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by Phantomimic All rights reserved RAGG

In the grey colors of a dawn where the rising sun struggles to shine through the morning fog, he walks the now barren land in the aftermath of the great struggle. Five miles of potholed lunar-like landscape is the bounty of their victory, the spoils of their war. He stops to do the math, five miles is about 300,000 inches, divided by, probably one hundred and fifty thousand casualties: a gain of 2 plus inches of terrain for every dead man. Shaking his head he resumes walking. The lifeless remnants of soot-stained trees rise around him like church spires that try in vain to reach for God. The mud seems to devour his feet as if the ground were alive, an insatiable animal hungry for more meat. Every pore of his body is filled by the smell, the smell of gunpowder, of burned plants, of stagnant water and blood soaked earth. Around him mighty tanks are now shards of twisted metal, and once bold, and boastful warriors, are now shrapnel ridden corpses. He sees movement. A rat scurries away, a straggler of the legions of scavengers, which come here to feast during the night. He frowns. This is no time for distractions. He is here to meet her, again. He looks around but although she is everywhere, she is nowhere to be seen. He closes his eyes and concentrates trying to focus, but only succeeds at noticing his bladder is full. Dutifully he unbuttons his pants and relieves himself in a nearby puddle of water. Then he sees her, or rather he sees her rippled-distorted reflection in the water. It is as if she materialized out of thin air and is standing right behind him to his left. He is not startled or embarrassed, he continues urinating and looking

at the water but he does feel a coldness emanating from where the woman is standing. She is tall, a head taller than him, and as usual totally naked. Today her skin is gray as the landscape, although there is a nebulous quality to it, as though its surface were in constant flux. The ripples in the water make her breasts seem to bob up and down. Her hair is a darker shade of grey. Her face is unremarkable except for her eyes. He can't see her eyes. He can never see her eyes. The man says, "I saw you the other day, you seemed quite happy." She replies in a voice devoid of emotion, "I was not happy or sad." He adds, "Just doing your job, eh?" "Yes." She says. He had last seen her two days ago when they were in the middle of the big push against the German forces. All around him shells were exploding with a crimson hue tossing his comrades around like broken marionettes while zinging bullets pierced their bodies. And there, amid the carnage surrounded by the screams and the booming noises, he had seen her once more. She had been a blur, swiftly jumping from injured man to injured man. She would crouch over them like a predator about to make its kill and then she would kiss them tenderly in the lips. Her body then was a fiery red color and her black hair flapped wildly with her movements and the shock waves from the explosions. But she was not affected by anything. The shrapnel and bullets

would not hurt her, her body would not get muddy, she would not slip, she could not be injured or die. "For how long will this go on?" The man asks. "I don't know." she replies impassively. "Surely you must know." "No." The man finishes peeing and buttons his pants but otherwise remains perfectly still watching her reflection on the water. The first time he had seen her was during his "baptism battle" at the beginning of the war. They were conducting a raid of the German trenches and he had just shot a soldier who had tried to kill him. The first man he had ever killed. She had abruptly shown up and kissed the wounded man who then went limp. He was startled and had pointed his gun at her shouting, "Who are you?" She had slowly turned her head in his direction and he had been taken aback because in the place were her eyes should have been she had two hollow cavities as dark as lumps of coal. The surface of the water has quieted down and he can see the reflection of her face which, as usual, is expressionless. He does not turn around. He does not want her to leave. He wants to keep her talking. "Will I ever see your eyes, your real eyes?" "Yes."

"But when?" "You know the answer to that question." That was her favorite reply to many of his questions and, although truth be told she was right, it was rather annoying. "Why haven't I died yet? When will I die?" "I don't know." "Are you keeping me alive, are you protecting me?" "No." He had seen her off and on during the war. Only he could see her. Most of their meetings had been brief encounters at first but eventually progressed to the point where he would seek her and she would come to him. They would talk but this mostly involved him asking questions and her answering them with as little detail as possible. As he thinks about this he has an idea. He says, "You know, it appears to me that every time we talk it is me who does most of the talking. I was wondering, do you have anything you wish to say to me? Do you have any questions you wish to ask me?" He does not plan this, he just says this on the spur of the moment. He expects her to reply, "No." But amazingly she remains silent for a moment, this is very unlike her, she always answered his questions immediately.

She says, "Why do you seek me? All men wish to avoid me, yet you want to see me, you are always looking for me. Why?" He grins and says, "You know the answer to that question." Still looking at the reflection the man thinks he has seen the barest hint of a smile in that unforgiving face, but then the reflection in the water disappears. He quickly turns around, she is gone again. With a sense of sadness he starts to head back to camp but he notices a man a certain distance away managing some equipment and walks towards him. As he approaches him the man greets him, "Hello mate, I was taking a photograph of the battlefield and you were in it, I hope you don't mind." He shakes his head indicating he didn't mind and after some polite talk he walks back to camp. When he goes to sleep that night he again thinks of her, of how much he wants to see her again even if that means going back into battle with his regiment. But this is not meant to be, the next day while helping move some heavy equipment he suffers an accident that effectively removes him from the war and leaves him walking with a limp for the rest of his life. When he goes back home and away from the insanity of the battlefield he wishes many times for her to appear again but she never does, so he tries to move on and create a life for himself. He sets up a small business, which prospers enough to give him a comfortable life. He becomes involved in the motions of living, while the world around him descends into the barbarity of World War II and the endless scrimmages of the Cold War. He dates several

women but he finds he cannot bring himself to love any of them even as the memory of her recedes more and more into the past. At one point he seriously considers that the woman has been a product of his overactive imagination triggered by the stress of the battle: until he sees the photograph. The photograph is part of a collection of famous World War I photographs in a museum he visits. It is a panoramic view of the Passchendaele battlefield with a lone soldier standing in the center against the backdrop of dead trees surrounded by the water-filled craters left behind by exploding artillery shells. He recognizes the scene where he had lived several days of hell, he knows it is him, but what is most disquieting is the shape looming behind the man in the picture. Most people think it is some sort of tree but he knows better. Paying good money he manages to obtain a copy of the photograph and finds a photographer to make a blowup of the central part.

Now for the man there is no doubt. The image clearly shows a presence behind him. She had always been hazy in her appearance but he can make out the outline of her two legs, one of her arms and the hair on her head. Squinting his eyes, he also realizes with some embarrassment, that the blowup of the photograph shows a very thin curved white line in front of him. The battlefield photographer probably did not realize he had been peeing during the photograph! Now the man has evidence that what had happened was not in his imagination but he keeps it to himself and continues to live in the shadow of this great mystery. He grows older and becomes an uncle when his sisters have children. His later years are filled with the joy of family and friends. As one of the last surviving soldiers from World War-I he even becomes a minor celebrity and he is interviewed and featured in several stories. Every one wants to know what it had been like, and he tells them everything he had seen and experienced and how he had felt, everything except for his encounters with the woman. The stream of life moves onward and eventually he finds he requires assistance and moves to a nursing home where he plans to live out the twilight of his life. It is close to his 90th birthday that he sees her again. The nurse has helped him outside. It is early in the morning of what promises to be a peaceful sunny day. As he lies in his recliner he closes his eyes to feel a gust of cool breeze blowing from the sea. When he opens them he sees the most beautiful woman he has ever seen standing in front of him, completely naked. But it is not this that catches his attention. What catches

his attention are her eyes. They are blood red and seem to shine with a light of their own as though a fierce fire burns behind them. It is her. It is the woman he had seen in the battlefields during his youth. But apart from her eyes, she is different. She does not appear nebulous or feel distant or cold anymore. She emanates a feeling of warmth and joy, and she is smiling. The man says, "It's you." in a quivering voice. She replies, "Yes, it's me." and kneels beside him and clasps his hands in hers. As he keeps looking at her, tears begin to stream from his eyes, he says, "I thought I would never see you again. If it had not been for that photograph I would have ended up believing that you had been a dream." She gives a short laugh, "Ah, yes, I was careless. It's a bit hard to keep up with the technology." "Why did you never come to me?" The woman shrugs, "There are rules, you will understand." The man seems puzzled but adds, "Ever since I had that accident I have never been able to..." He stops himself while staring at her eyes with dawning comprehension. "It was you, you caused that accident." The woman still smiling nods and says, "But the rules can be bent a little."

The man is about to say something else when she interrupts him, "It is time, will you come with me?" This question surprises him but he does not ask, "Where?" He just replies, "Yes." Then she reaches over and kisses him. A bolt of lighting runs through his body. He feel pins and needles everywhere and a huge rush of energy. Still holding his hands she says, "Come and stand up." Just a few minutes ago he would have needed assistance for the simple task of getting out of his recliner but the man now gets up so fast that he almost losses his balance. It is then that he looks at his arms and then at his body. He notices two things. The first is that he is now naked. But any sense of being startled by this condition is left behind by what he notices second. He is young again. He beholds his reflection in a windowpane and touches the hair that he has not had on his head for years. He looks exactly like he had looked back during the war. He begins to ask, "How can this be pos...?" when he happens to gaze in the direction of his recliner. The body of an emaciated old man is there, his eyes are wide open and his facial features seem frozen in a rictus of pain; it is him. Confused he looks from the old man to himself and then to the woman. He screams, "I'm dead, you killed me!"

She holds out the palms of her hands as if to calm him down shaking her head and replies, "No, your time had come." While still trying to come to grips with his situation the man sees that one of the nurses has walked up to where they are. He instinctively covers his groin with his hands. The woman next to him places her hand on his shoulder and says, "They can't see you." For a brief second he looks at her but then he hears a scream. He turns his head to see the nurse is looking horrified at the old man in the recliner. She turns around and starts running towards the house. Gaining an understanding of his situation the man reaches for a flower nearby intending to grab it but his hand goes right through it. "Am I a ghost?" He asks her. The woman says, "That is a very crude word to describe what you are now. Please calm down and come with me." She extends a hand. He holds it and she takes him away down the path that leads to the beach. He is still shaken but the contact with her hand has a soothing effect on him. As they walk he takes occasional glances at her. She is now shorter than him and he can't help but notice her perfect guitar-shaped body and how her hips sway from side to side as she walks. This early in the morning the beach is deserted. They walk up to the edge of the waves. Looking back he notices they have not left any footprints. When he gazes again at the woman she is looking forward towards the distant horizon, her facial expression reminds him of someone who has just

achieved a lifelong goal. Waving his hand around he says, "So, this is what the afterlife looks like." Still staring at the sea she replies, "Only for you." He adds, "I have many questions." She replies again, "And they will all be answered in due time." With a grin he says, "Promise that you will not answer any of them by saying, 'You know the answer to that question.' " The woman nods still regarding the sea. "Please look at me." He says. She turns in his direction and he is again mesmerized by her beauty, and by her eyes. The man says, "You have beautiful eyes." The woman gives him a welcoming smile, the sort of smile that beckons those out in the bitter cold to enter a warm shelter with abundant food, drink, and love. Placing his hands on her hips he adds, "And the rest of you is not bad either." He pulls the woman towards him and kisses her. All around them the beach fades into realms full of spinning galaxies, burning suns, and millions of worlds teeming with life going through the endless cycle of birth and death.

The photograph of the Passchendaele battlefield taken by William RiderRider in 1917 is from the Library and Archives of Canada and is in the public domain. If you liked this story you may be interested in: Visiting my website: Phantomimic's Website Following me on Twitter: Phantomimic on Twitter Liking my Facebook Page: Phantomimic on Facebook Thank you! : ^ )

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