It was October 31, 1917. All Saints’ Eve. We were the 37th Infantry of the First Division. We had been ferociously attacked that day near the French town of Citrouille.
I regained consciousness. I was lying on the ravaged battlefield in the desecrated farmland. It had become night. I smelled the churned soil and then the stench of the dead.
Now permeating the darkness was a fog from the damp field plowed by artillery shells and from the smoke of fires across the battlefield. The fires shivered a ghastly illumination.
I hesitated to cry for help. I did not know who now controlled this farmland or the nearby town of Citrouille. For three years Citrouille had been the center of a no-man’s-land washed over back and forth with blood.
I rose on my elbow slowly and peered around. I tried to sit up but I could not feel my legs. I stared into the night of fog and smoke and watched nervously the shifting shapes, trying to discern a person.
Then I descried a figure meandering slowly over the mounds of carnage, coming towards me.
I lowered myself. The figure carried a pail. And a long knife! It was just a boy!
He stopped and knelt. I saw him set the pail down and he began to cut something with his knife.
A fire flared nearby and for a minute I clearly saw the boy cutting flesh from the face of a dead soldier!
He nibbled it and then dropped the grisly repast into his pail. The boy repeated this horrifying action again and again.
I thought that I would faint. Then terror gave me a jolt of adrenaline. I felt for my pistol. It was gone.
I looked down at my legs. They were splayed at an unnatural angle.
I whimpered. The boy turned and looked in my direction. He stood up and began to walk toward me holding his knife out in front of himself.
When the boy was a few feet away I could discern his dark face. It looked like the middle of his face was sucked into his skull! Monstrous! Where a mouth should have been there were teeth exposed up to what would have been his nose.
Was I delirious?!
No! This was real!
The Suckface Boy stood facing me. Where his eyes would have been there was an overhanging brow of what I could only think was scar tissue.
The Suckface Boy pointed his knife at me and he nodded. I yelled, “Stay away from me!”, and I shook my fist at him.
I saw that the Suckface Boy was wearing a tattered American uniform, cut to roughly hang on his body.
I yelled, “Go away!”, and I threw a clod of dirt at him, ineffectively.
Suckface waved his knife at me and then turned and hopped away on the mounds of debris. He picked up his gory pail and continued on away from me.
Beyond the receding monster boy I saw the silhouette of a distant farm house. Beyond that structure I could see the jagged horizon of the ruins of Citrouille.
Suckface approached the farm house and he seemed to vanish into the silhouette.
I then didn’t care if I became a prisoner of war. I was yelling for help. From anyone! I quickly became exhausted. I laid my head back on the dirt. I became very cold.
I must have passed out because I remember my mother tucking me snuggly into my childhood bed. I said, “Mommy, my legs hurt”, and she began to rub my legs. My bed began to move up and down and my mother drew away from me and I couldn’t see her face anymore. I began to cry.
I awoke suddenly. I was wrapped in coarse cloth and I was being carried! I was tied tightly onto a stretcher borne by a group of ragged children. I cried out.
I turned my head side to side. They were all disfigured and monstrous, with missing flesh and distorted features. They each wore a tattered uniform, from French, German, British, or American soldiers.
They were taking me to the farm house. I was yelling for help until one boy pushed a foul rag into my mouth. I gagged. I started to shiver.
The farm house was a house-barn. There were two large spaces, one for people and one for animals. There was a small fire in a great stone fireplace, weakly illuminating the house. They set me on a bench in the barn area, still bound on the stretcher. One of the children yanked the rag out of my mouth.
I saw another soldier unbound upon another bench. He looked dead. I realized he had no arms or legs. Then I saw his profile. The flesh had been cut from his skull.
Suddenly, the dismembered soldier turned his head toward me!
I yelled in terror.
His unlidded eyes stared at me. They quivered and glistened but I could not imagine him being conscious, that it must be reflexes. It was ghastly.
A young woman in a soiled white dress appeared next to the mutilated soldier. Her long unkempt hair hid her face in shadow. She had red crosses smeared by blood on her sleeves and back. She adjusted a bloody tube that coiled from the soldiers chest to a pail on the floor beneath that bench.
The young woman then turned toward me. Her face was ravaged and raw below her nose but her smooth upper face peered over the carnage of her lower face. She came and stood over me. I was terrified.
Then she spoke something in French to me. She had an incongruous voice that was soothing like honey but I couldn’t understand her. She must have realized that I didn’t speak French. She made what would have been a smile. I stared into her eggshell blue eyes. She stroked my hair.
Suckface came and stood beside her. He asked her a question in French. She answered no. Suckface stared at me. He asked another question. She nodded ok. Suckface held out something in his hand and made an “eat, eat” gesture. I almost vomited.
Then Suckface laid what proved to be a slice of vegetable on my lips. It was a piece of pumpkin. I bit it and chewed. I hadn’t realized how hungry I was.
I stared at him as I chewed. For a moment he didn’t seem threatening. Then I remembered the soldier on the other bench. I stared at the other soldier and I was disheartened again. His eyes no longer glistened. Yet I felt a terrible relief.
The young woman turned and looked at the dismembered soldier and said something to Suckface. They both went beside the soldier and the young woman extracted the tubing from his chest. Suckface took away the pail of blood. The young woman covered the soldier with a shroud of burlap.
I yelled anxiously, “Who are you?!”
The young woman looked at me over her shoulder and she calmly said, “Eloise.”
She then spoke and gestured over to a group of children . They brought another stretcher and then they slid the shrouded remains of the mutilated soldier onto the stretcher.
As the children took away his corpse I became aware of a great pile of uniforms in the corner of the barn.
I lifted my head and saw Suckface now piercing strips of flesh onto sharpened sticks and handing them to the other children. The children took their portions and went over to the small fire in the great stone fireplace. They held the skewered meats near the flames.
The room filled with greasy smoke and the charring human flesh emanated a nauseating, sweet odor so thick it became a taste in my mouth.
The children then took turns drinking from the pail of blood. I was physically revolted.
I laid my head back in despair and I realized that the young woman Eloise was standing over me.
She touched her breast and said sweetly again, “Eloise”, then she touched my chest and shrugged her shoulders.
I answered her gesture, saying, “Jack. Jack Lanthorn.”
She repeated, “Jacques, Jacques.” She nodded and her cheeks stretched in a remnant of a smile. Her exposed teeth and gums were a hideous contrast. Her clear blue eyes trembled on the precipice of a bleak countenance.
My feelings of an empathy and a horror together were unbearable. I was thinking, “We die alone in the dark”. I said, “Well, Eloise, at least I am not alone,” and I started to laugh nervously, uncontrollably, and then maniacally. I was losing my sanity. If I had my pistol I would have shot myself in the head.
I laughed, “I will taste very bitter to you.”
Eloise put her hand on my head.
The children started to gather around me.
I thought, “This is it.”
Eloise began to rub my chest as if I were a child. She began to sing softly the French nursery song “Alouette”.
Alouette, gentille Alouette
Alouette je te plumerai
Je te plumerai la tete
Je te plumerai la tete
Alouette, gentille Alouette
Alouette je te plumerai…
It was sweet and soothing but then I remembered what the song was about. The song was about plucking a bird!
…I shall pluck your head…your beak…and your neck…and your eyes…and your back…and your wings…and your feet…and your tail…I shall pluck you.
The children joined the song softly. They sang as well as they could with their deformed mouths. It sounded so innocent but they were so monstrous.
A boy at the door suddenly whispered harshly, “Pierrot!”
Everyone turned toward the door.
An old, short, stocky man entered carrying a rifle. He was not deformed even though his weathered face resembled a potato. He wore suspenders over the ill-fitting remains of a French soldier’s uniform. I thought he must be a farmer and maybe this place was his home. I instinctively cried to him, “Help!”
The man glanced at me and then he addressed Eloise. Eloise spoke at length and the man glanced at me repeatedly. I lost heart by the minute. The old man seemed to be part of this nightmare.
Eloise gestured toward me. The old man nodded and came toward me. Eloise said behind him, “Jacques.”
The old man looked me over and then addressed me in rough-hewn English but I could understand him!
He said, “I am Pierrot. You are Jacques, yes?”
I said, “Help me.”
Pierrot continued, “Americans come. You be Okee Dokee,” he said as he looked at my legs.
I beseeched him fearfully, “What is this place? Who are these people?”
Pierrot said contemptuously, “You safe. They save you. Hide you. You afraid of them?”
I cried defensively, “Who are they? Why are they here? I saw terrible things! They are cannibals!”
Pierrot spit on the dirt floor. He said, “You same everybody. They…,” and he gestured expansively toward the children, “They born syphilis. Babies! Born syphilis. They mothers syphilis. They mothers fucking dead. They have nobody. Maybe die soon. They have no place. Live here my farm. Nobody like! Nobody help! Soldiers afraid. Two years no food. No water. You ‘cannibal’ like them two years no food no water! Fucking war! Fucking syphilis! You see? They help you. You see?” He spat again, “You see nothing!”
I was stupefied. I looked at the boy that I had called Suckface. I said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
I looked at Eloise, “Forgive me. I couldn’t know.”
Neither the boy nor Eloise understood me. I think they must have felt that I was only showing gratitude to them for helping me.
Pierrot said curtly, “I bring Americans now,” and he turned and went outside.
I was the real monster.
It was not long before several astonished and horrified comrades of mine carried me away from that place.
It was over for me, yet the Great War was never done with me. From then on I walked with braces on both legs and a cane in each fist.
My mind never left that farmhouse.