Chance's Strange Arithmetic
3. The Lieutenant
I have perceived much beauty
In the hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight;
Heard music in the silentness of duty...
(Apologia pro Poemate Meo)
Lieutenant Owen did not know what to do about his newest private.
He'd only just assumed command of the 2nd Manchesters; at first, the unit had been filled entirely by fresh men, like himself all recent arrivals from England. But the inevitable losses of combat necessitated transfers; after his former platoon's near-annihilation in an ill-timed assault on the enemy's line, Private Maglor had been reassigned to Owen's command. Lieutenant Owen was still new to command, but it took little experience to see that the addition of this particular man to his ranks had created a major problem which he would have to solve somehow for the sake of his unit's morale. For Private Maglor was apparently going mad.
Lieutenant Owen's newest soldier generally stayed apart from the other enlisted men, scarcely speaking to another soul except to answer a direct query. But that did not mean that he was silent, for often he whispered to himself. Strange, meaningless sounds would slip from his lips, words from some secret language of the soul. Rarely he would tremble and rouse himself, and at those times his eyes were filled with a disturbing fire. But that brief spark of life inevitably faded quickly, and he returned to his usual expressionless countenance, retreating into insensibility. Clearly Private Maglor was losing his grip on reality, and he no longer had the ability to disguise his deteriorating condition behind the facade of normality the platoon's other soldiers still managed to erect.
Owen pitied him; he was no physician, but even he could see that Private Maglor was suffering from the onset of shell-shock. Maglor's platoon had nearly completed their front-line assignment, and had been scheduled to assume support duties shortly before the assault that had devastated it. Unfortunately for Private Maglor, that fact had not been taken into account when he had received his new orders; Owen's platoon was just beginning its time in the trenches. Unless Owen could get Maglor reassigned, the hapless fellow would have to endure another full tour of duty in the filthy trenches of the Somme. And although Lieutenant Owen doubted the man was up to it, he doubted even more his ability to successfully petition for his new private's transfer to the rear lines. He was only a second lieutenant, and an inexperienced one at that; his words would carry little weight with his superiors at this time when as many bodies as possible were needed on the front. Somehow, he would have to find a way to help Private Maglor endure, or barring that, at least find a way to minimize the effects his odd behavior was having on the morale of the other men in the unit.
It was a pity he hadn't the slightest idea how to achieve that end.
* * * * * * *
It was words which separated Private Maglor most obviously from his fellow soldiers: his odd mumbled nonsense phrases so disturbing to his fellow brothers-in-arms. How ironic, Owen later though, that words of an altogether different sort provided the key to bridging the gulf between the isolated private and the rest of his unit.
We'd found an old Boche dug-out, and he knew,
And gave us hell, for shell on frantic shell
Hammered on top, but never quite burst through.
Rain, guttering down in waterfalls of slime
Kept slush waist high, that rising hour by hour,
Choked up the steps too thick with clay to climb.
What murk of air remained stank old, and sour
With fumes of whizz-bangs, and the smell of men
Who'd lived there years, and left their curse in the den,
If not their corpses. . . .
There we herded from the blast
Of whizz-bangs, but one found our door at last.
Buffeting eyes and breath, snuffing the candles.
And thud! flump! thud! down the steep steps came thumping
And splashing in the flood, deluging muck --
The sentry's body; then his rifle, handles
Of old Boche bombs, and mud in ruck on ruck.
We dredged him up, for killed, until he whined
"O sir, my eyes -- I'm blind -- I'm blind, I'm blind!"
Coaxing, I held a flame against his lids
And said if he could see the least blurred light
He was not blind; in time he'd get all right.
"I can't," he sobbed. Eyeballs, huge-bulged like squids
Watch my dreams still; but I forgot him there
In posting next for duty, and sending a scout
To beg a stretcher somewhere, and floundering about
To other posts under the shrieking air.
Those other wretches, how they bled and spewed,
And one who would have drowned himself for good, --
I try not to remember these things now.
Let dread hark back for one word only: how
Half-listening to that sentry's moans and jumps,
And the wild chattering of his broken teeth,
Renewed most horribly whenever crumps
Pummelled the roof and slogged the air beneath --
Through the dense din, I say, we heard him shout
"I see your lights!" But ours had long died out.
"You are a poet?"
Startled, Lieutenant Owen looked up from his notepad and found himself looking into Maglor's pale face. Owen had decided to take advantage of this rare moment of calm to retreat into the relative sanctuary of the officer's mess in order to do some final polishing of several awkward lines. Belatedly, he realized he must have been speaking the words aloud, the better to check their cadence.
"Yes. Yes, I am." He'd not spoken of his avocation to any of his fellow officers or to the men under his command, preferring to keep it secret for the moment; little privacy was afforded to any man in the trenches, and what small portion he could snatch he was determined to hold onto. But something in his private's strange grey eyes caused him to waver in his decision. After a moment of hesitation, Owen asked gently, "Are you interested in poetry, Mr. Maglor?" When the man nodded silently, Owen, sensing an opportunity, handed him his notebook.
Private Maglor accepted the proffered gift, and spent a long moment silently reading. To Owen, it seemed as though a shroud had suddenly fallen from the private's form to reveal the Lazarus beneath, for when the man looked up again his bearing was subtly different, and there was a light in those grey eyes that had not been apparent before. "You have some talent, Lieutenant," he said quietly when he finally handed the small volume back to its owner. "But why do you write of war? It is not beautiful, war. Is it not a poet's duty to bring beauty into the world, instead of simply adding to its ugliness?"
"You may feel differently, Mr. Maglor, but I've always believed that the true beauty of poetry lies in its unsparing truthfulness." Owen realized, when Private Maglor did not answer immediately, that he'd spoken a bit more sharply than was wise. The man would doubtless crawl back into his shell, now that his commander had chastised him so -
"So, you are a true poet, Lieutenant Owen, and not merely a shaper of pretty verses. I cannot remember the last time I spoke to one such as you; it's been so very long... Most people only wish to create sweet rhymes, as insubstantial as sugar candy, which melts when the first tear touches it, but you desire to kindle a fire in your readers' hearts, even at the risk of scorching them. A fire even tears cannot quench. I envy you your desire, for mine was taken from me long ago."
Prior to this moment, Owen had not heard Maglor utter more than a handful of words at a time; to hear this lyrical speech from his taciturn private was a shock, and he had the strangest feeling that he'd passed some sort of test in Maglor's eyes. Had the man been an artist, possibly even a poet, before the war? Owen wondered. "Have you ever written any poetry yourself, Mr. Maglor?"
"Poetry of a sort, I suppose; I created songs. But then I held Truth in my hands, shining bright, and it burned my music away, and now there is nothing left inside but emptiness." And suddenly Private Maglor looked as though he would weep. "I no longer have the gift, for I was unworthy of it. But I appreciate it when I see it in others."
Speaking sense at first, but then slipping back into strangeness... But perhaps I can use his music to help anchor him in reality, and break down the barrier between him and the other men, Owen thought. It's worth trying, at any rate. "I would like to hear you sing your songs some time, Mr. Maglor."
Private Maglor merely shook his head. "I fear I have faded too much to sing them now. There would be no beauty in them."
"If they were beautiful when you wrote them, Mr. Maglor, then they will be beautiful now. You said it yourself: 'A fire even tears cannot quench.' True art cannot fade. And I think your fellows would appreciate some music now and then. Do it for their sakes, if not for mine."
"Very well, sir," Maglor replied sadly. "For my squadmates' sakes I will do as you order, and sing."
"It wasn't an order, Private, just a request. And I'd appreciate your comments on my poems, if you would be willing to read them over and critique them," Lieutenant Owen answered. Surely I can tolerate some bad poetry criticism, if it will keep him from slipping back into his strange fantasies...
"I told you that my gift is gone now; but I would enjoy reading the rest of your poems, sir. But that will have to wait until later. Sergeant Hotchkiss asked me to find you; a messenger from Captain Albertson has just arrived..."
So much for my hopes of finishing these revisions today, Lieutenant Owen thought as he reluctantly placed his notebook aside and rose to follow Private Maglor out into the filthy trench once more. But duty must come first. War first, art later - assuming of course, that I survive the night.
* * * * * * *
To Owen's surprise, Private Maglor's commentary on his poetry was actually helpful, and he began to look forward to his chats with the man. And Maglor seemed more grounded somehow, less inclined to slip into his own private dreams (although he never completely lost the habit of muttering in that strange private language of his). Perhaps it wouldn't be necessary to seek a transfer for him, after all.
After a bit more prodding, Maglor finally agreed to sing on occasion. He had a light, pleasant voice, and had obviously had some musical training. A would-be vocalist, Owen speculated when he first heard the man singing, whose youthful dreams were crushed when someone finally told him the truth: that he simply does not have enough talent to sing professionally. A pity, for some of his lyrics are rather nice. Even the harshness of battle pales at times next to the ordinary harshnesses of the world.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.