Sam asks, “What are we doing here?” and you don’t know if he means here, in Flanders, or more generally, here on God’s green earth, which here, in Flanders is not green but mud-covered and cratered and incapable of sending up any other crop but barbed wire. Or if he means still here, at the edge of this pit—because the horse that was drowning in the mire is now still.
So you tell Sam that “What are we doing here?” is a rich man’s question. Then you step back inside the billet and tell Charley that if the three of you set off right away for the trenches there’ll be time for a quick swim before you have to report for duty. Charley can understand what people say to him just fine. It’s answering with any sense that’s impossible for him. Charley picks up his helmet and canteen and says, “Hymn 34, all rise.” The three of you set off across the three mile distance from the billets to the trenches as easily as if you were still sewer workers living in Manchester and setting off down Portland Street for another day of tunneling beneath the city. A Red Cross wagon swerves in front of you. Charley chimes, “Lord High Mayor likes butter on his toast” and at once such a happiness seeps into your raspy mood—not unlike butter into toast—because the two best people to have in a tunnel with you are Charley and Sam. Down in that deep dark, inside that scraping silence, you want to be with men you’ve known all your life. The time the sewer main caved in, and the heavy hand of earthworks was pinning the three of you in place, infiltrating nostrils, eyes, lips, Charley whistled a tune – and you knew it was his wordless way of saying what he had no words for: Be absolutely still. Panic uses up the little air we’ve got. Rescuers will be here presently.
Yesterday an officer with an important look about him pulled you aside and said, “You sewer moles are easy to spot— you’re all too small and too old to be soldiers. A German spy with perfect English could overhear that simpleton in your crew and strike up a friendly conversation, asking how the tunneling is going. Your fellow will chat away about how the tunnel is now all the way across No Man’s Land. How, in fact it’s almost directly under enemy front lines. How we’re just a day or two from setting our mine and blowing a few thousand Germans to Kingdom Come. That daft fellow of yours is a danger to our mission.”
In response, you stepped up onto a crate of canned meat and you faced the officer, very close: eyes, nose and mouth. You didn’t say, “The one thing Charley can’t do is join in a chat.” Instead you said, in words as solid as a landlord’s fist to a door, “Charley is Charley. Nerves-of-steel.” To which the military man said, “If you were a proper soldier, I’d have you court martialed for…” But just then the klaxon sounded and everyone, even the officer, had to put on a gas mask, and that was that.
Walking along with Charley and Sam toward the front lines you concentrate on keeping clear of the motor lorries rushing officers to and fro, and the mule teams laboring to bring rations and water bags to the trenches, and the general supply wagons hauling armament so that the low thud of shelling and the high clatter of machine gun fire need never cease. Sam points to a German aeroplane lifting into the blue. When the three of you reach the canal you see that there will be no swim. A thousand concussed fish, floating on their sides, are staring up at you as you stare down. You look back at the scene behind the billets. An immense observation balloon is being winched down. The man in the balloon’s basket is still aiming his long lens at the German lines. Not for the first time the basket puts you in mind of the one that’s said to be positioned at a chopping block to catch the head of an executed man after the axe falls. You are grateful never to have seen such a sight. Sam has told you that here in Flanders, someone guilty of desertion or cowardice is killed by firing squad, and you’re glad never to have seen that sight either. The shadow of the oblong balloon washes over the three of you, conferring some kind of luck, or perhaps not.
When you enter the reserve trench, you hunker along, careful to keep below the lip of the sandbags while also being careful not to lose your footing on the slick boards. Twenty yards along, you take a left, up a communication trench and you nod to a group of soldiers swallowing scoops of mud colored bully-beef. One of the soldiers says, Hey, sewer moles, how’s the peace and quiet down there?—and you laugh because, fair enough—these Tommies have only to raise a helmet on a stick to find out how many snipers are dedicated to goal of killing them. You continue along another support trench and eventually approach the sentry who is guarding the mouth of the tunnel. Today’s password is Lord Nelson. The three of you wait for a length of time that is equal to a quick dip in the canal and then, sure enough the night tunnelers appear. As they climb up the ladder of the shaft, they are blinking. They give you their report: seven and a half feet dug. Good progress. Candle went out twice but probably not monoxide because the mouse in the cage didn’t swoon. No sounds of Fritz digging. All in all, a quiet shift. Then the off- duty tunnelers unwrap the pads from their boots and hand you the cotton batting and then they set off on their three mile walk to claim the cots at the billet. You don’t tell them about the fish in the canal. They’ll know soon enough.
The sentry pours each of you a measure of rum which, when gulped, briefly and warmly acquaints you with the entire reach of your throat and the hollow of your stomach. You wrap your boots and descend the shaft and begin to make your muffled way along the tunnel. There is a sequence by which the sounds of the surface world fade: the first to be lost are the small sounds such as the moans of wounded men. Then, a hundred feet along, it’s as if machine guns were never invented. Another hundred feet of trundling, and the shrieks of mortar fire are no more. You continue your crouched journey, your helmet skimming the dirt ceiling, your shoulders almost fully claiming the breadth of the passage. You have to mind your footing as you step along the tracks for the wagon trolleys while you also try not to step on the air hose. At regular intervals you have to step past a single wagon trolley. You’ve traveled almost the full half-mile length of the tunnel, aware of the warm smell of earth and the cold smell of stones, all the while thinking of home and you’re worried that thinking about home could be a bad omen. You think of the cellar room in the alley off Portland Street. Your wife, sitting at the wooden bench, taking up her knitting. Her cousins, Nellie and Mary, home from their shifts at the cotton mills, both as stooped as you are as you continue jogging the distance. In the dark of your head you persist in contemplating the whole lamp-lit scene of the room, all the while wishing you could stop because maybe the oblong shadow meant today there will be an invisible pocket of monoxide, Or maybe today you will accidentally breach the wall of a German tunnel—and then what you would come upon is not your wife, setting down her knitting needles but the whole lamp-lit surprise of three Germans setting down their shovels and reaching for their revolvers.
You reach the utmost end of the tunnel. The night crew has left the lamp to dig by. The candle and the caged mouse are both trembling though the air seems satisfactory. You place your hand to the working face of the tunnel, a little ritual you perform at the beginning of every shift, for no particular reason. Then you lean back on the diagonal of the wooden board. You take up the grating tool between your legs so that your feet are on the cross bar, and your hands are on the handles. No one had to tell you Flanders clay is just like Manchester clay: same sweet slip of almost oily earth. You press the grafting tool to the wall of earth and kick out the first brick of the day which Sam grabs and drops into a burlap sack and which Charley gathers as the first sandbag of the day and sets in the trolley. Within moments the three of you—kicker, bagger and trammer, have the rhythm. You are deep inside the elation of knowing you are good at your work and that you’ll never have to stop because the war will never end.
Behind you a sapper quietly guides the full trolley back up the track a ways so he can unload into the waiting trolley and return. Another sapper is carefully setting down a few wooden boards to have at the ready. As you press and twist and tug, you indulge a lovely thought: wouldn’t it be fine if you and Charley and Sam were the very crew that completes this particular tunnel. After so many months of rotating shifts and a half mile of digging, you’d have the great excitement of having the sappers rushing along to you, unspooling the detonating wire, packing the explosives into the earth, tamping them well in place. Then all of you would be making a waddling sprint for the shaft ladder and up on the surface you’d be finding a hiding place so you could look across No Man’s Land and see thousands of tons of earth lift high into the air and hang there, heavily aloft, for several additional seconds, before relenting and returning to the surface in the form of dead men and armament and wood and steel. And what had once been a hillside would be dirt that belonged to nothing.
Press of feet, twist of hands, you kick out another slab and another—like a succession of stillborn babes being dropped into sacking and consigned to eternal rest. You’ve never seen a baby being born, stillborn or alive, but you’ve seen three young children, each wrapped in a winding cloth and lowered into a pauper’s grave with all the other typhus victims. Yes, you’ve seen that. To shiver off the thought you almost say aloud that it would be fine indeed to be the crew that completes the tunnel, but of course you say nothing. There’s no talking down here. The work must be conducted silently. The boots must be padded. The burlap bags must be placed, not dropped into the trolley, because, as close as your tunnel is to the German front lines, there must surely be Hun tunnels setting off in the opposite direction, perhaps no more than a few feet above or below, and the enemy diggers must not learn of your existence.
The sob comes on you of a sudden and almost in time, you manage to muffle it in the crook of your elbow. It was just the choked thought of that beautiful horse that lost her footing and slipped into the muddy crater. Just the sight of her clambering uselessly in the slime. You knelt down on both knees at the edge of the crump hole, and looked into her great, searching eyes. They were the color of rich earth. Her whole body was the color of rich earth. There was no way to tell her that rescue was impossible. That she could not be hauled up out the sins of mankind. That her thrashing was only hurrying her drowning. So, yes you took out your revolver. It was a merciful thing to do in a wrongful world.
Sam signals Wait, Stop. You know he’s mistaken your sob for a burst of monoxide that is theoretically possible because you deviate from time to time out of the clay and into jumbles of shale and gravel. You oblige and hold up the little mouse that seems untroubled by any monoxide, or by the fact that he is in a cage, in the companionship of men under No Man’s Land. You reach into your pocket and crumble a little iron cake into the cage—just for the pleasure of seeing the mouse’s pleasure—the quick tongue, the twitch of whiskers. You crumble another bit of rations. A few weeks ago Sam pointed to the fields behind the infirmary and said that one day farmers would have to crumble lime onto the ground because so much chlorine gas had rolled across this place. The thought startled you—that the ground itself would need to heal.
Charley has the steady nerves and Sam has the keen hearing. Sam’s pointing upwards, wide eyed. You can hear nothing except the feeble issuance of the air hose but you continue to look up at the blank of the overhead clay. Sam nods, excited, alarmed. Charley hands you the long stick that’s stored near the trolley. You slide the stick into the ceiling of the tunnel and then you bite the protruding end, clenching your jaw. Instantly you can feel an intermittent trembling. Minute vibrations are buzzing through your lips, jaw, sinuses. Sam is right. There are Germans digging very nearby—above and off to the right.
If it were not the case that your tunnel now reaches almost to the German front lines—if the tunnel were perhaps only halfway across or even three quarter’s across, then you’d dig in a fury towards these enemy diggers and you’d attack them the way a lamprey strikes through the dark waters and latches onto the side of an idling trout. But with the tunnel so close to being able to deliver a mine that will blow up a thousand Germans in their trenches, you do not attack the diggers. You do not reveal yourselves. But your mind, thinking of them, is like an unexploded shell in their midst.
Sam gives the signal to keep digging. Making not a sound, you slide the grating tool into the yielding clay. Sam guides the brick into the burlap bag, passing it to Charley. In an hour you have achieved almost a foot of distance. You set a plank on either side to support the newly won distance.
But then, loud—a sneeze. You look at Sam and Charley. You know. It’s the German diggers. They have also been making progress. They are now directly overhead. And they are not taking care to be quiet. Perhaps they feel safe because they’re still so close to their own front line. One of the men is dragging a shovel or spade. He’s tired. One of them, perhaps the one who sneezed, has a runny nose. There is repeated sniffling. You and Sam and Charley take out your revolvers and make ready for the possibility that the Germans will tumble through. For some un-clocked amount of time you remain halted, motionless, while they proceed overhead.
Eventually the sounds of their digging become barely discernable, faint as the smell of coal smoke in the socks that arrive in a package from home. But Sam is Sam. He delays giving the start gesture so you spend the time wondering if the reason you keep thinking of home today is because the next letter from home will bring bad news, or because your wife is about to receive bad news about you. When the mouse squeaks for no reason, you flinch such that you almost tumble from the board. The tempting notion that it would be your crew, today, that would complete the tunnel was fanciful; and now the time lost to motionless waiting has ensured this will not be the case. Nonetheless, when Sam gives the start gesture you slam your feet onto the tool and you twist it fast. Clay to bag, bag to trolley and another board up. The only sound is the slide and suck of clay as it is being claimed from its quiet and sent up to the surface as stacked sandbags.
If talking were allowed, and if you were a talkative type, you might try to find words for a mysterious quality possessed by the clays of Manchester and Flanders. When stared at directly they have a brownish-gray color, but as you look away, they gain a momentary bluish cast. The gliding blue is not an ordinary color—it is the departure of a color. The day you were departing Manchester, you and your wife stood in the crowded square. You told her goodbye and she said she’d send you wool socks. Then she said something else but the sense of the words was submerged to the general noise because you were already turning away, attending to the orders of the sergeant calling for the tunnelers to file in. You’d like to tell Sam and Charley that the flash of blue in the clay puts you in mind of how your wife said one more blue thing to you and how it was beautiful because it didn’t have to become ordinary words such as “Mind, be careful, Luv” or “They say you’ll be home in a month.” The blur of sound remained everything she would have said if she had words sufficient to the pride and fear and anxiety she felt. Continuing to dig, you decide you will not speak to Sam and Charley this evening, as you are strolling back to the billet, about a shade of blue that cannot be directly considered. The words to speak of it glide out ahead of you.
As you work the grating tool you wonder if perhaps the clay of Manchester and the clay of Flanders are not merely similar. Perhaps they are one in the same. Perhaps the layer of clay you used to dig through to construct the sewers continues southward beneath places you’ve never seen—Birmingham and London, then beneath the English Channel that the ship crossed as it carried you and Sam and Charley to the war, such that the layer of clay reached into the depths of Flanders. You have just learned that such a distance is not so very great. In the most recent letter from home, written in the hand of the minister’s wife, your wife told you that recent explosions in Flanders were said to have shaken the windows of London and startled Prime Minister Lloyd George and wasn’t that a remarkable fact. But perhaps your wife had not dictated that sentence. Perhaps the minister’s wife had read an article in the Manchester Times and suggested to Annie that her husband might like to know such a remarkable fact and Annie, puzzled—even frightened at the thought of rattled panes of glass, had agreed to the sentence being written and then she’d folded the letter and placed it into the parcel with some tins of condensed milk, some tobacco, some thick wool socks. But now that you think of it as you press your feet to the cross bar of the grating tool and grip the handle, maybe it wasn’t your wife who’d sent the several pairs of woolen socks. Maybe it was Charley’s wife or Sam’s. The three of you always share whatever arrives in a parcel—not just the socks and tobacco but also the news about people who are nothing more than names to you.
Sam relieves you at the board. He’ll do the clay-kicking for a while and you will load and bundle the burlap sacks. If the war never ends that would mean the parcels would never cease coming and this is as pleasant a thought as the one about being the team who completes this tunnel.
The ground all around you shudders violently, causing the three of you to jounce about. Never before have you experienced such a cataclysm. Sam is grinning. He gestures that some gargantuan shell must have landed just above. And he smirks as he points to himself and then moves his hands apart. Yes—it was probably a British shell that almost killed you, falling just short of German lines.
Coming to, the first thing you realize is that you were knocked out. You reach for the grating tool, the plank beside you, the mouse in its cage, the nearness of Sam and Charley but by the flats of your hands, your feet, your forehead you know you are trapped in a man-sized gap of air. Sam, Charley you call out and the immediate dirt keeps the names for itself. Cave in you inform yourself. You wonder if you are on your belly, facing the entire thickness of the world that includes China, or if you on your back looking up through a mere forty feet of dirt. Without strength or space in which to kick, you manage to arch your back. You turn your face so you can take a deep breath. Dirt falls into your ear. Entombed. It was the word you had meant not to think but now it is the word that is keeping you company as you consider the casket of your predicament.
A small part of you—perhaps the quivering mouse that is your heart, is desperate to tell you, before you lose the ability to think, that perhaps you are thinning to oblivion because carbon monoxide, which is the true enemy, is already moving through the passageways of your bloodstream. At this thought you send up a great foisting of panic that does not enlarge the gap whatsoever. You whistle some notes over and over. They are not part of any tune but they don’t need to be. When you have stilled yourself, you conduct the interview that Sam would conduct when checking for gas poisoning: headache, confusion?
If Sam were here he could hold a lamp and check you for a bluing of the lips. You don’t think you are suffering poisoning. The slump of your limbs is due to the cave-in, not gas. You feel yourself to be alert. In fact that is all you are. You are a buried alertness. You are something that the earth is thinking about—with fixed concentration.
The warmth of your body joins itself to the warmth of the dirt in a general numbness. You are no longer awake but you are not asleep. You are gliding in place. By means of shoulder blades and kneecaps, ankles, wrists you are traveling the pebbled layers, the gravels and the boulders, the totalities. Stuttering along, you come upon all the dead men—those buried in an instant by a land mine or a mortar shell, or buried with care in the infirmary cemetery. You know them to be young men from Dorset and Bavaria, Brittany and forests of the Ardennes. In a juddering embrace you hold them all. You are the slants of water tables. The secrets of seeds. You are widespread. You are too vast to be rescued. What stretcher could hold you? What stretcher bearers could bear the weight of you? You are all of Flanders. You are a trembling that is matched to no shell or exploding mine. You are the tremendousness of the ground itself.
Quick as the scraping sound that startles you, you shrink back into the smallness of a man: two arms and two legs, hungry lungs, eyes meant for sky. Someone is approaching by means of a shovel. You fill the inch of air above your mouth with shouting. Even if it is a German tunneler about to come upon you, well—better to be found and then shot and become the color of rich earth and no longer foundering, than to live for some forgotten time before ceasing to.
Some sort of rod strikes your belly. You gasp and dirt falls into your mouth. There is an odd snort of expelled dirt that is different from your own snorting and spitting. The rod is a tube. Someone is blowing through it to clear the end of dirt and now he is speaking to you. Could it be the very officer who was in a flap about Charley; has he come all the way to the end of the tunnel to supervise the rescue. In your wild relief you can make no judgment about a high born accent.
He is giving you an instruction. “Wait for me to move the tube from my mouth to my ear and then give me a shout.”
How long ought you to wait, you wonder? What is the distance, measured in time, between lips to ear as he turns his face?
“Here!” you shout. “Here!”
You listen to his response. “Conserve your air, chap. We’ll very soon have you on velvet.”
Already you are forgetting you were once someone fully alive in the living ground, joined to its mineral quickness, its trickling and seeping. Already you are forgetting what it was to be held by the dead earth, to be joined to all the stones and bones within it. Already you are becoming someone who, if told the blue in the clay was like the earth thinking of the sky or like the earth thinking of the water, would have no idea what that meant.
Already you have shrunk into yourself. And who else should you be but one of the diggers of the 170th tunneling company and proud to be so.
Already there is lamp light. Arms reaching. And then a voice making the report. “We’ve got the third one. We’ve got Ed.”
Patricia Sammon was born and raised in Canada. She graduated from Cornell University and then returned to Canada to complete graduate studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She now lives with her family in the United States. Her stories have appeared in December, Narrative and MidAmerican Review. Among her awards she has won a Nelson Algren (back when they had several winners a year), a Cecil Hackney and an Asheville Writers’ Workshop. One of her stories is being anthologized in this year’s Best Non-Required Reading.