The Poor, Dead Soldiers ||| from Better Magazine

The war was over, but we didn’t know what to do with all the poor, dead soldiers. They lay everywhere: on the lawns, in the streets, draped across the steps of the museums. Sometimes in trees, where they had been doing a smart bit of reconnaissance work when they met their ends. The green uniforms and the white uniforms covered the ground like a patchwork of grass and snow, and it was difficult even to walk down the street without stepping on a hand or an outstretched leg.

You might say, “bury them” or “burn them” or “build a boat of ceremonial teakwood and send them out to sea.” But none of this was practical. There were so many soldiers and only five people to manage the bodies—two of them and three of us (we had won). And besides, the soldiers had been so bold and cunning that we all, even the losers, felt it important to do something truly worthy of them.

We were willing to let the matter wait a little while. It was cheering, in a way, to step outside and see the soldiers lying side by side, their beautiful faces traced in pale frost, their fingers curled as though holding something precious. We could look at their sweet, brave frowns and say, “She was a credit to us,” or, “He gave all that he could,” and feel for a moment a warm glow in our stomachs. Sometimes we would pick up one of the small ones (you would be surprised at how heavy those children were) and pose ourselves around them in different configurations, imagining what the memorials might look like when we got around to building them. We could not pose the bodies themselves—they were too stiffly frozen for that. Even the dogs could not damage them much, though they sometimes tried. For who was left to feed so many dogs? We did what we could, filling a procession of silver bowls with kibble each day, but there are limits.

Once a week we had dinner with the losers, to show that we were not the sort who behaved spitefully and lorded our success over lesser peoples. For a long time they showed up for dinner with pink eyes and swollen faces, as though they had been weeping, but if we asked them what was the matter—whether having lost the war was terribly hard on them—they only looked around at the buildings and the trees and the poor, dead soldiers and refused to answer. We would say, “You’re not doing so badly,” or, “Perhaps you’ll win the next war,” although we did not really mean it. But this only evoked from them many expressions of regret, and insistence that we had all been mistaken, that there must not be another war. Their poor sportsmanship annoyed us, and we soon turned the conversation to other topics.

We talked often about the dead soldiers while we ate our dinners (usually potato chips and snack cakes, which we had thoughtfully put aside before the war). But the losers—one man and one woman—did not have any useful ideas as to how to honor and dispose of the bodies. It was difficult to take the woman’s ideas seriously, in particular, because she was so unattractive—she was getting fat (on our potato chips) and her clothes no longer fit her properly. And he always watched her so closely, as though everything she said were important, that it was difficult to think he had anything worthwhile to contribute either. But spring was coming and we all knew it would be good to resolve the question soon.

After a few thaws the smell of the soldiers became unpleasant. Their faces began to pucker, and we no longer enjoyed looking at them. Around the same time it became clear that she was not getting fat; she was pregnant. We did not know what to make of this news. If they were three and we were three, would we still have won the war? Did our greater wisdom and self-sufficiency, as a group, outweigh their collective youth and presumable longevity? Or was it the other way around? We were so upset that we considered rescinding our standing invitation to dinner, but we did not want to appear petty. Instead we searched through the rubble until we found a small stuffed dolphin of the sort that people used to give to babies before the war, and presented it to them (noting also that its button-like eyes, if chewed with sufficient vigor by the baby, might serve to rebalance the population).

Soon there were as many warm days as there were cold ones, and the odor of the soldiers intensified. We began to wonder why they had not been sent to fight somewhere else, where their bodies would not have posed such a problem. We hoped they might rot away, leaving us with only the question of what to do with the bones. But instead of shrinking down to nothing, the soldiers began to swell. Their fingers and limbs became like finely veined sausages stretching against their casings. The losers expressed great fear about this development, and we remarked, privately, that it was this sort of nervelessness that had lost them the war in the first place.

Then one week the losers did not come for dinner, and the week after they were absent again. At this point the soldiers had swelled so much that there was no longer space to walk between them; they were crammed against each other like clots of fungus on a log. Sometimes at night we heard strange noises coming from outside—deep, wet skeins of sound, like legions of frogs scrambling over each other. But we had set aside our favorite music and a good many batteries in the early days of the war, and it was no great difficulty to turn up the volume now and then to give ourselves some peace. We decided to learn canasta, which we had previously avoided because we had heard that it might take some time, and resolved not to leave the house.

When another week passed and the losers did not arrive for dinner our curiosity got the better of us. We climbed to the top of the observation tower, although we found all those steps very tedious, and leaned against the parapet, looking down at the ruined soldiers in the parks and churches, the tea shops and sidewalks and boutiques. At the edge of the city, where the bright green leaves of the forest threw curled shadows across the faces of the soldiers, we noticed some movement. Looking through our spyglass we could see them; they were moving through the wreckage, holding hands, and she was clutching a blanket against her chest from which protruded the tiny, waving fist of a baby. As we watched they did something more foolish than even we had conceived them capable of: they stepped into the forest and disappeared.

By now the sun was close to setting, and its light made all the soldiers look as though they were cast from bronze. As high up as we were, the air smelled sweeter than it had in weeks. We decided that the flight of the losers only reinforced our victory: the city was ours again. We linked arms and looked down at the soldiers, and remarked that we ought to have brought some wine with us, but that it was certainly not worth the trouble of getting it now.

As we stood there the sound began again, the slippery wet noise that the bodies made sometimes, but we did not have our music. And so, although we could not identify its location, we heard the first soft popping, like a bubble of tar slowly rupturing. Soon that sound was multiplied many times over, until we could not deny that something must be happening below us.

We looked through our spyglass again. The bodies were bursting along jagged seams to reveal wet, wriggling interiors. From the fissures poured a multitude of long, writhing things, as thick as our fingers and glistening in the red light of the sun. We could not agree on what to call them, though they reminded us of flatworms, and of intestines, and of arteries, if arteries could break free of the arms and squirm around with a life of their own. We could agree only that there was something unsavory about them, something off-putting, and that it was time to go back downstairs. They were covering the bodies, crawling and twisting, and as we watched they began to consume the soldiers in a series of miniscule bites.

We were pleased by this, of course—it was the solution we had been waiting for! —but having eaten seemed only to make the creatures more agitated. Once they had completely devoured the soldiers they moved over and around each other like a living carpet, and the friction of their bodies began to make a new sound, like many people speaking at once in hushed voices. It reminded us of the way people had talked in the early days of the war. We were commenting on the remarkable similarity of the two sounds when the creatures began to climb the walls. It was dusk now, and difficult to see, but before it became completely dark we could make out their thin, gelatinous forms squeezing in between the window panes and the doorframes. Where they climbed the buildings they left behind long grooves in the stone, like caterpillars chewing their way through leaves. Above the whispering we began to hear the dogs, growling at first, then howling, louder and louder and then not at all. We thought that perhaps we ought to go downstairs and see if we had kept any guns handy, any grenades or bayonets or gas. But none of us moved.

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Anjali Sachdeva is the co-director of Online Education at Creative Nonfiction. Her fiction has been published in Gulf Coast, Alaska Quarterly Review, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011. Sachdeva’s most recent work is forthcoming from The Yale Review.

Her fiction piece, “Manus,” is forthcoming in John LeCarre (TLR, Winter 2015).

The Poor, Dead Soldiers” first appeared in the first issue of Better Magazine.