The men have scattered. Eyes as bright as bulbs, hands working
as if strangling invisible enemies, they charged into the burning east wind,
left fields to stretch naked under neutral skies, exposed to the weightless air.
Haver-grass thickens like muscles knotting. Swayback lambs wander
into ditches, nibble at their stagnant, fretful thirst. Blossom multiplies in the trees,
like an infestation. Leaflet bombs drift across the parched no man’s land of mid-year.
Each bears a picture of a field planted with thousands of graves, row upon row,
as neat as a head full of pin curls. The low mounds are spiked with markers, a stake
driven into the ground. The printed leaflets stick in the hawthorn. Leaves furl
like an empty fist in a pocket: holding fast. Under the untouched earth,
wireworms tick. No-one is counting. It’s a black fallow, volunteer weeds
invade silently with the frost, ice trickle reaching the groundwater, piercing
underground streams, burning like fevered blood. France falls and the land is drawn
and divided. Surplus new girls swarm from the city, bombshells rise at daybreak to rake
the turned shoulders of the fields. The country is unlocked, rutted, seething, raw.
They dig blistered hands into the furrows of self, bury bullet-sized mangold seed in long lines
nobody calls trenches. They pull soil over the ditches like a counterpane,
they sing the sugarbeet to sleep. Along the wild edges they let the soft rushes grow.
At last the gardens are gone. Railings sawn, beds stripped of flowers – roses turned over
for white clover, borders mined with thin carrots as pale as hope. The arms and faces
of the women have turned a strong, dark bronze, like ripe wheat or statues of old, deposed gods.