In the Trenches

Posted on August 16, 2011

In the Trenches


The smell of dirt and death is an old acquaintance for Afanasii. His whole life he has danced hand in hand with the two. They are intertwined in his memory like lovers that have nothing in common but their lust for one another. He smiles at that thought, confusing his captors. Afanasii moves his eyes from the barrel pointing down at him toward his dirt encrusted hands. Hands that have helped carve history, although he does not understand that concept. In the last few moments of his miserable and simplistic life, he remembers.

Youth and War
His back has grown stronger through his labors. Digging and digging and digging. All those days spent digging. Trenches for miles to see. He was a soldier with a shovel, but not much more than a boy. Sixteen when this began by some standards, but he is unsure of his exact birthdate. Like his family and generations before, a simple potato farmer with hands in the dirt who now has found himself pulled into the machinations of monarchs. An assassin’s bullet and historical tensions have ignited the world afire.
“Princip, you instigator of hell on earth. Look what you have done. “, he curses under his breath so his brothers-at-arms will not hear him. For several years now, a stagnant war has defined their lives and ended many. The stench of blood and mud encompasses every aspect of their existence.
“Great War indeed. What is so great about it? ” Another thought muffled.
So much death and destruction about him. Water saturating everything causing discomfort and ailments. Food is scarce as well. Starvation is as much a reality of death as bullets and bombs are. But not for the rats. Rats eat the decaying flesh of the dead, spreading filth and disease.
So many men lost. Good men. Friends. Men whom he would never have met if not for this overblown fracas.
He reflects that this war is not going well for the tsar. Mother Russia is faltering. Nicholas does not live in the trenches, so he does not understand. Does not know the hardships of this type of reality. It has alienated him from his subjects. But Afanasii understands. He knows this first hand. Lives it daily. He prays that it will end soon, but he puts no faith in mankind so he holds no hope that it will.
There is rumour from behind the trenches that things are not going well for the tsar back home either. Trouble seems to be brewing. His authority has become useless and the people contemplate revolution. Perhaps it will bring much needed change. Perhaps it will end this conflict. Perhaps.
Afanasii turns his attention back to his every day routine of survival.

Digging During the Great Terror
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had brought Afanasii back home, but what was to come in the following years he deemed worse than the war. At least in the war, the enemy was not his own government. Lenin, after the overthrow and death of Nicholas, had slowly put the country back together again with much struggle. There seemed to be hope (dismal or not) for the country.
But, unfortunately, Lenin died.
The tyrant Stalin took control with a ruthless hand. The communist party now infiltrated every aspect of life and Stalin used that to his advantage. His paranoia grew and soon incorporated the skills of Afanasii. With shovel in hand once again, he began sculpting the trenches for the burial of the purged “enemies of the people “. A job he despised, but it was better than the gulags or handing his shovel over to someone else to be used for him.
Afanasii wept for his Mother Russia. He wept for his comrades. But those hands, his hands, continued to dig as he lived on.

Captured In War
Time rolled on and another great war had come. Operation Barbarossa delivered Afanasii into captivity under the Einsatzgruppen. The Germans had been marching across Russia hell bent on destruction and conquest when Afanasii reluctantly crossed their path.
He was captured on his farm west of Leningrad. They were not kind. He was assaulted repeatedly and then herded, along with other prisoners, towards an imminent doom within a nearby forest. The cold that raked his body was bitter. As bitter as the thought of what was to come. The group halted in a clearing within the wooded area. Shovels were passed out among the prisoners. Orders given to dig were expected. Along with the others, he once again put shovel to earth and moved so-called mountains. He knew the routine.
Once the trench had been dug, the prisoners were ordered down into it. He followed.

Beaten and bloodied, Afanasii once again stands against an old enemy of his beloved Russia.
Staring down at his dirt encrusted hands, he ponders his life. So much time down in the dirt. So much shifting of soil. From gardens of potatoes to gardens of decomposing flesh. What was it worth and who will remember his work?
The crackle of gunfire ensues and he falls further into the trench, mixing blood and earth once again. Falling into his legacy.

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2 responses to “In the Trenches”

  1. Interesting structure. I like it a lot. It reminds me a little of the structure I used in "Storm and Fire".

    Powerfully written.  A profoundly anti-war theme, which I fully applaud. But laced with a quiet bitterness.  Man. And his strange Existence.

    Frankly, I suspect a lot of truth in what you write. How many lives have been crushed, under circumstances similar to the one you describe? Millions.

    I wrote a novel "Jeremy’s War", and I tried to present different aspects of war, as I see it.

    It’s hard at times not to become depressed by Man’s Awful Absurdity. yet there is plenty of Hope. As writers, I feel we should be open to all avenues, all approaches, to the Mystery of life.  Basically that means delve deep into everything. Despair, futility, pointlessness, on the one hand.

    On the other hand… there is Light.

  2. There were those who dug the trenches and those who fought in them. The ones who dug them usually lived to come home and tell about it. Afanasii sounds like one of them. Good solid Russian voice here. The idea of titling certain paragraphs in novel on this side of the Atlantic. It’s an interesting concept.

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