Vermin, 1917


The ground roiled as if it was boiling.

We were in a rest area, after our refusal to slay the awakened giant, and close to where the French had dug a mass grave for the bodies of a failed German attack.

Someone believed it would be a punishment for us to be so close to death, but whoever it was had never lived in the trenches for weeks at a time. We were now living in tents, and no one was shooting at us.

We could deal with the stench.

This morning, something changed.

The ground over the mass grave rippled, the dirt seething and throbbing in a way holy unnatural and disturbing. Several of the younger men went over to see what might be going on, and one of them stepped a little too close.

The earth gave way beneath him, and he sank up to his knees. His friends laughed at him in the way that soldiers do, but when his curses transformed into screams of pain, they hauled him out of the hole.

There were rats clinging to him, biting at him and gnawing upon his flesh.

Within moments the word was brought to the rest of us, and when we arrived, thousands of rats were pouring out of the mass grave.

They were the largest I had ever seen, their muzzles wet with blood and gore, their eyes maddened. The animals charged at us, unafraid, and we beat them back with our boots and pistols. They were after our wounded comrade, and we would not let them have him.

I sent a pair of men back for kerosene and matches, and soon, they returned.

With some of my squadmates clearing a path for me, I made my way to the hole in the ground and dumped the kerosene in. Rats shrieked as the liquid struck their eyes and mouths, and then they screamed in pain as I set them ablaze.

What else was beneath the ground and mingled with the corpses, I don’t know. Whatever it was, the fire I set spread, and the earth erupted into flames.

Perhaps it was the German dead exacting some revenge on the rats. Perhaps there was a chemical of some sort.

Whatever the reason, the fire burned for days and purged the graves of both rats and flesh.

The smell, my friends discovered, wasn’t unbearable.

Published by

Nicholas Efstathiou

Husband, father, and writer.

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