Disclaimer: Twilight character names belong to Stephenie Meyer. Dulce Et Decorum Est belongs to Wilfred Owen. No copyright infringement is intended.
A/N: This one shot was written for the Fandom Fights the Famine compilation. I am posting it today in honour of all servicemen and women who serve our country and can't be with their loved ones this Christmas, and of those who have been killed or wounded in action.
To those who read, please consider supporting the Fandom for Heroes compilation, which is raising money for Help the Heroes. In my opinion, this is one of the finest causes out there.
Thank you to Weezy and Brigit who read this through for me before I sent it off. I love you both!
Dulce et Decorum est.
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.
(Dulce et Decorum Est - Wilfred Owen)
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori = It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country.
The envelope is pink, stark and beautiful against the dull, earthy colours that have been my reality for so long now that I'm certain home can only have ever been a dream. As I inhale, my nose twitches with the distant scent of her perfume. If I weren't already seated I would surely fall to my knees as the familiar scent envelops me and pulls me away from this God-forsaken place, with the endless mud and the cries of the wounded. Boys forced to be men before their time.
I am home, in the simple kitchen of our small two-up-two-down in Manchester. Straining my ears, I can almost hear the sounds of the local children playing in the streets and the bacon sizzling in the frying pan as her small, dainty fingers manipulate the spatula and the bacon lands on the crusty bread. The bacon is crispy - just the way I like it. Her elegant fingers dance over the bread as the knife slices easily through the perfect bacon sandwich. I can see the small diamond that twinkles from her ring finger and my heart races in my chest, knowing that she is mine. A small, wistful smile curls at my lips as I dream of a different world. A world where we are still together in our small home. If I concentrate really hard, I can almost feel those gentle fingers caressing my cheeks, massaging my shoulders after a long day's work at the ship yard.
I had thought then that times were hard. Looking around me now, it's hard to believe that I could have ever believed anything hard before now. The pink envelope - held almost brutally tight in my hands, lest the wind should decide to steal her precious words away from me - is the first colour, besides the red blood of the injured and dying, that I have seen in far too long, and my eyes almost smart at the beauty of it.
I smile, looking deeper into the contents of the small, brown parcel. I am almost feverishly overtaken with happiness at the sight of the warm, woollen socks peeking out from beneath the tobacco and playing cards. The cold here is so harsh that it penetrates every layer of our clothing, biting into the skin, cutting so deep that you can feel it right to your bones. My feet, cowering in their standard issue boots, have been so far beyond blue that I can almost feel my toes dancing in excitement at the thought of the simple warmth these socks can bring.
But the letter. The letter is the thing.
Her elegant script flows over the envelope with my name and regiment number. A few of the beautifully formed letters are smudged. Maybe it was the rain that falls ten months out of the twelve in Manchester, but I tell myself that my girl, my beautiful Rosie, shed sweet tears as she wrote her words to me.
I have dreamt so often of her face that day on the train station, as I boarded the train that would carry me away from her. Her tear-stained cheeks and unnaturally bright eyes as she forced the smile that I carry in my heart every day. I can see the soft wisps of her bright blond hair as they fell from her otherwise immaculate style, dancing in the cool, northern wind as she waved frantically, running along the platform to prolong our eye-contact as the train progressed further and further, until she became smaller and smaller, a silhouette and eventually just a memory.
It has been one hundred and thirty two days since that moment - since I saw her last. My girl, so strong and stoic in the face of the thing we always feared the most. Our separation.
And so we write. We allow our pens to fill the gaps in our hearts as I sit in this muddy, noisy, over-crowded trench, waiting for the order to honour my King and country.
Talk of going "over the top" is rife all around me. The order is expected any day now. Orders from men who sit in their offices, admiring their maps and congratulating themselves on moving a few feet closer to Berlin with every life that is lost. Men who send boys to fight their war. It's been so long now that none of us can even remember what we're fighting for.
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Right?
The murder of the archduke and the murmurs of war seem so long ago, a different world to the one we live in now. A world where civility is forgotten and the value of life is a thing of the past. A world where boys are no longer people, but pawns, sent to do the work of the men who control us.
Fingering the precious envelope, I am afraid to open it. I have waited so long for it to reach me, yet, once opened, its contents will take mere seconds to read. I want to savour it. I want this moment, these precious seconds with my Rosie, to last. I'm not ready for my imagined trip home to be ripped from me just yet. I need to be with my girl. I need to be reminded that there is good in the world yet - that there is still a place where my life has more worth than as a simple target for the German guns. The guns that bark at us, night and day as the flares light up the inky black sky, reminding us starkly that our only cover is the sodden French mud.
I am pulling open the flap, inhaling the scent of my girl deeply into my lungs, cherishing this moment, when my peaceful solitude is disturbed.
"McCarty." Immediately I jump up, standing to attention, as is customary in the face of my superior.
"Sir," I bark, on auto-pilot now.
My heart trembles in my chest as my fingers lose their grip on the letter and it flutters to the ground, into the dirt beneath my feet.
I don't look. It takes every ounce of strength in me not to bend down and rescue the letter from the filth it has fallen into. But I keep my back straight and my eyes front and centre as Sergeant Whitlock stands before me.
"Corporal, you are needed to-"
It isn't much. Just a flick of the eyes, subconscious almost. It's over before I can stop it, but he sees. Of course he sees. He's my superior and he's paid to see everything. His eyes follow the trail that mine have left, down and down to the letter that sits, dainty and out of place in the French mud.
For a moment, I am sure he will be disgusted. Maybe even drive the precious letter into the mud with his boots. After all, I have seen this man wielding his weapon, ruthlessly cutting down German soldiers with a spray of bullets, then turning away as though nothing happened. As though killing changes nothing.
It changes everything.
I'm wrong, though. He stoops to the ground and I watch as his fingers curl around the letter, brushing the mud away tenderly. His eyes are fixed on his acquisition, almost hypnotised as he stands once more before me.
I want to snatch the letter from his hands, terrified that he will steal her words from me - steal away my short moment of happiness, cocooned amongst the desperation of the trenches with the girl I love. But I don't. I am a soldier after all, and if there's one thing I have learned to do, it is to obey the orders of my superiors. It's always been this way after all. Working in the ship yard or marching in France. The rules are the same; the stakes here are simply higher.
His nose twitches briefly and I'm certain that I see the beginnings of a wistful smile curling at his mouth. He has caught the scent of her perfume, lovingly sprayed onto the correspondence to give me just a small flavour of the home and the arms I miss so badly. His eyes are alight with something I would swear is recognition as he hands the letter back to me carefully, as though it is made of glass.
"As you were, Corporal," he mutters, almost absent-mindedly as he salutes and begins to walk away.
My eyes flash from the letter and back to him, again, and again. He is my superior officer; I really shouldn't. But I do.
"Sergeant?" He turns to me and if I'm not mistaken his eyes are a little glassy. He says nothing, merely nods, letting me know it's okay to speak.
"You, uh... You wanted me?" It's not what I intended to say, not even close, but in a world where nobody says what they mean any more, I can hardly feel bad for that.
"Read your letter, Corporal. There will be time enough for killing when you are through." His voice is weary and worn, almost sad, and his shoulders don't stand as rigid and proud as I am accustomed to seeing.
He is silent for a moment and it feels as though the whole of France is quiet. It's never quiet here. There is the constant noise of war, day and night. Guns barking, flares shooting up into the sky, men coughing up the remains of their lungs as officers holler their orders over the din. But, just for this moment, it feels as though we are alone. Just two men, boys really, thrust into this hell far too young.
"It's from my girl," I blurt out without thinking, almost desperate for somebody, anybody to understand how important this little slip of pink paper is. If I'm not mistaken, the corner of his mouth lifts in a small, crooked smile and his eyes flash wistfully.
"What's her name, Corporal?" he asks, his head tilted to one side, genuine interest sparkling from his expression.
"Rose. Her name's Rose. My Rosie." Her name feels soft, important on my lips and I am helpless to the smile the thought of her evokes. She is my reason to survive this damned war. She is the force that pushes me, faster than I ever believed I could move, avoiding the guns and mines that explode around me when we push forward. She keeps me moving, keeps me living, when all around, life is rapidly losing its worth.
"I hope the letter brings you good news of her health," he offers, sounding genuine, then he turns and I think he will leave, but he appears to think better of it and reaches into his pocket, pulling out a small, dog-eared scrap of paper.
"This is Bella," he says, showing me a photo of a beautiful girl with dark hair and eyes so wide they almost look too large for her face. She is smiling in the photograph and I can see the colour fading where his fingers have touched. I know, because I have a photo in a similar state. "She gave birth to my son just a week ago."
I don't know what to say. My heart hurts at the thought of a child being born so far away, while his father is risking his life every day for King and Country. The expression on his face is suddenly so clear to me. Where before I couldn't read it, now it is obvious.
He hates this just as much, if not more, than the rest of the men and I. He is caught up in this ridiculous war, just as much as the rest of us. He wishes he could be home with his family, with his new-born son, as much as I long to be with my Rosie.
After a long moment of companionable silence, both of us thinking and dreaming of home, he nods and leaves me to my letter, but I won't look at him the same way again. He is a man, just like the rest of us, doing what he can to end this war and get home to his family.
The letter is short and sweet, when I finally open it. She tells me how much she misses me, gives me news of our family, friends and neighbours. She talks of the war as though it is just a passing fancy, like it will be over by Christmas. This is what they believe at home. Here in the middle of things, it's a little harder to think that this hell will ever be over. But, I suppose it must end. All wars do eventually.
I hang on her every word, each one bringing her closer and yet, simultaneously, somehow further away. I can picture her, going about her days as she describes. Her words are beautiful and paint a picture that I can see so clearly in my head, that I find myself sitting for a long while after I have closed the letter, my eyes closed, picturing myself there with her.
I can see the clouds of smoke rising over the city, my city, my home, as the workers head to the mills and factories. Many of the men complain at the early hour we start, but not me. I have always loved the freshness of the early morning. The way the dew clings desperately to the leaves and the cobwebs that line the railings around the ship yard. The way the sun catches with the smog over the city, painting a canvas of pinks and oranges against the sky. People say that the city is dirty, full of pollution that will invade your lungs and clog them up until you die a horrendous death, with lungs as black as coal.
They know nothing of horrendous death, these mystery "people". They haven't seen what I've seen. They haven't witnessed the horrors of war, the way that lives can be snuffed out without a second thought. The old and the young, the innocent and guilty, the rich and the poor, they all die together here. No prejudice, no class system, just indiscriminate killing.
I miss my home. I miss my Rosie and the way she laughs raucously at my jokes, even when they're not funny. I miss the way her blue eyes light up when she has an idea, so bright it seems as though a fire has been lit there, burning so bright and long, until the idea has come to fruition. I miss the way she stamps her feet and yells at me, her face burning bright red when I upset her, which I do... A lot. She's the most beautiful woman in the world and, when I get home, she is going to be my wife.
I can picture her so easily, radiant in a white dress, her cheeks tinged pink as her father leads her down the aisle to me. But that image does not belong here in this hellhole so I shake my head, carefully putting the letter back into the envelope. I have read it three times already, its contents almost memorised and inscribed on my heart, even the tiny, seemingly insignificant parts, the mundane, every day things that she tells me about because I urge her to. I want to know everything she does. I want to picture her days in perfect detail; it's all I have left to cling onto.
Sighing, I tuck the pink envelope into my jacket, taking one last sniff at the scent of her perfume before I shut that world away and prepare to face the one I find myself in now. Day-dreams have little place here and I have lingered over her words for long enough.
This world and that are completely different in every way and to confuse them would be foolish and potentially deadly, and that cannot happen. I promised her, down on one knee with a ring in my hand, that I would return one day and make her a bride. She is counting on that and I can't let her down.
When Sergeant Whitlock returns, he smiles at me with a knowing expression that you can only give to a person you have shared something important with, even if it's merely a moment of weakness in a world where weakness is punishable by death.
The smile fades quickly, though, and is replaced by a grim expression I am certain I know the reason for. It's the face the commanding officers always use when they are about to give the order we are all waiting for. I know what he will say before he says it. He's going to give the order to prepare the guns. We will be doing what we are, after all, here to do. Tonight, we will go over the top.
It is dark. The sky is pitch black, with barely a star to be seen. It's as though they have all fled, knowing what is coming. The moon is hiding, nestled safely among the clouds, reluctant to watch what will surely happen next.
The men are eerily silent as we stand in rows, line after line of soldiers - pawns in somebody else's chess game. And it's their move. I can hear the faint ticking of my pocket watch - an heir loom from my father - and each tick seems louder than the last, slicing through the silence like a machete, almost booming in my ears by the time the command is given. Then everybody is moving, and although my legs feel like lead, I find myself moving with them. I am lost in a sea of men, all dressed the same, all moving the same, but all so very different. Each has his own story, a life he has come from and hopes desperately to return to. But the chance of it happening for each and every one of us grows dimmer and dimmer as the silence is broken by the singing of the German guns. And we are singing. Singing together as one as we move closer and closer to the danger zone.
"Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile..."
March, march, march. Smiling is a thing of the past as the old, familiar song rings out in an attempt to lift fallen spirits. But as fallen spirits turn to fallen men - fallen boys - the spirits become harder and harder to lift.
My only thought then is running. My legs ache but push me on, faster and faster. My lungs are burning and my thoughts are foggy as spray after spray of bullets hurtle towards me.
My Rose. I have to get back to my girl. I have to marry her.
Smoke lifts around me, rising from the barren ground that is littered with lives that could have been amazing. Faces look up at me from the mud, pained, afraid, begging, pleading. Eyes go dull as the lights of life go out, but I cannot stop. I cannot answer the pleading and the begging, because I have to keep moving. I have my orders.
Men are falling all around me and flares are lighting up the sky, but I keep moving, driven forward by the thought of my Rose receiving the telegram I promised her she would never have to endure.
Her face, her sparkling blue eyes are the image in my head as my knees disappear beneath me and I fall into the mud. The guns are still ringing out all around me, but the sounds are muffled now, as though I am hearing them from far away. The world around me is chaos, but everything is growing dim. The men are still moving; I can hear their feet as they pass, see the light change as their blurred silhouettes move along. I am another face in the mud now, another set of eyes that will fade and dim as the world moves on around me.
There should be pain. Dimly, I am aware that there should be pain - should be something, some feeling to make this real to my body. But, as my fumbling fingers reach into the pocket that lies over my heart and retrieve a faded photo of the only face in the world I want to be my last sight, there is no pain, no feeling but a deep sense of calm and peace as a weary darkness enfolds me, carrying me away on comforting wings.
A young woman sits, her long, blond hair moving softly in the breeze that drifts in through an open window. Her breakfast lies, uneaten, on the plate before her as her eyes drift unseeing around the room. The small kitchen echoes around her with the ghost of him. He has been gone for so long now that his scent no longer wafts under her nose unexpectedly, and she has long since stopped finding small tokens of their lives together before the war, littered around the house.
On her finger, the small diamond sits, reminding her of his promise. Of the day when he dropped to the ground before her, his eyes sparkling with very un-manly tears as he vowed to return to her and marry her one day. She can remember perfectly the feeling of pure joy that flooded through her body as she found herself in his arms, spinning around so fast that everything blurred and laughing dizzily as he placed her back on her feet, dropping soft kisses on her cheeks and lips as she smiled with happiness.
As her fingers dust across her lips, searching for a sensation that has long been absent, she stands, almost mechanically, at the sound of the mail landing on the doormat. Every morning she rises at the sound of the soft plunking of letters landing on the mat and every morning she hopes to see the military stamp that means he has written back to her.
Her fingers close around the mail. Three letters. She flicks through them slowly. One is clearly from her mother; she would recognise that spidery writing anywhere. Another is a circular, some more government advice on how to make the most of your garden to help the war effort, or some propaganda telling her how united they will stand. And the third...
Her fingers stop their meandering as her eyes take in the last piece of mail. The military stamp is there, sure enough, but this is no letter. Her eyes blur with tears that refuse to fall as she turns the telegram over, desperate not to read what she is afraid to know.
It takes a moment for her eyes to clear enough to make out the crudely printed words that send her heart up into her throat as she falls to her knees. There are many words and numbers on the small slip of paper, but the only ones that make any sort of sense to her are the three that have the world crashing down around her.
Three words. Just three. That's all it takes to render her an incoherent mess, curled in a ball in the hallway. Sobs tear from her chest as her fingers curl into her hair, tugging wildly in the hope that somehow the stinging pain in her scalp will replace the pain of the stone that has taken over from her heart.
Missing - Presumed Dead.
Who would ever know that three simple words could tear a person apart from the inside out? Four words, Will you marry me? once gave her hope for the future and three tear them apart.
As the days move on and turn slowly into weeks, the weather begins to change, the leaves turning golden and beginning to fall from the trees. The world changes around her, but she remains static, refusing to move forward without him. He is still out there somewhere, of that she is certain. She would feel it in her heart if he was gone, wouldn't she? He is the other half of her soul, after all. You don't lose half of your soul without noticing, do you?
Her eyes are sore from the tears she can't seem to stop shedding. The telegram sits on the table, an object of derision, the words almost worn away from the number of times she has read and re-read it, hoping to find some hidden meaning in the print. But they never change. Just as she never changes.
Her body is sluggish and heavy with lack of nourishment, despite the best efforts of her family. The only person who has been able to coax her into eating even the smallest bites is his mother and now her head is spinning with a delirious hunger that nags at every cell in her body. But how can she concede? How can she give in to the feeble demands of her body when he is gone?
When the silence she is so accustomed to is broken by a knocking at the door, her heart leaps into her throat. It's not the incessant, barking knock of her mother or the gentle, almost inaudible taps of his family. It's strong and definite, but soft at the same time. It's everything she would expect his knock to be.
She stands, swaying dangerously and steadying herself with her palm on the table before she straightens her skirt, acting on auto-pilot as she walks as quickly as her swimming mind will allow. Her hands shake as her cool fingers close around the dull metal handle and she pulls, her strength failing her when the expanded wood catches, as it always does, in the frame. Through the tiny gap she sees a flash of olive green and her heart races impossibly faster.
This ridiculous door, she curses in her mind as she tugs on the stubborn handle, willing it to open and tell her that what she believes is true. She needs it to be true.
Finally, the stubborn door relents and her eyes flutter closed. She wants to keep this moment - this hope - alive for as long as she can.
Her hair is lifted by a gust of wind as the door swings open. She can hear the scattering and rustling of leaves in the road and feel light drops of rain landing on her cheeks, but she can't bring herself to open her eyes. Because what if she opens them and her hope is shattered?
As the raindrops thicken, they are joined with salty tears she has not permitted to fall as the air around her changes. Her whole body jumps, startled, when the tips of her visitor's fingers gently wipe away the dampness from her cheeks.
Leaning into the softest of touches, she is so sure and slowly, oh so slowly, she forces herself to open her eyes. At first, she is blinded by the autumn sun that is hanging low in the afternoon sky, but as her vision clears, her eyes settle on a smile. That smile. The smile she would know anywhere, in a thousand lifetimes, and, as the gentle touch of his fingers is lost, just as soon it is replaced by the fiercest of loving embraces and all at once, she is home again.
Thank you for reading. I wish you all a very merry and peaceful Christmas. :)