A mote of dust had entered her retina, blinking stupidly, she shook her head, hoping to dislodge the intruder.
Stephen watched Derleth shake her head. Head lice, he thought grimly to himself.
There was a chill in the air, Stephen made a seat from an upturned crate, he wondered about what Henri had said, the veteran had been rambling. Henri swore that he had witnessed the splintered people, quiet grim figures on the desolate mound and always at sunset. Both Henri and Derleth listened to the thud bump of the heavy rain on the warped tin roof. The occupants of the bunker were each packed tight into their heavy mantle-capes. A gust of chill air rippled the thin tarpaulin that made for a door. A trickle of dirty water pooled inside the bunker, outside the bunker the slap of heavy sloshing boots could be heard wading through deep mud.
‘Have you ever peeled an orange?’ asked Stephen, Derleth shrugged her shoulders as she tugged at the sodden burlap drape that passed for a curtain.
‘Citrus fruits make me sick.’ Derleth confessed her voice deep and prickly.
A sweet unpleasant stench wafted across the canal, nobody complained about it anymore. The aroma came from the old city, the place where the corpses dwelt. At night, if the radiance from the red stove fires was just right, the sentries could see twisted hands and feet clawing at the sky, silhouetted and groping.
‘So, what’s a Phytoclinician?’ Demanded Derleth.
‘The other night, in your sleep, you said you were a Phytoclinician.’
‘Oh,’ Stephen sighed, ‘That was just another version of yesterday me, imagine how many yesterday’s there are and will be and I’m still here.’
Derleth frowned, she guessed he was lying.
A clanking motor could be heard over heard, it spluttered and coughed angrily as though it had been working too hard for far too long in the wrong direction. Derleth spied the sleek bomber crow away through the grey clouds, it’s shadow shimmered across the canal like a fluttering augury of macabre. Derleth saw a horse’s hoof breaking the murky viscous surge. She puzzled over why it was so perpendicular, she presumed it to be the night freeze and or the onset of rigor mortis.
‘When they catch it in the night, they never seem to thaw again?’ Answered Stephen as though he had heard Derleth’s own thoughts about the horse’s hoof. Both shivered and turned away from the long wide water. Derleth shook her head and shivered, she wondered why Stephen had lied.
‘They’re like twisted periscopes.’ Mumbled Henri.
‘Storks?’ Offered Stephen.
‘Storks?’ Repeated Derleth.
‘Storks!’ Stephen turned to face Derleth and explained himself, ‘ensnared in the ooze, imagine a flock of birds suddenly startled, so startled in fact that they fly away in a wild frenzy, only to forsake their feet, leaving them behind, the birds will never land again, but perish of exhaustion in mid-air, dying in mid air is probably the best way to go.’ Stephen looked at Derleth, hoping she would understand, but she could not. Henri coughed heavily from his bunk in the dark.
‘They’ll hit the solid ground eventually.’ Offered Henri helpfully.
‘But they’ll be dead, it doesn’t matter what you hit or from what height you hit it, it does not matter one jot, when you are a descending cadaver.’ Derleth did not think the corpses looked remotely like the abandoned legs of night storks. Derleth squinted as rain drops freckled against the wooden blocks of the windowsill. Stephen watched the pitter patter of rain become a sudden torrent; he did not think Derleth understood him. Stephen watched the rain, as lightning electrified the low grey cumulous and the prospect of puppetry and storytelling was a very real possibility.
The entire battalion had become nothing more than flat inarticulate marionettes, trapped between a source of light and a translucent scrim.
‘They’re retreating.’ Derleth smiled confidently, ‘or they are advancing.’ She shrugged her shoulders.
Stephen looked out across the canal, the water level had dropped in the night, the rippling liquid could barely hold the corpses.
The cold sharp rain accompanied the occasional heavy rumble of a distant bombardment; heavy machinery interrupted the silence. Beyond the deep sepulchral canal, a city and its architecture appeared like a diorama of bone and concrete and glass. Nobody went there, except maybe Henri.
‘Henri found a box of sweets.’ Offered Derleth as she playfully nudged Stephen. Stephen did not know how to respond, Derleth watched him expectantly. In the absence of a response, she repeated herself. ‘Henri found a box of sweets!’
Stephen felt embarrassed, he had lost the ability to understand or he had discovered the ability to ignore trivialities, he could not know for sure.
‘I’m not even me anymore.’ Stephen complained, Derleth did not hear him, ‘have you ever peeled an orange.’
A gust of military orderliness brought in a tall officer with dynamic purposeless eyes. He entered confidently with a fantastic way about him. Yet all Henri saw was a loud sense of subdued authority. The officer admired his posture whilst a metallic engine churned air outside, dark chemical smoke followed the officer into the bunker, he did not fasten the flap, but instead stood at the entrance and observed the company in the squalid bunker deep. A fetid grey light pooled in the depths, neither Derleth or Stephen saluted. The officer took the opportunity to salute himself.
‘The worst is over!’ the officer explained. Then in a whispered and disturbed moment of doubt, he shook his head, ‘The best is yet to come.’
The officer didn’t seem to want to stay, but he seemed incapable of leaving, as though compelled by a hidden force to remain. He seemed awe struck by the prospect of Henri. Derleth ignored the officer, but Stephen smiled blankly.
‘Did I used to be a Phytoclinician?’ Offered Stephen happily.
‘What’s that?’ snapped the officer bluntly, squinting curiously as he spoke.
‘Nothing!’ Interrupted Derleth, ‘he made it up, it’s a made-up word by a made-up person!’
The officer coughed, he did not understand insubordination, especially when he was in his uniform. Although it was torn and muddy, he felt powerful, his mantle-cape was the light grey of the officer elite, his side arm was an old issue heavy. He wondered if the recruits were mocking him because of his pistol. Nobody spoke a word, nobody understood anything and there was an honesty in the silence.
Henri blinked, he could hear the bodies of dead birds thumping against the roof. Outside military wagons were heard crunching along the road. Derleth spied the soldiers in the rear, she didn’t recognise any, because none of them had faces.
The sound of sudden military music dampened everybody’s spirit. The officer knew how things operated. The chatter and rattle of bullets sounded very much like unseasonal rains. Derleth turned to Stephen, both soldiers frowned.
‘Where’s your gun?’ Asked Stephen.
‘Where’s yours?’ Snapped Derleth.
‘Did you by any chance happen to see my entropy halo, because I’ve lost it?’ Henri asked.
‘I’m unaware of you.’ the officer explained, as he fished out a tin of sardines from a hidden pocket inside his tunic. A dusty spray cascaded, a fluff of debris landed on Stephen’s face, Derleth wanted to brush it off. Snatch it, but she did not. Stephen’s skin was wrapped too close about the bones of his gaunt cheeks.
Derleth feared that if she touched Stephen’s face, his skin would tear and she would withdraw a hand sodden with the flesh and the stringy sinew of Stephen. He had not always been the withering creature.
‘If we die, military intelligence will tell no one.’ Whispered the officer, as he turned to face Derleth, she looked away, Stephen turned to look at the canal Henri began whistling but soon gave up. Unsettled artillery boomed and could be heard in the distance. The low rumble was indistinct and muffled, Derleth suddenly felt incredibly hungry.
Nobody knew who was shelling who.
Derleth turned her attention to the canal, featureless soldiers fled in every direction; the cackle and snap of gun fire rippled through the smog in grotesque exactness. The young officer didn’t move or acknowledge anything untoward was occurring. He declined to stoop as mortar shells whistled overhead.
Henri sneezed, he shuddered at the sound of the heavy howitzers. Wrapped tight in his cot, he wondered at the officer standing in the entrance. A ferocious mass of weeping shells screeched through the air.
Stephen glanced at the entrance and sighed.
‘Should we get our bayonets?’ Mumbled Stephen as he shook his head, the officer nodded stiffly.
‘No, it’ll be over by the time I get there.’ The officer seemed disappointed.
After some time of silence, a calm fat sergeant laboured at the tarpaulin flap, tugging at the frayed edges, mumbling obscenities to himself, he had the aura of a man who had forgotten everything. Unsatisfied at the sight of the officer, the fat sergeant entered, he brought with him a fat wet cough. A foul-smelling metallic and chemical breeze wafted through; the sergeant fastened the flap shut tight, it took him many moments. He grumbled loudly about precision and neatness.
‘Listen to me, you shouldn’t leave this flap open, you’ll invite ghosts!’ The sergeant barged past the officer and immediately he knelt before Henri. Both men began to petition the other in inaudible whispers, a negation took place. The fat sergeant kissed Henri on the forehead and Henri allowed him to. The sergeant grumbled as he observed the bunker. He spat on the floor, and with necessary aggression he barged past the officer once more.
‘I’m not feeling very well at all.’ Offered Stephen, Henri nodded happily.
‘I know you all, but I don’t know why.’ Conceded the officer, his voice distant and apologetic.
Henri immediately forgave the officer, because he had a nice hidden away place in the dark of the bunker. Glancing over his shoulder the officer felt summoned and admonished in equal measures by his own purposeless. He approached Henri’s cot. Henri sucked on a seed, his depraved eyes spraying the room with suspicion. Henri began depositing precious trinkets under his pillow.
‘I saw a flock of migrating goose fall out of the sky yesterday.’ The officer complained.
‘Geese.’ Corrected Derleth, the officer glanced at Stephen. The officer seemed annoyed, as though he knew the crew had somehow contrived to deliberately scupper the machine in the mud.
‘He’s missing the point.’ Derleth whispered, she noted how the officer coughed as he spoke, the sickness was already in him.
Henri blinked, he was worried about the officer, maybe he had come to give orders. Entropy and artillery were not quite that comical, but they were benign in comparison to well-meaning strategies. In truth, it was calculated movements that got people killed.
‘Nothing exists anymore.’ Complained the officer from the dark as he wriggled closer to Henri’s cot.
‘Anymore?’ Queried Henri softly, his voice had a strange power to it, the officer understood.
The officer leant in close to Henri, whispering in a conspiratorial tone.
‘I’ve come to order a full understanding of our predicament.’
‘Impossible.’ Promised Henry, his eyes were maelstrom, the officer seemed suddenly cured of a mystery ailment. The officer fell upward in a stiff projection of dutiful re-emergence from something only he could obey. The suddenness of the officer startled Stephen. Henri smiled in a paternal way; he was delighted for the officer as the officer flashed a new kind of serene understanding. The refreshed officer withdrew his fat service revolver from its holster and he placed the cold nozzle to his forehead.
‘Immaculate flesh.’ Whispered Henri.
‘I’m going now, so don’t disturb me with your jazz making and love talk.’
The monstrous bellow sent both Derleth and Stephen scurrying for cover, but Henri remained at his cot, he had found his rifle under a bench and felt immediately more soldierly. The ringing in his ears sounded like distant cathedral bells. Both Stephen and Derleth knelt over the body of the officer, both seemed puzzled and at a loss as to explain what had happened. Stephen pinched his cheeks, he then realised there was no ringing in his ears, they were the sounds of distant cathedral bells.
Henri pointed to a detached eyeball, it had squelched against the ceiling and had come to nest inside a filthy puddle in the mud at the centre of the bunker. Henri sighed, Stephen bit his own lip as he stared through the window up at the grey cumulous lumps. Stephen could not cure anybody, not like Henri, his heart was frozen by too many sorrows.
‘Once we thought that he could see and now we know that he is truly blind.’ Stephen’s apocryphal tone impressed Henri.
Henri nodded furiously, something had stung him deep, there was subtle magic in the officer’s sacrifice. Derleth nodded enthusiastically, she remembered everything as she sucked loudly on her gums. Henri and Stephen exchanged knowing glances. More thunder, more rain. After a respectful moment of reflection, Derleth enquired about the dead officer’s unfinished tin of sardines, they were still in his hand, partially spilt into the mud. Henri thought that it was deeply appropriate imagery.