Nenad ‘Mad Max’ Jakovljevic
Only death resides here. I see him walking by, through the trenches, and his dark cape forming from the dark smoke billowing from all the shells. He looks familiar but his face escapes me. The day is night, the arid air grey, blocking sunlight, as if heaven has forsaken us. There are no emerald laurels, auburn harps and bleach winged angels. There are only the dead, the dying and the decaying. Trenches tremble from trotting troops trailing trouble behind treacherous trampling tanks. The air is suffocated with burning machinegun fire exhaling sulphur and carbon monoxide, with sparkling explosions and haunting sirens. The end is here, but it doesn’t come yet, it waits for something.
Is it waiting for us to try to make a break for it?
We are two rats in the sealed maze; there’s nowhere for us to go but yawning under. He stares at me, both of his eyes red scorched craters dripping white, red and dark fluids. We are forgotten, lying next to each other for warmth, huddled with the dead. I hate him and he hates me, but we like each other. We have only each other now, before the world is broken and we attempt to move in the cover of the true night, each to our own side, so later on we can try and kill each other better. We failed the first time. Both of us are breathing, even if our breaths are shallow. I look at my shoulder, the tarnished bayonet is still entrenched, it is now a part of me. I don’t feel it any more.
We rest our heads on the walls of the moist trench, sitting in the ponds of the menstrual smelling blood, serpentine guts and culvert-smelling, septic-tasting liquid mud. Let’s add some semen and build a better human now, so he can puke his guts out, as the bayonet of stench presses behind his tongue, twisting in his throat. I look around on both sides, at all the swollen bodies ready to burst with worms of meaning. All of them are grey; all of them look the same. All of them…look the same. I start to laugh.
My forlorn enemy asks me in his language, ‘What’s so funny?’ I tell him, and he laughs with me. I could swear I see tears draining from those unfilled sockets, or it could be the drip of the last night’s rain sliding down like excess semen down the legs. We laugh as the screams and shrieks, followed by the steady drum of the bomb blasts and bullets, punctuate the silence.
I look to the vacant sky and to the smoke as it spills like slimy maggots from a decomposing corpse, moving above to reach the barricaded heaven, getting entangled in the barbwires of reality. A singed tree, its flesh devoured by the nibbling fire and tanned bark by the gunpowder and tar, extends its hands towards us. The hands look like they suffer from arthritis, clutching for something that isn’t there, like the hands of the dead around us that remain in the same position they died, grasping at the air, the slippery earth, their throats. We resemble a pack of dead dogs on the sides of the road with our coats like fur, and our bodies swelling up, ripping the skin to expose the pus-marinated bones and our souls stained with sacramental excrement. The dark apparitions circle around, beaks filled with our precious wasteful fluid and internal organs … waiting … waiting … waiting to descend. Rats stand up on their feet laughing at us before they sink their teeth and start to screech as they rip into our flesh. Only vultures are victorious here.
The reverberation passes through us as a shell loses its way, exploding on our left, dismembering two of our fallen comrades, washing our faces with their essence, and existence of few rats. I’m hungry, he’s hungry too, and we’ve been here long time. Did we ever leave in the first place? Two rats decide to visit us, and our guests get snagged by my still operating hands as I snap their necks with a satisfying pop of their bones. I pull out a lighter and roast them a bit, giving one to my friend. His hands tremble and his muddy face contorts; he knows what lies in his hand. I close my eyes and bite into it. It tastes like war: bitter, empty and condom slick. No honour, no pride, no victory, only vanity lies here. I puke most of what I swallow, but if we’re to move from here tonight, we need energy.
The wind brings the stench of rotten and burnt flesh, de-fleshed flesh. The earth will eat away our humanity. Death is how we learn humility, but we don’t learn. I fought for this trench for a week and what is this trench if not a simple crease in the ground, dug out and now filled with failing flesh. We fought for a grave, and it wasn’t even our own. We are intruders here and here we will remain – trapped. Flowers will one day grow above us as our bones come together. And I tell my friend a poem that has formed in my head, that opened up like a fusty corpse, to expose its heart and lungs that inhaled the mustard-like gas.
‘Tell me President, Congressman, King, Lord, Captain, Sergeant, tell me whose bones those belong to? Show me in this open grave what it means to be courageous and brave. Show me what victory is all about. Can you find me among others? Can you tell me whose mothers bore this waste?’
He sinks his head, and like a true blind man, touches his way to my bloody, crooked hands that lost all feeling some time ago. I feel his squeeze. It’s hollow and so distant and vague, like the empty feeling of hope – hope to live for today and to die for tomorrow. His head slumps on my wet and grubby shoulder, he sobs, his body shakes, as he coughs blood. We’re a family here under the roots, under the putrid mortification of spirit. Are there any other fools like us, stuck in between, thinking about how pointless this horror has become, how useless it always was?
Death stands next to that tree, resting his hands on its ashen branches. He looks at us and smirks. He looks like me, like my friend, like all the men from my unit that are shredded by the shells and rounds, lying next to our enemies sleeping in our true bunkers and barracks. We are our own enemy.
I smile, looking into death as he appears in front of my face. He’s not breathing, but I smell his decomposing breath. It smells like us, both human and inhumane. He reaches for my crying friend, but I push him off. My hands go through him.
I’m fighting an idea.
He’s frost. He’s the hot barrel of the machinegun. He’s both kindness and cruelty. He’s us. I look at my friend and I see that he felt it too, the hand that death touched him with. We have no time; we must move. But move where? Which side is mine and which one’s his? Are there any sides in this? There’s no choice, there never was, only an illusion. Everything appears different, but it’s the same once it’s painted with the blood, the death and the mud, bellow the wan sky. Our grimy sky is turning darker. This is our chance.
I move my feet. They’re still there, but my arm isn’t. I feel it no more. It’s red and blue and white. It’s dark like the predicament of the ground under my long fingernails. The shots subside and the trembles cease. This is the time. Some reverberation is building up in the distance. I know what it is, but I cannot place it. I nudge him.
‘It’s time for us to go, come on.’
He looks at me, ‘Go where? We’re already here.’
He laughs, but I get up, unable to extend myself fully, or a bullet may bite my already gnawed tissue. I look down the line on the right, and there’s a cave-in where we can crawl out under the protection of darkness. I won’t leave him.
‘Come on,’ I say, as I pull him up with my only functional hand. I place his hand on the bayonet in my shoulder, ‘Hold on.’
We trudge, bent down, dragging and sliming through the running rats next to us. We’re the ooze and pus. I hear that rumbling noise in the distance. It’s becoming louder, like the drums of some savage tribe. In the distance, I see a dark smudge of our trench caving in right where my friend and I laid moments ago. As we’re about to stop and rest, there’s a click of a bullet entering the chamber above my head. I look up and I see a dark ghost pointing his rifle at me, asking me in his language to identify myself. My friend speaks out behind me, and tells him many things, beautiful lies, like that I lost my voice, that I saved his life, that the reason I’m wearing a different uniform is that my coat was soaked and beyond repair. The ghost of a man hesitates; I can almost hear his finger on the trigger, hearing his mind telling him that it’s all a lie. The wait is long, like the sound of the falling bomb before the explosion. The explosion comes, in the voice of this soldier shouting some orders to the other ghosts in this fog, and soon I’m dragged alongside my blind friend, whom I cannot see but I know is smiling at me. I’m safe for a little while; we’re safe.
Something explodes and shakes my very bones to the nucleus. I’m tired and hungry and cold.
I look at him, and tell him, ‘We must go.’
‘No. Go by yourself.’
‘Damn you, come on! Move!’ I insist, but he doesn’t
He just smiles, like he has seen something with his lost eyes. ‘I’ll
be back, don’t worry, I’m coming back for you.’
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