"Do you smell that?"
They all looked at each other. No one liked it when Lucien spoke up. Not since the last time. Paul discreetly elbowed his neighbor, urging him to do something. Albert turned over with a sigh. The mist was casting its strands between the tight group and Lucien, who was seated a bit farther away, his legs folded up against his chest.
"What, Lulu? I don't smell a thing."
"That, you bastard!"
Lucien's annoyed tone tipped him off. How long ago was the last episode now? A few days, at the most. Everything had started off the same way: in the early morning, the mist had intruded around the men. The only part of Lucien that showed was the tip of his cigarette. And then his hollow voice had become tense as a bow. At first the men had paid no attention to him. The poor devils. But Albert knew what was going to happen. Lucien, transformed, had scared the living daylights out of the men that day. And since then, they had started calling him Lunatic instead of Gunfire Gobbler.
"It smells, Albert," he repeated, as his silhouette disappeared behind an opaque veil.
"Make him shut up," Adrien grumbled a bit farther away. "Your pal's scaring us to death."
Albert chose to ignore his companion's comment. Clutching his pea jacket around him, with both arms folded over his chest, he closed his eyes.
To savor rest and silence….
His thoughts took him back home. Over there, there was also mist in the early morning, rifles and buddies, but the quarry was much less combative. He had known Lucien since his earliest childhood and the boy had never been a star: in the village, everyone looked at him suspiciously. They thought he was cursed. Mothers taught their children to flee from the boy with the scar. Lulu wasn't like the others. Gloomy and alone, he had been born disfigured to an old witch, and was always wandering around empty houses, chicken coops, and abandoned fields. It had taken Albert a long time to tame him. Lucien wasn't just anyone — he had been able to tell by the shivers up and down his spine when they first met. They had become inseparable. Despite appearances, Lucien protected Albert, but no one knew that. No one knew anything, in reality. But Albert knew Lucien's secret. He bore it like his own cross ever since the summer they were twelve.
In the trenches, life hadn't radically changed for Lucien. He was the guy who didn't talk and didn't hang around with anyone, but he was always in the right place at the right time and made it through all the fighting. He had become Gunfire Gobbler. Until that ill-fated morning, a few days earlier. Since then, the guys had renamed him the Lunatic.
"It smells, Albert."
Lulu had gotten up. A crippling silence struck the plain, above the ladder, in the no man's land. Even the few birds around shut their traps, even though they'd opened them at the first glimmer of dawn.
"No, it doesn't!" scolded Albert, also crouching now.
Not today, it wasn't possible! This time Lucien was wrong. Albert got ready to grab him by the throat. He would hit him if he had to, but he wouldn't let Lulu end up in front of a firing squad.
"I tell you it smells!"
Around them, terror was spreading now like an awful ruckus, seeping underneath all the trembling helmets.
"He's starting again," whined little Louis from the bottom of the tunnel. "Oh, no, fuck no…."
"What do you smell, Lulu?" ventured the Kid, hunching his blond head down toward his shoulders.
The poor guy hadn't been there the last time. He had joined the company afterwards and no one had had the heart to fill him in on the Lunatic's reputation.
"I'm going to knock him off," Adrien threatened, standing up, his bayonet in the barrel. "Once is enough. I don't want to go through that again!"
A murmur of agreement rippled through the company.
"I'm telling you, he doesn't smell anything!" Albert yelled, standing up to his full height now. "I've explained it to you a hundred times! He doesn't smell anything — he has no sense of smell because of his scar, he never has!"
"Shut the hell up, Albert!" Old Joe also lost his temper, his fingers white on the barrel of his weapon. "Quit being a smartass! You know what we're talking about. Your pal can smell! Huh, Lulu? You smell something like blood, right? Like last time?"
All the men now turned their bearded faces toward Gunfire Gobbler.
One day, Lucien had explained to Albert, his only friend, what he really smelled. Not food, not flowers or girls, like regular men. No. Lulu wasn't an ordinary man. He had an extra sense, instead of a sense of smell. He smelled only one thing, for himself and for those he loved. A mystical, frightening thing. Something no man wants to look in the face.
Albert lowered his head, defeated. What if they were all right? What if Lucien had to be executed once and for all, to be done with all this. Then they could live their lives in ignorance, enjoying every moment without worrying about the arrival of this bitch. She had chosen Lucien as her messenger. So they could knock off the servant, since they couldn't conquer the master, and return to their obliviousness!
Behind his back, Lucien lit another cigarette and came closer. His huge build emerged from the mist alongside Albert. The men all took a step back into the mud. The Lunatic took a drag on his cigarette, rubbed his eyes with his mud-stained hands, and then calmly turned his face to the sky. The dense cloud above the trench announced imminent hail. A group gasp resounded in the deathly silence.
"I told you, Albert, it smells," he finally said. "It smells like blood."
"We're on a wretched mass grave!" Albert shouted as a last resort. "You're gonna end up in front of a firing squad for damaging the morale of the troops, Lulu! Will you just shut up? What do you think it smells like?"
"Fresh blood," the Lunatic blurted out like an omen.
Panic took hold of the company. Some soldiers abandoned their equipment in the mud, rushing toward the no man's land. Adrien pushed the Kid so violently that he fell face down at the foot of the ladder. The others ran up and down the tunnel looking for an exit that didn't exist.
"It's the Christmas truce," Albert murmured in astonishment. "Maybe you smell blood but we don't hear anything. It's not today, Lulu. This time you're wrong!"
The Lunatic then made this dreadful gesture that Albert understood too late: his first gesture of humanity. In an awkward movement, he held his lifelong friend against his heart.
"Running is no use," he whispered into his ear. "The blood smells too fresh. It's happening today. It's happening now."
He had confided in him about his curse when they were still only children, happily playing at scaring each other among the bales of straw. Twelve years old — it was so far away and yet so present.
"Don't leave me, ever," Lucien had suddenly demanded. "And when I smell it, I'll tell you. You'll be a goner, but you'll know." A grim promise, made unthinkingly. Cross my heart, hope to die.
There was a dull crack, followed by a shout in this foreign but abhorred language. Lulu's clasp tightened inexorably around Albert's shoulders.
The piercing whistle of the heavy shell ripped through the morning calm.
The trench rose up and launched the deserters into the sky.
Albert felt his body dissolve in a blinding flash: pressed against him, the Lunatic was gobbling his last gunfire. He had kept his promise. Albert regretted his own before being scattered into nothingness.
Translated by Kate Deimling