Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, "Between the Lines"

Between the Lines

When consciousness came back, he found he lay
Between the opposing fires, but could not tell
On which hand were his friends; and either way
For him to turn was chancy–bullet and shell
Whistling and shrieking over him, as the glare
Of searchlights scoured the darkness to blind day.
He scrambled to his hands and knees ascare,
Dragging his wounded foot through puddled clay,
And tumbled in a hole a shell had scooped
At random in a turnip-field between
The unseen trenches where the foes lay cooped
Through that unending battle of unseen,
Dead-locked, league-stretching armies; and quite spent
He rolled upon his back within the pit,
And lay secure, thinking of all it meant–
His lying in that little hole, sore hit,
But living, while across the starry sky
Shrapnel and shell went screeching overhead–
Of all it meant that he, Tom Dodd, should lie
Among the Belgian turnips, while his bed …
If it were he, indeed, who’d climbed each night,
Fagged with the day’s work, up the narrow stair,
And slipt his clothes off in the candle-light,
Too tired to fold them neatly in a chair
The way his mother’d taught him–too dog-tired
After the long day’s serving in the shop,
Inquiring what each customer required,
Politely talking weather, fit to drop …

And now for fourteen days and nights, at least,
He hadn’t had his clothes off, and had lain
In muddy trenches, napping like a beast
With one eye open, under sun and rain
And that unceasing hell-fire …

It was strange
How things turned out–the chances! You’d just got
To take your luck in life, you couldn’t change
Your luck.

And so here he was lying shot
Who just six months ago had thought to spend
His days behind a counter. Still, perhaps …
And now, God only knew how he would end!

He’d like to know how many of the chaps
Had won back to the trench alive, when he
Had fallen wounded and been left for dead,
If any!…

This was different, certainly,
From selling knots of tape and reels of thread
And knots of tape and reels of thread and knots
Of tape and reels of thread and knots of tape,
Day in, day out, and answering “Have you got’s”
And “Do you keep’s” till there seemed no escape
From everlasting serving in a shop,
Inquiring what each customer required,
Politely talking weather, fit to drop,
With swollen ankles, tired …

But he was tired
Now. Every bone was aching, and had ached
For fourteen days and nights in that wet trench–
Just duller when he slept than when he waked–
Crouching for shelter from the steady drench
Of shell and shrapnel …

That old trench, it seemed
Almost like home to him. He’d slept and fed
And sung and smoked in it, while shrapnel screamed
And shells went whining harmless overhead–
Harmless, at least, as far as he …

But Dick–
Dick hadn’t found them harmless yesterday,
At breakfast, when he’d said he couldn’t stick
Eating dry bread, and crawled out the back way,
And brought them butter in a lordly dish–
Butter enough for all, and held it high,
Yellow and fresh and clean as you would wish–
When plump upon the plate from out the sky
A shell fell bursting … Where the butter went,
God only knew!…

And Dick … He dared not think
Of what had come to Dick … or what it meant–
The shrieking and the whistling and the stink
He’d lived in fourteen days and nights. ‘T was luck
That he still lived … And queer how little then
He seemed to care that Dick … perhaps ‘t was pluck
That hardened him–a man among the men–
Perhaps … Yet, only think things out a bit,
And he was rabbit-livered, blue with funk!
And he’d liked Dick … and yet when Dick was hit,
He hadn’t turned a hair. The meanest skunk
He should have thought would feel it when his mate
Was blown to smithereens–Dick, proud as punch,
Grinning like sin, and holding up the plate–
But he had gone on munching his dry hunch,
Unwinking, till he swallowed the last crumb.
Perhaps ‘t was just because he dared not let
His mind run upon Dick, who’d been his chum.
He dared not now, though he could not forget.

Dick took his luck. And, life or death, ‘t was luck
From first to last; and you’d just got to trust
Your luck and grin. It wasn’t so much pluck
As knowing that you’d got to, when needs must,
And better to die grinning …

Quiet now
Had fallen on the night. On either hand
The guns were quiet. Cool upon his brow
The quiet darkness brooded, as he scanned
The starry sky. He’d never seen before
So many stars. Although, of course, he’d known
That there were stars, somehow before the war
He’d never realised them–so thick-sown,
Millions and millions. Serving in the shop,
Stars didn’t count for much; and then at nights
Strolling the pavements, dull and fit to drop,
You didn’t see much but the city lights.
He’d never in his life seen so much sky
As he’d seen this last fortnight. It was queer
The things war taught you. He’d a mind to try
To count the stars–they shone so bright and clear.

One, two, three, four … Ah, God, but he was tired …
Five, six, seven, eight …

Yes, it was number eight.
And what was the next thing that she required?
(Too bad of customers to come so late,
At closing time!) Again within the shop
He handled knots of tape and reels of thread,
Politely talking weather, fit to drop …

When once again the whole sky overhead
Flared blind with searchlights, and the shriek of shell
And scream of shrapnel roused him. Drowsily
He stared about him, wondering. Then he fell
Into deep dreamless slumber.

He could see
Two dark eyes peeping at him, ere he knew
He was awake, and it again was day–
An August morning, burning to clear blue.
The frightened rabbit scuttled …

Far away,
A sound of firing … Up there, in the sky
Big dragon-flies hung hovering … Snowballs burst
About them … Flies and snowballs. With a cry
He crouched to watch the airmen pass–the first
That he’d seen under fire. Lord, that was pluck–
Shells bursting all about them–and what nerve!
They took their chance, and trusted to their luck.
At such a dizzy height to dip and swerve,
Dodging the shell-fire …
Hell! but one was hit,
And tumbling like a pigeon, plump …

Thank Heaven,
It righted, and then turned; and after it
The whole flock followed safe–four, five, six, seven,
Yes, they were all there safe. He hoped they’d win
Back to their lines in safety. They deserved,
Even if they were Germans … ‘T was no sin
To wish them luck. Think how that beggar swerved
Just in the nick of time!

He, too, must try
To win back to the lines, though, likely as not,
He’d take the wrong turn: but he couldn’t lie
Forever in that hungry hole and rot,
He’d got to take his luck, to take his chance
Of being sniped by foes or friends. He’d be
With any luck in Germany or France
Or Kingdom-come, next morning …

The blazing day burnt over him, shot and shell
Whistling and whining ceaselessly. But light
Faded at last, and as the darkness fell
He rose, and crawled away into the night.

–Wilfrid Wilson Gibson

About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen [she, her] currently writes cozy space opera for Kalikoi. The novella series A Place of Refuge begins with Finding Refuge: Telepathic warrior Talia Avi, genius engineer Miki Boudreaux, and augmented soldier Faigin Balfour fought the fascist Federated Colonies for ten years, following the charismatic dissenter Jon Churchill. Then Jon disappeared, Talia was thought dead, and Miki and Faigin struggled to take Jon’s place and stay alive. When the FC is unexpectedly upended, Talia is reunited with her friends and they are given sanctuary on the enigmatic planet Refuge. The trio of former guerillas strive to recover from lifetimes of trauma, build new lives on a planet with endless horizons, and forge tender new connections with each other.
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