Charles and Henry

Today I bought Her Majesty The Decemberists on vinyl, and although it wasn’t one of the 500 or so red copies that were pressed, it did come with a story absent from the CD’s liner notes:

Since both Charles and Henry were typically light sleepers and had enjoyed staying up long past the platoon sergeant had announced lights out, they were both delighted to find that the regular evening mortar blitz by the Teutons supplied ample light for them both to peruse their beloved volumes of classic and contemporary drama long after their kerosene lamps has been extinguished. Once the barrage had begun, they would crawl from their fox hole and inch their way up the side of the trench so as to most benefit from the bombardment’s extraordinary, if somewhat inconsistent, luminescence. A flash of light, a deafening explosion, and the protagonist’s final soliloquy would be revealed to Henry, who read the subsequent passages as fast as he could so as to make use of the fleeting light, which would inevitably falter just as the crux of the monologue came to bear. In normal circumstances, he would have been annoyed at the inconsistency of his reading light, but in this situation he began to appreciate the environment’s peculiarities and actually relished the interim provided him by the mortars’ respite to contemplate the gravity of the text. The two comrades’ evening reading habit developed to a point where they began to act out the dialogue of the plays they were reading, the trench wall their proscenium, the distant explosions their stage lighting. On one such evening, as the rest of the platooon lay quietly in their hammocks, Charles and Henry took to the trench wall to read to one another the dialogue between the ill-fated lovers Tristan and Isolde. Charles played the maiden, a magazine of machine gun cartridges arrayed over his brow to affect Isolde’s golden tresses. Henry, as Tristan, leaned against his rifle as he prepared for his final, tragic monologue. Suddenly, the Kaisers launched a surprise attack, and the horizon was ablaze with mortar blasts and cannon fire. The trenches erupted into activity, but Charles and Henry, engrossed in their drama, only fell deeper under the spell of the play. The barrage grew stronger in intensity, and the duo felt no want for reading light as they reached the third act of the tragedy. Henry, feigning a blow from his nemesis Mark (played here by a large, barbed-wire tangled post) fell to the mud and began to lament his fate, pausing only to squint at his lines as written in the slim volume he held in his soiled hands. Charles, his whole being lost to the drama, edged closer to his fatally wounded lover and began to softly intone his last lines when a piece of shrapnel exploded from a nearby shell and lodged itself deep in his heart. He careened, faltered, fell upon the body of Henry, and, with his last scripted words spoken in a delicate whisper, he died. Henry, much moved, cautiously opened one eye (so as not to disturb the verisimilitude of the divine moment) and peered at his fallen comrade.

“Charles?” said Henry.

Overhead, a new volley of mortar fire erupted in a pageant of fireworks, raining a shower of sparks and light over the two figures huddled on the trench wall.

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