“Ghosts don't haunt us. That's not how it works. They're present among us because we won't let go of them."
"I don't believe in ghosts," I said, faintly.
"Some people can't see the color red. That doesn't mean it isn't there," she replied.”
Sue Grafton, M is for Malice
The trenches are full of ghosts. This is the first thing William Scofield, newly minted Private to the 8th Division notices, the second is the corpses. Well, the stench of them, the sickly sweet prevalence of meat rot and bloated methane.
It is new and it is as horrifying as the towering trench walls beside him, already worn and shakily repaired with wicker and sandbags. Men flow up and down the front line, dull eyed and haggard and ghosts follow along beside them.
They shake and shimmer in the morning sunlight, transparent and transient, and all too real. They float beside their mates, whispering unheard advice in shut off ears, press cold hands to sweating brows, to feverish wounds.
It is the newer made ghosts that rage, lashing out against the living, unheeded, unheard, but oh so furious.
Pay attention to me! They scream, Why can’t you see me? I’m right here!
They’ll calm down in a week or two; William knows having seen newly dead ghosts raging at their lot in life since that fateful night as a boy. The dead never like to give up living, rail against it, until the harsh reality sets in and the rot of the body connects to the rot of the soul and they settle down and accept it’s over. That this time on this earth is limited, even for a ghost, and they have but a few short days remaining with their families, their friends before they too dissolve back into the earth.
William knew going into this war that there would be ghosts, he just wasn’t prepared for how many.
William survives the Somme, barely, by the skin of his teeth, and the grace of God. He survives the Somme and he gathers his ghosts. He tucks Sargent Bartle into the lining of his coat, Privates Miller and Lockley into the worn threads of his gloves, carries half a company in the weave of his pack.
He takes them with him, and whispers reassurances to their weeping presences. He ignores the dripping ghostly blood, and ethereal limbs that tug at the seams of his clothes, and those that try to pry themselves into the safety of his ribcage.
He takes as many ghosts as he can gather, as many he can carry and he walks up the trench lines until he is away from the front, away from the corpse rot and mud and blood and filth. He walks through the demilitarization zone and into the town which borders the battle field, the one that is empty but for the wounded and the bomb craters. He walks through the rubble strewn streets until he finds a church graveyard. An old one, with broken fences, and rain blotted headstones.
He steps inside and walks to the center, where a grand oak stands, its boughs setting the small yard in shade. The soldier sinks down against the rough bark and waits, waits for the clock to click down, for the church bell to ring, for the stomach turning hitch as the world turns on its head, and the water in the town fountain floats into the sky, and right becomes left, and up becomes down, and there is a dog standing before him. The beast big and black with eyes of pure white.
“Ah,” Will says to the Grim, “I was hoping you would be in France.”
The Church Grim woofs lowly at him, with a voice like rolling thunder. Then it steps forward, head extended and licks a tingling stripe up his palm.
It steps away and turns around, and it walks, and with each step, a man comes into existence behind it, first is the Sargent, then a Captain, a gaggle of Privates, a corporal, a stretcher bearer, until each and every soul Will had gathered is following behind the dog, following it into the great mystery that only the dead may know.
He watches until the dog steps out of the graveyard, and the world is twisted around and put back to rights. William Schofield settled down against the bark of the tree, closes his eyes, and falls asleep in the emptiness of the graveyard.
They send reinforcements after the decimation of the Somme. They send reinforcements and ribbons and Corporals stripes for William Schofield. They send reinforcements and they send William home, for a week long furlough.
He visits him family, spends time with this wife and daughters, walks down the town streets of his childhood and imprints the sound of his children feet on the cobblestones into his mind. He scrawls their laughter into the white of his bones, the feel of his wife’s hand in his own. Then he leaves them, is wrenched from them, ungracefully, ungraciously, with bitter tears and a tight throat.
They send him back to France.
They send him back to France and back to the Eighth, where old faces were replaced by new men and where William is a newly minted NCO and there are expectations attached to his newly sewn on corporal stripes. Expectations and duties, both spoken and unspoken that weigh Williams shoulders down. He cannot help but look over the faces of his regiment and see them more as ghosts in the making than living humans.
The Eighth returns to France and then to the front and it is within those deep trenches that William meets Lance Corporal Blake for the very first time. He is a boy, barely nineteen, stocky, strong, and unrepentantly joyful. He loves to talk, and share stories, and speaks of his mother, his sweetheart, and his elder brother with a sweet, if naive joy. Will does his best to ignore him, to avoid being drawn in too close, Will knows better than to befriend eventual ghosts.
Eventual ghosts are still people however, and they like to make their own decisions. Thomas Blake looks at William Schofield, sees his worn stare and the careful way he watches everything and everyone and Blake doesn’t let go. Best friends sometimes aren’t made; sometimes they force themselves upon you.
-April 6th 1917-
Blake is dying, Blake is dying and there is nothing Will can do about it. The pilot’s knife struck deep and the boy is bleeding out in his arms. Is bleeding out and is begging him for comfort, for assurance, for this all to have meant something.
But will has seen these types of wounds before, has seen how growling lakes of blood turn shells of vital men.
“I think you’re dying, Tom.” Will says, because sometimes you have to admit the truth to move past it.
Blake is pale and heavy in him arms, pulling weakly at Will’s hands, pleading with clouding eyes. “Tell me you know the way?”
So Will does, “I’m going south east until I hit Ecoust…”
Then he talks and talks as he watches the last bit of light filter from Blake’s eyes and sees the first wisps of spirit condense from his lips, from his open eyes. It raises, mist like, a few inches from his mouth and forms there, wrapping around itself into a small ball of mist, the size of a walnut.
Schofield reaches out to grab it, pulling the ghost light into the thread of his cuff. Hold Blake close until his spirit is strong enough to materialize in full.
With shaking hands Will turns his attention to the body; he rummages through his friend’s pockets, pulling out the General’s letter to the 2nd, an eases the rings from Blake’s lifeless fingers. Finally he removes the identity disk from the twine around his neck and tucks the things away, presses them into his pocket and then presses his hand over the threads at his wrist that contain his friends soul.
“Don’t worry Blake.” Schofield whispers to the new formed spirit. “I’m going south east until I hit Eucost, then I’ll follow the river to the wood…”
Will makes his promises to the dead, and sets out.