Short Fiction: Return to the Battlefield

Miles of sand stretched out before the old man like a haunted path. The distance blurred in a comfortless haze of sea spray and grey clouds. To his left, tall grass rippled in the wind upon the steep hills, and here and there small white flowers swayed atop wispy stems—hundreds of white flowers across the hills. They might have marked the spot where each man fell. No. There weren’t enough of them. A gull flew like a toy kite over the beach and out to sea. Waves rolled in with a steady rumble. There were no waves last time he was here. “Favourable weather conditions,” they had said. Not favourable enough.

The churning of the ocean, the sporadic howling of the wind—these were not sounds he remembered. The sounds he did remember he couldn’t forget. The old man looked down: his legs, unsteady now; his feet, weathered and bare; the sand, beige and spotless. He paused. Turning back, he saw no mark but his footprints, while ahead the sand was immaculate. Not a blemish. The ebb and flow of ten thousand tides had scrubbed clean the dark crimson blotches where brave and terrified young men had writhed in their final moments. The old man remembered those wide eyes, looking for some hope, or salvation, or even an explanation. It never came.

He continued on. Further up the beach, halfway up a hill, a large black stone jutted out like a giant, stumpy rhinoceros horn. The old man’s hand trembled, and a tear raced down his cheek. Here was a definitive landmark, a piece of that day that had remained and survived unchanged through the decades. He remembered it was on the beach directly below that rhino horn that he watched a kid run five paces after a bullet removed half his head, before collapsing. And it was just on the other side of the horn that a mortar had landed perfectly between three men. Their burly bodies, conditioned for combat by months of training, were instantly dismantled by that sudden, deafening thunderbolt. It must have been about here that the old man had first set foot on the beach all those years ago.

As he walked on, recalling in his mind the horrors of his last visit to this beach, and wondering how on earth he made it through, he heard laughing. He passed the big, black rhino horn and saw three teenage boys standing up there. When they saw him, the boys stopped and stared; one of them hid something behind his back. Spray-painted there on that side of the rock was a yellow stick figure with disproportionately large, bulbous genitalia. The old man opened his mouth to yell at the boys, but then stopped. “Never mind,” he sighed to himself. He turned and kept walking, and the boys went back to their mischief. There are worse things they could be doing on a beach, he thought.

 

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