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THE FIRING LINE
Kelvin Mason


One amongst a thousand. They were herded from the trucks into the meadow and made to dig. Some were given shovels and picks. Others clawed in the hard earth with their hands. He did that. His fingers bled. The men with guns waited, they relaxed. They watched the men who did not have guns working. They smoked cigarettes and joked and swore. All men. Their commander was impatient. He strode the length of the trench tapping his pistol against his leg. When the trench was only two or three feet deep he ordered them to stop. The trench stretched across the field into the early sun. It was about five and a half feet wide. The gestures of guns brought them out of the trench to stand along its length facing the men with guns. They ground out their cigarettes beneath their boots.

He thought of the roadblock, the burning tyres and the piles of rocks. He thought of the checking of papers he didn’t have. He remembered being ordered to speak and the smile that crossed the face of the man with the gun when he discerned his accent. He remembered the denunciation, his fate decided on two syllables. He could still fell the blow of the rifle butt on his cheek. He knew it left a livid bruise though he had not seen his face. He had lost two teeth.

They were lined up and the men with guns lined up before them. The lines were five metres apart. There were perhaps two hundred men with guns. Their prisoners shuffled and there was a communal lament whispering on the air. He could smell the tears and hear the mumble of prayers and messages to families spoken to the unmoved sky. They were a single line but crowded together. He shuffled in his place. There was a man barely in front of him, a stranger. They were all strangers. United only by the pronunciation of words, a greeting. Good day. And that was that. Condemned by birthplace, by father. By accident. He had never cared about that, never thought.
He shuffled deeper into the shadow of the stranger, a half a footstep. The commander spoke. His men raised their guns and selected. The commander spoke again. He knew what the word would be, they all knew. He had an idea to fall backwards a micro-instant before the fingers on the triggers followed the word. But falling backwards was slow, slower than a finger. The idea was slow. He sensed the shots, the implausible sound of a volley. The arm of the stranger flew into his face and knocked him backwards. He fell and the falling took a long time. He could smell the smell of guns and bullets and of blood. He could see the smoke rising into the air. Then he could hear the impact as he landed and smell the newly dug earth and feel the sharpness of stones in his back. The weight of the stranger. The blood warmer than the sun that soaked into him.

Everything lasted forever. It was silence. And then the moans and then the shrieks and the pain. He reached into the stranger into his blood. His hand was red and wet and slippery with the blood of the stranger who did not move but who was warm on top of his as a blanket. He pressed his finger hard to his forehead, in the centre, and smeared the blood on his face. He lay still and looked up at the mid-morning sun.

At the periphery of his vision the men with guns appeared lining the edge of the trench. They did not speak and he did not move his eyes. Then he heard the order of their commander, his voice honed to an edge that was alien. And he knew the difference and knew it was always so. And some of the men volunteered and slipped down into the trench and waded among the dead and wounded that they hated. And where there was life there was none. Single shots and an end to the moans and the entreaties and the sobbing. He stared into the sun, feeling the blood begin to dry and tighten on his face, feeling the weight of the man who was a stranger change and harden.
There were shouts and he knew someone was running. There were shots and he felt the ripple in the earth as the man fell and subsided and lay still. The men with guns joked and spat. There was laughter. Laughter. He thought of the girl he had never kissed and who was gone and of her laughter. It was not like this. Laughter was not the word for both. There should be another word, a change of stress: a differentiation. He thought of his mother and his father and their ruined home in their ruined town. He thought of his mother and father who had gathered all they had to send him to safety. He stared at the sun and it was lost to him. A face filled the sun and there was a halo of light around the face and around its soldier’s helmet. The face was young like his face and the eyes were looking into his eyes.

And he stared into the halo of light and willed his eyes to be dull. He had seen the death of slaughtered animals and how the light left the eyes and they became stone. He willed his eyes that way and stared past the face that was over his face and the eyes that searched his eyes. The gun that stared with the eyes. The gun he would not focus on with its own eye so black and deep and perfectly round. It probed him too. He held his breath but could not hold it for much longer. He willed his body not to sweat the sweat he could feel prickling his face. The eyes and the gun traversed him. The mouth on the face above him twitched at the corner. The gun stared deeper into him. It lifted and moved closer. And the stranger who was allied to him by blood convulsed and was still. Sagging. Loose.

The sun emerged and blinded him and made him blink. Once. The face above him was a profile, shadowed by the helmet, darkened by the shock of the sun. Moving on. He felt the young man who was born in another part of the country that they once shared step over him. His foot trod on his leg but he didn’t move, not even a muscle in his face. His foot rested on the head of a fallen man. There was no give. He was trodden on as if he were a rock or a fallen tree and his ankle broke and he felt it and he did not move nor cry nor give any sign though the pain lanced and howled. He felt his eyelids quiver and a bead of sweat break on his top lip. And the young man moved on and shot into the face of another man who sighed. He felt sick and the spasms of it coursed in his body and shook his chest. He closed his eyes and was not conscious but his darkness was filled with laughter and he was cold.

He opened his eyes slowly when he heard the engines. It was dark. His ankle throbbed but he did not try to move his foot. The man who lay on top of him covered him like a blanket stiff with frost. This man who had been a stranger was his brother now, welded to him by blood. He could smell the sickly smell of blood and of death. He drowned in the smell. Then the soil came pouring down on them. Wave upon wave of damp smelling cold and clammy soil. It fell over his face and there were spotlights to guide the bulldozers in their work. The orders barked and the curses and the banter. More laughter.

Then it was darker than the night and he breathed the dampness of the soil and the organic smell. He could feel the particles in his nostril and he kept his mouth closed and did not move. Because he could breathe. There was air in the dampness and in the soil and he could breathe. Shallow and insufficient. He felt the panic rise and it was worse than everything. He swallowed it, bit it back and tightened himself against it. They were there with their bulldozers and their guns and he willed himself into something like a trance, breathing as little as possible, grateful for the small stream of air he filtered through the soil and through the damp. Impossibly grateful. It was the only thing there was in a world that had imploded. There was no room even for memories or fear. Only air.
It was a long time before he moved. He didn’t know how long but when he first thought of it and tried he could not feel his body. Then his ankle flared and he gritted his teeth. His nose was full of soil. He flexed his fingers and the toes of his good foot. He felt the circulation begin to return and it was more painful than he could have expected and for the first time he moaned low in his throat. He could feel the weight of the earth pressing on him and the weight of the dead man. At first he could not move. He tried to move his arm up and bring it to his face and of course he could not. But slowly he dug and tunnelled and slid his hand up his body, over his chest until he could touch his chin.

Then he began to claw upwards with his fingers, burrowing upwards. He could feel the soil moving against his teeth. Then his fingers were through and into the air and it was cool and he could breath more deeply. He withdrew his fingers below the surface of the grave. The men with guns might still be up there. Silently he spat the soil from his mouth and it dribbled across his cheek. He took a deep breath and another. He sobbed in his chest. He listened and there was no sound. He listened while he tensed and relaxed the muscles in his legs and his trapped arm. He listened while he grew used to the shafts of pain that speared him when he moved his ankle. There was silence. And then the eerie call of a night bird.

He began to burrow. He freed his arm and burrowed upwards making his shaft wider. He reached out of the shaft and pressed down on the earth with his palms. His fibres stretched and his ankle seared. He pressed down with all his strength and the soil began to shift and he could feel his body compressed but sliding. He got his arms free of the shaft. He pulled himself up and his head emerged and he looked around and there was nothing but freshly dug earth and no whisper of men. He gritted his teeth and pulled himself further up and out of the ground leaving the man who had been a stranger and whose arm flung up in impact and in pain had saved him. Leaving them all.

For a time he lay on the earth, recovering his breath and sobbing. Then he stood up, taking his weight on his good foot. It sank into the earth because they had pushed it over the grave loosely and not compacted it: hadn’t bothered. He was alive and he looked up at the moon that was a sliver in the sky like the curved blade of a sword. He was alive and he only knew one thing. He knew that the laughter and the voices must never be. They could not inhabit the same earth as he who had just crawled from it. This was a matter of blood and of history and of eternity. He had never felt it before but he knew it now. His children would know it and their children would know it. They would never hear the laughter or the sound of words pronounced with the twang of the men with guns without knowing the hatred that was their due. That was their birthright.

He was reborn to know himself and his people and their enemies. He began to hobble to edge of the grave, falling to his knees and crawling because it was possible that way. He crawled out onto the grass of the meadow where he had lined up with his people. He had not known them then. He knew them now. He looked to where the enemy had stood with their guns and their curses and their laughter and there was nothing. But he would find them. He breathed and smiled into the night and into the pain, a thin dark smile that was not a smile.

For now he was a thousand amongst one and he had all of their prayers and their screams and their deaths inside him forever. He touched the dried blood on his forehead with his finger. Generation upon generation.

© Kelvin Mason 2001

More Dreamscapes Fiction


MORE FROM KELVIN BY MAIL
The Advent of the Incredulous Stigmata Man and Cold Snap can be purchased direct at discounted prices. They will be sent, wrapped in corrugated cardboard in a similar fashion to Amazon despatches. The cost within Britain then works out to a mere £6.95 inc. postage and packing - cover price £7.99. If you order both Cold Snap and Stigmata Man, moreover, they will cost a paltry £13.90 inclusive. And you can expect to receive your book or books goods within one working week. All you have to do is send a cheque made out to me ­ Kelvin Mason - to Steve Pullinger at 56, Dillwyn Road, Sketty, Swansea SA2 9AE. You also, of course, have to tell Steve what you want and where to send it. Books purchased as gifts can be mailed directly to the lucky person. Cold Snap is also still available from amazon.co.uk ­ but, of course, at the full cover price plus p&p.
En bog koster kun DKK 70 inden i Denmark. Så koster 2 boger DKK 140 (Tilbud!) Jeg kan sende med posten ­ det vil koste ekstra DKK


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