Death, Dying, Grief and Mourning

            "Death is always the same,
                               but each man dies in his own way."

Carson McCullers, Clock Without Hands, 1960


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in Western Literature

An Anthology by  Adrienne Nater

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Death, Dying, Grief, and Mourning

in Western Literature


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Helen Zenna Smith, Not So Quiet, 1930

Death of Women Volunteers

Death of Women Volunteers:

"Air raid!’

I collect my blankets and mattress methodically as usual and don my coat and hat and muffler. It is the ninth raid in succession since the moon came this month. From a pale crescent she has grown into a rakish silver ball. She is the most aggressively radiant moon I have ever seen. The night is clear and cold and cloudless, without a breath of wind. An ideal night for a raid. Outside the girls are hastily falling in, ready for roll call. Cheery, Misery and Blimey fall in beside me. They are laughing and chattering. We are so accustomed to this sort of thing that we regard it merely as an infernal nuisance. Familiarity breeds contempt. Our shelter is lined with sandbags and earth, and unless the man in the machine scores a bull’s-eye nothing can harm us. We know it is difficult to make a direct hit from the air. So let’s make the best of life. Cheery has a tin of toffee, while Misery has the inevitable crochet work which she can do as ably in the dark as in the light.


We stagger forth, stumbling and giggling with our cumbersome loads. A mile is not a long distance, but Army biscuit mattresses are no joke to carry for any length of time. We arrive gasping. There is no sign of the enemy planes as yet…the warning has been given in excellent time. We settle ourselves comfortably. I find a cozy corner, and Cheery, Misery and Blimey drape themselves comfortably round me. They like being near me during raids because I am "always the same."

Misery immediately starts a frenzied assault on the bedspread, while Cheery and Blimey, sotto voce, in case a forewoman hears, begin to chi-ack here about the wedding night with Fred. They accuse her of "knowing all about it," of having already had intimate relations with Fred. She ignores this. To their chagrin she is not to be drawn tonight.

"I betcher Fred’s ‘avin’ a good old ‘ot time in the ole town tonight with some of them munition girls," says Blimey, slyly digging me in the calf. " ‘ ot stuff, them munitioners. I betcher old Fred’s ‘ot stuff w’en ‘e gets loose, too."

This annoys Misery, as it invariably does.

"Ere, you leave my Fred be," she retorts.

" ‘E’s never ‘ad nout to do with no woman yet, ‘as my Fred. ‘E’s a pure man."

"Blimey! A ‘e-virgin" teases Blimey. "Fancy marryin’ a feller ‘oo’s goin’ to practice on yer, Misery, I …"

Hark!" interrupts Misery. "Hark!"

The enemy planes have come down within earshot. Buzz, buzz, buzz … like a giant hive of giant bees.

"Bigger fleet than ever tonight."

The gossip and the laughter die down to a murmur, then gradually fade away altogether. We sit there in semi-darkness waiting. It is not the most pleasant sensation in the world sitting in a shelter waiting for bombs to drop. Even though the odds are a hundred to one against a direct hit, it is a nasty feeling … like anticipating a dentist’s drill, or making a speech in public, or hearing a burglar trying an insecure window latch … apprehensive, uncertain what may happen next.

Now the picnic has started. The bombs are falling thick and fast, each explosion nearer. Worse tonight that they have ever been, we whisper. We whisper the same thing every night. In the half-light I can see Misery’s fingers working rapidly … in and out she wiggles the crochet hook, her voice murmuring "Two chain, three treble, two double crocket, four treble, turn, two chain…"Her plain, gaunt, absorbed face bends over the work as though she can see the pattern plainly. She has been working on the bedspread for eighteen months … another six months and it will be ready for her and Fred. "If the war ends then, but wot ‘ope?" says Misery, always the perfect pessimist,

There is a terrific explosion, startling in its unexpectedness, like a frightful peal of thunder, followed by a rain of shots. We know what that is … machine guns aimed from the air at some target after the bomb has scored a hit. We sit up. Hardly have we recovered from the shock that there is another ear-splitting explosion … nearer. More machine gun fire follows it. Now we see the machines overhead, outlined black against the clear sky. The bombs are dropping all round the trench. Our ears are ringing. We are all deathly quiet now, watching … all but Misery, who crochets for dear life. Another bomb and another hail of machine gun fire. We stare at one another, not daring to ask what we are all thinking.

Have they found our trench? Are they aiming at us? They seem to be concentrating dead on us. Usually they make for the soldier’s encampment to the right or the woods to the left, but tonight is different. Another ear-splitting explosion. A flash of flame. That was very near. The noise of the engines is near, too. They are flying very low tonight.

Ploo-oop. Crash! Through the half-light our eyes seek one another, startled. We listen. Four engines. We can count them distinctly. Four bombers flying low over our trench. Someone asks what our own planes are doing to let the raiders through like this, dropping their bombs like rain, deafening us until our heads are pounding and our eardrums throbbing.

"Put that blarsted crochay away," whispers Blimey harshly. "Fair get on my nerves you do, crochayin’ as though they was playin’ marbles up there with them bombs; getting’ on everybody’s nerves you with your rotten crochay . . . ."

Ploo-op. Crash!

The end of the trench suddenly collapses with a roar. There is a flash of flame outside. The sandbags cave in slowly as though coming to a mighty decision before falling. The bomb caught the end of the trench, five feet to the left and the airman would have scored a direct hit. One of the girls is hit — bleeding. The others begin to panic and huddle together at the other end. The place comes down in a swoop, lower, lower …engine roaring. We can see his bombs hanging below the wings. Lower, lower …another bomb is unleashed. It falls in the middle of the trench. There is a mighty explosion, a flash of flame, and ear-splitting percussion that knocks me flat on the ground. Something falls on me. I lose consciousness. When I come to girls are screaming all round me … the air is filled with the groans of the dying. Something heavy is lying across my legs. With difficulty I remove it. It is a sandbag. I stand up. My mouth is filled with dirt, but I am not hurt. Beside me lies Cheery … she is quite dead. The top of her head is blown off and one of her hands is missing. She looks as though she had tried to shield her face. Blimey is bleeding from a wound in the arm … the blood is pouring from it. "Now see wot’s ’appened to me new Burberry, all covered with blood. Now see wot’s ‘appened to me new Burberry, all covered in blood," she keeps muttering, holding her arm out to divert the stream from her clothing to the ground. I cannot see Misery anywhere. There is a pile of earth and wood where she had been sitting. Madly I begin to dig, with bare hands. I find an edge of the crochet work — she is not far from it. I manage to get her out, I raise her head. She is alive … just. She cannot speak. Her lips open and shut soundlessly. She wants something. I hand her the crochet work. A look of content comes over her plain face. The crochet bedspread will never be finished by Misery. She dies as I watch her.

The trench is like a slaughterhouse. All round me girls are lying dead or dying. Some a wounded. The wounded are trying to staunch one another’s blood. A few are shell-shocked. One scales the side of the shelter frantically, scrabbling and digging her toes into the earth like a maddened animal, then runs shrieking into the night. In the distance the buzz of the planes grows fainter and fainter. The raiders have been beaten off at last.

I tie Blimey’s arm. She nearly fights me as I tear strips from her petticoat to bind the artery. At last voices are heard. Soldiers from the camp rush on the scene, cursing and blaspheming at the sight of the mangled women.

The roll is called. The casualties are heavy. Ten dead, two missing, twenty-four injured. Four are unhurt, and of these three are shell-shocked. I am the only woman out of forty to escape.

The ambulances are coming. The dead are lying neatly in a row. The wounded lie beside them. Soldiers are trying to dress their wounds. Blimey is unconscious from loss of blood. Her Burberry will never be any use again. Misery and Cheery lie at my feet. Misery is clasping her unfinished crochet bedspread. Cheery looks curiously naked without her right hand. The stump of her arm is still shielding her face.

A soldier comes over to where I am sitting on the side of the trench. "Well, you wasn’t meant to die tonight," he says.

I turn my head in his direction and begin to laugh softly. He is alarmed.

"Can’t get you a drink, can I ? You’re not hysterical nor nothing?"

I tell him no. I have never felt less hysterical in my life.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

Her soul died under a radiant silver moon in the spring of 1918 on the side of a blood-spattered trench. Around her lay the mangled dead and the dying. Her body was untouched, her heart beat calmly, the blood coursed as ever through her veins. But looking deep into those emotionless eyes one wondered if they had suffered much before the soul had left them. Her face held an expression of resignation, as though she had ceased to hope that the end might come.



Adrienne Nater, 2008

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