By Prisha Mehta
As usual, the gray sea aches with leaked oil and floating bombshells – but in the trickling evening, its wounds are licked by the swell of amber sunset. The water is rough and sharp and torn as ever, kneaded by the salty wind. But today, it flickers with a keen orange hue that turns the soldier-like march of the waves into a brimming dance. As the boy trails his hand through the water, he is rather reminded of the inside of a fresh orange, of the color and the smoothness and the burst on his tongue. He almost wishes he could drink it – he has an odd feeling it will taste just like his mother’s clementine biscuits. He feels a lump in his throat then, and a murmur in his stomach, and he wishes he could write to her and ask her to make him some as soon as he comes home.
They’ve come up in his thoughts a lot lately, his mother and those biscuits – he’s even dubbed the boat Clementine in their honor. The others don’t know about that, of course. Its real name is something long and sharp and German.
The old song seeps into his thoughts, as if a leak has sprung up between his mind and his memories. He begins to hum, and the words flow easily through his head: Oh my darling, oh my darling, oh my darling, Clementine. The wind steals his voice away from even his own ears. You are lost and gone forever. Dreadful sorry, Clementine!
He can’t remember any more of the lyrics, and finds the irony of this darkly delightful. He smiles and looks around, but finds no one to laugh with. There are only three others on the boat, all grim-looking men in their early twenties. They’re only David’s age, and their teeth are chattering in the cold.
The boy’s teeth are chattering, too, but he seems not to notice. He’s thinking of David now, and his stomach drops as he wonders how his brother is faring in the trenches. You are lost and gone forever. Dreadful sorry, Clementine. The words have taken on a rather somber feel, and he decides he no longer likes them.
Absently, he picks at the hard layer of gunpowder between his two front teeth. He tries not to touch it with his tongue, but fails – the taste floods his mouth, grainy and bitter and dry as sand. Lately, he’s found it everywhere – a light dusting in his ears, caked between his toes, scraping the crooks of his elbow and plastered to his hair. He spits into the ocean and wipes his lips. It doesn’t help.
He taps his foot. Fidgets. Glances at the men, who are huddled around the other end of the boat, and draws his hand out of the water. The air feels flighty and cool, and drops of the sea slip down the back of his hand. They’re light and cold, and they clear the grime from his skin, leaving behind thin, pink streaks amid the gray. One reaches his fingertips, and he flings it back to rejoin the water.
The boy wipes off his hand and leans back into the boat. He fiddles with his helmet, which is just a bit too big for his head.
Just three days ago, he’d been aboard a German boat, shackled to three other men with the enemy’s motherland looming on the horizon. Just six days before that, he’d been part of a scouting party on the Eastern front – fresh out of training. Until last week, he’d never even seen a German, or an Austrian, or a Turk. From what the posters had said, he’d imagined them as larger-than-life – burly, shadow-faced men with stiff blond hair, permanent scowls, and murderous eyes the color of winter. He was surprised to find, when he was captured, that the notorious ‘enemy forces’ were made mostly of boys his own age.
On that boat, the boy prayed for a miracle—and somehow, it came. On that last evening, one of the men got hold of a key. They stole through the night together, four sleepless hearts pounding, four pairs of eyes raw with moonlit prayers. They grabbed German uniforms, two bottles of rum, and as much food as they could carry before climbing into a lifeboat and paddling until they thought they would fall off the Earth, until the ship that had held them was nothing but a speck on the horizon. Then, they slept, letting the boat drift with the waves, sure that the morning light would guide them home.
It didn’t. The rum was gone within the first few hours, and the food soon after that. Now, they’re hugging the coast and praying once again. The boy has no idea whether the land to their right is German or Belgian or Dutch – only that it’s land, and that land means soldiers and shells and guns. One of the older men says that he’s a navigator, that he knows where they’re going and that they’ll be in Belgium soon. The boy believes him. He trusts the other men because he has to – because they’re older, because they’re experienced, because they’re already men and he’s just a kid. Because if he doesn’t, then–
The boy is scared. Scared enough that sometimes, when he wakes up late at night shaking and sweating and thrashing, he finds that the seat of his pants is wet and warm. But he’s never seen a real battle, and he has yet to taste the horrors that haunt his comrades’ dreams. He’s never run from the popping of shells or felt the weight of a gas mask—never seen blood curdle or heard his friends scream for their mothers or felt the hands of terror clawing at the walls of his throat. The others want to resent him. They know they would have, once, but they’re tired and they’re scared and he reminds them of their little brothers. Let him be a boy, they think – just a bit longer.
The boy’s thoughts turn again to David, who enlisted three weeks before him. He’d had this idea, when he’d joined the war effort, that he’d see him again – that they’d go into battle together and be heroes, fighting back to back like they’d dreamed of when they were kids. He knows better now, though. He’s heard stories from the others, of thousands gunned down in no man’s land, of men buried alive by shells, of figures writhing on the ground, screaming and clawing at their throats as poison gas tears through their lungs. Though he worries, he knows in his heart that his brother is all right – simply because he has to be.
That’s another thing about the boy. He’s never seen a man die. In his mind, death is reserved for old women and nameless soldiers far overseas. Not friends. Never family.
He doesn’t want to think any longer, so he lets go of his mind. It drifts along slowly with the boat. Rocking from side to side, listening to the creaking of the wood, he feels something warm and sweet come over him, tingling in the tips of his fingers – something almost like peace. He’ll write to his mother soon, he decides. He forgets, blissfully, that he doesn’t have postage stamps, or paper, or a pen. He forgets that the war has no end in sight, maybe no end at all. He only smiles and begins to compose the letter. It lulls him almost to sleep.
The boy sighs and leans back against the wood of the boat. He whistles. It’s quieter, now, and the tune carries. Clementine. The other men exchange smiles.
The soft, low sound leaves his lips and dodges the breeze, floating across the sea. It twirls above the waves. It skims the water with its wings. It finds its way to a Belgian ship – to the ear of a commanding officer, who furrows his brow and presses his face to the window of his cabin. But when he squints at the horizon through the red light of sunset, he doesn’t see three men and a boy. He sees a German boat. He sees German uniforms. He sees four guns, ready to turn on them and fire.
He’s ready to bark orders. Ready to fire. Ready to kill if the need arises – but one thing stops him. He knows that song. It’s American.
Even as his heart races, even as he opens his mouth to shout, doubt presses at the walls of his chest. He closes his eyes and breathes. Counts to ten as bile rises in his throat. This is war, he thinks. There’s no room for doubt. Not here.
It begins as a soft popping in the distance, almost blending with the slapping of the waves. Trapped in a half-formed reverie, the boy thinks he’s hearing water boiling on the stove, and fully expects his mother to call him in for supper.
But as it grows louder, the other men begin to shout, and he feels something small whizz past his ear. He looks up just in time to see three splashes, see three crowns of water spring up and feel the boat tilt from the loss of weight. He sees them swimming to the far shore, and in the distance, he sees a boat. A Belgian boat – he can tell by the writing on the side.
For a split second, he thinks he’s saved. Wonders why the other men are running away. But then he remembers what boat he’s on, what uniform he’s wearing. He remembers that in the bloody light of dusk, there’s nothing to distinguish him from the enemy.
By the time he gets his bearings, it’s too late – the shells are flying overhead, and all he can do is get down. He flings himself between two benches, throwing up his arms to cover his head. His nose is pressed into the boat, and the musky scent of damp wood fills his lungs.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
A bullet thuds into the bench above him. His eyes fly open. The water – he’ll be safe in the water. They can’t get him there. Can they? Ever so slightly, he inches forward. As his weight shifts to one side, he feels the boat tilting under him, feels himself sliding down the slick wood. He jerks back, his heart pounding as the boat rights itself.
He begins, again, to inch towards the side. This time, as the boat tilts beneath him, he reaches out and grabs the edge, scrambling and kicking until his torso hangs over the sea. The water is cold, and his teeth begin to chatter as he lowers himself in.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
A bullet whizzes past his shoulder and embeds itself in the boat beside his hand. He shrieks and falls, landing on his back in the water, his eyes squeezed shut. He hears a crash, feels spray rise up and hit his face as the ocean ripples violently against his sides. The cold water carves into him like a dagger, and he shudders.
When he opens his eyes, he finds only darkness. For a moment, he thinks that he’s dead – but his whole body aches, and he doesn’t think that’s supposed to happen in heaven. Sand, salt, and gunpowder flood his mouth. The scents of salty smoke and moist wood mingle in the trapped air, and he finds his throat burning. His lungs ache with the pain of a suppressed cough, and he closes his eyes, struggling to breathe.
It takes him another moment to realize that he’s under the boat – that it’s tipped and landed on top of him. He breathes in deeply and prays that the Belgians think he’s dead. The wood above him does little to muffle the artillery fire.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
He hears gargling from somewhere to his right, and a deep bubbling, like something — or someone – sinking down several feet. His eyes fly open, and he lets out a whimper. Should he go out and look? He tells himself to move, but finds his limbs frozen stiff. Another verse of the song comes to him then – Ruby lips above the water, blowing bubbles soft and fine. But alas, I was no swimmer, so I lost my Clementine.
He closes his eyes once more. Swallows and tastes gunpowder. His throat begs for water, but there is none to drink.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
A series of splashes, and a shrill scream that goes on even after the sound of sinking. So this is how it will end – they’ll be picked off, one by one. He can feel tears building behind his eyes, but feels oddly calm – at least, until he realizes that the scream is coming from his own throat. He bites down on his tongue, and it stops.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
More splashes. More screaming. He lies there, still, and waits for death.
But it does not come for him.
The scene has been silent for a while before the boy dares to come out from under the boat. Though the air is still heavy with smoke, the wind feels cool against his skin – he hadn’t realized that he’d been sweating. It takes a moment for his eyes to adjust to the flood of light, and he stands almost still, squinting and treading shallow water. The orange sunset has deepened to red, and he stares up at it without feeling, watching as the light cuts through the waves and the sea itself rages crimson.
He notices that his hair is sticking to his forehead, that his clothes are crumpled and plastered to his skin. His eyes sting. Saltwater is running down his cheeks, and he can’t tell if it’s coming from the sea.
The boy can make out three empty helmets bobbing near the shore. Up and down. Up and down. His eyes follow them, and he raises his hands up to his head to find his own. Miraculously, it’s still there.
He pulls it off and holds it in his palms. It feels hot there, and heavy, and suddenly, he wants nothing more than to be rid of it. His heart thrashing, he draws back his hand and hurls it to the sea.
Still, he feels nothing.
He leaves the boat behind and swims until the water is shallow enough for him to wade through. Then, he stands and walks. The wind licks his face as he approaches the shore, and he steps out onto the shaded sand just as the last red in the sky fades to black. The grains are firm and cool under his feet, but he barely notices. Instead, he pauses and listens to the waves as they collapse into the beach. The crashing seafoam glows white against the darkness, and he turns toward it.
The orange has leaked out of the water, out of the sky and the wind and the sand. By dawn, though, the sea will forget the blood and the bullets, and the heavens will paint themselves bright once again and toss down light for the waiting water to catch. The breeze will wake and yawn and stretch, whistling as it rides the rippling morning waves. In the light of dawn, they will come full circle. They will shine and smile and drip with sweet, sun-risen, clementine-colored light once again.
The boy will not be so lucky.