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Louise Driscoll: The Metal Checks

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

American writers on peace and against war

Women writers on peace and war

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Louise Driscoll
The Metal Checks

[The scene is a bare room, with two shaded windows at the back, and a fireplace between them with a fire burning low. The room contains a few plain chairs, and a rough wooden table on which are piled many small wooden trays. The Counter, who is Death, sits at the table. He wears a loose gray robe, and his face is partly concealed by a gray veil. The Bearer is the World, that bears the burden of War. He wears a soiled robe of brown and green and he carries on his back a gunny-bag filled with the little metal disks that have been used for the identification of the slain common soldiers.]

The Bearer
Here is a sack, a gunny sack,
A heavy sack I bring.
Here is toll of many a soul –
But not the soul of a king.

This is the toll of common men,
Who lived in the common way;
Lived upon bread and wine and love,
In the light of the common day.

This is the toll of working men,
Blood and brawn and brain.
Who shall render us again
The worth of all the slain?

The Counter
Pour them out on the table here.
Clickety – clickety -clack!
For every button a man went out,
And who shall call him back?
Clickety – clickety – clack!

One – two – three – four –
Every disk a soul!
Three score – four score –
So many boys went out to war.
Pick up that one that fell on the floor –
Didn’t you see it roll?
That was a man a month ago.
This was a man. Row upon row –
Pile them in tens and count them so.

The Bearer
I have an empty sack.
It is not large. Would you have said
That I could carry on my back
So great an army – and all dead?

[As The Counter speaks The Bearer lays the sack over his arm and helps count.]

The Counter
Put a hundred in each tray –
We can tally them best that way.
Careful -do you understand
You have ten men in your hand?
There’s another fallen – there –
Under that chair.

[The Bearer finds it and restores it.]

That was a man a month ago;
He could see and feel and know.
Then, into his throat there sped
A bit of lead.
Blood was salt in his mouth; he fell
And lay amid the battle wreck.
Nothing was left but this metal check –
And a wife and child, perhaps.

[The Bearer finds the bag on his arm troublesome. He holds it up, inspecting it.]

The Bearer
What can one do with a thing like this?
Neither of life nor death it is!
For the dead serve not, though it served the dead.
The wounds it carried were wide and red,
Yet they stained it not. Can a man put food,
Potatoes or wheat, or even wood
That is kind and burns with a flame to warm
Living men who are comforted –
In a thing that has served so many dead?
There is no thrift in a graveyard dress,
It’s been shroud for too many men.
I’ll burn it and let the dead bless.

[He crosses himself and throws it into the fire. He watches it burn. The Counter continues to pile up the metal checks, and drop them by hundreds into the trays which he piles one upon another. The Bearer turns from the fire and speaks more slowly than before. He indicates the metal checks.]

Would not the blood of these make a great sea
For men to sail their ships on? It may be
No fish would swim in it, and the foul smell
Would make the sailors sick. Perhaps in Hell
There’s some such lake for men who rush to war
Prating of glory, and upon the shore
Will stand the wives and children and old men
Bereft, to drive them back again
When they seek haven. Some such thing
I thought the while I bore it on my back
And heard the metal pieces clattering.

The Counter
Four score – five score –
These and as many more.
Forward – march! – into the tray!
No bugles blow today,
No captains lead the way;
But mothers and wives,
Fathers, sisters, little sons,
Count the cost
Of the lost;
And we count the unlived lives,
The forever unborn ones
Who might have been your sons.

The Bearer
Could not the hands of these rebuild
That which has been destroyed?
Oh, the poor hands! that once were strong and filled
With implements of labor whereby they
Served home and country through the peaceful day.
When those who made the war stand face to face
With these slain soldiers in that unknown place
Whither the dead go, what will be the word
By dead lips spoken and by dead ears heard?
Will souls say King or Kaiser? Will souls prate
Of earthly glory in that new estate?

The Counter
One hundred thousand –
One hundred and fifty thousand –
Two hundred –

The Bearer
Can this check plough?
Can it sow? can it reap?
Can we arouse it?
Is it asleep?

Can it hear when a child cries? –
Comfort a wife?
This little metal disk
Stands for a life.

Can this check build,
Laying stone upon stone?
Once it was warm flesh
Folded on bone.

Sinew and muscle firm,
Look at it – can
This little metal check
Stand for a man?

The Counter
One – two – three – four –

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