Ben Hramiak is an author with a Bachelor’s Honours in English Literature and Creative Writing living and working in Yorkshire. He has written prose fiction from an early and has been published in Young Writers’ Tales from the Crypt, a 2016 short horror anthology. He was also published on one website for his poetry submission and has even started a blog. He is currently writing a historical fiction novel set in feudal Japan.
The Spider and the Moths
The Jerries don’t see us. Crouched low, the brown of my jacket blending with the mud, I stalk forward, rifle at the ready. They look to be on patrol, making idle chatter amongst themselves. There’s little to no cover so all I can hope to do is stay down and keep my distance. The Germans, with their grey uniforms and their little pointed helmets, are too busy to notice us.
Easy targets, I think, use their supplies. We get within range, raising our rifles. My boots squelch and sink a bit further into the slop beneath me. Ignoring this, I find the nearest one and take the shot. Centre mass, the shot ringing in my ears, smoke adding to the faint mist around us. In an instant the Jerry is on the floor, bloodied and gurgling. I begin ejecting the shell and letting the other one slide up, a satisfying clacking and clicking as the bullet is slotted in. This is drowned out by another shot from my right – protect your teammates as they load. A basic strategy. I fire again, the Lee-Enfield doing its job. Within a few moments, the bodies lie still, all but one. A Jerry is trying to crawl away, a shot to his gut and leg.
There is a… let’s call it a slippage – a lapse. The mask falls away for a moment. I find myself walking over, rolling him onto his front and shooting him in the chest. He gives a pained yelp and groans. Then, I slam my boot down onto his head! And again, and again and –
“He’s dead, you know.”
“True. Counter-point –” Crunch. There’s a wet popping sound as the nose breaks.
It seems breaking a man’s head is no easy task. Dense material under the flesh; bones and cartilage provide resistance. This, now… it’s definitely not the same. With every stomp I break more of the face and force the head further and further into the mud.
Zachery is looking at me with disapproval. I don’t have to see under the gasmask to tell. I can feel it radiating from him. Crunch! It does feel good, though. A shame it has to end. The taller man pulls me away, brown eyes staring down at me from behind black lenses. “Enough!” He has that same Bristolian droll to his voice.
He holds me up as I slip forward off the mangled body. My uniform is almost black from how much blood is on it; the soaking red mixed with the muddy brown of the jacket. The mask hides my snarl, my bared teeth. I push away from him, minding my feet and making sure not to fall into the mud: don’t want to end up like Perkins, or Gareth, or…
The body is sinking faster now. The cloying mud looks hungry as it eats the enemy’s corpse. The blood pools and mixes with the muck. Moving quickly, I make my way to the rock we had been sitting on, my boots still squelching even as I hit the harder ground. Zachery is looking at me, frowning under the gasmask. “Samuel, you cannot… that wasn’t necessary.” There’s a tone to his voice, that tone that grates, that tone of ‘you mustn’t do that, child’. He is older than me by nearly a decade, the fatherly tone fits him. He still has that habit of stating the obvious.
“So?” I have a habit of not caring much. I just sit on my rock and watch him sit down with me, holding his rifle. I imagine stepping on Zachery’s head, wondering how soft it would feel under my boot. “He was an enemy. We’ve been stuck here for ages and there’s nothing to do.” Of course, I don’t say all that I am thinking. I just nod and put on an air of false shame, “But… I’m sorry. I… my anger… it gets the best of me some days.”
He buys it. “Just don’t let the captain see you like that,” the giant sighs, “Got enough problems without you getting shot.”
“Thank you,” I do my best not to sound flat as a board as I speak. Meanwhile, my mind is alight with a quiet self-satisfaction. “I’m lucky to have you around.”
“Oh, don’t start,” the big oaf gives a chuckle. He has a dim-wittedness about him, and I am by no means short, but he is simply that much taller than the rest of the platoon. We hear a whistle in the distance. Zachery pulls the little silver device out and whistles back. Grunting, he rises and holds out a hand. “Come along, Sammy.” The nickname… I begrudgingly allow it. One of the men started it. Perkins. Perkins called me that before I was promoted. I had half a mind to reprimand him for not calling me ‘corporal’.
I take the hand and pull myself to my feet. It still surprises me how strong the man is. I have my own strength, of course. He is a hammer, I am a scalpel. Walking alongside the man, I ready my rifle and begin the trek back to the trenches.
The trenches are large and filled with dunces. The mud has been beaten back for now with spades and sandbags. I find myself standing on creaking boards in a herd of buffoons. I don’t think there’s much of a reason for my superiority, it is simply a fact; much like gravity tying an object to the earth, I am simply better than my fellow man.
Captain Wark talks, we all listen. A shaved gorilla stuffed into a high-rank uniform, the buttons on his jacket gleaming gold, he speaks in barking noises and platitudes. I would bash his head in were it not for the dozens of other men ready to stop me. Although I doubt they would want to stop me.
The men all hate him too, I think as he stares at me with his reddening face, his piggy eyes. Standing to attention, I give my report: “Enemy was encountered and disposed of, sir. Lost to the mud.” I can feel Zachery’s eyes looking at me, the lance-corporal judging me.
At length, the captain grunts, “Very well. The filthy Huns were returned to the mud! You are dismissed, corporal.” And life goes on.
1915, the autumn weather turned the French countryside to muck. Sheets of rain whipped into a frenzy by howling winds. Frankly, if I didn’t have to live in it, I would find the spectacle quite appealing. The wrath of nature on display, the sinking bodies like islands in a grey-brown flood. Of course, I do live in it, and have done so for nearly a year.
Night comes and sleep is kept from me by the idiot giant’s snoring, Gregor’s mumbling and the sound of gunfire off in the distance. I lie in bed, the blanket is damp and itchy, my vision is impaired by darkness. I have to listen to everything, every little sound. Whatever thought that bubbles to the surface of my mind is interrupted by Gregor! He looked as though he had once been a pudgy sort, but the training and lack of food hollowed him out soon enough. In fact, that was it – he looked hollow, as though someone had ripped all the fat out of him and left the excess skin behind. A hollow man with patchy red hair and his mumbling – it’s driving me mad!
It wouldn’t be too difficult to get rid of him, I think, growling at the repeated noises. The noise would stop. One less mouth to feed, more ammunition and clothing for the rest of us. I find that I tend to be better with administration, the tactics – the killing information. Zachery is below me, like the rest of them, but he has a way with the men I almost envy.
I struggle to discern if this was a dream or a memory. The windowsill was bathed in light, the dust drifting through the air. The moth fluttered in from an open window, landing in a wayward web. I smiled at the stupid little creature, berating it for getting caught. Then… He came out of His hole. A spider, grey-brown and as large as my thumb. His eyes. I remember the eyes the most. He struck out, clambering onto the web and wrapping His legs around the panicking moth. He… I swear, He looked at me. His glassy eyes looked up at me as glinting fangs punctured the moth’s fragile body. The prey fluttered its wings and twitched as its body was wrapped up in the web. All the while He stared at me.
I believe He was trying to tell me something. I believe that… I am the spider. I am a spider surrounded by moths.
A moth is skewered. The one that mumbled – Gregor, he is dying, painfully. I help him along, pushing my knife into his throat. It’s a rainy day, the mud is starting to gobble him up. I cannot see his pudgy face under the gasmask and the grey soup of the mud. I’m tempted to take the mask off to look at his face, but even I know there would be no point. He is dead, and I am left with one less annoyance back at camp.
There is a moment, after the body falls limp, where I simply stand there. There is a giddiness in my hands, my bones. I stand tall in the enemy trenches, the bullets whizzing past my head. I stand there, a bloody demon ready to pounce.
I am glad to continue the slaughter. Or perhaps I’m just glad I won’t have to listen to Gregor’s mumbling, listen to his loud chewing or… actually, I can’t remember much about the man. There are so many men in my section of the platoon – I’ve lost track.
The thought is pushed back to the little pit in my mind as I set about my work. Slaughtering the enemy takes priority. All but one are filled with bullets, drowned in muck or have their heads cracked open. The Jerry cannot understand me. I look at him, beaming behind my mask, redder than red. The little moth begins fluttering away, over the corpses of his comrades.
“Sammy…” Zachery finds me first. He has a look in his eye, the gasmask removed, bile at the corner of his mouth. “You… what did you do?” Blood coats me, dampening my uniform as though I had been walking through a sanguine storm. I have a brick in my hand, still speckled with bits of enemy brain. He looks wary, sick inside.
I just smile behind my gasmask and inwardly gloat – what he has seen are by no means my worst sins. I just hang my head and put on the guilty voice, adding a crack or two for good measure, “I… I just saw r-red and… I couldn’t save Gregor…”
“Gregor,” The lance corporal shakes his head, “Someone… you stabbed him, didn’t you.”
“Put him… out of his misery.” The mud clings to me, more weight added on top of blood. My arms are heavy enough with exhaustion. We keep walking out of the enemy trenches.
The moth’s body is already sinking – blood and mud, wasted munitions. We stand over it for a moment. Zachery looks over to me, wiping his mouth hand holding his mask to his chest. “We… we should pull him out of there…” His words trail off. I notice the patch of vomit nearby, a question I had yet to ask already being answered. “Give the family something to bury.”
“Not now.” I don’t need to put on a voice. We both know I’m right here. “Too much energy.” I give a nod to the corpse and mutter, “You will be missed,” I gingerly reach down and grab his rifle and pack, “Gregor.” I mean it – others will miss him.
The men of the section grieve in their own ways. Zachery keeps his head high, reassuring the other moths that the hollowed-out man fought his best. I simply nod for the sake of appearances and observe. We all stand or sit in the communal area, crammed together and looking at one another, the guards making their patrols and passing the word on. One of the men mutters something, “W-we lost Billy. Jonesy… Ian. Harris too.” I know these men, just barely. An average shot, a good melee specialist, a weeper and another snorer.
Just nod sadly and say how ‘we’ll beat the enemy soon’, I think to myself. The soldier that brought it up just keeps walking, disappearing back into the herd of grey-brown uniforms.
Wark approaches, parting the men like a shepherd, walking up to me. I salute, my clothing squelching – he seems to notice the red too. My antithesis – prim and proper, pristine. I look how I really am, if only for the moment. “Sir?”
“I hear you killed a small squad of the Jerries all on your own. It certainly explains all of this.” He gives a curt chuckle, gesturing to the red with a wafting hand. He’s always wafting or warbling or shouting – ever the man of large gestures.
“Just… just doing my job. Wanted them to pay for what they did to us.”
“Right-o.” The shaved ape nods and looks to the men, “You should take note, men! Corporal Dale here performed admirably and sent those Boche packing.” He speaks in simple terms – nothing more than what he means.
I look at him, puzzlement hidden behind false humility, then to the other moths: they look hesitant, meeting my gaze with a mixture of emotions – wary, tired, fervent approval. Zachery looks wary. A sea of exhausted, hungry eyes.
Another day, another outing – a month or two after Gregor’s tragic impalement. The mud swallowed his body, of course. Now, the spring is turning to summer, the warmth creeping in. This one ends up being different. A moth is… not skewered, but injured. His leg was shot by a stray bullet, and right now he’s whingeing at me and gripping onto my shoulder like his life depends on it. I push him away, the waste of space falling onto the sodden ground and groaning in pain.
Again, I can’t see behind the mask, but I can guess what his face looks like. He’s pleading with me, and yet all I can think is how much time and effort would be wasted on him. “You’ll slow us down,” No one is around to hear him beg, the battle is going on – bullets fly, men scream at one another. I don’t need to put the mask on with him. I just aim my rifle and… bang.
“Sh… please, Sammy. Need… need the medi – WAI –” He lets out a little yelp before I shoot him in chest – if I shot him in the head the gasmask would be ruined.
It gets the attention of the moths. One shouts at me, demanding something of me, “What the bloody hell did you do?”
It takes some restraint to not simply say ‘I shot him’. Instead, I slip the mask on. “He was injured, too injured to carry on…” he would have slowed me down, a ball and chain.
More of them are around me now – the battle is over; they have the luxury of outrage now. Some look in morbid silence at the body of their comrade, others at me – all of them faceless. “We… the bloody hell is wrong with you?” It’s a shout now, a chorus of moths asking the same, stupid question.
One of them begins to make his way over, leaning over the body, “He… he only got shot in the leg. We could’ve carried him back!”
I silence it quickly enough. I walk up to the nosy one and glare at him from behind the gasmask. “What’s your name, private?”
They all look at me, then each other. “What?” The confusion halts his outrage, for a moment, “That… y’ shot Gavin! We could’ve dragged him back to the trenches! What the hell’s wrong with you, Sammy?”
“Corporal Dale.” I feel the need to correct the little man. “This isn’t the pub, you’ll address me as corporal or sir. And I already told you why I shot him. He would have slowed the whole squad down. Now, search the bodies and let’s head back to –”
“Like hell we will!” Another moth shouts this, my head snaps towards him, “Y’ just shot –”
“Private! Unless you want to join him right now, you’ll do as I say.” I feel the mask cracking a little, their opinion of me souring with each word. “Refuse and I’ll have to court-marshal the lot of you.” Let them seethe, Zachery can be friendly with them. I just need to lead them. “Now. Get moving, all of you.” Perhaps it’s simply me being better than them, but this actually works. They seethe, but keep it inside. I lead the moths back to the trench.
Later, I feel their eyes on me, the outrage turning to cold hatred.
At night, I lie in my bunk in the dugout. Trinkets line the wall, all part of the mask. Everyone else has some, I thought having a few of my own would help me blend in. A medal, a flower, a letter – it took me a while to change my handwriting. It… I find it stifling: These are what I am expected to have! What I want is… maybe a trophy or two, or just nothing at all. I know I’m saving us resources, that’s almost enough. My trophies are nearby, I suppose. Every bullet saved, every gasmask to be reused – not the sentimental clutter of the moths.
A cold calm fills my mind, colder than the mud or the pouring rain. I murdered two soldiers in my section and got away with it. Not to mention… I can actually sleep soundly – not that I want to at the moment. I sit up in my bunk, the dull silence broken by the faint booms of artillery shells. I imagine a moth fluttering towards the light of the shells, only to be torn apart. The thought grows and morphs in my head, a wonderous tumour given life. I mutter without thinking, giggling to no one.
I salivate, grit my teeth. Again, I think, Do it again. Maybe a Jerry next, maybe –
“Ey, corporal!” One of the moths is at my door now. To call it a door is an afront to the people that make doors. No, this is a tarp over a hastily made frame, and a terrible tarp at that. “Will ya shut up!”
I blink at the fool, a snarl on my lips before I can manage to put on my more amicable mask. In the dark, I see his gaunt face – not Zachery, some other moth, transferred from another company. He was the second to call me Sammy, after Perkins started it. What was his name again? Derek. “S-sorry, old chum,” I sleepily mumble, “Was… thinking out loud.”
The man mumbles, grumbles, slurs his words. Either from anger or exhaustion. He… he might have been part of the squad the other day? “Enough noise to deal with from the whiz-bangs.”
I approach, acting the groggy fool. The darkness presses on my vision, I can barely make him out. One less annoyance, I think, one less mouth to feed – munitions to spare, more people being sent here. Won’t be missed… I suppose the men would notice, but people die here every day. If not to a blade or a bullet then to the rats or trench-foot. Perhaps they would suspect me after what happened with… ‘Gavin’, wasn’t it?
Private Derek. Shorter than most, he was always talking about his grandmother, her baking. It had driven his cohort to slobbering for how vividly he described her Bakewell tarts. I’ll admit that even I found myself salivating at the prospect of eating something other than rations and the occasional caught rat. When picturing the woman, I always imagined my own grandmother – decrepit and screaming. Not that mother was much better…
In any case, the knife goes in with ease, his eyes wide like two dim stars.
“Samuel?” Zachery finds me. The Bristolian buffoon waits for me to drop the body and speak. The knife is still in my sleeve. He looks… surprised? It’s hard to tell with the dim light. Lamplight is all we have, illuminating the brown of the wood and mud.
“Z-Zachery, hello. He’s fallen a bit ill and I’m –”
“You stink of it, Samuel,” His arms are folded, he doesn’t seem to be… oh. “Don’t bother…”
Ah well, plan B. I close the distance between the two of us and – I… he grabs my wrist and twists the knife out of my hand! I try to gouge an eye out before he can do anything. He is faster than me, faster than I had ever… noticed. His fist is in my face before I can blink. He is speaking, “Y’ must’ve thought me a fool, Sammy.”
Reeling, I grab my nose and feel the warm, wet blood leaking from it. The mask breaks – I am a corporal! I was given this position, I am better! I let out a hissing snarl, “You – you bast –”
Crunch. The world flashes white before descending into a painful darkness.
I can’t help but sigh and mutter to myself, “…I had another dream, you know,” I slept the last night sleeping in a mouldy, rat-infested barn – marginally better than the trenches. It’s far away from the trenches – not even a day and I miss the muddy hell. It was a terrible existence, but at least I was alive. Here… “He… they ate Him. Gobbled Him up. The moths came and gobbled Him up.”
It’s a cold morning as they drag me out to the courtyard. The ropes are tight around my wrists, biting into me. I can’t see anything through the blindfold except the impression of light, I do hear the raising and cocking of the rifles. The clacking and clicking brings up bile in my mouth. The head moth has finished his droning speech – something about what I did, not that I need to hear it. He sounds like the captain, all bluster and –
“Do you have any last words?” There is a voice off to the side. Calm, a little mournful – the chaplain perhaps?
I crane my head in his direction, imagining what he looks like – I’ve already forgotten what he looks like, so I just picture Zachery. I shrug, “It was easier to kill in the trenches than it was back home.” The voice sighs before footsteps sound, the man is gone. “They were all just hinderances, nothing more.”
“Ready!” The moth screams to his men, cutting off my thoughts. I go back to them, there’s little else to do at the moment – they made sure to tie me down tight. I feel something akin to the rush, a growing pit in my stomach. I remember… what was her name? The butcher’s daughter. Tiny little thing, so much blood for such a small frame. Blonde, always in her dresses, always whining about something – could run surprisingly far. I’d felt my lungs burn as I chased her.
“Aim…” I don’t pray, I don’t beg. Just… I stand there, feeling the bullets about to burst from their chambers.
Couldn’t have her blab on me, now could I. The knife went into her back with ease, the air pushed out of her lungs. It was her fault, of course, she shouldn’t have been sticking her nose in my business. Hiding the body had been an ordeal in and of itself! I’d felt eyes on me that summer… only for the recruitment officers to arrive soon enough.
Abigail! That was her name. “FIRE!”