A short story by James O’Brien.
I sat there, by the old great oak, picnic basket on my lap. I gazed out at the pink candy floss clouds swirling around an orange spotlight sun. Dark blackbirds glided overhead, standing out like shadows on a mellow flowerbed. The sturdy tree’s rough, crisp bark supported my sleepy head as I slipped into a state of utter relaxation. The peachy glow peeked out from behind a grassy hill damp with dew. Surrounded by a spectrum of sunset hued leaves, my back slid down the trunk as my eyelids became increasingly heavier.
I simply lay on the soft bed of ember tinted foliage. I didn’t want to fall asleep as I would miss out on this temporary haven of colour, blossom and calm. I listened to my surroundings. A tremendous silence welcomed me. But then I focused on other presences. I heard the slow beat of my thumping heart, steadily drumming in tune to my deep, relieved breaths. The air hissed from my nostrils gently and caught onto the cooling whistle of an August breeze. I discerned the sound of wild songbirds nestling up in their sophisticatedly structured nests, held high by branches above. The rustling and tearing of leaves that tumbled from the heavens down to Earth signified the coming of awakening owls preparing for the long night ahead. Tentative footsteps and the crunching of leaves announced the arrival of an array of timid hedgehogs. This proved to me that there is no such thing as silence, for there is always something to hear. With that final thought, I drifted into a peaceful slumber.
I opened my eyes. It was seven years later. It was a different scene entirely. I looked around. The sky was a vortex of black storm clouds that spat torrents down upon us. The clouds blotched out the remains of a blinding, white sun. Lightning struck, pointing towards the ground. My eyes followed the streak. My stomach turned at what I saw next. I could only gaze around in horror. Instead of being surrounded by beautiful colours of Autumn, I was fenced in by the scattered, gruesome, mutilated bodies of my childhood friends. Smoking craters made by explosive projectiles speckled the grassy hill, that was a sickening shade of crimson from the blood spilled. Large shards of shrapnel and steel protruded from the soil like makeshift tombstones. I caught a glimpse of men in military attire retreating into the distance. My eyes were then drawn to something. I discovered that I was bleeding. Jagged shrapnel was embedded in my now reddened torso. My filthy army clothing was full of holes. A rifle sat on my lap. My helmet was nowhere to be seen. I leaned my head back, expecting the much needed headrest of the oak tree. I landed flat on my back to no avail. Lying beside me was the now crackling and burning trunk (or at least most of it).
I was weak and dizzy. My mind was hazy. I once again lay in the same spot I did before, in the exact same place. Though to me, I was on unfamiliar ground. To keep my consciousness, I tried to concentrate on something else. I listened. Just like seven years prior, the mysterious stranger known as silence greeted me. But I knew better. I wasn’t going to be fooled by a petty guise. I tried again. Only then did I notice the loud ringing in my ears. Any other sound was muffled, but came through. I listened to my speeding heartbeat and shallow breathing. I heard the pounding of the rain splashing down onto the wet muck. I jumped at the crack of lightning and booming of thunder. I made out the howl of chilling gales that froze my face and made my eyes water. I listened to the buzzing of flies feasting on the dead. I could hear none of the friendly wildlife who offered me company before. Then I heard them. The shouting of medics. The thumping of footsteps. The jingling of equipment. The last thing I remembered before blacking out was being put on a stretcher and being told I’m going to be alright. I felt guilty.
I opened my eyes. Fifty years had passed. I was in bed. I looked down at my battle-scarred chest. What sleep I did get was always in fits. I still saw them. The bodies. I still felt ashamed. I still asked why I survived. What made my life more important than theirs? I should’ve died. They should’ve lived. But things didn’t happen that way. On my return home, I was treated like a hero. But I did nothing worth praising. I just got out alive. That was nothing important. The true heroes were the ones who paid the ultimate price and gave up their lives for King and Country. They deserved the praise. I tried to think back to that beautiful moment when the sun was setting. But I couldn’t think of that place again without seeing the horrors of war. Silence never visited me again. I missed silence. For all I could hear was the distant crackle of gunfire. The bangs of explosions. The pleading helves of screaming heroes about to die. There is no such thing as silence.