The Earth by the Somme

Mahon broke his leg when he was thinking about his grandfather in the War.

It was dark. Mahon was with his dogs in the woods, thinking about the Thirty-sixth Ulster on the Somme and his grandfather. The river sounded a ways into the dark, making itself serpentine and mossy, the sound. Mahon felt his feet slip on the lichen embossed rocks that rose up like bones among the trees.

Mahon was thinking about his grandfather on the Somme.

The funny thing was Mahon had never met his grandfather.

His grandfather had died when Mahon was a boy. Mahon's grandfather had died in Ireland. Mahon's father had photographs of his father, and Mahon looked at them sometimes. The first time Mahon had gotten drunk, the photograph of his grandfather had fallen off the mantle, and Mahon had been, in his pleasantly drowned state of inebriation, afraid it had broken. It hadn't.

Mahon looked nothing like the grandfather he had never met.

It was dark outside, and there was no snow on the ground; there was frost, and the winter lichens creeping on the skeletal rocks that erupted through the crust of fallen pine needles and broad leaves. Mahon had three dogs with him, and he was not hunting. He didn't even have a gun. Only the dogs, who looked about bemused, because Mahon had not given them any commands, and he was not holding a gun. The dogs would sit every so often, and they whined at the sky between the trees. Mahon did not say anything to the dogs.

Mahon's father (who had not been to war) retold some of the stories. The War stories, about the Somme, about the Thirty-sixth Ulster, and how the men would say it was England's war when the tally of Ireland's dead came back. And the English would say it was France's war when their own dead were counted and marked. And the French would say the Boche started it, and they would in turn say that the War had started itself because it was the Time for a war.

Mahon had never seen war either, and thought, in the dark woods, it didn't matter a hell of a lot who started it really. It didn't matter a whole hell of a lot to his grandfather, who had live through it, or for his father who had never seen it, or himself, who had only heard of it.

He broke his leg thinking about this.

He imagined the dark night, and the dogs, and he imagined his grandfather at the Somme, the grandfather that Mahon did not resemble at all. Mahon could nearly see, in the dark, the dark River, and the mortars and he could almost feel the mud to his breeks, to his feet, and Mahon thought about the War he had never known and no one had ever known but acres of dead men.

This was when Mahon broke his leg: when he thought of his grandfather at the Somme and with a wet smack of realization, Mahon thought he could not see his dead father in Ireland. Then the dogs were crying because Mahon was face down against the hoary earth, and his leg was twisted by a skull-grinning rock, moon-shaded but for the bruises of old winter lichens.

It hurt him for a very long time, there on the ground, the smell of the wet ground permeating the skin of his face, his eyes, Mahon's light eyes and light skin. And the dogs were crying up to the dark sky. And Mahon thought about his father, who would throw empty liquor bottles into the fireplace just to watch them crack and melt and turn a deep foreign red, against the heat.

Mahon could not think about his dead father in Ireland. And the hurt in his leg was raw and completely removed from Mahon himself that he did not realize his leg hurt at all. He thought it was quite like being drunk. And still he could see the Somme, even the river in the background that roiled through the cold night sounded like the Somme might have, and Mahon felt wet and lost and removed, and he thought his grandfather could have felt this way in England's war in France's war, in War's war.

"Maybe it does matter."

Mahon muttered to the ground. The dogs cried. Mahon felt removed and about the pain of his leg. He was encompassing his own pain. And it was nothing, not a thing but what was left. When Mahon's father left Ireland, it must have been so much of Nothing. And when some Irishman died in the bloody infernal trenches beside the Somme, Ypres, Verdun, whatever the goddamned hell, it must have been so much of Nothing.

And honestly, Mahon felt about ready to die. Always, he had imagined himself dying while drunk. But pain was all right. Damn it all, the pain was fine enough. Mahon thought about his grandfather. And he thought about how his father was buried in this same earth, and Mahon could not see his father at all in Ireland.

The dogs cried at the sky.

Mahon fell into his own roundabout darkness, where he was so much of Nothing too.

And it was so much later when Mahon woke up, when his entire body was cramped and cold, and he wanted a drink so badly it hurt more than his leg, did Mahon equate the pain with himself. And it was still dark, and Mahon tried to lift himself, but he couldn't. So he breathed in the darkness of the earth, and he imagined very much it would smell the same in France. And if Mahon tried enough, he imagined it would smell the same in Ireland.

Mahon's father had told him once that it was never anybody's own war. It was always War's war, and the only way for a man to keep sane was to remember that. But it wasn't War's earth, nor was it War's pain, nor was it the way War died on the hard ground. That was Man's. And Mahon kept the inebriation about himself, even desiccated of drink, by thinking this is Man's drunkenness, Man's conscious. My own. My own pain. My own dark.

The dogs were sitting about him on the ground. They looked at him with dumb cow-like eyes and whined. Snow started falling then, as Mahon stared at the dogs, and it dusted the wet ground, and the sky looked like ghosts. Thirty-sixth Ulster ghosts. Somme-colored ghosts. Ireland and her ghosts, all the nations, and the myriad War's belonging to war. Mahon's leg hurt fully now, the hurt tangible; red and his Own.

And Mahon thought he should return home and drink.

(they found him in the woods when he didn't come home that night, and his neighbor Monahan went out, and found him in the woods, sleeping on the dark, frigid ground covered with snow, and the dogs lying down beside him. and he looked as one would look in the old photographs of the Dead, his leg splayed out behind him at an odd angle. and his face looked so calm against the snow. and much later when he awoke in the white-washed plainness of the hospital room, he said he had died at the somme, and how the earth was exactly the same at the somme as it was in ireland.

he hadn't died of course. he had only broken his leg.)