Crumpled up in the wastebin of a British Army postroom in a forward operations centre in France, the first half of this letter was redacted to make safe to travel in the postal system through foreign lands. It appears as though the logistics officer who was performing the redaction stopped halfway through and discarded the letter. Perhaps he thought it nothing more than fantasy- a joke played on him by his peers. Either way it was never sent to its’ intended recipient and when the officer went to retrieve the letter to prove he wasn’t making it up, the letter had vanished
Saturday <redacted>th November 1918
Mata, I am sorry for not writing to you sooner. I wish I could say that I did not receive your letters or that I had scarce time with which to conduct my response but to claim either excuse would be a falsehood. The King’s postal service is nothing if not tirelessly efficient even in war-torn Europe. No, the reason for my penned silence is I am afraid more troubling than that. I hope that my next letter will describe my state of mind in a happier place. Perhaps I shouldn’t send this, it would only cause you to worry but then not hearing from me would do just as much damage.
At first I did not write because the only events I witnessed which would shape my letters were too horrifying to describe. The scenes of devastation after a battle, the cry of the wounded and dying, the feel of arterial spray from a stabbed enemy. These are not the things one should write home to their parivara about. These are all over now, for the time being at least. The offensive at <redacted> was a success and the front is advancing rapidly. It is unlikely that my unit will see combat for <redacted> at least as we are cycled back to <redacted> for rest and recuperation.
In truth, the events of the past week are the real source of my inability to put pen and ink to paper. I feel though that I am ready to share the experiences now. Perhaps in giving the bizarre events form on paper would help to begin explaining the unexplainable.
It was last Tuesday, the <redacted>th when I first met Dr. Howard Jackson, medical auxiliary attached to my unit, the 3rd Lancaster Rifles. In truth I had seen the man before, he had even patched me up when I took some shrapnel to the shin a few weeks before. He had always seemed quiet but likeable enough so when he wandered past one afternoon as we were both taking a break in the camp. Sitting in camp listening to the far-off sound of guns pounding some unknown battlefield was always a tense affair. Even behind the lines, everyone expected a surprise attack and everyone carried their gas masks just in case. I said hello and bade him sit with me to keep each other company.
Our conversation was interrupted when we spotted smoke coming from behind the medical tent. Rushing to investigate we found Pvt. <redacted> burning a pile of books over a makeshift fire. This was the start of a few days of very strange behaviour.
Pvt. <redacted> ran after we questioned him so we decided to follow him into town and see what he was up to. I don’t know why but we both seemed to think this was a smart course of action. Oh how I have spent many sleepless nights since then wishing I hadn’t gone to that town. To that church.
His trail led us to the largest structure in the town- the church. We found no sign of him there though- only evidence of a birdwatching enthusiast in the tower. Hidden among the innocuous-looking books was a find of much stranger variety. A man’s arm was wrapped in a bed sheet, cleanly severed with not a drop of blood or hint of rot. Dr. Jackson confirmed my suspicions- no surgeon could remove a limb so cleanly as to not spill blood and whoever did it must be nearby as the arm was as fresh as if it had been removed that very second, not to mention its’ original owner. We debated searching the grounds for the victim as they could be in need, but glancing up I distinctly remember seeing storm clouds gathering where ten minutes previously it had been a gloriously sunny if not warm winter’s day.
As I pen these words I am surprised by my nonchalance when recording these events. At the time I was confused and nervous about the implications of the arm and the strange changing weather, but the episode which was to follow had a much greater impact on my psyche (and I hesitate to admit, my sanity) that I had quite forgotten about the other discoveries we made that day.
We made our way down the stairs and it was as we entered the battle-damaged apse of the church that I saw the alcove and the hideous painting that was ensconced within. I had seen the paintings on the way in, depicting scenes from the Bible. Jesus I recognised, my Sandhurst education made sure of that even if I didn’t revere him as others did, but the other figures in the painting were too obscure for me to name. Not that it mattered. For this was no mere painting. As I watched it, the painting came to…..life.
It has taken much effort to write that last sentence. I stared for two days with pen in hand at the page, unable to write the words, especially the last for to give the words substance on page was to admit that it happened- but it couldn’t have happened.
That was what it seemed like. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, or the unsettling discoveries made in the tower which played on my mind but I perceived the painting as moving even if Dr. Jackson claimed afterwards it was not. I felt as though the figures in the painting were coming for me from all angles, knives bared, teeth gnashing and screaming accusations at me, all the while Jesus looked on judging me and finding me wanting. Their inexorable approach was slow and frustrating, each second they loomed closer yet I was rooted to the spot unable to move or scream for help. For hours they came at me, the promise of death growing with each of my rapid heartbeats. They were going to kill me I was certain of it. Just as the knife of the man to my left reached my throat and I was sure I could feel it cutting into me, the compulsion holding me ceased and I stumbled backwards. When I looked up the painting was as it was, perfectly still and the figures were just paint on a canvas. Dr. Jackson looked down at me quietly with a quizzical look on his face.
We decided that we had spent enough time in the town of Sambre as I was unashamedly relieved to be walking away from that painting, even though I was assured it hadn’t moved. The stormclouds I saw gathering had cleared also, and our walk back would have been pleasant if under different circumstances.
Dr. Jackson took the bizarre limb back to his superiors for investigation while I attempted to relax in the camp with the men.
The camp was abuzz that evening with talk of one Gen. Smith coming to visit the camp. No-one had heard of him but he was supposedly top brass so everything had to be cleaned and re-cleaned prior to the inspection.
Gen. Smith arrived to full fanfare and parade attention. I must admit the evening passed in a blur as my mind was on the painting and I was jumping at shadows. I found myself at the officer’s mess being summoned to Gen. Smith’s table. He said some words which I cannot recall- I don’t think I really heard them at the time. But I do remember being pulled aside by his assistant- a thin civilian man with a suspicious air about him. He explained that the General had chosen Dr. Jackson and myself for special assignments and that my CO had signed off my transfer to Gen. Smith’s staff. I was bemused but took the news rather easily so I recall- my mind was still not functioning properly after the encounter that afternoon.
Our first mission was to recover a book which Gen. Smith wanted. He was certain that it was in the vicinity of Sambre and I got the feeling that Gen. Smith had travelled a long way just to acquire this book and it was likely the reason for his visit to our camp. That intrigued me and I had to know why a General was so interested in a book that he came for it himself, but then sent underlings to fetch it for him. I sensed a deeper conspiracy but was too shaken by the day’s events to properly question things so I went along with it. The book was called the Ornithological Guide to Birds of the East.
Jackson and I exchanged glances. We knew just where to start looking.
Pleased about heading back to the church in Sambre I was not. We headed out the next morning, wanting to get the job over with. I was glad Dr. Jackson didn’t suggest going there immediately, the idea of exploring that place after dark gave me chills under my skin although I was too proud to admit that fact.
We arrived at the church, this time I had brought my weapons- the quartermaster practically threw them at me across the desk he was so eager to sign them out. Word of my reassignment must have travelled fast. Perhaps it was the cold steel in my hands, perhaps it was the lack of storm clouds but I felt much better about crossing the ruined threshold of the church than I anticipated. That was until we heard the howl. Or the scream. I am still unable to properly recall the tone of the noise which drew our attention to the rear of the church. Not wanting to be trapped within the church, we readied our weapons and rushed behind the building to find out what had caused such an eerie noise.
Whatever had made the noise had quickly departed for we found nothing but a statue and an entirely surprising sight. A naked man was chained to the back of the church, his chest cut open and his entrails ripped out. I didn’t need Dr. Jackson’s medical training to know this man was dead.
Dr. Jackson examined the body while I kept watch. On reflection I was remarkably calm about this find, and even now the thought of the body does not fill me with dread- perhaps I am deadened to such mundane horrors as an eviscerated man. What has become of me? Jackson remarked that something had cleanly removed many of the man’s internal organs with the precision we found on the limb the day before, but the entrails were tugged out with the force and subtlety of a hungry animal. Suddenly the surrounding trees seemed full of hiding spots and unseen watching eyes. We decided to continue our search inside.
We passed the alcove where the painting which had nearly killed me the day before (and still keeps me from sleeping to this day) once sat. It was gone. As were the other similar paintings which were there. Something had clearly been searching through the church evident from the scattered items and scratch marks. We hurried upstairs and thankfully found the pile of books still there. Dr. Jackson even found the book we were looking for. The Ornithological Guide to Birds of the East.
Heading back down the stairs with our prize, I started when I thought I saw a wolf prowling through the rubble. Crouching and looking over the parapet, my heart stopped when my eyes locked onto the unmistakeable outline of a wolf with silver-blue fur. It turned and sniffed the air and I ducked back into cover. Had I seen a human face? Human hands? Blood dripping from its’ teeth? Glowing red eyes? I couldn’t be sure. I couldn’t be sure of anything any more. All I knew was that we had to get out of here as fast as possible. Gesturing to Dr. Jackson to ready himself, I threw one of the books that we didn’t need across the room to distract the wolf-thing. It worked, the creature stalked towards the sound, thinking it a victim. I realised that I wouldn’t like to be the one it was sneaking up on. Was there one sneaking up on me at that moment? I gave Jackson the signal and ran for the door.
As I reached the entrance, I glanced over my shoulder just as Jackson was stumbling down the stairs, making more noise than the book and drawing the attention of the creature. Stupid, Jackson was attached to the military but wasn’t trained in combat hand signals. When I had gestured he had stared dumbfounded at me where my brain registered understanding. When I leapt up to run, he must have fallen over himself in surprise. I dragged him to his feet and we both ran full pelt out of town.
We eventually slowed and leaned over our knees to catch our breath. We had escaped. Jackson opened his mouth to say something when the wolf-thing appeared out of nowhere and snatched the book from his hand. We both jumped in alarm but the wolf paid us no heed, turning and loping off into the forest. We had no chance of catching it so, not wanting to lose our prize I readied my trench gun and advanced towards the retreating wolf. Jackson was the first to shoot, his bullet flying true but the beast barely noticed. The 12 gauge Winchester 1912 combat shotgun was a different calibre of weapon however and it only took two rounds to blow the creature’s legs clean from under it even at 10 yards.
Gen. Smith was too busy to see us, but his assistant took the book from us with a smile and tucked it into his jacket pocket with little more than a thank you. We were still on special assignment to Gen. Smith but we had no further orders so I returned to my unit. That was when we found out that the offensive had been successful. The Huns had been broken by the combined efforts of the 1st and 3rd Armies along with meagre armoured support and French divisions.
I sit now on a train which is taking me to Calais where I will board a ferry to cross the English Channel. I should be back in Chichester by tomorrow. I am not sure what I am going to do. The events of the past few days have shaken me to my core and I had hoped that writing this letter would assist me somewhat in reconciling my idea of what reality should be with what I had seen. In truth I feel no better than I did before. There must be someone who can explain it all to me, make my understand all the things I have seen. I no longer have nightmares about piles of bodies and the horrors of war. No longer do imagined gunshots wake me from my tortured sleep. Instead I see that painting and the horrific creatures depicted within it. In my dreams they are no longer Biblical figures but creatures made of writhing worms holding human skulls in their hands in place of knives. Instead of standing in ancient Jerusalem, these worm creatures cavort in scenes of sheer madness in rooms with impossible geometry or atop ziggurats made of light from a gibbous green moon. Wolves with the heads of men roam at their feet gnawing at discarded scraps. The dreams all end the same, the worm-men all turn to face the centre of the scene where a man in cream robes and a pale yellow mask stands with arms outstretched. The man removes his mask to reveal Jesus’ benevolent face and for split second there is hope. Then Jesus’ eyes explode in a shower of blood and tentacles emerge from his mouth to strangle me until I wake screaming and pissing my bedsheets.
I cannot go on like this.
Perhaps this strange club that Gen. Smith’s assistant recommended can help. I have kept the card on my person and will seek them out as soon as I return. I have been given no orders so it would not be remiss of me to leave the unit to its’ rest for a while, a short trip to London for a few days would be fine. Anything to stop the dreams.
Lt. Raj Deol Singh
1st Battallion, Royal Sussex Regiment
Honi soit qui mal y pense