James Roderick Burns
ELDRITCH SPATCHCOCK SAT at the head of the trench, comfortable in his natural shape. The occasional bullet or gas-cloud hardly registered in his mind, though the men below scrambled on its approach like silverfish scattering at the flare of a match.
In these twilit moments he felt mellow, genial even – at least as far in such a direction as one of his kind was allowed to go. Depth charges for this first batch of vermin were ready to be set. With a few adjustments, they could be lowered into place and left for as long as needed, the fuses taking fire by means of delicately-embedded flints or other spiritual triggers.
This one needed slight refinement; that one, a tweak to the direction of charge. But on the whole, he was pleased with his work. Soon he would cross the pockmarked soil of no-man’s-land and start on the other side. Before he could move, however, one of the vermin came scuttling up the walkway.
‘Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!’
Ah, the poet.
Next came an ecstasy of fumbling, he recalled. Spatchcock smiled. He knocked one hoof against the trench and lit a cheroot. There was great satisfaction to be had from these sensitive souls. Such tender emotion, turned by his devices to unacknowledged lust! Such agonies staking a man’s heart to the filthy earth while it mewled for heaven. Granted, this louse had a way with words, but words also had a way with him. He could see their roseate glow at twenty paces, feel the tick of syllables rising with the fellow’s pulse.
The devil stretched out a finger.
Trauma, then recovery, it seemed; shipped north, an ocean passage, then north again, train coming to rest between towering hotels, cab rattling up to a hilltop sanatorium. Oh, and another poet! Older, a hint of quicksilver in his blood, the pair creaking round cinder-paths in their dressing gowns. Discussion over tepid soup, cold baths, the snick of cigars.
It would do him some good, though of course it was temporary. Soon enough he’d lie with the worms like the rest of them. Eldritch withdrew his finger. The man himself clattered away and the devil resumed work.
He walked around a half-dozen craters, indifferent to the barbed-wire slicing his flesh. He felt no pain, yet was oddly discomfited by the sensation of falling. Some of these shell-gashes were full thirty-feet deep. On the other side, nothing changed: rats and foetid water, flickering lamp light, the stench of pegged-out woollen socks. The language was thicker, the heads fairer; that was all.
Yet these creatures!
Capable, like the last, of astounding feats, grand symphonies and epics on the scale of myth. Sacrificing themselves for some lofty ideal – or worse, at the enemy’s instigation. But their foibles lay bare on slightest inspection. Eldritch almost felt pity. As one lingering silverfish, seeking the dark, receives instead the compassionate sole of a boot, he would bestow a moment’s sympathy before sealing their doom.
As his mind left the man, it snagged a recollection: the poet, astonished, before an open fire. A poem, spun from a moment’s contemplation, accepted by one of their periodicals for a tidy sum. Eldritch could not tell what gave greater pleasure – the packed, glowing coals, or so much gained from so seeming-little. If the worm had thought longer, he might have unearthed more precious knowledge. What awaited them all burned with blacker flame, far hotter than this world’s meagre triumphs.
However, it was not his place to judge (though he prided himself on coating souls so thoroughly in sin they slid down the gullet of damnation as easily as mackerel through a seal).
As he was setting fuses beneath a spiked helmet – this maggot believing that as he’d wept when giving away puppies, he would be forgiven for laughing heartily while dragging his bayonet through the belly of a corpse – he recalled another line. A gas-victim, face contorted like a devil’s sick of sin. Laughter jerked free of him. Sick indeed; and of sin! Spatchcock braced his thighs lest he topple into the trench.
After a moment he regained himself. By the light of a dropping flare he scrawled a note, then set off behind the lines. There were still higher-ranking donkeys ripe for the slaughter. What did this one’s literary baubles amount to, all told? It was, perhaps, a deft image, but showed a risible understanding of his own work. The charges he laid were devastating, their hosts believing such sins to be their own work, a hodgepodge of guilt and preoccupation that could not be left alone. Yet his traps were transparent; bright and obvious flags. Surely anyone could see them for what they were?
On the road back to the generals he met a child who screamed and forked his fingers. Spatchcock was so weak from amusement he could barely inflict a chancre. Shortly he began to whistle, then to snicker as he approached the low brick building. It would be some time, he mused, before he grew sick of such gratifying work.
Quite some time indeed.
James Roderick Burns’s work has appeared in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Flash Fiction Magazine and La Piccioletta Barca, as well as a short-fiction chapbook and three poetry collections. His story ‘Trapper’ (Funicular Magazine) was nominated for Pushcart 2020. He lives in Edinburgh and serves as Deputy Registrar General for Scotland.