On moonless nights during the winter of 1917, they meet in the bomb crater.
A few hours before dawn, the soldiers climb over their sandbags and crawl, staying low and quiet (the trench sentries are paid off in dry socks and cigarettes). Loops of barbed wire glint like fangs in the glow of distant flares, but the steel is snipped in places so they can wriggle through, like toddlers intent on reaching sweets hidden away in a pantry.
Crossing the scarred, lifeless terrain of No Man’s Land, they drop down into the crater from opposite sides:
Three men from the German trenches.
Four men from the British camp.
One by one, they gather around the secret table.
Their wives and mothers back home would never call it a table. It has no legs, after all. But then the backpacks every soldier carries have no legs either, and yet in the barracks, these bags are called “Fido” because they’re made from dog-skin.
So it’s a table. A stack of large, rectangular wooden planks: duckboards pried up from the muddy bottom of the trenches and dragged across a land of corpses to the crater. In France’s rainy months, it becomes a sort of soggy raft, but it is November now, and the table is fancy with frost, like elegant reliefs in desks back home.
“Hello,” the Germans begin, and the British respond with a “Guten tag,” which makes the group laugh because it is not afternoon—it’s as black and cold and cratered as the surface of the moon must be.
Out comes the knockwurst and schnitzel and sauerbraten from the Germans, and biscuits and cheese and chocolate from the British. The food is broken off with numb fingers and passed into hungry mouths. Percy has even brought a deck of cards! Everyone likes Percy. Somehow the mud seems reluctant to cling to his uniform, and he smells slightly less vile. While every soldier carries a veritable bazaar in his backpack, it is Percy who somehow bears the best things—his harness of creature comforts would be the envy of an Ottoman merchant-king. Today he has brought twice-baked gingerbread sent from home (his wife jokingly calls it “ship’s biscuit”). He owns a fancy pocket-watch, too, which he shares with the men so they can examine its baroque loveliness by the glow of their cigarettes.
The Germans have beer in small canteens, and the English carry rations of rum. Their Rule of Secret Dinner is to whisper, always whisper, lest their comrades manning the machineguns on either side of No Man’s Land mistake their voices for an enemy advance. The Secret Dinner is therefore marked by muffled laughter and muted translations. They talk of girls loved, places visited, memories cherished. No one discusses the trenches. The trenches, like their voices, don’t exist outside the crater.
Karl reads aloud the latest pages he has written—the men are like quiet children as they listen to the latest escapades of Gertrud (she has escaped her pirate captors, and is now disguising herself as a slave-girl in the Sultan’s harem!)
James and Frederick play chess, but it quickly becomes an argument like a hiss of dueling serpents. The bishops that Frederick carved are too similar to rooks; James finds his whole strategy in tatters when Frederick moves a “rook” diagonally on the table’s etched checkerboard. In disgust, James slaps the little wooden warriors into the mud. Frederick sighs and promises he will make his bishops more unique; the men chime in with plenty of suggestions, ultimately advising their German Michelangelo to give breasts to the bishops, and there is instant agreement from both camps that yes, this is precisely what chess has needed all along.
Percy’s pocket-watch completes its tour and returns to him. He inspects it by the remaining glow of his cigarette, and sighs.
“It is time,” he announces.
No one moves right away. Percy’s announcement is not an order—Lord knows the men have had enough of orders. But the sentry shifts will be changing soon.
The men stand and embrace in darkness; the firefly-like glow of cigarettes are ground underfoot one by one. The men re-divide into their respective groups, wriggling back to their respective trenches.
As Percy returns to the British line, he is intercepted by a sentry officer.
“How was your evening with the Hun?” the man asks.
“Very good, sir.”
“Are they still reduced by two sentries?”
“Yes, sir. Heinrich and Wilhem were shifted out before replacements from Berlin could arrive.”
“Heinrich came down with trench foot, sir. Poor fellow will lose some toes, from the sounds of it.”
“He’s the rugby player, yes?”
“Yes, sir. Apparently he was quite good.”
“Is quite good,” the officer corrects him. “Until he loses the toes, we should say he is still good. And Wilhem?”
“Some kind of fever. Perhaps from the rats.” Percy hesitates, glancing to the folded orders in his superior’s gloved hand. “Are we going over the top, sir?”
The officer stares into the darkness beyond the parapet sandbags, as if trying to see the enemy trenches. Or perhaps to see beyond them, to another time and place. “Poor Heinrich. And Wilhem. They sound like good men.”
“Our orders are to attempt to capture the enemy trench if at all possible.”
Percy swallows hard. “I see, sir.”
The officer gives a hard look. “It’s just too bad that new replacements arrived for Heinrich and Wilhem before we could enact these orders. How many did you say?”
“Sir?” Percy blinks. “Ah, five replacements. Fresh, young soldiers up from Berlin. Just itching for a fight. If I may be so bold, the odds are not with us.”
“Agreed. Damn shame, too. I must regrettably conclude that it will not be possible to go over the top.”
Percy gives a brisk salute.
The officer puts his arm around his shoulder. “Did Gertrud escape the pirates?”
“She did indeed, sir!”
“Wonderful!” the officer smiles. “Give me the full report.”