The Killing Jar

Casper Hallewell described himself to friends and acquaintances, and to people he met on his travels, as a lepidopterist. It sounded grand, but his knowledge on the subject was scant. He simply enjoyed collecting butterflies from around the world. His wealth allowed Casper to indulge his hobby.

On this, his latest foray to South America, Casper drove along a rough and dusty road scraped through dense jungle. His heart fluttered with excitement. He risked a glance at the killing jar lying on the passenger seat. Through the clear glass the vivid colours of the butterfly’s wings captured his attention before the Jeep, performing a violent yaw, reminded him of how dangerous this remote road was. He refocused his eyes on negotiating the potholes while in his mind he replayed the thrill of chasing and netting this rare butterfly and how, when he arrived back at his hotel he would, with infinite care spread the wings and drive a pin through the insect’s thorax. He thought of adding this beautiful specimen to the display case standing in the bay window of his Marlow home.

While his eyes flitted over the road surface, he did not notice the load of builders’ materials stacked on the flatbed truck bouncing in front of him had become loose. When the truck lurched into a particularily severe crater a bundle of metal reinforcing rods fell from the truck and spilled across the road with a suddenness that surprised Casper. The open top jeep offered little protection as the rods scattered and cartwheeling in all directions.

Casper watched the rod, that in time would kill him, arc through the warm air like a javelin on school sports day.  On its downward trajectory it scraped the top edge of the windscreen frame before penetrating his chest and pinning him to the seat. Casper lost consciousness and control. The jeep swerved off the road and vanished into the glossy foliage of the jungle.

When Casper drifted back into consciousness, the engine roar drowned out the sounds of the jungle and the exhaust fumes stifled the smells. He tried to lift his foot off the accelerator but his limbs, his legs and arms, refused instructions. He tilted his head to see a rivulet of red blood running down his tanned skin where the rust coloured rod stuck out from the centre of his chest. A mob of insects had already gathered to enjoy this appetiser.

Almost two hours later with the fuel consumed the engine coughed and stalled. The shrieks, chatter and hum of the jungle filled the auditory void. Casper turned his head to see the killing jar had rolled into the footwell and smashed. He couldn’t see the butterfly amongst the shards of glass. Sighing he leant his head against the headrest and stared through the cracked windscreen.

The butterfly, its wings spread flat against the cracked glass looked back at him. Somewhere in the darkening jungle troop of chimpanzees whooped and barked. In Casper Hallewell’s dying mind it sounded like laughter.

Thiepval

 

Thiepval, France 1934

The Thiepval Memorial to The Somme Missing commemorates the 72,246 servicemen atomised by shellfire, buried in collapsed trenches or shredded by machine gun bullets during the Battles of the Somme from 1915 to 1918. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, construction began in 1928 and was completed four years later.
*
Maggie had travelled by bus from Albert to the village of Thiepval. She thanked the driver and stepped down from the bus and walked along the road towards monument in the early spring sunshine. An earlier shower of rain had released the herbal aroma of the grass, and the scent of the flowers that embroidered the healed landscape: yellow cowslip and primrose, the intense blue forget-me-nots, white daisies and battalions of tall poppies. Below the salient, a shroud of morning mist lay in the hollows. The signs directing her to the Thiepval Monument were unnecessary. Crouched on the ridge that had cost so many lives during the ebb and flow of the war, it was visible from miles around. The largest gravestone in human history.
She looked up at the soaring arch and felt cowed by the morose memorial and intimidated by the incalculable lists of names chiselled into the Portland stone. Maggie had hoped to feel a spiritual connection with her dead husband Thomas. A whispered word or a finger brushing her cheek. But, as she traced the carved letters of a random name, she felt nothing, an emptiness. Perhaps, she thought, he was lost in the throng of clamouring ghosts, unheard in the void between this world and the next.
“It is sad, is it not?” said a voice behind her, “seventy thousand young men dead. And for what? Then the living? Parents grieving a lost son, wives a husband, and children a father. Remnants like you and I. The sad leavings of this war.”
Maggie turned. She was not the callous temptress Maggie had imagined. Instead she was facing a lady of middle years, her eyes soft with sorrow and a kind smile.
“Madame Fournier?”
“Oui, Madame.”
Maggie stiffened. “Your son, is he here?”
“Marcel!” Madame Fournier called out.
A young boy of perhaps fifteen years appeared from behind one of the columns, dwarfed by the pale tablets of letters as he walked through the vast vaulted space.
“Marcel, voici Madame Henderson.”
“Bonjour Madame.” Said Marcel with adolescent coyness.
He had Thomas’s pale blue eyes, the slight quizzical tilt of his head and the lopsided upturn of his mouth when he had smiled at her. Smiled at her in happier times.
Maggie gasped and spread her fingers across her breastbone as if to hold her beating heart in place. This boy was her husband’s son.
“Thomas loved you so much. I am not the ‘femme fatale’ you think. We simply sought solace from the horrors of a terrible war. It was horror heaped upon horror.”
Maggie knew Madam Fournier was speaking the truth. Through his letters and poetry Thomas had tried to convey the brutal nature of the war, the horror she spoke of.
“I wanted inform you……..wanted you to know your daughter has a brother and Thomas had a son.”
Maggie still could not speak. Through the side arch she could see a lark rise, fluttering from the field of flowers to sing in the blue sky.
“I am so sorry that I have hurt you…I am sorry. Perhaps this has not been the correct thing to do, non?”
“No, you have done the correct thing.” Maggie whispered.

Poems of War

 


Home thoughts

Beneath black skies and scattered stars
The trenches weave like unhealed scars
The land between shell gouged and sown
With broken bodies of men unknown
Their souls held fast by cloying clay
Or wire’s barbed and coiled array
As we march forward to fight and die
The ghosts of the already dead sigh.
Wraiths watching us poor sods that live
With only our wretched lives to give

Comrades in death

We differ not, from the wrecked limbers
broken bodies or splintered copse timbers
That lie strewn over no man’s land
We differ not, we who can still stand
To shake a limb at a shrieking shell
Or crouch in terror in this unholy Hell
We differ not, as we curse the fates
That brought us to where death awaits
He seeks us out. The machine gun’s scythe,
Snipers bullet or shrapnel. We fall and writhe
In trench, shell hole or hung on barbed wire
For God, King and country we die under fire.

Remember Me

Ask not what happened or how did I die
It matters not where on this battlefield I lie
My soul will make the long march home
Along tree lined roads, across fields loam
And to our door walk through blossom scent
To hold you to me in sorrowful lament
And wipe the warm tears from your face
For you held me close in this heartless place
When in trembling terror I wept with fear
When the heat of battle my mind did sear
Hold in your memory the man you wed
Not the soldier in this war where virtue fled

*

I am working on a epistolary writing project and needed poems that the main character , a WW1 soldier, would have written. I composed these poems which I hope capture the tone and style of the time.

It cannot be

The package fell to the floor with an ominous thud. Miriam walked into the hall wrapping her dressing gown close against the cold. She turned the thermostat dial until she heard a click, picked up the package and walked through to the kitchen.
Miriam poured a mug of coffee, sat down at the kitchen table and turned the parcel in her hands examining the label. Untying the hemp string she folded back the brown paper to reveal a cigar box. Opening the lid she spread the contents on the table top: a letter, some old brittle documents, one looked like a birth certificate, and a faded photograph. There was a masculine aroma of tobacco. Apart from the letter, handwritten in English, everything appeared to be in German.

My dear Miriam

You were far too young to remember me. I have enclosed a photograph of your father. He looks quite glamorous in his uniform, do you not think? The birth certificate is yours. Of course, you had a different name then.
I will contact you by telephone. We must talk.

Kindest regards

Esther

Laying the letter on the table Miriam smoothed the paper with her cold finger tips, as if by doing so some deeper meaning could be deciphered. Outside a neighbour was cutting his lawn. On the wall next to her a radiator ticked, hot water coursing through the pipes, but Miriam felt chilled. She reached out and picked up the photograph. A handsome man smiled at her from some distant time. His peak hat, worn at a jaunty angle, was decorated with the insignia of the Waffen SS. Underneath the stylised eagle, claws gripping a swastika she could make out a skull and crossbones bright on the dark hatband. She turned the photograph over and stared at words written in faint pencil: Rudolph Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz, 8 May 1944 – 18 January 1945.
She thought of the numbers tattooed on the papery skin of her grandfather’s left arm, remembered her grandson’s Bar Mitzvah the previous month. This is not possible. Could not be possible.
The buzz of her neighbour’s lawn mower stopped. In the silence the telephone in the hall began to ring.

Sweet memories

She held the flowers under her father’s nose. ‘They’re from the garden dad. We still plant them each year just like you used to. In the bed at the edge of the patio. Remember?’
It was unlikely he would. Geoffrey Simms had been suffering from dementia for over two years. He sat slumped in the high-backed chair his chin rising and falling with the wheezing undulations of his chest.
The fragile fragrance of the sweet pea blooms skirmished with the odours of human waste and decay that pervaded the Sunnyvale Care home. Somewhere a patient cried out, the wail dampened as it travelled along the carpeted corridors. Jenny squeezed his hand, the skin as thin as paper. Fragments of memory assembled in her mind like a creased picture, her father tying the sweet pea stems to canes while she played with her dolls on the sun warmed paving slabs.
Her father gasped, dragged air into his lungs. ‘Your mum……’
‘Mum?’ Jenny was not sure what shocked her more. Her father talking or her father talking about her mother. She had left their home when Jenny was six years old. Ran off with another man they said. Jenny placed the white vase on the bedside cabinet. The scent of the sweet peas must have triggered a memory, she thought.
‘Dad. What about Mum?’ she asked with the care of a poacher tickling a trout. ‘Tell me about Mum.’
Feet padded softly in the corridor, a trolley rattled past the door. Somewhere a mobile phone trilled bird like.
‘Dad, please tell me tell me about my mum.’
His left eyelid flickered open, and a tear gathered in the corner of the rheumy eye. ‘She’s buried.’
‘Buried? Buried where, Dad?’
‘The patio. I buried her under the patio.’
In the cold silence the cheerful pastel petals seemed to mock her.

Dawn Chorus

 

The cool morning wind coursing though his hair brought a memory to Billy. He is a small boy sat on the rustic bench outside his grandfather’s cottage waiting for the sun to rise. The old man steps out of the front door. They smile at each other and before his grandfather sits; he ruffles Billy’s blond curls with his broad hand.
Present arms!”
They savour the silence for a while, then as the dawn chorus begins his grandfather, who had been a Gamekeeper on the estate, tells him about the birds that are singing. How the skylarks, song thrushes, robins and blackbirds are the first to sing. Then the wrens and warblers, more sensitive to the coldness of dawn, join in. The still dawn air carrying nature’s hymns.
Take aim!”
Then, when the light brightens and food, the seeds and insects, are easier to find, the chorus fades.
He can see his grandfather now sat on the bench hunched forward, chin resting on the hands that grip his walking stick. He turns and smiles.
Billy felt the warmth of the rising sun on his face. It was going to be a fine day.
Fire!”
Surprised at the sudden volley, the audience of crows rose cawing from the surrounding trees in a cloud of black feathers and flew into the brightening sky.

Leave Us Alone


The exotically dressed people below waved almost as enthusiastically as the palm fronds that flapped in the turbulence of the helicopter as it rose thudding into the cloudless blue sky. The pale, almost albino, leader had made a speech while his acolytes poured drinks for a farewell toast. Jacob had signalled with his hands his gratitude for the hospitality and that he would return.
*
“That was absolutely fantastic guys.” Shouted Professor Jacob Rubin as he looked down and waved back. This was the high point of his career. Discovering this hitherto undiscovered race would place him in the pantheon of international anthropologists. He would be up there with Malinowski, Morgan and Margaret Mead. The city, concealed in the chasm, a massive split in the plateau, had astonished him. That such an advanced culture had remained isolated from the modern world was beyond belief. He felt lightheaded with sheer excitement.
Equally excited in the seat next to him sat Eleanor Stanford. A young reporter with the New York Times, she had persuaded her editor to allow her to accompany the expedition. Even now, as the helicopter banked away from the forest cloaked plateau her finger tips were deftly dancing across her laptop keyboard. “I can’t imagine my Editor’s face when this ‘scoop of the century ‘ arrives on his computer.” Said Eleanor. “When will we be in range so I can send emails?”
“It’ll be at least two hours or more.” The pilot’s metallic over the intercom.
“Eleanor, don’t forget our agreement. I must read and approve your report.” Said Jacob.
“Just to make sure his name appears numerous times!” Said his assistant Sam grinning.
“Quite,” said Jacob. “Quiet now, please, I’m going to try and translate the words spoken by his eminence at the farewell ceremony.” He inserted the earphone buds and listened to the recording on his iPhone while writing on a notepad on his knee.
*
They had been flying for almost an hour when Jacob had made a crude translation. “The leader guy said ….it seems to be a curse, Eleanor… it ends…’Our secret will stay with you always” His uncertain voice trailed away . But the reporter wasn’t listening. She lay against him, her lifeless head lolling on his shoulder. Jacob looked across at Sam who was slumped forwards in his harness. He wanted to tell the pilot but his tongue felt paralysed. His unseeing eyes stared out of the window as the helicopter fluttered down to land softly on the still surface of the lake and sank.

*

Later the editor of the Times wrote:

It is now six months since the expedition, lead by Professor Jacob Ruben, last made contact with their support team. Extensive searches have found no trace of the personnel or the helicopter and we must now accept that the intrepid explorers including our own brave reporter Eleanor Stanford are lost. It is not the first expedition to search for the mythical civilisation. Two other attempt were made in 1935 and 1957. Both disappeared without trace.