Category Archives: my fiction

No Man

There are no monsters like those born of an undeveloped conscience. There are few motivators like those bred in a moment of intense fear. No man is immune, but only some are tested.

Very few, if any, learn.

Photo of early B.E.2c supplied to the RNAS in 1915. Squadrons in Belgium and France would have used them. The RNAS would eventually merge with the Royal Flying Corps in 1918. Original copyright on image probably belonged to the Royal Navy.

At no time during the descent did Charles Partridge feel guilty. Flak guns had torn the rudder to ribbons, and Nash, the pilot, had taken shrapnel to the chest. Slumped against the stick, the wounded man’s weight sent them spiraling. But Partridge sat still. He remained calm. To climb across the fuselage of the BE2c would have been suicide. This was not a time for heroics.

Mum, tell Dad I tried.

It was a letter from George Partridge, a veteran of the Boer War — a man of influence who was certain that his son could serve some better purpose than as a clerk at a military hospital — that had gotten Charles attached to the photographic unit of the Number 6 Squadron (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/No NULL._6_Squadron_RAF). There, the young man was trained as an observer. At the age of 21, Partridge claimed distinction as one of the more competent reconnaissance photographers in all of His Majesty’s Royal Flying Corps. But he was certainly no daredevil. Not like Nash. No, Charles was better suited to the front seat: the observer’s seat.

He had learned how to recognize artillery and infantry from thousands of feet above the ground, and how to pinpoint the enemy’s position unlike any scout on horseback ever could. He was shown how to steady a heavy plate camera over the cockpit’s edge, and how to focus on targets. It was an opportunity to serve his country without carrying a rifle. That by doing so he could avoid the misery of fighting and dying in the muck of the trenches, well, that was a welcome bonus, and one for which he would make no apology. He was no hero.

Oculi Exercitus. Theirs were the eyes of the army.

Let others be the balls, thought Partridge.

The trenches terrified him. He had heard the horror stories from the wounded — tales of lice and vermin and blood and offal. It made his stomach churn. But service in the Royal Flying Corps — facing danger in the skies without ever having to set foot in the trenches — this could at least preserve his dignity and, perhaps, make his family proud.

It was a privilege to serve as an observer in the RFC. To be sure, the romance appealed to him. That no one had ever adequately prepared him for the crashing part was of minor concern. Pilots, it seemed, never really gave the matter much consideration. If you crashed, it was just accepted — with a peculiar arrogance — that you would simply walk away. It was an attitude that the observer found oddly reassuring. To even acknowledge the potential for calamity was bad luck.

An observer of the Royal Flying Corps in a Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2c reconnaissance aircraft demonstrates a C type aerial reconnaissance camera fixed to the side of the fuselage, 1916 (from the collections of the Imperial War Museum)

To date, Partridge had, indeed, been lucky: eight successful reconnaissance flights with Nash at the controls. There was no reason to believe his ninth mission would be any different. Spring had arrived early. The weather was unusually mild for mid March. It was to be a routine mission: a few passes in the Belgian dawn to support the Second Army. Reassigned from Flanders, Canadian troops were assisting the French and digging in north of the tiny town of Ypres (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Second_Battle_of_Ypres). With enemy howitzers pounding the Allies daily, aerial photographs of German artillery positions along the Ypres salient were needed.

Ypres. Looking at the map, Nash pronounced it “wipers”. It was only when the Major corrected his pronunciation at the briefing that Partridge realized that the name of the town sounded more like “jeepers.”

How appropriate it seemed now, listening through clamped palms as pieces of the wings came apart in the trees. Jeepers indeed. Intelligence had underestimated the number of guns that the Germans had set up in and around Ypres. It was only minutes into their flight when the popping of the flak cannons began. Partridge could hear them still as he opened his eyes.

They had crashed into a field of scarred and smoldering trees — mere twigs that rose like spent matchsticks. But the fuselage, which had come to rest near the top of a still standing oak, was miraculously intact.

The passengers were not so fortunate.

Flipped within the upended aircraft, fifteen to twenty feet in the air, and a quarter of a mile, maybe less, from the front lines, both the observer and his pilot were pinned within the cockpit. Now a makeshift cradle, the remains of the battered biplane teetered in a nest of branches.

Even if he could manage to fall free, the young lieutenant soon surmised that it would be a difficult run to any trench, friendly or otherwise, without being seen under the bright light of the morning’s sun. Shelling drowned the landscape, and heavy machine guns echoed from all sides.

The crash was bound to have attracted attention. Enemy infantry surely would have seen the plane being shot down. Scouts must have reported his position, and artillery might begin to shell the trees. He knew had to move quickly, and soon.

Remembering that Nash kept a small pocketknife tucked away inside his flight jacket, Partridge thought that if he could somehow stretch out of his seat and reach the man, he might retrieve the blade and cut himself free. But as he reached out in vain with strained fingertips in the direction of his fallen comrade, he froze. Nash suddenly jerked and let out a terrible cry. It was as if someone had suddenly awakened the pilot from a horrendous dream.

“My God, man. You’re alive.”

“Barely,” he whispered, eyes open but glassy. “What the devil happened?”

“Fritz used us for target practice,” answered the Lieutenant, relieved to no longer be alone. “Christ, with all the blood, I thought you were dead.”

“Soon will be, I would think. Where are we?” he wheezed.

“Maybe a half a mile northeast of the last known French positions. Somewhere near the edge of the woods outside of Langemarck.”

It was a small village near the front that Partridge remembered from the briefing. There was no way to be certain unless he could get clear of the many trees.

“Some observer,” said Nash. “Didn’t take notes on the way down?”

“Kind of difficult, what with all the screaming.”

Nash laughed, albeit briefly, as laughter brought with it a dreadful cough — one that sounded like a man drowning.

“Hurry up and cut us loose,” said Nash, slowly reaching into his jacket to produce the little knife. As he handed the blade to his eager comrade, blood gathered at the corners of his mouth, trickling to the edges of a finely groomed mustache.

“Hang on,” huffed Partridge.

The cockpit’s straps, like sleeves of asylum restraints, held them both. But by using Nash’s blade to saw away at the leather bands, Partridge found new mobility within seconds.

Dangling like some kind of puppet, he tugged at the remaining ties that bound him, and shifted his weight to adjust to the freedom. But it was too late. Just as soon as the final strap was severed, he rapidly fell to the boggy earth below him.

“Lieutenant?” Nash felt the commotion but could not see that his comrade had fallen clear of the crash site. “Partridge, are you there?” A heavy machine gun chattered in the distance.

Muscles aching, the grounded observer rolled over onto his back and looked back up into the tree. There, he could see his wounded friend still wriggling within the suspended cockpit. He could hear him pleading.

“Partridge?” Nash begged for an answer. “Please don’t leave me here.”

But as no branch was in reach, and the trunk could not be scaled — certainly not by a man whose wind had been knocked from him — the Lieutenant feared that there was no way humanly possible to save the stranded pilot.

“Charles?” came a wet and tired plea from within the branches.

But there would be no reply.

Head lowered, Charles Partridge could think of nothing that would help the poor bastard now. No words of hope. No consolation. No apology. The machine gun fire had intensified, and it was no longer safe for him to remain near the tree.

He would have to leave Nash behind.

Dropping to the ground, he crawled a few meters toward the safety of a waterlogged shell crater. There, within its concave recess, safe from the spray of the guns, he curled up, raised the collar of his jacket, and gripped the tiny knife. It would be hours before the pilot’s calls for help would eventually subside, and as evening swallowed them, flares and bomb bursts drowned the man’s last remaining cries.

It was early morning when Partridge mustered the courage to exit his accidental bunker. The fusillade had abated, and there hadn’t been a flare overhead for half an hour. Soon, the sun would rise. When he heard what sounded like a “Stand To” order in the distance, he sprang to life. If luck were still on his side, an Allied trench was near. He might drop into a listening post or even find a break in the barbed wire.

Gathering the presence of mind necessary to conquer his fear, Partridge knew no other thoughts save prayer. He began: Our father who art in heaven, and was up out of the hole before his feet could argue the case to his brain.

In the light of spreading dawn, the terrified observer quickly studied the landscape. To the southwest was where he had heard the voices. He was certain he had spotted a pile of sandbags less than a hundred yards away. Beyond them was bound to be a network of trenches. If he remained close to the ground, the enemy may not see him.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Adrenaline, like tiny excitable wires, surged, and as he gained speed, dragging himself on all fours across this no man’s land, his confidence grew. No gunfire had yet erupted, and his mind, occupied, continued with prayer.

Give us this day our daily bread. And, he lost his concentration.

Fatigued, he dove in a long, narrow hole — a sap, perhaps — an extension of a trench, but one that had since collapsed. Whatever its role, the hole appeared to be dug out by hand. That was a good sign.

Give us this day our daily bread. He tried to find his place again.

So tired. So hungry.

Odd time to think of food.

A few yards from where he rested, a mortar shell exploded.

Forgive us our trespasses.

The boom had shocked him back to reality, a place where salvation was soon to be revealed. Up and out of the hole, he spied a gap in the wire, a few dozen yards away, and big enough for a man his size to squeeze through.

He was so happy to have been only five foot five.

Running like a man possessed, through the gap and over the parapet, Partridge tumbled blindly. Landing in a muddy trench, he wiped his face, only to realize that a bayonet — about a foot in length — was fixed steadily upon his eyes. It gleamed beside the barrel of a ready rifle.

Forgive me Nash for I knew not what to do.

“Password.” It was neither question nor request, but more of a command from the oddly dressed, dark-skinned sentry that stood above him. With rifle aimed at the unidentified interloper, the foreigner said it nervously again and again, adding: “Mot! Mot!” His French was natural, but not native. Partridge froze, not knowing the proper response.

In what little of his exhausted breath remained, the Lieutenant identified himself with hands raised in surrender. But it made no apparent difference to the sentry. The red kepi atop the man’s head flounced further to the side as his volume increased. There were others now standing about the strange man, speaking hurried but recognizable English. Tommies! Each wore the familiar uniform: dirty wool khaki and a pie tin helmet.

Each pointed his rifle at Partridge.

“A flyboy? Thought we saw one of you chaps going down in the trees.” The speaker was not visible, but his accent was unmistakably British.

The sentry withdrew his bayonet, but did not lower his Enfield.

“Oh, let him go, Khalil,” said the voice, somewhat passively and with great exhaustion as if the utterance were a chore. “He looks relatively harmless.”

With that, the sentry lowered his rifle, and Partridge got his first glimpse of his savior. The man must have been the commanding officer, as he was older and not so filthy as the others that stood by his side.

“Major Horace Walker,” began the speaker, now in clear view, motioning with an outstretched hand and lifting Partridge from the mud. “1st Canadian Division, left wing of His Majesty’s Second Army, and, well,” he said, straining, “apparently at your service here in this godforsaken bog.”

“Thank you, Major,” said Partridge, accepting the man’s assistance. “That’s very kind of you.”

“Always good to be in the company of a fellow officer, Lieutenant…” He paused for a moment, apparently forgetting the surname, “what was it again?”

“Partridge.”

“Like the bird? Oh, that would be too good, now wouldn’t it?”

“Yes, like the bird, sir.”

Algerian riflemen made prisoners by the German army. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2004-0194, 1914.

Smiling, Partridge rose to stand. He noticed how the sentry, rifle still in hand, looked at him suspiciously. There was a palpable tension.

“Oh, don’t mind Khalil, here,” said Walker. “He’s a scout with the 45th. Algerians, you know. Assigned to us as a guide.” The sentry nodded, uncomfortable with the introduction, as the Major continued.

“You startled him.”

“My apologies,” said Partridge.

Walker laughed. “How the hell did you manage to drop in on us anyway, sneaky bird?”

“Hole in the wire,” responded Partridge.

“Damn it! Jenkins?” cried the Major.

Quickly, a boy of about eighteen appeared.

“Yes sir.”

“Did I not tell you to take Fielding and repair the wire in front of this post?”

An artillery bombardment tore up these defenses the previous evening.

“Sir, yes sir,” said the boy, apologetically, “but we only got as far as this before the snipers started up again at dawn.”

“Well, this is a war, Corporal. You can expect to get shot at now and then.”

Walker put his arm on the boy’s shoulder.

“Alright, put two men on this part of the wall,” he said, pointing to the area where Partridge had penetrated, “and have Fielding and Spencer go back out and repair the rest of the wire this evening. Do I make myself clear?”

It was only seconds after the Corporal acknowledged him that the Major looked to Partridge and continued his tirade. “Ridiculous, how they send me boys to fight a war. Wouldn’t you agree, Partridge?”

“Yes, sir Major. Quite.” He was visibly fatigued.

“Ah, where are my manners?” Walker noticed Partridge’s exhaustion, and proceeded to escort him through the maze of tunnels. When they reached a large dugout, a deep hole about four feet wide and covered with corrugated iron, Walker took a seat by a small table, while Partridge crouched against the wall. He closed his eyes briefly and wiped at his brow with a soiled sleeve.

In the distance, an enemy howitzer — with a great noise like an errant tram — fired. On its heels, another thundered. Dirt flew and the dugout shook. Walker, seemingly unaffected, remarked: “The days have been quiet. You should be able to get all the rest you’ll need.”

“Thank you again, sir,” said Partridge, brushing debris from his uniform and still flinching from the boom. “You don’t know how relieved I am to be alive.”

“I would think so,” said Walker. “What, after being shot down. My God, man, it’s simply remarkable, you making it out of there in one piece. A few of my men actually witnessed the whole thing. Woke me yesterday when it happened.”

“Was anyone sent to investigate?”

“We tried, but as you can see,” he said, motioning to the air with both hands, “Fritz has us pretty well pinned.”

“So I hear,” said Partridge, shaking dirt from his cap.

“Ah, yes, very good,” responded Walker, not appreciating the humor. “Well then, I suppose you’ll be wanting to return to your squadron. Get some rest and I’ll have someone bring you some food. Just beans, I’m afraid. We finished the bacon this morning and the support lines have been temporarily cut off.”

“That reminds me, sir. About returning to my squadron?”

“Yes, Partridge.”

“When can I, sir? I mean, return, that is.”

“Wanting to get back up there so soon? You pilots are all the same.”

“I’m not a pilot, sir. I’m an observer. Aerial reconnaissance. I take photographs.”

“Oh, I see.” His tone seemed one of disapproval. “Your pilot, then? What happened to him?”

“Dead, sir.” He paused. “Dead before we hit the ground.”

“Ah, shame that. No point, then, I suppose, in sending any more of my men out there. Poor sod. God knows we would have tried. Never leave a man in the field. Isn’t that right Jenkins?” Walker hadn’t noticed the Corporal standing there. He held a plate of cold beans.

“Yes sir,” the boy answered, embarrassed to be caught listening.

Partridge gulped down the food in seconds, then slept for as many hours as the relentless pounding of the guns would allow.

When he awoke, it was dark, and a faint orange glow temporarily illuminated the dugout. As he slowly lifted his head from the wooden planks that had become his pillow, he rubbed his eyes. His back hurt. There was dirt under his fingernails. A few yards from him, a cupped match had sparked briefly.

“Cigarette?” The voice was familiar. It was the North African sentry.

“No thanks,” said Partridge, declining the offer. He left the dugout and wanted so badly to stand tall, stretching like an old man stirring from his bed. Then, remembering where he was, he quickly hunched over again, safe behind the parapet. “To what do I owe the honor of your presence?” he asked the sentry, who had since left the safety of the dugout to join him.

“I am to watch you,” said Khalil. “It was the major’s idea.” His English, heavy with French and another tongue (one quite foreign) was excellent.

“Very nice of you,” nodded Partridge, “and your Major Walker. But I assure you that I don’t need to be watched, my friend.” Coughing as he accidentally inhaled the Algerian’s cigarette smoke, Partridge cleared his throat. “I can take care of myself just fine, thank you.”

“Can you?” answered Khalil. “Then best to get yourself a rifle.”

“Oh,” replied the Lieutenant, anxious to clear up any misconception. “Did the Major not tell you? I’m a photographer. I take pictures. You know, photographs?” He was ready to mime the act of photography, but soon realized its futility.

The Algerian took another drag, slowly and carefully. “Out here, you’d do better with a rifle,” he said, flicking the remains of his cigarette to the spot where Partridge stood. In distance, there were gunshots.

A few dozen meters from where the two men stood, someone screamed.

Private Danny Spencer, dazed and bleeding, desperately cried for help. Sent out only minutes earlier to repair the wire, he and a boy named Tom Fielding were both barely out of the trench when the first bullet struck Spencer in the shoulder. A second shot, immediately following the crack and echo of the first, found the center of Fielding’s forehead. A sentry had begun to return fire, as Spencer, struggling with one good arm, dragged his companion back into the muddy trench.

“My God, man, what happened?” Partridge was the first to reach the wounded soldier as Khalil had since jumped to a fire step and taken up a defensive position.

“Help him” was all that the boy could reply, motioning with a bloodied finger to the lifeless body of the comrade he had rescued from the field. But there was little that Partridge, or the medic who had now arrived, could do.

“I’m sorry, private. He’s dead.”

Stretcher bearers in the trenches (source unknown)

Indeed, as the medic tended to Spencer, there was not much for Partridge or any of the others to do besides watch as stretcher-bearers took both boys away, disappearing down one of dark and dingy tunnels, their boots clacking on the duckboard. The brief volley had ended, and, for many of the men, the tedium of the trench soon returned. It was as if nothing unusual had happened.

Partridge, however, could not so easily forget the tragedy. “What will you do with the body?” he would later ask of Major Walker. It was a practical question, as the close quarters of the trenches — so much like graves themselves — made the thought of sharing space with the dead unbearable. The Major had just awakened from his dugout following word of the skirmish, and Partridge intercepted him on the way to the latrine.

“Not much choice, I’m afraid. We’ll wrap him in a blanket and dig a grave for the lad.” Walker was more than familiar with the procedure, and wondered why the observer would even ask such a morbid thing. “Graves Registration Officer will be notified. They can rebury him if need be.”

“How will they find him?”

“We’ll mark the grave, of course, and pull the poor boy’s meat ticket.” By this, Walker meant the soldier’s identity disc (https://www NULL.iwm NULL.org NULL.uk/history/first-world-war-identity-tags). All men in the trenches wore a pair of such tags. One, known as the cold meat ticket, remained with the body in the event of death. The other was catalogued.

“Oh,” said Partridge. “It’s just, I mean, I didn’t know what to expect.”

“Haven’t seen a lot of death over here, have you, Lieutenant.”

“No sir. I haven’t.”

“Might be good exercise for you then to oversee the burial.”

Partridge, bewildered, replied “I’m sorry, sir.”

“You are an officer in His Majesty’s service, are you not, Lieutenant? I’m a bit strapped for help with the command these days. Why, as it is, I lost two officers just this week. Until we’re able to reunite you with your squadron, I thought you might be willing to, um, put yourself to some good use as it were.” His tone was one of slight condescension, but it changed as he raised a hand and placed it on Partridge’s shoulder. “Look, man. These boys out here look to officers for leadership. And as I don’t very well see you carrying a rifle, I thought at least you’d be willing to help with some of the, how shall I put it, administrative duties.”

“Like digging graves.”

“Yes, the supervision of burials would be of great assistance to me. Among other duties: ration party, water party. If you could lend a hand until we get you back, I would see it as a personal favor.”

Partridge relented. “Yes, sir. Certainly. I’d be more than happy to help. It probably would do me some good. After all, I feel, well,” he hesitated, “partially responsible for the boy being out there.”

“Not your fault, man. I would have sent that boy to his death and a hundred others like him if it meant protecting the other men. The wire was broken. It needed to be repaired.”

“I suppose you’re right, sir.”

“Right. Yes. Then soon as possible take Jenkins and another man, get some tools and take Fielding to the westernmost wall, past the jakes. You stay with the body until they gather the equipment. Keep the rats away and all that. Jenkins will know what to do from there.”

“Yes sir.” His tone was less than enthusiastic.

“Oh, and Lieutenant,” Walker added.

“Yes?”

“Get yourself a helmet. Don’t be shy about taking one off a dead man.”

“Fine, yes. Thank you, sir.”

It was, without question, unnerving for Charles Partridge to sit, for what seemed like hours, alone with the body of Tom Fielding, crouched in the dark near the stink of the latrine while Jenkins gathered a second man for the burial. He had never been so near to a dead body before, and kept watch in the stagnant mud, as the Major had asked him to do, for signs of any rats that might come to nibble on the remains. Walker had given him a pistol to use on the vermin, advising him to not waste ammunition, however, unless he had a clear shot at one of the little buggers.

Only ten minutes into the vigil, Partridge did spot what looked like a tail, black and oily, slipping through the earth of the trench wall against which the body lay. It startled him, until he realized that he might have imagined the pest, having nodded off briefly while waiting for the Corporal to arrive.

But there it was again, a few minutes later, this time like worms emerging up from the earth beneath the dead soldier’s boots. Surely, his eyes must be playing tricks on him. When he went to investigate, there was nothing there.

A faint wind whistled like the hiss of a radiator.

But when the glow of an overhead flare provided adequate illumination, Partridge realized that there was, indeed, something alive and alien in the trench with him. What he saw were not tails or worms, but a blackness like dingy fingernails rummaging up through the mud.

It was then that the observer got his first and only glimpse of that which burrowed up to surround the corpse. Dirty brown were its digits and faded gray was its sunken and translucent skin. With a half-human face grotesquely askew on a bald and bony skull, the monster, whatever it was, looked at Partridge momentarily, and then, quite matter-of-factly, sank a row of gleaming teeth into the dead boy’s thigh. In less than seconds, it pulled the body under the soil, and quickly disappeared.

Partridge, the trousers of his uniform now involuntarily wet, had never even cocked the hammer on the pistol that he gripped. He just sat there in disbelief, motionless.

In all the months he had spent at the aerodrome pitying the poor wretches that sat in the trenches, he had never, even for a moment, considered that they were exposed to such horrors as these. His first instinct was to run and find Jenkins or the Major to tell them what had happened.

But he couldn’t move. Although the thing was most definitely gone, he began to wonder how the story would sound to someone who did not bear witness to the horrible thing. To tell any man what he had just seen would surely end his career. The men would think him quite mad, to be sure, if he told them that Fielding’s body was snatched by some beastie. After all, there was no evidence. The body was missing.

What’s worse: even if they did believe him, the fact that he had not expended even a single round on the creature in order to stop the violation of the corpse, well, that would surely paint him as even more the coward. He hesitated briefly, thinking it might be best to fire a shot into the air.

Madman. Coward. Neither was an option.

He couldn’t tell a soul.

Thus it was, regaining his composure, that Partridge put the pistol away, and lied to Jenkins upon his arrival with a third man a mere five minutes after the ordeal had passed. When Jenkins asked where the body of their comrade was, Partridge simply insisted that he couldn’t wait much longer, and that he chose to do the deed himself. They would take his word for it. After all, he was an officer.

“And the identity disc, sir?” asked Private Henderson, the man whose aid Jenkins had enlisted. He was quite confused by the Lieutenant having gotten his hands dirty. In his experience, officers just didn’t do such things.

“It’s, um,” stuttered the Lieutenant, sheepishly rooting through his pockets as if he had been caught stealing. “Right here.” The words came nervously, and with some degree of surprise as he fished from his breast pocket the aluminum plate on to which Fielding’s name, rank, unit and identification number had been stamped.

Odd that he did not recall removing the tag, but as it made his story more credible, he did not question his good fortune. Satisfied, Jenkins and Henderson returned to their duties, and as the sun began to rise on his second day in the trenches, Lieutenant Charles Partridge looked forward to getting some rest and forgetting the whole twisted affair.

Thursday began with an unusual silence.

He slept soundly. The air was still.

Enemy howitzers had not been heard in hours. Some men swore they heard birds singing. Convinced that this respite guaranteed an escort to the rear, Partridge gathered his few belongings and went to meet the Major. The tap dance of wooden planks clacking beneath his boots amplified his excitement. When he arrived at the command post, he saw Walker leaning against the parapet, straining to peer through his field glasses.

“Problem, Major?”

“13th and 15th battalions report some unusual enemy activity. Something about pipes poking up through the sandbags and wire. But I can’t see the bloody things. Jenkins?”

“Fritz is up to something,” said the Major. “I can feel it.”

As Partridge, too, could sense something eerie about the calm, he returned to his dugout, and spent the remainder of the afternoon talking to Khalil. He learned all about the Berber (for it was now confirmed by Jenkins that the foreigner was, indeed, from among those mysterious North African tribes), listening as Khalil told of his family near Algiers, and his service to France. It was fascinating to Partridge, a man who, before the war, spent little time outside of Shoreditch, save the occasional trip into the center of London.

Upon hearing of the many unusual and horrific things the Berber had seen, Partridge managed the courage to share, if veiled, his fears from the previous evening. He asked the North African if, after all this time as a witness to the atrocities of man, he believed in monsters.

The Berber laughed, exposing those devilish yellow teeth again. “You mean, like the English boogeyman?” Partridge had no idea where Khalil would have picked up the term, but it was as good as any.

“Yes, I suppose. Anything that’s, well, not quite… human.”

“I have seen many monstrous things, my friend. Women and children murdered. Men laying in pieces.”

“No, I mean, something unnatural. Not a man.”

He then relayed to the Berber some of his experience of the night before, at least, that is, what Partridge chose to tell. He said that before he managed to bury Fielding, he swore that something came up out of the ground to claim the corpse.

“Well,” began Khalil, entertaining the Lieutenant’s wild imaginings, “in my country, many of the old women speak of ghuls (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Ghoul).”

“Ghouls?” asked a curious Partridge.

“Yes, ghouls, as you English would say. Foul things that pick the bones of the dead. You believe you saw one of these, eh?”

“I don’t know what I saw. I was probably just tired.”

“Man who sees ghul is marked,” said Khalil, his tone dead serious.

“Marked?” answered Partridge, nervously. “Marked for what?”

“For hospital, my friend,” joked the Berber. “You seeing things!”

The two of them laughed, Partridge with some uneasiness. It was pointless to press the issue further. No one would believe him, and he was beginning to doubt the whole incident himself.

Around 1700 hours, a slight wind began to blow.

A faint but acrid smell awoke Partridge, who, in anticipation of further duty, had chosen to nap. Rising from the dugout, he noticed that Khalil had already wrapped a cloth around his face because of the suffocating odor.

“What the devil is that?” Partridge searched his uniform for something to cover his face. Tears formed in his eyes. He tried to swallow, but felt like he was choking.

“I do not know,” came the muffled reply.

Both men scrambled to the parapet.

Across no man’s land crept a yellowish green smoke. At first, the men gathered along the trench had thought perhaps it was the residue of some new gunpowder being used by the enemy. But no one had reported hearing a single shot. Cannon and rifle, mortar and machine gun, all were silent.

Early gas masks were little more than cloth.

It was not until the smoke gathered to become a much thicker fog —almost four feet in height and rising — that its purpose was clear: the cloud itself was the weapon. Turning an almost incandescent blue as it traveled south across the Belgian countryside, the gas began to instantly choke its victims. Some men closest, the most unprepared, came rising up out of their trenches, spitting blood as they stumbled.

Partridge, collapsing in horror under the dying weight of Henderson — the boy from last evening who only seconds before stood proudly beside him — cried out to Khalil as he fell back into the dugout. The Berber had already begun blindly firing his rifle. He called out to Partridge to likewise grab a weapon and hold off whatever this attack would bring.

Terrified, Partridge drew the body of the fallen soldier even closer to his person, hiding his face in the boy’s armpit. There, he discovered, he could more easily breath, pressed firmly against the fabric of the soldier’s uniform. Whatever this attack was, he might survive by laying low.

Others were not so fortunate. Major Walker could be heard giving the order to retreat, but many men had not the strength to overcome the chlorine gas. Bodies fell about Partridge like heavy footsteps, splashing mud and filth. In the chaos, he heard some of the men escaping, some calling for help, and others for their brothers to follow. For a moment, he considered their fate, thinking it better to stay where he was, digging himself even further into the dirt of the dugout where he could escape the fumes.

Huge holes in the lines, some hundreds of yards in length, were now open. Dozens of men, Canadian and French, scrambled. Some made it to the woods. Others found their way to supporting trenches toward the rear. Those remaining, staggering like drunks from the effects of the gas, dropped in their tracks and died.

German infantry, wearing cloth respirators on their faces, charged.

Major Walker, safe for the moment about a mile from his battalion’s former position and clear of the ever-creeping gas, leaned against the wall of one of the support trenches and watched through his field glasses. Turning to Jenkins, he asked for a report on known casualties. The Corporal was uncertain of their losses, but did have a few reports regarding those not seen retreating. The names were familiar: Khalil, Henderson, Philips, Watkins, Nichols, MacPherson. All were presumed dead.

“And Lieutenant Partridge?” asked the Major.

“One of the men saw him fall at the same time as Henderson, sir.”

“Damn shame,” said Walker.

Somewhere towards the front, in a trench devoid of all but the piles of the dead and dying, the mist had subsided. Those spared by the gas and the bayonets of the German infantry could now be heard praying to God for a quick and easy death. With heavy stomachs and burning lungs, they gasped for air and waited to die.

Partridge, rolling Henderson’s body off of him, found it safe to once again breathe. Indeed, not only had the air cleared, but the enemy had also apparently moved on.

He had survived.

Searching among the dead for a pistol or rifle with which to arm himself, he pushed aside body after lifeless body. It was when he uncovered Khalil —ghastly white from the effects of the gas — that he stopped. A thick green froth oozed from the corpse’s mouth.

I’m sorry Khalil.

He would have said a prayer over the body of the Berber, knowing now that Christian or Muslim, atheist or other, it mattered little to the dead what was said. I’m sorry Khalil, he thought to himself yet again, standing over the man’s body, staring into his empty eyes. But I feel no guilt, my friend.

Alone in the trench, Partridge paused to rest.

He was alive, but as he closed his eyes to thank whatever angel had protected him, he glimpsed, albeit briefly, what looked like the black and oily tail of a rat curling its way around the Berber’s throat.

Or was it worms that coiled to grip the dead man’s head?

The ghoul had returned to claim another meal.

Shaking with disbelief, Partridge tripped over the body as he stumbled back and away from the vile thing that had come in search of food. The monster continued, undaunted, to devour Khalil, dragging much of him into the mud. He watched as it chewed the dead man’s nose like the tip of an uncooked sausage.

Immediately, a second creature rose from the pile, its rotting breath so strong that he felt his bile rising. Frantically reaching with one free hand, he found a rifle with which to bash in the thing’s brains. One strike, and the ghoul’s head — white and hairless like a melon — split wide open. Standing to confront now the monster consuming Khalil, Partridge pulled back the bolt of the Enfield he had retrieved from a dead man. But there was no ammunition in the chamber.

He would have to settle for its use a club.

It was then that the observer looked around to fully grasp his predicament. Eight of the horrid things stood around him, hissing like so many burst pipes. More emerged from the dirt walls of the trench, scurrying like spiders. Others, more muscular, stood like men — old, withered men, but men nonetheless, though the tallest among them was only three, maybe four feet in height. Hunched and skeletal, with eyes burning like the tips of cigarettes, the creatures picked at their food.

One of them licked its foul lips in anticipation. Another sniffed the rot in air through tiny nostril slits. They were blind, ancient hunger. And it was mealtime.

With the butt-end of the rifle, Partridge swung at their leathery arms.

“Back!” he yelled. None even so much as acknowledged him.

Mindless, they continued to pick at the bones beneath them, delighting in the flesh of the bloated soldiers whose lungs had burst. Partridge sensed their appetite, listening to tongues clicking. He watched as one fiend dislodged a dead man’s eyeball and gulped it down.

Cold meat. He would soon be cold meat.

He was certain of it. No one was coming back to rescue him. He had feigned death all too well. Better, perhaps, to take his chances over the top.

This thought occurred to him as perhaps his only option in those fleeting moments before an inevitable end as food for the wretched things. He would have to flee the trench to escape them. He could be captured, sure, but he just might make it to the rear, too. Clinging to that hope, he resolutely swung at the circling vermin one last time, and then bounded up over the sand bags that lined the parapet.

His final utterance, barely a whisper, was but a single word: balls.

Lieutenant Partridge, charging like a man of single purpose and sound mind, got as far as the first line of barbed wire before the enemy machine guns tore him to pieces. From a safe distance, Major Walker, spotting first the blaze of the chattering Maxim and then the hastening blur of the desperate young observer, watched intently through his field glasses as the dying man held his rifle high.

It is said that some soldiers strained to see above the walls of their trenches, prompted by their comrades who could not believe the bravery of one lone man charging the enemy. Some called him mad. Others thought him a hero. This downed airman, an observer who fell to the trenches and took up a rifle, became the inspiration for many, and the impetus for an organized push to retake the field. Hundreds of impassioned men, French and Canadian troops, fought tirelessly in the weeks following to close the gaps in the line and regain control of the Ypres Salient.

Many years after the war, Horace Walker, leg amputated in 1917 following the battle of Verdun, his eyesight now failing from advanced age, made the long voyage to London from his home in Montreal. From London, he would hire a car to Shoreditch and pay a visit to Major George Henry Partridge, retired, and his wife, Edna. His mission: to personally deliver a posthumous Victoria Cross for the couple’s fallen son. In all his years of service, Major Walker said he had never before or since met a man so selfless, nor had he encountered anyone as mindful of the lives of his fellow soldiers as their boy, Charles Wilson Partridge, Lieutenant of the No. 6 Squadron of His Majesty’s Royal Flying Corps.

“No man was as brave,” said he.

“Yes, sir.” The young Corporal, as usual, was right beside him.

“Jenkins, tell all sentries to report any movement along enemy lines, and put a fresh man at the listening post.”

“Major Walker, sir?” interjected an impatient Partridge.

“Damn it, what is it, Lieutenant?”

From the look on Walker’s face, Partridge pretty much knew there was little point in asking for his escort. Even the major’s mustache looked aggravated. He would not be granting any escort today.

“Fritz is up to something,” said the Major. “I can feel it.”

As Partridge, too, could sense something eerie about the calm, he returned to his dugout, and spent the remainder of the afternoon talking to Khalil. He learned all about the Berber (for it was now confirmed by Jenkins that the foreigner was, indeed, from among those mysterious North African tribes), listening as Khalil told of his family near Algiers, and his service to France. It was fascinating to Partridge, a man who, before the war, spent little time outside of Shoreditch, save the occasional trip into the center of London.

Upon hearing of the many unusual and horrific things the Berber had seen, Partridge managed the courage to share, if veiled, his fears from the previous evening. He asked the North African if, after all this time as a witness to the atrocities of man, he believed in monsters.

The Berber laughed, exposing those devilish yellow teeth again. “You mean, like the English boogeyman?” Partridge had no idea where Khalil would have picked up the term, but it was as good as any.

“Yes, I suppose. Anything that’s, well, not quite… human.”

“I have seen many monstrous things, my friend. Women and children murdered. Men laying in pieces.”

“No, I mean, something unnatural. Not a man.”

He then relayed to the Berber some of his experience of the night before, at least, that is, what Partridge chose to tell. He said that before he managed to bury Fielding, he swore that something came up out of the ground to claim the corpse.

“Well,” began Khalil, entertaining the Lieutenant’s wild imaginings, “in my country, many of the old women speak of ghuls.”

“Ghouls?” asked a curious Partridge.

“Yes, ghouls, as you English would say. Foul things that pick the bones of the dead. You believe you saw one of these, eh?”

“I don’t know what I saw. I was probably just tired.”

“Man who sees ghul is marked,” said Khalil, his tone dead serious.

“Marked?” answered Partridge, nervously. “Marked for what?”

“For hospital, my friend,” joked the Berber. “You seeing things!”

The two of them laughed, Partridge with some uneasiness. It was pointless to press the issue further. No one would believe him, and he was beginning to doubt the whole incident himself.

Around 1700 hours, a slight wind began to blow.

A faint but acrid smell awoke Partridge, who, in anticipation of further duty, had chosen to nap. Rising from the dugout, he noticed that Khalil had already wrapped a cloth around his face because of the suffocating odor.

“What the devil is that?” Partridge searched his uniform for something to cover his face. Tears formed in his eyes. He tried to swallow, but felt like he was choking.

“I do not know,” came the muffled reply.

Both men scrambled to the parapet.

Across no man’s land crept a yellowish green smoke. At first, the men gathered along the trench had thought perhaps it was the residue of some new gunpowder being used by the enemy. But no one had reported hearing a single shot. Cannon and rifle, mortar and machine gun, all were silent.

It was not until the smoke gathered to become a much thicker fog —almost four feet in height and rising — that its purpose was clear: the cloud itself was the weapon. Turning an almost incandescent blue as it traveled south across the Belgian countryside, the gas began to instantly choke its victims. Some men closest, the most unprepared, came rising up out of their trenches, spitting blood as they stumbled.

Partridge, collapsing in horror under the dying weight of Henderson — the boy from last evening who only seconds before stood proudly beside him — cried out to Khalil as he fell back into the dugout. The Berber had already begun blindly firing his rifle. He called out to Partridge to likewise grab a weapon and hold off whatever this attack would bring.

Terrified, Partridge drew the body of the fallen soldier even closer to his person, hiding his face in the boy’s armpit. There, he discovered, he could more easily breath, pressed firmly against the fabric of the soldier’s uniform. Whatever this attack was, he might survive by laying low.

Others were not so fortunate. Major Walker could be heard giving the order to retreat, but many men had not the strength to overcome the chlorine gas. Bodies fell about Partridge like heavy footsteps, splashing mud and filth. In the chaos, he heard some of the men escaping, some calling for help, and others for their brothers to follow. For a moment, he considered their fate, thinking it better to stay where he was, digging himself even further into the dirt of the dugout where he could escape the fumes.

Huge holes in the lines, some hundreds of yards in length, were now open. Dozens of men, Canadian and French, scrambled. Some made it to the woods. Others found their way to supporting trenches toward the rear. Those remaining, staggering like drunks from the effects of the gas, dropped in their tracks and died.

German infantry, wearing cloth respirators on their faces, charged.

Major Walker, safe for the moment about a mile from his battalion’s former position and clear of the ever-creeping gas, leaned against the wall of one of the support trenches and watched through his field glasses. Turning to Jenkins, he asked for a report on known casualties. The Corporal was uncertain of their losses, but did have a few reports regarding those not seen retreating. The names were familiar: Khalil, Henderson, Philips, Watkins, Nichols, MacPherson. All were presumed dead.

“And Lieutenant Partridge?” asked the Major.

“One of the men saw him fall at the same time as Henderson, sir.”

“Damn shame,” said Walker.

Somewhere towards the front, in a trench devoid of all but the piles of the dead and dying, the mist had subsided. Those spared by the gas and the bayonets of the German infantry could now be heard praying to God for a quick and easy death. With heavy stomachs and burning lungs, they gasped for air and waited to die.

Partridge, rolling Henderson’s body off of him, found it safe to once again breathe. Indeed, not only had the air cleared, but the enemy had also apparently moved on.

He had survived.

Searching among the dead for a pistol or rifle with which to arm himself, he pushed aside body after lifeless body. It was when he uncovered Khalil —ghastly white from the effects of the gas — that he stopped. A thick green froth oozed from the corpse’s mouth.

I’m sorry Khalil.

He would have said a prayer over the body of the Berber, knowing now that Christian or Muslim, atheist or other, it mattered little to the dead what was said. I’m sorry Khalil, he thought to himself yet again, standing over the man’s body, staring into his empty eyes. But I feel no guilt, my friend.

Alone in the trench, Partridge paused to rest.

He was alive, but as he closed his eyes to thank whatever angel had protected him, he glimpsed, albeit briefly, what looked like the black and oily tail of a rat curling its way around the Berber’s throat.

Or was it worms that coiled to grip the dead man’s head?

The ghoul had returned to claim another meal.

Shaking with disbelief, Partridge tripped over the body as he stumbled back and away from the vile thing that had come in search of food. It continued, undaunted, to devour Khalil, dragging much of him into the mud. He watched as it chewed the dead man’s nose like the tip of an uncooked sausage.

Immediately, a second creature rose from the pile, its rotting breath so strong that he felt his bile rising. Frantically reaching with one free hand, he found a rifle with which to bash in the thing’s brains. One strike, and the ghoul’s head — white and hairless like a melon — split wide open. Standing to confront now the monster consuming Khalil, Partridge pulled back the bolt of the Enfield he had retrieved from a dead man. But there was no ammunition in the chamber.

He would have to settle for its use a club.

It was then that the observer looked around to fully grasp his predicament. Eight of the horrid things stood around him, hissing like so many burst pipes. More emerged from the dirt walls of the trench, scurrying like spiders. Others, more muscular, stood like men — old, withered men, but men nonetheless, though the tallest among them was only three, maybe four feet in height. Hunched and skeletal, with eyes burning like the tips of cigarettes, the creatures picked at their food.

One of them licked its foul lips in anticipation. Another sniffed the rot in air through tiny nostril slits. They were blind, ancient hunger. And it was mealtime.

With the butt-end of the rifle, Partridge swung at their leathery arms.

“Back!” he yelled. None even so much as acknowledged him.

Mindless, they continued to pick at the bones beneath them, delighting in the flesh of the bloated soldiers whose lungs had burst. Partridge sensed their appetite, listening to tongues clicking. He watched as one fiend dislodged a dead man’s eyeball and gulped it down.

Cold meat. He would soon be cold meat.

He was certain of it. No one was coming back to rescue him. He had feigned death all too well. Better, perhaps, to take his chances over the top.

This thought occurred to him as perhaps his only option in those fleeting moments before an inevitable end as food for the wretched things. He would have to flee the trench to escape them. He could be captured, sure, but he just might make it to the rear, too. Clinging to that hope, he resolutely swung at the circling vermin one last time, and then bounded up over the sand bags that lined the parapet.

His final utterance, barely a whisper, was but a single word: balls.

Lieutenant Partridge, charging like a man of single purpose and sound mind, got as far as the first line of barbed wire before the enemy machine guns tore him to pieces. From a safe distance, Major Walker, spotting first the blaze of the chattering Maxim and then the hastening blur of the desperate young observer, watched intently through his field glasses as the dying man held his rifle high.

It is said that some soldiers strained to see above the walls of their trenches, prompted by their comrades who could not believe the bravery of one lone man charging the enemy. Some called him mad. Others thought him a hero. This downed airman, an observer who fell to the trenches and took up a rifle, became the inspiration for many, and the impetus for an organized push to retake the field. Hundreds of impassioned men, French and Canadian troops, fought tirelessly in the weeks following to close the gaps in the line and regain control of the Ypres Salient.

Many years after the war, Horace Walker, leg amputated in 1917 following the battle of Verdun, his eyesight now failing from advanced age, made the long voyage to London from his home in Montreal. From London, he would hire a car to Shoreditch and pay a visit to Major George Henry Partridge, retired, and his wife, Edna. His mission: to personally deliver a posthumous Victoria Cross for the couple’s fallen son. In all his years of service, Major Walker said he had never before or since met a man so selfless, nor had he encountered anyone as mindful of the lives of his fellow soldiers as their boy, Charles Wilson Partridge, Lieutenant of the No. 6 Squadron of His Majesty’s Royal Flying Corps.

“No man was as brave,” said he.

The Unhappy Resurrection of Winston Biggs

I have neither the energy nor the inclination to record every gruesome detail of my husband’s death — if, indeed, dear reader, my poor Winston is truly dead. It may well be my duty as a wife to bear witness, but I take no pleasure in documenting the particulars. I write only for the sake of the child I carry inside me, the one that deserves to know what happened to its father.

To understand my husband, you must first know and come to accept, as I have, that Winston Biggs was seemingly possessed of an uncanny ability, on more than one occasion, to cheat death. Even as babe, no more than a few days old, Winston should, by all accounts, have died, but the scarlet fever that took his mother apparently never touched the child.

Tragedy struck the family again when Winston was thirteen. He alone somehow walked away from a fire that claimed the lives of his father and two servants, a fire that started in the boy’s own bedroom. It was then that Winston left Washington, near Augusta, to live with his older sister in Savannah.

Now, there is no doubt that Julia Gaines, widow of the late honorable Judge Jefferson Gaines, loved my husband. When she married at nineteen, leaving a then six-year-old Winston to fend for himself back home, she was certain to tell her brother that he always had a home in Savannah. My husband had said on many occasions that were it not for Julia, he would not have lived to see as many days as he had.

I wish I had understood their relationship better from the very beginning.

I had met Winston at the wedding of a mutual friend. Savannah society, even then, was a small group of well-informed wives and widows, all looking for any opportunity to marry off a niece or daughter. I was the former, visiting my Aunt Winnie for the summer when I was eighteen. Winston, wide-eyed and handsome in his uniform, was formally introduced to me after the Church service. He was then dividing his time between Washington and Savannah, trying to rebuild the Biggs estate.

It was not until the following week, when he awkwardly came to call with an invitation to dinner at his sister’s house, that I knew Winston Biggs was the man for me.

Only three years and few months separated us in age. We were perfect together. We shared a fondness for gardens and a love of music. We both wanted a large family and an estate with many servants. He called me his “lovely Rose” — for that is my name, Rose — and I was the happiest woman alive.

Hand-colored ambrotype, unidentified confederate soldier. Winston? Library of Congress.

It was to be a short courtship. We were married on the 22nd of March. A few weeks later, Winston rejoined his regiment,

the 15th Georgia Infantry (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/15th_Georgia_Volunteer_Infantry), and I was a new bride — with no husband and no home, for the house in Washington was still in disrepair. It was then that Julia invited me to stay with her at the house on York Street, near Columbia Square. Without Nelson there, her sixteen-year-old son who was also off fighting Yankees, the house felt empty, she told me.

I remember her saying “We are, after all, family, my dear.”

But family does not keep secrets as Julia and Winston kept from me.

I had never had a sibling, so I do not expect to know or understand the nature of the bond that exists between brothers and sisters. Winston and Julia shared a playfulness that I envied, and an unspoken understanding of each other’s thoughts. For the few weeks of our short honeymoon, Winston spoke much of Julia.

“I owe her my life,” he once told me at dinner.

I had only remarked that Julia seemed overly protective of him.

He reached inside his vest, as if to show me something, but then stopped.

“Do you trust me?” he asked.

“Implicitly,” I answered, for I was in love.

“Then, please, never question my sister’s dedication.”

e>

We would not speak about the matter again.

The two of them were incredibly superstitious. Everyone in that part of the lowcountry was. Even my own aunt — as rational as I or any woman who bore the maiden name of Mathers — even she dabbled in the Geechee medicine of the region, swearing by area superstitions and local lore.

It was something I had to accept about Savannah. Everyone was friendly, and everyone had a secret.

I later learned from talking to Julia that what Winston kept pinned inside his jacket was a small, red flannel pouch. She had given it to him the day he returned to Wilkes County to join the Delphi Rangers.

“A charm of protection,” she said. “A gift from Father Po.”

Now, Father Po was a freed slave who was said to live in a shack in the woods outside the city. He was certainly well respected, feared even by all the servants who worked in the local homes. Betty, our maid, a fine, good-tempered woman who had served the family of the late Judge Gaines for decades — she would always make the sign of the cross every time Father Po’s name was mentioned.

Some folks said that he was over a hundred years old, and that his power came from the devil. For years, Julia had known him. She visited him at least once a week, sometimes more, and always alone. She brought him food, blankets, and sometimes, new clothes.

In return, he would work his spells for her.

Root magic is what it’s called.

“It’s a harmless sack,” she told me. “Full of dried leaves and such.”

“Then why insist he carry it?” I asked her.

“To humor me, my dear. To keep him from harm when he’s out there fighting Yankees. You would be surprised, sweet sister, by what the power of suggestion can do. You didn’t touch it, did you?”

“No, he wouldn’t show me,” I replied.

“Good,” she answered. “You are to never ask him about it. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Julia,” I answered. Then, hoping to endear myself to my new sister, I asked her “Will you show me how to make such a charm for myself?”

At the time, I had taken her at her word and assumed there was no harm.

“No,” she replied. “You can’t work magic on yourself. Someone has to gift it to you.”

Such a pretty face Julia had, but when she spoke those words to me that afternoon, her aspect turned menacing. It was as if I was being told that I’d forever be an outsider, and that there were certain things I was never meant to know. I resented being treated like a child, and was never again very comfortable around my sister-in-law.

For Winston’s sake, I vowed to make the best of my situation, but in my heart, I disliked Julia. Until he returned from war, I would respect her wishes, but I looked to the day when he would come home and take me away from that place.

Alas, it was a sad reunion.

Winston had been wounded at Sharpsburg in September, and when he returned to us, discharged from service and disabled, in mid October, he was a different man. A piece of the bullet that had struck him down had embedded itself in his left temple. The field surgeon told Winston he was lucky. But because of the fragment, my husband’s left eye drooped, and the muscles on that side of his face were forever rigid. It was if the joy that was once there, the life in his smile and light in his eyes, they were gone.

To those who did not know him so well, Winston was otherwise fine in his appearance, but with the injury had come other, more noticeable changes. He had terrible headaches every day — like tiny little knives cutting into his brain he said — and, at times, his balance would leave him. He had also lost a great deal of weight, almost forty pounds, leaving him but a ghost of his former self. I could not get him to each much more than soups and perhaps the occasional piece of rare beef.

Other than that, he showed little interest in food.

My husband’s appetite for, how shall I put it, marital relations, however, was not the least bit affected.

You must remember, we were still newlyweds.

It was not long before I knew I was with child, and for a few fleeting weeks in the charm of late autumn, when even warm Savannah starts to cool, we were the happiest couple that God in his heaven had ever seen fit to bless. Despite his afflictions, Winston was elated, and news of the pregnancy even saw a softening in my sister-in-law.

She became very protective of me, letting me know that it was a special thing to be a mother — that she could enlist the help of Father Po to protect me against any harm — for such things as miscarriage and stillbirth were common — but I respectfully declined the help of magicians.

I chose, instead, as any good Christian would, to put my faith in God. Every Sunday, I prayed alone at the new Trinity Church. It was a long walk to Calhoun Square, but I enjoyed the time alone.

Winston and his sister would not join me.

For a short while, Julia and I were at least civil toward each other. There was a mutual respect. That is, until a few days before Christmas, when she recommended that Winston and I join her for a visit to Father Po.

“For what purpose?” I protested.

“He can provide you with the things you’ll need to raise a healthy child.”

“I have told you. I am not having any root doctor touch me,” I said.

But Winston intervened. He explained to me that Julia meant no harm, and that his sister had given birth to her Nelson while under the care of Father Po and his wife Dory. It was not easy for Julia. Judge Gaines had died before Nelson was born, and it was Betty’s mother who had introduced her to Father Po. Dory, as it turned out, was an excellent midwife. Without them, Julia might not have made it as a mother alone. It was for this reason — to honor Dory — that Julia had since helped local women, poor slaves and indigents and the like, with the birthing of their children. In fact, she had been away for the entire evening just the night before, helping a friend of Betty’s. Alas, the woman lost her child.

“Let’s just go this once,” said my husband. “Julia has done so much for us. To do otherwise would be rude.”

“I’m not drinking, eating, or touching anything,” I told him.

“She misses her son. She wants to feel like part of a family. This is her way of welcoming the baby,” he said.

So I reluctantly acquiesced, and thus agreed, we traveled outside the city limits that Saturday.

It is important for me to first tell you how we stopped the carriage only a few blocks away at Colonial Park, the cemetery where Judge Gaines was buried. Julia insisted that she would be quick, that it was only proper to bring her late husband some flowers for Christmas.

I wanted to stay in the cab, but Winston insisted that I join them.

Julia quietly processed past headstone after headstone, eerie in her silence as if the walk were somehow solemn. It was funny, but I never thought she cared much for the Judge. I remarked about this to Winston, and about the overgrowth of Spanish moss that had caught my attention, but my husband had no patience for me.

“Show some respect for the dead,” he scolded.

I’ll be the first to admit that I acted like a petulant child. I said not a word for the rest of the ride. I questioned not while Julia hovered above the grave. I remained silent as Winston and his sister talked of death and the corruptibility of the body. And I commented not when — strangest of all — my husband quite unexpectedly announced that he had made preparations for “the remaining members of the Biggs family” — myself, Winston, Julia, Nelson, and even our child — to one day be buried, not in the ground, but in a mausoleum at some new cemetery just outside the city called Laurel Grove.

Julia looked only slightly surprised. I, however, was quite bemused.

This preoccupation with death frightened me. It was a side of Winston that I had not seen before. That he had made the arrangements without first consulting me did not concern me so much as this newly manifested fear and loathing of a “common burial below ground” as he put it.

I understand that a man who had faced death on the battlefield may become obsessed with his own mortality, but Winston’s terror was sudden and palpable. In the carriage, at the moment of his announcement, he loosened his collar and began to sweat.

“Promise me, both of you,” he pleaded. “At Malvern Hill, I heard of men buried alive. I will not have that happen to me.”

“It’s alright, Winston,” I told him, holding one of his wet and trembling hands as Julia clenched the other.

Winston gritted his teeth. It was one of the headaches, come on like a storm. I could sense the pain in his face, despite the left side’s rigidity.

Closing his one good eye, he whispered, “Just promise you won’t bury me unless you are certain I am dead.”

“We won’t sweetness,” I told him, looking to Julia as she nodded in agreement. For the rest of the trip, we had to reassure my husband that nothing of the kind could ever happen. He would never need to worry about such nonsense. He was going to live a long, long time.

By the time we pulled up the carriage to the dilapidated shack that was the home of the root doctor, it was almost dark. Truth be told, I had become so concerned for my husband that I almost forgot the purpose of our visit.

Julia did not. With the help of the driver, she was first out of the carriage to greet the old black man. I was startled to see her embrace him, and as I helped Winston out of the cab, I noticed how this Father Po held Julia’s hand.

“Back from da sho ded?” he said, apparently making some observation or perhaps asking a question. I write here what I heard, but as I did not then, nor do I now understand the Geechee dialect, I was at a loss to reply.

“He wants to know if we stopped by Colonial Park,” said Julia, nodding as Father Po laughed. “Isn’t that right Father? I told you we would be stopping by to see the Judge.”

“Yeh,” he coughed, still giggling.

‘Sure dead,'” she repeated, slowly, so I could understand. “It means ‘the cemetery.’ He’s asking if we went there today.”

“Oh yes,” I answered. “Julia here insisted that we pay our respects.”

“No, eyes ‘insisted’,” answered the shriveled figure of a man.

I believe the old root doctor was mocking me.

The remainder of the evening passed without incident. Father Po neither asked to touch my stomach — an impropriety I would not stand — nor did he force upon me any potions, pouches, or pills. I must admit that as the visit came to its completion, I was somewhat offended by the devil’s indifference toward me. He spent most of the evening muttering his broken English to Julia, and staring at poor Winston. My husband, who silently suffered through his excruciating migraine, was not amused.

As we were leaving, Father Po said, “Take dis,” while handing Winston something that looked like tree bark. “Chew,” said the old man.

“It will help with your headache,” explained Julia. She sat beside me in the cab, looking out the window.

“Thank you,” answered Winston, “That’s kind, but not necessary,” he told Father Po. “I’ll be fine,” he said.

I could see that my husband was likewise uncomfortable with the old man’s brand of medicine. But Winston would never say so in front of his sister.

The root doctor said nothing. He just smiled and started to laugh again, first to himself, then out loud like a crazy person. As the driver closed the door to the cab, we watched as the old man first raised his black finger to the center of his forehead, and then slowly lowered the same digit to point at his side.

That it was the same area where Winston kept the pouch made by Father Po, well, that thought did not occur to me then.

“Sho ded,” said Father Po. He was no longer laughing.

We said little on the ride home.

The next morning, Julia received word by mail that her son had been wounded at Fredericksburg. Word from a Captain in Nelson’s company tipped Julia to the location of a field hospital where her boy lay, mortally wounded. He could not be moved, and it was feared he might not make it through to Christmas.

Julia left that afternoon for Maryland to find her son.

I took over the duties of the house, but it was to be a somber holiday. Winston’s headaches grew worse. He kept to his bed most of the day, and had ordered both Betty and myself to keep the house dark and cool.

Come Christmas morning, I could not wake him.

On Christmas, my Winston passed away.

I cannot relate to you, dearest reader, the pain a young wife feels who loses her husband before she even reaches the first anniversary of her marriage. But to lose a husband as such and also be with child, it is unbearable, and I do well to forget those first few hours of shock and disbelief as Betty and her family helped to console me.

The undertaker — Wallace Anderson, our dear friend, a cabinetmaker (for he was only an undertaker part of the time) — was kind enough, after receiving word from Betty, to leave his own family on Christmas night and come and help with Winston’s body. For this, I was most grateful.

I was assured that I would be spared the meaner tasks. Wally would prepare Winston, washing his body and binding his mouth. He would straighten the limbs and place my husband in his coffin. I asked about embalming — for the practice was becoming more widely accepted — but Wally said there was only one man in Savannah who had the necessary chemicals, and that his aid had since been enlisted by the army.

The dear man kept me sane. Before leaving the next morning, he became anxious for me to settle on a date for the funeral. My husband needed to be buried before the first of the New Year, I was told, as the body would not keep for much longer, even in the cool damp of the cellar where I had been instructed to keep his casket. But I asked him to delay for at least those last few days in December so that we might, perhaps, successfully contact Julia.

I must admit that I used the inability to reach my sister-in-law as a bit of an excuse to put off the funeral. After all, it was only days before that Winston entreated us both to not bury him unless we were certain of his death. I realize that it may sound too fantastical to believe, but a twenty-year-old widow clings to whatever morbid hope she has. Thus, I was willing to wait to inter my husband, at least for a few days, until I had allowed ample time to honor his last request. Wally would have thought me mad, but I promised Winston I would do so.

Betty and I waited three long days, but Winston never did emerge from the cellar.

I was not surprised, and on the day that Wally came to remove the body, I remained in the kitchen while he and Betty’s grandson bore the coffin to the parlor. There, Betty had prepared a small memorial to my husband. Winston’s close friends came, and our minister said a few words at a small service.

Before carrying Winston out to the carriage for our procession to Laurel Grove, Wally stopped me and asked what he should do with my husband’s personal belongings.

I assumed he meant Winston’s wedding ring, for other than the clothes my husband wore when Wally placed Winston in the coffin on the morning of his death, I could not think of any other belonging, personal or otherwise.

“There was a little red pouch,” said Wally, handing me the flannel bag that Winston had always kept pinned inside his vest.

I was aghast, for I was to never touch the thing.

“Don’t worry,” said Wally. “I didn’t open it.”

“You should not have even touched it,” I replied, though I now realize how rude I must have seemed to the poor man. I asked him to please put the bag, along with the ring, back where he found them. To humor me, I also asked that Wally check for signs of life one last time, to look for breath on a mirror glass or movement in Winston’s eyes before we left for the cemetery.

He obliged, and reported back what I knew to be true.

Winston was dead.

We said nothing more to each other, even at Laurel Grove, beyond the mutual recitation of the Lord’s Prayer as my husband’s casket was placed quite unceremoniously into the brand new chamber that Winston himself had commissioned.

Biggs’ family crypt

So new was the cold stone crypt that the masons had yet to complete the inscription of the Biggs family name. There simply was a single ornate “B” above the iron door.

It was then, and only then, that I allowed myself to cry.

Even when Julia returned, I shed not a tear. It was the middle of the night sometime in mid January when I awoke to her cries. As she wailed and moaned upon hearing the news of her brother’s death, I kept my quiet in my room. I did not rise from my bed as Betty told Julia what had happened.

I could not bear to face my sister-in-law until the following morning.

“Were you with him when he passed?” were Julia’s first words to me. “Are you certain?” she asked, meeting me as I descended the stairs.

There was no embrace, no words of consolation.

“I was,” I answered. “And I am,” I replied. “I remembered what he said.”

“You couldn’t wait for me?”

She was indifferent toward me, cold.

“Wally gave us three days,” I said. “We couldn’t reach you.”

“You should have tried harder,” replied Julia. “Did you see the body?”

“Why are you asking me these things?” I became nervous and excitable. “Yes, I mean, no,” I said. “I don’t know what you want me to say,” I told her.

“The bag,” she answered, all flushed with rage. “Did he have the red flannel bag on him?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Well, no,” I hesitated, “at least not for a time. Wally removed it when he first examined Winston. But I made sure that he put it back. I remembered how important it was to him. To you.”

“You stupid girl,” cursed Julia.

As she rushed up the stairs, the ruffles of her immense skirt almost knocked me over.

“I’m sorry,” I pleaded.

“You don’t know what you’ve done,” she said.

A door slammed in an upstairs room.

I yelled out her name to the empty stairwell.

Julia’s response was short: “I must go the vault. Now!”

She had just emerged from her bedroom. I heard her lock the door — something I had never known my sister-in-law to do before. Hurriedly, she ran back down the stairs. Over her shoulder, she had slung a large sack.

“Betty?” she called.

“Yes, M’am,” replied the servant, standing out of breath at the railing above us.

“Do not let anyone near my room. Including Rose. Do you hear me?”

“Yes, M’am. Understood,” said Betty.

“What’s going on?” I asked Julia, following her to the foyer.

There, she fumbled with the sack on her shoulder. It did not seem heavy, but she was careful to not damage the contents.

“I pray we’re not too late,” she answered.

“This is insane,” I insisted. “You don’t think?”

“He’s alive,” she replied. “You buried him alive.”

I would have fainted, but the desire to prove her wrong was too strong. I therefore forced my way beside her into the carriage, adamant that I would join her on what I thought was a mad escapade.

When we arrived at the vault, I was horrified.

The great iron door of the vault was open, as was the lid of a stone sarcophagus inside. However, the coffin within seemed intact. The box did not appear to be disturbed.

“We had it equipped with a mechanism he could easily open,” said Julia.

I was dumbfounded.

“Perhaps vandals,” I offered.

“No, he’s not here,” said Julia.

“How do you know?” I asked — for I was not about to pry open the lid of the box that contained my husband.

“I just do,” she answered. “Here, see,” she said, pointing to a ledge inside the crypt, a little cutout by the door. “There was a key here that Winston was to use to let himself out.”

I could only muster a simple, obvious question, for I believe now I was in my right state of mind.

“Then where is he now?” I asked, placating her, for I still believed that Winston was with us, and that thieves had broken into the vault, looking for valuables.

Her answer was equally simple. “I don’t know,” she said.

From the satchel on her shoulder, Julia removed a handful of dry soil, and as she sprinkled it over the floor of the crypt, she whispered what seemed like a prayer.

“In case he comes back here,” she said, turning back towards the carriage, loosening her fingers as the remaining mounds of earth spilled out onto the ground.

Neither of us said a word to the driver as we boarded. He took Julia’s bag from her and placed it on a rack behind the cab, but before he began to drive the horses, I heard him comment to Julia that her satchel had been left untied. She scolded him, and then strangely insisted that he leave it that way.

She barely spoke to me on the ride home. I must have thought of a thousand questions to ask her, but none seemed appropriate.

It was clear that the crypt was disturbed, and that my sister was somehow convinced that Winston was still alive, but, surely, I thought, there must have been a more logical explanation.

Perhaps she still suffered from news of what happened to Nelson.

In all the confusion, I had completely forgotten to ask her about her son.

So I did.

“As far as the world is concerned,” she told me, showing neither the anguish nor the pain one would expect from a mother, “he is gone.”

“You found him alive?” I asked.

“When I got there, I barely recognized him,” she said. “Half of him was gone.”

“I’m so sorry,” I told her, taking her hand in mine, for although I was beginning to fear for my sister’s sanity, I tell you, dear reader, that as a mother to be, I sympathized.

“This family is more resilient than you know,” was her response.

Then she smiled, but I know now, it was more a sign of madness than an act of reassurance. Julia was beginning to frighten me, and I was careful to not let her know.

When we arrived home, I said goodnight to my sister and sent Betty’s grandson to fetch Wally. I asked for them to take some lanterns and some tools, to return immediately to Laurel Grove and repair the damage to the vault. I also requested that Wally report back as a witness — to confirm the internment of the body, for this would surely ease poor Julia’s troubled mind.

But neither Wally nor Jacob returned that evening.

Julia left the house for a few hours around seven o’clock to assist with a birth. Upon her return near eleven, she gave instructions to Betty for a light supper to be brought up to her. To me, she said nothing.

When Betty returned with a tray around midnight, she told me to not bother her mistress until morning.

I respected Julia’s need to be alone.

As Betty feared for the safety of her grandson, the two of us waited up in the parlor playing cards. Until we received word that both men were safe, neither of us could sleep.

At three in the morning, I swore I heard a baby crying upstairs. But as I had believed I might have momentarily drifted off to sleep, dreams of a child crying did not seem all that unusual to me then.

I do know for certain that I dreamt of Father Po — of the old man laughing to himself and telling me about the “sho ded.”

In the early morning hours, Betty woke me. I heard rain against the shutters.

“Any sign of Jacob or Mr. Anderson?” I asked her.

She lowered and shook her head. Tears began, and I reached out for her hand. How funny the contrast in our skin, I thought — how similar our worry and our fears.

I rose from my chair and threw my arms around the old black woman.

I held her while she cried.

Julia had since awakened. She had descended the steps in her dressing gown, and asked us what was wrong. When I told her about how Jacob and Wally had gone missing, she flew into a blind rage.

“Why in heaven’s name did you send them back there?” she demanded.

“To prevent further vandalism,” I said. “To give Winston his peace.”

“Winston’s peace is with his family, sister.” Julia hammered the word “sister” as if it were an angry nail.

Barefoot, she ran across the foyer to the front door, as if half expecting a visitor. As she undid the lock and turned the knob, there stood — by all things blessed I know not how — my beloved Winston. Rain poured down, and in the pale gray of a damp morning, I saw him.

A shroud cap still remained on his head. The straps were tied beneath his chin. The fabric was covered in blood. He was dazed and unresponsive, as if drunken and half asleep. He fell into his sister’s arms, and I dashed to help drag my husband’s body inside.

“Winston!” I cried.

Betty ran to get a blanket.

“Come,” said Julia. “Help me get him up to my room.”

I did not ask why. I believe now that I may have been what some doctors call hysterical, but somehow, together, we managed to combine our strength and carry my poor resurrected Winston — the husband I had apparently buried alive — up the hard wooden steps to Julia’s bedroom.

“What is going on?” I asked her, taking most of Winston’s weight on my shoulders as she let go of him to unlock her bedroom door.

“You are about to find out, my sister.” Her tone was excited, yet deadly sincere. “I hope to God that you are prepared,” she said, pushing open the door.

“Momma?” A voice from the bed called out to Julia. I could not see the figure as the drapes were drawn, but the address to Julia was clear. Someone called her again — this time “Mother?”

“It’s alright, child,” said Julia. “Hush now.”

As I lowered Winston to a chair beside a dressing table, Julia lit an oil lamp. Within seconds, the room began to glow.

My first thoughts were of Winston.

He remained catatonic, but he was definitely breathing.

I untied the bloody chinstrap and removed his grave cap. I then checked his lips and tongue for a wound that would explain the blood.

“It’s not his,” said Julia, knowing my intention.

“What?” I asked, dismayed.

“They get hungry,” she answered. “They need to eat,” she said.

My stomach turned, and I thought of how Wally and Jacob went missing.

“Momma?” came the voice again from the bed.

I turned, and in the orange light of the oil lamp, I finally saw what called out from the bed.

It was Nelson, or at least the boy I presumed to be Julia’s son, for I had only previously seen him in a photograph, and even then, this figure was not entirely recognizable. For in that moment I turned, I screamed. This was surely Nelson, but half of the boy’s face was gone. Jagged bits of teeth poked through swollen lips — lips that repeated “Momma?” over and over. The pathetic thing reached out to me.

With one good hand and one bloody stump, it motioned for an embrace.

I cried “My God, Julia. What have you done?”

“A cannon blast took him at Fredericksburg,” she said. “I found him like this at the field hospital.”

She had since come over to the bed, and began to caress the cheek of the sad mutilated wretch.

“But he’s a good boy,” said Julia, as the deformity smiled. “He never removed his pouch. He kept it close to his person, just as his mother told him to do.”

I looked to see a red flannel sack, just like Winston’s, on a cord around the boy’s neck.

Julia continued. “When he died, it wasn’t all that bad, was it, my child? It only hurt for a moment, and then his Momma brought him home. I told you I wouldn’t let anything take you away from me, sweetness. I told you that Momma would protect you.”

“Momma,” answered the abomination, closing its eyes.

“How?” was all I could muster.

“Father Po made the magic. I told him that my boys were going off to war. That I didn’t want them to die. But I swear to you,” she said, crying as she comforted her child, “I didn’t think it would ever be like this. I thought Nelson and Winston would somehow be invulnerable. Impervious to injury. Not like this.”

“It’s impossible,” I answered, backing my way towards the door. “Winston, too?”

“Yes. Him too,” she confirmed.

So I pushed further. “He came back after I put him in the vault.”

“No,” she answered. “Winston died at Sharpsburg, most likely. He came ‘back’ to both of us then. He’s been dead for quite some time.”

“I don’t believe you,” I said.

“It was the magic brought him home,” Julia told me. “But after you put him in that coffin, I wasn’t so sure it would still work. That’s what Winston himself was afraid of. That’s why I had to leave a trail.”

“The dirt,” I said.

“You’re learning,” she replied. “My boy had to find his way home.”

Winston began to wake in his chair, mumbling to himself.

“Julia,” he muttered weakly. “I’m hungry.”

“I’m hungry too, Momma,” said the monster on the bed.

Julia turned to her dresser and opened a drawer. From within, she retrieved a blanket, and unwrapped it to reveal an infant. The babe was a newborn — a beautiful, innocent brown baby. It was still breathing, but barely.

“My God, Julia. What have you done?” By this time, I was pressed with my back against the door, too petrified with horror to even turn the knob.

Julia held the child in the air and answered me by saying “my boys got to eat. My boys have got to live.”

“They’re dead,” I told her. “They’re all dead,” I said.

“Help me,” whispered Winston.

I believe he was talking to me.

“This is a sin,” I cried — to Julia, to Winston, and to the terrible thing on the bed.

Then I tipped over the lamp.

The fire from the burning oil spread quickly. I snatched the baby from Julia, and I ran. I ran for my life and the life of the child to the bottom of the stairs. I grabbed Betty by the arm, handed her the baby, and I never looked back.

The Gaines house on York Street near Columbia Square burned to the ground that day. The bodies of my husband, his sister, and her son were never found. Their bones may have been among the ashes, but I can never be sure.

Betty returned the child — the one Julia said was stillborn — to its young mother. I was not there for the reunion, but Betty has since written me to say that the girl is doing well.

I do not know whatever happened to Father Po. I do know that I do not blame him for the magic. In my heart, I hold Julia responsible for what became of my husband.

I left Savannah within a few days of the tragedy that claimed the life of Julia Gaines. I never told the story to anyone until now — not even Betty, though I suspect that she knew all along.

It has been over a year since Winston first left for war. My own child is due any day now. I hear that the Yankees may soon take Vicksburg, and I am happy to be far away, here with family in Texas.

That my baby was conceived through union with a dead man is a matter for God. My worries will not prejudice the outcome. It is only my prayers that matter.

I pray that my child is healthy. I pray that Winston, Nelson, and even Julia all find peace. I pray that my child will one day be kind to my husband’s memory, and I hope that he, or she is able to forgive us both.

But most of all, I pray that when I die, I don’t come back.

I have seen resurrection, and it is a terrible thing.