Published in the June 1930 issue of Legion Magazine.
Written by Will R. Bird
Exclusive Audio Version:
It was when the “Prairie Squirrels” were at Parvillers that Pete Mullins was sent down the line as a shell-shocked case, with every man in his platoon knowing that he had not been near a shell explosion. Yet none of them derided him, or said he was swinging the lead, for he was, for the time at least, as pitiful a physical wreck as one would care to see.
He kept hiding his face with his hands, and shuddering, and when they got him to bed at the hospital he lay for six days with his face to the wall. When they spoke to him or tried to get him to turn all he would say was “Eyes—eyes—eyes.”
Ted Hiller was with Pete all that terrible day when he saw the eyes, and it was Ted who told me the story.
It was the morning after Parvillers was captured, he said, and Pete and I were out in a sort of fox hole we were using as a listening post. We figured that we were about half way across No Man’s Land, but things were in such a jumble down there that we couldn’t be sure. It was a jungle of old wire and trenches where the fighting the day before had been bloody and hard, and where our guns had smashed things completely.
The hole we were in was a pit like a well, deep enough for us to stand in, and big enough to let one sit down when he was on watch. There were big weeds and thistles all around the hole and we could look through them. I thought it was as good a place as any for the day, but old Pete was nervous. In the attack on the 8th Pete had been nearly shot by one of our own boys, who mistook him for a Fritz when he tried on one of their pot helmets, and the old man’s nerves hadn’t got over the shock. Our section was about thirty yards behind us, in a stretch of old trench, but Pete thought they should be nearer.
When it got real light I got up and did first sentry. I reached out and made little lanes through the weeds and we had a corking good field of observation. I watched the right for a while at first, and it was one grand mess of rotting sandbags and jumbled timbers and old trench revetting and broken brick. Old Pete got to his feet after a while and started to stare out on the left. Then he gasped and grabbed my arm. “Look—see,” he gurgled.
To the left of our pit, seated in a hollow, was a Heinie. His steel lid lay at his feet and his face was a gray color that matched his tunic. He was sitting among a rubble of splintered plank, braced there as rigid as if something had taken his attention, but stone-dead!
There was a blood-clotted bandage lying beside him and we could see that he had been trying to dress an awful wound in his thigh. He must have died of shock as he sat there, or else a bullet had got him through the heart. His eyes gave me an uneasy feeling. They were dull and unobservant, but curiously disturbing, for they seemed to be focused full on us, as if he were watching us in a disinterested fashion. Pete insisted on changing sides with me at once. “I can’t stand the look of that man’s eyes,” he whispered, and his whisper was shrill.
I’ll own I found it a test myself. I couldn’t seem to avoid them, and their dull, unwinking stare was enough to give anyone the creeps. I tried looking away beyond him and studying other things. I tried to pick out Heinie’s new lines, to see a machine gun post, to watch for aeroplanes, anything I could think of, but in five minutes it would be as if I were simply forced to look at those wide-open, expressionless eyes.
Finally I made myself look at the wreckage of a machine gun emplacement. A big shell had made a direct hit and sandbags and timbers and steel rails were scattered in all directions. A sap had led to the post, and it was blocked completely. Where it entered the main trench the parapet had been blown away, and as I watched I saw a man raise his head. It was a Heinie, and I knew by the way he got up and looked around that he had no idea where we were.
I watched that place for over an hour and in that time saw eight or ten Germans. Then an officer came and got up and looked over our way. After that I couldn’t see anyone except a sentry who had stayed in plain view. It was very quiet. Not a plane was over and none of our guns were firing in that sector. The war was away over on our flanks.
It began to get hot. There was no breeze at all and the sun was blistering hot, choking hot, in our burrow. Sweat scalded and blinded us. After a while the distant guns seemed to tone down until the quiet itself was irritating. Then flies, those big blue ones, began to buzz about the dead Heinie, and we noticed that there were dreadful smells. My stomach almost turned.
It seemed an eternity before noon. We had sneaked out to our pit before it was light and there was no hope of being relieved until it was dark again. We had only a little water with us and it had got so warm and brackish that we couldn’t drink it. The German sentry at the saphead got himself a plank seat and sat on it as he watched our way. I had my field glasses and focused them on him. He was staring in a vacant way, and was dirty and not shaved and very tired looking.
All at once Pete grabbed me again. “Eyes!” he hissed, in a way that made me jump. “Just eyes.”
I squeezed over beside him and he pointed at the debris near us, where crossed rails, tangled in a V, seemed to cover an opening of sorts, possibly a small crater. There was a narrow, dark opening down beneath them. “There were eyes in that hole,” he whimpered. “I seen them.”
I watched and watched, and the minutes dragged by. I was fighting flies all the time and I was acutely aware of the dead German. I was cussing all the smells and was properly fed up with everything – when I saw them. My scalp seemed to crawl and I fairly froze. Two eyes had certainly appeared in the gap under the rails, and they had simply glared into mine. I felt as if I had had a look at some weird underground monster. One instant was all I saw them, then they vanished.
It was all so utterly unreal that I leaned back and wiped the sweat from my forehead and eyebrows, and then I looked again. For a long time I couldn’t see a thing but that black, narrow space under the wreckage – then the eyes were there. They seemed to leap into the place, and I couldn’t make out a face to fit them into. They stayed longer that second time and I flinched from them in spite of myself. I never saw such a mixture of fear and hatred and madness in eyes of any kind as in those faceless orbs under the rails.
My first impulse was to take a shot at them, and then I realized that it would be suicide to do so. Old Heinie could snipe at us if we tried to leave our hole, and if we fired a shot he would know where we were. Then I wondered if the eyes belonged to a German scout who had made himself a listening post under the debris. No man could possibly have wormed down between the steel rails which were crossed, and I was certain that the eyes did not belong to any sane person. All at once a Heinie machine gun opened up and its bullets were cracking and snapping over us for five or ten minutes. Pete was sure that Fritz had discovered us, and he begged me to throw a Mills bomb into the hole when the eyes returned.
I talked to him and quieted him but he kept whimpering every once in a while and pushing against me so that I could feel him shaking. That place was enough to try any one’s nerves, but he got my goat and I talked to him rough till he stopped his whimper. I had the safety of my rifle released all the time, and a couple of Mills bombs ready to throw. A bunch of aeroplanes droned over us, but there was no other sound. The machine gun had stopped firing as suddenly as it commenced. The sun got fair overhead and the heat in that hole was suffocating. Flies had come in clouds and they were all over the dead Heinie, at his wound, in his ears, clustering in his hair and around those eyes that watched us. A rat appeared and went over to him and nosed the bloody bandage, but those dull, unintelligent eyes looked at me all the time. I had to shift over to the other side of the pit.
The eyes were there in the dark hole again! They appeared as if my glance had called him. For a full minute they looked straight into mine and I felt as if I were being mesmerized, then there was nothing but the void between the rails. I wondered if the sun was playing tricks with us. There were heat waves dancing all over the wreckage. I watched a long time, but could only see the black gap, and was feeling quite relieved – when they popped up again.
An hour went by. I had been looking at my watch every twenty minutes since morning. Sometimes those eyes were there, sometimes they weren’t, until at last I felt that I would get as bad as Pete. He wouldn’t try to look over at all but stayed huddled down in the hole, making funny little noises like a hurt thing.
The Heinie sentry stayed on his plank and stared in his stolid way. He must have been tortured by the heat, but he never moved other than to scratch himself regularly. I ducked down beside Pete and tried to eat my ration of bread and cheese, but had such a nausea that I couldn’t swallow a bit. Pete wouldn’t try to. He just moaned and wanted to know how much longer we would be there. I stood up, and those livid eyes under the rail seemed to almost jump at me. It gave me such a queer sensation that I had to squat down again. When I rose up they were still there, and more malignant than ever. I prodded Pete. “You get up and take a turn,” I said, as savagely as I could. “I’m tired of looking all the time.”
He got up – looked – and ducked, white-faced and trembling, and I had to clap my hand over his mouth to keep him from crying out. He had looked out his own side, at the dead German. “He’s moved – he’s moved,” he gulped through my fingers.
The sweat on my skin turned cold and goose flesh was all over me. Pete was telling the truth. That Fritz had moved. He had shifted so that his hand had dropped down, black and curled like a hen’s foot, and his tunic collar was tight under his chin as his head tipped forward. He seemed NEARER to us.
I tried to soothe myself, for I was getting mighty shaky. There was some explanation, surely. It was only three o’clock. Five hours to go before we could expect a relief. I squatted down again. “You’ve got to look over part of the time,” I growled. “It’s too hot for one man to keep his head up all the time, and if we don’t watch the Heinies are liable to sneak over on us.”
He muttered something, but got up. Then he shot down again, gasping. He sobbed with fear and he caught me around the knees. I grabbed a bomb and jumped up. A pair of small, beady, blood-red eyes were peering through the weeds not a foot from mine. It was a rat! Ugh! I spit at him. Those eyes were cruel, foul glitters.
Pete whimpered and clung to me and wouldn’t listen to anything I said to him. Our long day of fighting, and the killing, had shaken his nerves badly. We had taken the ground we were on the previous day and it had not been a picnic. The eyes under the rails drew mine every time I looked over. They had a sort of fascination, there was something uncanny about them. I squirmed around Pete and looked over on the left, at the dead man. One long look and I was almost as bad as Pete. I pulled him to his feet. “Look over there,” I said. “I’m going to beat it before something else happens. That Heinie’s moved again.”
Pete stood and shuddered and licked his lips. “He moved, he moved, he moved,” he whispered in a sing-song, and then he began to blab about eyes.
The German had moved. One leg, the unwounded one, was almost doubled now. Not a shot had been fired since noon, and there had been nothing to move him. I stared around, felt dizzy. The sun blazed down unmercifully, and I felt that all around us there were eyes and eyes and eyes, staring, glaring, beady eyes, dull, unmoving eyes, eyes without faces; eyes…eyes…eyes.
Then I yelled, and Pete caught at me like a wild man. Flies had swarmed all over the dead man’s nose and as I looked I had SEEN HIS EYES CLOSE!
Pete caught at me again, but I fought him back and jumped out of the pit. I never thought of the German sentry at all. I jumped a shell hole and hopped over old wire and slid into the trench where our section was – and was lucky not to get shot. Our chaps had been half asleep and they had all seized their rifles. Then Pete came tearing in, and he ripped his puttees off his legs on the wire.
I told our chaps what I had seen and then we had to take charge of Pete. He got to shaking so that he couldn’t stop and we had to send him back to the transport lines. He got worse all the way back.
Our corporal was hard to scare and my story made him curious. Not a shot had been fired at Pete or me and so he crawled out through the wire and put up his tin hat. Nothing happened and so he went on till he reached our pit. He looked over and couldn’t see the sentry I had told him about. So he signaled us to join him.
Half an hour later we had worked around till our platoon was in the trench where we had seen the Germans. They had beat it. We looked at the dead man. His eyes WERE closed, and they wouldn’t believe me when I said they HAD been open. Then I showed them the gap under the rails – and eyes looked up at us!
“Who the hell are you?” yelled the corporal. “Speak up, or I’ll heave a bomb down there.”
He would have, too, but just then our officer came and took charge of things. We told him about the eyes, and he set us to work pulling away the wreckage. After we got the top stuff away we found that there was only room enough for a man’s head to show in the hole. We pried the rails apart – and there was our German!
He was a pitiful figure. Evidently he was one of the German machine-gun crew and had been buried by the shell that wrecked the post. He was so badly shell-shocked that he had lost his voice, and his mind was affected. He would only glare at us. Our stretcher-bearers doped him and they took him away.
Then one of our chaps crawled into the cavity and explored. He found a timbered passage that led under the refuse on which the dead Heinie was lying. The shell-shocked man had tried to force his way out there and his efforts had MOVED THE CORPSE. As the dead man’s head tipped forward the stiff collar of his tunic had pushed up the skin of his face and closed his eyes. The corporal pushed his head back and they opened! Ugh!
You know these advance advertisements they throw on the screen at the movies, how the eyes sometimes appear first? Well, I didn’t go to the pictures for three years after I came home for fear I’d see them.
Pete was never sent back to the battalion.