“A tour around the gallery?”
The old custodian knew what I was going to ask for, so he opened the door to the halls, allowing me to roam about undisturbed through Aladdin’s Cave. Because here was a true grotto of treasures: paintings, amphora, statues, watches, coins – in apparent disorder, graded in such a way that the eye could encompass them all, to discern them one by one, details after detail. Unique rarities and works of art that deserved their pedestals, gold, silver, bronze, marble, amethyst, an organized chaos of all styles and sizes, amazing fragments from the tapestry of civilization.
The hall of Greek and Roman antiquity, the hall of medieval and renaissance history, and last but certainly not least, the transparent shrines holding the dormant relics of two world wars: bayonets, rifles, machine guns, grenades, mines. Once, they had caused death and destruction; nowadays, they only radiated the matte glint of the iron, the desolation of inventions overcome by future generations. They looked like neutral photographs, benign and inert.
Not the black revolver sitting on a mahogany stand. That weapon emanated a somber, lethal aura – still threatening.
Look at whatever you like, but don’t touch anything, the custodian told me.
I passed my palm across the smooth, brown barrel and then took it in my hand. I did not expect it to be so heavy, and I had nearly dropped it. I clenched my fingers around the grip, when a drop fell on my eyelid, rolling over my cheek, on my lips. A tear? It wasn’t salty; it had a taste of … water?!
… The rain: it was petty, constant, and thorough, one of those calm, continuous overflows, no lightning or thunder, hardly any wind, nothing spectacular. Not a storm, but a deluge. I didn’t remember how, or when it started − a month ago, two, three? All I knew was since then, it had never ceased. My men and I breathed water, not air.
Within a cracked mirror, I saw the reflection of a man looking back at me. The shaved cheeks, his eyes, the blade of the razor – all appeared grey under the torrential downpour. Then, the edge caught on a few stray hairs left a stain of color. And it wasn’t the only one. Red octopuses clung to the uniforms of the wounded, sometimes covering their faces. And the trenches were filled with the dead; all of them lay where they had fallen, some with their eyes open, still clutching their rifles, others were crucified on their backs or ripped apart by shrapnel. Among them, a few soldiers slept, just as grey and still. At the parapets, the sentinels kept their watch in surreal silence, deepened by the monotonous dripping of the rain. They rotated the periscopes fearfully waiting, dragging tarps over the machine guns.
A whistle and an apocalyptic rumble left us − him, me? − stunned, eardrums vibrating painfully. A not too distant explosion splattered me in mud, blood, scraps of brain, and entrails. After that, all hell broke loose.
Artillery shells passed overhead, some landed in the ditch handing out death. The shrapnel flew about like swarms of wasps and there was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Life or death, it was all in the indifference of Fate. Howls, moans, curses and swearing covered the noise of the rain.
Then, just like that, the turmoil, the madness, stopped as unexpectedly as it had begun. Through the curtains of water and smoke, I made out a few limping silhouettes, untangling themselves from the barbed wire. As our general, sheltered in his concrete bunker would have said, “We maintain our position.” After an artillery barrage, the silence had a different weight to it, the air felt thinner, even the rain sounded different. We were alive and we had been given a respite.
But the gods were jealous of human happiness. And they had decided we had been lazy enough in the warm, soft mud. The time had come for a counter-offensive − five hundred meters in the beating of the German machine guns. A stroll that was sure to reinvigorate us and raise our morale. And spirits, as high as they could ever go.
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I gave the order to attack and was first to climb the ladder. The steps were slippery from the rain and the blood, but I didn’t stop, didn’t look over my shoulder. My men were following me, just as always, leaving the dying to guard the trenches and the dead patiently awaiting our return.
If not, we would see them on the other side.
A bullet passed by my temple and I threw myself into the mud. In a moment I was standing again, running through the steel wasps, the rattling of the machineguns maiming us without slowing us down. But could any man outrun death?
Again I fell on my belly in the mud saturated in blood. I stood up, dazed, then I heard the rumble of the engines. It came from above, from the sky bleeding liquid ash: planes. Were they ours or theirs?
“What are you doing? Put it back!”
The old man’s voice restored the picture of reality: the stucco ceiling, wooden floorboards, and glass display cases. But the fear stayed behind. I was soaking in the rain, sinking in the mud, hearing bullets pass my ears. I was there! A piece of metal had memories? It will pass, take a deep breath, get a grip of yourself, is over! I was telling myself, over and over, like a mantra meant to get me out of the mind paralysis, to break up the nightmare from reality.
I knew what had happened with the revolver – I was reading it! It wasn’t for the first time when I touched an object, and I suddenly felt what saw or heard the people who borrowed to it more than the warmth of their touch. Some objects will absorb images, sounds, emotions. It’s an energetic imprint, kept for seconds or millennia. Hate, love, terror before death are the most enduring feelings. And reliving them can be … overwhelming.”
The custodian took the gun from my hands, carefully putting it back. I was shaken up, and the old man touched my shoulders transmitting to me a sense of calm, but also a warning: we weren’t alone anymore.
I immediately recognized the face of the man who was unhurriedly approaching us: it was him. My knees felt like wet noodles and the custodian supported me, whispering to me, with an apologetic smile for the stranger:
“Things are in showcases for a reason, Kayla. Did you forget?
He was mad at me, and worried. Somehow, I managed to stand upright.
…was that?” I wanted to articulate, but all that came out was a choked whisper.
The stranger gave me a short reply:
“A Webley and Scott MK 6 revolver, caliber 0.455. ”
The features, that voice. He was still shaved, but his hair had grown into a rebellious coppery mess. What was he, a hippie doppelgänger?
Where were you a hundred years ago?
Before I could ask him, the old custodian stepped in between us:
“Keeghan Thorson is one of the most generous donors of the museum. The revolver belonged to his great-grandfather, an officer on the Western Front. He fought at Vimy Ridge, at Passchendaele.”
My knowledge of history was rather vague, but some facts stirred in my mind:
“Passchendaele? Wasn’t it conquered by Canadians in November of 1917?”
“Yes, after dozens of attacks, retreats, bombings, and three months of constant rain.”
The man did not even address me directly. Was he speaking as if he remembered? And then there came the custodian’s voice, detached and distant.
“Mister Thorson comes from a family of career officers. They fought in the two world wars, in Korea and Vietnam.”
“After the Great War they chose to go into aviation,” said the man with coppery hair. “There is no mud in the sky, it’s a death some might call beautiful.”
He said the Great War, not the First. That was the name that was given to it only by those who had witnessed the event. It was just an expression or he had something to hide? I started seeing secret societies, cabals, and conspiracies everywhere – was this a new leap in paranoia? Keeghan was just an attractive, fascinating man – who treated me like I didn’t exist. He stared at me casually, with a worrying disinterest. Maybe I wasn’t his type, or he was only concerned with his own person. Egocentric, infatuated, narcissist, misogynist? Sometimes appearances can be deceiving; sometimes not. An immortal soldier passing through the wars of the world? A whim of the genetic code, repeating the same face, like an indigo copy, from grandfather to son and then grandson?
Some enigmas are meant to remain unsolved. But this was not one of them. It was enough to put the right question, and I did so.
“At Passchendaele, on the day of the last attack, whose planes arrived first?”
He had an almost imperceptible hesitation before answering.
Then he turned his back, stepping away from us with large strides.
PHOTO: Anncapictures in Pixabay
Rodica Bretin was born and raised in Brasov, a town in Transilvania, not far from Dracula Castle. She began writing her debut novel at an early age, after obsessing over books about the mysteries of the world. When she’s not writing, she can be found wandering through the dense forests around his hometown. Currently she lives and writes in a house next to an old fortress, with her cat Lorena.
She published her first book, „Holographic Effect“, in 1985. Since then, she has published over thirty novels and volumes of stories, on some favorite topics: time travel paranormal, medieval times, the Viking Age, fantasy and science-fiction.
Rodica Bretin is a member of the Romanian Writers Union (USR) since 1991.