History of Art: The War Artist Makes God Visible
—after Stanley Spencer’s Great War Memorial

I

If any believed in such things, not one thought his resurrection would return him to the trenches. The soldiers gaze around them, slowly, instinctively reaching for their gear. Their belts, canteens, and holsters wait apart from them, cold. They confirm their experience in each other’s eyes. No one speaks.

The captain holds his helmet and glances at his men. Four bayonets pierce his torso. Ferns grow from his wounds. The body has ways, he knows, of rejuvenating; he’s seen it in the wards—the growth of new tissue, the expulsion through the skin of glass shards and shrapnel. While he stands holding his helmet, watching his men touch their wounds and feel warmth returning to their limbs, his own veins burn and thrum with the fire of blood. What could God mean? He imagines the vicar clearing his throat, fumbling for the bottle of scotch he keeps in his file cabinet, behind the records of births, weddings, and deaths, trying not to look at the Captain’s daggers, like handles, sprouting from his broad chest.

The Captain regards his ferns with tenderness. Mature leaves fan from his various wounds, the bright green fiddleheads pushing their way through the bubble of his newly coursing fluids. On his walks at home, he had always admired the lushness of ferns, the plant’s ability to flourish in seemingly any medium: the cracks in the stone walls, where the plants grew the hardiest. The fronds seemed tender, but to the touch, they felt stern and business-like. He strokes the underside of a frond, forgetting himself.

While the men reclaim their gear, one man leans against the trench wall, his face half-buried in the crook of his arm. He stares through the tangle of barbed wire. The earth is dry as ever. He imagines riding a train home to Cookham, embracing his mother and his sister, their smooth cheeks and nice-smelling hair. And his girl who can’t refuse him now—having been dead and come back raises one up in more than one sense. He imagines the girl waiting at Victoria Station. He will see her before she sees him, and it will seem to take forever to walk across the station. She turns her perfect face to him, and, in that instant, he sees meat pies and cider, and children in pajamas; a musty smell fills his nostrils, of the tiny paperboard houses and cotton wool hedges that will make up the miniature town beneath their Christmas tree. He’ll say, “I’ve died and come back. I’ve died.” She’ll think he’s mad. She’ll expect him to get on with things—find a job, earn his pay, support the family they will have.

He opens his eyes and turns toward the trench to face his mates, who fasten their belts and holsters. He catches the eye of one. “This is a fright, eh, mate?” The other man laughs and shakes his head. His face is stone white and still tinged blue around the eyes. “Never telling anyone this.”

He closes his eyes again, feels the hot breeze sweep across his forehead. Somewhere farther down the line, a flag whips rhythmically. In a moment, the captain will pat his shoulder and hand the soldier his gun.

II

The dead and the wounded lie on stretchers pulled by mules and are bathed in the warm glow of the dressing station. Inside, white draped figures hover over the wounded man. Despite the shells and gunfire, the mules stand calmly, gazing at the lantern-lit scene. A soldier leans against the corner of the building and peers in. One stretcher-bearer, loath to leave, looks to the soldier he has just carried, even while he turns back to the front, toward the bodies he has yet to collect. He has cupped the soldier’s cheek in his palm.

III

The soldiers struggle to rise, entwined as they are in their white picket crosses. Already their capes make wings. “Spencer would make us all angels,” one grunts, as he hoists himself out of his grave. The others groan, cursing, and struggle to extricate themselves from similar holes. One stares down at his tunic of feathers, worrying vaguely what the others will think. What sort of man struts around the battlefield wearing feathers? Others reach out their stone white arms to each other, without thinking; in the grip of such embraces, there’s no turning back, and what does this make them? Here on earth again, locked in each other’s eyes and embraces, grown men, stone men, stiff-upper-lip men, with a feeling that itches up their palms and forearms as they clasp hands. The itch crawls across their biceps and burrows into their armpits. It shoots up the backs of their necks, and creeps along their scalps, follicle by follicle. The itch burns permanent pathways in their skin. It is almost like love. It will have to be satisfied.

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