“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” —Plato
Dust was Lapointe’s world now.
Dust was in his boots, inside every crevice of his uniform. It was in his hair, on his tongue.
It was in his eyes.
The sun began it’s descent toward the horizon. He stood and stared, taking a meagre sip from his canteen.
Guadian columns of smoke and sand held up the dome of sky by some trick of desert magic. There was no other movement visible and Lapointe felt himself an awkward and uninvited guest, soon to be discovered, and with awful consequence.
Bonfils lay sprawled out on the sunbaked and broken ground behind him, a stagnant pool of blood below his body. The private had been a man both brave and foolhardy. Lapointe felt no regret for having killed him. If the two of them had advanced as ordered, they would have surely been killed. If he had returned without Bonfils, he would have either been sent back out with another man, or shot as a coward. Better to stay here and wait for the enemy, he thought. Defeat is inevitable. I will offer information, that my life might be spared. If I am refused, I have lost nothing. But if not…his thoughts trailed off and vanished into the still air.
Lapointe sat in the dust next to his comrade’s corpse. He lit a cigarette, an act which he immediately regretted, as it made his mouth feel even more parched.
“Bonfils, I make to you this final promise: If—when—I return to France, I will seek out your young widow. I will tell her that her husband was a gallant man who died a noble death, for these things are true. In time, she will enshrine your memory as sacred. But all the while, as her heart heals, her love for me will grow. Your comrade-in-arms, the last man to see you alive, spared by God Himself to comfort and protect her.” He laughed briefly and bitterly.
“You can trust me to take care of her, Bonfils. I hope you know that.”
Surely my new friend the enemy will reach me by morning, he thought. He watched as the night flung itself across the desert.
A day and a night passed.
On the third day Lapointe could hear the artillery more clearly, and more smoke was visible in the sky. A brief thrill of terror snaked it’s way through his body—what if I’m shelled before I have the chance to surrender?—and quickly subsided. There was nothing to shell on the rocky little hill, not even a dead tree for scant shade.
“Bonfils,” he called out over his shoulder. “This heat may be a bitch, but lucky for you it’s keeping the flies away. Lucky for us both, I guess. Help is on the way, my friend! I’m sure they’ll be here by the end of the day.”
“Which is excellent, because as I’m sure you’ve noticed, we’ve been out of water for two days.”
That night, Lapointe fell into a dream haunted by fever. Somewhere beneath the desert, water was calling to him, singing to him in a beautiful voice, in a language he did not speak but could somehow understand. All he had to do was dig in the dust and sand until he found water. The only problem was, in the dream he had no arms and so could dig using only his mouth. His mouth filled with sand again and again. Each time he spat the sand to one side, but the hole kept filling back up. He was drowning in the desert.
The next morning the shelling stopped abruptly.
Lapointe had grown so accustomed to the sound—comforted by it, even—that the silence filled him with dread. He scanned the horizon with his field glasses.
Lapointe’s heart stopped in his chest.
They’ve gone round my position! Missed me completely!
It was the end. He was a day from camp, if camp still stood. He was many more so from the next garrison, if it still stood. And it did not matter anyway, for he was too weak to walk.
Lapointe stood up. Defeat was nothing new to him, but resignation was. He found it to be the grandest of drugs, filling him with an opiate-like golden glow and the knowledge that, whatever else, in a moment he would suffer no more in this world.
“Bonfils, my friend. I have done you a terrible wrong, it is true. But know that I have given you a nobler death than the one I give myself.”
Lapointe reached into his pocket for his last bullet and found only a handful of dust.