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The Trench Digger:
In the week when we remembered those that lost their lives in the Great Wars, I thought I'd put up my tale of rampaging demons and general skulduggery in the trenches of northern France. Enjoy!

The Trench Digger

by Stacey Dighton

 

    “Come on! Put your backs into it, lads!” the sergeant roars. “We’ve got fifty yards of muck left to dig by sundown if Brick Lane’s to get finished any time soon.” There’s a groan from the men of the Queen’s Own Regiment. Our morale is low. These horrifying conditions are enough to turn a soldier’s thoughts to black things. My boots are invisible in the quagmire, consumed by thick, brown porridge. The two pairs of woolen socks I wear to keep my feet warm are wet through, my trousers sodden. I think of Alice and our son, Thomas. I pray he will never have to see this hell on earth. It is beyond comprehension.

    I feel the jab of an elbow in my ribs. It’s Benny Muggs. “This is madness,” he says. “Utter madness. Where are we digging to, anyway?”

    “We’re extending the front line,” I say, the tremor of a fever in my throat.

    “Feels like we’re digging all the way to Italy. Not that I’d mind, of course. A nice bit of sunshine, and all that. Much better than these bloody clouds and that constant drizzle.” He leans over and hocks into the swamp. “I hate France.”

    “I’m sure France hates us too.”

    There’s the rattle of rifle-fire from our left, followed by the unconvincing battle-cry of the men of the fifth battalion. After weeks of waiting, today is their turn. Our chance will come soon enough. I hope the war is over by then. I lost three pals in the last push, barely making it back in one piece myself. My dreams are punctuated with the desperate cries of the dying. Sometimes I still hear them, long after I wake.

    “How you been feeling?” Benny asks. “You know, since—”

    “I’m fine,” I say, although I’m anything but.

    “I hear you’re on watch tonight. Lucky you.”

    I don’t feel lucky at all. I feel cold and hot all at the same time. There is a sickness ravaging through my body. I pray my defenses hold up as well as the Hun’s impenetrable line. Otherwise, I’m for it. And soon, too.

 

***

    Night falls quickly when daylight is little more than an insipid haze. The thick fog and endless grey let very little through. The darkness is almost a relief. I’m huddled into a corner, shivering cold. Sandbags hold the walls together, but the end of the unfinished trench is nothing but a sliding cliff-face of mud and sludge. I clutch my rifle as if it is part of me. I’m left alone to my thoughts. Alice and little Tommy. Alice is with me. She kisses my temples, wipes the cold sweat from my brow with a damp cloth. She draws a blanket around us and holds me to her. I look up, expecting her to be there, but she is gone.

    “You’re hoping mate, aintcha?”

    I turn to face a familiar voice. There can be no-one near me. I am propped with the sandbags at my back, and the wall of mud by my right ear.

    “You ain’t going back, just like we ain’t going back. Ain’t that right boys?”

    “Sounds about right to me.”

    “We’re gonna rot here, William, and more’s the pity.”

    I can’t believe what I’m seeing. There are three faces talking to me, their eyes like pairs of white pebbles in the wall of mud. Their noses and mouths are barely visible, a trio of disembodied heads pressed deep within the dripping clay. It’s as if the dead have forgotten how to die.

    “Eric, Stan?” I cry. My hands are shaking with fear. “This can’t be. I saw you die. Reggie, I watched as the bullet entered your skull. I saw your face shatter like glass.”

    “Well, thank you very much,” Reggie says, brown muck dripping from his eyelids. “We are dead though, aren’t we. Dead as doornails, the three of us.” He leers at me. “But we came back.”

    “Came back? That’s impossible. How—”

    “Never mind that, young Will,” Stan says. “There’s no time to explain.”

    “He’s right. We only came to warn you,” Eric agrees.

    I feel like the fever has taken hold. I’m hallucinating. “Warn me? Of what?”

    “Of your imminent demise,” Reggie says.

    “My demise?” I ask, barely shocked. “You mean, during the next push?”

    “No, nothing like that,” Stan replies. “Although perhaps you’d prefer it.”

    “We’re talking about something else entirely,” Reggie says. “Something far worse.”

    “What could be worse than being riddled with Hun bullets?” I ask.

    “The wild beast of no man’s land,” Stan says. “He’s coming for you, Will. And soon, too.”

    I’ve heard tales of such despicable creatures; shell-shocked deserters who wander aimlessly through the battlefields at night, feasting upon the decomposing carcasses of the fallen.

    “Oh, that is just superstition,” I say. “Senseless rumors spread from mouth to ear by weak minded imbeciles.”

    Eric’s lips are close to me now. I can smell the copper of blood on him, the saltiness of the clay. “I’m afraid you’re mistaken, William,” he whispers. “We’ve seen him. Up close, too.”

    “He ate my foot!” Stan hollers.

    “And my arm! Don’t forget my arm!” Reggie cries.

    “They’re telling the truth,” Eric says. “But alas, rotting meat no longer seems to satisfy the beast’s burgeoning hunger. He craves living flesh now, William. Your living flesh, in fact.”

    I grip my rifle ever tighter.

    The mist has thickened, and the darkness has become a suffocating black. I glance upwards. There’s not a soul at the edge of the trench; human nor beast. I hear a terrible sound that shakes my very core. Clawing, frantic and urgent, the sound of a wild animal scavenging through sodden earth, perhaps desperately searching for some gruesome tidbit. I hope it is merely a figment of my feverish imagination.

    I turn to see that the three faces have dissolved into nothing more than red clay and brown earth. I close my eyes and wish the fever away.

    I dream of Alice.

 

***

 

    I wake to the sound of persistent shelling.

    “Sleeping on the job, Private?” the sergeant yells.

    “Sir!” I stand abruptly and salute. My thoughts are still painted by vivid nightmares. The wild beast visited me in my dreams. I watched in horror as he tore a soldier in two, as easily as one might tear chicken-meat from the bone. “It was just a moment, Sir. Forty winks, no more.”

    “Forty winks are all it takes for the Hun to be upon us, Private!” he hollers. “Congratulations, Davenport! You’ve earned yourself another night on the watch!”

    “But I’m sick,” I blurt out. “I mean, I’m sick, Sir. I’m unwell. I think I may have trench-fever.”

    He holds a hand to my forehead. “Nice try,” he says. “Don’t take me for a fool, son.” He turns and shouts, his neck muscles taut like thick cables. “Soldiers! In line, quick sharp!” Two dozen men appear behind him. “We have a trench to dig, and young Davenport here has volunteered to do the first hour of shoveling, all by himself!”

 

***

 

    “Did you see him?” Reggie asks. “The beast? Did you see him, Will?”

    The black of night has returned to our little cul-de-sac at the end of Brick Lane. I find myself talking to my dead friends once more. The fever has taken an unwavering hold of me now. My body aches, but not from the day’s exertions, of which I carried the heaviest burden.

    “I didn’t see him,” I say. “But thanks to you, he haunted my dreams.”

    “You’d better hope he stays inside your head,” Stan says.

    “You’re all talking gibberish, and I’ll have none of it.” I reach for my tobacco tin and stuff a pinch into the bowl of my pipe. I strike a match.

    “Give us a drag,” Reggie says. “I’ve been aching for baccy since the day I took that bloody bullet. Go on, Will. Be a pal.”

    Feeling like a fool, I reach out and let him wrap his mud-caked lips around the pipe’s stem. He sucks greedily and blows out a billowing cloud of smoke. I don’t pause to consider how that can be. My fever is bringing these strange visions to me.

    “Take a look,” Eric says. “Over the top. I’ll wager you’ll see him out there, probably just beyond the line of wire.”

    “I’ve already looked through the box periscope,” I snipe. “There’s nothing.”

    “Those contraptions are useless,” Eric sneers. “You can barely make out a flash of gunfire, let alone the sight of something roaming around in the mist and the dark. You need to use your eyes, William. Stick your head up and have a real look.”

    “I’ll do no such thing!” I holler. “Do you take me for a fool, Eric? I’d quickly find my head stuck in that mud-wall with the three of you.”

    “Oh, come on, Will. Just a little peek,” Stan says.

    “Stay away from me!” I yell, angered by their spiteful goading. “I don’t believe anything you’ve told me, and I will not be risking my head to prove to myself what I already know to be true.”

    “Suit yourself,” Stan says. “But don’t say we didn’t warn you.”

    I draw on my pipe, but I’m interrupted by the sound of a hateful snarl from somewhere overhead. It’s both primeval and haunting. I feel my feverish blood turn cold.

    “He is here,” Eric utters. “He is upon us.”

    I cannot speak. I let my pipe fall to the floor. Smoldering tobacco spills around my feet. I watch as the three faces gradually retreat into the clay. I feel my head starting to shake from side to side. I do not want to see, but part of me cannot look away. There is another snarl, this time much closer. I stand and grip the edge of the trench-ladder. It is as if I am being pulled forward by an unseen hand. My boot hovers over the first rung, and I haul myself upwards. There is nothing but mist and darkness above me, but I have to look. My head is now just an inch below the top of the wall. I adjust my tin-pan hat. I can sense him there, the wild beast. I can smell the rotten stench of his breath, the festering meat in his belly.

    “Just a peek,” I say to myself. “No more.”

    My helmet rises sheepishly above the edge of the trench, my eyes now at ground level. No man’s land is deserted, save for the decaying remains of fallen soldiers. My spirit friends have lied to me. There is no beast. What a fool I have been. Just as I am about to descend the trench ladder, I spy something emerging from within the mist. It is bounding towards me like a dog, but this isn’t a dog. It is far too big. Six feet tall, its uniform torn and hanging. Blood pours from its face and body. Its expression is of unsated rage and burning desire. I cry out in unbridled terror.

    My voice alerts the Hun, and there is a rattle and a sharp flash of light in the distance. The bullet strikes my helmet, knocking it from my head. I fall backwards, my arms flailing. My skull strikes hard wood. Unconsciousness comes like a dark veil.

 

***

 

    I am in the Aid Post, thankfully some way back from the front line. The doctor says I have a concussion, a mild fever and some sort of gash across my chest.

    “A day’s rest, and you’ll be back at it,” he says. I’m disappointed. I was hoping for a medical discharge.

    “You okay, William my boy?” It’s Benny Muggs. He has a bandage around his hand.

    “What did you do?” I ask, pointing at it.

    “Cut myself with a saw. The sergeant had me putting up joists in the dugout to keep the ceiling from caving in. Some bugger told him I used to be a carpenter.”

    “Obviously not a very good one,” I say, smiling.

    “You were nearly a goner there, old son. If only the Hun had a better aim, eh?”

    “I suppose you’re right.” I’m thinking about the doctor, and his assertion that my fever is merely a mild one. I wonder how that can be. Surely these hallucinations, these nightmares, can only be the result of my soaring body temperature.

    “Did you hear?” he asks, leaning towards me.

    “About what?”

    “About Lenny Mitchell.”

    Lenny is a private in the second battalion. “What about him?”

    “Murdered,” he says, his voice barely a whisper.

    “What?” I sit upright on my bunk. “By whom?”

    “By whom, exactly. Or by what?”

    “How do you mean?”

    “The scene was a real mess, or so Arthur Nipper told me. There was blood everywhere. Poor old Lenny. His body was mutilated, ravaged, his innards spilled all over the floor. It was like someone or something had taken chunks out of him.”

    I feel my breakfast rising in my throat. “I don’t believe it.”

    “You haven’t heard the worst part,” Benny says.

    “There’s more?”

    He grimaces. “Lenny’s head.”

    I’m shaking now. “What about it?”

    “Well, that’s just it. We don’t know.” The lights flicker overhead as Benny’s face darkens. “It’s gone.”

 

***

 

    Despite my protestations, that evening the sergeant relieves me from my post. I head back to the dugout, grab my recovered pipe and stride over to Brick Lane. I must speak to the others.

    “I’ll take a shift if you want a break,” I say to my replacement, Joe Parker.

    “You sure?” he says. “Didn’t you just get shot?”

    “No, they missed me by a hair.” I usher him away. The fever is even worse today. When I stand up, I see stars, but when I sit down, I feel faint. The doctor gave me a red liquid to drink, but I suspect it contains opiates of some sort. The visions have become even more surreal than before. Alice visited me today, but her hair was black and straggly, and her curled lip revealed the bloodied fang of a wolf.

    “Well, we did try to tell you about him,” Reggie says. “But you wouldn’t believe us, would you?”

    “Go easy on him, boys,” Eric chimes in. “He’s taken a bang to the head.”

    “I will admit,” I say, puffing on my pipe for courage. “I did see something, but I cannot say what it was.”

    “It was him,” Reggie says. “The wild beast of no man’s land.”

    “He was here with us last night,” Stan adds. “He must have thought you were dead, because he passed right over you.”

    I shudder at the thought of that ravenous monster being mere inches from my unconscious body. It could have been me, not Lenny Mitchell, having my head torn from my shoulders.

    “I have to stop him,” I mutter under my breath.

    “He can’t be stopped,” Eric retorts.

    “There must be a way!” I cry. “There has to be.”

    Reggie’s eyes widen. “Well, maybe—"

    “Hush your mouth, Reg,” Eric says. “That way is far too dangerous.”

    “Tell me,” I plead. “I must know.”

    “It won’t help,” Eric says.

    “Let me be the judge of that.”

    “Okay then,” he hisses. “If you insist, but you won’t like it. You have to go where he lives.”

    I feel my eyes widen in terror. I couldn’t think of anything more petrifying. “Where he lives? And where on God’s earth would that be?”

    “As I said, you won’t like it.”

    “Try me.”

    “It’s a disused dugout at the eastern end of the trench.”

    “The trench? You mean, he’s right here?”

    Eric shakes his head. “Not this trench. Their trench. The Hun.”

    I can barely believe what I’m hearing.

    “You’ve got to be joking!” I cry. “You want me to walk across no man’s land, just like that, and what? Go to where thousands of enemy soldiers are sleeping?”

    “It’s the only way,” Reggie says.

    I suck furiously on my pipe and wait for my racing heart to steady. I glance to my left and spy Alice sitting next to me, little Tommy in her arms. She is shaking her head, pleading with me not to listen to them, but how can I not? The wild beast is coming for me, I know that now. If I want to see my wife and son again, I must confront my nemesis. That night in bed, the beast lies with me, his breath hot on the nape of my neck.

    “Tomorrow night,” I say in my dreams. “I’ll do it tomorrow.”

 

***

 

    The next day, we dig almost a hundred yards of trench, but it’s slow going. The soil here is filled with hard flint and twisted roots. It hampers our progress. When we return to the dugout, my arms are aching and my back is bent and sore. Alice is with me every minute of every day now. The fever too. I feel like I’m burning up, as if a coal fire is roaring inside of me, but I know I cannot relent. The beast must be killed.

    “They found another,” Benny says. “Pete Webber. His head was missing too.”

    “Did anyone see anything?” I ask.

    Benny shakes his head, unaware that my wife is sitting between us. “No, but they heard it. Apparently, Pete cried out ‘it’s you’, as if he knew his attacker, but by the time help arrived, he was gone.” He shudders. “It gives me the chills.”

    My resolve is more steadfast than ever. I go at midnight.

 

***

    I am ready. Once more I am at the dead-end of Brick Lane. My three friends are there. They wish me luck.

    “God speed,” Eric says. “May the Lord protect you.”

    “I’ll need more than the Lord,” I reply, as I haul myself over the top.

    I am instantly consumed by the desolation of no man’s land. Pausing to get my bearings, I crawl on my belly towards the barbed wire fence. I have my cutters, my rifle, fixed with a heavy bayonet, my trench knife and a pistol. My face and hands are smeared in mud. I aim to crawl to the eastern corner of the German trench unnoticed. It’s a long shot, but it’s all I have.

    I pass by one of my fallen friends. His body is torn in two by heavy artillery. I kiss my hand and place it to his forehead. Alice is beside me in the mud, but she has not a hint of dirt on her. She caresses my face as I reach for the wire-cutters. A sharp barb pierces my skin, but I do not cry out. I cannot. Alice kisses the wound.

    I hear a growl in the distance. I know it’s him.

    “There’s no going back now,” I whisper. Despite the fever, my hands are not shaking, and my mind is clear.

    Inch by inch, foot by foot, I creep towards the enemy camp. By some miracle, the Hun have not yet seen me. Either they are sleeping or blind, but I have crossed more than half the distance between us without being spotted.

    Another growl, this time a forlorn cry of anguish. The beast is hungry, but I cannot let him be fed tonight.

    I approach a group of fallen men. These soldiers wear the insignia of the Kaiser. Their bodies show signs of decay, but there is something else too. There are great torn chunks missing from them, as if they’ve been the victims of mad dogs or hyenas. I know it is the work of the beast. I crawl past them, fighting the urge to vomit. Alice is ahead of me now. She is showing me the way.

    It feels like I have been crawling this way in the mud for mere minutes, but my stopwatch tells me it has been some hours. I hurry my pace. I must reach the trench before daybreak. I spy two German soldiers. They are the lookouts. I hope their gaze does not fall my way. I see where I am headed now. Alice hovers above it like an angel. She pulls me towards her.

    “He is here,” she says, soundless.

    I smell him. His stench is putrid. The odor of him infects the mist.

I sense you,” he says, from within my head. “I know you’re coming for me, but you will not make it to sunrise.”

    Ignoring his attempt to unsettle me, I lower myself into the trench. I am silent, like a ghost. Fog leaps from my lips. The air is bitter cold down here. The end of the trench is deserted, the walls are just mud and stone. It seems the Hun have been extending their network too.

    “He’s in there,” Reggie says. The faces of my three friends emerge from within the trench wall. For once I am pleased to see them. “He may be sleeping.”

    “Maybe he’s not,” Stan adds. “Either way, you have to go in.”

    “Don’t worry, I’m going,” I say, but my voice is unconvincing.

    I hold my rifle like a spear, the bayonet thrust forward. I push open a wooden door with its tip. There are stone steps leading to God only knows where. I hold my breath and enter.

    The corridor is narrow, the stairs steep. I feel claustrophobic and nauseous. There is the hint of lantern-light from some way down. I can hear the beast’s heavy breathing.

Come in,” he says. “But hurry. I haven’t got all night.

    I know it’s a trap, but it’s one that I cannot avoid. I can feel my racing pulse in my neck and fingertips. There is the taste of salt and metal in my mouth. I fight the urge to turn and run, but I don’t think I have the energy to climb the stairs.

    I reach the bottom. The door on my right stands open. I peek inside, half expecting the beast to pounce and tear my windpipe from my trembling throat. There is a bed in the center of the room, a slim double, with a lace covered quilt. The pillows are white. There is a dressing table. Alice sits in front of it. She is perched on a stool. Thomas is feeding at her breast.

    “My love!” I cry in a hushed whisper. “What are you doing here? You must take our son and leave this very second!”

    She looks up and raises a finger to her lips. She smiles, revealing blackened teeth.

    “I don’t understand,” I say.

    “I am hungry,” the beast says from inside my head. “I must be fed.

    I study the room. The corner farthest from me is cast in impenetrable shadows.

    “You will not be feeding on us tonight, you monster,” I cry, and aim my rifle.

    “You’re mistaken,” he says. “I have no intention of feeding on you, or my family.

    “Your family?” I holler. “This is my family. My wife and my newborn child. They should be at home, in Faversham, away from this hellish place. Away from you.”

    “But my boy, do you not already know?” he asks. “We are already in Faversham. Is this not your wife’s bedroom? Is this not the house that you both share?

    My mind is scrambled. I look at the walls, at the pictures hanging there. There is a photograph of the two of us. It was taken on our wedding day, just a year before I left for France. We look so happy. Our wardrobe door stands open. My suit still hangs there. A mirror stands against the wall. I see my reflection. I am dressed in a white shirt and freshly pressed trousers. My face is clean.

    “I tried to prevent it,” the beast says. “But she was resolute. You have been gone so long. Your letters never arrived, and with no word from you, she thought you were dead. The baby wouldn’t stop crying and she had no one to help her. She felt so isolated, so alone.”

    “Reveal yourself!” I shout, tears now streaming from my eyes. “Reveal yourself, goddamn you!”

    “You are looking at me,” he says. “Just as you are looking at your own reflection.”

    I drop the rifle and reach for a lantern, its wick still holding a flame. I must see him. I must face the beast. I hold it at arms’ length and approach the darkened corner. His breath is coming faster now, his growl urgent and repetitive. Little by little, the gloom retreats from the light. I see bare feet, floating just inches from the ground. The beast must have powers of levitation. I edge closer still. I see legs now. They are not as I expected, not thick or covered in black hair as I had thought. Grey veins are visible beneath the skin, mottled with dark blotches. I edge closer again, and now I see a thin waist, the silk of a petticoat. My breath catches in my throat. I see the beast’s hands. They are thin and frail, the fingers delicate. I see a—

    —a ring. My wife’s wedding ring. As knowing infects me like a blossoming disease, I fall to my knees. I know this beast, like I know each line in my own face. The sound of sobbing comes from within the darkness, but I realize it is just an echo. I gradually stand and raise the lantern to the creature’s face. My heart explodes. A rope grips her neck, the other end tied to a rafter. Death paints her stare. Her skin is silver and hard like wax. Her once petite face is now bloated and swollen. I scream. This is my Alice. My love.

    I turn and flee as the ghosts of my past reach for me with pallid fingers. I must get to England. I must. This cannot be true.

    A Hun soldier stands in the open doorway. I reach for my pistol and fire. The man’s head snaps back, and I kick him away. Blood dapples my uniform. Two more soldiers block my path. I shoot one in the chest and stab the other in the gut with my trench knife. More blood, this time on my face and hands.

    “I must get to her!” I scream. “I must get to my wife!

    I scramble over the edge of the trench and drag myself across the mud and debris. I stand and peer into the gloom. The sun is slowly peeking over the horizon. It stains the low cloud with a milky smear. I hear rifle-fire from behind me and I run. Bullets strike the earth at my feet. The Hun cry out in a language I do not understand. My only thought is for Alice and my son.

    I feel the warmth of the fresh blood on my hands, the fire of the fever on my brow. Bullets hit the fallen soldiers, their torsos jerking and spasming as if alive. I run as though I have the devil at my heels. I am crying; crying in fear and crying for my Alice. My beautiful love, hanging from a rope like some slab of cheap meat. It can’t be. I refuse to believe it. My arms are pumping, my feet slipping and sliding in mud and water.

    I spy our trench in the distance. I’m nearly there. I think I might even make it. I drag myself through the barbed wire, foregoing the cutters. The sharp tangs bite angrily at my clothes and face. Blood pours from my cheeks and forehead. I don’t care. I must get to her.

    “It’s him!” someone cries.

    “Yes! Yes, it’s me!” I call back.

    “It’s the beast!” another yells.

    The beast? Could I truly be that vile monster? My mind revisits my dreams. The soldier being torn in two. The unexplained gash on my chest. Pete Webber, who knew his attacker.

    “No, I—”

    “He’s the one I saw in the dugout, pulling old Pete’s head from his neck,” someone shouts. “He’s a vicious, murdering animal. Don’t let him back in here!”

    “They say they found their heads underneath his bunk!” another soldier cries.

    “What, both of ‘em?” another asks.

    “Yep, and a cupful of human blood too.”

    I recognize the voice of Benny Muggs. “I told you he’d lost his marbles, didn’t I?”

    I ignore him and run towards home with the wind at my back. A hail of German bullets tear at the soil behind me. I see Alice once more. She floats before me, just up ahead. The rope from her neck has disappeared. She beckons me.

    Come to me, my love, I hear her say. Come home to me, my darling.

    “I’m coming!” I cry. “I’m coming for you!”

    “Did you hear that?” a soldier yells. “He says he’s coming for us, lads. Are we gonna just stand here and do nothing?”

    “Not likely!” another shouts. “I say we let him have it!”

    “Let’s be the ones who rid France of this wild beast of no man’s land!”

    I hear the sound of rifles being loaded, and the shuffle of a dozen pairs of feet at the edge of the trench. I stop and hold my hands up in surrender. What is the use? They believe me to be a danger to them. I cannot convince them otherwise. Perhaps they’re right. Alice is by my side. I can feel her arm at my waist. She turns her head to face me. She is all that I remember, and yet so much more.

    When the bullets hit me, I don’t feel any pain. When my knees buckle beneath me, it feels like I’m falling into the ocean. When my body hits the damp earth, it’s like I am back at home, lying next to my love. She is still there with me when a volley of gunfire punctures me from head to toe.

    I have vanquished the beast. The war is won.

THE END

Copyright asserted by Stacey Dighton 2023

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