Classic Literary Fiction Historical

The Courage of the Cowardly Soul Chapter 1

By Charles Donahue
2,300 words · 9-minute reading time
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Chapter 1: A Stranger in a Strange Land

The crash of mortar shells and the whistle of distant incendiary devices are but a small part of the echoes war leaves in the heart. The shadows of combat are often much quieter, much softer and much deeper than those. I’ve wondered, not infrequently, what it would have felt like to be the officer whose order was the source of the devastation, and whether the act of articulating the small words that constituted that directive carried with it a kind of implicit and equivalent recoil to that of the gun. I suppose I will never know, because I was never suited for command, much less so after my brief stint in active combat.

Upon reflection, an incident that occurred after I left the army occurs to me as emblematic of the reasons why. It was once my unfortunate duty to attempt the removal of a small patch of shrapnel from a young boy’s arm. There was nothing especially grisly about the endeavor, nor sickening about the circumstances, but I was nonetheless deeply troubled by the expression contained in his eyes. They were deeply blue—aggressively blue in fact. I felt, for a paranoid instant, as if they judged me.

But, everything felt judgemental in those days, and I suppose that’s the just fate of a guilty conscience. So, I worked as best I could, trying with all my strength to avoid his stare. It was too late, however, and I was forced to give up the effort. Just as I was about to leave the room, certain that there was nothing left to do, Sister Josephine walked in and, as she always did, immediately read the situation accurately.

Taking up a position by my side, she quietly began a plethora of prayers. In no particular order, she worked her way through the standard service, and then through more obscure ones. This process continued for hours, as death from sepsis is not an expedient nor pleasant one. But, and this is what struck me, she did not tear her gaze away from the boy’s eyes. Where I had seen judgement she saw... well, I suppose I don’t know what she saw.

Something about this incident seared itself into my memory, and though I was never able to quite put it into words, I often recall those eyes, viscerally and in great detail. Still, for months afterwards, I tried to find in memory what Sister Josephine had seen in reality.

But, the funny thing about memory is that, contrary to popular belief, we do not recall incidents as snapshots of time, nor do we concretize reality within our minds like the camera or paintbrush. What we remember is a story: with heroes and villains and all the gray shades between. Frustratingly, we are all unreliable narrators, and as time progresses, we tend to reframe our entire lives; so much so that details as mundane as a soldier boy’s eyes, once so clear and understandable, become as formless and shifting as the icy depths of the ocean.

Through the trials of war and the infinitely more challenging trials of peace I have found my way through the chaos. I hope this record can serve as a kind of roadmap, albeit one of the heart and soul, which can lead others through it as well. Here is my story, as clearly and accurately as my mind can formulate, but containing within it all the shifting uncertainty of life in the frigid depths of the Arctic.

***

A medic is to a doctor as a line cook is to a chef. We get the job done, but it’s never pretty and you’re likely to throw up when all’s said and done. I wasn’t the ideal medic, and had been told so on numerous occasions. My time at the monastery was no different.

Incidentally, I’m no better as a storyteller; and as such I have no idea where to begin. But in order to tell my life story, I must choose a point in time and call it the beginning. For me, time began on a dusty afternoon at the Mercy of Christ monastery.

The monastery had decided at the outbreak of war to be a place of refuge for wounded soldiers. Ideally positioned less than a mile from the French-German border, it was quite a simple matter to ferry these men back and forth. But it was not an easy one; it required enduring combat in as cruel and pure a form as the soldiers themselves. The military was glad of the help and largely left us alone. I had worked there as a medic for about a month.

That day, a particularly heavy stream of soldiers had been brought to us for treatment. It had been a busy day at war. I half-heartedly snapped on my gloves, took my scalpel in hand and set about the gruesome business of removing bullets from flesh.

The room us medical staff were assigned to work in was a small one, windowless and lit only by a few austere light bulbs. The cots were gray, uniform, lifeless. Soon, many of them would be occupied by lifeless forms.

The reason I remembered this batch of soldiers in particular was the overwhelming number of them. It felt as if I was treating the entire French army. Sister Rosyln was her usual stern self, keeping a watchful eye over us to ensure that we were performing up to her standards. They were unreasonable, and none of us did. Any time we took a moment to rest, or administered an incorrect amount of medicine, were it to have been by one tenth of a milligram or ten thousand, she would chastise us, and always the same way.

“Their life is in your hands! How would you feel if it were you?”
    I always wished I had the courage to respond “A hell of a lot better than I do now.”

But her face, always the perfect compromise between furious and condescending, dissuaded any such behavior permanently. I ignored her as best I could, as I had become accustomed to doing. Fumbling fingers and stumbling syringes, these were unavoidable. But, when life and death were on the line, there was no room for either.

I had been operating on instinct until I reached a particular patient. He was a young man, about my age, perhaps a bit older. As I was reaching down to inject him with morphine, I noticed a small bracelet wrapped around his wrist. There was a pattern at its center: a snake wrapped around three concentric circles. When it caught my eye, my arm froze in midair.

I felt ill. Walking up to Sister Rosyln, I blurted out, “I need to go, I...” my tongue felt too big for my mouth.

She took one look at me and realized it would do no good to argue. “Go,” she said, simply.

I nodded, and ran to the nearest bathroom, emptying the contents of my stomach into a toilet. Flashes of memory came unbidden to the forefront of my mind.

Barbed wire and flashes of light. Distant gunfire. Bodies.

A streak of green. Fumbling bodies and panicked voices.

“GRENADE!” I shouted.

Paul, who stood next to me, shoved me aside, and curled himself around the device, absorbing its destructive force.

The last thing I saw before his grisly end: the sun glinting off his bracelet: a snake wrapped around three concentric circles. A gift given to us by the company commander.

I gripped the sides of the toilet, panting then wiping my mouth. The stench was horrid, but all I could think of was the bracelet and the way it had caught the light, burning into my retinas. It had pierced my eyes, through my brain and into... dear God I almost said soul. But I knew better. There was no such thing.

I couldn’t return to the infirmary; couldn’t deal with the death and the pain any longer. I needed a still place to calm my nerves. I stood, and began the walk to the sanctuary. It would be empty at this time of day: everyone else was doing their duty. Bravely.

I spent much of my time at the monastery sitting in the quiet solitude of the sanctuary, away from the ceaseless rhythm of daily life. There was also a strange quality to the silence: an oppressive one which imbued the room with a grave-like atmosphere. But, it was one of the few places in those days which lived up to its name and as such I felt implicitly safe there.

There was much to want protection from in the darkest days of 1914. Europe had collapsed into the inferno of war — the unthinkable had been called forth into reality as nightmares from the depths of childhood grew legs and vicious fangs.

I found myself drawn almost magnetically to the stained glass windows and crucifix figures of the sanctuary. I had confessed my sins in that room, prayed for peace and spent hours in meditation. Strangely, I did not interact with God there. I didn’t know where he was or what he was doing but I knew I wanted no part of it. My faith had died in the trenches along with my friends.

Why had I chosen a religious life? That was precisely the question I spent my time pondering, one which I found led to more confusion than clarity. My conversations with Father Matthews were endlessly centered around these questions of theology and faith. I found a calmness in his direct demeanor which was difficult to understand.

That particular day, I was seated in a pew, recovering my strength after that unpleasant day in the infirmary. I was at the front of the room, staring absently at the statue of Jesus and Mary. The multicolored rays streaming through the stained glass were dimming; soon it would be dark.

“Long day? You’ve got the long face for it,” Father Matthews shook me from my contemplation.

“Very long,” I agreed.

“I reckon you’re not up for another round?” he offered his traditional challenge.

“Oh, why not?” I assented, a smile tugging at the corners of my mouth.

Father Matthews sat next to me and closed his eyes for a moment. A peaceful expression spread across his face.

“Tell me about your day, Jacque.”

“There were more soldiers today. The fighting is heating up on the border. Those Germans are animals.”

Father Matthews smiled, “You know, I bet there’s a German medic out there saying the same of us.”

“Probably,” I agreed.

“Who’s right?”

“What difference does it make?” I asked, sincerely.

“You’ve gotta know who’s right. Right and wrong, up and down, you’ve gotta know,” he said, trying to sound wise, but falling short at pedantic.

“Dead is dead, Father Matthews.”

He laughed. “Some kinds of dead are worse.”

“Doesn’t make any difference to the dead man.”

“It does to God. Let me ask you something. If you find a corpse on the side of the road,

abandoned, no one’s gonna come and claim it, it’s just sitting there. If you were to, say, cut off its finger, would that be wrong?”

“Yeah, that’d be wrong.”

“Why?”

“Because, that’s a person!”

Father Matthews raised his eyebrows, “Not anymore. That’s just a body. No, it’s not a crime against the man, you see, it’s a crime against God.”

“What God? The one who let the man die in the first place?”

Father Matthews was silent for a time.

“Tell me about the war, Jacque.”

We had agreed never to speak of the war. “Don’t ask me about the war. You know...”

“I know that you showed up at the monastery in a French Army uniform, asking for work as a medic. I can fill in the blanks, but I want you to tell me.”

A sudden, unwelcome stinging sensation appeared in my eye. A tremulous quality entered my voice. “Why? Why do you need to hear it?”

Father Matthews put his hand on my shoulder, “Because you need to say it.”

I sighed. “I deserted the army,” I whispered.

“Louder,” Father Matthews pushed me.

“I deserted the army,” I said, at a normal volume.

“Louder!” he shouted at me.

“Alright!” I yelled, standing. “Alright then you son of a bitch! I’ll say it loud enough for the Military Police to hear a mile away! I deserted the army! I left my platoon and walked here to escape the war. Is that what you wanted to hear? Do you take such pleasure at my shame?” Tears streamed down my face.

Father Matthews shook his head. “I don’t want to see you in pain. But you seem to love the misery since you refuse to talk about what happened to you. So, tell me. You know, there are things you don’t really know until you’ve said them.”

The world was spinning, my head pounded terribly. I didn’t understand, “I know what happened to me. I know.”

Father Matthews stood, “Not yet you don’t. Not until you tell me.”

I sat, and buried my head in my hands, the stained glass and the statues and Father Matthews and the French countryside swirling around me, melding into a confusing tapestry of truth and lies. Suddenly, the world became very small, and I very large, and there was the overwhelming feeling that I had nowhere to hide. Cosmic claustrophobia. There was only one way out, I knew it, and that was straight through the chaos.

And so I opened my mouth, and plunged headfirst into the icy depths of the past.

This story originally appeared in Unlikely Story.


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