tagChain StoriesTalisman Ch. 6: Croix du Bois

Talisman Ch. 6: Croix du Bois


17 Juillet 1917

The first thing he was aware of was pain. Then came light, but, at first, he thought it had something to do with the pain. Perhaps he was in a fire. But that wasn’t the case.

There was an acrid smell, he was wet, his head hurt and the pain seemed to come strongest from his crotch. He gasped, but very little breath came. He put his hands to his face and found rubberized cloth covering his head. He fought with it frantically until it came away from his head.

He looked at the cloth and it all came back. The bombardment, the frantic cry of “Gas!”, the struggle to get his mask on, the whistling sound of an approaching shell, then nothing.

He reluctantly looked down at his body and screamed.

“Jesus. We thought you’d earned the Croix du bois.” The poilu turned his head and shouted for help.

31 Decembre 1917

“You see, all of the front-line troops have a… well, they have a talisman against evil. And the only evil in the trenches is death. Anyone who has been there knows that no man can defeat death. The only defense is God, or the supernatural. Or both.”

Lieutenant Patrick O’Brien’s injuries had nearly healed. He was to be returned to the front in seven days, but during his convalescence, he had become friendly with Maggie Compton, his American nurse.

“I wonder if my husband had something?” Maggie thought aloud.

Maggie’s eyes got started to mist over. Patrick looked away.

Maggie’s husband’s military career had been both similar to Patrick’s and very different. Like Patrick, he had enlisted shortly after the war began, but he had joined the Foreign Legion through the French Embassy in Washington, while Patrick had joined the regular French Army by virtue of his double citizenship. Patrick was still at war three years later, while Maggie’s husband had been killed in his first action.

At the start of the war, Patrick had been in Deauville visiting his mother’s family. Things at home in Detroit had gotten too awkward for Patrick to bear. His father had quit his job at the Ford factory to become a union organizer with Eugene Debs. Selling a union to the well-paid Ford workers was not easy, but after Eamon O’Brien had heard Debs speak in Terre Haute, he was convinced that the only way that the auto workers could get a fair shake was to unionize.

Patrick’s mother, Cecile, couldn’t help but be upset. She couldn’t understand why a man who was making such a good living would stir up trouble. The end result, was a troubled household. So troubled that Patrick found work on a steamer to New York, then to Marseille, where he took a train to his mother’s family home.

The de Tours family had a large apple orchard in Normandy and were happy to see Patrick, though a bit surprised as he hadn’t thought to warn them that he was coming. On his arrival they forced him to cable his parents to let them know where he was and that he was well.

Patrick had taken to the agricultural way of life very quickly. He enjoyed the way the leaves came on the trees, then the beautiful white blossoms, and finally the lovely apples. He worked hard for his relatives, making sure that there could be no question that he had earned his place.

During the summer, before the blossoms gave way to the fruit, there was little to do. He swam in the stream that flowed through the property and dried himself by laying in the sun. Or the family would picnic under the apple trees, the fragrant petals sometimes falling on their heads and shoulders.

Often he would cycle to Caen to enjoy the rhythms of the city life he’d left behind in Detroit. Usually, he would just sit with a glass of wine and listen to people talk. His mother had made sure that he learned French when he was growing up, but fluency is difficult to attain without being surrounded by native speakers and Patrick desperately wanted to fit in.

His mother sent letter after letter describing his father’s growing radicalism. A beating at the hands of a strikebreaker or the police, brief jailings on trumped up charges, and his increasing reliance on liquor. Patrick dutifully answered each one, in French, but for his part, he spoke of his love for the French countryside, the beauty of the nearby sea, and his affection and respect for his relatives.

In one letter, he asked her how she could ever have left this paradise for his father. She wrote back that love is not a thing that one chooses, but that one is chosen by love. Not having been in love, Patrick could only wonder at a force that might turn one’s life upside down whether one wished it or not.

“Patrick? Are you listening to me?”

“I’m sorry Maggie. I was thinking of the orchard. What did you say?”

“I said, what kind of things do the men carry? For their protection?”

“Sometimes it is a cross--often it is a cross. You are aware of the religious nature of the war? We good French Catholics have God on our side, but, of course, the Germans believe that they have their Protestant God on their side. We are at a stalemate, so perhaps our Gods are of equal strength, or maybe we have the same God and he doesn’t care who wins. That’s what I think.”

Maggie looked incredulous. “So God takes no interest in the affairs of men? I can’t believe that.”

“He takes no interest in the affairs of nations,” Patrick clarified. “He’s interested only in individuals. We are God’s creations, not nations. God didn’t create Germany, or France, or even the United States. Men created them. God worries only about his creations. Would God worry about a hammer or a cooking pot?”

Maggie didn’t care for philosophical discussions, because, inevitably, they led her to question why her husband had been taken from her so soon.

“Other than crosses, what do they carry?”

“Bibles, of course. There is always a story of how a bible in a tunic pocket stopped a bullet, so men believe it may work for them too. A lot of guys carry a lock of their girlfriend’s, or mother‘s hair. Or if they have a wife. A spent piece of shrapnel or a bullet that hit them and fell to the ground. A bullet removed from a wound. Rosseau carries an ear.”

“What?” Maggie was horrified. “A trophy?”

“No, no, no. It’s his own ear. It was sheared off by a piece of shrapnel from a trench mortar. He has big ears, well, one big ear now, and he believes that the size of his ear fooled death into thinking it was his head. How can that not be lucky?”

They laughed, both thinking that it was strange the macabre things that war made amusing.

“Would it be rude to ask you what your protection is?”

“Virtue,” Patrick murmured as he turned red.

“You mean you… What do you mean?”

“I mean just that. I’m chaste.”

“But you must be twenty-six or twenty-seven.”

“No, Maggie. I’m twenty. When the war started I was just seventeen. I didn’t know very many people in France. But my cousin Robert joined with me. We joined the same regiment and when our training was done, we were sent to the front together. The Germans were pushing towards Paris and we were sent to help stop the push.

“Robert was killed in a matter of minutes. We had been ordered to charge and so we did. Robert was a very fast runner, and he had gotten a couple of steps in front of me. His tunic blew outward as though it had been poked from inside by a finger. When the regiment came running back, I was still there holding Robert, but he had died before he hit the ground.

“They wanted to shoot me for cowardice, but I convinced them that all I wanted to do was fight, and they let me fight.

“The point is, I started to wonder what the difference was between me and Robert. Why had he died while I lived? I decided that it had been because he had had success with girls, while I hadn’t. My big nose drove them away.”

“You don’t have a big nose.”

“I’ve kind of grown into it during the war, I think. I’ve had to change my uniform three times. Somehow, the Germans didn’t find a boy racing towards them in short pants and cuffs at his elbows very threatening. Bayonet or not.”

They fell silent. Dry branches ticked against the window and cast shadows that penetrated the dim lamplight. Patrick studied Maggie’s face. Her red hair was pulled back severely into a bun, but now, at the end of a long day, strands were escaping to halo her face. Her face was round and gave an overall impression of cheerfulness, freckles had been spattered haphazardly across her nose and cheeks and her nose turned upward slightly to end in a small bulb. But her deep, green eyes were ringed with dark that hinted at grief. Still, with her hair up and her ears sticking out like jug handles, it was hard not to smile at her.

Maggie looked back from the window into Patrick’s eyes. “It’s almost midnight,” she said.


They looked at each other and then each leaned toward the other and they kissed each other briefly on the lips.

“I must go. It will be an early morning. And you must report for your assignment.”

“I think they’re going to assign me to orient some of the new American officers. Should be easy duty.”

They said their goodbyes and Maggie turned to leave.

Patrick watched the movement of her hips and buttocks as she moved. Above the waist, she looked slender, almost girlish, but her tiny waist swelled into large hips and a generous behind that mesmerized Patrick every time he saw it.

He felt the familiar swelling in his groin and thanked God that it no longer hurt. When he had first begun to heal, he had been strapped to a wooden frame that held his arms and legs open to prevent the returning skin from growing together. He remembered that, during the Somme offensive, the hospital had been so busy that the usual male doctors and nurses had been unable to attend to the recovering patients, so Maggie had been sent to change his dressings.

She had been gentle, more gentle than the men who seemed angry that they had to touch any penis, let alone one that was so horribly damaged, but when she pulled the loose gauze away, some scabs had pulled away with it. Patrick flinched, and Maggie immediately stopped.

Patrick assured her that pain was a necessary part of the process and to continue. Finally, after several fits and starts, she got the gauze removed and began to apply the ointment. Maggie’s cool hands on him, and the sight of the tip of her tongue in the corner of her mouth had caused Patrick to get an erection. Maggie’s pale skin did little to hide her embarrassment, but she continued to apply the balm. Just as she finished, a strand of hair fell and touched Patrick’s wounded penis and he came all over himself. Maggie jumped, but she held his manhood and, he thought she even squeezed it a little, but did not say anything about it, she just reached for a clean towel and wiped up the mess along with the excess salve. Then she changed the dressings under his arms.

Now, Patrick couldn’t help but remember that scene whenever she was near. Perhaps her presence had aided the healing process. The doctors had been concerned that the new skin on his penis would grow too tightly and never allow him to have an erection without pain, but the erection he had now was not painful. There was a feeling of fullness, as if he was too large for his skin, but it was not at all unpleasant. So perhaps the frequent erections Maggie had caused had been beneficial.

16 Janvier 1918

Patrick’s unit was in the reserve trench when he found them. They had just returned from a night on the front line. Sgt. Malveaux was the first to spot him.

“Hey look, boys! Our Yankee altar boy is back! And what is this? You’ve been promoted? Must I call you “Sir” now? Let me step back and salute the new lieutenant.”

Malveaux had been a sergeant since before the war began. He had received two battlefield promotions, but always refused them. He did not see himself as an officer. He didn’t care for the airs that officers put on, and he was afraid he might be taken away from the front.

“How did this happen? I thought you were going to teach your American brothers how to fight,” said Malveaux.

“Yes, I was, but they said they thought that Pershing would take care of them just fine. I tried to explain that this is not like chasing Mexican bandits, but they wouldn’t listen. I think they will make the same mistakes we did.”

“What about the Somme? Didn’t you explain about the Somme?”

“They think they are better than the Tommys. They probably are, but they will still lose a lot of men they don’t need to. The best thing we can hope is that we will not be forced into an offensive with them.”

“But the promotion? How did that happen?” asked the burly Sergeant.

“Officially, it was for the action when I got wounded, but unofficially, I think I got it because I cursed Col. Gaithers in public. The General Le Clerc hates him and he overheard me. Either he didn’t notice that I was speaking French, or he doesn’t realize that Gaithers can’t speak it because he called me into his office and promoted me that afternoon.”

“Better to be promoted for your mouth than for getting knocked on the head and gassed. Anyone can do that. Come, sir, we will have a brandy to celebrate your elevation.”

“Wait. Where is Rosseau?”

“Dead. We were at the evening stand to and he turned his head to say something to me and he got it. Apparently, he was right. The bullets did think his ear was his head. He made the mistake of turning his remaining ear toward the enemy. This one went right through his ear and into his head. Now lets get that brandy.”

Patrick crawled into a bunk to try to get some sleep before they had to go to the front for the night. Nominally, he was in charge of ten men’s lives, but he knew that, like all armies, his sergeant, Malveaux, would really be in charge. Still, he felt the responsibility. Some of the men would be put off by Malveaux’s sarcasm and bluff attitude--he would never call Patrick “sir” with anything but irony, for example--and they would look to Patrick for guidance.

The thought of that made him nervous. He was twenty and knew next to nothing about women, but he was big, bigger even than Malveaux and he knew how to fight. Perhaps he would be okay.

Inevitably, his thoughts turned to Maggie Compton. He had been able to see her a couple of times before he left, but the New Year’s kiss had not been repeated. Nor, of course, had the incident with the salve, but she had asked him to call on her the next time he got leave.

He woke to Malveaux’s big hand shaking him.

“Let’s go. It’s time to kill some Boche. We are to patrol tonight if we keep to the schedule,” Malveaux said.

They gathered the men and arrived in time for the evening stand to. The ritual of the evening and morning stand to was observed by both sides. The men would poke their heads and rifles over the top of the revetment to be sure that no attack was coming and to provide a show in case the enemy was considering one. Several men would be hit by sniper fire, but it was also good for the raw men to come under fire.

None of the men from Patrick’s squad were hit, although a bullet had hit the sandbag next to one of the new men’s elbows and he had soiled his pants. The poor man would never hear the end of it even though it was not uncommon. The first time someone tries to kill you is always surprising.

“For the patrol tonight, Malveaux, pick four men for me. You stay and babysit the others. I want to get back into this as quickly as possible. I’ve been away too long.”

“Most are recruits, but Lavache, Utuburu, Clement, and Duval are steady. You may have to hold Utuburu back. He is a little crazy but very good with a knife. He‘s Basque”

Utuburu was small and wiry like a well cured tree limb, but his eyes were a little wild. Patrick sat the men down and tried to explain that all they needed to do was try to survive a night in no man’s land. They did not need to be heroes. Lavache, Clement, and Duval nodded their heads, but Utuburu just looked at him from under his cap and spat.

Patrick told them to see to their weapons, that they would go over the top at full dark.

Malveaux brought the men to Patrick at the appointed time and Patrick looked them over and checked their rifles.

“Good,” he said. “You look ready. We go over the top one at a time. I will go first and Malveaux will send the rest of you at intervals. Stay close enough behind me that you don’t lose touch, but not so close that one grenade can get us all. Keep your eyes and ears open and do not fire your weapons. They will only call down the big guns and the rifle of every man in range. If we must fight, use the knife or the grenade. Got it?”

Patrick turned away and carefully raised his head above the sandbags. He saw nothing, so he quickly climbed over the top and into the darkness. He made his way to the wire and waited to be sure that the others were with him. When they had all arrived he put a finger to his lips and began to crawl through the maze of wire.

They moved slowly, freezing when an artillery burst lit the sky, until they came to the listening post. Patrick whispered the pass word and they kept moving until they came to Fritz. Fritz was a German who had been killed months before. Each poilu touched the skeletal hand for luck as he passed. So many patrols had passed by Fritz that the bones of his hands were worn smooth and they shone in the faint starlight.

Patrick moved his men parallel to the German trench and moved to the north. They were supposed to try to find and mark the coordinates of German listening posts and make sure that no assaults were being massed.

There was a muffled clink from somewhere to Patrick’s left. It could be another French patrol, but more likely it would be Germans. He held up his hand so the men behind him would stop and tried to see in the gloom. Behind him, he could hear his men breathing and one of them moving. He held up his hand again, but the movement did not stop. He looked back and saw Utuburu crawling toward the sound, his knife gleaming in his right hand. He was too far away to call back, so Patrick signaled the men to follow and they set off in Utuburu’s wake.

Utuburu took a position in a shell crater and the rest of the patrol found holes of their own to duck into. There was a whisper of German and, in the dim light, they could see them moving towards them. The first of them moved past Utuburu, then slowly past Patrick, but somehow, he spotted Lavache. There was a brief cry and the sound of a struggle, then a sharp cry, but by that time, Patrick had pulled his man into his crater and stuck his knife deep into the man’s neck and he died with barely a sound.

Patrick started to crawl back towards Lavache, but before he could get out of the hole there was an outcry in German and rifles started to fire. Then the machine guns opened up and he called for his men to stay down. The French line started firing and there was nothing to hear but machine guns stitching through the night.

They stayed undercover until the firing stopped and then Patrick crawled out of his hole and started looking for his men. He found Lavache first, dead with a German knife sticking out of his chest and a German with his head splattered on the side of the crater. Next he found Clement and Duval who had accounted for their men. He told them to stay put while he got Utuburu and set off for the last spot he had seen him.

Utuburu had the body of a German soldier and an officer next to him. Both had had their throats neatly cut, but it seemed Utuburu had also been cut. He was gasping for air but he didn’t make a sound. Patrick found the hole in his back and knew that Utuburu would not be returning to his mountains. He’d been stuck through the liver, and gouts of blood were pouring from him into the earth. Patrick tried to stop the bleeding, though he knew it was useless, and soon Utuburu lay quiet.

Patrick crossed himself and reached for Utuburu’s identification and papers. Perhaps he had a letter written to a sweetheart or his mother. He was putting the Basque’s papers in his tunic and reaching for his tags with his other hand when he felt heat coming from the body. Patrick jerked his hand back there was far too much heat for the cooling body to possess. He stretched his hand back toward the body with his fingers outspread. Yes, there it was. He had not imagined it.

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