You think this is a war-time thing; I don’t argue, not aloud. I pass you back the hand-rolled we’ve been sharing. I watch you curl your palm around it to block the cherry-glow. We’re deep down in the muddy trench now but you don’t let that make you stupid.
One of the things I like about you. One of the very many things.
This only seems like a war-time thing because it’s between two warriors, and the conditions under which two warriors meet is often war. We don’t give it a name; none of the easy ones fit. And who would we describe it to?
Those who know it would understand without a name. Those who can’t understand will never know.
You sit across from me in the trench, to my left just a little. The tiny glow reflecting in your hand shows me the deep hollows under your eyes, the lines of worry and fatigue.
I wish I could reach my hand through the space between us and smooth those lines and those shadows away.
I know I can’t, for many reasons, but it helps to know that my presence here across from you can allow you to relax somewhat. You know I’m watching over your left shoulder. You know that I’m capable of appropriate response, and that my vigilance over your safety will not falter.
You know I’ll take out whatever comes over that next rise, before it can even think of laying a hand on you. You trust so completely that I’ll protect you… especially from myself.
Your God in his forming of you could not have taken any more care than I do, when I sit across from you, because he had greater confidence in his own skill and because his will and his purpose were united. All my wit and my power are still merely mortal gifts. My wish and my purpose are at odds.
You exhale; your breath is warm. I think of ten thousand words that crowd on the back of my tongue, unsaid, barely dreamt. Ten thousand words to take my mind and heart and spread them before you as a brilliant tapestry carpet, luxurious under your tread. Ten thousand words to show how deeply you are valued, treasured, held as precious…
Unsaid. For what I wish to lay around your shoulders, lighter than a winter coat, might instead close around your neck like a noose.
And that must not be.
You pass the cigarette back; for not the first time I burn my fingertips getting them too close to the coal, carefully keeping our skins separate. You look over my left shoulder, even though we’re deep down in the trench. You never let it make you stupid.
I put the cigarette to my lips; I inhale the trace of you in it along with the tobacco smoke. I curl my hand around the cherry-glow. I think of ten thousand names for you, all the ones that die in my throat before my mouth can give them treacherous shape — all the ones that die silent in my heart, never even brave enough to reach my throat.
I look up again and your eyes are on my face and your gaze is calm. And I’m glad that I can give you at least that much.
The war-time thing. The give-and-take kind of love. The left-shoulder watch. The shared cigarette. I drop my stare, laughing once on the exhale; the air is cold enough to hurt on the next drawn breath. I can feel your smile but you don’t bother asking. Sometimes you don’t have to know why; you can just take it as is.
One of the very many things I like about you.
The little hand-rolled is almost gone. In a minute here I’ll stand up, head kept low, and walk away like I always do. The right-hand hem of my trench-coat will brush across your knees and I’ll feel a savage envy at its presumption.
But before I do I feel the urge to do something problematic — to put the cigarette out on the back of my free hand perhaps, to mark my skin on the outside the way you’ve marked it on the inside. To feel a pain that I can trust will someday fade.
I open my mouth instead. You shut your eyes. I murmur to your trusting flesh:
On your midnight pallet lying,
Listen, and undo the door:
Lads that waste the light in sighing
In the dark should sigh no more;
Night should ease a lover’s sorrow;
Therefore, since I go to-morrow,
Pity me before.
In the land to which I travel,
The far dwelling, let me say–
Once, if here the couch is gravel,
In a kinder bed I lay,
And the breast the darnel smothers
Rested once upon another’s
When it was not clay.
At the end your smile’s more blinding than the cherry-glow; shoot now, sniper, let me have that ounce of lead.
Not a war-time thing, I disagree silently as I stand, head kept low. If I’d met you in this field when it was sweet with tall grass and flowers, I would not have cherished you any less.
I walk away like I always do… do your eyes linger a moment, before you resume your watch? Do you let yourself get a little stupid, just then while my attention’s not on you?
If you did you’d see me flick the smouldering cigarette up and out of the trench and pray to my own gods that the wind take it high and far, that the fire we shared here could start some towering inferno elsewhere, devouring the darkness of the world.