The smoke from mortar fire mixed with fog hung low over the trenches. Heinrich trod the planks over the mud, hands wrapped in rags, rifle slung over one shoulder. Night was falling on the broken and burnt field between him and the men he had called friends in his student days. Before being German was unforgivable.
He paused and gazed at the trench wall, the stratified layers of the dirt recalling an excavation in Oxfordshire nearly three years ago. How he had carefully, almost lovingly, removed the skull of an Anglo-Saxon warrior from the earth. Later, in the Archaeological school, he studied the bones, most importantly the teeth.
He now ran his tongue over his own. They were mossy from a month’s worth of worsening meals: weak porridge and thin stews with only a suggestion of meat. An ache spread through his middle — whether hunger for food or the life he used to know, he wasn’t sure. He now faced a parade of days that consisted of smoke, blood, mud, and death.
He fumbled in his breast pocket for the photo. It was tattered from being handled so frequently, but Adeline’s face was still fresh, eyes bright as she gazed up at him. He could remember the summer nights he would walk along the Thames with her, breathing in the tang of the river water as they kissed in the darkness between streetlamps. She said his accent was most charming.
An officer approached, the spike on his helmet piercing the fog. Heinrich knew him slightly, a Prussian obsessed with military precision, but Heinrich remembered him because of his teeth. They were painfully white, straight with unusually feral canines. He had once received latrine duty for staring just a shade too long at them.
But teeth were his life’s work, young as he was. He loved the way they emerged from the dull bone of the jaw, enamel gleaming. There was more variety in the teeth than any other part of the skeleton: crooked, overlapping, ground down to nubs, abscesses, pointed canines, squat molars, spade-like incisors. A lifetime ago he would sit for hours in the lab, measuring, making notes, and discussing his findings with his mentor.
That had been destroyed the moment Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated. Called home to fight a war against the country he had grown to love as much as his own, he was ripped from everything he held dear. Everyone.
Heinrich pocketed the photo as the officer drew near. He stepped off the planks into the mud and offered a crisp salute — he was not going back to latrine duty in this weather. The salute was returned and the officer sped along the planks, no doubt on his way to a better supper than Heinrich had seen in a year.
He unstuck his boots from the quagmire and got back on the plank when a whistle sounded in his ears. He felt rather than heard the explosion, near enough to throw him from his feet. His body collided with the wall of the trench, face smashing into an upright beam of wood.
All consciousness reduced to a point, a blinding, deafening locus of pain. He was not even aware of what hurt, only the paroxysm that shook him out of his physical body.
How long did it take him to return to his flesh, before he discovered the warm gush of blood in his mouth? He slowly came back to himself, aware that he was lying on his side, the freezing mud seeping through his coat. His tongue found the hole where his upper left incisors used to be. He worried the spot, surprised at the absence of pain. That, he was sure, would come later.
Hands were upon him, wrenching him around and pulling him to his feet. Heinrich stared at the moving lips of the soldier, the ringing in his ears muffling all sound. He was checking Heinrich for signs of injury, scanning his midsection for telltale blossoms of blood.
Heinrich, stunned and deaf, let his gaze wander down the trench to where a smoking crater had appeared and the officer who had just passed him was now gone–obliterated by the mortar. Pieces of bone, guts and sinew splattered the spot.
The soldier cuffed him on the shoulder and Heinrich vaguely heard the words that he was unharmed. Instead, his attention was caught by something gleaming on the plank of wood in front of him. Two shining bits of white lay at his feet.
He squatted and reached towards them. His fingers closed around two perfect teeth, an upper right canine, and a lower left second premolar. He carefully wiped away the blood still clinging to the intact roots. His tongue once again sought the hole in his mouth as he considered the two in his palm. Not his, then. He glanced back at the crater where the officer had been erased in an instant. Blown to bits. These two bits.
Heinrich stood and wobbled as the ringing in his ears threw him off balance. He carefully cradled the teeth in his hand as he saw his friend Jens hurrying towards him.
“I’m all right,” Heinrich said. He wasn’t sure how loud he had spoken. It was hard to tell.
Jens said something and pointed to Heinrich’s face. Heinrich grimaced showing the gaping spot in his mouth. Jens, looking relieved, pushed Heinrich away from his post. He picked up the rifle that was slowly sinking into the muck and handed it over with a wave of his hand. Heinrich understood Jens was dismissing him.
He stumbled off towards his waiting supper. After a few steps he felt his legs trembling and when he turned the corner they gave way and he collapsed onto the muddy boards. He opened his hand to regard the teeth still in his palm. He stifled a sob as he considered the likelihood of living long enough to complete the set.
Anna Karras is a librarian, rabid knitter, and world traveler. She lives in Naples, FL with her husband and two exasperating cats. Her work has also appeared in The Mangrove Review and Vamp Cat Magazine.