A Return to Dreams
B. M. M. Hardy
A peel of golden trumpets split the air as the national anthem began to play. Men in crisp black uniforms with golden tassels and brilliantly colored enamel pins stood ramrod stiff next to the national flag. Their dark eyes were set as they peered out from under the brims of their caps. They faced an immense crowd, a collage of soldiers preparing to depart for the battlefield and civilians there to bid them fare well.
In the crowd was a particularly bright-eyed soldier with his shoulders thrown back. His rifle was slung over his shoulder next to his heavy pack. He was a modern day crusader. His black uniform was new, the golden trim neatly ironed. He was talking with an elderly couple.
"Now you take care of yourself," the elderly woman said over the din of the crowd as she wrapped the soldier in a hug. The soldier returned her hug as best he could, but his rifle and pack made it awkward. The old man, stooped with age, shook his head as he resettled his glasses on his crooked nose.
"If I weren't so old," he was saying, "I'd be comin' with you young'ins. I'd show you all a thing or two about fightin'!" He jabbed at the soldier with his can to accent his point. He looked the soldier in the eyes and the soldier stared back, both sets of hazel orbs shone with a passionate, patriotic fire like that of a massive furnace. "Make us proud, son."
"I'll do my best, Dad," the soldier said. He clicked the heels of his polished black boots and with a grand and precise gesture saluted his parents. His mother smiled and his father returned his salute with a quivering lower lip. A tear rolled down his cheek.
"Try not to die," a young woman said as she wrapped her arms around the soldier's neck and softly kissed him. "I wouldn't want to have to find another husband." She smiled at him as a small, crystalline tear rolled down her cheek. "Please come back soon," she whispered in his ear and kissed him again.
"Don't worry, I'll be back soon. I love you," the soldier said just as a bugle call splashed through the air and rose above the noise of the crowd. "I have to go, I'll be back as soon as I can." He kissed the young woman once more before turning and joining his troop climbing into the back of their assigned troop truck. The truck roared to life, just one of many in the endless convoy. The soldier turned his head and looked back as the truck pulled away. The young woman watched him go with a smile, tears stained her cheeks. He blew her one last kiss before she faded from sight. The weight of her picture in his coat pocket seemed augmented.
The convoy rumbled slowly through the streets. From every window, on every corner were hung flags. A golden crescent and star against the black night sky. The soldier's heart was filled with a renewed patriotic vigor and he joined in the conversations that the other soldiers were engaged in. They spoke of the battles to come; they boasted of their skills with knives, rifles, and bare fists; they joked with each other and dreamed of returning home as grand heroes.
The endless seas of people cheered them on as the trucks and tanks rolled out of the town and headed north. The war was freshly started, the soldier had leapt at the chance to be a national hero, to fight for his country and the people and things he loved. He would be at the head of the first counter attack. The soldier also knew in his heart that it would be the last counter attack. No army could withstand the force of these young me with fires burning in the hearts.
A cloud of dust stretched out it's hands from the road as an endless procession of wheels rolled over it. They drifted high into the sky like grand banners flapping in the wind to announce their approach. The journey would take the entire day. The soldiers were instructed that they would be sleeping in the trucks, but they didn't mind. It would help to harden them to battlefield life.
They stopped once to switch drivers and a few times to refuel but other than that they continued relentlessly through the night. The solder tried to sleep; he did manage an hour or two but the jostling of the truck and the noise of the convoy kept him awake. When he did sleep he dreamt of his wife and his home. They renewed his confidence when he awoke.
Just before dawn broke the soldiers could hear the distant rumble of artillery. They all fell silent and listened as each shell struck the earth with a thunderous roar. The distant rumble grew ever closer and the soldiers all fell silent and listened as the earth was rent apart by battle.
Soon the convoy rolled to a stop and all around the roar of the guns shook the air. The officer in the truck stood up and shouted something that the soldier didn't hear. The men in the front t of the truck stood up and the rest of the soldiers in the back mimicked them. The officer yelled something else and all of the soldiers took up their rifles and rigidly worked the bolt to place a shell in the magazine. Finally the officer barked out one inaudible word and waved his hand for the rest of the soldiers to follow him before he jumped from the back of the truck. The soldiers hastily followed in his path out with the cannon's roars shaking the earth all around.
The soldier hit the ground running, his heart was pounding against his ribs as he followed his unit into a trench. The hot sun beat down on the soldiers in their black uniforms and dust hung in the air and stuck to the sweat on the soldier's face. The rattle of gun fire and the shouts of countless men filled the air. The soldiers all stopped after running through a maze of hastily dug trenches and rested against the front wall of that trench. Their officer was running up and down the line and shouting something but the soldier could only catch fragments of what was said.
"There's no time for a formal briefing, so listen-running down our throats with teeth bared-jump up and give 'em all the hell in your-on my mark!" The officer raised his hand and placed a silver whistle in his mouth. This was it, this was his chance to fight for his family and his country. The whistle shrieked and the soldier jumped up and spun around. He brought his rifle to bare and opened fire. The rifle kicked hard against his shoulder and he saw a distant blue shape fall to the ground. The soldier whooped as he fumbled with the bolt of his rifle to take another shot. He brought the rifle back up to his shoulder and took another shot. Nothing happened out in the field, he must have missed.
A bullet buzzed by the soldier's head and he ducked down with a yelp. More bullets struck the earth works just above him sending up sprays of dirt and sand.
"Keep yer head down if ya want at live," shouted a grizzled old soldier. The soldier looked around to see several of his fellows lying stiff and pale on the dusty ground; blood flowed from gaping red holes in their heads as if from a well. The soldier swallowed a bitter tasting lump in his throat as he tried to tear his gaze from the grizzly image. He mustered up the courage to jump back up and continue firing. He lest out a deadly rain of fire at the advancing soldiers. He screamed wordlessly, a battle hsout to honor his fallen comrades. The rattle of machine gun fire soon joined in the fray and the remained invaders were either cut down or driven back to their own trenches.
The grizzled soldier let out a low, long whistle. "Been weeks sine we seen action like that, just now." He took his helmet off and wiped his dirty brow. "Welcome to the northern front, for what that's worth," the grizzled soldier said as he slapped the other soldier on the shoulder. The soldier doubled over and vomited.
A silence fell over the battlefield. Some soldiers started chatting, others leaned back and tried to sleep. Most of the fresh blood that hadn't been spilt wept or puked. A long silence passed. A few distant shells whistled and roared as they tore up the red earth. The soldier reached into his breast pocket and pulled out the slightly wrinkled picture of his wife. He traced a finger over her lips and recalled the sweetness of her kiss. He began to weep softly. There were no kisses here except for the bitter=sweet embrace of the cold earth.
The next morning after a restless night of muted terror an officer came running up the trench. He was shouting orders and kicking any soldier who was still sleeping. "Fix bayonets!" he shouted. The soldier fumbled for the knife on his belt and clumsily slid it over the barrel. His heart began to pound. "They're tossing us into the meat grinder now," the grizzled old soldier said as he put a metal helmet on his head. "Up and ready!" The soldier rose up just enough to peak over the side of the trench. Barbed wire and churned mounds of dirt were all that greeted him. The soldiers hear t pounded in his chest and the picture of his wife. "Up and over!" shouted the officer. A loud piercing whistle tore into the soldier's ears and he jumped up over the side of the trench and began to run through the tangled nets of barbed wire. Other soldiers followed him across the barren wasteland.
Shells began to fall from the clear blue sky with menacing whines. Fountains of dirt rose up all around and the ground shook as though a giant were marching past. One soldier disappeared in a fountain of read and brown dirt just in front of the rest of his platoon. The soldier kept moving. He dodged left and right through tangles of barbed wire while dodging the falling shells. Other soldiers were screaming. Orders were being issued from ten different mouths. The air was filled with smoke and dust and choked the soldier so that it was an effort to breath.
Busts of gunfire picked up. More soldiers began to fall, their blood forming small rivers in the dry sand. One round whizzed past the soldiers head and he threw himself to the ground. Less and less orders were being shouted now and only more screams of pain could be heard. The soldier began to crawl on his belly like an insect. He ductked under barbed wire and crawled over dead and bloated bodies in black and blue uniforms.
Machine gun fire rattled through the air. The red hot rounds passed over the soldiers head and churned up the earth all around him.
He continued to crawl forward; the barbed wire tore at his uniform and cut his face, arms, and legs. His hat was stolen by that metal net and he left it behind. The soldier soon found himself at the edge of the enemy's trench. A machine gun rattled away just a few yards to his left, sending its deadly spray out over the rest of the advancing troops. The soldier took a deep breath and jumped over the side of the trench and splashed down into knee deep water. Two soldiers in blue uniforms turned towards him and began to yell. The soldier snarled as he ran his bayonet into the belly of the first blue coated soldier. A geyser of red liquid poured out of him and he fell limply into the water. The second blue coated soldier raised his rifle and fired. The shot grazed the soldiers upper arm and with another snarl he lunged forward and dug his bayonet into the chest of the blue coated soldier as he moved to work the bolt of his rifle.
The soldier was breathing heavily and he checked that he had a shell in the chamber of his rifle before he moved towards the machine gun nest. He rounded the corner and stabbed the first blue coat that he saw in the back. It twitched violently and fell with a scream. The soldier raised his rifle and shot the blue coat manning the machine gun. The last blue coat turned and the soldier rushed forward and stabbed it in the gut and twisted the knife around, spilling out a pink mass.
A silence fell over the soldier. The distant pounding of shells and pops of gunfire still rang out, but around the soldier all was silent. He stared down at the pale figures that were wearing the blue uniforms that he had just mutilated. Their pale faces with mouths gaping stared up at the clear sky or were submerged beneath the muddy water.
Noises from around the corner warned the soldier of something's approach. He worked the bolt of his rifle and readied himself for another fight, but around the corner appeared the grizzled old soldier from earlier that day. He whistled loudly when he was the soldier standing there. "Thank the heavens I wasn't the only sorry bastard out here. I'm out of shells." The grizzled old veteran laughed and started scrounging in the dead men's bags for some ammunition. "It's impressive that a greenhorn like yerself took out a nest, most of ya don't ever make it through a charge." He laughed again and continued with his grizzly work.
The soldier rubbed his head and waited there in the nest with the veteran for an officer to show up. It was an hour before they were informed that they had taken the trench. The veteran hollered and hooted and lifted his canteen in a toast. The soldier drank, but he only felt empty inside. The days and weeks after they had captured the trench passed with little incident. One futile charge from the enemy and the occasional shelling. The veteran that the soldier thought he was becoming friends with took a sniper's bullet in the head about tow weeks into the soldier's tour. After that he realized that there were no friends out here.
One day it began to rain, a torrential rain that felt as though it was trying to crush the soldier issued forth from the black sky. The soldier had taken to wearing the old veterans metal helmet, not because he felt any sympathy but because it was a practical replacement for his lost hat. The rain pounded loudly against it. The shelling had picked up a bit that day and a few soldiers had been killed, but nothing remarkable had happened.
The soldier stood up and began to walk down the trench. Some of the other soldiers were laughing and chatting. Some were playing cards under make-shift shelters, but most were trying in vain to catch some much needed rest. It was difficult to sleep when shells fell every few hours. The soldier moved along to an empty part of the trench to relieve himself. There were not latrines built into this trench, the front line could afford no such luxury, so the soldier just went in the thigh deep mud.
Distant thunder rolled across the sky as lightning forked out. The soldier looked up to the sky in wonder, even the heavens seemed in on the battle. Suddenly the air was filled with a loud whistling. The soldier tried to zip up his trousers and clear out of there but before he could he was consumed by a massive geyser of dirt and mud. His ears rang and his vision was black. His right leg burned with an unbearable pain. He tried to scream but he couldn't breath. He was thrashing about in the water. He rolled himself over and let issue an agonized wail. He screamed and he screamed and tried to grasp his leg but couldn't floating in the water.
Another soldier rushed over and saw him and called frantically for a medic. The medic appeared a short time later and looked at the wounded soldier. He shook his head and said he would do what he could, but that wasn't much. The medic filled his emptying veins with a pain killer and began bandaging his leg. With the aid of the other soldier the medic carried the wounded soldier from the field.
The soldier was placed in an ambulance and carted to a rear hospital tent where he discovered that his right leg had been taken from him. He spent several weeks in pain and misery as doctors tried to close up the bottom of his remaining leg. After those few weeks passed the soldier was moved to a hospital far within his own country where he underwent treatments to prevent infections. He began to develop a nervous tick on the right side of his face and some of the nurses began to take notice and avoid him.
Soon he was moved to a smaller side building; the loony bin. His tick was getting worse and he frequently would wake up screaming. For almost a month he went on in this way with spars, flavorless meals and days spent locked in a building that felt more like a prison than a hospital. He clung to his wife's picture every day.
One day he was finally taken to be treated for his condition. The soldier thought he would receive some medication or therapy, but instead he found himself strapped to a table with several doctors standing around. They warned him that the treatment would hurt and that it may not work. They didn't ask him whether or not he wanted to go through with it. The doctors placed a piece of wood between his teeth and instructed him to bite down n it. They then applied two metal plates to his head and one doctor threw a switch on the wall. The soldier was filled with pain. All of his muscles tensed and he shook uncontrollably. It only lasted a few seconds, but it felt more like an eternity.
After the treatment he was moved back to the main building where his tick disappeared. He still had nightmares but he didn't wake up screaming as often. After another week he was cleared and given a crutch so he could get out of his wheel chair. He was given a clean uniform and his release papers. In a short ceremony he and several other wounded soldiers were given their metals. That night the soldier wrote with a trembling hand to his wife and told her that he was coming home.
The soldier was taken home in a plain, black car driven by a bright-eyed young officer fresh from the academy. The offer's uniform was crisp and freshly ironed, his various pins shone elegantly in the mid-day sun. The car hummed along the road at a stead pace; the city slowly was approaching ahead of them. The soldier let out a sigh. His home town couldn't possibly be the same as when he left. He had changed too much.
The car pulled up in front of the soldier's home and the officer climbed out of the car to helpt the soldier out. The soldier didn't wait, however, and opened the door himself. He first stepped out with his good leg then he set the cruch out and with some effort managed to get out of the car. He thanked the officer and wished him a good day and began to work his way to his front door. He struggled a bit with the few steps that made up the front porch but made it up without falling. The soldier sighed. He knocked on the door and eagerly waited for his wife to come down. A few moments passed with no response and the solder raised his fist to knock again when he heard his wife's voice call out. "Just a minute!"
The soldier waited anxiously as he heard steps ring out in the hallway beyond the door. The steps stopped just before the door and the soldier heard the latch turn loudly in his ears. His heart pounded in his chest. The door swung open and a young woman greeted the soldier. He smiled widely but didn't say anything. The woman stood for a moment with her hand poised on the door's handle. She then let out a joyous cry and wrapped her arms around the solder's shoulders. The soldier almost toppled back as his crutch slid out form under his arm. The young woman caught him with a laugh and looked down. Her mood sobered upon seeing the solder's missing leg.
"Aren't you a mess," she said as she forced a smile. The solder didn't laugh. He looked down to his missing leg and pushed back the memories of the battle field. As he looked up he noticed that his wife's belly bulged under her blouse.
"You-you're pregnant?" the soldier stuttered out. All of the horrific images floating through his head were replaced by images of a sweet little girl playing in the front yard. The young woman nodded and smiled widely with pride. She took the soldier's hand in hers and pressed it to her belly. "We're going to be parents," she said softly. "You're going to be a father."
"I'm going to be a father," the soldier echoed softly. He looked into his wife's dazzling brown eyes; he felt her swollen belly, he smelled her sweet perfume and could hear the soft violin music playing on the radio in the living room. It was all like a dream that he never again had to wake up from. The soldier had woken up once, reality had been harsh and uncaring, but here, returning to the dream he should have never left, the world was bright and kind. "Have you thought of any names?" the soldier asked as tears welled up in his eyes.
"Hope," the young woman said, "I'm going to name her Hope."
"And you're certain it will be a girl?" the soldier said with a chuckle.
"Call it a mother's intuition," the young woman said. The soldier couldn't hold it back any more. He collapsed on the porch and burst out crying. The tears streamed down his face and fell to his shirt with soft taps. They carried away the stress and horror of reality, they cleared his mind until all he could envision was his wife holding a small baby girl in her arms. Hope. The young woman wrapped the solder in her arms and began to sing softly. The soldier continued to cry. He had returned to the dream, and he was never again going to wake up.