By Lee Weetman
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Tomorrow is the day I die. Don’t be alarmed – I want it this way.
My name is William Jeffries; I am a private in the British army, currently stationed in France. The year is 1916, and I’m embroiled in what has been misnamed ‘The Great War’.
I’ve been on the front line for a month now, and never before have I witnessed such ghastly, horrific scenes: it is not butchery, as that implies a modicum of skill, but it is a sickening form of barbarism that shames the whole of humanity. What occurs on the banks of the Somme is truly the work of the Devil.
My story begins in earnest at dawn on October 16th; the time is zero hour, the code name for the commencement of all planned attacks.
The cataclysmic booming of British field artillery pounding German positions did little to hearten our mood. We knew that Fritz would simply take cover and bolt for the nearest funk hole or dugout. They would wonder why Tommy was pulverizing them so? Were they about to launch an attack?’
Of course, the answer was yes. We were about to attack - to go over the top- and the Germans had received all the warning they needed.
We stood facing the trench ladders as the artillery fire thundered above us. I looked around at the faces of the soldiers, most of whom I considered to be my friends. Imprinted on every face was the mark of fear. When the call came, I and all these thousands of other men would have to climb out and head into No-Mans-Land, and doubtless into the jaws of death. A few hundred yards away was the German line, heavily fortified with pillboxes, machine gun nests, artillery and mortar placements, and an almost impenetrable cordon of barbed wire. Our lunatic generals, true to form, expected us to do our duty and run headlong into the Fritz’s blazing barrels. It was that or be shot as a ‘coward’.
Standing next to me was my greatest friend and comrade, John Potter –‘Potsy’ to those who knew him well.
Potsy and I were both conscripted together. We first met as bricklaying apprentices for a construction company in Sheffield. As we progressed through our training, we developed a close friendship. Eventually we both met our sweethearts and were honoured to act as each other’s best man.
Life was hard back in England, but it was good. Everything changed in 1914 though, when some archduke I’d never heard of was assassinated in a country I’d never heard of. Suddenly it all escalated, and hey-ho, we’re at war.
Conscription was inevitable; it was simply a question of when. Many men I knew were called up, but never again would I see them. It continued to such an extent that I felt like the shortest straw; everyone was being picked except me.
Potsy and I received our call-up papers about a week after my wife Jeanie announced she was pregnant with our first child. The look on her face as I opened the envelope that morning wrenched my heart. It was an expression of the most profound fear and disquiet. Suddenly the prospect of losing her husband and raising a child alone was a reality. All I could do was hold her, and feel her tears against my cheek. I promised I’d return, that I would see her again, and I would hold the hand of our child.
It was purely luck that saw Potsy and I enlisted in the same regiment, but it did help lift our spirits and courage for the days ahead. We both knew that whatever lay in wait for us would always be met with the barrel of two guns, never one.
So, as the French dawn brightened the cloudless sky and heralded the imminence of zero-hour, I engaged in a final conversation with Potsy, whose face was pale with fear and apprehension.
‘How you doing?’ I asked, knowing it to be a stupid question.
‘Could be better. Could be not here,’ Potsy replied, his voice stern but shrouding panic. We had to talk loudly to hear ourselves over the continuous crashing of the artillery.
‘I know what you mean. I’m terrified too. All I can think about is Jeanie and my daughter.’
‘How do you know it’s a girl?’ Potsy asked, pushing the ridge of his steel helmet up from his eyes.
‘Law of averages. All my brothers and my sisters had boys, so somebody’s got to have a girl.’ I could almost visualize my little girl – the image of my Jeanie, but with puppy fat wrinkles and the brightest of blue eyes.
‘I hope you get to see her Will, I really do.’ Potsy looked at me sincerely; I knew the words were generated in his heart.
‘We’ll get through this, Potsy, just keep your head down, don’t do anything stupid or heroic.’
Climbing over the parapet and heading straight toward a rattling machine gun was stupid enough. It was difficult for me to believe my own words, let alone Potsy. Death was never far from here, merely a few yards in the enemy’s direction.
‘Will, if I die - and I think I’m going to - make sure Maggie is looked after, can you?’
‘Of course - but it wont come to that!’
‘Maybe not; but I want to die knowing she’ll be looked after if I’m not there. I hate to think of her as just another war widow.’ Potsy stamped on a fat brown rat as it scurried over the duck boarding in search of a bolthole. Rats infested the trenches; they were attracted by the stench of rotten human flesh that permeated the air. New recruits were as much reviled by the vast numbers of rats as the plentiful amounts of dead soldiers that were scattered around.
‘Potsy, if I live and you die, I’ll make sure Maggie’s satisfied in every way I can.’ I delivered the line without a hint of mirth and waited for his reaction. He eyed me suspiciously, and then thankfully a grin broke out.
‘I’ll shoot you meself in a minute, you cheeky bastard!’ It was tantamount to gallows humour, but the temporary relief it brought was fortifying.
‘And I’ll tell you what, Potsy, if I should die and you live, stay well away from Jeanie or I’ll come back and haunt you!’
‘Well pick your moment wisely, because you might just see Jeanie enjoying something more than ever before.’
We both laughed aloud, although it seemed quiet amid the cannonade overhead. I was glad Potsy was in a more positive state of mind; it could only help him when we went over the top.
If I’d looked inward at that moment I would also have found an inveterate fear of death. I was tired of the trenches, that was for sure. It was no life for a human; the conditions that prevailed were intolerable: millions of black and brown rats plagued the trenches, feeding on any meat they could find, spreading disease and contaminating food. Some of the rats are cat sized – I’ve seen them with my own eyes.
We have also the problem of lice: they cause the hideous Trench Fever and live in our filthy, unwashed uniforms. On top of this, frogs, slugs and horned beetles are everywhere – you can’t put your hand down without squishing one.
But worst of all is the appalling stench. This place holds thousands of rotting corpses; latrines that permanently overflow; stinking soldiers who haven’t bathed for weeks; rotting sandbags; the odour of poison gas; the whiff of chloride of lime. Combine all these and you have a foul scent that lives on in your mind like the most vivid of memories.
Threading together this disgusting existence was death - the hangman’s rope that bound everyone who visited the frontline. Death was everywhere. Death was inevitable. I’ve witnessed the inhuman carnage of this war; I’ve seen men cut in half by machine gun fire; I’ve seen teenage recruits sneaking a first peek at No-Mans-Land, then lose half their skull to a German sniper; I’ve seen soldiers blown to pieces by artillery, and scream until their limbless torso realizes it hasn’t got a chance.
But even though death was an everyday event, it wasn’t something I wanted to experience. I was scared like anybody else, I felt the terror when the bullets flew; I wanted to return home, to my wife and my child – I wanted to live.
Suddenly the pounding of our artillery batteries stopped. The silence that followed slammed home the realization that the waiting was over. Zero-hour had arrived.
My stomach felt like all the dainty butterflies had been eaten by bats. Further along the line a soldier threw up.
I looked again at Potsy, and he looked back at me. Terror was gleaming in both our eyes, but we exchanged a glance that wished us strength and luck.
We fixed our bayonets.
I asked God for his help.
The call was given, and we went over the top.
As I surmounted the parapet, I ran. I charged, I screamed. I was in God’s hands now; so with faith as my guide, I dashed toward the enemy line.
Immediately the German gunners opened up. I was about ten yards out from our trench when the first of our boys was cut down. As I ran, I looked to my left, and in the stirring dawn light I saw a line of hundreds, maybe thousands of men on a suicidal stampede toward the German trenches. They were toppling by the dozen, simple target practice for the sharp-shooting enemy. The rattle and pause of strafing machine guns was harmonized with the falling lines of dead and dying men. As one man went to ground another took his place, running forward, sometimes trampling his fallen comrade.
The ground was heavy and muddy. It was pitted with shell craters and unexploded bombs that hindered our advance. Beyond the fog of shell smoke all I could see ahead were hundreds of Germans, all guns blazing. All I could hear was the stampede of boots, the screaming of men and the raking of gunfire.
I began to fire my rifle toward the German positions, merely random blasts in the hope of hitting something – to offer some kind of resistance.
My feet were feeling leaden. I was no longer running, the mud was proving to be something of a quagmire, bogging down the attack.
I could hear the thud of bullets raining around me, striking mud, striking soldiers. Sometimes it felt like a ghost was blowing in my ear as projectiles whistled past. How was I still alive?
I was the most advanced of all our troops; I risked a glance backwards and saw Potsy a few yards off my right shoulder, his face furrowed in determination. Then I watched as a salvo of bullets tore open his chest.
Potsy fell, face down, and splashed into a muddy puddle. I stopped my advance and turned to help, to save my friend. I called out: ‘Potsy! Potsy!’ But my voice was hushed amid the battle noise. I went to his aid, but as I approached I could see it was too late. The bullets had penetrated his chest and blasted through his back, shredding his backpack. Blood was darkening the puddle that he lay in.
My emotions hopped from one leg to the other. From adrenalin pumped warrior to an anguished shattered soul. Potsy was dead.
Then I was hit.
It felt like a mule had kicked me in the small of my back. At first I felt no pain, only puzzlement at the jolt.
Unfortunately the pain was irresistible. Bullets had entered my back, and exited my abdomen. A fierce fire took hold in my gut, producing the most intolerable agony. I dropped my rifle and held my hands to my stomach. Blood was pumping out thick and fast. I tried to stem the flow but it issued easily through my fingers. The ongoing battle around me seemed to pale away; it seemed like the noise and carnage was happening in the next field.
I staggered backwards, shock taking control of my faculties. I tripped and fell landing in a small shell crater. The pain in my lower torso was immense; it felt like the bullets had exploded and shredded my innards. I managed to prop my head and shoulders against the wall of the crater, my hands still cradling my gut. All around me was chaos; men screaming and dying. Shells were landing and blasting out great mountains of mud that fanned out and peppered the battlefield. The smell of cordite was as strong as the sound of the perpetual gunfire from which it was born.
As I lay there watching the madness unfold around me, I realized that I was going to die.
I thought of Jeanie and my unborn daughter, waiting for me at home. I found myself wondering if she knew that at that moment I was thinking of her for the last time. Did she have some sixth sense that told her I was lying far away in the mud of a battlefield, mortally wounded?
It filled me with deep sadness to know I would never see her again, and never experience the joy of fatherhood or family life.
It also made me bitter. Politicians and crazed generals had taken all this from me. They had taken all I cherished and loved – and now they were taking my life.
I looked over toward Potsy, who was still face down where he fell. The sight of his demise only exacerbated my anger. If I could have, I would have stood up and marched back to the British trench and shot every senior officer I could find.
Eventually, I don’t know how long it took, the pain began to fade away. I knew what this meant. I was not miraculously getting better – I was approaching death. So much blood had gushed from my wounds that my brain was beginning to struggle. The first thing it failed to recognize was signals of pain.
Slowly my mind began to melt. It felt like a drug-induced high. The sense of anger was replaced by a sense of tranquility. My thoughts for Jeanie were not ones of sadness but of fondness. I still had the cognition to realize that it was better to die in the bosom of contentment than in the teeth of bitterness.
But what happened next was truly astounding.
I think it was my abstract state of mind that enabled me to see the most incredible sight a human could ever see. What I saw was not a hallucination.
Standing fifty yards to my right was the Devil.
I say the Devil because that’s precisely who he looked like. He was tall – maybe eight feet. He had the legs of an animal but the body of a man. His legs were heavily muscled and covered in a rich brown fur. His feet were, in fact, black hooves. His body was hairless and his head was bald.
At first I couldn’t fathom what he was doing, standing there amid the raging war. He was gesticulating with his hands, then pointing randomly and waving them around. Sometimes he would throw both arms forward from behind his head, as if he was removing a hat.
As a soldier ran past him, I understood why he was here. He pointed at the advancing private, who immediately fell to the floor, presumably dead. He made the hat removing gesture and a shell blatted a group of soldiers, hurling their bodies high into the air.
The Devil was orchestrating the battle.
He was not alone in his work. I could see hundreds of demons rampaging across No-Mans-Land, as far as the eye could see. These demons were smaller and squatter, but were still half-man, half-beast. Everywhere they went a soldier died.
One of the demons ran close to me and I could hear his chatter; it was like the excited squeal of a pig, but in some unknown tongue. I also noticed that the demon didn’t leave any hoof prints in the soft mud.
How could I be sure that what I was seeing was not a fantasy? Not merely a conjured mirage from my dying mind?
I knew it was all real, because the next time I looked at the Devil, I found him looking back at me. He had stopped waving his arms around and was regarding me with apparent interest. He began to walk towards me.
Strangely, I felt no fear. Like I said previously, my mind was not receptive to such signals. As the Devil approached I felt only curiosity. Like the smaller demon, the Devil also left no imprint on the soft ground. His hooves seemed to walk upon the earth but created no splash, sound or impression. As he neared me, his immensity became apparent. From my recumbent position he looked to be of skyscraper proportions. My first estimate of eight feet in height was wrong – it was more like ten feet. He was ten feet of rippling muscle. I don’t mean he was artificially inflated like a body builder, but you could see the power in his frame: it oozed menace and awesome destructiveness; his arms and shoulders in particular looked like they had been cast from molten steel. I’d wager that he could have ripped me into two pieces easier than you could tear a single sheet of paper. His torso was the shade of sunburn, save for a few wispy black hairs lining his shoulders. His head was bald and had two, small pyramidal lumps – maybe they were horns – protruding from the top. His eyes were lava red, punctured by pupils black as ash.
His hooves stopped at my feet and he looked down at my dying, bloodied body. His head was so imperiously high above me that I suddenly felt puny and wretched. Then he spoke. His voice was not the distorted garble of popular Hollywood representation, but surprisingly smooth and slick, the type that would read well on the radio.
‘So you’re one of them. The Visionaries.’ As he said the words I could see many small triangular teeth in his mouth. It made me think that he was a meat eater.
‘What do you mean?’ I replied, unsure from where I found the strength to do so.
‘You’re a human who can see things not visible in their normal world. Some see bright lights, some see tunnels with light at the end; others - like you, William Jeffries – see me.’
‘You mean people who are dying see these things?’ I was surprisingly coherent, amazed at the strength I had.
‘Precisely. Today is your day of death, that’s why you can see me and my…friends.’ He spread his arms wide indicating the squealing demons that were still coursing across the smoking battlefield.
‘Are you the Devil?’ I asked, ‘as in Satan?’
Without a hint of a pause he replied: ‘Yes!’
So it was confirmed. Potsy was dead, I was dying, my comrades were dying, my wife was about to be widowed and I was talking terms with Old Nick himself. This really was a very bad day.
‘Is this what you do? Start wars?’
‘I don’t start them, William Jeffries, you and your kind start them. I am here to ensure operations run smoothly. Think of me as the conductor of the orchestra.’ A little smile appeared on his face, and it looked terrifyingly evil. His eyes seemed to glow a brighter red as he bared a hundred sharks’ teeth.
‘But, how can you conduct every battle? You can’t be in two places at once.’ I then realized how I was able to speak, why I had the strength. I wasn’t talking - I was conversing telepathically. The Devil was communicating in the standard way, but somehow he had tapped into my mind and was reading my thoughts.
‘You’re absolutely right, I cannot be in two places at once, but time is on my side.’
‘What do you mean?’
He smiled that awful smile again, then raised his arms. And then the world stopped.
The battle - the smoking, roaring, screaming battle - was frozen all around. I could see soldiers suspended in mid-air as they were blown skyward; I could see clumps of falling mud apparently dangling on invisible wire; the smoke of the fight had ceased to roll and plume; I could even see bullets hanging in the air on deadly trajectories. The field was soundless; not a cry, not a blast, not a boom. The stench of this horrid place had also vanished. It was like all the emotion and substance had been smoked from the world, leaving only the Devil and me.
‘Time is on my side, William Jeffries. It is I who commands the nature of this world. You may follow another but, rest assured, the power is all mine.’ As he spoke he fixed me with his intense, coal-fired stare, and I realized that he spoke the truth. A harsh forcefulness presided in his voice and manner. He believed that God on Earth did not command the same power as him; all of God’s creations of nature were part of his domain.
‘I tell you this, soldier: you think you have witnessed the worst of all wars, you think that the suffering in these trenches is Hell on Earth. Well you are wrong. I have seen all wars – now, then and tomorrow. Be safe in the knowledge that the worst is yet to come.’
‘Worse than this? How could that be? Evil cannot surely sink to lower depths than this war?’ I thought of Potsy as I asked the question, and sneaked a glance at his body, still face down and dead in this freeze-framed world.
‘You’re much mistaken. The genius of your kind will one day create a monster they cannot control. Then, it will be time for me to take control for them.’ I noticed when he talked that his tongue was an unusual shape, pointed and flat.
‘You mean you’ll kill as many people as possible?’
‘I will kill only those marked to die. It is the rules.’
‘Our rules!’ His eyes flamed bright orange as he spat the words. By ‘our rules’ I assumed he meant him and God, but I dared not press the point.
‘So people are marked to die?’ I asked, unsure of how I was still alive.
‘Yes, everyone has a mark: a date, a time and a place. Sometimes it is I who metes out the final blow, sometimes not.’
‘You mean, if it’s a war?’
‘No I mean if it’s a human wishing to kill another human; for that, I am required.’
‘For every murder in the world you must administer the touch of death?’
‘That’s correct. Me and my minions of course.’ He gestured around him, indicating the hundreds of demons in suspended animation. It seemed incredulous that our world – our world as we knew it - was constantly plagued by these monsters, unseen to our mortal eyes.
‘So, today, presumably I’m carrying the mark?’ I couldn’t feel my blood flowing anymore, I was sure it had stopped.
‘Oh yes; today is your death day,’ he replied, a baleful smile returning to his face. ‘In fact, it’s over, didn’t you know?’
For a moment I was puzzled by his question, but then the reality presented itself. I had stopped bleeding. I’d stopped bleeding because I was dead. I had died the first moment I spotted the Devil, but of course he works on a different level to us.
Even though I was ‘dead’ I still felt physically real. My injuries still crippled me. I still had deep love and longing for Jeanie and my daughter. It seemed I was a human operating on an alien plain. The Devil had been talking to my spirit, my soul. His look of pleasure in informing me of my demise instilled anger in me. I felt like I’d been had. I was the victim of some long planned practical joke and the Beast in front of me was the chief jester.
‘So what now? What happens to me?’ I asked, my anger diluted by a dawning sadness.
‘You? That hasn’t been decided yet. For now, you’ll stay here, on the field.’
‘Because that is the rules.’
The rules. Whoever said the Devil doesn’t play by the rules? Whatever agreement Heaven and Hell had between them seemed to be to the detriment of all mankind. I was faced with the prospect of walking this battlefield - the scene of my death – for years. The Devil had said I would stay here for now, but how long was now? I’d witnessed his manipulation of time. To him a century was a second, millennia a minute. I couldn’t face the prospect of being stranded in this hateful place. I wanted my life back.
‘But why? Why must I stay here? What are these rules?’ I raised my voice but he didn’t flinch, I guess it was difficult to intimidate Satan.
‘You don’t need to know the rules,’ he said, his eyes fluctuating in intensity, ‘all you need know is your sins have almost bought you a ticket to my place.’
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was going to Hell? Had I been such a bad man? Had my life been so sinful?
‘Why, what have I done that’s so bad?’ I beseeched him; I felt like a child, panicking in the knowledge of impending punishment, pleading: ‘I didn’t do it – honestly!’
‘You broke the rules, William Jeffries. Not my rules, His rules! If you want someone to blame, blame Him.’
‘Who? God?’ As soon as I said the name, he erupted into rage. A fork of fire burst from his mouth and scorched the air; I could taste and smell ozone. His eyes blazed in utter hatred; he smashed his fists together and it sounded like two planets colliding. The noise outweighed all the noise of the artillery guns combined. Long narrow flames flicked out as his mighty knuckles impacted.
‘Never speak His name! He is the true source of all evil! He is the reason for all wars. He is the reason for all death, He is the reason you are dead. He is the reason for Jeanie Jeffries’s death.’
His last sentence sledgehammered me. Jeanie’s death. The thought terrified me more than my own future. I was a man, a soldier fighting a war. I could expect to die, but Jeanie? My sweet Jeanie? She deserved nothing but happiness. She was a good, good woman. She didn’t possess a bad bone or thought in her body. She was one of life’s Samaritans, a girl with a genuinely golden heart. She did not deserve to die.
‘What do you mean? Tell me, what do you mean?’ Panic was in my voice. It felt like I’d been informed of the plot to kill her, but was too far away to save her. It filled me with such anguish that it felt like my heart was barreling around my chest, beating on the walls in frustrated desperation.
‘I’ll show you what I mean,’ he said, his voice still inflicted with anger, ‘this is what He brings you.’ The Devil then made a fanning gesture with his hands and, where they traced a line, an image appeared in mid-air. It was a moving image, as if projected by some distant, unseen camera. What it showed filled me with horror.
Jeanie was running – running for her life. It was dark and she was on some city street. Her face was flushed red and she looked breathless. I think she’d been running for some time. She paused for breath and took a look over her shoulder, her obvious fright telling me her attacker was still pursuing. She ran again, but she was tired. Her legs were tying up, cramping. She tried to scream but her breathless lungs forbade it. She stopped; her body could run no more.
Then her assailant entered the picture. It was a man, someone I’d never met. He was dressed all in black – I think Jeanie was not his first victim. He violently attacked her, pummeling her head with a club. She fell to the ground and still he continued to batter her skull until it began to disintegrate.
‘No! No!’ I screamed with all I had. The vision was my worst nightmare. It struck the nerves of my deepest buried fears. My anguish, my complete hopelessness consumed me, my emotions unrestrained, out of control. I screamed and screamed; I had to vent something, I had to spout some emotion to prevent madness.
The Devil snapped the image closed. He looked at me with those raging eyes and said: ‘So, you see, William Jeffries; she was marked with a date, a time and a place – just as you were. The rules order this. I obey the rules, I don’t write them - He does.’
‘Well He’s wrong! The rules are wrong!’ I didn’t see it then, but looking back now I’m sure a glimmer of satisfaction settled on his face when I said the words. I was so devoured by my own grief, frustration and anger at the time that I wasn’t alert to his possible other motives.
‘Hurts, doesn’t it,’ Satan said, not gleeful but closely related to it. ‘This is His way. Is this why you worship Him? Is this why you call Him Lord? For thousands of years you fools have been deceived – He is the evil entity, not I. Look around you, what further proof do you need than this madness? This is not my way! If it were my rules, there would be no war, no death. The world would be a peaceful place, full of love, not anger.’
I was completely sold. His words were making sense; they corresponded with the welter of emotions that were tearing my soul apart. The gruesome image of my Jeanie being murdered tormented me. I felt stranded; I was a dead man, but also a soul cursed to walk the grounds of my death – filled with the emotion of life and the longing for lost love. I wanted to return, to embrace my former existence. I wanted to love Jeanie – and I wanted to protect her.
‘So help me, please help me. Don’t let Him kill her!’ I begged him; if I could have got down my knees I would have, but my body still felt like a heavy rock.
‘There’s nothing I can do, William Jeffries. She must die as Fate intends.’
‘But there must be something you can do! Please help me. I’ll do anything!’ real hysteria was seeping into my voice.
‘There are rules, I keep telling you. I cannot break the rules. I must always comply, it is forbidden to do otherwise.’
‘ But rules can be broken. There must be a way!’
I was almost frenzied with my entreaty. He was my only hope, my only chance of saving Jeanie and stopping my daughter from being orphaned!
‘What do you know about the rules? You are a mortal, you are one of the many pawns.’ He seemed angered at my impertinence. His gigantic fists clenched and unclenched during the sentence.
‘But I must do something. Please help me!’
‘You can do nothing. You will remain here and ponder your extinct life.’
‘But I must. I must. Don’t let Him win!’
‘He has already won.’
‘How can you say that…you’re the Devil. His nemesis. You must continue the fight!’
‘I can do nothing, William Jeffries, and neither can you. You’re dead.’
‘So…please…give me life’ I soon as I gave the request, his face suddenly changed. That dreadful smile returned, broader than ever, displaying two rows of perfect monster teeth. Orange lights flickered behind his eyes; it was as if I’d uttered some magic words like Open Sesame - and revealed a very dark cave. He bent down - right down – and stuck his face in front of mine. His head was twice the size of my helmeted skull.
‘Very well, William Jeffries. I give you life.’ As he spoke, I could smell his breath. It was rank. It was hot, but without moisture, and smelled like he chewed on all of Hell’s garbage.
The moment he finished his words, however, he disappeared, and I was suddenly back in the middle of the battle.
All the familiar sounds and smells rushed me at once. For a moment I was overwhelmed. Shells and gunfire were blasting anything that moved. The howls of insufferable pain tortured the air. Those awful screams of dying men would stay with me forever, as a dark memory, not simply a sound.
Potsy was dead; I was still lying in the shell crater looking at his body. All around me was the horror of war.
But the Devil was gone. His minions were gone.
I checked my abdomen, beginning to think it had all been a dream, and found my wounds had vanished, like they had never existed. Had I dreamt about being shot?
A soldier emerged from the drifting smoke and ran toward my position, then collapsed dead on top of me as a bullet almost scalped him. He fell face down and I looked into his dead eyes, and I wondered if the Devil was watching, and if he had shoved this poor soldier onto me.
I pushed the lifeless body away and turned onto my belly. I felt no pain. I had no wounds. I peeped over the top of the crater and was surprised to see how far I’d advanced before I was shot. The Germans were only thirty yards away. I could see their trench parapet and many spiked pikelhaub helmets and rifles firing out. They were decimating the ranks of the British soldiers.
I stood up and charged toward them.
Focused straight ahead, I could see the enemy point the barrels of their guns at me. Nevertheless I ran headlong in their direction. I saw the flash of many muzzles as they tried to cut me down, and then I felt the bullets hit.
But this time they were not deadly.
They passed right through me. It was like my body opened a tunnel for each bullet and it simply whistled straight through. It felt like a cool wind was blowing through holes bored into my torso. I also felt one pass through my forehead and exit the back of my skull, and it provided nothing more than a brief sensation of vertigo.
I reached the German trench and pandemonium erupted.
Every soldier’s gun in that trench section was trained and firing on me. I could feel the slugs whistling through every section of my body. I jumped over the parapet and landed on my feet in the trench. I was immediately attacked with bayonets, and I could feel the blades slicing in and withdrawing.
Yet still I was unmarked.
I started shooting. I blasted the closest German in the chest, and he staggered backwards and fell to the ground. Then I killed all the others. It was a bloodbath. They were powerless to prevent it. They tried; they shot me, stabbed me, kicked me and punched me, but they could not harm me. One by one they were either shot or killed with my bayonet. Terror shaped their faces when they realized what they were dealing with. Some dropped their weapons and accepted the inevitable.
When I’d wiped out that section (the trenches were divided into a series of ‘U’ sections to prevent complete takeover if breached, and for damage limitation if shelled) other British soldiers managed to reach the trench. From there we managed to take significant portions of German territory and force a partial withdrawal. The attack was a costly success.
But suddenly I was a hero.
I was awarded the Victoria Cross for my valour. I was a legend in the military. Stories were regaled about my exploits, some wildly exaggerated, with ludicrous tales of bullets passing straight through my charging body.
The war continued for another two years and I saw plenty more action. It was easy for me to defeat the enemy – against me their guns were impotent. Often they would run when I approached. After shooting me many times they would scream something in German and turn tail. It was better they did that. I didn’t enjoy killing them – I detested it. Sometimes I was forced to, not for my own safety but that of my comrades. But if I were to corner a German alone, out of sight of any other soldiers, I would take the muzzle of his rifle and press it against my forehead, and then ask him to fire. Most of them did. When they saw I was uninjured – let alone alive – they would scarper.
Years later I would learn that I was a contributing factor to the eventual German surrender. A legend was perpetuated through Fritz’s ranks that Tommy had some invincible warrior that could not be killed or harmed. They believed this warrior was some kind of God. They were almost right. The obvious detrimental effect on German morale was a factor in ensuring an Allied victory.
I enjoyed the adulation conferred on me; I had evolved from an expendable ‘grunt’ to a revered, sometimes idolized, military legend. I met many senior-ranking officers, from captains to field marshals, all of which had heard of my daring exploits and wished to meet the myth. I was even secretly introduced to the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, when he visited the front lines late in the war.
But, through all this commendation and reverence, somewhere in a cold back room of my mind, I knew I had a price to pay. I hadn’t sold my soul to the Devil – at least I didn’t think I had – but he’d given me my life back, and I was sure it wasn’t for free.
After the war I lived my life with Jeanie and our daughter, Florence. My wife and child were my world. They were the two most beautiful objects ever crafted. For me to enjoy their life, to see them growing older and share all their joys and sorrows, I had the Devil to thank. Strange that.
I followed Potsy’s wishes and made sure his wife Maggie was looked after financially and emotionally. It was particularly difficult for her immediately after being widowed, so Jeanie and I would endeavour to visit at least twice a week at the beginning, if only to provide shoulders to cry upon.
As with all things I guess, memories fade, feelings ebb away. Eventually Maggie married again and we drifted apart. It made me sad; it was like the memory of Potsy was gradually being nibbled away; lost somewhere in a muddy French field, sinking further into the mire as the years marched on.
I found myself questioning my religious beliefs in the years after the war. I wasn’t a devout Christian, but I was baptized, and I attended church on a Sunday whenever I could. But ever since I met the Devil I was in conflict with all traditional religious doctrine. What Satan had said to me that day in No-Mans-Land made sense at the time. And he’d restored my extinguished life, and I’d lived to see my Jeanie again, and watch my child grow into an adult.
I wasn’t turning into a devil worshipper or anything like that, I wasn’t flying the flag of the Devil; I was questioning the truthfulness of the Bible.
Only one thing though prevented me from turning into a full scale Satanist, and that was my memory of the moment I’d asked for my life back. His face when I said the words was the face of Evil. His smile was a grin of satisfaction, of a heinous deed well done. His eyes danced with delight, gleeful, but for what?
This memory kept me from going down a dark path. It planted suspicion in my mind; it gave me doubt when the evidence was clear. It reminded me that it was the Devil I’d met – and he wasn’t renowned for his veracity.
As the years passed, I would come to realize that the Devil was a liar. I would realize that he only curses, never blesses.
So the years began to roll. Another World War arrived; I was too old for conscription by then, but it never passed us by. In Sheffield the Luftwaffe bombed us regularly. We spent many nights in air raid shelters hiding from Jerry. I knew I could have stayed at home – a direct hit on the house wouldn’t have singed a hair on my head. For Jeanie it was different, she wasn’t invincible, so night shelters were compulsory.
My daughter Flo married in 1937 and moved to London with her husband to find work. We prayed for her every night during The Blitz. She would write to us often and describe in unnerving detail the extent of devastation the capital was suffering. Hordes of bombers, wave after wave, would hammer the city and gladly see it burn alive.
One weekend Jeanie and I went to visit Flo, probably not a good idea considering the circumstances, but we were, after all, British, and no Jerry would prevent us from touring our own land.
The first night we were there, we got caught in a firestorm – a devastating air raid. It arrived with little warning from the sirens and Flo’s house took a hit with four of us under the roof. We were preparing to evacuate to the shelters when the first bombs starting dropping around us. It would have been foolhardy to venture into the street and attempt to reach the shelters, so we decided to stay put and cross our fingers.
But it didn’t work. A simultaneous boom and orange flash exploded in the house. We were in the living room sitting around a solitary candle, observing the blackout rules. Then it seemed like the entire house collapsed on us. I was hit by falling debris and pinned to the floor. Dust choked my every breath. Smoke and fire were enveloping what was left of the house. In the pitch darkness, I called out Jeanie’s name. My senses were strangled by the dark and the smoke and the dust. I heard a whimpered reply, but I didn’t know who it came from. I called out for Flo, but heard nothing.
I, of course, was completely intact. I felt no pain or injury. I wasn’t bruised or scratched - the legacy of the encounter on No-Mans-Land.
I managed to free myself quickly from the rubble that pinned me, and frantically searched in the darkness that rippled in the glow of flames. The upper floor of the house had come down and buried us. We were blanketed in dust, floorboards, furniture, plaster, piping- all fuel for the growing fire.
It was difficult to shift the rubble but the soaring temperature inspired me to do so. I saw a leg sticking out from beneath a bed that had crashed down from the floor above. I pushed what I could off, and recognized the Flo’s clothing. I dragged her out by her feet, out of the debris, and then hooked my arms under hers; I then hauled her clear of the house via a new opening that had been blasted in the wall. I didn’t have time to check if she was alive. I rushed back in to search for Jeanie and Flo’s husband. The house was developing into an inferno, but I could stand the heat; I picked up burning debris with my bare hands and watched as they were engulfed by flames, but they remained pristine, the skin heat resistant, as if laced with asbestos.
I found Jeanie. To my horror, I found Jeanie. She was quite clearly dead, crushed by a stack of bricks, probably from the new hole in the side of the house.
I cleared away all the bricks and as tenderly as circumstances permitted, lifted and carried her away from the house.
I placed her in the garden, next to Flo, who murmured weakly when I did so. The sound of her voice, the notification that she was alive offered brief comfort, but incipient grief had begun to feast on me, sidetracking my mind from the real world.
Behind me, the house crackled and popped as the fire swaddled it with flames. It was too late for Flo’s husband. Even if he’d survived the bomb-blast, by now he would have been cooked.
It was then, as I looked upon my dead wife and barely alive daughter, feeling the heat from the fire pressing on my back, I realised the Devil had tricked me.
This was not how it was supposed to be. Fate had me dead over twenty years ago in a French field. I wasn’t meant to watch my wife die. I wasn’t meant to watch my daughter suffer.
The Devil knew, I’m sure, that he wasn’t blessing me with revivication but cursing me with eternal life.
After the funerals – which were long delayed to allow Flo to attend after recuperating from her injuries – I found myself alone at home, a soulless empty home, wondering this: when will I die?
My time had come and gone; would I ever get another chance? I knew that some day I would bury my daughter, and some day I would probably bury my grandchildren. And then what? Eventually people would question my longevity. It was a predicament that I had to resolve sooner or later.
So the Second World War ended and once again we were victorious. Flo had recovered completely physically, although it was impossible to eradicate the mental trauma.
It was the early 1950’s when she married again; thankfully she was still young enough to provide me with a grandson and granddaughter. I found both of them resembled Jeanie in some small way, be it their eyes or mannerisms. I was glad that some lost part of my wife lived on in vibrant flesh and blood; it ensured my memories were rejuvenated regularly and never became rusty or disjointed.
Mercifully we managed to avoid any major wars for the remainder of the century - apart from numerous small skirmishes in foreign parts - but these never impacted at home.
Slowly I was getting old. I was a pensioner by the time the Beatles emerged in 1963. Dreadful music I thought, but my grandchildren loved them.
I’d kept my meeting with the Devil a secret for forty-seven years. I’d hidden my apparent invincibility away with great aplomb. Accidents happened – they were inevitable, but always I was unhurt. If ever there were witnesses - like the time I was run over by a car in the centre of town – I feigned injury. That particular instance I stayed motionless on the floor pretending to be unconscious, whilst panicked bystanders scrambled to my aid. Doctors would raise eyebrows at my lack of injuries, but it could be allotted to the purest of good luck.
Physically I was ageing. My hair had greyed to the colour of tobacco ash, and receded from the front backwards. My skin was wrinkled like a deflated balloon. I felt younger than I was, but I must admit even my joints were slower and squeakier than they had been in 1916.
The ageing process seemed to stop though when I hit about seventy-five. Obviously I didn’t notice this cessation instantly, but over the next couple of years it became apparent that I wasn’t getting any older.
I stopped balding. New wrinkles never appeared. I was as nimble and flexible as I was in my sixties. It seemed I’d reached a point where time could affect me no more; It was like the batteries had run out on my body-clock, and the hands were frozen at year seventy-five.
The decade of the seventies passed by, leaving a bitter taste in the mouth. It had been a difficult period for Britain, unemployment and strikes beleaguered the nation, supplemented by the torturous advent of Glam-Rock. Ridiculous music.
Flo retired herself in 1977, the year of the Silver Jubilee. I was eighty years old, and one of a dwindling number of World War I veterans. Every year in November, I would attend Remembrance Day parades, but sadly each time there would be fewer men. God, or the Devil, was picking them off one by one.
My grandchildren grew into adults and both provided me with great grandchildren. Flo was a proud, spoiling grandmother, right up to her death in 1990. She was seventy-three.
The cancer that claimed her had hidden itself away in her lungs for months, unnoticed and untroubling. Only when it was too late did it manifest itself in a bloodied cough. She suffered terribly; for months they tried to treat her, but it all failed; it merely caused the last days of her life to be miserable ones.
I cursed the Devil for this. I was ninety-three years old; I should not have watched my daughter die. As she lay on her deathbed, her face skeletal, her breathing a laboured wheeze, I sensed the Devil was with me, watching and grinning. I felt like a plaything, an outlet for him to indulge in human misery. He knew this would happen. He knew eternal life would bring wretched sadness.
I was taken to acting older than I actually felt. I was in my nineties but felt sixty. I could walk, talk, hear and think as proficiently as a far younger man – but this could not be revealed. I was fearful of questions and suspicions, and I didn’t want to end up as circus freak or medical marvel.
To execute my deception I stooped when I walked, and turned my walk into a shuffle. I feigned deafness and forgetfulness; I didn’t need glasses, but instead wore spectacles with plain lenses. I hooked my fingers when handling things, to present a gnarled, arthritic appearance.
My world was losing all its purpose. The loss of Jeanie half-a-century since was like losing both arms; the loss of Flo was like losing the legs. I realised that the world was so much bigger than one old man. It had revolved relentlessly around the sun for billions of years, and would continue to do so for billions more. My biggest fear was that I’d still be around to see it.
My grandchildren and great grandchildren were dear to me, and leaving them behind would hurt like the day I left Jeanie for the trenches. But I knew better than most the way of the world, and the way things were meant to be.
I decided the day Flo passed away that I would not watch my grandchildren die. They were supposed to shed tears for Gran and Granddad – they expected to do so. It was usually only tragedy that permitted the reversal of these paths.
I enjoyed my last years with them as joyously as my enfeebled heart would allow. I loved them, of that I am doubtless, but when I reached a hundred years of age, I left them to live out their lives together as God intended.
Suicide was impossible, so I staged my own death. I’d been planning my disappearance since the day Flo died, so I wasn’t surprised when the plan succeeded.
The family had talked of celebrating my 100th for the couple of years leading up to it. By then I walked only with a knobbly cane, and stooped like I had a cross on my back. Of course, in private, I was as nimble as a squirrel.
I expressed a desire to visit the coast for my birthday, explaining that it may be my last, and I wanted to smell the sea air and hear the cry of gulls before I died.
Obviously they assured me that it wasn’t my last birthday, and I shouldn’t talk like that. Nevertheless, they acquiesced and organized a jaunt to Cornwall.
My 100th birthday was a hot day in July. The sky was an unblemished blue that mirrored the Cornish sea below. The light breeze that wafted in from the waves carried a saline aroma and the squalling cries of scavenging gulls.
I enjoyed the day; my family did their utmost to ensure I had a pleasurable time. They fed me, they joked with me, they drank with me; nothing I wanted was beyond their reach. It was warming to know that I was still loved, but I knew however difficult emotionally it was for me, I had to leave them. They would be sorrowful and they would grieve – but only for a while. They were young; their lives stretched long and far ahead of them and disappeared over the horizon. By the time they ventured so far I would be a distant dull memory, incapable of tickling any emotion.
That evening in the hotel restaurant, after our last dinner together and a final drink, I thanked them all for a lovely day, and said my goodbyes. They didn’t realize it was my farewell, they thought I was going off to bed. There were tears in my eyes as I shuffled theatrically down the corridor.
That night, about midnight, I slipped out of the hotel through my bedroom window. It was a ground floor room to accommodate my apparent infirmity, but I slipped into the warm night air like an accomplished cat burglar.
I took with me only my walking cane. I closed the window behind and headed down to the beach. I was cautious to avoid being seen, I wanted no one to question my direction, or be able to testify to my final moments.
Down at the beach, which was only a five-minute walk (more for an average centurion), the air was cooler and the breeze crisper. A sliver of moon showed in the night sky, but it did little to illuminate the coastline.
I dropped my cane onto the damp sand, and felt the ocean lap against my ankles as the tide washed up the beach. It was much chillier than the preceding hot summer’s day would have me believe, but that was of no consequence. It didn’t matter if these were Arctic waters – they couldn’t harm me.
I didn’t see the need to remove my clothing or shoes, as I knew it was impossible for me to drown. I had a quick look around to make sure I was unobserved, then waded into the chilly sea.
About five hundred yards further along the coast and jutting out into the water was a small harbour entrance, its stone entrance walls rising high above the waves. I swam for those walls.
It was high season for the tourists, so the picturesque harbour would undoubtedly be host to revelers and romanticists, either high on the quayside or messing around in boats.
As I rounded the harbour walls I spotted a young courting couple sitting on the ledge, their legs dangling over the side. They hadn’t spotted me, as the water must have looked like a black desert from their vantage point.
I stopped swimming and trod water, then murmured – just loud enough – ‘Help!’
I raised my arm in a feeble, weakened wave. I heard a cry of shock from the girl and they both stood up, her pointing down at me.
That was enough. They had seen me in the water and that’s all I needed.
I let myself sink beneath the surface, then swam deeper. I instinctively held my breath. As I swam deeper and also further away from the harbour, my lungs began to burn and my body itched for relief.
But I knew I was safe. I kept swimming well below the surface, deep enough to feel pressure in my ears. After a short while, my body took control and my lungs blurted out all the retained air – then sucked in cold, salty ocean.
At first I gagged and felt for an instant that I would drown, but than I relaxed as my body somehow accustomed itself to the liquid environment, and I continued onward, not needing to breathe.
I swam for three or four hours, following the coastline, which wended through the ocean a hundred yards to my left. I felt the cold, but I didn’t shiver. I felt the tiredness in my muscles, but they never ceased and never cramped. I could have swum forever, until the oceans evaporated.
When I finally swam into shore it was still dark. I landed in a fairly remote spot and had to clamber over rocks to reach the flat land beyond, but it was the perfect location. No one was around. The last time I was seen was drowning near the harbour. My cane would be found on the beach and assumed to have washed up there. It would be an accident. I had gone for a walk to the harbour and fallen in. One of the country’s oldest citizens had finally succumbed to the inevitable. Tragic, but he’d had a long happy life. Let’s get on with ours.
So now I was free to continue my quest. I had to meet the Devil again.
I’d concluded that I was never going to die, so long as the Devil’s curse hung over me. It therefore followed that the only way to die was to rid myself of the curse. That part was difficult. I had no idea how curses were lifted. I didn’t know if they could be lifted. But when I thought back to my encounter with Satan in No-Mans-Land so long ago, I remembered his mantra: ‘It’s the rules.’
The rules existed, I was sure of that. I believed the Devil was bound by these rules, and was also afraid to break them – if it were possible at all to break them.
My thinking was this: the Devil has to play by certain rules. He gave me my life back, but only when I requested it. He was clever enough to lead me into asking the question, knowing only then could he deliver the curse. So, I had to learn the rules. If I knew the rules, then maybe I could play them. And maybe I could save myself.
Of course, another small matter that needed attention was this: Where the heck am I going to find the Devil?
So my journey commenced. I embarked on a tour of the world that would last two more centuries.
I didn’t know where to begin, but I thought the most likely place was the Church. I visited as many as possible, talking to priests, vicars, bishops - all types of clergy. I read up on all that I could find on the eternal battle between good and evil. I read up on all types of religious doctrine, manuscripts and philosophy. I had to fill my head with knowledge of the Devil, of God and of the conflict between them. The more I knew then the more I would understand, and hopefully, piece-by-piece the rules would fall into place.
I toured the British nation for years; I must have visited ninety per cent of all Churches and Synagogues in the country. I gleaned every morsel of information available; I listened to hundreds of religious interpretations and opinions, each of which I studiously absorbed, because I thought that within each theory or sentiment therein could lay a clue, perhaps miniscule, but I had to be alert to its presence; it was another digit in a great unbroken code.
In between visiting people and places of God, sometimes I would come into contact with Devil Worshippers.
Satanists were obviously much rarer than Christians, but if you look hard enough you can find them. I posed as a worshipper with a number of groups who all had different approaches and methods to worshipping their ‘Dark Lord’. Some groups were into sacrificial offerings; these were frequently in the form of lambs or goats, thankfully never human. It was maddening to watch sometimes; these hooded fools pledging their soul to something so evil they couldn’t comprehend, something they had never seen or proven to exist. I never revealed to them that I had actually met their Lord, and I thought that he was the most abominable being ever.
Some Satanists were more animal-friendly in their approach. In fact, some didn’t think of the Devil as evil at all, but the saviour of mankind. I thought those groups in particular were the ones who were probably closer to Satan, because it sounded like he’d indoctrinated them with the same lies he told me all those years ago.
I witnessed many attempts by these groups to raise their Master from Hell, but they all failed. Each one was different to the last, but equally as hopeless. I realized that this was going to be my toughest challenge. I was progressing in my quest to accrue knowledge of the rules, but even armed with that wisdom, I needed the Devil in front of me to use it.
Eventually I exhausted British Christianity and Satanism. I decided to widen my search, and crossed the Atlantic to America.
There I found a hundred times the amount of sects and cults that resided back home. Some were plain crazy; like the one that believed a great spaceship was on the moon ready to take them all to paradise, but before embarkation all members had to commit suicide. The fools did it too.
Slowly I visited every state in that enormous country; it took so long that I actually saw some religions evolve, and some born and die. I met thousands of different characters, each of them with a viewpoint and idea. I did my utmost to sieve through the masses and detect the hidden answers.
Over there I had the opportunity to meet people ‘possessed’ by demons. They were held as insane by society, but when I conversed with them I knew they were genuine.
I recall one man in particular who said my name out loud as I approached. This was remarkable, given that I had submitted a false name to the hospital staff, telling them I was a member of family. He even laughed in my face and pointed, saying: ‘there he is – William Jeffries! The oldest living war hero!’ He fell about in uncontrolled laughter; his mockery angered me.
‘How long is it now? One hundred? Two hundred years? Should have kept your mouth shut!’ He was irrepressible; tears streamed down his cheeks, and he held his belly as it heaved at the hilarity.
I endured the tormenting because it gave me an excellent opportunity to ask direct questions concerning the rules to somebody – something – that played by them every day.
Most of these demons were unforthcoming, but sometimes they unknowingly let slip a snippet of information that I could find use for. Slowly the rules were becoming clear.
The Satanists of the United States were a similar breed to those back home, but still offered me new insight into the Devil’s world.
One sect leader told me that he’d met the Devil in a dream, and that’s why he converted from a devout Catholic to inscrutable Satanist. Satan had said ‘the rules’- he used those actual words – ‘prevented him from doing his work on Earth, so he must be worshipped, and his apostles must do his bidding.’
It was conversations like this that continuously fed into the big formula, and I knew eventually it would equal an answer.
From time to time I returned to Britain to check from afar the well being of my family. My grandchildren all eventually died, and so too did my great-grandchildren. It was sad for me, but they had all lived good lives and none were taken prematurely.
My great-grandchildren were also parents when they died, but their offspring were to me descendants, not family. From that point onwards, I never visited again.
As the years marched mercilessly onward I broadened my research to encapsulate the entire globe. On my journey I traversed every continent other than Antarctica. I conversed with all types of religious authorities, from Christian to Hindu, from Jewish to Buddhist.
I watched as the world changed from the austere, uncomplicated life of my birth to a technological Utopia.
When I was born in 1847, it would take months of sailing to reach Australia. In the year 2120, I boarded a space plane that took just half an hour.
Virtually all disease was eradicated when scientists mastered genetics. Cancer in all its forms was cured progressively between 2050 and 2070. All other major diseases were vanquished by the turn of the next century.
Twentieth century fears of pollution and global warming were allayed when processing plants were established worldwide to suck out the contaminants in the atmosphere and convert then into the natural constituents of breathable air.
Motorcars were replaced by flying jet cars, which were electronically guided on ‘highways in the sky’. It meant that traffic jams were unheard of and accidents almost obsolete.
Communications in the twentieth century were dire by the standards they would attain. Telephone was replaced by ‘virtua-phone’, which placed the callers in a virtual room, and it was like a real life head-to-head conversation. The sound and imagery were the substance of vivid dreams; it was easy to forget that you were not in a real situation.
Of course, with all these technological advances to benefit mankind, weapons were developed to destroy mankind.
Nuclear bombs were defunct. Anti-matter bombs now threatened the world. Anti-matter is the most destructive, powerful force in the universe. Scientists worked out how to manufacture it, harness it, and then build bombs with it. The Devil had warned me, long ago now, that ‘the genius of your kind will one day create a monster they cannot control’. I believe he was talking about anti-matter bombs. And if his prophecy was true, I didn’t want to be around to see and live through the annihilation.
On my 300th birthday, I returned to France. My quest was at an end. I believed I’d learned enough of the rules to acquit myself well when I confronted the Devil. It had to be now. I was weary; I was in a world and an age where I didn’t belong. I needed to die.
The fields of France on the Somme were well preserved despite their age. They were never commercially developed, in deference to the war dead and were still a popular tourist attraction.
The trenches were all gone, but some pills boxes still remained, now naturally camouflaged by creeping foliage and landscape. It was impossible for me to pinpoint the location of my last charge. The topography of the place was a world away from the desolate, war-torn setting of WWI.
I stood in the center of a wheat field like a scarecrow, feeling a gentle breeze soothe my brow as the hot July sun drew perspiration. It was such a tranquil place now, as if its wounds from the war had all healed. I could hear only the whispered rustle of wheat stalks in the wind, and the occasional buzz of a foraging bee enquiring after my unfamiliar scent.
I carried with me a small black bag, which I placed at my feet. From that I removed a black glass orb, about four inches in diameter. I’d acquired the orb in Russia twenty years previously. When I held it in the palm of my hand I could feel energy, like an endogenous electrical hum. It was given to me by an ex-Satanist, who refused to reveal its origin. He said that it was enchanted, and using it was the only way to raise the Devil. Apparently only six of these orbs existed; four of them were lost, one was in Brazil and the other was now in my hand.
The man who gave me the orb swore that it worked. He informed me that once he had worshipped the Devil, and his sect had used the black glass sphere to summon up Satan. He himself had taken no part in the proceedings, other than filming it. He had watched as the Devil rose from the ground and set about slaughtering the sect, dismemberment his preferred method of killing.
His description of the Devil matched my recollection of him perfectly. He also told me that after the butchery, when all his friends lay dead, Satan approached him. Without a word he placed his gigantic hands on the camera and it melted in them like butter in an oven. He afforded a sinister glare to the terrified cameraman before returning to Hell.
I tossed the orb out into the wheat stalks; it landed unseen some fifteen yards away. I delved back into the bag and removed a small, sharp wooden stake. I had carved and sharpened the timber myself from a lump of extremely old wood. I’m ashamed to say that I stole the wood from a church in Rio-De-Janeiro. The wood was supposedly cut from the cross of Christ. I could not confirm this to be true, no more than the story of the black glass orb, but I hoped it to be accurate, because hope was all I had left.
I gripped the stake tightly in my right hand, and faced in the direction of where the orb was lying, obscured amid the acres of wheat. As each breeze brushed the tops of the stalks, they bowed, creating a wave effect that rippled the whole length of the field. I could feel the heat of the sun searing the top of my head and back of my neck; my stomach felt heavy, weighted down with fear and trepidation. My breathing was deep and rapid; I was invincible, I knew, but I was still scared of what was to come.
In what seemed like total silence, I spoke aloud ritualistic words passed on to me by the Russian cameraman years before: ‘Satan, our Dark Lord, Destroyer of Faith; I call on you Master to hear; I call on you Master to ascend; I call on you Master…’ I paused, questioning my own wisdom of actions, then finished the sentence, ‘to live!’
For an instant there was no sound other than my hard breathing and the breeze in my ears.
And then it happened.
A thin shaft of black light projected upward from where the orb landed. The shaft soared high, out of sight, into the heavens.
Next came the earthquake. The ground beneath my feet shuddered and rocked; a deep rumble split the silence and I struggled to stay balanced. As the earth shuddered, a patch of field in front of me burst into flames, then it spread concentrically, scribing a perfect circle maybe fifteen yards in diameter. The boundary of the fire stopped there, somehow unable to combust the surrounding dry stalks.
I gripped the stake tighter in my hand. My mind and muscles felt tense, it reminded me of the moment in the trench before going over the top.
The fire quickly exhausted its fuel and burnt out, leaving a charcoal black circle, in the centre of which lay the glass orb.
As the earth tremor intensified, I was forced to drunkenly stagger in order to find balance.
Then the earth opened up.
The black crop circle fell away, as if somebody had sprung a sneaky trap door. The earth literally disappeared into the black void below, leaving behind only a cloud of dry dust that swirled into the air.
The earthquake ceased.
I waited, anticipating. The silence returned to the field.
Then the Devil rose from the ground.
It had been nearly 300 years since our last encounter, but the moment I saw him, it felt like yesterday. All the terrible memories of that day came marauding back. I felt mortal again, in his presence I felt like a feeble child.
As he glided smoothly out of the hole, he fixed me with his demonic stare. Fear invaded my body; for the first time in nearly three centuries I was scared for my life. I wanted to die, but this beast in front of me promised more than death, he oozed misery and mayhem. He could make me suffer till the end of time. He demanded fear.
The Devil stood on firm ground about ten yards in front of me. He was immense, even from a distance away he was looking down on me. In his mighty right hand he held the black orb.
I stood firm, with the stake in my hand, as he took steps toward me. I noticed that this time his hooves left an imprint in the ground, and I heard a light thud as they touched down.
‘William Jeffries! How resourceful of you,’ the Devil said, as he stood almost hoof to toe with me. He casually tossed the orb away into the field.
‘Tell me, how is life?’ he asked, with that terrible shark’s smile that had haunted me forever.
‘I’ve come to ask you to lift the curse that you placed on me in nineteen-sixteen’.
‘Nineteen-sixteen? But that was only yesterday. ’
‘It was two-hundred-and-eighty-one years ago. I’ve had enough. You win, please, lift the curse.’
He laughed loudly and his eyes flared in brightness. ‘I gave you what you wanted, William Jeffries; now you shall reap the rewards.’
‘They’re not rewards, they’re consequences. You knew what the outcome would be; you knew my life would be wretched and sorrowful. I didn’t ask for eternal life, I asked for life.’
‘Then you should have been more specific!’
‘You are a liar, and if you don’t lift the curse, I will make you pay.’ He didn’t flinch at the threat, but his face seemed to darken with anger.
‘Be careful what you say, soldier: eternity is a long time with me on your back.’
‘You have your warning. Will you lift the curse?’ My heart was pummeling my ribs. I tightened the grip on the stake, doubts tried to force their way into my mind, but I repelled them.
Satan looked down at me and bared his teeth, not in a smile but in fearsome anger at my impertinence. I don’t think any mortal had challenged him in this way before.
‘The curse will remain. You will live until the earth is no more.’ When he finished the sentence, I swung my arm and drove the stake into his side. He roared – I don’t know if it was pain or purest rage, but he let rip a thunderous howl that shook the earth.
This was one of the rules: all things holy will hold power over evil. When it said holy, it didn’t mean water blessed by a priest or a mass manufactured crucifix – it meant real divine properties. My stake was made from the wood of Jesus’ cross. And it had the desired effect.
I knew it wouldn’t be a long battle; it was clearly a mismatch. Instinctively, the Devil clamped the top of my head in his mammoth right hand and effortlessly twisted it 360 degrees. I felt my spine twist and snap, and tendons, blood vessels and skin tear as they were stretched to breaking.
But of course, I was immortal.
My head twisted back around, and somewhere inside I felt everything fall back into place. Satan looked for a moment surprised, and then realized what had happened. I spoke first: ‘You can’t hurt me, remember? I’m immortal; but I can hurt you with this.’ I held up the stake and he took a step backwards, aware of its power.
‘I know the rules, Satan. I’ve learnt many of them over the years and I know you can’t fight this.’
‘You know nothing of the rules. You are mortal!’ He was hopping mad. Smoke and sparks were spitting out of his mouth.
‘I do know the rules. I know you are not allowed to offer me life after death – I have to request it. That’s why you lied about my wife’s murder – to trick me into asking for my life back. Now I also know that, when summoned, you must answer the call, so unless you lift the curse, I will summon you every day until the end of the time, and each time I’ll stick you with this.’ I flashed the stake at him again and his eyes flashed a brilliant red, his rage hitting new heights.
‘You will die, soldier, I promise you that. And then you’ll be mine.’
‘ I will not die until you lift the curse. I know you can do it; you are the only one who can do it. I know the rules. I know you cannot harm anyone on earth other than those who summon you. That’s why you couldn’t touch the cameraman who gave me the orb. I know you cannot destroy the orb. It is forbidden, it’s part of the rules.’
‘You know nothing, William Jeffries. Soon you will know only pain.’
‘Then prove me wrong. Destroy the orb.’ I pointed to the glass sphere that he’d tossed away earlier. The Devil looked across at it too. He didn’t respond. I could tell that he was contemplating his options. I knew he couldn’t destroy the orb, so my threat of summoning him every day carried genuine promise.
After a few seconds of pondering, Satan glared at me and said, ‘ Very well, I lift the curse.’
At that moment, I felt as if my soul leaped from my body. I sensed my mortality; I was an old man again, I could feel the expired years living in my bones; my joints ached, my spine arched over like a divining rod. I fell to the floor on my backside, my muscles unable to cope with this new reality. Pain flared up through my hips and lower back as I thumped the floor. My hands hooked inwards like talons and skin began to sag and crinkle. I dropped the stake, unable to grip it in my gnarled hands.
I looked up towards the Devil, and he immediately dashed at me, bellowing like a charging bull, his great fist was raised aloft, his eyes raged in the colour of flames.
I screamed as he swung his fist down toward my head. It was larger than my whole skull and had the power of a pile driver. It smashed into my face like a meteorite. I felt the knuckles drive into my features and shatter my whole skull. The punch left a deep imprint in my face; I couldn’t breathe without rasping, my nose had disintegrated, my jaw was split and dislocated; all my teeth shattered on impact.
But still I could not die. This I’d anticipated.
Even the Devil look puzzled. The punch had destroyed my head, yet I still lived. The healing process began straight away. I could feel my skull and jaw knitting back together. My nose started to reform and allowed me to breathe again. My teeth sprouted once more from a new set of gums.
As my head restored itself, I looked up at the Devil and said: ‘You forget one important rule, one you taught me yourself, only yesterday: everyone has a time, a place and a date. This is not mine. Mine passed 281 years ago.’
He exploded in rage. He roared like the beast he was into the blue sky. The noise was like all a jungle’s animals howling in unison. The sound would have traveled for miles around; I felt the shockwave pass through my guts when he erupted. Smoke was pouring from his mouth and nose like a mythical dragon. His eyes now glowed white-hot, as bright as a welding flame. He smashed his fists together, knuckle-to-knuckle, and flames arrowed out of a dynamite boom.
‘You will pay for this, William Jeffries! I will seek your soul wherever it may be. You will never rest in peace.’
‘I demand you take me back. Take me back to nineteen-sixteen where you found me or I will be the most annoying insect you have ever known!’ I raised my voice as high as my 300-year-old vocal chords would permit, but my bravado hid the truth of my petrifaction. I felt like I was bluffing, and any moment he would call it and ravage my soul.
Satan moved toward me, and with speed too swift for the eye, snatched me up off the ground. He held me by the throat with one hand, his fingers encircling my entire neck; I felt him squeeze and it was like forcing high pressure air into my head; my eyes bulged from their sockets, my tongue poked out and licked my chin. I truly thought my head was going to pop open like a dropped melon.
He drew me in close, my feet kicking fresh air. That stench again. I’d forgotten about his breath, it was like a morgue after Armageddon.
‘You think you have learnt it all. But in time, you will feel the folly of your actions today. You would do well to remember something else I told you in nineteen-sixteen: time is on my side.’
And then he was gone. I dropped five feet to the floor and landed on my back. But I didn’t land on the sun-dried soil of the field. I landed on something solid and wet.
I looked up, slightly dazed and confused. The blue sky was no more, replaced by an overcast, drab covering. The July heat was lost to something more akin to an autumnal chill.
I looked up at two trench walls. Around me was the chatter of many men. My clothing had changed to uniform. And was aware of a stench, equal to that of the Devils’ breath. It was the smell of death, of latrines, of gas, of rot.
A hand was offered to help me up off the floor, then a friendly voice I hadn’t heard for a long, long time: ‘What you doing down there? The latrines are overflowing again. You’ll stink more than ever.’
I took Potsy’s hand, and saw that mine now resembled the nineteen-year old conscript I was. I grabbed him and hugged him. I couldn’t help it, three hundred years of absence and torment at last found an escape door. I was back.
The Devil delivered me three days before zero hour, dumping me on the wet duck boarding during a lull in the fighting (of which there were many). I’m finishing my story this evening, and like I said before, tomorrow is the day I die.
In the morning I will go over the top and run to my death. In one way I feel sad, because somewhere in this world my Jeanie is alive again, and Flo is blooming in her belly. But I’ve had my life, and more besides. I know that Fate must be obeyed, so I will accept mine without protest.
I’ve a plan for Potsy though. When we go over tomorrow, I’m going to shoot him in the leg before he moves a yard. It will be serious enough to be classed as a ‘Blighty’ and get him sent home. That’s his fate.
As for the Devil: sometime, somewhere, I’m sure we’ll meet again.