faces swim and contort in an out of focus, like fish trapped in shallows at low-tide. Some of them slip past running down the tunnel. The fools. Death has its jaws stretched open just beyond the front line.
“Can you hear me? Do you know where you are? What is your company, soldier?”, a man asks me. I recognize him as a higher-ranking officer but I cannot recall his name. Three more men arrive and I am lifted onto a stretcher on the ground by two of them. The third speaks to the officer.
“Sir, it looks like portions of the front line have collapsed”, he says.
“Give the fellow rum and rest. I will need to speak to him. Gilbert, you come with me”, says the officer. Both men stride away.
A soldier supports my head and drips his ration of rum through my lips. Already I see the black water returning to claim me, pooling around my feet. The sea-gods are angry at my insubordination. I attempt to stand but Langley hampers my legs. He stares through me with no good eyes left. The man kneeling beside me stills my shoulders, tells me I am hysterical. He is blind to the flooding trench and the ghosts of our fellows with jaws stretched open. The sea-gods sing as Langley crawls along the ground to place his hand on my breast-pocket. At once, though only for a moment, I understand the underlying purposes of this machinery that lays just beneath the surface. And then, in this comprehension, I offer myself as sacrifice and am dragged down deep.

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Beneath the Surface by Julie Dillon
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