In my memory the cicadas are just beginning to swell, and apart from a breeze dragging its fingers through the pasture, little disturbs their quiet hum besides the repeated impact of a shovel in the dirt outside. The shovel belongs to my friend’s father, who has spent the day digging a well. And if there is a reason I remember the sounds of that day so immediately, it’s because I remember tracking the passage of time by the increasing labor of his breathing and the force with which he struck the shovel into the earth. In my memory he begins with quick thrusts and a steady cadence, as if guided by a metronome. But as the hours go on, he proceeds to exhaust himself and his strikes become more sporadic and deliberate. While the sun sets the intervals of his digging lose any sense of rhythm, coming only occasionally and always with fierce grunts. I remember when it happens because when it happens the stillness is broken by a sound unlike all of the others; there is the vocal report of effort, the sheathing of the shovel in dirt, but then the echo of the spade touching metal. In my memory there is the scratching at the ground with the tip of the shovel—I imagine a hare foraging for sown radishes—and the pause.
In the truest account of things, that is, the narrative written in a constellation of seismic pulses long since possessed and abandoned by the earth, everything happens at the moment of his second thrust. But in my memory there is first the strike on the metal and then the solemn “Oh” that falls out of his mouth. In that small parcel of breath and air there is a desperate and totalizing sadness that folds in upon itself and then disappears into the evening, containing and taking with it the existence of every conceivable happiness. And still there is an earnest bewilderment—a confusion that races like a ribbon of light out across the pasture and over the currents of the Somme, stopping people in the street in Paris, fording the Channel to knock on the doors of consulates in London, making its way to Germany’s chancellor in Berlin, wondering at every moment: “The Great War ended seven years ago. I’m sure this wasn’t your intention.”
In that wait it seems like God is taking a breath. Then the artillery shell explodes and the earth turns over.
A roar sweeps through the window, vaporizing the glass and hurling small flecks into the back of my neck. It travels across the room in stages, pushing my friend out from under the sill, pulling open cabinets with invisible hands, and suffocating the flames of candles with thick cloaks of dust. The blast moves to the table, scattering place settings, upending a bottle of aquavit, and spilling a bowl of blackberries which roll off of the table and into the hearth. Finally it reaches the wall and gives a punch to the desiccated timber before depositing things light enough to carry—papers, flowers, splinters of wood, bugs from outside—in small heaps, almost tidy enough for disposal, along the edges of the floor. And then it recedes as quickly as it came, absconding with its own noise and chaos, retreating through the absent windows like some great wave disappearing into the sea, ashamed of the destruction it had caused on shore.
When everything becomes still again, it is something more than quiet. The explosion has taken sound out of the world and put a cavernous void, stuffed with cotton, in its place. The only noise comes from outside, crawling through the new hole in the wall. My friend’s father is making the noise, but it doesn’t sound like anything I have ever heard and I still have trouble placing it. There is no urgency or impatience in the sound, no request for help or assistance, nothing shrill that might serve as indication of a crisis. It reminds me of the sounds I imagine when my mother tells me stories of the Devil: His guttural rumbles, spreading out across Eurasia from sinkholes in the streams of the Orient, that tempt children from their beds and into the forest to be snatched up by spirits and djins. His low, percussive trumpeting, like a train approaching from a great distance, that drifted down from the valleys and frosted ridgelines of Mirsou during the winter when all of the town’s pregnant women threw themselves from the bell tower of the Rose Abbey. The moan that covered the villages of Buxone, and Viland, and Saint-Marie-sur-Vézère in the night, like a heavy fog, in preparation for their being effaced from the earth entirely. And so, when my friend and I begin to climb through the window to see what has happened, I don’t expect to find my friend’s father alone. Not without the Devil.
In the yard I do not see the Devil, but my friend’s father is lying with his face buried in the ground, rolling slowly on his stomach from one shoulder to the other in testudinal orbits. It’s only when I feel the earth become hard and moist that I see the blackened hole in the soil, the grass around it sheared unevenly, and the rivulets of blood making a snaking path down the slope of the yard from his left leg, which has been dismembered at the knee. My friend is sobbing and running towards his father and I am just shouting at him to stop, I’m trying to stop him, I don’t know why, but I am sure that if he reaches his father he will find something infinitely more terrible than the blood already on the ground. I don’t understand the impulse, but my legs are burning with it. It’s travelling up my calves and into my back and I am trying to tackle him and to drag him inside, and to let whatever happens to his father happen away from him.
But when I catch up to him he is already on his knees, and he is rolling his father onto his back. And that is when I see that the Devil has been there all along.
In place of the soft cartography of his face are features so grossly damaged and displaced that their realignment doesn’t make sense to me. The right of his jaw is broken in two and hanging against his neck and the white of the bone is almost indistinguishable against the ruptured rows of his teeth. And I don’t know what to do. I can’t do anything and everything is wrong. I am holding the cracked egg of brain matter and skull and my friend is still crying and my hands are turning red and a square of the torn skin under his right eye, which is sealed shut, sloughs off in my fingers. And he is still making that noise, the sound the Devil makes, and through the gape in his cheek I see a shard of metal lodged in the roof of his mouth and blood is surging up over his tongue and running over it and out of the side of his throat.
Then there is a moment where my friend grabs his father’s hair at its roots and his father’s undamaged eye stops rolling in its socket and his tongue stops lolling about his mouth and he looks at my friend and the sound stops. But this is the part that I cannot bear. This is when I cannot stand it. Because then he is looking at my friend and there is a new sound coming from his chest but it isn’t the Devil’s sound. It isn’t a hurting. And I can tell that it is supposed to be words. But somewhere they are getting mixed with the blood and becoming muddled and I know somehow that he is trying to explain himself and to explain his life but nothing comes out except for a red mist that stripes the brass buttons of my friend’s overalls. This is the part I cannot bear. He is trying again and I can hear him attempting to condense the significance of his whole life into a few words but it isn’t working and my friend is beating at the ground and tearing thistles out by their roots and showering us with gravel and I know that he understands what his father is trying to do. I know that he senses what he is losing. I know that he understands because even after I have run out of the garden through the kitchen, out through the hall, even when I have thrown open the door and started sprinting down the road and through a maze of brilliant red poppies in bloom I can still hear my friend shouting “What?” and “What?” and “What?” and “What is it?” to a man who cannot respond. In my memory the sound follows me home.