fiction

Men of Honor

We used to laugh and say that it was impossible to imagine Danny as an old man.

We laughed and called him “reckless.” Laughed and said he was “begging for death.” Laughed and called him “bachelor,” “the infinite youth.” The boy who was at once with every woman and never with a single one. Surely, gray would never pepper the scraggly blond head of my brother Danny.

Back then, back in our Oxford days, all of our lives were so very quiet. We marched slowly, calmly, and quietly towards business or law or Parliament. Danny enjoyed making a little noise along the road. He liked to rattle our bones a bit, push us a bit. But looking back at it now, it wasn’t really “noise.” Danny’s version of “the quiet life” just happened to look a little bit different from the rest of ours.

It was quiet to him, I think. But I suppose all lives begin so quiet. Our lives certainly did. As little boys, we played quietly in the creeks and listened to our mother yell at us. And though we looked exactly alike, somehow, Danny had a different sort of aura about him. An aura that demanded leadership and incited a sense of adventure in everyone he interacted with.

The first and loudest noise – though I didn’t realize then that it was noise – came from Dr. Kent. Danny and I were in his history class together. Dr. Kent was not the only one old man to contribute to the growing sea of noise, but his voice occupied the most space in our imaginations. So charismatically, he told us stories of the great warriors of old, of the adventure that is war, of the honor and glory that could be ours if we enlisted.

“You, young men,” he proclaimed, “have a chance that I do not. You have a chance to be men of honor.”

We sat, quiet, as we listened to our professor preach. Loudly, his lips bled bombastic stories of glory and honor and God and king and country. Quietly, we absorbed his fatherly “wisdom” and drank his words like fine wine. Dr. Kent’s words enthralled Danny the most out of any of us and they seemed to bring out something buried inside him, some secret desperation to be more than “the reckless boy.” Perhaps in battle, he could be dashing youth and man of honor.

“Enlist, Charlie,” he said to me. “We’ll do it together. We’ll fight together at the front for the glory of England.”

Quietly, I followed him. I always followed him my brother, good Danny. I thought war was our  time, our chance to shed winded youth and become a men of honor. And surely, if Danny believed the war righteous, we could trust him.

There was, even back then, something inside of me. Something I could not verbalize, that I could not admit to Danny and certainly could not admit to myself. I assured myself it was not fear… It couldn’t be fear… for “men of honor have the hearts of lions,” “men of honor have no fear.” And how I wanted to be a man of honor, so I stifled the feeling and I listened to Dr. Kent and the rest of the bearded old men.

“Men of honor die with honor, for even to die,” they all told us, “would be an awfully big adventure.”

When we told our father that we planned to enlist, he gave a curt nod, perhaps the greatest honor he had ever given Danny and me.

“I would expect nothing less from my sons,” he said, sounding strangely pleased with himself. “My boys will be men of honor.”

Danny spoke so many words sometimes that he began to sound quite like Dr. Kent. But I always listened intently. Soon, more voices joined Dr. Kent’s. “Fight for England! Be men of honor!”

And quietly, we followed. Followed old men who we assumed knew best, followed the officers we assumed were lion-hearted. Followed our families, our country, all the way to the front and down into trenches. But it seemed strange that the people we followed did not join us there.

Quiet indeed were all the uniform boys. Quiet indeed were we “men of honor.”

I no longer remember what “quiet” sounds like.

***

It always seemed so dark in the trenches, even in daylight. The civilians liked to call us “brave” and yet it seemed such an odd way to describe us when we spent so much time hiding in trenches, like little rats scavenging in the sewers of London.

I looked down at my boots which were a few inches deep in the mud and manure and I missed sewers.

A loud CRASH pierced my moment of quiet.

“GAAAAAS!!!” We heard the shriek and instinctively fumbled as quickly as we could for our gas masks.

Don’t panic. I thought to myself. Don’t panic. Don’t panic. Stop and get down. Stop and get down. Stop and – CRASH!!!

Something fell and crashed down near us and I couldn’t tell what. I never knew what. I didn’t care what.

Shriek – commands – Danny, I think. That shriek sounded familiar. But I had to put it out of my thoughts while I scrambled.

Stop and get down. Stop and get down.

I found the rest of our unit. I found guns. And I aimed and I fired and I think I hit someone and I think it was someone that I was supposed to hit. I think. But I don’t know for sure.

I heard German shrieks, too. I only knew they were German because I heard one of them shouting in German. It sounded like German. But the sound of my own breath was so loud that I couldn’t say anything for sure. I never felt safe in masks. I feared I would suffocate. I feared the mustard gas would seep through some imperceptible crack in my mask and put its claws down my throat and into my lungs and there would be no escaping.

I chose to not think of my brother. That seemed to be the primary objective at the front: stop. get down. shoot. don’t think. Thinking is too much. If we thought for even a moment the noise of our own thoughts might drown us.

Suddenly, I saw a figure come scrambling around the corner, but I would never have known it was Danny if he hadn’t been shrieking. I could not see his face or his body behind the man dragging him, I could only hear his shrieks.

“Danny!” I cried out. But there was no reply as a few of our men forced his compromised face into a mask. I wanted to run to him but someone was holding me back. I couldn’t say who. We all looked the same in those damn masks.

I don’t remember that night very well, at least, not that night in particular. I remember flashes. I remember crashing and shrieking and seeing a boy without a leg or an arm that I think was a friend but I couldn’t tell at the time. It was a friend, I found out later. But there were many nights like that and they soon became indistinguishable from one another.

I met Danny later in the hospital ward. I looked into his boil-covered face as he coughed and spat and moaned.

“You’re going to be okay, Danny,” I said over and over and over. Even without the boils, as I looked in his now finely-etched face, I knew I would never have recognized him as Danny. How he looked so like an old man. Gray had begun to invade his blond hair, what was left of it. I wondered if I looked like that.

The officers told me I had to return to the front. Danny was asleep when I left and the nurses told me that he needed to rest and I’d see him once he recovered. They assured me that he would recover and I’d see him again. And I was naive and I trusted them. So I quietly marched back to the front.

***

I suppose I am lucky for ever seeing the other side of the trenches. That’s how I’m supposed to feel, at least.

It seems so odd the way that no one else can hear the noise. No one except my fellow servicemen. The civilians were grateful for the end of the war. I know it did wear heavily upon them all, too. But I look into their eyes and I find that there is something inside them that I can no longer discern, a quality of civilians that alienates me from them.

It seems strange to me. The way I can hear things that they cannot.

For a time, I assumed it was me. But I realize now that it was never I who could not understand. It was them, in their naivety. In their sweet, sickening naivety. They, who had sent us off for God knows why. And at night, as I sleep, in each cannon, each gunshot, each shell that explodes, I hear Danny’s youthful voice.

“Enlist, Charlie!” “Let’s enlist, Charlie!” “For the glory of England, Charlie!”

I will not describe it. I will not describe what it is to see him each night, to hear his voice, to watch –

There are nights when I see him and I awake and I shake and –

You see, for all the strife that exists in this world, no one can understand. Certainly not a professor or an officer. Only the boys who marched so quietly to the front at the command of our noisy superiors, and when we do see one another, if ever, the last subject any of us ever want to speak of is the front. Because our lives are noisy enough. We can’t speak of –

We still hear the guns ring in our ears and we still hear our bastard officers and professors and parents and families yelling at us to “BE MEN OF HONOR.”

I saw Dr. Kent one day in London, a few years after the war had ended. He asked me how I was. I said I was all right. He asked me how Danny was.

“Dead,” I said.

I rather liked the way he looked as if someone had punched him. “I am so sorry.” I did not reply. He looked up to the sky and away from my eyes and said in a disgustingly dignified sort of way “Danny… Danny died a man of honor.”

My vision of Dr. Kent was momentarily obscured with red as every lecture he had ever given rushed back into my consciousness, as I thought of his rhetoric which had pushed my brother and I and all the young boys to the brink of hell. How we had respected them, those wretched men who sent their own sons to die. My pulse suddenly roared across my ears so noisily. My heart raced and I felt blood rush to the tips of my fingers and my hands felt they might explode in irritation if I did not slap him. I imagined myself tackling him to the ground and disfiguring his facial bones and screaming at him to “fight like a man of honor” –

But instead, I nodded and I politely continued the conversation with my fists balled tight. We spoke of nothing, really. I refused to speak of anything of substance. I bid him “goodbye” and was about to leave, but I suddenly heard a chillingly familiar crash off in the distance.

No, not the crash of shells. Not the crash of shells… it’s not real it’s not real… the war is over the war is over it’s not real… the London street fills with noise it’s not real it’s not real the war is over remember the war something falls out of the sky “GAAAAAAS” shriek click BOOM “MASKS ON” where is my mask where is my mask I reach for it it’s not there where is my “CHARLIE GET UP CHARLIE” arms grabbing me I claw at them you won’t take me you won’t where’s my gun where’s my mask CRASH “STOP GET DOWN” so much noise where is Danny where is there he is he’s not wearing a mask DANNY MASK ON MASK ON he can’t hear me he needs to hear me where’s my mask “GAAAAAAS” “DANNY” click BOOM  –

***

Each night I lay my head down and I shake. There are nights when I lie awake and I cover my ears and it doesn’t help. There are nights when I lie awake and I curse the names of the old men like Dr. Kent and my father who betrayed their sons.

And there are still darker nights when I wonder if Danny was perhaps the lucky one.

He is free… free of them… free of noise… free of shells and gas and crashing… Danny lives a quiet life. How I long for that… long for quieter –

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