His name was David - the one who hadn’t broken. I could see it from a mile away; he stood out in the line like the one green leaf left in autumn. David. Young, gentle, innocent David.
His name was David.
I met David in the spring. Where all the other young soldiers emerged from Officer Training like wilted plants struggling after a hard winter, David was the green sprout only beginning to bud. He drew attention to himself, but not by his actions or his words; he had no strong opinions, no need to prove himself. All he had was a smile that sat upon his face like a permanent fixture, so suited it was to his features.
For a while, I hovered at the edge of our company and watched him. Something about him was transfixing; the way my eyes were drawn to him was inescapable, inexplicable, incredible. When the newcomers broke ranks, I pushed myself away from the crate of supplies I leaned against and headed his way. The others, they would try to wipe the smile from his face, to harden it into a cynic’s scowl. War was no place for the light of heart.
I intercepted David before any of the other men, extending my hand and matching his smile, though mine was tighter, strained. “Welcome to France, Officer…?” Then I did not know his name. Now, I could never forget it.
“David,” he replied, smile growing wider still. His handshake was firm, but his palms were soft. “David Thomas. And you are?” he prompted, eyes darting from my face to our surroundings and back again, as if trying to take in everything at once.
“Siegfried Sassoon,” I told him, then paused. “How old are you, Officer Thomas?”
“Nineteen,” David admitted, all of his attention directed towards me once again. “This is my first assignment.”
I wept for him even then, when I knew nothing. I knew enough to suspect. Cynicism had not spared me as it had David. “Be careful out there, kid.” I clapped him on the arm. “If you need anything, let me know, yeah?”
I had not been so rude back then. David headed off to introduce himself some of the other men, and I turned away. When it was nearing nightfall, I headed towards the perimeter of our camp to a fallen log that served as my nightly meditation spot. My little notebook was stiff in my pocket, and I could feel it with every step. I could also feel someone following me. Without turning, I asked, “Is there something you need?”
“No. I mean- yes. Not really. Sorry, it can wait for morning,” David retracted. “Sir.”
Shaking my head, I replied, “No, it’s alright. What do you want?”
Well, perhaps I was still rude.
“Just to… talk,” David admitted, quickening his steps to keep up with mine, even though he was taller than I was. “I get the feeling that not everyone here likes me for some reason, sir, and I thought you might be able to help me not look like a naive fool.”
I scoffed. “Rather late for that.”
David’s eyes widened, and he demanded, “Why? What have I done?”
With a little shake of my head, I took a seat on the log. David settled beside me, and we faced the little forested cliff as the sun sank towards the horizon. “If you look around at the other men,” I began, “there is one thing you’ll notice they have in common.”
“They have a lot of things in common,” David replied with a frown. “Haircuts, uniforms-“
Another shake of my head cut him off. “Nothing so tangible. There’s something else that our governments don’t impose on us. Well, at least not as such.”
“It’s a look in their eyes,” I told him, my eyes focused on the red-gold sky as it bled out, seeping into he foliage below. It was a sight I couldn’t seem to escape out here - the blood red tint on everything. “Ghosts resting just below the surface, ready to emerge when they’re called… or when they’re not. Something that tugs at the corners of their mouths, never lets them smile like you do. Phantoms of thought and memory.” After a moment of thought, I pulled out my book and scribbled the last line of that down.
David was staring at me, and I let him. “You sound like a poet.”
My lip quirked. “Lucky, because that’s what I call myself.”
“Lucky? Or a poet?”
“Sometimes either. Rarely both.”
David looked away. “Does it help you? Writing?”
I shrugged. “Maybe. You assume I need help.”
“If you are like the others with ghosts in your eyes and weights at the corners of your mouth, then you must,” he reasoned. The sun was almost gone by then, and a chill crept into the air. I could feel the heat from David’s side radiating towards mine.
“Ah, so you’ve been paying attention.”
David nodded. “You think I should stop smiling.”
I turned to look him in the eye. “If you keep smiling, the men will give you a reason to stop. That I know. But what I think is that you should never stop smiling.”
He held my gaze for a moment, then, slowly, he smiled.