From World War I…
Along about sunset, I began to think of the dead. They were lying where we had to place them, with rubber capes over them. It had started to snow, but along the western horizon, away back over Mount St. Eloi and Villiers au Bois, far back westward where Canada lay, and all heart’s desire, there was a narrow magenta strip of sky.
I was standing in our newly dug trench, looking back at the sunset through the grotesque and shattered arms of the apple trees that had been the orchard of La Folie farm. And there I saw a curious figure. It was our new chaplain, Padre Davis, whom I had not yet met. He was kneeling in the mud, in the open, with his helmet off, reading from the little book.
My sergeant, Sgt. Charles Windsor, was farther along the trench. I went to him and he got two of our men with shovels. We crept out into the orchard and I chose a shell hole and they dug from it a single big grave. We had seven men to bury out of our little platoon.
While they were carrying the boys from the different parts of the orchard to this best spot, which was under a tree that I thought might some day leaf and flourish again, I went and told the padre.
But he said it would be an hour or two, and long after dark, before he could get to us, because he had so many right where he was.
“Bury them,” he said, “and if you like, say the Lord’s Prayer over them. That is your privilege. An officer may bury his men. And then in the morning, as soon as it grows light, I will come and we will hold the service over them.”
This was my first meeting with him. He was gentle, standing there in this ghastly place, the slow snow falling on his bared head, the odd last shell moaning over, and darkness folding down. I thanked him and saluted because I was so tired and trying to do the right thing.
When I got back, the boys were in their grave. The two men with the shovels were standing by, like the picture called “The Angelus.” Sgt. Windsor said I should get down in the grave, where the boys were lying under their rubber sheets, and take their personal effects, paybooks and notification disks off them. But I asked him to do it, because he was so much older a soldier than I, though younger in years. He had been in three battles. This was my first.
He climbed out and handed me the seven dirty handkerchiefs tied up into little bundles.
“Now, men,” I said, “I will say the Lord’s Prayer before you cover in the grave.”
We all took off our helmets and bowed our heads.
“The Lord’s Prayer,” I announced firmly.
And I started to remember the Lord’s Prayer.
It seemed so far away. The Lord’s Prayer, I said to myself. And my mind went wandering down all the long, empty alleys of my mind, away down lonely empty forgotten alleys, where therer was nobody any more, but like a vacant house that had not been lived in for many a year.
And I could see my mind, shaped something like me, but more like a boy, a boy that grew smaller and smaller all the time it wandered down those grey forgotten corridors, and it could not find the Lord’s Prayer, anywhere. I could feel the men standing there across the grave, and one of them coughed briefly.
Then, all of a sudden, I found it. The Lord’s Prayer. Why, of course. It came clearly.
“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
God bless father, and moth…”
There I stopped, for I knew it was wrong. All wrong. I glanced fearfully at Sgt. Windsor, and he was shaping a twisted smile at me up under his eyebrows in the gloom, but tears were on his dirt-streaked cheeks.
He nodded to me, and nodded toward the grave at our feet.
So I said:
“God bless these seven men.”
The two with the shovels started throwing in the earth.
Then Sgt. Windsor took one of the shovels from them and carried on.
I laid my seven small bundles down and took the shovel from the other man.
When it was finished, it was dark.