It was the third column of the day. The novelty had worn off now, the mood had changed.
On the arrival of the first one, marked by an earth trembling roar of diesel engines groaning their way through barely passable streets, virtually the whole village had turned out. Children shrieked with delight, chasing the metal behemoths of the tanks and optimistically calling for soldiers to give them a turn driving. The men, or at least the elders who had stayed far from the front, stroked their beards and pontificated on what these passing troops meant. Good news for the army, bad news, attack or retreat, victory or surrender. An academic matter, the war was a long way away, fought on imagined battlefields by immortal armies. At least that was as far as they were willing to let their thoughts stray before pushing against the unpleasant and unspoken truth.
The women just stared, or locked themselves away from the tumult of marching troops. Too many had lost too much. The sight of survivors, or those soon to die, was merely a false promise for the fate of their own sons, fathers, brothers and husbands. Or an unwelcome reminder of those whose marches had already ended. A few shooed their children away, fearful of the corruption of war that followed armies like a disease, infecting the mind before destroying the body. The children evaded them with a laugh, too lost in excitement to see anything but life and the intriguing other.
All of that passed though. By the time the third column arrived the image had grown too detailed. What had seemed an earth rattling stampede of engines had dulled to a constant reverberating roar. The children had lost interest, called home or gone to new excitement. The men and women had seen faces. As the soldiers had passed men had taken their place, grey faced and hollow. Eyes floating beyond their bodies, trapped in distant moments and places. To speculate or seek feeling there felt like a trap. Look too closely and you’d fall in yourself. Better by far to be behind closed doors, the war once again a far away fantasy. Fought on distant battlefields, with immortal soldiers.
Then the shelling started.
This is from No Cure for Shell Shock, a collection of short stories and poetry. It’s available as an eBook or paperback here.