John Dos Passos: Not wake up till the war was over and you could be a human being again
John Dos Passos
From Three Soldiers (1921)
Andrews was brushing the soft silk of a poppy petal against his face.
“I wonder if it’ld have any effect if I ate some of these,” he said.
“They say you go to sleep if you lie down in a poppy-field. Wouldn’t you like to do that, Chris, an’ not wake up till the war was over and you could be a human being again.”
There were tiny green frogs in one of the putty-colored puddles by the roadside. John Andrews fell out of the slowly advancing column a moment to look at them. The frogs’ triangular heads stuck out of the water in the middle of the puddle. He leaned over, his hands on his knees, easing the weight of the equipment on his back. That way he could see their tiny jewelled eyes, topaz-colored. His eyes felt as if tears were coming to them with tenderness towards the minute lithe bodies of the frogs. Something was telling him that he must run forward and fall into line again, that he must shamble on through the mud, but he remained staring at the puddle, watching the frogs. Then he noticed his reflection in the puddle. He looked at it curiously. He could barely see the outlines of a stained grimacing mask, and the silhouette of the gun barrel slanting behind it. So this was what they had made of him. He fixed his eyes again on the frogs that swam with elastic, leisurely leg strokes in the putty-colored water.
Absently, as if he had no connection with all that went on about him, he heard the twang of bursting shrapnel down the road. He had straightened himself wearily and taken a step forward, when he found himself sinking into the puddle. A feeling of relief came over him. His legs sunk in the puddle; he lay without moving against the muddy bank. The frogs had gone, but from somewhere a little stream of red was creeping out slowly into the putty-colored water. He watched the irregular files of men in olive-drab shambling by. Their footsteps drummed in his ears. He felt triumphantly separated from them, as if he were in a window somewhere watching soldiers pass, or in a box of a theater watching some dreary monotonous play. He drew farther and farther away from them until they had become very small, like toy soldiers forgotten among the dust in a garret. The light was so dim he couldn’t see, he could only hear their feet tramping interminably through the mud.
Andrews lay, comfortable in his cot, looking into the ward out of another world. He felt no connection with the talk about him, with the men who lay silent or tossed about groaning in the rows of narrow cots that filled the Renaissance hall. In the yellow glow of the electric lights, looking beyond the orderly’s twisted face and narrow head, he could see very faintly, where the beams of the ceiling sprung from the wall, a row of half-obliterated shields supported by figures carved out of the grey stone of the wall, handed satyrs with horns and goats’ beards and deep-set eyes, little squat figures of warriors and townsmen in square hats with swords between their bent knees, naked limbs twined in scrolls of spiked acanthus leaves, all seen very faintly, so that when the electric lights swung back and forth in the wind made by the orderly’s hurried passing, they all seemed to wink and wriggle in shadowy mockery of the rows of prostrate bodies in the room beneath them. Yet they were familiar, friendly to Andrews. He kept feeling a half-formulated desire to be up there too, crowded under a beam, grimacing through heavy wreaths of pomegranates and acanthus leaves, the incarnation of old rich lusts, of clear fires that had sunk to dust ages since. He felt at home in that spacious hall, built for wide gestures and stately steps, in which all the little routine of the army seemed unreal, and the wounded men discarded automatons, broken toys laid away in rows.