by Ellie Karlin
The candle gleamed with an angry light. The flame grew with every passing moment. I knew it wanted nothing more than to sink its teeth into my flesh.
Dead man, the candle hissed at me. Just another dead man.
I felt its heat on my face, and then I was burning, my skin alive with heat, even as my frail body shook and my teeth rattled. I shivered all over. There was pain, smoking, freezing pain that covered me like red paint. Once, I thought I understood pain, but that was before, when I was young. Strong. Powerful.
I was breathing quickly. Too quickly. I couldn’t stop. The breaths were agony but they kept coming. Each lungful squeezed through my oesophagus.
Dead man, the candle whispered, just another dead man.
The flame was so close and so big. It loomed over me. My chest rose and fell in juddering gasps. I screamed and figures rushed in. I tried to tell them about the candle, but it came out as another scream.
I screamed myself into oblivion.
When I woke up, the world was very bright.
I was standing on a beach, the sun blazing down, and for one glorious moment I thought I was free. Then I sniffed the air. Mixed in with the ocean’s salty tang was the long-forgotten stench of death.
Staring around in horror, memories rose from the ashes. For the second time in my life, I looked upon a yellow beach strewn with corpses. They littered the sand like chewing gum wrappers, dead and empty. Some of their mouths gaped open. They had died screaming. Some of the faces were shrivelled and decayed. Some of them didn’t have faces at all. I stared into their eyes, those who had them. Brown, blue, green, grey, black, it didn’t matter. They all stared up at the sky, unseeing, and I stared down at them.
Around me, living men were gathering bodies, dragging them up the beach. They moved like robots, stiff-limbed and automatic, but revulsion and pity lined their faces.
Then I was among them, cradling the dead in my arms, loading them onto carts. Men around me were speaking softly to each other. I tried to speak too, but the scene was already dissolving.
We were building some structure, nearly finished. My arms ached from the strain, but my fingers worked on. A makeshift cemetery, I remembered as I stepped back.
I could hear the sea behind us. And then there were the bodies, brought here to rest. People were praying around me.
Bile rose in my throat and I felt a familiar despair. Was this all life was? Some twisted joke where some men sought glory cutting each other down and other men stooped to pick up the pieces?
I looked at the living. Their faces were gaunt and frightened. A job nobody wanted, a job as necessary as it was sordid. I felt infected as I laid down corpse after corpse, as if their deadness was seeping into my life, sucking it away.
“Someone has to do it, Joey, why not us? The dead must be honoured, even in war.”
The man’s voice filled my head, a friend once, yet now far away. I felt I would soon see him again.
I heard different voices now, soft, calling from a different world. My world. This cemetery was no longer my world. It ran on like a film, and I watched it.
Over, I thought. Yes, over. You did your duty. You were no hero, just a gravedigger. But now your own grave awaits you.
Faces from my past, dead and living, floated in front of me for one long moment, then I shuddered and awoke. The pain blazed once again, but the dark room was crowded with faces I loved.
“Memories,” I murmured hoarsely.
My son and his family looked at me. I couldn’t see any of them too clearly anymore but I felt the youngest girl’s curious stare.
Weary but smiling, I knew myself to be an old, old man. “We buried them all, and so few still alive remember. None sing to remember the men who spent their days with corpses while others fought. But the dead must be honoured, even in war… yes, even in war.”