Sonja Reineke


Somme, 1916  

Sharing a tent with rats and beetles was nothing new to Harold. Sometimes, he even liked the thought of having company that wasn't complaining - or talking at all. He had always been a loner, someone who enjoyed contemplating about life and nature or watching the sun go down. He liked to sketch, but his drawings were becoming depressing. He had seen too many dead bodies in unnatural positions, disembowelled, mutilated, rotting.
Also, he had spent time with one of them in a trench, the dead man's face frozen in an eternal snarl, the eyes black marbles, staring into Harold's with a gaze that was dead and filled with a horrible hopelessness at the same time. It was then that Harold's mind started to drift off whenever he saw something that unsettled him.
Harold was a dreamer, but his dreams were now nightmares full of death and shellfire. Sleep was a luxury he could seldom afford. He had plenty of tobacco but little bread. He didn't mind, though. To him, this war was a horrible yet interesting experience. He watched, he fired his gun, he ran, dug trenches, saw the men in his battalion die, heard the wounded scream, but his mind registered all this without allowing the horror to really enter his heart.  
It was easier that way. He started to pretend that this war was nothing but a dream. He wrapped himself into a web of indifference and inattentiveness that protected him from the horror surrounding him.
One day, Peter jumped into the trench beside him, panting. Peter was one of the few men around Harold that actually liked him, even though Harold didn't talk much. "William's dead," he said and smoked a cigarette with trembling hands. Harold shrugged. William, Frank, Stephen – who cared? Nothing here was real and neither was Peter. Peter looked at Harold for a second. He knew what was going on inside him and he envied Harold. And he felt sorry for him. One day, the horror surrounding them would sink in, and Harold would wake up. And it was very likely that he would lose his mind that very second. "Huns threw a shell at the trench. Dead, all dead, Harry. Looks like a slaughterhouse in there."
Harold shrugged again. "Everything looks like a slaughterhouse these days." Peter snorted laughter and nodded. "Officer found one of the Huns near the cave. Must have been a communication base of some sort. Says the Hun is completely out of his mind. Asked me to check on him. See, my grandma is German. So I went and took a good look at him. He's talking nonsense about having danced with the devil for the last few days, right there in the cave. Says the cave leads deeply into the hill, and in its centre, there's the devil waiting for us. Waiting to dance with all of us."
 "Looks like he's been dancing with a lot of us lately," Harold replied without much interest. Peter snorted again. "You got that right, Harry. He's been waltzing with at least three thousand souls."  
 "Is that right?" Harold said. A shiver ran up his spine and for a brief moment, his mind allowed the terror to enter. Three thousand. Three thousand dead.
"Sure is. And at least eight thousand wounded or dying. Oh yes, the devil is dancing, Harry. He's got every reason to." Peter smoked his cigarette and stared at the smoke going up into the beautiful French sky. Behind them, another shell exploded.
Harold tried to pull himself together again. He had to survive this. He had a sister back home who was already widowed and pregnant. His mother was ill and needed him too. He couldn't die here in France, surrounded by the Huns and people he didn't know much nor cared about so he wouldn't miss them when they were gone.
Martinpuich, Courcellette and Flers had fallen. Those names didn't mean anything to Harold. Being brave was not his cup of tea. He saw many brave men, and he watched them die. He had to go home. They needed him back home. He couldn't allow himself to get killed. So Harold became a coward. He still fired his gun, but didn't care if he hit a Hun, a tree or one of his own men. He hid in his trench and pretended to fight but never risked his neck.
Peter told him that the German had died in the night. Harold was not surprised. The Hun had screamed till some of the guys gagged him, which muffled the screams but didn't keep him from uttering terrible sounds. "What killed him?" "I don't know. But blood was pouring from his eyes."
 "His eyes!"
"Yes. I went and talked to him, well, listened to him. He was talking nonsense again about dancing with the devil and that he couldn't play the game anymore, and that he couldn't provide more souls, so he would die. Devil told him he would die. Man, he was really insane."
 "Guess he was."
It was Peter who started it all. He and Harold were on their way to the Headquarters when the sniper attacked. Harold heard Peter scream as the bullets smashed into him. Harold dived down into the grass and crawled over to Peter. He realised that he had actually liked him a little, and now he was dead. One of the bullets had entered his skull and shattered it. You couldn't tell if this was Peter or a piece of mincemeat. Harold looked around wildly, but everyone was hiding in the trenches. He knew he had to get out of here, or the sniper would eventually kill him too. The only hiding place he could think of was close enough to reach it within minutes.  
The cave turned out to be exactly what Peter had described: a base. It was unoccupied now, and Harold was a little puzzled about that. It was an ideal place to operate from. Harold figured the Huns had deserted it when Harold's battalion came too close, but the guys in charge had to be insane not to use it. Harold wondered what the German had been babbling about. There was no tunnel that led deeper into the hill. Plus, the Huns must have been running like mice. There was food on the table, ready to be eaten, and even underwear ready to be changed. Who would flee with his dick dangling in front of the guns of the enemy? The place looked like it was still occupied, and yet it felt so empty that Harold shuddered. But there was also a bunk, and it looked quite cozy to someone who had slept in a damp tent for the last few months. Let them fight out there, Harold thought, I'll take a nap.    
Harold sat up, panting, his eyes wide with shock. He had dreamt something, but couldn't remember the details. His heart was racing and tears were streaming down his cheeks. Something inside him told him to abandon hope. That was the only thing he could remember: A terrible voice telling him to abandon hope. The game is on, it had whispered.  
It was completely dark, and Harold felt the familiar panic rising in his chest. The darkness around him felt cold and slick like tar. Like something was hiding in it, staring at him. Harold told himself that he was being silly; there was a lamp on the table, he remembered. All he had to do was get up and feel his way to the table. He started to get up, and that was the moment he heard a hideous and cruel little snicker. "Hello?" Harold croaked, his heart almost jumping out of his chest. He felt the ridiculous urge to hide beneath the blanket, in his own private little darkness.  
"Hello, dear." There was a soft, red shimmer coming from the opposite wall of the cave. Harold blinked. "Lucy??" he whispered. There, where the wall of the cave should have been, was Lucy, his sister, her belly big with child. She was holding an oil lamp which provided the strange red light. In it, her face looked like it was bathed in blood. She wore a white gown like an angel.
  "Lucy… what are you doing here?"
"You will have to follow me, Harold. We are already late. The game is on."
"Game? What game? Lucy, why aren't you at home?"
 "Follow me, Harold. You have to. Come on now. The others are waiting."
 Behind Lucy, the wall had turned into a tunnel – a tunnel that led deeply into the hill. Harold swallowed hard and got up. To run out of the cave never crossed his dazed mind. There was Lucy and he had to go with her. It was a strong and irresistible urge. He went over to her and opened his arms to hug her, but Lucy turned away from him and went down the tunnel. Harold followed her, puzzled.  
The walls of the tunnel were covered with strange symbols and words in French, German, Latin and other languages. Harold couldn't understand anything but "diable" which meant devil, if he remembered correctly, and "jeu" meant "game". But there was a whole sentence as well, and one of the Huns must have written it:* "Ich kann das Spiel nicht mehr spielen" and:* "Hier, wo der Teufel wohnt". The words were carved into the surface with a sharp object, a knife most likely, but the strange symbols were drawn with brown paint. But Harold had seen enough of this brown paint to know that it was dried blood.  
Lucy led the way. Her long brown hair fell down to her waist. The pregnancy didn't slow her down. He almost had to run to keep track. She ignored his questions and wouldn't let him touch her.

The cave in the centre of the hill was gigantic and yet Harold had a strong feeling of claustrophobia. There was a wide round table in the middle and three men were sitting around it. At first, Harold thought they were dead, because their eyes were like black marbles and filled with a terrible hopelessness Harold had seen before. One of them was French, the other ones were Huns. Their uniforms were torn and dirty, their faces grimaces of horror and agony. At first, Harold didn't understand why. Then he saw with rising terror, that one of the men was busy cutting off his own leg with a knife. He wasn't even screaming while he did it. But one look into his eyes was a look into hell. The man, one of the two Huns, was crazy. The other ones watched him with an expression of numb devastation.
"Sit down, Harold. The game is paused till Otto has fulfilled his duty," Lucy said. Harold took one of the chairs and sat. He couldn't turn his gaze from the German, assiduously moving his knife, the blood spurting and hitting the walls and the French guy sitting next to him, who was missing three fingers on his left hand. "What… what's the game about, Lucy? I don't see a board or cards or something." She snickered, a cruel, ugly sound that his sister could never produce. Harold wanted to flee. But the tunnel was gone. He was trapped here in the middle of the hill with two enemies, a French guy with saliva flowing out of his mouth and his strange sister. Was she Lucy at all? He looked at her. The tiny beauty patch next to her nose, the hair, the mouth, yes, it was Lucy. But her eyes were different. In the dim light, they seemed to be red or yellow. Like dark flames were dancing inside them.  
Otto had finally managed to cut through the bone. Lucy helped him to tie off the vessels and put the leg aside like it was a broomstick. Harold threw up under the table, where he saw similar puddles of vomit. Nobody moved. Harold looked at the French guy. He had a small moustache and his hands were trembling badly. The German looked at his stump and fainted. Everyone watched him drop of his chair, but nobody offered any help, not even Lucy. She turned her flaming gaze to the French guy. "Alors, Pierre. Your turn." The soldier groped for a pair of dice Lucy offered him. They were black. They had red symbols on them, similar to the ones Harold had seen in the tunnel. But these symbols were quite recognisable: A knife, tongs, scissors and an axe on one of the dice, body parts on the other: Hands, feet, legs, arms, eyes, tongues, intestines. Harold felt sick. Did this mean…?
"Yes, Harold. That's the game: You throw the dice and cut off or take out what the dice decide, either with an axe or a knife, tongs… scissors..."
"I won't do that!"
 "Yes, you will. If you refuse to play, you will stay here forever and dance with me – till the sun explodes. You will spend eternity here with me and dance. Waltz with me, Harold, I love company." She threw her head back and laughed.
"No! I won't do that! There must be a way out of here!" Harold jumped from his chair and ran around the cave, hitting the walls with his fists. Bats shrieked, spiders and beetles scurried away. Now, the horror around him entered his heart, and Harold screamed.
Lucy laughed even harder. The other German woke from his daze and started to sob. "Come back here, Harold. If you do not wish to play the game, we will find a better solution. But now, it's Pierre's turn. How he wishes to be allowed to cut his head off! How he wishes to die! Don't you wish to die, Pierre? Come on, throw the dice! Throw the dice or dance with me!" Lucy's eyes were flickering with an insane hate. The French was trembling all over. He threw the dice and moaned when he saw what they suggested: An eye and the scissors.
"Excellent," Lucy cried and clapped her hands, "very good choice!" From her gown, she produced the scissors and put them down in front of Pierre, who was now crying. Harold didn't know any French but he knew Pierre was begging for mercy.              
Also, he said "non, Papa" over and over again. Harold blinked. Lucy smiled warmly at him.
"Yes, dear. You see me as Lucy. Pierre sees his beloved Papa."
"Who are you?" Harold whispered. Lucy turned her head and looked him in the eye. Harold clapped his hands over his eyes and screamed. Blood appeared between his fingers.
 "Just a little warning, dear," Lucy said gently, "now open those baby blues again and watch as Pierre takes out one of his eyes."
 Harold obeyed, shuddering and nauseated. He closed his eyes when Pierre groped for the scissors. But he couldn't help hearing Pierre screech. Harold fixed his gaze on the table. He didn't want to look at Pierre who was uttering terrible choking sounds and threw up, adding more stomach contents to the international puddle under the table.  
"All right," Lucy said cheerfully, "your turn, Herbert!" the other German looked up. Harold could see now that he was missing one ear. Dried blood had left streaks on his neck and uniform. Herbert took the dice and clenched his teeth as the dice told him to use the tongs to rip off his testicles.
"Nein," he whispered, "nein, das mache ich nicht! Bitte, Margaret!"
Lucy looked at Harold again, amused. "He thinks I'm his wife, Margaret. But what he doesn't know is that Margaret is spreading her legs for Herbert's brother as we speak. The bed springs are squeaking. Poor Herbert. Lucky Margaret. Herbert will not be able to mount his wife ever again. Oops, Herbert, you didn't know that? Well, now you do. Here," she shoved the tongs over the table, "come on and rip them off. You will feel a lot better once they are gone, those nasty little fuckers. No urges, ever again."
Herbert looked bewildered. He threw a gaze at "Margaret," Pierre and the still unconscious Otto and shivered. Then he looked at Harold, the only one who was still intact. He mumbled something, and Harold knew what he meant, even though he didn't understand German. But here in the cave, language didn't matter. "I don't want to do this. And I don't want to dance."
"Me neither," Harold added with a steady voice. For the first time since the war started, he felt wide awake, real. And he didn't like what he was seeing. "Oh?" Lucy said, raising her eyebrows. "You do not wish to mutilate yourself? Surprise, surprise! What do you have to offer?" Herbert shrugged.  
 "Well," Lucy said, licking her lips, "I will make you guys an offer. You see, Otto and Pierre are getting boring. I want more players for my game. I will let you both go… if you send me ten men in exchange. And of course, I want your useless souls."
"Our souls?" Harold said, puzzled. "But if you get ten men from me, why do you want my soul as well?"
"Oh, stupid old Harold. I will get your soul anyway, because if you send ten men to die here, you will go to hell when you die. Or do you think tricking innocent people into playing this game will let you go to heaven and play the harp, my little angel? But don't you worry. The men in your battalion are not that innocent. Every soldier is a murderer. What difference does it make if they kill others or play the game?" She laughed again.
Harold and Herbert looked at each other. Their eyes locked in perfect understanding. The Hun wanted to go home and kick Margaret's cheating ass, Harold wanted to go home to help his mother and sister, his real sister Lucy with the gentle hazel eyes.
"Where do I sign?" Harold asked.
The devil smiled.
©2008 Cecille Ravencraft/S. Reineke. All rights reserved.
*I can't play the game anymore
*Here, where the devil lives


All rights belong to its author. It was published on by demand of Sonja Reineke.
Published on on 08/22/2008.


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