The Field

Owen arrived at the front in a clean woolen uniform. His boots and the leather straps on his pack were shined. His pants retained their creases. It started to rain.

The squad was ordered to advance into a field. Owen stepped forward and his boots sank up to the laces in mud. He pulled them out, one at a time, with difficulty. The mud was dark brown, almost black. Streaks of gray ran through it, the color of the clouds overhead.

The squad struggled ahead, rifles at the ready, the mud growing softer and wetter the farther they went. Finally, every man stood shin-deep in it, unable to walk. The first bullets began to sing past.

Owen went down flat. He held his face up, grass stubble prodding his cheeks. The mud smelled of sulfur and decay, of putrefaction. Owen’s elbows sank into it. It felt yielding under his body, as if he were sinking into it. The squad was ordered by whistle to advance on hands and knees.

When Owen pressed down, his hands sunk into the mud. His arms were black to the shoulder with sodden clods of it. Owen forgot his fear of the bullets because the mud overwhelmed his senses. He felt it, smelled it, tasted it smeared on his lips, heard the constant squelching of it as he tried to move. He knew that many men had died in this field, that many men were interred in the mud, that the rot he smelled came from fallen comrades.

As they squirmed forward, the squad came to puddles of standing water. The mud in the puddles was thinned, so that their knees sank into it without resistance. Every soldier was black from head to toe, soaked through, slimy. The enemy fire increased. Explosions began to erupt in the field. Men disappeared in a blink, raining back to earth along with chunks of dirt thrown up and dried by the shell blasts.

Owen found himself almost completely submerged in the ooze. He no longer had the strength to pull himself forward. He couldn’t see anyone around him. The squad merged with the slop, those dead and those still alive. Owen’s arms and legs were trapped in the mud. He strained to keep his head up, but his helmet, meant to protect him, ultimately became too heavy to sustain, and Owen, like his mates, became a permanent part of the field.