"He should have died a thousand times, but nobody could kill him save himself."
"He cannot hear me, any longer," sighed Runner, his eyes glazed and his face doughy white. "See? A rat has eaten away his ear, at last."
The soldiers nearby exchanged dark, worried glances. They knew this man as well as they knew any of the other old vets, and they knew to fear him gravely.
"I shall have to find another." Runner all but mumbled beneath his breath. His words seemed intent for only himself, yet the others could clearly hear, despite a distant rumble of guns. Runner leaned his shoulders against the forward wall of the trench, and set his muddy rifle against it to free his hands. Using these bloody instruments, he cleared the dirt away from a half-eaten face that shone in the ruddy light from a hollow space in the dirt wall. "Ssstt!" he hissed solemnly, and snapped his fingers before those empty eye sockets. "Do you hear? Do you listen?" But the mouth said nothing. That sad, slack expression would not change. "No," he sighed, his head hanging, "You are gone at last. Gone forever. As so many others."
Runner turned his strange attention on the hapless troopers kept in his company. "You see?" he wondered, his voice loud enough to be clear. "It is why so many of you have fallen. It is my failure, and I own it."
Several of their greener number mumbled disquietly among themselves. One of their more brazen comrades, returned, "What's this all about, Corporal? What is your failure?"
"This man," said Runner, dipping his head toward the other in the wall, "Was not listening this morning. I spoke to him before the attack, as always, but he did not answer. I should have known better, then, but there was nothing I could do. I waited too long. I should have found another last night. A fresh one. I knew the attack would come today, but I chose to sleep, anyway. I did not find another. So they could not hear."
Runner's eyes were cold and steel gray. "Those that have gone before. They listen, you know, but they cannot hear."
His comrades at arms exchanged further glances, these more of confusion than of concern. "Do you mean the fallen?"
"Yes. The fallen." Runner sighed wearily, and then reached into his tiny makeshift shrine to lift the worm-eaten skull from its rest. "Such as this man. Did you know him? Worstel. Worstel Drecht. I forget him, save for his name." The corporal laughed, and tossed the loathsome trophy up and out of their deep, protective ditch. "And I should not remember that, save for his tags, which I have here in my pocket." He produced these, and jingled them musically. "Worstel was a good listener. For a time. Until the rats got to him while we were away today. How they fatten from us! How they feed!"
Runner tossed the tags after the head, and the soldiers gasped. That brave member of their mass blurted, "He will be unknown! Why would you do that?"
"Unknown?" queried the corporal, seeming genuinely confused. "Unknown? Did you know him?"
The other, a private named Wilhelm, glanced away. "No," he returned softly. "I did not know him." More forcefully, returning his burning, angry gaze to Runner's dirty face, he added, "But his mother knew him! Perhaps his father knew him!"
Runner laughed quickly. "There, then, will he be known. Here," he enthused, lifting his arms in a 'V' to encompass the gray, storming heavens, "He shall be Worstel. Unknown."
"I will fetch them back again," said another private, a thin one they all named 'Rat'. Indeed, he leaned his own rifle against one wall of the trench, and started forward to do so.
The corporal was quick to surge forward and block the lad's way. "Here, now, where would you go? What would you do?"
"I will fetch the tags. We will turn them over to the mortality officer for proper burial."
"But stay, friend!" growled the old vet, his face flat and serious as his eyes, which were the embodiment of human murder. "You seem ashamed of his fate. As do you! And you! And you!" Runner rounded on them, and pointed out the weaker, more timid of their number. "I SAW YOU! I SAW! Why have you come back again, when so many others have not?"
Their eyes dropped away ashamedly, and refused to look at him. They retired to the far wall of the trench, and reclined there, weary and defeated in the falling shadows of evening.
"That man died as you all will die. Bloody and violently. Why should his fate be known? How will news of it comfort his poor mother?" He pushed Rat back into line with his fellows, and turned to face them, fists upon his hips. "What would you say, imbecile? 'Dear Mrs. Dead Man, your son was blown to bits yesterday. I scraped up his guts as best I was able, and I have shipped them home inside his boots. Wear them proudly!'"
A terrible hush fell upon them, which was shattered eventually by a great rumble of artillery. The ground vibrated beneath their feet. Shockwaves compressed their chests. Their ears rang.
"Run if you will. Hide if you like. Cower in shell holes while your comrades make the charge in your stead. No matter! You will not be saved!" Runner returned to his niche in the trench's forward wall, and he sat upon a low, narrow step fashioned of splintered planks. More softly now, he added, "None of us will be saved."
"What are you implying?" demanded Wilhelm. "Are you saying we are cowards for having survived?"
Runner's eyes were sharp and piercing. "Are you not?"