Eight Things a Royal Officer Doesn’t Think About and One Thing He Does (2016 Winner)

by Samantha (Arkansas)

He doesn’t think about how his men handle their muskets. They’re supposed to be the height of a 16th century British infantry, but their hands are like those of devout men on their wedding nights—fat, fumbling fingers against lithe bodies that deserve better. The pull of the hammer, the trigger, the sudden shock of the hard recoil should come as naturally as breathing, but young men are too eager. They’re too eager to fire, too eager to follow, and too eager to search for that fabled glory of battle.

He doesn’t think about how much sleep he got last night, as it would only disappoint him.

He doesn’t think about the festering laceration hiding under his dirty uniform. It’s bathed in oil that stings like needles and bound in nice white linen, but nothing stays clean for long. Growing green around the edges, it’s constantly itching, leaking pus. It isn’t enough to put him out of duty, no. It’s enough to make him grimace when someone brushes too close, enough to make his orders swift and snappy. It’s enough to drive him back to his Roman Catholic roots and clasp his hands once in a while for a quick prayer. His training doesn’t mean much in the face of rotting flesh.

He doesn’t think about the smell of gunpowder. He doesn’t have to; it’s everywhere. Acrid and sour, it seeps into his flesh as a permanent stench of war. He remembers a time when the air smelled of baking bread and scruffy dogs. His nostrils are now generously coated in a thick layer of black grime. Handkerchiefs, stiff and folded neatly, are a laughable commodity. Remnants of gunshots, billowing clouds on the battlefield make it hard sometimes to remember, but he carries a small vial of perfume with him. Uncorked, it reminds him of his mother’s hugs.

He doesn’t think about what the epitaph upon his tombstone will be. Likely he won’t even get one, just be another white cross in the endless rows. His wife doesn’t get his personal effects—a small pocket watch passed down from his father, three brass buttons from a vest long sullied and cast aside, and his dull pocket knife. He’ll simply be an unclaimed, nameless body in an unclaimed, nameless war. Broken muskets and shattered harquebuses will be the last testament to his presence.

He doesn’t think about the unforgiving grit between his toes; he’ll go mad. They’ve not gone within fifty kilometers of a beach, but sand still manages to writhe its way into his socks. It doesn’t matter how many pairs, how many washes. With every step he can feel his sweaty foot slide in his boots, and the vexing silt still grinds over every pore.

He doesn’t think about the glances. Sidelong or through the lashes or when they think he isn’t watching, the quick, questioning glances chip at his already fragile sanity. The whispers never come from a person; they’re ethereal and untraceable. Words through the grapevine. They make him doubt, make him cautious of who his friends are. He doesn’t have that many to begin with.

He doesn’t think about how they’re all going to die in an Undeclared War. He keeps the rumors quiet; he can’t have the men knowing that El Grande y Felicisima Armada sails for England, sails for their families. It might break them, and where then would they be? Every time they push just a bit farther into the Spanish Netherlands, the young ones cheer, but the shouts of Gloriana, Gloriana ring hollow in his ears.

What he does think about in the softer hours of the morning when he can detect the slightest pinch of pink on the horizon, is an island. He thinks of a beachless island somewhere tropical where it’s always warm and the water is clear. Storms never make it past the horizon. The noontime sky is the definition of blue, but in the evenings, it melts into peaches and cream. The days are good. They’re lazy, spent in a hammock, with West Indies rum blurring the edges of reality. But what’s better are the nights. Breezes dance through the darkened forest, cooling sun kissed skin and bringing the scent of far-off flowers. The bugs never chirp and the birds never caw at night except for those hazy, starlit ones. Constellations gleam in the sky, telling their ancient stories. Those nights suspend the pearly gates, allowing admittance to heaven for a few fleeting hours.

Among the chaos of war, that’s what he thinks about.