2016 Royal Academy of Bards Halloween Invitational Story


In Flanders Fields, Revisited
D. J. Belt


Copyright: D.J. Belt, October, 2016. Original story and characters.
Disclaimers: PG, folks. Suitable for general consumption.
Comments: This is written for the 2016 RAOB Halloween Invitational. Read it in a darkened room lit only by a single candle’s flame and scare the hell out of yourself (plus get eyestrain)! Happy Halloween!


The flame in the fireplace snapped merrily, warming the parlor against the autumn chill. Inside, my children, both now grown, and my grand-children, thankfully not yet grown and still at that delightful, innocent, and wondrous stage of youth, scrambled and played as the gathered adults admonished them in stern voice, albeit a voice edged with some indulgence. It was Halloween, after all, the celebration known to us since the ancient Celts inhabited the green, rolling hills that our modern farms and villages now occupied. From the Celtic Samhain to the medieval All-Hallow’s E’en, the night before All Saint’s Day, to our modern Halloween, it had been a time of clan and family festivities. Children wore costumes and scampered from door to door in the village, asking for little cakes or sweets, then retreated to their homes to partake of games and stories. It would seem that ancient history still hangs thick over our part of the isles.

I, as a country doctor, had made a last, late house call, so I was tardy to the celebration. When I did arrive, I was warmly welcomed. My grand-children seemed to know it was me before they saw me emerge from the hall; they knew my distinctive pace by my cane tapping on the wooden floor, a cane which steadied me when I was tired. You see, I had received a wound in the Great War of 1914-1918, and it often bothered me at day’s end. Tonight was no different.

It was only a moment before I was settled into a chair by the fire, my leg on a foot-stool and a glass of excellent brandy at my elbow. I’d arrived just in time for the story-telling, and my grand-children elected me to furnish them with an appropriately scary tale.

“Not too scary, Papa,” my daughter said. “They have to sleep tonight.”

I considered the challenge, then decided on the tale I would tell. After all these years, I felt it was finally time for this story to be heard. I considered the expectant faces around me, then said, “I will tell you a story which will chill your bones. It’s a story of ghosts, of agonized spirits wandering a desolate land.” I watched the children’s eyes widen and the adults smile. “And the most amazing thing about this story,” I told them, “is that it’s true. It happened to me. Never before have I told this story to a living soul. You will be the first to hear it from my lips. Are you ready?” A chorus of delighted nods and murmurs greeted me, so I gave thought to the story for a moment, then began.

“You all know that I was in the Great War. I saw many things there, things of which I never speak to this day, and probably never will. This one experience, though, was so chilling and supernatural that it fits this night perfectly, a night where it is said that the spirits of the dead wander freely in the realm of the living.”

“It’s called World War One now, Grandpa,” a squeaky voice corrected. That was my eldest grand-daughter, a bespectacled little scholar of whom I am quite proud.

“Quite right, my dear,” I said. “Tell me, do you know where Flanders is?”

“It’s in Belgium, Grandpa.”

“Correct. These days, it’s a scene of deep, green grasses, farmland, and lovely flowers. It wasn’t always so. In the days of which I speak, in the October days of the year 1916, it was a tortured landscape where nothing thrived, and where death hung deeply along horrid trenches which scarred the land. Not a bird sang, not a flower grew. The oppressive fog of death covered us all as we huddled in the mud, among the bones of our comrades, trembling from the screech of shot and shell. Even Hell had not such sights, I am sure.”

“Were you a doctor then, Grandpa?” another of my grand-children asked.

“No, dear. I was a young officer, recovering at a hospital, when the story begins.”

“Is that when your leg got hurt, Grandpa?” my little scholar asked.

“No,” I said. “I am not ashamed to admit that my nerves had been shattered by the unceasing violence. ‘Shell shock’, they called it. Well, I was summoned to the regimental general’s office, and he did not greet me warmly. He instructed me to proceed to a certain section of the front-line trenches and investigate an unusual situation there. When I turned to leave, he said, ‘Take your overcoat and gloves with you.’ I did not understand, but I did as he ordered. I was glad that I did. When I arrived at the front, I descended into our trenches, and was shocked. The walls were coated with an untimely frost. Soldiers were huddled around little fires, desperately attempting to keep warm. I sought out their captain and inquired of this unusual coldness, and he said nothing with words. His eyes said it all. His gaze, I shall remember to my dying day; it was a hollow, cold gaze. He simply pointed down the trench and said, ‘Go that way, and may God have mercy on you.’ I did, and what I saw in that distant section of trench, I shall never forget.

“Instead of being occupied by soldiers, it was empty. The walls were covered with a thick, icy frost, and the air was biting in its coldness. This was a far different condition of weather from the Flanders trenches behind me, which retained a bit of the autumn pleasantness so common here. I donned my overcoat and my leather gloves, and I began a slow pace ahead. In the bottom of the trench, I saw the bodies of dead men frozen into ghastly positions and covered with white ice. Their faces reflected the agony of their deaths. A few, I noted, seemed rather relaxed and content, as if glad that their end had finally come upon them. With all of them, I saw that their eyes were open and fixed firmly upon me. It seemed to me as if their frozen gazes followed me as I tread upon the frost and carefully stepped over them on my way through the trench.

“It struck me immediately that this section of trench was not manned. No wonder the general was concerned; if the enemy discovered this, they would most certainly attack here. I halted at a dugout door and peered inside with the help of my pocket torch. In the beam, I saw the same icy frost covering everything. The only thing missing was any sign of life. A few feet further on, I inspected a machine gun. It was frozen solid, its mechanism unworkable. Beyond it, overlooking the no-man’s land and barbed wire separating our trench from the Germans, the scene was the same: a thick, white frost covered everything. I could see, from my vantage point, the occasional body frozen into a grotesque position and half-buried by earth. I pulled my collar up against the biting cold and thrust my gloved hands into my overcoat pockets as I stamped my feet upon the ground. No wonder this place is uninhabited, I thought; it’s so bitterly cold that men could not long survive here.

“I stepped into the bottom of the trench and stood very still, listening for any sign of life or of gunfire. There was none. Not a sound, you understand. Nothing. The air was still. I resumed walking. The only movement was me, and the only sound was the tread of my boots on the frost. I was struck speechless by the desolation of the scene, but something else affected me even more. I was overwhelmed by an emotion which I can only describe as a sorrow more pervasive and gripping than I had ever before felt. It was an agony which wrapped itself around my very soul and brought me to tears.”

I had to stop the story for a moment. As I sipped my brandy and collected myself, I noted that the room was still. Every eye was upon me. Only the merry crackling of the fire afforded any counterpoint to my tale. I set the glass aside and resumed talking.

“It was then that I noticed the low howl of wind through the trench. What was inexplicable, though, was that I felt no movement of air on my exposed face. At that instant, the hair on the back of my neck bristled, and my chest grew tight with fear. I realized that it was not nature’s wind which I heard. It was something else entirely. It seemed to be the collective moan of a multitude of voices. In it, I could discern the occasional word, but nothing made sense. I spun around, seeking the people to whom those voices belonged, but I saw only a lone soldier frozen in the position in which he fell. A mortal wound showed upon his chest, and as with the others, his eyes were open and fixed upon me, as if protesting this disturbance of his rest.

“I climbed upon the parapet and lifted my head above the earth. Usually, this was a foolhardy thing to do, as one’s head above the trench could invite a fatal bullet. For some reason, though, I no longer feared death. In the distance, I could see the German trench. It, too, was encased in frost, and not a movement attracted my eye. I determined to walk to it. God alone knows what possessed me to do such a thing, to walk alone and upright through the killing fields of a no-man’s land, but I did it. I ascended a ladder and stood atop the trench, then strode forward, carefully stepping over tangles of barbed wire and discarded equipment and the occasional grisly, frozen corpse. Slowly, I paced off the distance, and slowly, I drew near to the German trench. When it was but a few paces away, I halted and peered down inside it. It was in the same condition as ours; empty and covered in thick frost. Not a living soul was to be seen, and not a sound echoed in the silence. I dropped to the floor of the trench and wandered its length for a few yards. A dugout door presented itself; I entered. Again, there was no life. There were two bodies, frozen into ghastly contortions. As with the others, their eyes were open and focused upon me, as if chastising me for disrupting their eternal sleep. I looked about the dugout, seeking maps or documents which might prove of use to my superiors, but saw nothing of interest except an almost-full bottle of brandy. I expected that it would be frozen solid, as was all else in this evil wasteland, but I picked it up anyway. To my delight, it was not frozen. I took a drink, and the heat of the liquor warmed me. I carried the bottle back to our trenches with me as I thought over what I’d seen.

“I must confess, no meteorological science that I was aware of could have caused this desperate cold. A mile behind me, the sky was blue and the weather autumn. Here, the sky was a thick gray where no sun could penetrate and no living thing sustain itself. As I drank from the brandy bottle, a new realization struck me: In both trenches, I had seen no rats.”

“Ick, Grandpa!” my little scholar said. Her sentiment was echoed in her companions’ faces. Her mother shushed them, but I waved a hand in friendly dismissal as I sipped my brandy.

“Believe me, I share your disgust,” I said. “Rats were a constant companion to us in the trenches. You see, they grew fat upon the unburied bodies of the dead in no-man’s land. The fact that none were here indicated that even that verminous creature, which can seem to survive anywhere, could not survive here. To me, that indicated that something more than natural was at work.

“I thought again about the howling, and determined to stay about until the sun set. Perhaps something would show itself to my eyes in the dim light of the dusk which I did not now see. So, I settled down on a wooden box with my brandy bottle and my overcoat pulled about me, and waited for the hour or so that it would take for evening to arrive. The brandy was a godsend; it warmed me and made that wait tolerable, but it must also have put me to sleep, for when I awoke, night had fallen. It was a full, dark night, lit only by the light of a bright moon which cast an eerie silver across the frosted land. I stood and stretched, then began walking further along the trench. I halted and considered a corpse, frozen and still. I watched that corpse for some time, occasionally sipping my brandy, when something happened which knotted my chest in fear and took my breath away. I was speechless with horror.” I leaned forward and asked the children, “What do you think happened?” Their heads shook in bewilderment, and I smiled at that. “That corpse’s eyes suddenly opened, and he stared at me.”

The children shrieked in unison. “What did you do, Grandpa?” my little scholar asked. Her mother promptly shushed her, but turned to me to await a reply.

“Yes, Papa. What did you do?”

“What would anyone do?” I asked. “I stood, gasping in fear. I backed up a pace, but the side of the trench held me. That corpse and I stared at each other for – who knows? It could have been a second, or it could have been hours. Time stopped. Finally, I spoke to it. What else was I to do? I asked it if it could talk to me.” I paused for a second, then said, “And it did.”

“Talking corpses? Really, Papa,” my daughter chided in good humor.

“Whatever did it say?” my little scholar asked.

“Oh, it’s true. It said, ‘For the love of God, put an end to it, man.’”

“What did it mean by that?” my son asked. He, usually a thoroughly logical fellow, was now totally involved with the story.

“I did not know at the time,” I said. “But it became evident soon enough. It pointed to the trench’s parapet behind me, and I turned and looked. My jaw dropped in disbelief, and the brandy bottle fell from my hand with a dull thump. Figures, gray and ghostly, were gathering above me on the sandbags and logs and staring down at me. Some wore the uniform of the British; some wore the Imperial German clothing, but they all seemed intent on me. I could hear once again the low moan of the wind which was not a wind, and I listened carefully. English, German, and even the Flemish Dutch and French languages swirled around me, a cacophony of babble which I had trouble deciphering. I looked again, and among the soldiers, many Flemish civilians were dotted. One, particularly heartbreaking to me, was a young woman holding a baby in one arm. Her body – and her baby’s body – probably lay beneath the rubble and ruin of the nearby village even as their spirits inhabited this horrendous place. She reached out to me in supplication. Her eyes, I shall never forget; they were reflective of such sorrow and anguish that I wept for her. In my miserable state, I cried out, ‘What can I do for you?’”

“Did they answer?” my son asked.

“Yes. They pointed at no-man’s land, as if they wanted me to return in that direction. ‘But there’s nothing there,’ I said. Again, they pointed, ever insistent, so I allowed my curiosity to guide me. I climbed the ladder and stood atop the parapet. The landscape, empty earlier, now bristled with ghostly apparitions who motioned me onward. The young lady holding the baby assumed a place by my side and looped an arm through mine. It seemed as if I floated among the masses of ragged, tormented souls as they carried me over the land and deposited me inside the German trench, not far from where I’d earlier been. Then, they moved backward, away from me, and lined the trench and its parapet above as if they were awaiting some event.” I paused to sip my brandy, and my little scholar could no longer contain her curiosity.

“What happened then, Grandpa?” she asked.

“Ah. Well, something that I never expected. I heard a human, living voice. Who was it, you ask? It was a young German officer, huddled in his great-coat and cap, eyeing me with some humor. He hurried to explain to me that he was a weather-forecaster, undoubtedly here for the same reason as me. He had a theory that he’d been testing about this untimely, freezing weather, and he invited me to see it. But first, he asked, ‘Are you a skeptical man, or a man of faith?’ I answered, ‘Skeptic,’ and he nodded agreement. ‘Then come,’ he said. ‘Let me show you my theory.’ We began walking down the trench, and he pointed out wooden stakes upon which he had written various dates and numbers. I noticed right away that the ones with small numbers were more closely spaced than the ones with larger numbers. He explained that the stakes represent the daily expansion of the frozen wasteland which we were now occupying. It was growing larger, you see, but on some days faster than on others. At one point, there was a huge gap between the stakes. I inquired of this, asking, ‘What is this gap? Did nothing happen at this time?’ He considered me with sadness and said, ‘The most happened. That was the Battle of the Somme. It’s still raging now, south of us and three months later. Fifty-seven thousand of your countrymen died on the first day alone.’

“I was struck dumb. Suddenly, I realized what those dates and numbers represented.”

“What, Papa?” my little scholar asked.

I replied, “What do you think, my dear?”

It was my son who solved the mystery. “Death,” he said. “The frozen land increased in direct proportion to the number of people who died on any given day.”

“Correct!” I said. “Those who have had contact with disembodied spirits of the dead often state that they felt a bitter cold in their presence. Their massed numbers here accounted for the biting air and frost, and for the uninhabitable nature of the place. This was his theory, you see, and I could not dispute it. It made perfect sense. The question he could not answer, though, was why these spirits were still here in the mortal realm. This he did not know, nor could we learn from them.”

“Why do you think, Papa?” my daughter said.

“Are you familiar with the poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’?” I asked.

“Oh!” my daughter said. She recited: “In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row...”

“Yes,” I said. “The last sentence, please.”

She squinted in thought as my little scholar squealed in delight and rose from her chair. She returned in a moment with a book, flipped through it, then read in her piping voice:

“If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”

“Very good, my dear,” I said. “And in that simple statement lies the answer. We had broken faith with them, you see. We had not yet ‘put an end to it’, as the corpse had begged of me. Alas, the carnage went on for another two years before peace finally came to that land. Perhaps only then were those tortured souls able to find serenity; certainly, God knows that many of us who survived have not.” I sat back and sipped my brandy. “And there you have it,” I said. “A ghost story for you, and a true one, for I saw this thing with my own eyes.”

Later that night, my son showed me to the front door of his house. As he helped me on with my coat, he asked, “So, Papa. What did you report to your general?”

“I reported the truth,” I said.

My son laughed. “And what was the response?”

“He was apoplectic. He accused me of faking madness, and he buried the report.”

“And have you seen ghosts since that time?” my son asked.

I could tell that he was teasing me, as his eyes were twinkling in merriment. “Oh yes,” I said. “Upon occasion.”

My daughter-in-law said, “You spin a wonderful tale. How you come up with such things, I shall never understand.”

“Ah! A skeptic?” I teased. “Then you don’t think it’s true?”

“Not in the least, Papa. Thank you, though, for a delightful storytelling.”

In reply, I smiled and leaned forward for her hug. “Good-night, all,” I said, and stepped into the cool autumn night. It was late; the children were by now all a-bed, and it was time for the adults to follow. Leaning against my cane, with my doctor’s bag in hand, I descended the steps to the gate. There, I paused as a sudden chill enveloped me. I felt a presence nearby. I looked to one side and into the gray, piercing eyes of a young Flemish woman holding her baby in her arms. I recognized her instantly; she had not changed in appearance from our meeting in the Flanders trench, so many, many years before. Her eyes, though, were no longer anguished; her gaze was gentle and kindly. She smiled at me before she disappeared from my sight. From that, I surmised that she had found peace. I hoped that they all had. Perhaps it was the telling of the story which helped? I could only guess as to the truth of that supposition.

That night, I slept well for the first time in decades.

The End.

-djb, October, 2016.

Note: The poem quoted is “In Flanders Fields”, by Lieut. Col. John McCrae (One Hundred and One Famous Poems, Roy J. Cook, editor, Contemporary Books, Inc., 1958)