Late Autumn. 1918. I remember the day with perfect clarity. The sailors had revolted in Germany but we did not know that yet. The telegraph lines had gone down again. They were always going down, so out in our tiny garrison we simply assumed that the war was grinding on as it had for years. Woodrow Wilson had sent us the doughboys, but these men seemed far more intent on getting their hands on some lusty French lasses than battling the Hun. We called them doughboys because they seemed soft and puffy, like little bundles of dough awaiting the oven. Once they met the relentless pounding of artillery at the front we were sure they would be crying to be sent back overseas, back where they belonged.
The Commandant? He knew the trenches. He had actually been one of the first men to dig a trench and in the trenches he would have remained had not a German flammenwerfer slipped past our lines. I shot that man, but not before he soaked our ditch down in flames. The commander shielded me with his body. It burned the uniform off his back, the hair off his head. I saw his left eye boil and pop from its socket. It still strikes me as a miracle he did not die.
When the attack was over I dragged him from the trench and trudged for days through the muddy fields until I could find him an ambulance. He had saved my life and I was determined to return the favor.
Was the Commandant a handsome man?
That was nothing I ever had much reason to be interested in, but yes I guess - in his honor - I will say that he had once been a handsome man. But no one recovers their looks after a flamethrower strike. His hair would only regrow in small splotches on his scalp. His left ear had melted and had to be sliced off. Split muscles knotted up into spikes along the sides of his face. And there was this hole in his cheek that you could see his tongue and molars through. And that eye. That hollow eye socket. Even with a patch over it we were dread to look upon it.
You had to know the man to respect him. The inner man, the proud man, the vainglorious man who would have done anything to win the war for France. That was the man we loved. That was the truly handsome man.
If anything, his outward hideousness only strengthed his determination to fight. I remember when he heard the news of the American intervention. Oh how it infuriated him! I mean, it infuriated all of us. We did not need American aid. What we needed were more incursions into no-mans land, stronger fighters, an iron will. It was the French who needed to win the war for France! Not some Americans.
And that was when he became unstable?
The commandant was never unstable.
No one would dare say such a thing. Anyone judging him unfit for duty would be taking his life into his own hands. However - yes - someone in the high command had decided that we had seen enough combat. They requisitioned us to a training post. Canard Colère wasn’t even a proper garrison, an abandoned apple orchard thirty kilometers west of Saint-Mihiel.
And there you trained new recruits.
Farm boys who had come of age. Everyone in France who could fight was already off fighting the war, so our new recruits came from the loins of the women of France. We taught them to hold a rifle, keep it clean, and fire it at the enemy. Then we expedited them to the front as quickly as possible. They could learn how to polish their boots on their own time.
And the executions?
All part of the training process.
Earlier, if a man deserted his post they would simply take his rifle, point him towards no-man’s land and tell him to march until he met the Hun. Why waste our bullets doing what the Germans could do for us?
The commandant was the one who realized the waste in this. Back at Canard Colère we were discovering that while the boys would gladly say that they were ready to fight and die for France, spending an eternity burning in hell for her was an entirely different matter. Many of them could barely read but they knew their Bible. They knew the ten commandments by heart, as well as just how fickle and unrelenting our God can be. The 6th commandment became a big problem for us.
Thou shalt not kill.
I see you know them too. But - kill whom - I might ask. Kill anything? Kill everything? How does one go through life without killing a thing? Pigs? Chickens? Cows? Do they count too? Life is murder, Général. To live we must cause others to die.
And yet the Bible says nothing.
It just stands there as silent as a standing stone, its orders etched as deeply into the minds of those farm boys as the word on the tablets of Moses himself. That was the real reason why our lines had stopped moving. That was what had brought the war to a standstill. Those words had filled our ranks with men who were eager to use their rifles but hesitant to actually aim them at anyone.
The Commandant would have none of it.
He made arrangements to have prisoners brought to Canard Colère so our trainees could - how did he put it - lose their other virginity before heading off to war. He wanted our trenches filled with soldiers convinced of their own damnation, men who wouldn’t hesitate to dig a little deeper into the flaming pit of hell by blasting the Hun to pieces.
And the magician?
We received many prisoners in those days, a steady stream of treasonous people: thieves, delinquents, dissenters, cowards. We never thought much of them. If they showed up at our gate then it was obvious they were guilty of something. So I signed the papers and-
Do you know that there are no papers showing a prisoner had been delivered that day?
Well. Um. No. Actually. But papers do not always make it into the right filing cabinet, I guess. But Général, I can assure you that papers were present, signed and returned in correct order. The man was taken into our custody and expedited back through the orchard to where the fusillade would take place, to an old mill which had once been used to make cider before the war raged through the area. The commandant liked this place because its walls were made of very old brick that would explode with a small puff of dust when a bullet hit it. If anyone aimed around a man instead of directly at him the Commandant would know and the whole squad would be punished.
Rifles were inspected to make sure they contained live ammunition. No room for conscious rounds here. I marched the man out to the wall, pinned a handkerchief to his jacket and offered him a cigarette and a blindfold. He accepted the blindfold but refused the cigarette. I slipped it back in my pocket for later.
And what was the day like?
Does this really matter?
Just for the record.
Like any autumn day in France it was beautiful, crisp, the sky a faultless azure. Fussilades are normally performed at dawn but we were on a tight schedule. Afternoon clouds had been building in the sky, tall and puffy white, drifting in off the Med.
Now that I think of it - a shadow did roll in over us as I returned to the line and picked up my drum. That was my business in all of this. I did not actually know how to play the drums, but I could rattle off the taps leading up to the drop of the sword and the blast of the rifles.
The Commandant said to the man, “Sir! You have been found guilty of desertion during a time of war which is an act of treason against the great nation of France. The penalty for which is death. Any last words?”
“No,” said the man.
Even though it was just one word. One small utterance. I sensed in it a dark quality, a hesitant evil. I once read a book about Aleister Crowley and Crowley looked the part of the beast. This man? He did not look sinister. In fact I can barely remember what he looked like at all, but for the love of me I remember feeling that same chill in him which I had once felt coming off the spine of that book.
The Commandant drew his calvary sword. He belted out, “Right then. Company! To Arms!”
The ten boys, men I mean, lifted their rifles to their shoulders. The bolts of their loading mechanisms clattered together with impressive unity. I rattled off the taps.
The commander’s blade came down.
The fusillade exploded.
The magician convulsed as the bullets tore into him and he dropped to one knee.
And then he stood back up again.
There were no holes in his jacket. Not the slightest drop of red on the handkerchief pinned over his heart. The magician opened his mouth and ten lead slugs rolled out, pushed by his tongue, bouncing off his lip, falling to the ground. One shot for each man on the line.
“WHAT!” barked the Commandant with righteous fury, “WHAT! Company! Reload!”
I quickly rattled off the taps. Bolt action loaders hastily slammed fresh bullets into their chambers. Stocks went to shoulder.
This time three shots exploded against the bricks, but the others hit with enough force to spin the magician full circle. It knocked him down to a crouch but it did not knock him over. Achingly, he stood back up and glared at us. Even through the blindfold, you could feel his eyes burning with fire. The magician opened his mouth and vomited forth seven lead slugs, spitting them out like loose teeth. Finished, he stood up even straighter than before and puffed out his chest, almost daring us for more.
It took every ounce of will that I had to hold onto my drumsticks.
Nervous laughter chittered along the firing line.
“SILENCE,” bellowed the Commandant, “Company, RELOAD!”
This time the clattering bolt locks were unsteady, out of sync, like someone trying to wrestle open a jammed utensil drawer.
“RELOAD I SAID. RELOAD AND FIRE. FIRE AT WILL!!!!!”
And then it happened.
I have no idea what black sorcery was at work, but the clouds shifted and the shadow drifted off of us, flooding the orchard in golden light. And we knew. Somehow we knew that even if we were to wheel out the old gatling gun we kept in the barn and unloaded case after case of ammunition into this man that he would just stand there and take it, dancing like a rag doll, his jaws distended like a giant snake, bullets pouring from his open mouth like a black wave of beetles escaping a corpse.
A chill wind blew through the orchard, as cold against our faces as the feathers of angels, and like a house of cards the line collapsed. One man dropped his rifle and as that first gun fell towards the ground another was dropped and then another and another. The men turned and fled, screaming in all directions.
Only the Commandant had the iron fortitude to hold his ground. He drew his pistol and fired on the fleeing soldiers shouting, “RETURN! REFORM RANKS! YOU COWARDS! YOU PANSIES! YOU TREASONOUS CHICKENSHIT PANTY-WAISTS!”
Once his gun had gone empty, he threw it aside and turned back towards the magician. His sides were beating like a bellows. He had shouted hard enough to rip the hole in his mouth clean through to his lips.
And he charged forth and slew the man. Brandishing his sword he hacked into him, berating him with each slicing blow.
“Charleton! Mountebank! Deceiver!”
And the magician just stood there and took it. I mean, he was tied and blindfolded so there was little else he could do, but to me it almost seemed as if the Commandant were hacking apart a scarecrow. Blood flew everywhere and the man simply fell at the commander’s feet and died.
And the Commandant?
On fire with rage.
And I was the only one left in the orchard for him to vent it on.
“You,” he said, stalking back towards me, “I smell your fear.”
And he was right. I was terrified. I stank of it with heavy yellow sweat oozing from every pore.
“Youuuuuuu,” the commander growled, pounding his feet toward me, “You coward. Come here and fight me. Fight me damn you! THAT’S AN ORDER!”
While I may have been petrified, I was also a veteran of the trenches. I had learned firsthand that those who do not move when they need to move will soon die. Unfortunately, I had not armed myself for the fusillade. There was a litter of rifles near-by, but none close enough for me to grab.
What did you do?
I did what I could. I picked up my drum, heaved it back over my head and flung it at him. It spun through the air and hit the commandant with a resounding bonk. This didn’t stop him, not in the slightest, but it did give me the chance to uproot my feet and flee into the orchard.
You ran away?
Yes. What else could I do?
Unfortunately - apple orchards - if there is no one around to pick the apples they will fall off the trees of their own accord, so the rows were slick with lumps of rotting fruit. Normally we kicked them aside to form paths, but in my panic I did not think of where I was heading and I stumbled into a row not normally traveled, one where the damned fruit were everywhere. I slipped on one, got up, ran a few feet and slipped on another. Down on all fours I remember looking back between my knees to see the commandant charging up the hill behind me, brandishing the shining steel of his saber in the air but also sliding about on the apples, scrambling forward like a three legged toad. I got up and began to run again but this time I caught my boot under a gnarled root sticking up from the ground. Pain flashed through my ankle and I spun through the air to land flat on my back. There I lay, watching the commandant catch up to me, rising like flood waters, cursing my very existence, demanding that I defend myself. I waved my hands before my face screaming for mercy.
“FIGHT ME OR DIE,” he shouted.
And then he found the bomb.
Well, I’m not sure what exactly it was. In 1918 it could have been anything. An unexploded artillery shell. A dropped mortar round. A landmine left by retreating Germans. It does not matter. The commandant stepped on it. There was a - Click - and the bomb went off with enough force to fling me twice over backwards. I remember my ears ringing endlessly and the whole world shimmering. There was a severed leg with a flaming boot tangled up in the gnarled branches of an apple tree and that was the last I ever saw of the commander.
But you did not return to your post.
No. I. I could not. I could not be the one to return to the farm and explain all that had happened in the orchard. I picked myself up and wandered off. I wandered into the forest. I wandered for days before my head would finally clear.
And yet you explain this to me now.
I have to. Every night sleep takes me back to that damned apple orchard, the magician, the firing line, running up the hill of rotten apples, the commandant driven mad, raging against me. No amount of alcohol will stop it. I was hoping that if I confessed, that if I begged for the army’s forgiveness, and atoned for my sins that maybe it would all just end.
Well, Monsieur. You will be happy to know that we have been examining your case and can say with some degree of certitude that the Armistice had been signed at least four hours before the events in the orchard. With the cessation of arms comes the cessation of duty. In light of all of this, the French Army is willing to forgive your dereliction providing you sign this small affidavit.
Well, a lot of legalese if you ask me, but basically you confirm that the commandant was not of sound mind and had been operating of his own volition and without permission from the French army for any and all deeds committed at Canard Colère. Also that you will never speak of this again in any shape or form unless forced to by a court of law.
Take your time.
No Général. I am sorry, but I cannot sign this.
Why? The Commandant is dead. This is an honorary discharge. A clean slate. Sign it and go enjoy your life! Put your past behind you. That is what you want isn’t it?
Yes. But I am sorry. The Commandant may be dead, but I have another dream where he waits for me, sharpening his sword with a flaming brimstone, his one good green eye burning in the darkness with disgust. If he hears of this, I will burn for all eternity begging his forgiveness, and he will have none of it.
Come. Come. Monsieur. Hell is not a place. Hell is for children.
But how do you know?
Tell me. Honestly.
How do you know!