They were all gathered inside the outpost-even Linda the dog was terrified, hidden under the TV stand. The guards did their shifts in pairs, so that they’d have someone to talk to. Patrol duties were largely neglected, not because of a mischievous streak, but as a result of The Appearance. This was no truant dereliction of duty resulting from an urge to stay tucked in bed or hop off to the nearest town for ice cream. This was genuine fear.
It all happened when that wretched commander ordered them to dig the trenches as a punishment for not keeping the outpost free from cigarette butts and weeds. The commander, major Troullos, had been going through a particularly harsh streak recently. Punishments for unpolished boots and unbuttoned shirts had become his staple ever since that inquest into his handling of the munitions storage and a punishment coming his way from central HQ. Troullos just took it out on the lads. The trenches were dug some time in the ‘70’s, when a realistic possibility of conflict existed and made them necessary. They had since fallen into disuse and ended up being used as a rubbish tip or sometimes a cosy spot for lovers to hiding from prying eyes. When Troullos came round one morning, they were still shuffling out of bed, unshaven and scruffy. Antonís was standing there, boots unlaced and eyes half-closed, supposedly in attention but still clinging onto that last dream he was having about playing in a European final and scoring, running towards the fans with his arms aloft.
Troullos was in a foul mood. He kept yelling at them, calling them a disgrace. “If your lot was around during the war we’d all be speaking Turkish now! And you, Constantinou” he yelled in the sergeant’s face, “is this how you keep your soldiers under control? Look at them! They couldn’t fight a swarm of flies, let alone the enemy! Four days detention to all of you! Eight days to you sergeant! And look at this shit-hole, how can you idiots smoke so much? And why do you toss these cigarettes everywhere-you should be court-martialled for stupidity!” And then he just gazed at the sun-baked barley fields, frowning and thoughtful. “I think that our trenches are far from battle-ready, don’t you think?” The men said nothing, although a light grumbling and shuffling of boots could be heard. “Sergeant, hop in the jeep.”
He took Kostís to the trenches, about half a mile north of the outpost, and issued his orders: “I want all grass and weeds gone from here.” Jumping into the trench, if you could call that small ditch a trench, he said to the sergeant: “You see, Constantinou, if the enemy were to shoot at me, they could hit me anywhere from the chest up-the trenches are too shallow.” Kostís prayed for the shot there and then. “You and your men will dig them down to two meters deep”, he said with glee. Kostís gasped. “But sir, the sun is really hot and this is really hard work, how can we dig so much?” “Shame on you sergeant! If your father’s generation had said the same, we’d all be washing dishes in London now. I want it done by Monday-I’ll bring the brigadier to see your excellent work-so don’t let me down. And make sure you all look shaved and polished too, otherwise you’ll never see your homes until I retire!” It suddenly all clicked in Kostís’ mind. Troullos wanted to be in the brigadier’s good books. They had to do the digging in the August sun. It just wasn’t fair-but then again, very few things about the army were.
The regiment issued them with pickaxes, shovels and wheelbarrows. Kostís was really stressed about it, since he was explicitly responsible about this trench and knew the major would just punish him even more severely if they failed to do as he said. One problem was that Kostís’ rank was only useful to the major. The stripes did look good on his sleeve but he had no control over the soldiers-most of them were his friends from school. They were all conscripts, so rank did not matter at all. Finding himself in this tight spot, Kostís had to do more digging than anyone else, simply to save his skin. That the major asked them to extend the trench a few meters towards the chapel just made things even worse.
They started digging early in the mornings and late in the afternoons in order to avoid the worst of the sun. A couple of hours of digging either side of the hottest time of day and they would probably make the deadline. They all mostly pulled their weight, although Andreas saw this as another opportunity for a sick leave. He ‘injured his back’ during the first morning and was off for two weeks. The rest agreed to beat him to a pulp when he returned.
As Mastre Hambís drove past one morning to go to his farm, he stopped his truck and jumped off. “I wouldn’t be digging there if I were you lads” he exclaimed. “That was part of the old chapel cemetery-you don’t want to be disturbing the dead”, he added, wearing a worried frown across his forehead. “I’m afraid we’re only obeying orders Mastre”, Kostís replied. “Trust me, if it was down to us we wouldn’t even be here. “Well, I wouldn’t go around disturbing hallowed ground if I were you” insisted the old man, as he jumped back into his truck and drove off. “Stupid old man” chuckled the ever dismissive Antonís, who had just come back from helping his father with the potato harvest.
On and on they dug the sun-baked earth, their hands full of blisters from the wooden handles and scratches from the thorny bushes. Dusty, sweaty and demoralised, they shifted the earth on the outside of the trenches to create more depth and save on the digging. “Fucking trench! If there’s a war they’ll probably blast us via satellite” said Kostís in despair. “This is all pointless, the bastard just wants to torture us.” And on and on they shifted the earth, bucketfuls, wheelbarrows full of the red earth. Dead nettles and thistles, gravel, rubbish, broken cement and bricks, dumped by builders. There was even an old washing machine, rusty, with its mouth gazing at the sun. Its cause of death was that hunter had shot it for fun, the shot pellets burning a rusty galaxy of stars on its side. They found old shotgun shells, broom handles, beer bottles, an old payphone, a doll with one leg missing, a broken tricycle, three dead rats, a couple of snake skins and a very alive viper, which shuffled away in search of a different nest. They threw all these close to the trench, but behind a pile of earth where the major wouldn’t be able to see them.
It was late on Sunday afternoon and they were almost finished with the digging, when Antonís was heard exclaiming “what the fuck?” They all stopped and looked at him-his dirty hand holding what seemed to be a branch. On closer inspection they realised it was a bone, probably a human thigh bone, as Sotirakis confirmed. They all looked at Antonís, as he let the bone roll off his hand in disgust. They all looked at each other, not sure what to make of this. Hambís’ words rang in their ears, and the hair on the back of their necks stood in attention. As the earth where Antonís was digging started crumbling, a skull rolled to his feet, its eye sockets filled with earth. Antonís screamed and jumped out of the trench, while the rest cautiously followed him. Linda kept barking at the bones from a safe distance.
“I think we’ve done enough lads” said Kostís. Gather the tools and let’s go. But almost as if a hand was pulling them away, they left everything where it was and took the path back to the outpost, speechless. Antonís, embarrassed at his display of fear, started to make fun of it all to try and lighten the mood. “Ah come on, you don’t believe old Hambís’ stories now do you? They’re only bones. People dig up bones in cemeteries every day.” But this was different-they knew it was, and as the night started to throw its dark veil over them, they were certain something was not right.
On Monday morning the major turned up with the brigadier, a rotund man with white hair and a camouflage fatigue like the ones the US marines wear, only a few sizes bigger and with a couple of pens in his breast pocket rather than weapons. They had scrubbed up really well and the outpost was spotless. The brigadier was not the kind to be messing about with-he handed out 20-day detentions at minimum, so everything was sparkling.
“Attention!” barked the sergeant, and they all looked at the sky, muscles tense, fists clenched on their sides. “I report: outpost men present eight sir!” yelled the sergeant, perhaps overzealous, as his high-pitch voice started to crack.
“At ease” croaked the brigadier, his voice gravelly from years of smoking cigars and drinking only the finest whiskey. “Major Troullos here tells me you soldiers are an example to your peers. It’s good to hear that. Remember that you are the future of this tormented country and that it is upon your shoulders to protect your homes and families from the barbaric enemy. Just like Leonidas and his thr…just like Leonidas and his three hundr…just like Leonidas and his three hundred fought the enemy at…Th…Thermopylae, so will you have to fight and sacrifice yourselves for the good of th…the nation” he pomped, waving his hand to drive away the flies swarming around his face. He hated coming out to the outposts-the dust, the smell, the pointlessness of it all. He’d sooner be back in his air-conditioned office, reading the papers while drinking his coffee. But he had to play along, as the general was on his case after recent reports of maladministration in his regiments.
“Major Troullos here” he pointed at the major who was beaming “tells me that you men have, under his enlightened leadership, restructured and expanded the trenches. This work is crucial, as this will no doubt be your own Therm…Thermopylae. Defensive work is our priority, and I urge you to carry on with your duties with the same vigour as usual. Major, let’s have a look at this trench!” The major waved at the sergeant to join them and they all entered the brigadier’s brand-new chauffeur-driven saloon car. Kostís had been dreading this. They would find the bones and the deserted tools and he could kiss goodbye any hope of seeing his family any time soon. When they reached the trench, the brigadier commented on the quality of the work, the depth of the trench and the speed with which the men finished the work. When they reached the part where the bones were found, Kostís was amazed to find that there was nothing there-no sign of the bones, and no sign of the tools. As they were heading back to the outpost, he thought that thieves must have carried the whole lot away. He would probably get the rap for the loss of the tools, but he preferred that to a scolding from the brigadier.
“Good job major-this should be an example to the other outposts. Please make sure that all trenches are up to this standard” said the brigadier, bringing a handkerchief to his nose as the whiff of a decomposing sheep from somewhere caught him as he was entering the car. The major joined him and the car disappeared back towards the air-conditioned civilisation from where it had come.
The men were baffled. They went back and looked around for the bones and tools, but found nothing. They asked Hambís if he saw anything or anyone, and Hambís’ frown appeared even deeper, his face darker than before. “I told you not to dig there didn’t I? Now you disturbed them, god knows what will happen.” That wasn’t the answer they were hoping for. They thought Hambís arrived early in the morning and took the tools away, tidying the place up as a favour. But that was simply not the case. And that’s when strange things began to happen. Guards heard wailing at night, but they couldn’t tell whether it was just the howling of the wind or something more sinister. The dog had become more uneasy, and she barked at the darkness for no obvious reason. As they were sitting around the petrol lamp at night, the dog just jumped to her feet and dashed outside to bark at something. Nobody followed her to check. One of the patrols thought they saw a light flickering at night inside the chapel-where no priest had lit a candle for centuries. They kept hearing strange, creaking noises from the roof, scratching and sometimes a noise which sounded like heavy sighing. A general feeling of fear and unease descended upon them, and they all kept thinking of the bones, the tools and the trench. Some tried to make fun of the situation in order to lighten up the mood and conceal their own fears. Some others just kept to themselves. Hambís somehow came round less frequently and looked more serious than usual.
One night the patrol came back terrified, their faces blank and white. They kept hearing heavy breathing and panting, as if a pack of dogs was following them. When they turned and looked they could see nothing. They kept walking, going faster and faster, but the panting followed them until they entered the outpost. Some nights they could hear the sound of horses galloping on the road. Nobody dared to look-there hadn’t been horses in that part of the world since the English made the railway. Linda kept barking.
To be continued…
Part of the Army Tales
Image from here