On The Borderlands (Part 1 rough)

Hell of an ache in my leg.  Must be going to rain.  Good thing I’m wearing my trenchcoat.  Even now, far from the trenches, I can’t escape the need to wear it.  It is one of the best things to fend off the rain, despite how it can sometimes invite the wash-off into my boots.  Good against the New York fog, too.  And the cold New York winters.  My fedora helps also, keeping my head dry, but nothing keeps the chill out of my gimp leg.  Damp, cold pain.  Like a Mauser gone cold in my leg.  As it so happens, it is an old Mauser in my leg.  Medics never could get it out, they said, without risking my artery.  The fact that my artery had healed around it baffled them back then.  Should have bled out, they said.  I did bleed out.  But I am still alive today, for better or for worse.

 She wouldn’t let me die back then.  Sometimes I think she is still here, keeping me alive.

 The sprawl of the docks is like a ship at sea.  The boardwalk sways with the ocean and creaks as if it has a hull breach, keen on sinking.   The boats are in the distance, lost in fog and night and the crowding shadows.  The streetlights lead me along in my uncertainty.  Like a dog on a leash, unsure why his master has a sad face and a loaded rifle.  The dead of New York line the empty streets, like shades on River Styx.  Only I can see them as their apparitions drift by.  Not many living people would put up with the Sight.  Seeing the dead everywhere can really ruin your appetite.

 But the dead are not the people I’m concerned with.  At least, I don’t believe so.  I’m on the lookout for a young man.  His Jewish mother is wanting him home.  Probably went for a visit at a brothel and fell in love with Loose-Lucy.  Or maybe got himself Shanghaied.  Or maybe just left his old mother for another life.  It happens.  If he was dead, I would have seen him in her apartment.  The dead cling to familiar forms of their former lives.  Much like those of us who are half-alive, having lost our former lives in the War.

 I try not to think about the War.  There are enough ghosts on the boardwalk as it is without conjuring more to haunt me.  That old decade is gone, and a new one’s begun, the upstart pup saddled with all of the problems from the old hound dog.  Nobody warned me that the new decade would be of the same pedigree as the old.  Same president, but different war.  Not that I have anything against Truman.  He’s just no Roosevelt, you know?  Maybe he started war with the Koreans because he thinks he needs to live up to Frank.  Maybe there are too many war hawks circling restlessly since 1945.  I don’t know.  Feed them scraps from the table and they think they rule the castle.  I’m no Beatnik, but even I’ve got to say this country’s had enough of war for a while.

 Glad I’m a cripple now.  No war with a side order of conscription for me, thanks.  Then again, there’s always a war going on in New York, isn’t there?

 The bar is called the “Creak-Easy”.  A joke, obviously.  It is on the edge of the city, near the docks.  A good place to funnel some patrons fresh off the boat.  Dock workers.  Sailors.  Fishermen.  The bartender has blonde hair and blue eyes.  Hitler would have loved him slapped up on some propaganda posters.  Only, he is one of our boys.  Navy, I assume, by the pictures of the battleships and sailors and pilots all over the place.  Also, the bloated dead men around him are a hint.  Not much detective work involved, all in all.  Dead men tell no tales, they say, but that isn’t the case at all for me.

 “Hello,” I say.

 “The name’s Dan,” the bartender says, unprompted.  He extends his hand over the counter.  “I like to greet all my new regulars.”

 I hesitate, sizing him up.  I shake his hand.

 “Jim,” I say.  I hold up the photograph Allen’s mother has given to me.  “Private investigator.  Looking for a missing person.  Young man.  Tall.  Big.  Jew.”

 “A tall, big Jew, huh?” Dan says, grinning as he glances at the photograph.  “He’d be easy to spot.  Most Jews I know are little guys with big noses.”  When he sees that I do not share his joke, he shifts uncomfortably, withdrawing his hand.  “Course, they didn’t deserve what the Nazis did to them.  Just saying that your Jew doesn’t sound run of the mill.”

 I ignore his opining.  “His name’s Allen Cronenburg.  Likes to go by ‘Al’ sometimes.”

 “The problem is,” Dan says, “that not many of them come around here.”  He hooks a thumb over his shoulder, indicating a Catholic crucifix on the wall.  “Even if he was welcome here—and he wouldn’t be—he wouldn’t dare show his face around here.  Not if he was a smart Jew.”

 “Guess I’ll ask around anyway,” I say, turning to go.

 “Not without buying a drink,” he says, his baby blue eyes hardening.

 I don’t drink anymore.  It gives me a headache, and I see more than I care to see when I’m drunk.  So I try a different tact.

 “You were in the Navy,” I say.  It is not a question.

 “Yeah.  What of it?”

 “Lost a lot of friends to the waves,” I say, trying not to stare too much at the swollen faces of the ghosts around him, behind the bar.

 “Maybe,” he says, shifting uncomfortably.

 “I lost friends, too,” I say.  “In the Death Factory.”

 His scowl dissolves into wonder.  “You survived the Death Factory?”

 “Somewhat,” I say.  “Not completely.”

 He nods.  He stoops down behind the bar and fetches a glass.  He pours a glass of beer and hands it over to me.  “On the house,” he says.

 I take a gulp— just enough to show good faith—and I survey the bar and its patrons.

 “The limp?” Dan asks.

 I nod.  “Lucky I got to keep it.  The leg, I mean.”

 Dan starts talking to me about his own wounds.  I am not listening to him.  One of his ghosts is sputtering with swollen lips, his voice gargling in his distended neck.  It is hard to understand the dead sailor and his babbling, but I get the gist of it.  The dead man tells me his message for Dan, the bartender.  I will tell him later.  Right now I am more concerned with finding the living man I was sent to find.

 “And so I get this shoulder ache pretty badly from time to time,” Dan concludes, grimacing as he rotates an arm.  “Better than dead, I always say.”

 “You don’t know the half of it,” I say.  “But keep the healthy perspective.  Excuse me.”

 I leave the counter and head toward the middle of the room, amidst all of the tables.  None of the ghosts look like a tall, big Jewish boy, so I ignore the ghosts, for now, and focus on the living.  A couple of guys at the far back corner have several dead men around them, their tickets punched to the Stygian shore.  Bullet holes in some.  Others with wires around their throats, eyes bulging out of their sockets.  Mafia men, likely.  One of them smirks up at me—as only a Mafia man can—and winks.  The other one—bigger than the smaller, smirkier one—scowls at me.

 Save those two for last, I think.  I focus on the other patrons before the smaller Mafia man’s smirk loses its edge of humor.  I could use tact with the two Mafia men—butter them up with some jokes and whatnot—but my leg is hurting me, so I just sit down, uninvited.  Sometimes you got to just open with an honest salvo.  Let’s both sides know that there is no flirtation involved.

 “Looking for this guy,” I say, holding up the photograph.  “Allen Cronenburg. You two wouldn’t happen to know what could have happened to him, would he?  He frequented this dock.  Possibly for business.  Possibly for pleasure.”

 “Maybe for both,” the smaller man says, smirking.  “Some of us have the good fortune of business and pleasure at the same time.”

 The bigger man says nothing.  He only nods, his hard gaze unblinking as it, in all likelihood, surveys me for every little bone he could break when need should arise.

 “It can be,” I admit, “but I don’t know the peculiarities of the man enough to know.  You know?  I wanted to make sure he did not get mixed up in anything that wasn’t…kosher.”

 The smaller man— an Italian with dark black hair and a pencil mustache that could underwrite your execution—smiles broadly.  His brown eyes glitter with amusement beneath his fedora.

 “This guy here is funny, ain’t he?” he says to the bigger man.

 “Real funny,” the bigger man says, mirthlessly.

 “And that’s why I’m going to give him a warning,” the Italian says.  “But in a funny way.”  He grabs my arm; not violently, but firmly, and points to his own nose with his other hand.  “We don’t like nosy people,” he says.  “And Jews got big noses, don’t they?”

 He laughs and lets go of my arm.  I smile, but it has no more humor in it than the bigger guy’s openly hostile grimace.  I wait until the Italian’s laughter peters off, then press him while still holding the photograph up.

 “So you’ve never heard of him?”

 The bigger man squints up and down at me like a tailor making an estimation of size for a suit, or an undertaker for a coffin.  The Italian glances at the photograph, briefly, then shrugs.

 “No,” he says, “but you keep sticking your nose where it don’t belong and you’ll wake up to find yourself a rabbi.”  He grins broadly.  “By which I mean you’ll have gotten an aversion to pig’s blood.”

 He chuckles.  His friend—accomplice or partner in crime or whatever he may be—does not share in this joke, either.  His grim expression is set in granite, like a mountain, and like a mountain he is ready to drop those boulders of his fists on my head.

 “What?” the Italian says, looking hurt.  “Nobody appreciates a good joke.  A couple of wet rags, the both of you.”

 “Thank you for your time, gentlemen,” I say, standing.

 “No problem, gumshoe,” the Italian says, rolling his eyes to watch me step away.  “Happy hunting.”

 I leave their table.  The two Mafia men are not responsible for Allen’s disappearance.  Their table is crowded with people, but none of their ghosts match the photo of Allen.  Their eyes follow me imploringly; wanting revenge or justice or acknowledgment.  I don’t have much time to offer them anything.  There are more dead in this city than there are homeless, and even if I had the money to offer the Ferryman payment to send each of them Beyond, I still wouldn’t have the time to see it through.

 The next person I visit is an old man with the drunken dazzle of the sea in his swaying eyes.

 “Hello there, old-timer,” I say.  “Mind if I shoot the breeze with you for a minute?”

 “It’s a briny breeze,” the old man says, taking a gulp of his beer.  “Awfully salty.  But it’s the way I like it.”

 “I don’t doubt it,” I say.  I sit across from him, the wobbly little table between us.  I show him the photograph.  “Mother’s looking for her son.  Young man, as you can see.  Allen Cronenburg.  Big Jew.  Probably head and shoulders above us all.”

 The old man finishes his beer in one last gulp, then squints at the photograph.  He is wearing a trechcoat, like mine, but faded with too much sun and saltwater.

 “There ain’t no saltwater like a mother crying for her lost child,” he says.  “Big man, hm?”  He rubs his scraggly beard.  “Lots of lads help on the docks.  Different sizes, but few so tall as you say.  Maybe he sought his fortunes over the waves.  Some of us do, and never look back.  Take a new mother to replace the old.”

 “I thought he might,” I say, “but I still need to make sure, if I can.”  I shrug.  “I don’t get paid, otherwise.”

 The old man drinks the rest of his beer, squinting with one eye out the window, toward the docks.  He never blinks.  He seems the type that stares at the sun defiantly, even if it burns out his sea-dazzled eyes.

 “Aye, the payout’s what we are all looking for,” he says.  He sets his empty mug down on the table, in front of me.  “Any sailor worth his saltwater gets a portion forwarded afore the ship sets out to sea.”

 Taking the hint, I pick it up and bring it to the bar.  I tell Dan I need another beer.

 “On the house,” he says.

 “Not for me,” I say, hooking a thumb over my shoulder at the old-timer.  “Him.”

 It is a mistake.

 “His tab is as deep as the Mariana Trench.  I’m not even sure how he got that beer to begin with.  Probably filched it from somebody or suckered them with a sob-story.”

 “I’m not looking for a sob-story,” I assure him.  “Just a trail, or a few breadcrumbs.”

 “You’ll get nothing from him but hogwash.”

 “Regardless,” I say, “I need a beer for him.  I’ll pay.”

 I pay for the beer, then bring it back to the old sailor.  I set the mug in front of him.

 “Thank you, kindly,” he says.  He takes the mug casually, lipping the froth.  I ask him a few questions as he wets his beard.  He ignores my questions in the meantime, then sets his mug down.

 “What you need to know,” he says, “is that men have been dying around here.  Young, old, Christian, Jew, Negro, Pollock.  It don’t matter as to who—they’ve all been turning up dead.  And by ‘turning up’ I mean to say floating up.  We’ve been finding them on the sea near the docks.  Lot’s o’ dead from drowning.  Or so it seemed at first.  Only, they’ve been done a terrible wrong.  Their…well, their lower halves have been violated all bloody.  Mutilated.  And sharks and fishes can only account for so much.  Maybe they all crossed the wrong gang.  I don’t know what Christian would do that to a man to kill him.  A garroter might bloody his hands a little with a little wire, and a hitman might bore a swallow’s nest out of a man’s head, but to do what has been done to some of these boys?  Well, what diabolical bastard would do that?”

 “You think Allen suffered the same treatment?” I ask.

 He takes another swig of his beer, clearing his throat roughly as if he’s got shrapnel in it.

 “Don’t know.  All I know is that even the gangs around here are unnerved by it.  Nobody wants to talk about the bodies.  Even those tough boys over there that you risked your stones to talk to don’t like nobody saying nothing about it when they’re in earshot of it.  Gets them upset.”

 The old-timer chuckles, or gargles glass— it is hard to tell the difference.

 “They go all lily-white,” he says quietly.  “Reminds me of that fellar in London with the knives and the prostitutes.  What’s his name?”

 “Jack the Ripper,” I say.

 He nods.  “Something like him,” he says.  “You don’t want to find a body like that.”  He gives me a knowing look.  “You were in the War, right?”

 “Yes,” I say.

 “Well, it’s like somebody sat on a landmine.  Not a pretty sight.  You know, we used to eat turtles, and one of the ways of cleaning them is to cut off the head and put a hose in the stump, flushing it with water.  These bodies are like that, only reversed.”

 He takes one last swig of his beer, tilting his head back dramatically and draining it to the dregs.  His head sways as if he is ready to fall asleep, but his eyes never shut or blink.  They just keep on squinting.  I wonder if he sleeps with his eyes open, like Captain Ahab ever fixed upon his White Whale.

 “No, sir,” he concludes, “you do not want to witness what we pulled up in our fishing nets.  It’s likely to haunt a man…even a man that’s seen the horrors of War.”

 This conversation finished, I stand up and walk around between some of the other patrons of the Creak-Easy.  Some are more taciturn than others.  Some can’t stop talking; others are tight-lipped as a can of sardines and mercury.  Eventually, someone makes a scene.  Not me, or anyone I am conversing with, but a newcomer barging in through the door.

 “Whooooo!” the newcomer crescendoes, wobbly as a jellyfish.  He is wearing an old, dirty coat and a pair of dirty slacks.  A hat sits crookedly on his head, and seems like it will fall off at any moment as he wobbles left and right.  Ican tell just by the look of him that he has all his shoestrings untied.

 “Leroy, you loon!” Dan yells.  “I’ve told you before to get out and stay out!”

 Leroy’s feet halt, their big boots planting heavily on the floor, but his upper body sways as if he was a plunger struck by a 2×4.  He is a lanky man of indeterminate age, his dirty beard curly and twirly.

 “Oh, Dan!” Leroy exclaims.  “Jus’ lemme’ haf a seagull drink.  Jus’ won drink!”

 “You’ve have enough, by the look of you!” Dan says, scowling.  “Get outta’ here before I have to throw you out.  Go get some sleep!”

 “I can’t,” Leroy says mournfully, blinking back tears I cannot see.  “I ain’t had nuffin’ to eat!  Not won bite!”

 Dan glares all the harder, but says no more.  His anger gives way to blue-eyed pity—reluctantly—and he fishes into his pocket with a hand.  Sighing, he holds up a couple of quarters.

 “Go get something to eat,” Dan says, “somewhere else.”

 Leroy wobbles to the bar, takes the two quarters, and stands there, staring at all of the liquor behind Dan.

 “I said go,” Dan repeats.  “Somewhere else.”

 Leroy purses his lips thirstily, then sighs as if someone told him his childhood sweetheart has died.

 “Ain’t no love fo’ ol’ Leroy ‘round ear,” Leroy groans.  “Jus’ haf to throw mah’selth in the oshun if I wanna’ drink.  Like ‘em lizard people.  THE LIZARD PEOPLE!” he shouts at the end for emphasis.

 Leroy staggered toward the door, the two quarters now gone into his dirty coat pocket.  Smelling a potential trail, I head after him.  Drunks with loose lips can reveal things that others are less likely to say.

 Dan meets me at the door.

 “I know what you’re thinking,” he says, “but Leroy’s a lost cause.  He can’t offer you any info except what color the park bench is under its seat.”

 “What happened to him?” I ask, still eying Leroy as he goes through the door.

 “Same thing that happened to everybody else,” Dan says.  “The War.  Leroy was a cook on my ship.  He wasn’t a bad guy, just a bad cook.  All he could cook well was his own brain.  And then a kamikaze hit us and he took a heavy kettle to the head.  He has been dazed ever since. Dazed and confused and drunk.  Once, when sober, he begged me for a drink.  Saying he kept hearing ‘voices’.”

 “Lizard men?” I say.

 Dan shook his head.  “No, the voices of all of the men trapped below-deck.  The ship was taking on water and we had to abandon ship.  We…we all hear those voices sometimes.  That’s why I can’t stand the Japs next-door.  I won’t go out of my way to tell them so, but I can’t stand them.”

 “What are they, tenants?”

 “Something like that,” he says, scowling.  “But they also sell food to idiots willing to eat it.  They act innocent, but no Jap’s ever been straight.  Even their eyes are slanted, ya’ know?  Probably been killing people and putting them in their soup.  They’re goddamn cannibals, and I would know.  I’ve heard stories from buddies in the Pacific.  Japs don’t even value their own lives.  Kamikazes will tell you that much.  Crashed into us like they were playing chicken while blindfolded.”

 Japs next-door.  Cannibal soup.  Farfetched, I know, but I think I’ll bite this hook and see where it takes me.

Clockwork Opportunism

The banker tired of the noisy geese in his lake, so he ordered his groundskeeper to scatter poisoned bread bits among the shoals. He then waited inside his mansion, occasionally glancing at his silver pocketwatch and enjoying his weekend leisure time. The next day the geese were all dead, their bodies floating lifeless upon the water. Satisfied, he strolled around the lake, breathing in the fresh Alpine air as it rebuffed the stench of the dead geese. Suddenly, another flock of geese came swooping down and settled upon the lake, ignoring the limp bodies as they relaxed upon the water. Seeing this, the banker laughed, shrugged, and fingered his silver pocketwatch. The glass face of the watch shimmered like the face of the lake.  The watch was of German make, dated to 1939. A Star of David was inscribed on the inside of the cover. The Swiss banker was not Jewish.  He turned to his groundskeeper and gestured toward the living geese floating undisturbed among the dead ones.
“How alike we are,” he said. “They never overlook an opportunity.”

The Crossroads

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.