Last Rites

by Joe Eliseon

During the Great War, i.e., World War I, my grandfather served in the Italian Army on the Austrian front. Once, while detailed as a motorcycle messenger, he  was ordered to take a message from divisional headquarters to the front. The day was gloomy, rainy; the road a track of churned mud. Suddenly, he came upon the smoking ruins of a motorized convoy annihilated by an Austrian artillery barrage.

He dismounted, left his motorcycle by the side of the road, and walked through the remains. The smell of death hung in the air. Smashed hulks burned. Dead bodies and their parts littered the ground. Everyone was dead.

Then he heard a groan. Hurriedly, he looked about, checking the bodies around him. The sound was coming from a man lying on his side, with his back toward him.

My grandfather went to his knees behind the man, turned him back toward himself by the shoulder and cradled him in his arms. The man’s face fell against my grandfather’s chest.

To his shock, my grandfather realized that he knew the face, he knew the man. It was the grown-up face of a childhood friend, a little boy he had played with in the streets of their hometown far to the south, a face he had not seen in many years.

Recognition glimmered in the man’s eyes. The corners of his mouth turned up in the beginning of a smile. Then, without a sound, he died. My grandfather found a shovel and buried his friend by the side of the road. Then he went his way.

I have often wondered what grace was granted this young Italian soldier to die in the arms of a friend rather than alone.

(c) 2016 by the Author. All rights reserved.

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