“Eat the rat meat.” The soldier spoke in a muddled Lancashire accent. He thrust a knobby stick at me that had a skewered piece of gray meat curled like a broad worm at the end of it. It was singed and smelled like a dishrag. I felt the bile rise from the stormy depths of my stomach and begin to burn the back of my throat. The meat looked like the rotting flesh of a corpse; a soldier blasted with shrapnel and baking in the noon sun while filling the air with the gasses of putrefaction.
“I won’t eat it.” I scratched my scalp which was being tormented by the swarming of lice. I thrust my hands into my hair and scratched. I sighed with momentary relief. I could feel my long hair swishing across my scratchy brown uniform as a fine dust of vermin snow showered onto my mud-encrusted lapels.
“Cap’n. Th’ Lass won’t eat the rat.” The soldier looked annoyed that I wouldn’t shove the rat meat into my mouth. He was filthy, with yellow rotting teeth and black encrusted nails. The soldier was the cook. He scavenged for food and divvied up the rations in order to prevent any of us from passing out from hunger or worse, dying without a German bullet or shell exploding inside us. For God and Country, eat up.
“What’s this I hear?” The Captain stepped forward from the south side of the trench. His voice was crisp, fresh and rich with the sheen of his Belgravia childhood. He did not sound like the rest of us – tired, defeated and frightened. He stood as stiff as a piece of petrified wood. He tugged at his uniform and smoothed the front with his hands. I snorted with a quick laugh. His uniform was as disgusting as mine; wrinkled, wet and saturated with the scent of dirt, sweat, gunpowder and rot.
The Captain bristled. “You won’t eat. You laugh at me. You are the first one up.”
“No!” Being the first one out of the trench was a death sentence.
“You won’t eat the rat. You are the first one up,” repeated the Captain. “Get in positions soldiers. Sound the bugle.” The Captain pulled out a pewter watch chain from his pocket. “We charge in one minute, men.” The Captain looked at me and sneered. “In one minute, woman. Up you go.” He said ‘woman’ with a sneer. The left side of his mouth scrunched up making his otherwise handsome features become almost monster-like.
“I don’t want to. No! I don’t want to die. Please.”
“Up you go or we garrote you now.”
I grabbed hold of the first rung of the wooden ladder. The soldiers clambered behind me with their helmets on. I looked back and saw two soldiers vomiting into the stinking mud. The rest of the soldiers looked grim and more than a few were crying. For God and Country, for God and country.
“I don’t want to die, Captain!”
“We all die, soldier. Up you go.”
“Why do I have to die this way?” Several of my fingernails had broken off into the splintery wood. My grip was so severe I thought for sure the ladder would break under my grasp.
“Some of us are meant to die horribly. Like a bug being squashed or sprayed with poison.”
“But I’m not a bug. I’m a human.”
“Ah, well then that is a pity. Tell me one thing unique about you.”
I wiped away tears with the back of my bloody hand. “I like orange tulips.”
“Well, that is unique. But you are too late. Look out into No Man’s Land. There is a bullet with your name on it.”
I stretch my neck upward and see only a yawning darkness more terrifying than anything I have ever seen.
“Say hello, to my darling boy Tommy. He died shortly before I was sent to war. Bloody influenza killed him.”
“Maybe you should lead the charge. You could be with Tommy. Imagine, eternity with your dead baby.”
“Oh, what a silly woman. I’m already dead.”
The Captain took out a razor blade and slit his throat. Blood squirted on me and most of the men lined up behind me. The Captain’s neck was cut so deeply that his head flopped backward. I could see the hard nodules on the top of his spine. I screamed and hurried up the wooden ladder into the dense black of eternal night.
This is when I always wake up.