As they rushed forward, a rain of machine gunnery lit up the barbed wire fence blocking the Canadian advance. Men falling all around him, Dutch started beating away with the stock of his rifle at one of the wooden posts. Those who helped him were cut down by fire. But more took their place, crawling over their dead and wounded comrades to beat at a fence no one had foreseen. When at last they go through and the small remaining force routed the German gunners, Dutch felt alive as he hadn’t in years.
When you’ve ruined one life, and death isn’t an option, an interlude of death is tempting. That’s what war is - an island of death surrounded by other people going on with their lives. It took me four times - four passages through the valley - to figure that out.
There was plenty of money from the Benwaar days - Samantha had seen to that - and with what she had brought to the marriage, even the Amsterdam failure should have been manageable. It had been nice, having so much financial support in this latest creative burst. The last time he’d had this need to make things, he’d just left the army, the country was brand new, and with only some New York paper scrip in his pocket, art had been set aside for commerce.
What was not manageable on Samantha’s late funds, however, was Dutch on a binge. Samantha had been gone for a year, now, and though she had taken nothing with her, the interest no longer sufficed for his needs. The principal had been breached months ago despite the departure of nearly all the servants. The only work Dutch had produced in eleven months was a constant state of inebriation and a stack of gambling debts, much of it derived from heavy losses in back alley dice. The rest came down to his infernal run of luck - and lack of experience - with the horses.
Other men might string themselves up, or sell out and go underground for good, but the former would be pointless and he hadn’t the initiative for the latter.
Even the gambling slowed in August, and Dutch was left quite alone, days and nights blending into a single dim, hot, alcoholic haze. Another bottle was empty. He called for Mary, but no one came. Of course. His one servant left still had an afternoon off. He found his hat and stumbled out into the street.
He was unprepared for the August sun burning fiercely into his brain. While he had initially intended to walk down the street to get another bottle, he instead turned and went into the nearest café. The newsboy on the corner was shouting something about a war.
At the bar, he drank down two glasses of whiskey in quick succession. It wasn’t any cooler inside than out, he noted. The drawn blinds at home had kept the sun at bay, but here the wide open windows, desperate for a breeze, did nothing but allow the fetid New York summer in. At least he wouldn’t see anyone - anyone who was anyone was up in the Catskills or down in Atlantic City.
He sat down in the window, another glass of whiskey in front of him. It was hot, but the streets were quiet, the café was empty, and the whole scene had a desolation that in the moment seemed to him redolent of death rather than mere abandonment. It had the sepia tone of a battlefield memory. The heat and dust of Gettysburg after the bodies were buried. He had an itch to draw it, but to what end? The show was over and done. He hadn’t see Amelia since Samantha had left. They had all been Samantha’s friends, anyway, the friends she had made for his sake. If it didn’t take so much effort, he’d love to throw this dessicated city in their faces. But they were off in the Catskills while he shriveled in his misery for another summer.
He was on his third whiskey. The sought-for calm was beginning to come over him. Death. Dust. Gettysburg. Antietam. Monmouth. Corlaer’s Hook.
“Boy! A paper!”
The war was a new one. A big one, it seemed - Britain had just declared war on Germany. Dutch laughed aloud at one politician insisting it would be over by Christmas. How many times had he heard that one before? It was never true. This one looked even worse than usual: Britain, France, Russia against Germany and Austria. All the empires of the world. One war. One conflagration. Not like that spat in Africa a few years back. The politicians will rue this one!
But after another glass of whiskey, he stopped laughing. There was something right about the army in wartime. It had a purpose. It had a direction. Glory didn’t exist, and the idea of it was overrated, and he hadn’t been anxious to jump back into the whole mess after the Civil War, but somehow rotting corpses and walking drill and hefting a pack to get over the next ridge in order to watch everyone around you die at dawn seemed to make more sense than sitting in the stifling August heat in a city of the dead, unable to even watch the world pass him by.
“Bartender! You have a train table? How do I get to Buffalo?” It could be that simple. Cross the border in Buffalo. Join up in Canada. Put Samantha and Rosie behind him completely. It worked for his parents. It worked for Fanny. Nothing like death to sever the last ties to a life.
He crossed the Canadian border at dawn. Sober. When he told the recruiter his name was James Holland, it was nothing more than the fifth time he had abandoned the boredom of peace for the structured chaos of war.
Starting over is simple. Just pick a new place, a new neighborhood, a new set of companions. We’re all still living in villages, and you can leave yours behind by moving two streets. It just takes more initiative than most of us can muster.
They still called him Dutch, and he didn’t much care. Sure, it had been Samantha’s name for him, but in 1812 he’d been the Dutchman, so what did it really matter? Some of the men in his squadron had heard him speaking Dutch with some of the Belgians. It had been odd hearing Dutch again after so many years. He’d tried teaching Rosie, but so much never quite came to him. Like a memory from early childhood that would come only unbidden, the language had stayed in the recesses of his mind until, half awake one morning, he heard the Belgian cook bargaining for supplies. Proust’s madeleine now a sack of potatoes. It was not the Amsterdam Dutch of his childhood, but then reflecting on how the New York dialect had changed, this was not surprising. And after all, Amsterdam had the purest Dutch, while these were Spanish Netherlandish peasants. Flemish, really. But the same language nevertheless. What was surprising was how much he understood yet how little he could articulate. Potatoes were not even a part of his childhood vocabulary.
War is brilliant. War is awful. War is a distillation of all of life and death. Nothing is as intense as battle. Nothing can make you feel so alive. Or so much an agent of death.
It went on, and on, and on. Hours, days, Dutch didn’t know anymore. They had the German position. A midnight battle, overwhelming odds, and they had captured their objective. So now he slept in a German trench, exhausted from the labor of raising the parapet on the opposite side to now defend the trench from its former comrades.
Wake up, over the top, move along, defend Fortuin against the Hun. And into the trenches again. It was odd movement, to sit in a place for a day at a time and consider that progress. In his last war, the battle would be over by now, none of this sitting in the dust, listening to the artillery whistle overhead. Dust swirled all around from the parapets, while the high water line kept the bottom of the trenches a constant swill of mud and filth. A random Belgian had been caught up with them in the latest movement, twisting his ankle and crying out in pain.
Hearing his own language again only disoriented Dutch more. It was a very particular war, yet it was as timeless as any. In the pauses while the artillery reloaded, the dust and the Belgian could have been at any skirmish against the Wappani, and those days were too close to his childhood in Amsterdam for comfort.
Dutch wanted a drink, but no one had smuggled any in. Opium would have been ideal. Opium suited his already dreamlike mood. Ever since they had landed in Belgium, his dreams had been a candlelit fantasia of the United Provinces, turning again and again to his fiery father. The native heath was some miles away, a neutral observer of Europe’s self destruction, but the former Spanish Netherlands were the closest he had ever come to home since he had left as a boy. The farms here, though torn apart by battle, were exact copies of the farms outside of Amsterdam he had known when he escaped the town and his father’s curses.
The screams of the wounded were always Sullivan, over and over. Every one of them sounded an Irishman. Perhaps they were, all the parts of the empire mingled together. His head whirled. A dying boy, stuck on the wire, almost certainly a German, and all Dutch could think of was Sullivan when the saw bit into bone.
His mates in the trench - for it was quiet there, the German attack focusing on other battalions, other brigades - wondered if it would ever end. Dutch had been the one who knew everything in training, but now he was lost. Miller asked if it would really be over by Christmas, as if shifting time by a year was a valid question. The Belgian began to pray loudly and fervently for it. But Dutch knew better. From the moment he saw the trenches for the first time, he had known this was not the war he had signed on for. This was no lark in South Africa. The Civil War had been less different from the Revolution than this was from the Civil War. And he had thought the extremity of violence, the industrial efficiency of killing he had seen in the Civil War was the worst mankind could envisage. He had signed on for death on an industrial scale, to set fire to his mind and burn away the past twenty years. But three days in the trenches at Neuve-Chappelle had been enough to show mankind was always advancing, even in the business of self slaughter.
Withdraw, into reserve. Sleep perhaps, hot food certainly, a welcome chance to get rid of the Belgian. The hunger, the dust, the ghosts of the old Provinces were bad enough without the constant sound of Flemish in his ear.
They came upon the town. Dutch stopped in his tracks. Vlamertinghe. Piles of rubble where houses near the church had been when they had left only days earlier. The church itself only one wall of a tower. The Belgian started in with a Hail Mary but was at last pulled away to the hospital. Dutch felt a pain in his chest, a constriction, as hope dried within his breast. A Dutch - Flemish - town, a potential glimpse of home, a pile of bricks and mud. Not all of it, certainly - the remaining houses and the chateau were pockmarked, sometimes lopsided, but still standing. Yet his wars had always been in the New World. The breakaway of the United Provinces was before his time. The homeland was always safe, peaceful, boring. He’d left it because it was peaceful in his boyhood. He had missed the naval wars and the French occupation. And now he saw a stone church tower, older than he, destroyed as easily as he had once burned Indian camps.
And yet again, they moved on. The army was always in motion, as long as the Germans allowed the continual transfer from reserve to reinforcement back to reserve. Not once while his feet were on Belgian soil did Dutch think of Samantha or Rosie.
It wasn’t what I’d signed on for. All the past was supposed to disappear into the present. But, as our latest commander in chief has said, “Mission accomplished”.
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