A nameless war, a Nameless boy.
She waited for me to go through, blocking out the light from the door like a mountain. For a second I hesitated, terrified, then she stepped into the tent and to the bunk next to mine. She put her things down, not looking at anyone or saying a thing, but the men behind me laughed.
“ Oh ho!” a big guy called out. “We got us a girl. I heard they were using ‘em but I aint never thought I’d get one in my own damn platoon.” He chuckled. He had an awful accent; it scratched like a false note in my ears. As he watched her lean over to unpack her things, she stopped for a second to bear him a glance, and then carried on.
“ An’ silent too? Too much to ask for!” he laughed his bawdy laugh, glancing at his two companions. They laughed along but they didn’t seem to find him that funny.
This time she stopped straightened and looked at him squarely. I suddenly didn’t want to be between them, and I moved a step back.
“ Well done, you figured it out without any help. But I am part of this platoon as a lieutenant, not a gender. I’d appreciate it if you got that into your thick skull, so that we can all be friends as soon as possible.” She spoke softly, but her brown eyes were very dark. This caused him to burst into raucous laughter, but his friends weren’t grinning now. In fact, they were ignoring our side of the tent.
“Now, we don’t want a little cat fight, do we?” he sneered.
“ Of course not.” She said with a sour grin. I tried to back away further, but my bunk stopped me. The panic crept higher.
“Just a soldier huh?” he asked as he sidled towards her.
“ Yes, as long as I'm here.” She said, sounding weary.
“While you’re here.” He repeated, he put his hands behind his back with all too much nonchalance. She said nothing as he watched him lean insolently against her bunk.
He looked side-long at her, and said with a leer. “And while ya aint on duty?”
His hand dashed out to grab her exposed waist, but she was faster, knocking his hand away and punching him calmly but savagely in the stomach. He bent over groaning and she laid a hand on his head, grabbed a fist full of hair and thrusting his face up to meet hers.
“ You think I don’t know assholes like you? Outside and in?” she said with the same expressionless voice and face. “And as long as were being non-gender specific; men are all the same.” She let him go and turned back to her unpacking while he seethed next to her.
“Aint you the little bi-“he said through gritted teeth but was cut off as the tent darkened again. It was our mountainous captain who blocked the light out this time.
“ Attention!” he shouted. Five pairs of military boots slammed together in salute. He entered and walked along the line we had hastily formed. First the two friends, then me, then the guy who was having trouble standing up straight, and then her. He stopped and looked at her thoughtfully.
“Lt. White?” he asked.
“Yes sir!” she replied immediately.
“ I expect good things from you.” He said.
“ Yes sir!” she replied again.
He left it there and proceeded to walk back along the line, then paused at me.
“ Private Jackson?” he asked me.
I froze, complete confusion and fear slamming into me. I stood for what seemed like an hour while his little black eyes stared at me, and then he raised his eyebrows.
“ Yes, sir!” I bellowed, my voice breaking as I bellowed the words. He leaned away and covered his ear as if to shield it. He walked away, finally, and began to speak in heavy words.
“ I know the new rules don’t sit well with some of the camps. This will not be one of those camps!” he shouted some more. “In this war we see no gender, colour or age. “
He looked at me. “No prejudice, bias or preference. We see only the enemy and they see targets. You got any problems with that, lump it ‘coz no-one gives a shit.” The captain spit at the ground next to him. “Any one of this platoon could save your life someday.
See you at 09:00 tomorrow, sharp.” He left the tent, and the light came back, too bright.
Everyone eased the second he left, and I took my cue from them. That guy walked passed me, shooting a malevolent glare at her, not that she was looking.
“First kids, and now letting the bitches’ in.” he grumbled while the two men who had been his companions previously, ignored him.
I stepped out of the way as he passed and felt a desperate urge to tidy my bunk area. I was terrified of him. And her. And everything else. I didn’t know what to think about the camp or my being here. I suddenly felt sick and turned to leap away, out, to freedom.
But I saw her, and my stomach froze.
That night, I remembered being yanked out of school with my friends and sent off to train for war two weeks before. I didn’t sleep. I kept remembering the smell of the inside of the car that drive me from my house, dusty and stale.
It was the end of our second mission when she first spoke to me.
I lay in a mud hole, while more mud rained around me. Every now and then I would imagine I had enough bravery to lean over the top of my mud hole and shoot in the vague direction of the enemy with my rifle. But I would always lower it again and stare at it as if it were some huge, heavy alien.
The captain thudded down behind me, reloading as he did so. The snapping of bullets in my ears was horrible but I couldn’t do anything. The dark night and the cold and the uncontrollable shivering were too much. I tried to lift my gun again without lifting my head, but my grip slipped from the trigger and it slid to the ground. I stared at it, afraid it would suddenly go off if I tried to pick it up, when the captain bumped into me. I flinched and scrambled in the mud for it when he practically rolled over me. He swivelled his head around to see what the problem was.
“ Why aren’t you shooting private?” he roared over the noise of enemy fire.
I didn’t get the chance to answer since he had turned back and resumed battle. I snatched up the gun. For the first time I pulled the trigger, but only managed one bone jarring shot. The shock of it hit the bone of my hand so hard I cried out and dropped it.
I didn’t get time to brave another shot, a bomb landed almost right next to me. All I heard was noise and my vision was the brown of mud. When the sounds of regular fire returned, I realised I was struggling to breathe, but not only from shock. A huge weight was pressing down on my body. For a second I thought I’d been half buried, but it was the captain. I shuffled out from under him and let his body flop into where I had been.
What I saw made me scream.
His entire face and part of his neck had been blown away, and blood glinted darkly under the clinging dirt, all that was left of his face was a fleshy mess. In my heightened state of fear I noticed every little detail; the glimpse of brain that winked out at me, bone fragments bright, bloody red.
I curled into a tight ball and tried to shut out the horrifying world. What were they thinking when they put me here, sixteen years old for heaven’s sake! A month ago I was collecting bottle tops! What am I doing trying to fight this huge horrible war? Why am I not at home, where it’s safe and quiet and there are no dead people trying to bury the living…
I snivelled further into my ball and ignored the loud realities around me, trying to remember sweeter times, with long summers and baseball and…
“Private! Private!” A voice yelled through the fog of noise. I didn’t want to listen.
“ Private! Answer me now!” the voice screamed.
My head lifted stiffly and I saw the lieutenant looking angrily at my from the next mud hole.
“ Private get here now!” she yelled at me.
I managed to stare at her in terror, but no more. I had been cast in stone.
She seemed to exclaim in frustration, and in the next moment she had leapt into my trench. She skidded in the mud and crouched low. Moving closer she was hindered by the captains dead body. She pushed the deformed corpse away like something vaguely bothersome and climbed towards me with angry determination.
“ Why aren’t you shooting, you imbecile?” she demanded as she used the captain’s discarded magazine to replenish her supply.
I didn’t answer but kept staring at her dumbly, as if she were a novelty item. She cocked the gun and positioned herself to shoot, her face in harsh lines.
“ For goodness sake, get under me.” She said, disgust in her voice, and yanked me to her. I automatically unfurled and let myself be bundled under her. The shooting continued and I felt the jarring of her shots through her. I didn’t feel protected at all, but I sat there shivering. It was ages until we moved out of there, and I lay there the whole time, still as rock, hands between my legs and eyes wide open.
When we reached rendezvous point, she put me up against a tree, roughly, and I slid to the ground. There were other platoons there, some laughing or cooking their meagre rations, some silent and smoking. A cigarette floated around our platoon, from Lt. Trent (who had that first day flirted with her) to another and then to her. She let it hang in her mouth while she did something to her gun. I tried not to look at her but I couldn’t look away. After a few puffs she took out the sad cigarette and offered it to me, without looking. I was about to shake my head, when she said something instead.
“You’d do well to take it, Private." anger quivered in her voice. “After that pathetic mess in the field today, you really need to show some fucking balls.”
She still didn’t look at me, her one hand still fixing the weapon pushing it against her stomach and making it clack, the other holding out the cigarette. I felt a surge of unfamiliar anger and snatched it shaking, almost dropping it. I thoughtlessly brought it to my mouth and inhaled too deeply. It was ages before I stopped hacking enough to hear the laughter of the men around us.
There was a time, six months later, and we were at a stake out. Our new captain, sitting a foot away from us, detached, told us our mission with disinterest.
The platoon were silent, each lost in their own thoughts. The morning mist curled in under the bridge where we hid. It was a rare time of quiet, if not peace.
“Hey Belinda, tell us a ghost story. “ Lt. Trent called out to black woman who had joined us on the last run, the rest of her own platoon dead.
“Fuck off, John. “She retorted, un-phased, her African accent obvious and clear. Trent chuckled, like the idiot he was. Trent was a great shot and a hard target, but still in my opinion, an idiot.
Although in past months, everyone, even Trent, had formed a delicate respect for her. Lt. White I mean. She was never ‘Tracy’, always ‘Lieutenant.’, even though everyone else was called by their first names. No one bothered her anymore and she got no more gaff about being a woman. It was more than that though. There were even times in battle when we turned to her instead of the captain, who either didn’t care or didn’t notice. I think it was because everyone realised that even if she wasn’t a captain, she was a leader.
She seemed completely un-interested in this, as if she expected no less, not that she ever demanded it. She accepted it wordlessly, or barely noticed.
She hardly spoke, but if she wasn’t fixing her artillery, she would be chuckling with someone, or smoking a cigarette by herself. I looked up to see her finish reassembling her gun. Then I turned to see the rubble of buildings which had been caught by the fists of war. The morning mist made everything insubstantial, but not unreal enough.
It also made it cold. I took out my pack and relit a hastily made cigarette I hadn’t finished last time. I sucked in the gas gratefully and breathed out a huge cloud. It had been about a month since id last been able to get tobacco.
I saw her again. She’d propped her arms out onto her knees and her head lolled back against the brickwork behind her, eyes shut. She opened them to look at me, expressionless.
From my vantage point, I made a slight jerk of the hand holding the cigarette, an offering. She closed her eyes in assent and we both leaned forward to meet halfway. She dragged on it gracelessly and we sat in silence.
“Do you think you’re all grown up now, private?” she said at a volume only I could hear.
It startled me. Then she grinned, looking out. “Ah well, you haven’t done too badly.”
I said nothing, but felt a very vague, far away happiness at the praise. We sat there for a time, in our comfortable silence, until a distant rumbling told us it was time to move. She handed the stump back to me as we stood and I took one last drag before I stamped it out under my foot. She looked questioningly at me and I shrugged. “Habit.” I said, “Although a fire might help.”
She smirked and slung the gun over her shoulder, then listened to the captain’s quick orders.
The last I saw her, was the day I’d been a soldier for maybe a year. I don’t keep good track of time. The troop collapsed into a nearby trench, many dragging themselves. We’d been caught by surprise and had spent the last hour getting ourselves out of the hazard zone. Many men were already lost from the wounds I could see. My left shoulder fountained blood, but our jittery medic managed to stem it with a bandage. I pushed my gun over to my other shoulder and set out to lend a hand.
Even as I saw, I knew Trent was dead. Six shots to the ribs and a broken leg. All it took was time.
“What yaw doing, Patty?” he rasped as I worked on him.
“Just a bit of fixin’” I replied as cheerfully as I could.
His hand stopped mine “Don’t waste ‘em on me. Go see Lt. Tracy.” He said through gritted teeth.
I did as he bid. I did not want to watch him die.
She was propped up against a soggy wall, eyes closed, breath shallow. Blood oozed from the side of her neck and her knee. From the flow on her neck I could see a major vessel had been nicked. Her kneecap was probably shattered and other injuries made themselves more obvious the more I looked.
“Mills! Get over here.” I yelled for our medic. He scuttled over, stumbling over others, and immediately examined her. He looked panicky, but that was normal so I wasn’t sure.
“Well?” I snapped.
His head swung around to look at me with watery blue eyes. He was twenty-one but he looked thirteen.
“I… I… can’t… don’t…” he stammered, clearly afraid of me. But I knew what he meant.
“Go away.” I ordered.
He looked reproachful but went in a hurry anyway. I sat down in front of her as she opened her eyes to watch me. I crossed my legs and, like a child, had no idea what to do.
“Well, Private.” She said, her voice still strong. “Looks like it’s time.”
I knew it, but I didn’t want to know it. I felt strange. I felt angry. I’d seen soldiers die any times. I thought I owed her more than this.
“Don’t be like that. I’m only a soldier.” She chuckled a little.
At this I felt even more anger and hurt, but I still said nothing.
“Always the quiet one.” She said then raised her voice louder. “I got something to say.”
She announced to the bedraggled camp.
A gentle drizzle started. All sixteen of the troop were close enough to hear her. At least, those still alive.
“I got something to say.” She repeated, this time a little more breathless.
“I don’t hate you all.” There was a breeze of laughter among them.
“Just some of ya.” Laughter again, this time a little sad. “If you could all just listen to me before…” she trailed off breathlessly. “ For a moment.”
There was a dead, expectant silence and as I watched her, I thought she’d gone already, but then, eyes still closed, she took a deep, difficult breath and started to sing.
how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me
her voice filled that silence, strange and sweet.
I once was lost
but now I’m found
were blind but now I see
on the second verse, people began to join in. Belinda’s strong voice, still healthy, lifted the notes clear and long. In that moment there was nothing strange or stupid or holy about singing that song, anyone who could, did.
As I watched and listened, I realised that she had stopped singing. She was looking up, her face sad.
“It’s a pity about the clouds.” She murmured as she watched them. “I would’ve liked to see stars…”
Her voice faded and so did she. As she breathed her last, the rain came down harder, spattering on grey concrete.
We buried her body with the others when we left. Looking through her kit bag I found a pack of unopened Camels and took them. Later, I was smoking one when a dark hand rested on my shoulder. I turned slightly to see Belinda watching the graves with me.
“You taking her gun?” she asked.
I adjusted the strap. “Yeah” I muttered, my words devoid of any inflection, and the hand removed itself.
“She liked you.” She said. Maybe she was trying to be comforting.
I turned away and said nothing. Walking through the slop I let the memory of her offering that first cigarette stain my mind, while I hummed ‘Amazing Grace’ under my breath.