Drums (Short Story)
Updated: Jul 11
While passing through the narrow winding communication trench towards the front-line trench, Cecil found himself repeatedly fidgeting with the item in his pocket and remembered all the telltale signs ever since he left home. It began when he stepped off the boat with his unit at Boulogne and experienced only the most cold, sour of welcome from the locals. No fanfare, no crowds – not even a single smile from the people whose freedoms he was fighting to protect. Then it was destroyed village after destroyed village after destroyed village during his march southeast. Stone skeletons of multistory buildings stuck out of massive piles of rubble like headstones, marking the end of a family’s livelihood and prospects. Growing up the child of farmers near Tilshead, the next hint that something was amiss was passing by wholly razed farms, with leg and rib bones of cattle poking from the fields pocked with shell holes. And all the while, the gradual intensifying sounds of distant artillery always sent an ominous reminder – sporadic at first, then erupting into a percussive cadence the closer he got. Now, seeing the slow parade of veterans pass him down the communication trench, Cecil’s growing regret reached a new high. An endless stream of bloody, dirty, wrecked excuses for men stumbled by him in the opposite, all but vanquishing the last vestiges of romanticism and excitement that remained inside him. Men limping with streams of blood pouring from wounds in their legs. Men blindly wandering forth with their bloody, dripping heads wrapped up in soaked red cloths, needing their fellow wounded soldiers to guide them in the right direction. Periodically wounded stretcher bearers stumbled by, lifting a sobbing, growling pity with their arms or legs or whatever else shredded to ribbons. There were even men passing by who had not a wound on them but signaled in their faces an experience of some great traumatic event, their wits completely shocked out of them. Cecil took in this horrible sight, coupled with the smells of rot all around him and the nonstop brushing of rats sweeping by his ankles, and clutched the item in his pocket ever tighter.
After nearly a lifetime of ridicule for his smaller, weak stature and lack of interest in physical pursuits, he finally made the personal leap by enlisting in the Imperial Army, wanting to do his part for the Empire and help defeat the dreaded Hun, but most importantly to prove to all those back home that he wasn’t the weakling they believed him to be. Cecil wanted to be here…though his experiences in France and now seeing the unit he’d help replace staggering away in unmistakable defeat began to really question his decision. As the maimed and mangled bodies and shocked faces streamed by, Cecil squeezed the item in his pocket with all his strength, trying with all his might to remember the day when his supposed sweetheart Blythe gave him an awkward, judging glare while presenting him with the snowy, soft tuft, telling him all he needed to know about how she really felt. He began to slowly crumple the white feather in his fist as he remembered the feeling of guilt from their last meeting, as well as the utter glee his parents expressed when he had confessed to enlisting. That was why he’d come – to prove them all wrong. He was capable of heroism. He was capable of being not only the man they had always wished he’d be, but of exceeding that notion. Cecil reached his hand out of his pocket and looked at the destroyed white feather, then tossed it away as if it were a hot iron and marched forward towards the front, ignoring the obscene traffic around him. This was his first day at the front, and from this day to his last, he was going to prove them all wrong.
The conditions of the front-line trench were in remarkably worse conditions than the connecting communication trench Cecil had just left, and were seemingly another planet in comparison to the soiled and rotting rear trenches. The wooden support planks of the trench walls were splintered and broken all over, and everywhere he looked there was a coating of grey, brown and red – the mixture of ash and dirt with just a pinch of blood. There were fingers, ears, elbows, and other pieces of humanity randomly emerging from the trench walls, or the trench floor – always discolored and rotted. Looking down, he saw rats the size of housecats race by with some unknown pieces of rotting meat in their mouths. And the smell – an odor so overpowering and nauseating Cecil wondered if the front trench had been gassed in recent days. Black and dark green puddles and small piles of human waste garnished every nook and cranny of the trench, and more often than he’d like Cecil would pass by crouched shattered shells of what were once men, openly weeping as they hugged their knees, or applied pressure to fresh wounds. As he marched forward with his squad, he couldn’t help but peek at the crest of the front-line trench to get a view of no man’s land – the ultimate edge of the line – but realized that would likely bring a speedy end to his war.
“Look alive, gents,” a dirty kneeling rifleman announced, staring at Cecil, “fresh fish for Jerry coming through!” Other similarly grimy, unkept trench residents turned to look at the new squad – but mostly at the small figure of Cecil – and began clapping and whistling and hooing and hawing as they passed by. Somewhere in the distance Cecil could hear a squad commander reprimanding the taunting rifleman, who now led the rest of his gang in uproarious laughter. He stared directly at Cecil and flashed a dirty, broken smile “Enjoy your stay at Chateaux Somme, m’boy!”
Cecil and his squad entered a small chamber dug into the side of the trench where they met with their new squad leader Sergeant Higgins, a short stocky man who unmistakably went through great pains to emulate Lord Kitchener. A man of few words, Higgins dispatched a very quick and passive salute and doled out a few simple orders for his new squad: sentry duty for four hours on the line, trench repairs and supply maintenance for four hours, rest for four hours, and repeat. ‘Sentry Duty’ - the prospect of killing a German in his very first day on the line was music to Cecil’s ears. To think, to be labeled a dotard all his life, to achieve such a level of heroism on the first day would do much in shutting all of them up! At his thought, Cecil decided he would try to make the best of this experience. It was here that he would make a name for himself.
He had not made three steps out of Higgins’s command post that he heard the loud whizzes of oncoming artillery shells, followed by the continued shouts of “COVER” by too many voices to identify. Before Cecil could react, sections around and inside the trench exploded, and the flurry of sprinting and diving bodies knocked him to the ground. Dodging half of the running/stomping boots of scattering Brits, Cecil tried to look for any type of cover as more shells came down – BOOM BOOM BOOM-BOOM-BOOM BOOM spraying debris all over Cecil as he crawled hurriedly over fallen supplies and soldiers. To his left he found a tiny hole dug into the trench wall at ground level. It was not quite a half-meter tall and was so narrow Cecil had to shuffle himself in feet first, but in little time he was covered in the confined dirt hole as the shelling began to escalate.
Cecil laid prone, pressing his helmet tightly over his head, as the shells showered above. The NCOs during training and en route to the front had given them all warnings about German artillery strikes, and he was acting exactly in accordance with his training, but this sensation was an experience that no drills could prepare him for. He slowly opened his eyes under his helmet and could see the dirt on the surface of his hole vibrating at the constant bombardment. The vibrating dirt and rock pebbles made him dizzy, so he clamped his eyes shut again, but shutting off one of the five senses only sharpened the others. He couldn’t help but notice the drum-like rhythm of the explosions outside, which was impacting at such a rate that he had trouble making out individual impacts –a staticky wall of noise, like finding oneself caught in a torrential downpour. Growing up on a farm, he’d never reckoned a sound so scorching to inflict real physical pain as this, which seared Cecil’s ears and rippled down his spine and to all his extremities. After some minutes of vertigo and overwhelming shock, Cecil started tapping his fingers on his helmet; a struggling effort to find a tempo in the storm of fire hammering down – anything to keep his focus. He kept tapping his fingers to the sound of drums as the roar of steel continued its devilish chorus that bled out even the shrieks and screams of his fellow soldiers a nearly within arm’s length.
The barrage continued, on and on, and on – each cataclysmic minute after the other shifting the soil around Cecil up and down and left and right, adding to the already brain-churning mess he found himself in. He had no idea how long he’d been in this pit – thirty minutes? An hour? Every time he’d risk thinking about something other than the immediate situation at hand would add to his growing delirium, so he continued to tap his fingers to the sound of drums from the shelling that had not yet lightened up. A new sensation began to tickle him in the cheek, and he finally opened his eyes and looked directly in front of him at the worms and bugs scurrying out from the ground below him, frantically escaping from the world they called home, aimlessly scampering just to get away from the madness bad fortune had landed them in. Even two of those disgusting rats joined him in his hole for temporary cover from the hate being delivered outside. Cecil began to envy the panicking creatures – they at least had the choice to burrow lower if they had the mind to – he was trapped here, and he knew now he was going to die here – in this claustrophobic dark dirty tomb in France, and for what? For-
BOOM-BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOOOM went the world directly above him as the artillery fire had seemed to correct its fire and now seemingly targeted Cecil’s exact position. The ferocity of the drumfire transcended proper description, and not even his finger tapping could provide sufficient deviation. Every impact in the fluid onslaught felt like a hot steel poker jabbing Cecil directly in the spine. He kept it up with his fingers regardless, and tried to conjure a song from his memory to focus on; his singing coming out in trembling moans, “Up-p-p t-t-to mmm-mi-might-might-mighty L-Lo-L-L-Loond-unn c-came an I-Ire-Ire-R-rrrr-ish mm-mmm-”
Cecil’s ears popped, signaling an immediate halt to his performance. His mumbles of lyrics swiftly turned into grunts and moans, and his lips even struggled to keep from trembling like the rest of his body. He brought his hand directly before his bulging wide eyes, staring at the twitching taps to no tune in particular – simply a failing attempt to focus on anything. Cecil kept tapping, even as he could feel his feet, his legs, his back, his head becoming rigid and heavy from the pressure. He screamed; a high-pitched shriek at a register he had never hit in saner times. Cecil screeched again and again as he tapped his fingers in the maelstrom, an appalling shrill of farewell to his own cognition. The dizziness and heat and pandemonium finally got the best of him, forcing him to heave up what was left of his breakfast. He continued to scream in terror and pain and insanity, his body losing nearly all control of itself save for the consistent subconscious tapping of his fingers to sound of drums – more a nervous twitch now than anything intentional.
Cecil’s eyes were wide open and swollen, yet he could not force them closed. The incessant spewing of pain above nearly splitting his eardrums that he was as good as deaf. His nose and mouth only sensed the sour pungency of death and vomit. Cecil was beyond saving – he was now completely shattered – however his body decided to move now was not of his choosing. Yet his fingers continued to tap along to the phantom cadence of drums, whether he wanted them to or not. The only thing his broken mind could now comprehend was the overall sense of spiraling – a constant spinning that seemed to speed up more and more and more and more. He would have preferred to lose his sense of time left him too, but he felt every agonizing minute of his descent into mayhem.
After what seemed a lifetime of being ground down to an atom, Cecil slowly, painfully blinked his eyelids, squinting at a bright light of what resembled a medical examination room. His vision slowly returning to a blur, Cecil looked on at he believed to be the image of a woman in white staring at him. At this moment he also was able to sense the leather straps holding his head, chest, arms, and legs in place in the chair he sat in. Some hard device was fastened between his teeth, with an object probing into his throat. He looked down at his body, which was adorned in what resembled white pajamas. Then he saw the constant tapping of his fingers, and he wondered why they were rapping so, beyond his control. However, it did not take long for his memory to hearken back at seeing his tapping fingers in that dark, vomit-stained trench pit during the horrendous shelling he received – or maybe he was still receiving? The more he remembered and stared at his tapping fingers, the more his mind was being pulled out of this likely dream, back to the spiraling, painful limbo of the barrage. Cecil struggled to breathe as everything went dark again, and he was immediately back in that hole, contorting and wriggling in pain as the bombs continued to drop in rapid succession. His body shook violently, completely out of his control, and in a last struggle for help tried to call out to anyone who could hear him in the darkness – his pleas nothing more than raspy moans. This was no dream – he felt the shifting of the soil all around him as the bombs ripped the world and his mind apart. He saw the worms, the bugs, the rats, the mist of fresh-spilled blood coating his moving fingers. Cecil stared at his dark stained hands, coated in a mud of dirt and vomit, endlessly tapping to the sound of drums caused by the rush of steel. He screamed and cried in pain and horror, just wishing this would stop.
Then came a new, burning sensation that made every muscle in his body feel like it had been ignited – from the tips of his toes up his spine to his eyes, which felt could pop at any second. The spinning and the darkness were quickly exchanged for bright lights, hyperawareness and a constant searing, stinging sensation that made Cecil feel as if his muscles and bones were being roasted. He writhed in pain, moaning. As he struggled his eyes open, he could again barely make out the blurry form of what was unmistakably a woman wearing a white tunic. Another blurry head entered his vision, much closer to him, and for the first time in what felt to him like lifetimes ten times over, Cecil could hear something different – a distant echo of a man’s voice speaking to him. Cecil took a deep breath, rolled his head down and looked at his body. Like the earlier dream, he saw the leather manacles around his limbs and chest, but now could make out cords emerging from a device that was in his mouth. He swung his head back up, but perhaps a bit too hastily, as the brightness of this room instantly sank back into the spinning darkness. Cecil could feel the tap-tap-tap-tap of his fingers, mimicking the drum like sound of the artillery, wave after wave after wave. This was no way to live. He could not survive this endless nightmare. He wanted it to stop. He pleaded for it to stop. It needed to stop. To stop. Stop. STOP. STOP. STOP STOP STOP STOP STTOOOOOOPPPP-
In a flash Cecil was brought back into the white room, his eyes burning and feeling they could explode at any second. Constantly quivering, he tried to breathe and once more sensed the hard device between his teeth, with some type of protrusion extending into his throat. Tears uncontrollably flowed from his face, and he felt the flow of snot run down the sides of his open mouth and drip from his cheek. Cecil leaned back to give another deep breath but felt a stinging tinge of pain in his back – as if a sharp, multi-angled object emerged from the chair he was strapped to, digging firmly between his shoulder blades. Every time he tried to move in his seat, that stinging jolt of pain would return. Cecil looked up and noticed the woman again, but in slowly clearing vision could make out what was undoubtedly a nurse. He could hear her voice, but everything sounded so muffled he couldn’t decipher even a word she spoke. To his right, a doctor stepped out from behind and leaned in, examining Cecil’s face. Although it brought even more scalding, sharp pains up and down his twisted spine, Cecil bent his neck back to look the doctor in the face. As Cecil tried to focus on the doctor’s moving lips, he noticed his body rocking back and forth – despite the restraints, Cecil’s body perpetually swayed to and fro, all involuntary. He tried to will himself to stop it, but any kind of intentional reaction he’d attempt would increase the pain even more. The exhausted, delirious, sweat-covered Cecil looked down as faint words from the doctor seeped into his frail ears.
“Private Barber?” he heard the doctor call out. “Cecil Barber? Can you hear me in there?” Cecil began to swing up his eyes to meet the doctor’s, but his eyesight was diverted by the rapid tapping of his fingers on the chair’s arm. All his attention was fixed on the motion of his fingers, swinging up and hammering down in an unrecognizable cadence. As his mind tried to grapple with the beating of his fingers to the sound of drums, he noticed his periphery begin to darken, the examination room spinning, and the tapping in his fingers booming into his brain like thrusting sticks of bursting dynamite. Realizing the fingers as some kind of portal to madness that he’d now fallen for again, Cecil cried out in agony, but was quickly forced back into the dull white examination room by the surge of stinging, burning pain shocking through his spine and head and limbs. He roared in pain through the object stuck in his mouth, and he can see the middle-aged nurse sitting before him, staring at him with a face devoid of sympathy. Cecil could feel his nerves jolting back to life with every blitz of misery, just in time to feel a fresh stream of urine seeping down his pajama leg, and his face become awash with sweat, tears, and a trickle of either snot or blood trickling from his nose. He violently flung himself back and forth in his seat, against the restraints, trying to splinter this chair of torture that he felt was burning him alive. After some minutes, the punishment ceased, leaving Cecil nearly crippled. He could hear approaching footsteps and a hand pull his head up. Through his tears he could make out the face of an old mustached doctor, looking at him intently.
“Private Cecil Barber,” the doctor asked calmly and clearly, “can you hear me? Nod your head up and down if you can, shake left and right if you cannot.” At this instruction, Cecil slowly rose and dropped his head, cringing in the stinging feeling up and down his spine. He still felt as if a large jagged object was poking into his back, refusing to let him sit back in his seat comfortably.
“Private Barber,” the doctor continued, “you are in a hospital in Havre. You’ve been here for nearly two months. According to your file, you were only at the front for one day – a damned bloody shame, I’d say.”
Cecil, still delirious, slowly tracked the doctor has he paced across the room. The nurse still stared at him intently – an accusatory glare of disappointment that he had witnessed in the faces of his parents and friends a lifetime ago. He wondered why she was staring at him this way; what he had done to this woman he’d never met to anger her so. Her eyes were so piercing that Cecil had trouble figuring out who he should be paying attention to, so he looked down, and noticed his fingers tapping just as before. The doctor lit a cigarette between his lips, sucked two lungs-full of smoke, and continued through a stream of smoke into Cecil’s face, which luckily broke Cecil’s hypnotic stare at his drumming fingers. The doctor gave him a nod and blew out another mouthful of: “now, you’re not the first soldier I’ve treated in this hospital who’s had their wits blown out by howitzers. It’s damned unfortunate, but it’s starting to look like a side effect of combat these days. Makes you wonder if the younger generation these days have been raised softer than we were. In any case, after a few sessions of electro therapy, my patients are ready to return to the front – good as new. But seeing as how you’re a delicate case, and you’ve shown almost zero progress after two months, I’ve put in for transfer to a treatment center in Norwich, and recommendation that you be discharged from service, as you are completely unfit for returning to the front.”
The doctor put a hand on Cecil’s shoulder and blew another mouthful of smoke into Cecil’s face. The hand on Cecil’s shoulder felt like a red-hot steel brand burning its way into his flesh, and he bit down into the large object in his mouth as fresh tears streamed from his eyes.
“Consider yourself lucky, lad,” the doctor puffed, “most times weaklings like yourself’ll get a court-martial and a bullet for what you’d done. Pray the army doctors back home are as charitable as I am.” With that the doctor and his nurse approached Cecil and began unshackling him from the chair. The nurse pulled up a wheelchair, and as both she and the doctor started lifting Cecil, another seizure took over – only this time he was completely conscious for the whole episode, feeling every sharp sting rush up and down his spine like a dagger plunging itself deep into his flesh and slashing away. He let out a loud shriek in pain at the outset of violent convulsions, causing the doctor and nurse to groan in frustration and heave Cecil back in his chair. They fastened the restraints, inserted the electrode into his mouth, and prepared for another ‘treatment.’ As Cecil’s vertigo began to wash over him, his head grew light and he felt feint, but found in himself something to focus his attention on that would help him now and in the hard road ahead – the constant tapping of his fingers to the far-off sound of drums pounding in his head.
Shortly thereafter, Cecil finally left France and was put under the care of a psychiatric clinic in Norwich, where he endured several months hooked up to an electrical machine that would inject him full of near-fatal doses of electricity until he relearned to speak, eat and drink, walk (albeit with a cane), perform calisthenics, and act ‘as a proper English lad should.’ Now ‘healed,’ the army deemed him well enough for deployment to a new relief unit headed for Flanders in Belgium. Understandably, Cecil was less than enthusiastic for this news, considering the deep internal scars he’d endured, but doctors told him that the Empire was in need, and perhaps this would be a way to “make up for all his dilly-dallying” during his first tour.
While waiting for his train to arrive, Cecil stopped at a small café for some tea and a small bite, knowing he would likely not have a chance to sup before reporting to base later that night. He placed his order and sat silent at his table, contemplating his return to hell. His eyes ventured to his cane, realizing he would leave it there – a cane for a soldier would not be tolerated. Cecil took in a deep breath and put his head in his hands, struggling to cope with everything he had endured, and will surely endure in a few short weeks. He hadn’t even made it a day on the front – how on Earth would this be different? He pondered this for a moment, then realized the futility of stressing over matters that were out of his control and lowered his hands – to see a beautiful blonde woman sitting at a table across the café, starting right at him.
Cecil shyly glanced away, but after a moment glanced back to see the woman still staring at him intently. He’d seen a look like this from people in the past – a denunciative smirk that made him feel both uncomfortable and guilty, though he could not for the life of him figure out what he should feel guilty for. The past year has been a bit spotty on his memory, but even at his least lucid, this woman never rang a bell. Cecil turned around to the empty tables and booths behind him to make sure her gaze wasn’t actually catching someone else, and as he turned forward was surprised to see the woman had walked forward from her table and sat down directly in front of him.
“Highly queer to find an able-bodied young chap like yourself not in uniform, wouldn’t you say?” she asked him in a thorny, interrogative tone.
“I-I’ve been in the hospital for a while,” Cecil replied, exhibiting a stutter he acquired during his ‘treatment’ in Norwich.
The woman gave an extremely condescending frown at him and let out an equally condescending, “oh you poor thing. Well, whatever affliction you had, it’s good to see you’ve obviously healed.”
Cecil had trouble figuring out what this woman’s angle was. Perhaps he wasn’t too experienced interacting with many women to figure out if this woman was mocking him or flirting with him. As she reached into her purse, produced a single white feather, and slide it towards him on the table, her intentions became crystal-clear in his fragile mind. She slid the feather between his hands, got up, kissed Cecil on the cheek and told him, “a reward for your health and valiance, my good sir.”
With that the woman smirked and walked out of the café. The confounded Cecil watched her leave the café and disappear into the street, then looked down at the white feather on the table under his face, surrounded by his twitching fingers, tapping to the sound of drums.