The Burden

A Story

by JOHN A. LYNCH

I DO not believe the moon has anything to do with it. The moon affects the tide perhaps, but I do not believe it twists men’s lives as some say. I do not believe it makes one man thrash on the ground and babble to his friends, and another man date his letter Monday when it is really Wednesday. Because that was what was being done and there was no moon on the nights that came immediately before or after these things. But there has been a moon since, and sometimes it has shone when one man would walk past his dying friend and offer no help, and another man would get up from his hole and go away in the night, and not be heard from again. But I do not believe the moon has anything to do with these things.

For the men would do these things themselves, and only themselves, and I could not help wondering about them. And sometimes I myself would do these things, and later on, when not doing them, would wonder again about those who did. Because when you are putting on your letter that it is Monday, you believe it is Monday, and even when a friend says it is Wednesday you put Monday. When you know you arc right, you are going to do it that way. And when your friend goes on with his letter dated Wednesday, you know he is wrong, and you wonder about him.

Mike said it was because one thing and another add up until the little things have become a big thing. It is like the straws and the camel, he said. It is like the water dribbling through the dike until it is no longer a dribble but a flood. And when the days of the week come as fast as they sometimes do, you are apt to lose one or more of them.

When the days of the week lose themselves one after the other, the men are apt to lose themselves also, and Carl will shoot at a man who is the enemy and give away your position, which is a good one for the time, when what he knew was a man is really a turkey, and there is no likeness in the two. But it causes you to get out of your holes and go across the saddle of the hill to the other side where the cover is not so good, and you have to spend part of the night digging another hole. And Mike says that Carl should be sent back, that he is good no more; but all they do is put you on the post Carl had and the fear grows that you yourself will soon be shooting at a turkey instead of a man who is the enemy. And when you take off the safety every time you hear a rustle in the bushes, you do this a great number of times, and they are little limes, little things, and soon you do shoot at the turkey, only this time it is a goat.

If you do this yourself you do not feel ashamed, but you say it was a man, and you were doing your duty, which is outpost. But if it is another man doing this, you wonder about him, and say to yourself that he has been tired too long and should be getting a rest, that he is not a good soldier any more, though he could be if he were to get a rest.

But how can there be rest when you begin at four in the morning Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday to go out on the hillside, then over the crest of the hill and into the small valley which only yesterday was spaced with other men, who heard Carl’s shot and your shot when everything else was still, and wondered if it was a signal that an attack was beginning. And if they thought it was a signal, then it is well that you did fire a shot, because they are not around now and maybe you yourself frightened them away. At least you can think that, and they cannot stop you from thinking it.

Nor can they stop you from wanting a home in Connecticut, all on one floor, and two bars in the house, one for ice cream and one for good liquor. Because you are now two days of lighting beyond the hill where Carl shot the turkey and you the goat, and you have not had water for twenty-four hours. Nor do you crave water now, for the thirst has gone beyond that stage and it is such that only ice cream and liquor will do. And there will be four flavors of ice cream, all in deep, cold holds because it is what you would need now to stop the dryness. .

Mike said (hat ho and George, who is dead now, once tasted water from a pool in which two of the dead enemy lay, and the water was good and it stopped their thirst. And when I asked him why they did not remove the dead bodies first, he said they were too tired, and anyway it wouldn’t have improved the water a bit just to have the bodies laid to the side. And I wondered about that, because Mike and George had been there longer than J, and I wondered about them too. But I don’t any more, because I have been thirsty, and if it was ice cream I would eat it with dead enemy flesh running all through it, because it would be ice cream and not the flesh that I would be eating.

The liquor is a different thing, however. That is for the hour after the thirst has been eased, and it must be pure. It is for the hour when the jaws have begun to function again and they can move up and down as if in eating a good steak. It is for the hour after the roof of the mouth has become softened again after so much dryness, and the tongue is again sensitive to taste. Because liquor must be tasted, and it must be poured through the teeth and in and out between the lips and the gums and around and around, so that, you can forget the day of twenty-four hours just passed that you held a pebble in your mouth and rolled it and rolled it on your tongue, but there was no freshness left.

I first thought of the Connecticut home the night we stumbled down the rocks of a mountainside, and the word came down the column to “hold it up,” and thirsty and tired I fell to the ground, and lying there wished for ice cream and liquor. “Hold it up” was meant for one thing, and to me it was that I should now let myself fall on the ground. I remembered that a coin put in a machine brought forth a bar of candy, or one could get cigarettes that way, and soft drinks, and in other places a compartment for luggage, or a parking place for a car, or a postage stamp, or even a meal in some places.

Just so, I he way to get a place of rest is to hear the words “hold it up” come back through the column, and as each man hears the words he gets a place of rest, which is the place where he happens to be at the moment. And ahead you can see the men falling to the ground as each one hears the words, and when it comes your turn you fall too, but only after you have given the words to the man behind, because he is tired also and is looking for a place to rest, and a reason for it. And if you fall so that your back lies across an uncomfortable stone, you do not move it away you are that tired, but only He there and are glad for what little rest there is. And rest can be had in all positions, except when spliced on a tree limb.

Because that is what happened to Paul when he fell to the ground that night, but kept falling for another twenty feet as he had rolled off the shelf of rock that we were crossing. And he called three times as he fell, but no more, and that, was only because he was unconscious, and they found him hung in a low tree with a branch caught up in his crotch. That is rest also, l suppose, of another kind, more complete than most, but I do not prefer it, because though I have had it, I cannot remember what it was all about. Just that the pain of the mind and body becomes so great that all pain leaves, that is, it is no longer felt. Of course it is still there, but it has passed into an unfeeling stage and that is the equivalent of unconsciousness.

And having come down the mountain with only one casualty, who was Paul and had to be carried to the rear because we were making an advance, we stepped out into a valley at dawn.

2

THERE was a town farther on that I remember for one or two important tihings, and some of little import, of which there are always many, such as seeing a man cross the road holding a dripping, bloody chunk of meat, and the first impression that such a sight will make. I was alone, returning from the headquarters of the battalion to the headquarters of the company, which was lodged in a fine house with a large kitchen, with a stove and a table already set with meat and wine, which of course had been left by the men who were retreating before our advance, and which we didn’t touch, at least we didn’t the meat. The vino is something else again.

The sight of the man and the meat was a shock of a sort, probably anything as bloody as that would be, so I had to call and stop the man. He was a farmer, or so he appeared, and holding the chunk of bloody stuff out in his hand he said over and over, “Cavallo, cavallo,” keeping an eye on the rifle I held leveled at his body, because you could never afford to take a man’s word in that time. Furthermore, his other hand clutched one of our blankets, and this was a shock in itself, seeing the blanket perhaps once belonging to a friend whose death I did not yet know of, or at least he was or had been one of us — and the meat in such relationship that a man should emerge from a yard carrying only a blanket and a piece of fresh meat.

Tedesci?” I forced at him, prodding the meat with the muzzle of my rifle, forcing him to step backwards till he was against the wall of the house and could move no further. “ Tedesci? ” I asked, hoping he would answer “Si, si,” not because I desired to know he had butchered one of the enemy, but because I feared it was one of our own, the blanket being there and all. But he only uttered “Cavallo” again, pointing to the yard from which he had just come, and I didn’t go any further. There were no stains on the blanket, and I let him go. But the little thing that it was, lodged with me, and went with me into the town and beyond.

We were not the first to try to drive the enemy from the town, and the blanket must have belonged to one of those captured the night before or perhaps killed in the yard. At that time we were still a good distance away, and were moving forward to dig in on the hill below the town. Having arrived at that position early in the morning, we learned that the town was still in enemy hands and the first attacking force had suffered many casualties, and now it was our turn. Digging in, we waited for the dawn and the time we should split up our forces, one platoon to the west, one to the east, and the remainder of us to come in from the south. But even before that, another company was to attack in the low hills on the right flank and attempt to force a withdrawal from the town.

It was while we were leaving our holes on the hillside and gathering our equipment, moving silently into our loose formation, that the shells began to fall. There was a scramble, as there always is at such a time, men running to the holes they have just left, or diving into other men’s holes, or throwing themselves to the ground, behind a. stone or two, no matter how small. But there were men wounded anyway, and above their cries there was Carl’s screaming. He was not in a hole, but rolling on the ground, his face tortured, his eyes mad, and there was not a mark on him. He had tried to go forward one extra hour, he had tried to carry one extra straw, and now he no longer felt the pain in his mind. There was no need to say good-bye to him, because he could not hear us at all, but we took his carbine and his bell and the two grenades he was Carrying inside his shirt.

Louis was lost also, but with him it was different, and perhaps better. He was ahead of me when the shells began to fall again, and I did not see him get hit, nor did I ever see him after that. But I was told, when I went back after our engagement to find his body, that he had been alive as they carried him down the hill below the town, and he had died there at the bottom, a hole as big as a silver dollar in the back of his skull. I asked had he been unconscious all the time and they said he had, and that made it easier for him. It would make it easier also when I had to tell Scotty, who had been Louis’s close friend, but was now in the hospital from a wound of the last campaign.

So Carl and Louis were gone before we went into the town, which by this time and it was midmorning had been fairly well evacuated by the enemy because of the action on the right flank. There were only a few shots, which hit no one, but we kept ready for anything, and until the men found the vino and the kitchen with the fine stove, it had been an orderly affair, no one taking chances, everyone on the alert. But wine is not to be reckoned with. Even in this town three of the men stood drinking in the front room of one house while one of the enemy stood in the well of the stairs, beckoning to them that he wished to surrender, waving a handkerchief, afraid to move forward, yet not even being able to surrender at that time. It was good wine, each house well stocked, so we had our choice of the bot tles, and this time it was in real bottles and not in the straw-jacketed fiasci that served in the lower towns through which we had already passed, am! at every house through the many hills.

One man who had been in the night attack I particularly remember because he lay on the road to the south of the town, and the one on which we marched, in rather orderly fashion, to make contact with the platoons coming in from the west and the east. He was lying with two others, and of the three he had got closest to the town, but he was actually only in the outskirts and only a few feel closer than his comrades. He was an Indian whom we called The Chief, and he was, of the three, the only one vet alive, and already he had lain there a matter of ten hours or so.

We filed by, the platoon of us, each man moving wearily along with his personal burden, and a few of ns spoke to him, and one man gave him water from his canteen, and each man left him to the man behind, until they were all gone and I was the last man. Going down on one knee I pulled a blanket up on his chest, for he had already been partly covered with it, and he asked me what day it was. I answered, stumbling a little with the words, “I don’t know, but maybe it is Thursday.”He seemed satisfied with that, because he didn’t say anything more, but just continued to look at me in a way I didn’t understand just then, but which is the way death looks at you when it is in a man who is being dragged relentlessly and helplessly into the grave.

3

SO WE had our wine and we found potatoes in a house and these we cut and sliced into a frying pail in the kitchen, and chucking the stove full of wood, soon had a healthy fire and over it our pan of potatoes, which are good most any way, but best fried when you have not had potatoes for a long time. Our lard had a questionable source, specked with flakes of wood and earth as it was, but such a thing is not noticeable when it is in a pan with fried potatoes. No one spoke of Carl or Louis, but we laughed and sang a song or two. Nor did anyone speak of the Indian still lying on the road. For these things you do not speak of, nor hardly think of, when you have wine and potatoes, even if all you have is wine and potatoes, and nothing else, even though they are not a tasty combination, but only what is on hand. And the men were coming in with their souvenirs from time to time to show them around, a dress sword, a scarlet cap, a picture postcard album, a set of delicately carved goblets unearthed in some comer of a basement, a silver-headed cane, all of which they knew they would have to throw down again when we moved out of the town. All except the silver-headed cane perhaps.

Mike said the captain wanted me, which was Mike’s way of saying that the captain wanted a man and I was the man, and that is how I happened to be returning later on from the battalion headquarters to which I had carried the captain’s message, and where I learned how Louis had died. The headquarters was for the time in a shallow cave on the hillside below the town, a perfectly safe place, and an ideal one, for it had space enough for a dozen men. It lay halfway down a path that branched from the road that ran across the top of the hill, one end of which lost itself among the hills to the west and the other wound into the town that was now ours. It was the same road we had come in on, where we had passed The Chief, and where the others lay quietly beneath their blankets in the warm sun.

Going back to headquarters then, I passed the Indian for the second time. But this time he did not speak, but only turned his head slowly and looked at me again in that tired, deathly way. Nor did I speak, because I had not found out what day it was, and that was what he had asked me before. So I went on and delivered my message, which was that the town had been secured and outposts were in effect, and we would set up a roadblock before nightfall. The colonel said there was no message in return, except that, he would be there himself as soon as matters with the weapons company had been detailed. He asked in which building company headquarters was, and after I had told him that, I started up the path.

Fifteen minutes can be a quarter of an hour, and again it can be hundreds of seconds. It is a quarter of an hour when you are having wine and potatoes and showing souvenirs with a roof over your head, but it is hundreds of seconds when you are waiting in your hole during the shelling, and counting every one that comes in or goes over or plops with a lifeless sound, a dud. It is hundreds of seconds when you are going up a road into something you cannot see. I imagine it is always hundreds of seconds when you are dying.

The Chief had died in the fifteen minutes it took me to go down and back up the hill path. His blanket was si ill to the point where I had pulled it the first time I came by, but his eyes were staring madly and his mouth was open, showing his stained teeth, and a dozen blue flies were crawling on his longue. More were buzzing and darting at his face, and I waved my hand to chase them off, then pulled the blanket over his face.

It was only a little further along that stretch of road that I met the farmer with the chunk of meat, and then I was back in the town, had made my report to the captain, and had gone in search of more wine because Someone had taken the bottle that was mine behind a bucket in the corner. We started on the roadblock as the evening began, and we dug our holes methodically, but with care because we would stay there all night. Mike and I dug together and he had brought a light machine gun up to the position, which we set up to face down the left fork of the road, another gun being trained to fire on the right fork, and a bazooka ready to fire either way. We camouflaged our work, drank again of what wine we had brought with us, and having been assigned our watches in one-hour shifts, lay down to sleep. The enemy did not try to come back into the town, and it was a good thing, Mike was on first watch and he fell asleep, and tired and drugged with wine we all slept the night through.

4

I HAD meant to ask Mike what day it was. There always seemed to be the question of the days in the week and no one could keep track of them. I remembered that once it had been Friday and the word was passed around that Father Whalen was coming up the next day. So he came up and it was Sunday, and what became of Saturday we asked among ourselves. No one could say about Saturday. Even Father Whalen said he didn’t know, but he would ask someone when he got back, because it had seemed a short week. So Saturday was gone in that week, and in another week it was Tuesday that was missing, and in another both Tuesday and Wednesday. But the days were not the only things missing.

When you speak to a man who is dying, and you perhaps smile at him and cover his chest with a blanket, then go into a house with a roof on it and there drink wine and eat potatoes, something is also missing. In every man this thing is missing, for stumbling along they have all, nearly a hundred during the day, gone past a man who is alive, and going past have thought no more about it, until he lay on the road long enough to die. Any one of you could have saved the life of The Chief, but not being on the road for that purpose you push on to the town, for the coin has been inserted and the handle turned and what comes out is your getting to the town and making it secure. Nothing else comes out and only a bullet or a shell can break the machine and prevent it from securing the town. If a man dies because you have secured a town and the wine and potatoes that go with it, is it your fault? The coin in the cigarette machine will not also secure a candy bar to be eaten after the cigarette has been smoked.

And for your defense,you make this excuse, that, with a town to he secured and a house to be occupied and a message to be delivered, you cannot be everywhere at once, cannot, be doing everything. You can tell this to yourself and, when you find it gets weaker with each telling, you can bolster yourself by telling it to others. But they will only say, “So what,” as if they do not. know what you are talking about, because they have been fed on w ine and potatoes and have gone beyond the town and are now looking up another hillside.

Lying along the paths and the road, and once in a while in the brush where they had fallen, were the others of the night attack, each one with a blanket drawn over him. And there were yet others, in green uniforms, ones without blankets, and fewer of them also, and they would be buried by our men later with Karl or Ludwig or Josef over them. For them we could not spare blankets, but would rather look into their stiff and sallow faces and curse them because they were who they were. But you do not like to look into the face of a friend who cannot look in return, so you must cover his face, and also his body, and make him comfortable until the burial detail comes with sacks and trucks to carry your friends away. And if they are a few days in coming, you do not want them to find your friends looking ugly and green, with their arms rigid, their lips drawn back over their gums, and their sad eyes gone back into their heads, and covered up they do not look this way. So finding them, the men of the detail will say that here was fought another battle, and here lie the brave men who fought it, resting beneath their blankets.

But let them find the enemy, and if he is staring purple and green all at once, you do not care, for it is only when the stench of him has become unbearable that he is worth covering. And sometimes then it is easier to move to another position, where you cannot see and smell him, but from which you may return to his side and see that he gets greener, and you say it is good for him, the dirty Kraut.

5

THERE were three days of hill fighting that followed before we took a holding position below the river. The attack had slowed down all along the front, and we were now to wait until some higher echelon would decide for us what was best to do, and feeling the coin register, we would do it.

Each night we crossed the hilltop and went to our positions of defense, carrying with us two machine guns, and every man his rifle or carbine or pistol, and each morning just before daybreak we left those positions and returned to the holes we had dug on the near slope of the hill. We slept in the daytime, sometimes in the holes and sometimes beside a haystack in the shade, and we had time to write letters again, and it was decided that the first day should be Monday, and the day following be Tuesday, and so on until we had had seven days, and then we would start over again.

A road ran near us where we were in the daytime, and the cooks found us on the second morning, and there were two wheatcakes for each man and one strip of bacon. There was always water, and not far to go for it, and the wine had been found in the usual places because there were a few simple hillside houses near-by. It was beginning to be more of living, and as the body began to get its rest and the old ways came back to it, the mind also freshened, and we talked of Louis for the first time, because now we could remember him without it interrupting the occupation of a town or the clearance of the enemy from a hill. Also remembered were Paul and Carl, and guesses were made as to when we would see them again. But no one remembered The Chief, except me.

The talk was small, but it was what belonged to us, and it died down only when we became tired again and lay down by the haystack or in our holes to sleep, and when we went out on the forward side of the hill after dark. Out there we didn’t, talk, but two in a hole, slept and watched one at a time. And if we were both awake the time was passed one watching and the other digging the hole a little deeper, so that after four nights it was a very good and deep hole, and very safe.

But another thing we did at night was think. We didn’t want to, but it was that we had to, and we arranged the events just passed, put them in order, one after the other as best we could, reasoned with some, and digested them. Putting thorn in sequence, we found they were the taking of a number of hills, and a mountain then, and the crossing of a valley at dawn. Beyond that it was a series of hills again, our town with the wine and potatoes, then more hills until we were now below the river and wondering when we would cross it and start up the hills on the far side, where already we could see our shells landing and the fires they left burning at night. These were the major things, then, the names and numbers that would go into the histories and be charted as advances of the campaign. And through them were interwoven, sometimes tangled, the death of Louis, Paul hung by his crotch in the tree, Carl screaming on the ground, the Indian by the roadside, the other bodies on the paths we took, the thirst and the hunger and the fear. But these things would not go into the histories, nor can they be charted.

It was on the fifth night that Mike left the hole and walked away. There were fires burning in three sections of the enemy ground, making rings of light on the far hills, and the moon was up, and it was not a night made for fighting. Except for the occasional rumble of artillery in the hills, and now and then a shot along the river, there was only the sound of men digging deeper into the ground, a little at a time, for the night is long and it passes slowly. I was asleep when Mike left our hole, and only when another man woke me to ask where Mike was, did I know he was gone. But I remembered that he had often spoken quietly of how close we were to the enemy, at least how close it seemed at night when we could see the fires, and occasionally the flash of their artillery, and once we heard the rumble of their trucks. And he spoke also of how tired he was, when would it all be over, and must there always be another objective ahead. And so he went out in the night and we saw him no more. The next day, in the afternoon, we were relieved at our positions and the fighting was over for a while, and we began to move out slowly to the rear.

If it was a straw upon a straw upon a straw that crippled the camel, just so numerous little things coming to you in the night, little things returning, will cripple you. No one can say just what moment of what day you begin to wonder more about yourself than about the others, the time that you are not sure of anything. The time that you are about to date a letter Monday and a friend says it is Wednesday and you put down Wednesday, because, though you are not sure it is Wednesday, you are less sure that it is Monday. The crack in the dike widens and through it tumble the little things one after the other until they break loose. And when they begin to overflow, when you can no longer hold them in check, you are apt to get up from your hole and go away and not be seen again. Or suddenly you may scream and remember nothing. And later, when you are rested, they will tell you that you thrashed about so, it was necessary for six men to carry you to the aid station, and you were babbling when they left you there. But you do not remember that it hurt any, for the weariness and the horror and the stagnation of the mind had suddenly turned to unconsciousness.

This will go on, it will follow you and sometimes possess you so at night that you must get up from your bed and walk by yourself, and light this thing by yourself, and keep the straws from burdening the camel, the flood from crumbling the dike. And because others cannot understand, they wonder about you, and you must goon alone. Because the days of fighting are over, the days of man killing man, the days of hunting because those days are over, the extraordinary love of friends has passed also and you are alone. Because the days of staring at the dead faces, of waiting in the wet holes of the earth, the days of thirst and hunger, the days of fear because those days are ended, they would expect that it is all ended.

But it cannot end for you, nor can you make it clear to them why it cannot end, and the burden is yours alone, and you must only hope that it does not grow too great. That the men walking out into the night do not call to you, that the man writhing on the ground does not stare with mad eyes, that the bodies beneath the blankets do not entrust themselves to you, that the days do not. once again lose themselves, and falling, stumbling, wearing away into nothingness, carry you with them into insanity, or, withering slowly yet absolutely, lead you over the brink, into the deep abyss of escape, into the final flight from torture that is death.