Time is a mysterious thing, I’ve written about this before. Last year – last year! – I posted 3 out of 4 episodes in my story, The True Cause of World War I. I never posted the final episode, not through creative block but through forgetfulness. My friend Beth was kind enough to to ask me if I would ever finish it. Wow. I thought I had. It’s amazing, the chaos you can find when time and busyness intersect, though that’s a whole other blog post.
So here it is, the long overdue conclusion. As I read through parts one-three I found myself cringing over my poor editing, but that’s the way the creative process works. We practice more, we become better at our craft, we wince at our old mistakes. I’m sure I’ll wince at this introduction in a year.
If you like this story please contact me before republishing, riffing on or otherwise using it. I recently had a piece of my work stolen and I’d rather that not happen again.
I would urge you to read Parts 1, 2 and 3 before you read the conclusion. It will make a lot more sense. If you can’t bear it and need to forge ahead, here is the story so far:
In Part 1 we met a group of poets in the early 20th century. Language is their love, their mistress, their all-consuming passion. A new poet, John Davies, is introduced to the group. He seems naive and unlikely to be a crafter of words. He reads them a poem and they realize he is someone extraordinary. In Part 2 John Davies reveals that he received a visitation from a heavenly messenger, who told him he was destined to write the greatest poems of his generation, all in praise of Gods return. He reads his friends a poem and they are compelled to write. Part 3 sees the poets at first enraptured by their God-given poetry, but soon they realize that all they write is praise to God, that poetry is no longer the voice of humanity, but the voice of deity. Wherever John Davies speaks his poems, all listeners stop their daily lives and sing hosanas. The world begins to grind to a halt as religious ecstasy spreads like plague. The poets want their own voices back, want to give back self-determination to humanity. In their anger and their need, they murder John Davies’ heavenly visitor who brought this cursed gift to the world. As the visitor dies it offers them a great and terrible muse. They dispose of the body in the Thames. Which brings us to…
We slunk away into the night, each to his own rooms, his own pen and paper. We didn’t see each other for a time.
I waited and tried to write, and waited more, but I couldn’t find a word. All I could see was a flood of red on glowing white.
After a longer time we met again, as if in agreement that it was better to be wordless together. A few of us had poems to share. John Davies had written nothing.
We pretended nothing had happened. The world seemed to be itself, full of gossip and laughter and tears. God wasn’t on the lips of the fishmonger and cobbler, the maid or whore. Each went to their work and their prayers were a private thing.
We pretended we had no need for a muse. We tried to write. Some of us did. We tried to talk. Some of us could. But it always rang false. John Davies no longer rushed in clutching paper, instead he sat in the corner drinking scotch. We tried to not look at him, we tried not think about what we had become.
A few months later, the Serbian Duke Ferdinand was killed. In August, the world went mad. What came to be called the Great War fell upon us.
Imagine hundreds, thousands of young men. Round faces, barely formed, peering out from under helmets. Soft hands clutching guns. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of young men rushing up hills, rushing to be slaughtered, backs arching as they fall.
Imagine running into machine gun fire, bodies rolling down hills, pushed into mud turned red from blood. The trenches deep and thick and muddy, reeking of shit and piss and foot rot. Trenches full of the sound of the lost mumbling for their mothers, the rest of us boasting about how we wouldn’t be killed.
Imagine the haze of gas, the terror of phosgene, knowing lungs would burn and rot but staying in trenches even as gas settled there because looking up out of the trenches was sure death. It was better to try to hold our breath and grab for the too-few masks then stick our heads up above the roiling yellow cloud that crept towards us, sucking our life away.
Imagine us, sitting in the trenches, picking off rats one by one, ignoring the stench of a body hanging on the wires, that we could not get because then we would just be another body alongside.
Oh it was a great and terrible muse we unleashed upon the world.
The others are gone now. I am the only one left and I still dream of flares and shells.
Some of my friends died in the war. Some of us were just as good as dead. John Davies never wrote again. Robert and Sigfried were gunned down. Some swallowed their own guns, others drank themselves into oblivion, a few managed to eke out some kind of life after. But we never spoke of what we had done, what we saw before the war. What our words caused.
We got what we wanted. We had a muse of mankind. Maybe because man isn’t God we were given a muse of our vengeful hearts, of our jealousy and rage, of our bravery and lies.
And I am all that is left. My joints ache. Standing here telling you has made my heart tighten as it did when I was young and in the trenches waiting to die, watching my friends die. It has made my heart tighten as it did when I heard John Davies’ words. It has made my heart tighted as it did when I saw the splash of blood first dim brightness.
We were young men. We didn’t know. We didn’t know. We didn’t know there could be such a consequence to our needs. We got what we wanted and so much more.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
(c)2012 Laura S. Packer
Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen