My chosen charity this time is Save the Children, which speaks for itself. I’ll donate $2 for each reader, and $3 for each commenter. https://support.savethechildren.org
This kind of charity has little or nothing to do with the theme of the rest of my post, except that my father used to donate to them, and he was a veteran of WWII. I donate in honor of him. But the Flanders Fields poem was written during WWI, “The War to End Wars…” by John McCrae, a Field Surgeon in the Canadian Army. Still, all these wars do tend to blur together, don’t they, especially near Memorial Day.
The Memorial Day “holiday” hits me hard these days, now that my parents are gone, my mother at 92 and my Dad just two years ago at 99. I go on tending to family cemetery plots, several of them, and plant flowers there as my folks always did, except that these days I grow the plants from seed myself.
Enough of that. Don’t worry, I have a fictional WWI story to share today, one both erotic and emotional, sad and redemptive. It’s the only time I’ve ever written about gay men, so far at least, but a story needs what a story needs, and these characters, plus the mythic Green Man of the British Isles, couldn’t be denied.
Humor me and read the poem, and then you’ll get the story, which I promise is worth the delay.
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Now for my story, published in two anthologies:
Best Fantastic Erotica (Circlet Press) Nov 22, 2007
His Seed: An Arboratum of Erotica (Lethe Press, editor Steve Berman) May 7, 2017
Sacchi Green (Connie Wilkins)
The river swirled and riffled over stony outcroppings above the bridge, then swept smoothly past, flowing ever onward to the sea. As it had, Bernard thought, since before Britain was an island. As it would, even if all should be lost, and this island cease to be Britain.
In his profound despair it seemed obscene that the May morning should be so beautiful. In France, the Somme still ran red, the thunder of artillery shook the ground, and men rotted in their muddy trenches. How, here, could the green of new leaves glow with such tender freshness, and the songs of birds in flight spill over with their rapture?
He looked down into water so clear that he could see speckled trout balancing against the flow, appearing to hang motionless in the amber-green depths. For a moment, as he remembered Neal's skin gleaming ivory through that water, the eager thrust of his desire challenging the current, a pang of longing tightened Bernard's groin. Then a light breeze rippled the surface, blurring his reflection just enough to hide the angry scars across his face. Nothing, though, he thought bleakly, could obscure his solitude, could let him imagine even for a moment that Neal's thin, vibrant face, his sleek fair hair, were mirrored there beside him. Or would ever be so again.
A swallow darted beneath the bridge toward an unseen nest. Spring, like the river, surged ever onward. How could he bear such peace, such beauty, after such hell? And all they had gained, all they had bought at such terrible cost, was one thousand feet of land won back from the Kaiser in six months. One thousand bloody, bloody feet!
Tears of rage and grief burned Bernard's eyes, seared his throat, an agony to tissue ravaged by mustard gas. He gripped the wooden railing hard enough for the pain in his fingers to distract from the pain in his soul, until the tears subsided.
A carved face grinned up at him from between his clenched hands. He had cut it into the wood himself, with its hair and beard shaped like overlapping oak leaves, when he had been fourteen. At that age he had fantasized that this place was home to a spirit more sacred, more ancient, than the saints in stained-glass windows. Even in village churches and great cathedrals, he had discovered, images of the Green Man could often be found worked into ornamentation from centuries past.
Far longer ago than half his lifetime, they seemed, those days when he had been entranced by the ancient lore of the green force of nature, the Summer King and Winter King, sacrifice and rebirth.
But now... "Enough of sacrifice!" he tried to shout, his voice rasping in his throat. Enough death to ransom an eternity of springs! If he had had a knife, he would have gouged the cryptic smile from the wooden face--but his sister Margaret worried if he carried so much as a pocket-knife. She need not fear, he thought, perhaps to convince himself; however deep his pain, he had fought death too long to give it an inch it had not earned.
Yet in his darkest moments Bernard wondered why had he not been taken, along with all those other thousands. Along with Neal. Why, for him, the special hell of survival, while those he had been forced to lead into hopeless battle died around him?
Two years ago--an eternity--when they were young, Neal had sprawled before the fire in their rooms at Cambridge and read to him of how the ancient Greeks sent paired lovers into battle. Each would be spurred to heroism by the presence of the other, they believed, and would scorn to seem cowardly in the beloved's eyes. Bernard had returned a gruff remark--"So vanity made the world go round even then!" or some such studied cynicism--to hide the surge of tenderness quickening into passion that he felt as he watched the firelight play across Neal's slender face and form. Not that Neal didn't know, by then, every pulse of Bernard's body and mind, and how to rouse them.
The Greeks, Bernard thought grimly, had never dreamed what war would become. Mortar shells and poison gas take no notice of heroism. And, while a Spartan or Athenian might have been compelled to order his lover to advance into sure death, there would have been no dishonor in showing his love. No long months of denial, until, at the last, when Bernard had held Neal's broken body in his arms, the face his lips had touched so tenderly was cold and still.
The wooden railing creaked under the force of his grasp. He felt a sudden furious urge to tear it loose, to hurl his bear-like frame against it until it splintered and let him through. But the water below was scarcely deep enough to drown in, even by design, though cool enough in May, perhaps, to shock him momentarily from his grief.
A sound, half sob, half roar, rose painfully from his chest. His arms tensed, his weight shifted--but all at once a flurry of hawthorn petals swirled about his face and shoulders, and the scent of blossoms filled his nostrils. When he raised his hands to brush them from his eyes, they lifted away on the breeze and spiraled lazily down to the water's surface.
Bernard's breath caught. A prickle of apprehension raised the hairs along his arms. There was not, he knew, any hawthorn tree closer than half a mile across wood and field. And he had thought his sense of smell destroyed by clouds of poison gas on a battlefield in France.
He looked upstream. Against all reason, he hoped...or feared... And there it was, where the water eddied gently in a cove formed by roots of a long-fallen tree. A floating face, an intricate green mosaic of oak, ash, beech, holly, looked up at him. The subtle movements of the current dislodged no leaf from its fellows, but gave a sense of shifting expressions, eyes gleaming like sun-sparked water, while the mouth moved above the layered beard to form a word. The same word he had heard on the breeze when he was fourteen.
In the years since that first summer of awakening, of confusion and revelation, Bernard had convinced himself that his memories had been only the fevered dreams of adolescence. His need to reconcile himself with the natural flow of life, even as he confronted urges he had been taught to think unnatural, must have conjured up the image of the Green Man. By the next summer he no longer saw, would not allow himself to see, the face of the spirit.
But Neal had caught a glimpse, on that perfect, golden day when comradeship had quivered on the brink of something urgent and intense. They had stood together on the bridge, fishing gear forgotten on the bank, and edged toward the answers to questions neither quite dared ask.
Neal leaned out over the water. "Such a beautiful spot!" His fair hair fell forward across his face, and he brushed it back with a familiar, impatient gesture. Bernard searched for the courage to reach out to touch the shining hair, the quick hand, the shoulder so close beside him; but his own hand, his whole body, felt too big, too awkward, to control.
"It was a true act of mercy to ask me down to the country," Neal went on lightly. "Another stifling July in the city might've finished me off for good. I expect you've saved my life." He darted an oblique glance, half shy, half teasing, at his taller friend. "In some cultures that would oblige me to be your slave, you know." Then his gaze returned to the river. "I say, doesn't that mass of leaves look rather like a face?"
"Just a bit," Bernard said, covering the carving on the railing with a large hand. The reputation he had established during his first months at university had been built on skepticism and a touch of sardonic wit. How could he admit to the mystical imaginings of his youth? Besides, truly, he saw nothing now but randomly floating leaves. And had eyes for nothing but Neal.
"Do you ever swim here?" Neal asked with studied casualness. "It looks as though it might be deep enough just under the bridge."
"Oh yes," Bernard said. "We could take a dip now if you'd like. No one comes along this way until haying time in the field beyond the wood, and that won't be for a fortnight yet."
"Well then," Neal said, a gleam of challenge in his eyes, "Come on!" He left the bridge and scrambled down the bank, and Bernard followed, almost wishing he could stand above to watch Neal shed his clothes. Next to that slim, lithe body his own burly form seemed cumbersome and slow. And, once stripped, he realized that his arousal would soon be all too evident.
"It's deepest just before the middle," he said, wading quickly outward, feeling the water rise about his powerful thighs. As soon as possible he ducked below the surface and came up again, shaking drops from his curly hair like a water spaniel.
"Ow! Watch out, will you?" Neal spluttered, closer behind than his companion had realized. Then, a different note in his voice, he said, "Bernard...." His body pressed against Bernard's wide back. His arms reached around until he was stroking his friend's furred chest. "Bernard, please...." They edged slowly backward toward the shallows. Bernard felt an urgent hardness pressed against his buttocks, and turned in Neal's grasp, no questions at all left unanswered.
The cool water did nothing to diminish their heat. Neal's lips followed a trickle of water from Bernard's throat down across chest and belly, and below, to where it disappeared in the roughest, darkest fur. Then his tongue, tempted by a different sort of gleaming droplet, flicked the tip of Bernard's straining cock and made it leap. Neal tasted, savored, and then feasted, kneeling in the stream with hands anchored on Bernard's muscular buttocks. He slid his warm, wet mouth over Bernard's demanding flesh, drawing slowly back, teasing, then plunging forward again, taking the great length in deeper each time, and making the glorious pressure swell and grow until it pounded too fiercely to be contained. A roar of jubilant ecstasy burst from one throat just as a hot flood erupted into the depths of the other.
Much later, as they lay exhausted on the grassy bank, a mass of leaves swept by, its progress oddly sedate given the rate of the current. "It does look rather like a face," Neal commented languorously. "I might almost think it winked at us." But Bernard couldn't bring himself to lift his head from where it lay cradled in the tender hollow between his lover's hip and belly.
"Come!" said the breeze again, more insistently. And why not? If he could hear the voice so clearly, Bernard reasoned, he was too far gone already to bother with denial or to resist. "Shell-shock," the doctors might say, but it scarcely matter what one called it.
His breathing was labored by the time he stood naked in the river. Even the mild exertion of climbing down the bank had strained his damaged lungs. He waited, as he had waited fourteen years ago, opening himself to magic. Or madness.
Swallows nested on the underpinnings of the bridge, and a wren darted in and out of a trailing tangle of bittersweet on the far bank. The mask of leaves drifted downstream until it caught there on the dangling vines; then, as Bernard watched, the water swirled into a sudden vortex, sucking the green mass below its surface. He held his breath as the river smoothed again, and, with scarcely a ripple, the man-like form he remembered rose from it and stood before him.
But not quite as he remembered. Then, the apparition had seemed scarcely older than himself, and at least as impetuous. Now the green leafy layers of its beard were edged with autumn bronze, and the smooth skin of its torso was the weathered grey of a beech trunk, while the acorn-brown eyes, despite their glint of challenge, were filled with sorrow and weariness enough to match his own.
"Come," the breeze commanded in a deeper tone that would brook no refusal.
Bernard moved toward that outstretched arm. The water rose to mid-chest before the pebbled bottom sloped upward toward the waiting figure. A strong hand grasped his and drew him along until they stood waist-deep, face to face beneath the bridge; then fingers flexible as vines moved across his cheek and jaw, over scars still reluctant to heal, stroking gently, gently...until they reached his ravaged throat and tightened gradually around it so that he could scarcely breathe.
Tighter, harder--pain sharpened, then receded, consciousness wavered, the velvet darkness of oblivion beckoned--but the will to live surged suddenly through him in a rush of intermingled joy and anguish. He grasped the sinewy arms, pitting his own strength against them, and the pressure on his throat relaxed. Their two strong bodies grappled together still, testing each other, force challenging force, until the friction of limb on limb sparked a jolt of desire like summer lightning.
Bernard gasped for breath, but the burning in his chest could not distract from the flare of heat in his loins as the bearded face leaned close, pressed relentless lips over his, and blew a gust of cool, sweet air into his lungs.
Pain and weariness ebbed away. Below the water's surface their lower bodies thrust urgently against each other, and Bernard longed desperately to fill his hands, even his mouth, with the hardness pressing into him. But he would not yield, would not kneel, even to this spirit made flesh. He braced against the current, against the other's strength--and then a sound like rain on leaves came from the bearded face.
Laughter! The startled realization caught Bernard off guard. The body he clutched tensed, leapt upward out of his loosened grip, and grasped the edge of the bridge. There the Green Man hung, swaying like a massive, thickened vine, until Bernard gripped the muscular buttocks with both hands and took the cock nudging at his face all the way into the back of his throat.
The force of the eruption made him stagger, choked him, flooded even his lungs, as though a great wave had crashed over him. He lost his footing, and as he fell the still-streaming cock above poured hot rivulets across his face just before the river claimed him.
Bernard rose from darkness into the bright May afternoon. He was lying sprawled among ferns at the downstream edge of the bridge, his clothing heaped beside him.
"Sorry to intrude," said an unfamiliar voice from above, "but are you quite all right? I wasn't sure..." The face looking down over the railing was haggard, but the voice seemed young. Bernard sat up slowly, rubbed his eyes, and drew a deep breath. For the first time in months his lungs filled deeply, easily, with no ache, no burning of nose and throat.
"Yes...I think so..." He touched a finger to the deepest scar on his face, and felt neither pain nor numbness, only the faint itch of healing skin.
"You were so still, for so long, I couldn't help wondering..." The man on the bridge flushed and turned his face away as Bernard began pulling on his trousers. "Is this your land? I hope you don't mind, but I've been doing some sketching upstream. I didn't notice you until I came up here for a change of perspective." His gaze drifted back and seemed to linger on Bernard's burly chest until, with apparent effort and an even brighter flush, he wrenched it away.
Bernard, buttoning his shirt, thought that he ought to mind, ought to resent having his privacy invaded by this stranger. But he recognized the lines of suffering on the man's face, and he hadn't missed the empty sleeve dangling at his side. "Sketch all you like," he said, coming up onto the bridge. "Do you mind if I have a look?"
"Well, I've just begun this one." The page displayed had only a few lines across it, the merest hint of riverbank and overarching trees. "But I was here yesterday, too, and did a view from over there." He braced the sketchbook on the railing and turned with his single hand to the preceding page. Bernard looked at it intently, without speaking, for so long that the nervous artist tried to fill the silence. "There's something about this spot... I don't quite know what it is, but it drew me back. I should be on the train to London already. This is just a quick holiday before starting a desk post in London next week."
"I've a job like that waiting, too," Bernard said absently. "Masses of planning to do, they tell me, now that the Yanks have finally decided to bring along their toys and join in the game." His gaze was still on the drawing. The swirling water, the ferns and violets along the bank, were penned in exquisite detail, and so were the leaves floating in the curve of the tree root--arranged, unmistakably, in the form of a bearded face.
He drew another deep, blessedly pain-free breath, and looked up. "It's amazing how well you've caught the spirit of the place. I'll tell you what, you keep on sketching, and stay the night with my sister and me up at The Lodge, and tomorrow we'll drive up to town together."
"That's very good of you," his new acquaintance said warmly, and held out his hand. As Bernard met it firmly with his own, a breeze danced lightly past them; and, though the sky was clear, there came a sound like rain on leaves. Or distant laughter.
Note 1: I also wrote a lesbian WWI story with the same title, set at that same bridge a few months later, published in an anthology I edited, Through the Hourglass: Lesbian Historical Romance (A Lizzie’s Bedtime Stories Anthologies) November 24, 2015
Note 2: For this month’s other Charity Sunday posts, go to: http://lisabetsarai.com