One who journeying
Along a way he knows not, having crossed
A place of drear extent, before him sees
A river rushing swiftly toward the deep,
And all its tossing current white with foam,
And stops and turns, and measures back his way.
Ten years past the Great War, Hubert, alone on the deck of a steamer, was en route
to another season’s excavation at Ur. The moon overhead was new, buttery and
round, rimmed in blue. Its light poured pure and bright through the dark sky, fell
iridescent but weak into the black Mediterranean Sea.
For Hubert there was everywhere the sound of satin moving, in the sea rolling
underneath, in the muffled turn of the ship’s engines, in the shy, sleepy “night, night”
of his young bride waiting for him below.
He couldn’t quite believe he’d taken her on. His marriage was as much of an arranged
affair as could be deemed decent in modern times. It had seemed a reasonable
solution. Marriage was a prerequisite to so many things, especially among their kind.
Still, he couldn’t quite fathom it. Thoughts of his marriage made him anxious and
agitated. He knew she felt he had changed. Perhaps he had. My work, he would
answer when she asked if anything were wrong. His work this year was pivotal.
Absolutely. Well, she’d need to learn to be patient. Besides, such things usually
worked themselves out, didn’t they?
His marriage certainly couldn’t change the past, and it was the past that concerned
Hubert at the moment. He had this season’s exorcism to perform. His duty to the
dead. His attempt to keep the past in it’s proper place. He would stay on deck until his
mind was scourged and tired, until his war memories were, once again, overcome.
Coleridge’s mariner had that albatross trailing him at sea. Hubert had the war. His
marriage couldn’t change that.
How odd that Hubert should be haunted by memories of the siege of Kut only at sea.
One would expect that the desert or Baghdad or the confines of the burial chambers
at the Tel-sha-Annim dig would be more evocative, but he never thought much about
the war or its terror once in Mesopotamia. One of many there. He was one of many, as
was the siege, the war itself. The Great War indeed. How many great wars had been
fought in Mesopotamia? Civilizations and alphabets, monsters and myths, gods and
god-kings had been battling and dying in the region since the beginning of man.
Perhaps it was the enormity of this perspective at the dig that kept him free of his own
war memories. Or perhaps, he reasoned, he remembered at sea because he felt
safest, freest afloat at sea. It was at sea that he first admitted any recollection. During
the siege, the surrender, and later as he fell ill in Baghdad, he had not allowed himself
to register the events–not until the hospital ship he was put aboard reached the
Arabian Sea did he begin to remember.
Bound for Bombay, for healing, memory, fear. As sick and stunned as he was in Kut
and later in Baghdad, he was never afraid. Anxious, yes, always anxious and agitated,
easily startled, yet increasingly outgoing, chatty, expending too much time
masterminding word games or pranks to play with his fellow officers–anything other
than wait–which was quite out of character for him. He was rarely so sociable. But,
he’d refused to experience the sort of terror that he’d seen on the faces of so many
of his men, refused to allow these men a glimpse of their own doom reflecting in his
face. Men braver and more attuned to reality than he, no doubt, but they were
looking for fortification not empathy. No, not at Kut nor later in Baghdad.
In Baghdad he’d seen the damned, the already dead, walking on the other side of the
Tigris. They were walking away from him, up river, and he was headed down. When he
was among the sick and wounded chosen for exchange with the Turks, he allowed
himself a bit of fear. Only a bit though. No, it wasn’t until the medic aboard the
hospital ship anchored at Basra brought him rum and milk that he finally opened up.
Besides, it was all a dream anyway, like an old Arabian tale. How could he have seen
what he’d seen and yet live to drink rum and milk floating the while on the dazzling
blues of the Arabian Sea? How could he be floating now, headed back to the desert
He always had the same set of memories. His life-long friend, Paul, the older brother of
his child-bride, shot down in a barrage of heavy shelling on Christmas Eve, his head
and chest torn apart. The next day the Turks dug in, stopped shelling, and the siege
began in earnest. At the time Hubert had thought Paul’s death the ugliest, saddest
point of his life, but later, floating on the milk and rummy Arabian Sea, he saw it all so
differently. Paul’s death had been instant, a grace-filled blow. The rest of the set were
not so sweet. There was the grounding and capture of the Julnar in its suicide run at
the Turkish blockade. Those of the Kut garrison that could came out of their holes and
hovels to witness the attempt. They watched the shelling force the ship aground,
watched two soldiers dive into the Tigris and be swept clear, watched the rest of the
crew summarily shot. Show over, the garrison returned to their stations. Three times
as many died that night of disease as the night before: food had been depleted for
some time, now hope was too. The siege continued.
Hope returned, briefly, at the end of April when Townshend surrendered. Ironically, the
floods, which had accompanied the siege and prevented any push up the river, fell
away as soon as the British capitulated. The morning of the formal surrender the sun
was merciless, but strong gusts of wind would occasionally clear away the swarms of
flies that had settled in with the siege and the stench of death. The living sought
higher, wind-spun vantage points from which to witness another scene on the river:
Townshend sailing upstream to meet Khalil. Cease fire. Both camps out of their holes:
standing on roofs, roosting in the palm groves, or just strolling the open riverbank,
watching the other side. Fear had sailed upriver with Townshend. Fear, death, the
damned, they all headed in the same direction.
The entire garrison–save the eleven hundred sick and wounded that went down river
in the first prisoner exchange–marched from Kut to Shumran, nine miles upstream.
Once there the officers were segregated from the rank and file and packed into a
paddle-steamer for the journey to Baghdad. The Turks approved of hierarchies, so the
officers sailed and the average soldier–poorly shod, siege-starved, no water, blinding
Hubert watched, again with the Tigris as proscenium, from the relative comfort of the
steamer’s groaning deck, within the silent, stunned circle of officers as the columns of
men, their men, were driven up the opposite bank by Kurds on horseback, by whip
and cudgel. Those who dropped out of line were beaten motionless with rifle butts by
the passing rearguard and left to be robbed of their kit and clothing by marauding
soldiers or civilians, and to die.
Hubert fell ill in Baghdad. Hundreds of soldiers did, from cholera or dysentery or
enteritis: pale green skin, their mouths rigid, hostel for flies, eyes sightless, bodies in
convulsion. Twenty-two officers and 323 soldiers lived long enough to be shipped
down to Basra in a second exchange. The unlucky remainder, nearly twelve thousand
soldiers and non-combatants passed into captivity, sent by rail in open cattle cars to
Samarrah and from there began their 500-mile march to Ras al’Ain, another cattle-car
train over the Amanus mountains, and finally internment as prison laborers on the
Baghdad railway under the supervision of the Germans. Less than a quarter returned.
Hubert returned. Time and again, he returned, to the sea and its perpetual memory,
to the baked and blasted sand of the dig, to uncovering the ruins of man.
A light blinked off the port bow. Gone. Back again. A great shape was emerging out of
the sea: velvet to the satin. The Greek Isles or some long-sleeping sea goddess
restless and waking. It was, though, the image of his sleeping wife that kept rising out
of the inky depths.
Perhaps, he thought to himself, he should go below and wake her. Wrap her tightly in
his mac and bring her up on deck. Introduce her to the wonders of Mediterranean
nights. Reenter the ancient world with his arms wrapped tightly around her next-to-
nothing form, her compact gravity, the density of her looks of hope and care. He
wanted to move but couldn’t, or perhaps he didn’t want anything of the sort but was
still frightened of somehow giving himself away.
And then all around him shadows began to rise and fall as the steamer moved among
the isles. He watched this landscape, remembered, mirrored it in his breathing, the
pulse of his blood, of his thoughts. He’d been here too many times performing his
duties to the dead, keeping the living at bay.
He had tried to fortify himself against her with talk of duty, to cloak his siegecraft in
barbed-wire rings of benevolence, but he was, in this at least, anything but benevolent
and she everything but duty. She was a Trojan horse. She was Townshend sailing up
the Tigris. She was a siren at sea, an angel’s grace. She was a mug of rum and milk
out on the Arabian Sea. She was there now, rising out of the black waters, a
shimmer, a threat, beckoning to break him down, to sabotage his quiet captivity.
C. R. Resetarits‘ latest poetry is forthcoming this spring in Parameter; fiction in Main Street Rag; essays on Emily Dickinson in Kenyon Review (winter) and on Milton in Fabula (spring). She lives in a small village outside Winchester, England.