By Daniel Thompson
It was the beginning of Spring when the mad painter showed himself in the trenches at Aisne, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell. For one, the air still hung cold, and my patients shook while I worked to stop their bleeding on the beds in my battlefield ward. The trees were trying to wake up, but the frost kept nipping the buds off and throwing them to the ground. Some were rotten from the winter snow, infected wounds gone gangrene, and others were missing everything but their stumps, with all else spread on the ground around them like confetti from a Christmas popper.
He talked to himself mostly, the painter. He didn’t like our questions, and wouldn’t answer them, so we stopped asking. He would mutter, and paint, and write to his sister-in-law.
He’d sneak over the trench sometimes and into the river. He shouted, screamed practically, over and over again, grabbing at the water, grabbing at the reeds, grabbing at the mud at the bottom and flinging it up and over his head. The Germans took shots at him — the man was insane — but he laughed and hollered at them. He’d paint the river then, and the bullets never came near him.
He preached in the mornings. I’ll admit to having turned my back, avoiding looking him in the eye, as he paced the trenches with his Bible, calling on us, yelling at us with encouragement or hellfire. He couldn’t seem to make up his mind whether we’re angels sent by God or devils in need of repentance. He cursed and praised us, indiscriminately running up and down the trench. The captains were furious with the behavior, but he liked the trench. It’s a good place for madness.
The next morning, to keep him from running up and down the trench, they tied him down to his bunk while he slept. Ropes held down his arms there, and his legs. The ones who did it laughed, expecting his thrashing, his rage. But he simply woke, and stared. Barely a flicker of surprise passed over his eyes as they blinked open, and the men became bored, moved along. He remained. I sat across the room and watched him for a long time. If he ever became angry, or even resentful, I never saw it in his face. Nor did he seem to grow weary of his bonds. I had never seen this in a patient tied down, so after a while, I asked if he would like to be loosed.
No, he said to me, I’d rather stay here a while. I asked him why. He told me that sometimes a painter has to scrape off the paint he’s applied, to scrape it off in big weighty globs and fling it down onto the ground, so that new paint can be applied. It’s part of the work, he tells me. I asked him again why he shouldn’t be loosened, and he said that it’s part of God’s work, to scrape him off and fling him down. He said nothing after that.
The next day he was untied, having eaten nothing the past twenty-four hours and not eating anything then. In fact, he barely moved from the cot. He seemed to find fascinating the color put off by the kerosene lamp in the tent and resolved to paint it. A rat had nibbled on the edge of his selected canvas, but he did not mind it. He looked old that day, yet he moved like a young man, without hesitation or forethought. He coughed and smoked, and never ate.
The painting of the lamp was terrible. He agreed, and made two more, before turning to my stitching. He cannot stop shouting; the man may have either silence or commotion, and won’t settle for anything in between. He screams that I stitch beautifully, that I stitch for myself. That I stitch for God.
I don’t like him, at no point did I appreciate his company. But one night, after a long day of exchanges across the line and two fatal charges, there was a lad who saw too many dead bodies and became determined to join them. I watched him step up over the trench and stand there, looking out at the gerries and waiting for them to gun him down. This happens.
I heard the painter shriek. He ran down the trench, as he’d done before, and I watched him throw off his jacket, and his cap, and his shirt. He launched himself half-naked over the side of the trench, as if he were going to tackle the young man. I wish I had been close enough to hear him, to hear what he said. He pointed to an old bullet wound on his stomach, still shrieking. He pointed to his missing ear. Bullets struck the ground a couple yards away, honing in. The painter extended from his belt the knife he used to scrape paintings, offering it to the boy.
The next morning, I put stitches in the place the boy’s ear had been. He did it himself, and it was a clean, decisive cut. The shell shock has been shook off him; he speaks loudly now, or not at all. I haven’t seen the painter since that night. His paints and canvases were left here, and the boys took some of them out and shot at them. They were bad enough for the treatment. As for my stitches, I think they’re good enough to keep the gangrene out. The boy thanks God, but I didn’t make them for Him. I made them for myself.
Daniel Thompson serves as the flash fiction editor for Too Well Away Literary Journal. He is also a Communication Instructor at Langston University where he has taught speech and media since 2020. He draws inspiration in both of these roles from Fred Rogers, Kurt Vonnegut, and his wife, the Founding Editor.