When they charged our trenches they brought a priest with them. I do not know why. I found him in the land between us, closer to his side than ours, shot in the upper abdomen. I knelt over him, thinking him dead, and he coughed.
"Oh," I said. I stood. "You are alive."
He coughed again. There was some blood in it. "Who's there?"
"You are alive." I said it slowly and knelt again. "Priest."
He smiled. "Yes, son. I am." He tried to open his eyes but the lids fluttered and I laid a hand on his shoulder and told him to rest.
Thick, wet snowflakes fell upon us. The ground was frozen hard, and the snow was beginning to accumulate. I watched my comrades stepping over corpses, or onto corpses, or kneeling beside corpses. I shifted the rifle on my shoulder and looked down at the priest as he struggled to breathe. He was dying.
The occasional gunshot shook me. It is one thing you never get used to: gunfire. They tell you that you will but you won't. Because you know, when that gun fires, that somebody, somewhere, dies. It is physics: an object in motion stays in motion until it is met by an unstoppable force. A bullet meets the unalterable will of man and stops. One of the two will die, and a bullet is not alive to begin with.
This is what they teach you in the trenches. Not your commanders: the enemies.
The priest was trying to open his eyes again, and after a struggle he succeeded. He blinked at the snow and turned his head slightly.
"You are young," he said.
I nodded. "Yes, priest. We all are."
"Not you, no."
"How old are you?"
"I lied. Yes."
"A brave boy, to fight for your country when you do not need to."
I said nothing.
"Too many of you, however. Far too many. They should teach you cowardice in school."
A mortar shell hit somewhere in the distance. I had not known the battle was still going, but perhaps it was a different battle just beginning. It was far enough away that the ground did not shake beneath us, but I looked up to see if I could spot the smoke. I couldn't. There was this field, and then the forest, and nothing beyond.
When I glanced back down the priest was looking at my uniform. His eyes drifted up to meet mine, then he turned them away.
"Oh," he said.
"Yes." I hesitated. "Sorry."
"You speak French well."
"Where did you learn?"
"They teach you French?"
"I asked them to."
He smiled. "A true sign of intelligence."
"Are you comfortable, priest?"
His smile widened. "I think that is arbitrary. Are you a private?"
"You speak French, and they made you a private?"
"I did not tell them I speak French."
"I would not have an officer's job for anything in the world."
"A philosopher," he said. "I am truly blessed."
One of my comrades ran past me. "I think they are coming back," he said, and went on.
"What did he say?"
"He said your comrades are returning, priest. They come back for you."
"You shall see them soon."
"Yes. I fear I shall."
I glanced up at the sky, squinting against the snow. I could feel it soaking my hair, but before long I would be too cold to melt it.
"We must get you to your trench," I said.
He laughed. It must have pained him, but he laughed and had a hard time quieting himself. Eventually he said, "Private, you have a unique sense of humor."
"I am serious, priest. This is no place for a man of God to die."
"Every place is a place for a man of God to die, because he is already with God."
"Then this is no place for me to watch you die."
"Then I suggest you relocate, private. Before my compatriots return."
I took his hand and hefted it. "You are cold," I said.
"Am I? I cannot feel it."
"Your trench is a few yards away."
He sighed. I thought his life was slipping out with it, but he looked up at me and said, "You won't be stopped in this, will you?"
"Please, priest. I must."
He nodded as best he could, and I said, "Do you think, if I move you, you will be okay?"
"If I die while you are moving me, you will not know until we are already there, private. It makes no difference either way, does it?"
It didn't, so I picked him up and carried him in my arms towards the trench. He was heavier than I had thought; his blood and the blood of others had already frozen into his uniform. I thought several times that I would drop him, and I thought also that he was dead because he made no sound or movement, but I stumbled down into the trench with him in my arms, and laid him atop the only bare part of earth I could find. His head rolled, and when he saw that he was amongst his fallen comrades he turned away and closed his eyes.
"Is it warmer in here?" he asked me.
"I do not know." I nudged aside a Frenchman and sat on my haunches. "I suppose not."
"Oh. A shame."
"You are numb, and I will be cold no matter what."
"What, private, is a boy like you doing at the front?"
"There are a lot of men like me here," I said. "We are all here, I think."
"You love your country."
"Very much, yes."
"Do you think she did wrong?"
"Does it matter?"
He thought about it. After I'd almost forgotten what I'd asked him, he said, "I suppose not. Not in the eyes of God, at least."
"How about in the eyes of man?"
"I don't know men, son. I know men only in relation to God."
"Is there any other way to know them?"
"You really should not be fighting, private. I see you standing before a classroom of pupils, reciting Plato and Aristotle."
The snow was several inches thick now and coming down still. I brushed it out of my hair, and it fell onto the priest's leg. His eyes were open again and he was looking at me, mindless of the snow on his face.
"Can I ask you a question, private?"
"Are you a man of God?"
"How do you suppose?"
"I believe in Him."
"Does that make you a man of God?"
After a moment I shook my head. "No."
"But you believe."
"Can I ask you another question, private?"
"Why was a man who believes in God robbing the body of a priest?"
"I did not know you were a priest."
"But, you wonder, would I have taken your supplies anyways? If you had been dead?"
"Bullets are bullets, priest. Money is money and water is water. It does not matter where it comes from or who it belongs to, it is always the same."
"I suppose, son, that you are right."
"But you do not agree with me."
He coughed again, and there was more blood this time. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand then pulled his hand away and looked at it. "Well," he said.
A couple of my comrades fell into the trench. They looked at me, and one of them said, "What are you still doing here? They're coming."
Then they were up out of the trench and running. The priest had been looking at them, and his eyes followed them as they left, followed them even after they'd gone. He looked hard at the rim of the trench where they'd disappeared, and he said, "I have seen so many young men run through here. And I cannot help think that none of them will return."
The sounds of gunfire were increasing and getting closer. I took my own rifle off my shoulder and inspected it to see if the snow had clogged the barrel with water. It had, and I emptied the barrel and thought about whether or not the gun would work. I could find plenty of guns here in the trench, but they would all be water logged as well. I cursed and spat into the snow and looked over my shoulder.
"Here," the priest said.
I turned around. He had taken a small pistol from his pocket. He held it out to me, and I took it. It was stained with his blood but otherwise dry, and I looked at it then back at him. He smiled apologetically and said, "I was ordered to carry it."
"I would also give you my bible, but I am afraid I do not know where it is."
"This will do."
"I assume," he said, "you need it now more than I."
I thanked him. The priest smiled at me and opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out and he was gone. The snow fell upon his face, collecting on his open eyes, and I closed the lids and turned away.
I could hear the sounds of battle, now coming from the nearest tree line. I could not feel the Priest's gun in my hand; my fingers were numb, and the metal had lain against his body just long enough to not be bitterly cold, so that it matched the temperature of my hand perfectly. I stared at it for a moment, a small pistol, not much for fighting with, then I set aside my rifle and stood to face the men marching on my position.
BIO: Daniel W. Davis is a graduate student born and raised in Central Illinois. His work has appeared in various online and print journals. You can find him at www.dumpsterchickenmusic.blogspot.com.