I felt I had, in my mad dash, run my legs to splinters. When I saw the inn, standing tall beneath the moon and looming large on the precipice of the seaside cliff, I beat my feet harder in my boots, as if digging another trench against the Krauts and their endless artillery shells. I hurled myself into the door, slamming it bodily aside and falling forward onto a soft carpet. At my back I could still feel the darkness and the artillery fire vying for conquest of the night, and, too, that fetid breath of the monstrous thing that had pursued me down this midnight road.
I kicked the door shut, the heavy wood slamming loudly with a finality like artillery falling from above. I lay there, then, relieved and insensate, breathing heavily as my bones and muscles ached below my knees. Too long the War March was. The hammering of the artillery and the crawling through wet mud and barbed wire and the bodies of the dead—all too much for me. As I sat up, gathering about me my senses like a seamstress’s scattered thread, I realized that a tall woman stood before me. She was fair as salt, ephemeral like a ghost in moonlight, her white nightgown and white hair making a pale pillar of her, like a caryatid. Yet, her material form was attested by a candlestick she held to light that dark lobby. A ruby cross necklace lay between her comely breasts.
“Are you the innkeeper?” I asked.
“Always,” she said. She had a French accent, as was to be expected in Boulogne.
I looked to the window near the door, and saw the moon eclipsed by a bulky shadow. I heard the creature snorting in frustration, like a boar; like the push and pull of the tides.
“That…thing chased me here,” I said.
“As it does us all,” she said. “It catches some of us unawares. Some go to it willingly. Others ride it as a mount, exulting. But even they slip off, in time, and are eaten.”
“I…I am with the Irish Guards,” I said. Clutching my head in my hands, I felt ashamed at leaving my brothers behind. “I fled. The fighting… The artillery… I cannot take it anymore…”
“Come,” she said simply. “Your bed awaits.”
“My bed?” I said, confused.
She said no more, but turned to leave.
I did not know what to make of this young lady. Feeling ashamed now for my shame, I rose, slowly, wobbly, to my bleeding feet and followed her as she lifted her candle to light the inner gloom of that large establishment.
I could see little as I followed her except her back. She wore a sleeveless gown in the French style, the back low cut, the angel wings of her shoulderblades etched softly in her pale skin. She was ghostly in form, in her movements, as if she floated ahead of me through that enveloping darkness. She inspired in me fear, like a war widow soon to betray me to the Krauts. I had heard stories of them— French women who betrayed Allied soldiers to the enemy in return for favors. Then again, there were plenty of other stories about French women who saved many Allied soldiers; women who died saving them and their fellow countrymen. So I followed her, knowing I did not wish to return to the artillery shells or the beast beyond the threshold.
She led me upstairs to another hallway with many doors on either side. Guiding me to the last door, near the hall’s window, she unlocked the room with a key. I chanced a glance outside and glimpsed, briefly, that bulwark form of the beast below, shrouded in the obscurity of shadows. The moon glowed brightly, as did the innkeeper’s pallor. She opened the door and gestured with a lithe arm as slender and speckless as ivory. Her white hair, I realized, was coiled back into a chain of French braids, baring her slender neck on one side.
“If soldiers come,” I said, “they will ask for me.”
“No one who comes here ever knows where they will go,” she said. Her voice was faint, yet even as she stood apart from me, it was as intimate as if she spoke it at my ear. The inn, otherwise, was silent, except for the snorting of the beast at the threshold and my own heartbeat, the latter echoing loudly in my own ears. She did not smile, but she did not frown. Her face was enigmatic as she asked me a question.
“Do you want company on this Night among nights?”
I watched her face— looking for a hint of malice or mockery, or simple coquettishness—but found nothing. Only mystery dwelled in that pretty visage.
“No,” I said. “I wish only to sleep.”
She entered the room, her candle’s halo blooming in that space. What was revealed as the shadows pulled back like overabundant curtains was kingly quarters, finely furnished and familiar, its walls adorned with wallpapered flowers and finely lacquered wainscoting. The large bed was utterly unlike the muddy blanket beneath which I shivered in the trenches. It was a four-post bed heavily stacked with quilts and would have been more befitting of a Lord than a simple farmhand such as myself. Looking upon it, I knew I could not wear my sullied uniform. My muddy, bloody boots did not belong in that room, either, and so I took them off, one at a time. The pain was excruciating. It felt as if I had taken my shins off with the boots. At length, however, I stood in the hallway, barefooted and hesitant to enter. The innkeeper beckoned me with a gentle gesture, and so I entered.
She set the candle on a small escritoire beside the bed and walked to the door, presumably to leave. When I heard the door shut, I doffed my uniform, born again in my undergarments. I did not pray, but put myself to bed with utmost expedience. The innkeeper startled me by sitting on the bed, next to me, and laying a soft hand upon my forehead. I had thought she had left. She did not smile, but there was an impression of benevolence and concern in her face.
“Have you no other needs?” she asked.
“My legs hurt,” I said.
“Do not think on it,” she cooed, stroking my forehead. The ruby cross flashed as it caught the light from the melting candle. It seemed to blind me.
I felt hot and chilled alternately. I wished to be home, in Ireland, with my family.
“Why do you wear that…thing?” I asked, waving away at the red flash of her cross. “You know it does no good in times like these. Nothing does.” I became angry. Bitter. Spiteful. “The dead pile up. Nothing stymies the flow of blood. God takes no sides, but takes from every side. We are His playthings.”
She said nothing, her face illegible; mysterious; beautiful and empty, like the cross that adorned her heart. I sighed in resignation and regret.
“I have no one to blame but myself,” I said, after a while. “My father told me not to enlist. But I volunteered to fight over here of my own accord. Everyone in Britain looks down upon us Irish, but when there’s a fight we cannot help but ball up our fists and start swinging for their honor, as much as for our own. Maybe I thought I’d find a new life over the sea. But all I found was another crossroads to spin about on.”
She shushed me with a kiss to my lips.
“I shall sing to you a lullaby,” she said. “To ease you in your time of suffering.”
She then proceeded to sing a quiet, soothing song that calmed me like morphine in my veins.
“My only love swam out to sea
while singing a song, mon ami.
He swam too far dans la mer
while wondering how not to care.
My only love did not swim back to me,
lost forever in la nuit…”
I slipped beneath her gentle palm into an ocean of oblivion far deeper and darker than the Atlantic. There was no pain there; no lonely ache for home, nor cold nor fever nor memory nor regret. There was only the deepness of peace. I was at long last contented.
When I awoke, the fair-haired woman was gone, along with her candle and her ruby cross. Yet, I was not alone. Moonlight spilled through the windows, illuminating in milky softness the interior of the room: the walls, the furniture, the bed upon which I lay. All things were illuminated; all things except the hulking mass of shadow at the foot of the bed.
I tried to scream, but my voice would not come forth. The beast lurched forward, then, and fell upon my feet, chewing at them slowly while I attempted to scream for help and pull away. Yet, I was paralyzed, voiceless, at the mercy of its snorting, ravenous, cruel appetite as it chewed my toes and my feet and then my shins. I sobbed inwardly, for tears would not come, and the beast ate of my legs until, as if suddenly disinterested, it turned away and melded again into the shadows. In agony now, I succumbed to the pain and fell asleep all at once.
I awoke in a tent. A doctor stood over me, a clipboard and a pencil in his hands. He wore a long white uniform that was splattered redly, like a butcher’s apron.
“Good,” he said with a British accent. “You are awake. The worst is over.” He turned away, then paused. “But I suppose the worst is yet to come.”
He motioned for a tall, pale nurse to see to me. She wore a Red Cross gown, with a white skirt and a bonnet over her white hair. She looked familiar, but I could not remember where I had seen her. I was feverish, soaken with sweat, and I ached all along my legs. I tried to sit up, but had not the strength. I looked to one side of the table, and to the other, and saw other soldiers bandaged and bloodied and broken. Some were covered with a blanket, head to toe. Dead.
“I do not belong here,” I whispered. I pushed myself up and turned, trying to stand from the bed. I hopped off the bed, plunging downward through empty air and hitting the floor with my thighs, sprawling out helplessly in astonished misery. The tall nurse rushed towards me, but it was too late. Surveying myself, I moaned in horror. My legs had been reduced to stubs by the Krauts’ artillery shells.
That night I crawled out of the medical tent, pulling myself through the camp and out into the French countryside. I crawled past the dozens of nameless crosses that stood in testimony to the thousands that had died in the war, nailed together out of driftwood and kindling. I wanted to go West, away from the butchery of trench warfare. I wanted to return to Ireland. I would float out to sea, I told myself, and wake up a selkie on Erin’s beach once again. Behind me I heard the artillery shells that lit up the night once again. But I never looked back. If I looked back I would dissolve.
I crawled all night and at morning light found myself at the edge of a seaside cliff. I stared down its bluff as the briny air whispered intimately in my ear. Far below, in the deep water, I saw the beast beyond the threshold, snorting hungrily among the waves. It wanted the rest of me. There was nothing left for me except to feed it, as countless other soldiers had in this terrible war. Whoever won the war, the spoils were its alone.
The tall nurse surprised me, then, running towards me. Her hair was done up in a French braid that billowed behind her. She had been looking for me, it seemed, and she now found me. I saw the cross upon her heart, red as blood, and bitterly wished to tear it from her breast. Behind her I saw the explosions of a battle enjoined once again. She glistened like a pillar of salt, and I looked away from her before she could dissolve within the warring winds. She called to me, in her French accent, and the beast called to me, too, with a terrible squeal like a bomb falling and exploding all around me.
“Do not swim so eagerly out to sea!” she cried.
“To sea,” I said. “To home. To nothingness.”
I pivoted my legless body upon the crossroads and plunged forward, giving myself fully to the beast.