Eran was very still; the world was not. Shells shook the trench. Water sloshed around him. He kept his face turned to the side, to breathe. The mud clogged his nostrils, innocently, as if it weren’t trying to kill him.
It wasn’t even 1916 yet.
At the exact moment that Eran wanted to raise his head, his head was raised. It was dark. His host seemed to be looking for a chance to go over the top. Eran was just looking. The trench – he was shocked – was less than waist-high, hardly deep enough to hide in. No barbed wire, no fortifications, just mud sliding down a slope, directly into his face. Casualty counts suddenly made sense.
He wasn’t alone: face in someone else’s bootheels, boots in someone else’s face. There was shouting, in English, from his own line. He must have been British.
To Eran’s left a pinprick of light blossomed, swelled, merged with sky. Something was on fire. His host had his own transport, back to a warm hearth, impossible sweetness. It ended. The host thought it would be a good time to charge. He then thought the Germans might be using the flames as a guide. Seconds later, a shell landed nearly on top of him, rolling him in a landslide.
Were they supposed to go over? Eran shook himself off. He spotted the town from the rear-facing wall, orienting himself. Whatever was going to happen, would happen.
“But, Professor Swanson, I’m not a C student! I’m not satisfied with this!”
Given what he had just seen, Eran couldn’t believe he had to continue having this conversation with Ariana. “The point is, it’s a C test. But you can make it up on the next one.”
“Can I still get an A?”
What, was he a math professor, to calculate odds of final grades in his head? “This test is 40% of your grade. So no, it’s an A- at best. But that’s still good.”
“Can I get extra credit?”
In the cube behind Ariana, Mildred began to shake with silent laughter. The TAs had just watched the infamous “I Need an A.”
On the train home, Eran scribbled some notes in his book. Mud. Fire. Earlier than expected. Eran had thought his host would be helpless and terrified. Maybe it took time, grinding away at the nerves? Maybe his host was just stoic.
Why had he gone to Gwendolyn expecting to understand? Whatever. He didn’t understand at all.
October 22, 1914: Germans capture the town of Langemarck, part of the Ypres salient, during First Ypres. This battle was an early instance of trench warfare on the Western Front.