by Harris Coverley
The Germans had
fallen back from the town of Rien-Lieu, some twenty miles west of Lille, and it
was the job of our platoon to search the place for any survivors, soldier or
It was in the
corner of a ruined church where we found him, scrunched up like an unborn baby,
his hands wrapped tight about his knees, his head buried between his legs. His uniform
was torn up, and his skin covered with deep cuts.
All he could
repeat, over and over, was: “He needs to
mail his letter… he needs to mail his letter… ”
Our lieutenant had
the authority to right there and then drag him to his feet and shoot him for cowardice,
but he took pity on the boy and decided to take him back to our dugout as a
wounded. We identified him through his tag: Corporal Charles Herbert Stratton,
of the Fifth Brigade.
Each of us took
turns watching him; by the fourth night it was my turn, and Stratton was
finally talking with more sense.
“He needed to mail
a letter he did,” he mumbled unprompted as I fed him some stew from a bowl,
still in that way like a baby.
Stratton?” I asked, desperate to get an answer to the mystery.
Williams,” he said. “He kept going on and on before the advance… he had to get
a letter to his fiancée… ”
“What happened to
“Dead. But… ”
“But? But what?”
shuddered. I told him he did not need tell me now, but he carried on: “Williams
was right in front of me when the shell hit… it was right in front of him. I
fell to the ground, and when the dust cleared… his head was right there
“I’m very sorry
hear that Corporal… ”
“But then someone
picked his head up… ”
“It wasn’t just
anybody though; it was a… thing… ”
I put the stew
bowl down and asked, “What thing?”
headless body,” the Corporal replied in a whisper. “And I remember what those
bloody lips said to me as I looked up: ‘I’ve
got to get that letter to my sweetheart’. It then just wandered away into
the mist… ”
I finished feeding
him and then wrapped him in a blanket for sleep, putting the Corporal’s
experience down to the by now familiar hysteria of war.
The next morning
Stratton was missing, having slipped away in the night. He was never found. Our
lieutenant reported him as missing-in-action,
as opposed to him being a deserter, to save his family some grief at least. My
failure however to notice his escape was given a severe reprimand, although
luckily not a court-martial.
nonetheless, not the oddest thing. Years later, at the start of the Second
Great War, I was told by a former lance-corporeal who had been in our squadron
that the fiancée had in fact received a letter from Private Williams, in his
handwriting, dated 11th November 1916—two days after he had
supposedly been killed in battle. I originally characterised this as hearsay,
or a mistake on Williams’ part, but as I now reach the end of my own life, I am
not so sure.
Coverley has short fiction published or
forthcoming in Hypnos, The Periodical, Forlorn, The Centropic
Oracle, and Penumbric Speculative Fiction Magazine, amongst many
others. He also has verse in Polu Texni, Star*Line, Spectral
Realms, Flying Fox Flash, Scifaikuest, Yellow Mama, and elsewhere.
He lives in Manchester, England.