Rothary climbed up on the fire step and with little thought or hesitation crawled out of the trench. Not far from him he saw the hole created by the mortar that had recently exploded, the crater still smoking. It seemed to be in the same direction of the wounded German, and so he made his way to it. Crawling the twenty or so yards, the occasional rifle fire sounding from both trenches, he rolled into the crater. Just in time, as he heard the sound of a flare being sent up. In a moment the sky was as bright as day. He clung to what shadows he could find in the depth of the pit dug by the mortar, the heat of the rocks and the earth making breath difficult.
The brief light faltered, making the night even darker than it had been. As soon as his eyes adjusted somewhat, he made his way towards the sound that had come to dominate his thoughts, fearful that another flair might expose him to the enemy.
The way was filled with corpses. Corpses and mere parts of corpses, so that he had to crawl his way over them to make his way forward. There was no path around them, it was a maze that must be crawled over rather than walked through.
More than one of the bodies he made his way around or over still had life in it. One breathed, quietly, as if sleeping. Another whimpered like a child with a fever. None of them mattered. It was the one he had shot that was the problem. It was he who had taken over Rothary’s mind, had replaced the fear with feelings stranger still. He called him on, beckoned him to see what he had done, promising to show him what he had become. They were connected. Whatever happened to the one affected the other. Whatever Rothary would do to the German would have repercussions that would be with him his whole life.
He crept along the battlefield—a man on a pilgrimage—in search of revelation. In the distance was heard some new bombardment beginning, a part of the larger war he was part of. But he was alone, now, just the German and he.
He located by his sound the man he sought. He was just one body in a sea of others, but his labored breath gave him away. Occasional gurgling sounds coming from fluid that was filling his lungs punctuated his breathing. He was nearing the end, but his body’s struggle against the inevitable stretched out the ending like a badly written play.
Rothary crawled alongside him, placing the man’s body as a barrier against any fire that should come from the enemy trenches. He looked into the man’s face, but like Cavanaugh’s, could only make out the barest of features in the dark night. Rothary’s sight only provided a framework for his mind to impress upon its own ideas of the man.
Just pain. That was all Rothary could see in the other. Whatever he had been in life had contracted into something so small as to be unworthy of being called human. Whatever he had been—husband, son, father—had drained from him with his lifeblood. This man who lay on a battlefield hundreds of miles from home was no longer any of that. If others in Germany believed he was, it was only in their imaginations. He was merely a dying man, an embodiment of the darker realities of life. He was not German or English, he was just flesh in its death throws.
And it was up to him to put an end to that pain that spread to all those in hearing range. Whatever regret he felt in shooting the man in the first place, he felt his duty now was to end the suffering. It was his duty as a soldier, as well as his duty as the one who had caused it in the first place.
He pulled out his pistol, placed its nozzle (?) pointing at the head of the other. He wanted to kill him, and he was still not sure why. Pity welled in him, but so did a hatred that may have been illogical but nevertheless was. War caused such feelings and he was not responsible for the war. Duty too spoke to him, about the need to do the job. He wanted to know, wanted to give this man’s death some meaning so that perhaps someday he could forgive himself, make sense of his life and move on when the war was nothing but a memory and a scar carved across the face of Europe. But more than anything he wanted to put an end to the horrible, gasping sound the other made. That was paramount in his mind. Rationalizations could be found later.
He stared at the other, his proximity that of a lover. He wanted to see, wanted to know, what it was he was killing. But the darkness kept the other in shadow, a mystery except for his agony: that, he understood too well.
This was not a stranger but someone he felt he knew intimately. He understood his fear, his hopes, his disgust with what he had seen. He was Rothary, he was no different than him. He was still asking questions as his finger tightened on the trigger, still hoping for answers. But as the violence erupted from the barrel of the gun into the other’s skull, he realized he had no answers. Nor did he understand why he had killed the other. He had no idea whether he had acted in fear or in hate, in pity or in despair. The gun fell from his hands as tears began to fall from his eyes. The breathing stopped but the horror it had induced did not stop. Nor would it ever. He would hear the sound of the other’s breathing as long as life remained in him. Each breath he took the other would be taking with him. Each breath he took would be torturous, would fill him with the loathing he had felt that day.