Language in Trenches

Fiction by Andrew Gretes

Ludwig arrived angular and empty, same as everyone else, but he bore it differently, voluntarily, like an ascetic. I was assigned to show Ludwig the lay of the labyrinth: the winding tunnels and trenches of Mount Gabriel; its amenities—blankets, books, razors; its utilities—sandbags, mortars, machine gun nests. Seven hundred meters high, we watched the Italians along the river as they mobilized for another offensive. It was summer, and the sun treated us like wax. I thought of fleeing, flying, Icarus.


When I discovered Ludwig’s diary was written in code, I became convinced he had something to say. Over morning rations, I asked him about God.

Ludwig took out his pen and picked up his spoon. His hands were quicker than his mouth. He described a court case in Paris in which a traffic accident was reproduced using toy models. Steadily, methodically, he guided his pen until it T-boned his spoon.

Paris. Before the war, it took twenty-six hours to travel from Berlin to Paris. Three years, and our German allies had yet to reach Paris.

I asked Ludwig what any of this had to do with God.

He offered me his pen and his spoon, his eyes encouraging, gentle, patient. He wanted me to play along, to build a model, like in Paris, in the courtroom.

Even though we were the same age—late twenties—with Ludwig, I was a child.

I said, “Fine, fine, but God’s not a pen . . . And he’s not a spoon.” I examined our breakfast for a more adequate token. Props were limited: three hundred grams of pork loaf, fifty grams of biscuits, twenty grams of coffee, nine grams of tobacco.

As Ludwig waited, he pulled out his diary. He said, “2.1515.” He was working on a proof. He said, “A model touches reality.”

The circumference of Mount Gabriel was craters and wires and shrapnel and stumps. A seven kilometer halo of blight.

I rolled a cigarette. I quit grasping for God.


When the Italian artillery opened fire, Ludwig marked the bearing of the muzzle flashes and made calculations with a stopwatch. We were stationed in an observation post at the summit of Mount Gabriel. I forwarded Ludwig’s conclusions to our howitzers using a mirror, a tripod, and reflected sunlight. Our guns returned fire. There was shelling, silence.

That night, Ludwig taught me how to decode his diary, in case he died. His most recent entry was “6.521—Solutions are vanishings.” It read like the diary of Euclid. I mistook axioms for dates.

Over a bottle of pilfered Italian wine, I offered Ludwig my horse, Pluto, a black Neapolitan stallion that was, I hoped, still safely stabled on my father’s farm in Moravia. If Ludwig survived the war, the horse was his. Ludwig reciprocated. He offered me a hut in Western Norway, a dwelling he had built four years previously as a respite from his logical investigations at Cambridge. It overlooked a fjord and had wooden walls and a stone foundation. Seven by eight meters of solitude.

The prospect of death was conducive to charity.


When the Italians captured the base of the mountain, we retreated upward, as if Gabriel was Purgatory and there was a garden and a light and salvation above, waiting, welcoming. Bullets ricocheted. Bodies fell. Gabriel bled. Ammunition from abandoned knapsacks littered the rocks like seeds yet to be sewn in flesh.

I stabbed an Italian through the chest and into the lungs and ripped it out and in and out, until my bayonet dripped black and bone and red.

Ludwig and I took refuge in a trench along the crown of the mountain. We knelt. The hole was two meters deep. There was a bucket, an unsent letter, a white handkerchief, and a severed hand.

I said to Ludwig, “I stabbed him.” I repeated the sentence until Ludwig took my rifle away. “I stabbed him.” The sentence was perfect, a picture, hieroglyphs. The first word thrust the second word into the third word. “I stabbed him.” Never had I understood a sentence so well.

I thought of that sentence in Ludwig’s diary, the one that was underlined: “4.012—Say the sayable.”

I felt social, the need to communicate, to take Ludwig to Paris, to that courtroom, and build him a model of my deed. But Ludwig was distracted, tying a knot, binding the white handkerchief to my wet bayonet. So I rested my head on the rocks. I watched the world atomize. Ludwig. Rifle. Handkerchief. Bucket. Letter. Hand.

Andrew Gretes is the author of How to Dispose of Dead Elephants (Sandstone Press, 2014). His fiction has appeared in Witness, The Pinch, Passages North, and other journals. Currently, he is a doctoral student in the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. His website is