Imagine that you are not a part of this time and place, but another. You were born on the Caribbean island of Martinique, sometime after 1885 but before 1897. You grow up in a poor family, in a poor country. Your father might be a fisherman, or he might work on a sugar plantation, or he might do nothing at all.
Though you sometimes have nothing to eat and your brothers and sisters have no shoes to wear, you find simple joys. You wade through streams and try to catch river gobies and mountain mullets with your bare hands. You pinch guava and mango from the fruit sellers and hide from them in the bushes while you gobble up your prize. You swim in the clear blue waters that separate you and everything you know from another world you’ve only heard of.
You grow up and you do not think much of the world beyond; your life does not require you to. All you know of it is the place the white men come from, all the soldiers and priests: France. You go on living your life, giving little thought to France, and imagining that France must be giving little thought to yours. But you are wrong.
In 1913, a proclamation is made. 1,100 men from Martinique are to be sent to France each year to take up arms. Soon a war is declared, and many more are called up. Maybe you were one of the first to go. Perhaps you were able to escape it for a year. But that does not matter. What matters is that you are on a boat now, leaving your home for the first time. You watch with wonder as it recedes in the distance, until it is small, until it is no bigger than a gnat, until it is nothing at all.
It is the happiest day of your life. There are other, monumentally happy days in your recent past – the wedding day, the birth of your first child less than a year ago. But this day is like a capstone to all of those, the final measure that secures those triumphs and preserves them for the future. This is the day that you bought your first house.
It has white shutters, it has granite countertops, it has ample yardage for you to set up a trampoline or build a pool if you so wish. It has everything that you and your wife wanted. It is in a good neighborhood, in a good town, in a good school district – the same district where you teach history to high schoolers. You think of your child growing and someday taking your class when you are old, not old like your father, but so much older than you are now. In your mind, that settles the question. This is the happiest day of your life.
Now you are in a place called Ypres, in a land called Belgium. Ypres is all you have seen of this country. The town is a ruin, the land all around it flat and brown and blasted by shells. You wonder if the entire country looks this way, and you are afraid that it does.
You live in a trench. France gave you a long blue coat and a rifle. You have fired it, but you have never seen the men you are firing at. The other white men you fight – they call them the huns – are in another trench, living like you.
There are many Frenchmen here, more than you have ever seen, more Frenchmen than you believed could exist. They sing songs that you can half-understand with your creole tongue. They receive tins from home filled with chocolates and butter and pipe tobacco, and sometimes they share these things with you.
Next to your position are Moroccans and Algerians, darker than Frenchmen but not so dark as yourself. Like you, they have been called up from distant lands and their very presence at the front feels like some sort of misunderstanding.
In the nights, especially when a cold rain falls and turns the earth to mud, you think of home. With closed eyes you imagine yourself walking there on foot, walking over the sea, and try to count the steps to lull yourself to sleep.
You are at a conference in a mid-sized city, somewhere that is an airplane ride away from your own. It is the first time you have attended something like this. You had reservations about traveling so soon after moving into the new house, but your wife encouraged you to attend. She thought it would be an important step for your career, maybe a chance to make a connection and publish some of the research that you’ve been conducting outside your work.
The hotel is in a convenient downtown location. The bed in your room seems large enough for three, and it is made so tightly that you must kick to extend your legs to the end of the mattress.
Your mornings begin with a complimentary breakfast: orange juice from the carton, perfectly cut slices of cantaloupe, dense bagels and packets of cream cheese. You call your wife every morning after breakfast. You are worried about something, something that you had intended to take care of before you left home for the airport, but you were late and it went undone. Perhaps you only remember it this way because of what happened later. Maybe you had no worries at all.
Then you return to your room to brush your teeth and don the blue sportcoat that bears your nametag, and set out for one of the enormous, carpeted rooms filled with folding chairs that will make up your day.
The day is April 22nd, 1915. It is warm and clear and at first it passes like any other. You rise and drink the stale, weak coffee with the other men. After breakfast the Germans begin shelling you, another scheduled event just like lunch or supper. You make yourself as small a target as you can in the trench as wet earth flies above your head, and you wait for it to end. Then it is lunchtime, hard bread and salted pork washed down with vinegary wine. The afternoon passes by.
While you and your comrades hide in your trenches, some of the Germans are out of theirs. 5,370 Germans, to be exact. These men – fathers, husbands, sons – are not marching forward with rifles in their hands. Each is carrying a 90-pound cylinder instead. They halt before walking into shooting range and open the cylinders by hand. Then they return to their trenches, and wait.
You are waiting for supper (a mealy mess of rice and beans, washed down with more vinegary wine) when you see something strange in the distance. It is not the enemy; it is a cloud, greenish-gray in color and close to the ground like a fog. A light breeze from the northeast pushes it closer to you.
It is late now. This is the final night of the conference, and many of the attendees are passing it at the hotel bar.
The day was successful. You presented your paper, a survey of early German gas attacks in the First World War, to a full room. The crowd was attentive and enthusiastic, and fielded questions. Afterwards a history professor from the state university approached you and discussed publishing your paper in his department’s journal.
You are on your third gin and tonic. You had planned to call your wife before the hour grew too late, but to your surprise you learn that it is nearly midnight. She is surely asleep with the baby, you think. You do not wish to disturb either of them.
She is indeed sleeping, and so is the baby, far away from you and your gin and tonic. She heated a can of soup for dinner that night. She thought of washing the pot, but decided to leave it on the stove and take care of it in the morning. The baby had scarcely allowed her to sleep the night before and she is exhausted.
Perhaps that is the reason she forgot to turn off the stove’s front burner. It is still burning on a low heat, heating the empty pot. In time this creates carbon monoxide: colorless, odorless, tasteless. A single atom of oxygen and a single atom of carbon. The carbon monoxide detector you purchased is in a closet, in its packaging, as silent as the rest of the house.
At the bar you push a wedge of lime around the bottom of your empty glass with a cocktail straw and realize you are drunk. You return to the strange hotel bed for the last night of sleep there, and resolve to call your wife in the morning. When you do the line rings for a very long time, then it stops.
The officers blow their whistles and order you to prepare for an attack. You ready your rifle and mount the trench’s fire step, expecting to see the Germans emerge from this unnatural cloud cover at any moment. But the Germans never come. Only the cloud does.
As it draws closer a strange smell reaches your nose. No, it is not strange to you, it is only strange to this place. It’s a smell you grew up with, a smell of home – pineapple. The sweet, fresh odor of pineapple mixed with the kick of pepper. You close your eyes for a second and you are back in Martinique with your brothers and sisters as children, bringing your father a pineapple and begging him to cut it open for you.
But when you open them you are still in the trench, and the cloud is about to reach the parapet. It pauses for a moment as if unsure of its intentions. Then it gathers itself and washes over the trench like a wave.
You hear shouts coming from either side of you, places the cloud has already engulfed, and wild shooting. But the shooting is only coming from your side; the advancing Germans, if there are any, remain silent. As you ready your rifle the cloud washes over you and your mouth is filled with the taste of metal. Then there is a pain in your throat, and your eyes begin to burn. You drop the rifle.
The world has gone black around you, and the only thing that proves whether it still exists are the screams surrounding around you. You have heard men scream and wail and cry for their mothers before, but this is different. These are not the sounds of human fear but of animals in pain.
That pain in your eyes and throat is unlike any you have experienced before. You feel as if a hot poker has been pushed into your sockets, down your throat. Then the pain descends, into your chest, and your breathing becomes difficult. You cough, and retch and grasp for air.
You think back to a day long ago, when you and your brothers swam in the ocean. You were small, but tried your best to keep up with your older brothers. But a riptide pulled you under, and the world went black. When you washed ashore you had no air left in your lungs and you feared that they would never be able to take in air again.
Then everything you’ve eaten that day spills into the trench, and the vomiting grants you relief for just a few moments before the pain and the feeling of suffocation returns. Now there is a splitting pain in your head as well, as if a shell has burst above it, and your legs begin to feel weak.
With all of your strength you manage to open your burning eyes. Around you are dozens of men clawing at their faces, and scores more lying in their own vomit or the vomit of others. You understand that this is your fate if you allow the weakness of your legs to pull you down. You manage to set one foot in front of the other, and soon you are climbing out of the trench and back on the flat land above it. You see other men in the French uniform running beyond you, and more lying in the field where their legs failed them.
But yours do not, and you reach a hospital tent at the end of your lines. You cannot remember how you got there; everything after leaving the trench is a blur of pain. Now you lay on a stretcher beside many others who are suffering just as you are, and the air is filled with the sounds of men trying desperately to breathe. Here and there a last breath is sounded, and a man falls silent at last.
Your skin is cold, and more than once you wonder if you have died as well. But then the pain in your chest and your head remind you that you still live, and you continue to fight for breath with all the others. By some miracle, you survive.
It is not an easy recovery. For days afterward you continue to fight for breath, and when you cough into your hands you leave dark blood and slick, yellow fluids on your palms. For weeks you struggle to walk even short distances without gasping for breath. You have becomes useless to France, and France sends you home.
Back in Martinique, months pass as you regain your strength. You can even walk uphill again. Your body, it seems, has healed. But there is another wound, and it is far deeper. You feel it when you remember the other men around you, the ones who could not breathe again. You feel it when you pass their homes, their mothers, wives and children. You feel it most when you ask why you still live, and receive no answer. This wound never heals.
Eric Twardzik is a Boston-based fiction writer and journalist and graduate of the creative writing program at Emerson College.
Featured image on this post © Bennett North. Author photo © the author.