Friday, November 11, 2011

Remembrance - Flash Fiction

An artificial corn poppy, made of plastic and cardboard by disabled ex-servicemen, worn in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries from late October to Remembrance Sunday in support of the Royal British Legion's Poppy Appeal and to remember those servicemen and women who died in war. Wearing poppies to remember the war dead comes from the poem In Flanders' Fields by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae which concludes with the line "We shall not sleep, though poppies grow, In Flanders fields". Image and explanation courtesy Philip Stevens via Wikimedia.

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Very lights, phosgene, duckboards and bully beef; a secret language which only we spoke, words that left a metallic tang like the water I sipped from his canteen. He said I could never use I'll be back. Goodbye, see ya, but not that. Because Leslie had said don't worry Gran, I'll be back, only to be swallowed by the unspeakable mud of Landers. I didn't know where Landers was, exactly, but I knew that it was somewhere over the sea, and that nothing ever grew there but the skeletons of trees and barbed wire. The sun never shone; it rained or it misted or it stormed, with great rolling booms of thunder and squalls of shrieking metal. Sometimes the farmers still turn up shells, planted but never blooming, with their ploughs.

He had a clay pot of poppies on his porch. I wanted to pick one, it was so beautifully, vividly red; but he said no, those are my friends and I understood it to mean that they were really and truly his friends, come back to life as flowers, and so I watered them and talked to them, and to the ones which withered away I gave a decent Christian burial beside the house. The house itself seemed weary of things, leaning to one side and sighing to itself on occasion.

He had to have been old, but sometimes when I walked beside him he seemed young and vibrant and smelled of soap. I loved the scent of freshly cut grass in the summer, but he held a hand to his face and went inside. Grass and mayflowers are the smell of death, he would say, more to be feared than the stench of the lines, for the dead cannot do you harm.

On July 1, every year, we went into the yard and we had a picnic of corned beef, crackers, and tea. The flower pot from the porch was our centerpiece, and before we ate we stood, and he lifted his glass and said solemnly Gentlemen, when the barrage lifts* . It made me feel important to be a part of it all, though I did not understand.

People must have thought him a strange man, for they never spoke to him or acknowledged his existence. But then they must have thought me a strange little girl, for they seldom spoke to me either. One day I was sent away to boarding school, just like that, with one battered suitcase and a paper bag lunch. It was a girl's school, and it might just as well have been another country for I didn't speak the language or know the customs. I got the occasional letter from home it's just for a few years and how nice it must be for you to finally have friends and finally, after a while, such dust everywhere, they've torn down the old shack next door, an eyesore it was, no one's ever lived there that I can remember.

I came home after a time, and insinuated myself into the life of a small town. Once a year, on July 1, I go to the local pub and loudly drink my toast. Someone will ask what it means, and I will tell them. I work two jobs and, bit by bit, I am paying for the piece of land which lies beside my childhood home. There is nothing there, not yet, just rutted mud and the odd brick or stone. The grass is growing, slowly, and I lie upon a patch in the sun, idly twining the stem of a poppy between my fingers. They have grown, once again, of their own accord, children of the ones I buried long ago.
*Author's note: traditional In Memoriam notice. 9th and 10th BNS., K.O.Y.L.I. - To the undying memory of the Officers and Men of the above Battalions who fell in the attack on Fricourt (Somme) on July 1, 1916.

Gentlemen, when the barrage lifts.”

A toast made before the Somme attack of the 9th and 10th Battalions of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Twenty-four hours after the attack, 800 men had been reduced to 80 men and 4 officers.

I wrote Remembrance quite some time ago, but thought I would post it (late) in honour of Veteran's Day.

And here is "In Flanders Field"

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

by John McCrae, May 1915


  1. Beautiful writing - very real and poignant.

  2. nice this is really finely fav part is about the smell of soap-grass-and its allusions...nice...

  3. Beautiful story - a touching piece. I loved the ending and really liked this particular line " I wanted to pick one, it was so beautifully, vividly red; but he said no, those are my friends "

  4. I'm bit late as well but I'm glad you re-post this. Just a wonderful piece Li and I don't remembrance is something that can be late. :)
    Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

  5. So beautiful. It makes me sad too as my own grandad died when I was so young so all the stories that I do know are passed on from my father. This: "a secret language which only we spoke". That seemed to epitomise my grandad as he struggled from his wounds and eventually had a stroke and passed before he was 60. I see these as wounds of war, I saw the war in his eyes every day.

    I bought a metal poppy pin this year for £3 (but I paid £5). I have not lost it, so it served its purpose!

  6. This was simply beautiful. The child trying to understand, the old man trying to shield her from the worst of his memories. I like how she remembers him at the end, to buy up his plot of land and let the poppies grow. Maybe he's one of them now.

  7. Such a beautiful story. Thank you Li. I'm sitting here crying as I remember stories told to me as a child and the red paper poppies the VFW passes out around Memorial Day. I think a pot of red poppies would be a beautiful thing to have. You really have touched my heart. What a beautiful honoring tribute you have written....wonderful.

  8. A very lovely story with some beautiful imagery.

  9. A very visual and stimulating story. A lot of feeling to it. I really like it and the poem at the end. Poppies!