The Sacred Way

Neil Brown

Gerard Depuy, his tunic open in an un-soldierly way, stood on the corner of an anonymous street that intersected the road from Bar le Duc. He had no idea what day it was; all the days seemed pretty much the same. The sight that lay in his vision gripped him in a mixture of awe and revulsion. Although it was early morning, the Bar le Duc road was crowded with the implements of war–men, animals and machinery–wrestling for space. All heading to and from the inferno that was Verdun. With each passing vehicle large clouds of dust were kicked up, adding to the thick coating that had turned everything in the town to a consistent shade of dull brown. After months of heavy vehicles beating the road, several of the houses that lined it had their backbones shattered, eventually leaning forward precariously over the street and creating a sinister gateway to what lay beyond.

Gerard had opened his uniform shirt to release the heat, but found that this allowed the dust to explore every part of his body. Shielding the August sun with his hand, he continued to take in the moving misery. Horses pulling cannon, seeming to sense what was in store for them, screamed and kicked, while the trucks roared by, carrying fresh-faced boys in their bright blue uniforms. In the opposite direction the trucks brought shattered men in faded blue, some dead, and some alive but destroyed forever.

Gerard had detached himself from the small fist of men lounging in front of a brothel awaiting transportation. His desire had been to gain a little solitude before he was herded into the back of a truck for the long ride to the rear. Where? he thought, I don’t know; at least I am free from the ninth circle of hell–but at a price. He smiled a bit at the academic recollection from his youth.

“So, Gerard, do you know where they are taking us to?” Guy was at his elbow, interrupting his thoughts.

Gerard wearily shrugged back at Guy. He had known him only since this morning’s muster and had already begun to get annoyed by his constant talking. Gerard thought that the large hole in the side of Guy’s cheek should have been enough to quiet him down.

“This is it, eh? La Voie Sacree.” Guy was not one to be easily deterred. “The Sacred Way. The Generals say this road is how we will win the battle! More men! More animals! Faster to the front! God help them all!”

Although Gerard continued to be a silent bystander, Guy was persistent. He pulled out a cigarette and lit it up. “I hear that they are taking us to a home where we are to be kept away from everyone. What do you think, Gerard?”

“I don’t know. I have heard about these homes but I don’t know if it’s true.”

Gerard watched as Guy drew on the cigarette; some of the smoke he inhaled worked its way through the leather patch that was stitched to the side of his face. Unaware of the bizarre scene he was creating, Guy continued: “They call us men with broken faces. No one wants to see a man with a broken face. So they send us to the home. Nobody has to look at us. That’s what I think.”

Knowing that he would not be able to enjoy fully his last minutes alone, Gerard gave up trying, and headed back to the brothel. As he approached the other men, Gerard reviewed the small group, now splayed out on the steps of the comfort house. They made quite an interesting small community. Men with broken faces. One of them had a small block of wood that was fashioned as a chin. Another had a nose made of a small bit of iron. Gerard’s nose had actually been made by a tinsmith whose expertise was tea sets. Guy was not alone with a leather patch on his face; there were a few of them. Some of had them several stitches that held together the last vestiges of their faces while others were missing parts of their bodies; Gerard counted himself fortunate that the shell had only taken his nose.

The truck was late in arriving. It stopped abruptly in front of them, its overworked brakes screeching as they railed against having to work. More dust was kicked up by this action, further fouling the air surrounding them. A weathered canvas hung over the sides, and the body of the truck was pocked with dents from front to back. Dust covered every panel, bolt, and window, and the entire vehicle was smeared with burnt oil and other liquids.

The driver, a bullet-headed sergeant with a withered arm who walked with a pronounced limp, appeared from around the truck and let the rear gate down with a loud noise. The freshness of his uniform indicated that he had spent a great deal of time away from the front, but his wounds were worthy of the respect of any of the men who had so recently left it. He turned and shouted: “Come on, come on! We don’t have all day.”

None of them seemed to care where they were going and were accepting of their fate, except for Guy who pestered the sergeant for information. Losing what little patience he had left, the sergeant muttered something vague to Guy about heading south and then quickly turned and went about readying for the trip.

The men slowly made their way into the rear of the vehicle, the more able of them helping those who were struggling to get in. With a slam of the gate, some curses from the driver and a grating of the gear box they were on their way out of the town. In the distance they could hear the muffled roar of cannon heralding another day of war.

II

The Sacred Way was covered in gravel, a response to the rains that had come in the spring and made passage impossible. It had really just made matters worse, causing damage to the trucks that were not built for this kind of work. The men bounced around the back of the truck as the overworn shocks failed to do their duty and the driver seemed to make no exceptions for large holes in the ground. For those who were not totally healed of their wounds, the drive was torture; for the others, just barely tolerable. The heat in the back and the exhaust of the truck did not help the comfort of the occupants.

As they reached the end of The Way, the road became level and the ride more tolerable, while the reminders of the war began to fade into the distance. The atmosphere in the back of the truck relaxed somewhat as the heat had subsided and the men began to talk among themselves. Most of the discussion fell to the typical morbid banter among soldiers about ‘how they got it.’ Many of them did not know; they just awoke to a changed world. Usually, a soldier discovered later that a shell had hit where he had been in the trench and he was one of the lucky ones. Corporal so-and-so who was next to you had his torso ripped in half by the same shell. Captain X had his head removed from his shoulders. These survivors had disfigurements, but with the new surgeries they had been told they could live normal lives.

Eventually, many of the men fell asleep as they rocked in the bosom of the vehicle. Gerard closed his eyes and tried to join them, but his sleep was fitful at best. Whenever he began to slumber, he was back in the world of the trenches, back to the day when he was ‘hit’ and the physical manifestation of the war ended for him. The memories were vague and clear, muddled and sharp.

He saw Philippe standing next to him in the knee-high muck that was in the forward communications trench. Then there was a blinding flash and Gerard was thrown against the side of the trench, unable to hear and his eyes burning. Sulfur filled the air. Gerard cleared his eyes and was relieved to feel his arms and legs moving. His head was spinning, but he sat up and was able to get an idea of where he was. He sensed the blood on his blouse, the redness seeping into his underclothes. He felt his face; something was wrong and he knew it. Breathing was troublesome and his nose was like a burning pit. Finally, the loss of blood caused him to fall forward into a puddle at his feet. Before the darkness swarmed through his consciousness he saw the bloody remains of a man where Philippe had been standing.

He awoke in a hospital near the front–how much later he could not tell. Death filled the air, assailing his senses. Nurses hurried around from soldier to soldier, hoping to spare a life or comfort those who were dying. Gerard moved in and out of understanding, only slightly aware of what was happening.

He remembered the doctor, a man with spectacles, clinically explaining to him that his nose had been taken from him by the shell.The doctor held up a shiny tin object and told him that medical science had made it possible to replace parts of a man’s face with tin (and other things) and that he would be back to normal very soon. Gerard, the doctor intoned, was very fortunate to be living in such an advanced civilization that could make noses out of tin.

III

After a few hours, the truck stopped violently without warning, shaking the men out of their reverie. The front door of the vehicle could be heard opening and shutting, and the shuffling gait of the sergeant crept up to them. He threw back the canvas covering the rear of the truck, and the men squinted against the bright sunlight.

“Out you go,” he grumbled.

“Where are we?” one of the men asked.

“Sully. We’re stopping for an hour or so. I’m going to Mass and to get some petrol. You can come if you want, or you can wait. I don’t care. Not a lot to do here.”

So it was Sunday. For some reason, the day struck Gerard as ironic. A dull, empty, unimportant day.

With that he unlocked the gate, which banged against the back of the truck. The men slowly made their way out, some of them barely able to make the small leap. The last one off, Gerard jumped from the back, stretched his knotted muscles and looked around. The war had not touched Sully on the surface; it had not known the destruction of towns like Verdun and Ypres. Some higher power had deemed that towns like Sully would sit out the war while their sister cities bore the suffering for the nation. There were many neat rows of white-washed houses, and the trees and flowers were in fullbloom. Horses lazily clopped by on the cobblestone streets, and the church bells welcomed worshipers to the Mass.

The men seemed dazed, not so much by the interrupted sleep, but by the drastic change in scenery. It was if they had entered a world that had recently only existed in their dreams. Although most of them had come from towns similar to Sully, this was exotic, unreal; they felt out of place.

“What are you going to do?” The ever persistent Guy was at Gerard’s side, hopping on one foot to roust it from its slumber.

“Don’t know.”

“I think I might try’n find a drink,” Guy said. “Want to go with me?”

“It’s Sunday, and only noon. Good luck finding a drink. Anyway, you might scare away anybody you see.”

As Guy pondered his situation, Gerard decided he would spend the time at Mass and set off after the Sergeant. There was no reasoning behind it; his God was dead, as dead as Philippe in the trenches. The church would give him shelter out of the sun and allow him to relax in peace for a few hours at least. He could also be left alone– he doubted Guy would follow him.

The church was on the corner of the main street, also painted in the same fashion as the other buildings, only larger in size. As Gerard approached, the villagers entering the church noticed him and either stared or quickly looked away. Ignoring them, he entered the narthex of the building as the bell in the tower called the faithful to the Mass.

Although he had never been to Sully the church was familiar to him. Here were many of the memories of his youth: the sweet smell of incense that permeated the air (which he had to imagine was there), the carved statues of the saints, the Stations of the Cross on the walls. The wooden pews, the expensive candlestick holders, the sanctuary, the crucifix suspended above the altar, these were all things of his childhood.

The church was cool, a welcome respite from the heat of the day. Making his way through the twilight enhanced by the burning of the candles he found an empty pew near the back, hoping to avoid upsetting the villagers as they shuffled in. As he sat down the oaken pew creaked under his weight, and dust from his uniform settled around him. From this observation post he watched the slow procession of the village of Sully–weathered old men and women clutching their rosaries, freshly scrubbed children being pulled in by young women, women alone.

One of the women entered Gerard’s pew somewhat hesitantly and slowly knelt down with her eyes riveted on him. He was offended by this piercing of his defenses, and began to push himself away further down the end of the bench.

“No, please, sir,” she whispered to him, but the desperation and pain in her voice seemed to shout.

He stared blankly at her. She had the plainness of the people of the land, yet a certain sense of past beauty emanated from her. He studied the creases in her face that her powder could not hide, premature in a woman this young–or at least he thought she was young. He knew right away that her eyes had aged through the countless hours of tears; her hair had begun to gray through the effects of years of waiting. She reached into her pocket and produced a weathered photograph of a young man in a suit, reclining in a chair with a serious look on his face. She stared at it for a moment with a loving yet worried look before offering it to Gerard. He was unresponsive and tried to pull away.

“My husband, Renee Larouche. He is with the 1st Fusiliers. We have not heard… years… no letters…”

The words were skipping through his mind, incomplete as he stared at the photograph in her hand. This could have been anyone. Could have been Philippe, or any of the men whose body parts were scatted from the English Channel to the Mediterranean. Mentally he began to destroy the man in the picture, pulling off arms and legs, punching holes in the chest, mashing the head. Yes, he thought, I know this man. Seen him quite a bit, actually.

“Please, sir.” She was louder and crying. “Anything . . . ?”

Gerard was suddenly embarrassed with himself and he turned away, leaving her to sob uncontrollably. He pushed himself further down the pew, hoping she would leave. Just then he heard a tinkling of a small bell and the sound of people coming to their feet. Obliquely he saw the woman dabbing her eyes with a well-used handkerchief as she rose to greet the opening of the Mass.

He also stood and watched the priest process by in a threadbare vestment, followed by a dutiful server carrying a turifer that released incense into the air. A small choir hidden in the upper reaches of the church began the entrance hymn. Gerard stared at the procession, understanding the subtlety in every movement and intonation along the way. The priest, after performing the initial rites, turned to the people: “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.”

Gerard instinctively made the sign of the cross.

“Introibo ad altare Dei,” the priest continued.

The server, in a monotone voice, answered: “Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.”

Gerard knew the translation of the Latin of what was next: Do me justice, O God, and fight my fight against an unholy people, rescue me from the wicked and deceitful man. For Thou, O God, art my strength, why hast Thou forsaken me? And why do I go about in sadness, while the enemy harasses me?

Again he closed his eyes tightly against the light, tried to shut his mind to what was occurring, not listening to what was being said. He only came in here for a brief rest. This was now an empty ritual to him and he was not going to allow it to bring him back to a place he was before. He was pulled out of this by the army and his earlier life destroyed. A boundary had been crossed and he had seen and done too many things that he could not forgive or be forgiven for.

His physical body reacted naturally to the commands–to sit, to stand, to kneel. Mentally, he was disconnected from his surroundings. He continued to remain in the trench, staring at a man with no head. He lay in a hospital bed looking at a nose that was not human. This war between the physical and the mental played itself out for him in the back of the church among the simple people of Sully, no longer on the battlefields of Verdun.

As the Mass progressed he lost track of time, and he fell into a state of light unconsciousness. But this was different: he was not at the front. He was staring at a small boy kneeling in the dark confessional, dressed in a pair of powder blue shorts, a clean white shirt, and a small tie. The boy seemed nervous and uncomfortable, scraping his shoes against the wooden floor of the small room while keeping his posture straight, his knees uncomfortably planted on the small ledge next to the little window in the confessional.

The screen over the window slid open and the boy’s eyes became slits against the light that flooded the small room. In a voice barely audible, the priest blessed the young boy.

“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” the boy replied. “I cannot remember when I confessed my sins last.”

“Yes, go on,” the disembodied voice behind the screen replied.

“I have many sins I must confess. I disobeyed Mother and Father. I wasn’t nice to my sister. I have not said my prayers all of the time.”

The boy turned and looked directly at Gerard. “I have killed many men–Germans mainly. I have slept with whores. I curse and swear and hate other men. I stole food from wounded men because I was hungry.” The boy’s lips began to twitch, and in a pleading voice he asked: “Why did God make me do all of these things?” His eyes were flooded with tears.

Gerard awoke with a shock. His own eyes burned. He had not cried in so long he was not sure what the sensation was. He had a feeling of lost time come over him, of no control of the circumstances he was in.

He looked to the altar and saw the priest holding the consecrated host above his head. “Hoc est Enim Corpus Meum.” Transubstantiation was now complete and Christ was present in the hands of the small man in front of the altar. Suddenly the fire of rage erupted from deep inside Gerard and he looked accusingly from the host to the broken man on the cross. Are you really here? How can you come to this hell that you let man create? I don’t know if I believe you are truly here or you can really do anything about this. Did you mean for Philippe to suffer? What about the misfits outside, or that woman? Or the millions of others that you don’t seem to care about? You supposedly came to save us through forgiveness of our sins. But then you left and look what has happened. You failed us, failed your Father. I do know one thing–I believe in hell.

The vitriol of his thoughts shook him. He was sick, the sickness experienced by a man who had lost all he had of value and was now left staring into an empty abyss. He stood up and steadied himself against the back of the pew, the sweat on his hands causing him to slip. He saw that the faithful had made their way to the altar rail in the front of the church to receive the host from the priest. He was torn: part of him wanted to run to the front of the church and kneel, thinking that maybe he was wrong, that there was a reason for all of this.

But instead he rose again and stumbled out of the church into the light of the afternoon.

IV

When Gerard rejoined the rest of the men at the truck, Guy was in good spirits; he had found someone willing to part with a small portion of the local wine. The rest of the men had also seemed to benefit from the brief detour to the small town and were looking forward to the rest of their journey. They talked among themselves and for the first time on the trip, laughter could be heard from the group.

Even some of the citizens of Sully had overcome their initial reservations and were mingling with the soldiers, with most of the conversations centered on loved ones who were at the front and in requests for news of the war. Some gentle kindnesses came through in the form of small cakes and fruits; the men were glad for this brief human interaction.

“All right, time to go.” The sergeant was back and in the same foul mood as when he left. “Hurry up, hurry up, we need to get going.”

“I guess talking to God didn’t do much for him,” one of the men joked.

The men made their way into the back of the truck once again. Guy slid over next to Gerard who was attempting to hide a halffilled bottle of wine under his tunic.

“I saw the sergeant come out of the church after you. Did he tell you where we’re going?”

Gerard looked at Guy. There was still light in the truck since the sergeant had not fully pulled the canvas, and Gerard could make out the lines of his swollen face and the harshness of the patch that covered the hole.

“No he didn’t. But I think I agree with you. We are going to one of those homes. That’s the only place for us.”

This seemed to ease Guy’s anxiety and he sat back against the side of truck. “I wonder if there are other guys there with broken faces.”

The truck jerked forward, and with a few choice words and mangling of gears, the men were on their way.

Neil Brown is a management consultant living in the Harrisburg, PA area. A graduate of Loyola College of Maryland and the University of Dallas, he is an aspiring writer when not working on brewing beer or playing golf.