The old man continued his tale, crawling through the mud of No Man’s Land with his mate Stephen the night before the Somme attacks began. Utter silence before that pockmarked patch of land became an open-air ossuary. They slithered like beasts of the dirt. But something strange was happening: the entire time there was a humming, a kind of sing-song noise – like an enormous tuning fork. At first he thought it must be the Krauts burrowing underneath, those sneaky fuckers – maybe making a tunnel with some sort of electric shovel, and he put his ear to the ground. But then he realized it was coming from behind him.
It was Stephen’s voice. He was chanting. George scraped his boot back and forth, trying to get him to stop. But Stephen wouldn’t. So they slogged along, scouting out all the wire and entrenchments, as one held his breath and the other kept up his incessant stupid intonation, until they turned around and headed back, with Stephen’s weird chanting ahead instead of behind. It wasn’t until they were back on the British side of the line that Stephen’s voice stopped. They slid back down into their home trench.
Grabbing his mate’s lapels, George cursed him – how the stupid bastard put both their lives in danger with his awful fucking singing. Stephen looked around, searching the darkness for anyone who may have been eavesdropping. Then he pulled his comrade toward the front part of the trench – gap leading to no-man’s land.
“I wasn’t singing,” Stephen said.
“I’ll be damned if you’re going to endanger–”
But Stephen’s dirty hand shot out, and covered his friend’s mouth. In his other hand was a knife, at his friend’s throat. He pressed him back against the mud wall.