Where is Peace? {a very old, very short story}

405b787ffe12b586e7c1b3c6c44c7180This is a short story I wrote a while ago for a contest, the them being “Finding Life in Death”. It is set during World War I, otherwise known as The Great War.

 

When men have lain in trenches with the bodies of other soldiers all about, alive and dead, when they have listened to the screams of shells as they burst in sky and on ground, when they charge against the nameless enemies with bayonet and rifle, one may ask—“Where is peace?” And who can answer? There may be a thousand and one men about me, and not one could tell you. The whole world is aflame, every nation is soaked with the crimson stuff that daily I behold with increasing indifference. I detest the indifference, for it turns me into an apathetic being, with no thought for the nameless force across No Man’s Land. Where is the peace in the moments when I slay men right and left, while merely trying to ward them off?

I have been in this field for two years since the beginning of this war which everyone calls “Great”.

“Great?” my comrades laugh dryly; all of our jokes are mostly deprecating.

“We fight in the Great War! Such a splendid war it is! Today we had the luck of getting down a whole regiment of the Germans. Indeed, it is all great.”

Then we laugh, gutturally. A shell bursts somewhere outside, thunderous and roaring. One man, who is what we would call a novice in these front trenches, stares at the wall, tight-lipped and shaking. Today he killed for the first time in his life. He killed three of the Kaiser’s men, who came over the top of our bulwark. I silently draw near him and at last put out my hand. He starts, and looks up at me with glazed eyes.

“They were young—younger than I,” he murmurs numbly, “Just mere lads. And I—” he loses control and his voice cracks. Tears run freely down his cheeks in one sudden torrent, and my heart turns within me: I am startled by my unexpected emotion that rises with terrible rapidity.

“That is a common thing in the field,” I say in a whisper, “You…you grow accustomed to it.”

“I won’t! I’ll go mad before the end of this fight!” the poor man cries out wildly, “Accustomed!?” He lowers his face into his hands, and his shoulders begin to heave. “I will go mad before that.”
It is a wonder that I am not mad yet. I have slaughtered far more than this fellow, but the first time I shot a man through is vague in my memory. I deliberately block it out, as I keep the rest of those vivid recollections in the back of my mind. And I must always force them down. If they should surface, I would be better off a dead man. My eyes have seen a few comrades with their Bibles on the field grounds in the early morn, even during the raids, or at night in the dim lamplight, in our bunkhouses. They close those thick little books with a strange expression—I do not understand it, though I have seen it often enough on my own sweet mother’s face when she has finished a prayer, back at home. What sort of peace might they sense, in the midst of this hell-hole? What sort of peace do they find in common words—age old words that I have heard so often but never understood?

Shortly after a bomb raid I sit with a small, pale man, who has just received a letter from home. He smiles through tears and looks at me, with gentle eyes. I am amazed by that expression. It touches me in strong way. “Be at rest, my brother,” he says to me after a long silence, with the morning shining all around. The sun has just risen.

“At rest?” I echo, and purse my lips. “How is that?”

“We fight for peace, we kill for peace. We send shells over to win peace. But there is peace here. We needn’t wait for it, when it rests in this,” and he patted his book with the little gilded cross on the cover. Now I needn’t search for peace any longer.

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