The Music of a Soldier's Soul

by Barbara A. Barnett

When the first shells hit, Patrick's gun slipped from his grasp. He scrambled for the weapon only to drop it again, victim to a conspiracy of trembling hands and sweaty palms. The enemy assault assumed more forms than he could fight: the percussive ringing in his ears, the impact of every explosion shaking its way through his body, the sickly sweet scents of blood and scorched flesh forcing their way into his nose. Tears streaked his face, hot, like the uncomfortable wetness that spread over his crotch as he pissed his pants.
Beside him, other men leaned into the sandbags and fired without hesitation. Men who had been with the unit far longer than Patrick's single day. Men who were seemingly oblivious to every shot and explosion, to the shit-tinged stink of the cramped foxhole.
One man collapsed beside Patrick, the left side of his face obliterated in a spray of blood and fleshy shards. The other soldiers fought on.
Patrick clapped his hands over his ears and sank against the gore-streaked dirt.
A bullet tore through another man's arm. The stone-faced soldier continued to fire. Not a flinch, not a shout, not the slightest acknowledgement of pain. Only inhuman persistence.
Patrick cried out for his mother.
* * *
In appearance, the chaplain's tent was like any other, one lump among many in the camp's panorama of dung-colored conformity. But in feel, it possessed a spectral air that raised the hairs on Patrick's neck. He watched several of his foxhole compatriots enter, as robotically stoic as they had been in the thick of combat. The last one in pulled the tent flaps closed behind him.
Much to Patrick's surprise, music began to play—a violin, the instrument of his childhood lessons. The melody was faint, muffled by the tent's thick canvas. The notes tugged at something inside Patrick, yet for every few steps he made toward them, fear drew him back another.
The playing stopped before he could reach the tent. Patrick teetered mid-step, feeling as if he had been suddenly cut loose from a tether. Men began to file out, this time talking, even laughing, as if they had never been deafened by gunfire nor tripped over viscera and bodies cut in half at the waist.
What happened to them in there? Patrick wondered as he stared at the chaplain's tent. How could a man enter so somber, leave so carefree?
A hand clamped down on Patrick's shoulder. "You a Christian?"
Patrick jumped. The hand was pale and meaty, like the soldier it was attached to.
"I'm Catholic," Patrick said, though he hadn't seen the inside of a church in years.
"Close enough." The other soldier fingered a cross that hung around his neck. "Stay away from that priest if you care anything about your soul. Ain't nothing godly in his devil's work."
"Trying to scare the fresh meat again, Johnson?" a voice called out.
Several men broke off from a group leaving the chaplain's tent and headed toward them. Patrick recognized the one who had spoken: Mason, the man he had seen shot during the firefight. Mason's arm was bandaged now, and he cringed when one of his companions accidentally brushed against it—hardly the impassive block of a soldier he had been in battle.
"Don't listen to this guy," Mason said to Patrick. "Father Joachim's the best thing that ever happened to this unit."
Johnson raised his cross to his lips and kissed it. "God will be judge of that."
One of Mason's companions, a man named Landon, snickered. "You know, Johnson, maybe if you took that holier-than-thou-art pole out of your ass, you'd finally get to kiss something besides your cross."
Patrick had broken up enough fights between his brothers to recognize this dynamic: Mason and Landon, cockily seeing just how far they could push; Johnson, finally pushed one too many times. Patrick took a middle brother's instinctive step between them only to have Johnson's fist crash hard against his jaw. The punch sent Patrick reeling in one direction; a yank on his collar pulled him in yet another, away from the mess of sweaty shoves and punches erupting around him.
"Break it up!" The brusque voice of Captain Aaronson, the unit's commanding officer, ended the fight as swiftly as it had begun. "I'm beginning to think you fellows enjoy being assigned extra latrine duty."
Patrick's footing steadied enough for him to see that it was Mason who had pulled him away from the scuffle. But instead of gratitude, Patrick felt embarrassment, sharp like the ache in his jaw. As if being a coward in battle wasn't bad enough—now he couldn't even handle a fistfight without being rescued by the guy with the wounded arm.
"Easy on the new kid, Captain," Mason said. "He was just trying to keep things from getting ugly."
"Sorry, pal," Johnson said to Patrick. He tucked his cross away beneath his fatigues. "Wasn't aiming for you."
"Wouldn't be the first time you aimed about as well as a blind man," Aaronson said. He looked Patrick over, face scrunched, as if he was wondering how this skinny stick of a solider had ended up in his unit. "Go get that jaw iced, private," he finally said. "I expect to see the rest of you cleaning the latrine at 0500."
As they all began to disperse with a chorus of yes, sirs, Mason pulled Patrick aside and whispered, "Go see Father Joachim when you get the chance."
Patrick cast a wary glance at the chaplain's tent. Mason had gone in there a hardened killer, had come out a brash young man with a quick smile. And the music Patrick had heard—he couldn't help but think of some half-remembered old folk tale about a man trading his soul to a violin-playing devil. Devils and magic bargains were a ridiculous notion, but something had happened in that tent, something that enabled people like Mason to fight without cowardice or shame. Whatever it was, all Patrick needed was one glance at the dried urine patch on his fatigues to believe it had to be worth the price.
* * *
The next morning, Patrick found Father Joachim seated on the cracked dirt outside of the medical tent. Everything about the priest looked out of place with his fatigues—the clerical collar; the serene, rotund face; and most of all, the violin on his lap.
"I used to play," Patrick said, nodding toward the instrument. "When I was a kid."
Joachim smiled as if Patrick still were. "It's never too late to start again. Music is good for the soul."
"The guys in this unit…" With a shudder, Patrick thought again of Mason in the foxhole, of his inhuman disregard for the bullet piercing his flesh. "These guys fight like they don't have souls, Father."
"Everyone has a soul, my son."
Patrick wasn't so certain. He glanced at the medical tent, silent but for the sounds of doctors and nurses at work—clipped requests for surgical instruments, sometimes the metallic clank of dislodged shrapnel dropped into a pan. Yesterday, when he had gone in there to get ice for his jaw, he heard not a single moan of pain from the wounded, not a single complaint from a patient insisting he was ready to return to duty.
"I've never been real religious," Patrick said, "but Mason said I should see you and—"
Explosions pulsed on the horizon—far, yet still too close. Patrick's stomach clenched at thought of another dreadful eternity crouched in the filth and gore of a foxhole. The threat of cowardice rose up in him like bile.
Landon, Mason's companion from the previous day's scuffle, walked past, a flask tilted to his lips. When he saw Patrick and Father Joachim, the flask vanished into the pockets of his fatigues. He slung an arm around Patrick's shoulders.
"Are you going to play for the boy, Father?" The stale scent of whiskey tinted Landon's breath. "Turn him into a real soldier?"
Patrick bit back his retort. Religious or not, his mother would have been horrified at the thought of him cussing someone out in front of a priest.
With another laugh, Landon slapped Patrick hard on the back and lumbered off.
Asking a priest to turn someone into a real soldier—it would have seemed an odd exchange if Patrick hadn't seen the change in the men who came and went from the chaplain's tent.
"Some men make it difficult to remember that we are all precious in our Lord's eyes," Father Joachim said, staring after Landon with a frown. The priest ran his hand over the weathered finish of his violin, looking as if he were a parent comforting a frightened child. "What I do is not for the good of this war, but for the people who have no choice but to fight it."
"What exactly is it you—"
The explosions, distant only a moment before, hit so close that the earth groaned beneath Patrick's feet. A siren wailed, nearly drowning out the voice on the PA calling them to their posts.
Father Joachim stood and started toward his tent.
"I need to know how the other guys do it," Patrick said, chasing after him. "They all seem so normal now, but when we were in the thick of it… how do they shut down like that?"
"There's no time for me to explain." Father Joachim turned to him, a pained yet cautioning look on his face. "To hear me play is not a decision to be made in haste. I'm sorry, my son."
The priest hurried on without him.
"Please…" Patrick's steps faltered with his voice. He watched helplessly as Father Joachim waved several men inside his tent and pulled the flaps shut behind them.
A voice crackled over the PA; Patrick's hands trembled in response. Those who had not gone into the chaplain's tent rushed past, some barking orders, some carrying them out. Patrick knew he should follow suit, but another thought overwhelmed all reason: he would not be a coward again.
Patrick darted around the back of the chaplain's tent, crouched between two supply crates, and pulled up a loose flap of canvas to peer inside.
From his low vantage, the men inside looked huge, giants looming over Father Joachim, who stood with his back to Patrick, the violin tucked beneath his chin. The priest touched the bow to the strings and began to play, the wail of the camp's siren as accompaniment. The song was an old hymn that Patrick vaguely remembered.
"Be still, my soul," one man sang along.
The tone with which Joachim played was pleasant enough, a bit thin and nothing remarkable, yet Patrick stilled at the sound. The music felt as if it were reaching beneath his skin, pulling at something within, holding him transfixed. Emotions surfaced and slipped away. First the dread of that last firefight, then other feelings with which he would not so quickly part: the pride when he had finished basic training; the raw, confused passion of making love to Angela Harrison under the high school bleachers the night before his deployment; the simple joy of summer baseball games on the hot street pavement outside his house; even the nervousness he had felt as a child before his first violin recital. One feeling after another, gone.
What's happening, I'm cold, don't take this from me, and be still, my soul.
As quickly as panic gripped him, the music took it away. Every note Father Joachim played carried off another piece of him until only cold and instinct remained.
* * *
The soldier leaned into the sandbags and fired. Targets fell amid a cacophony of smoke and artillery, each quickly forgotten as he continued his off-key duet with the enemy fire.
He remembered once weeping at this, but not the reason why, not even his name. He knew only orders. Training. Yet his remembrance of tears stirred another memory—a song he had once sung, now half-forgotten.
Only in the wake of battle, when the violin began to play, did he finally recall the words.
* * *
Warmth returned like a shudder. Patrick half expected to find himself in bed, woken from a nightmare. Instead he was standing in the chaplain's tent, surrounded by other men from his unit, covered in grime and reeking of sweat. Patrick had no recollection of firing his gun, yet his shoulder ached from the kickback—an all too familiar feeling from his days in training. The last thing he recalled clearly was peering beneath the tent flap, growing cold as he listened to Father Joachim's violin. Everything after felt like a dream, the barely remembered experience of someone who was supposed to be him, yet wasn't.
The men around him roused from their fugue-like states with easy smiles and casual gaits. Patrick, though, felt off-kilter, like something had been cut out of him and gently placed back inside, only it no longer fit quite right.
Mason slapped him on the back. "You'll get used to it."
"Get used to what exactly?" Patrick said, still trying to make sense of what had happened. But Mason was already on his way out of the tent.
"Thanks, padre," Mason shouted.
The chaplain. Father Joachim sat on his cot, shoulders slumped forward in exhaustion, the violin on his lap. Patrick chilled at the sight of the instrument. He swore he could see something undulating in the hollow beneath the strings, barely visible, like heat rising from pavement in the summer.
Patrick stormed up to the priest. "What did you do to me?"
"I warned you, my son: to hear me play is not a decision to be made in haste." Father Joachim's tone struck an infuriating note between scolding and sympathy. "Yet you chose to listen anyway."
"But what did you do? How did you do it?"
"Some people learn to pour their soul into their music; I have learned to pour the souls of others." Joachim opened his hands toward the sky in supplication. "The rhyme and the reason of it is something only God knows. I am but a servant."
"You're a…" Patrick stammered, anger and confusion tumbling over each other like notes in a frenzied cadenza. "I don't know what you are."
He strained to recall details, any detail, from the surreal blur of the last firefight. There had been no fear, of that he was certain. No shame. No trembling at the sound of enemy fire, no retching at the scent of smoke and guts and feces. The chaplain had spared him from all of it, and that realization only angered Patrick all the more.
"Why didn't you do it when I first got here?" Patrick shouted, drawing stares from the other men lingering in the tent. From their looks, they had watched this scene play out before. "Why make me ever feel those things at all?"
"I wish there had been time, my son."
"You could’ve…" Patrick trailed off, anger drowned out by a crescendo of desperation. "That first battle I was in—you took those feelings away for a time. Can't you keep them?" He gestured toward the violin. "In there?"
"I can shield a soul from further harm, but I cannot remove what has already marred it." Father Joachim plucked one of the violin's strings, producing a short, delicate ping. "A note once played cannot be unplayed."
The last of Patrick's anger faded, and so did his strength. He slumped to the ground beside the chaplain's cot, exhausted from a battle he couldn't remember fighting. He stared up at Father Joachim, whose kindly face was etched with deep lines that spoke of more age than he possessed.
"Thou shall not kill, right?" Patrick said.
"That is the commandment."
"Then why do you make it so that we can?"
"Because you have been given little choice but to fight this war. The least I can do is shield your souls from the sins you must commit." Father Joachim sighed, a sound heavy with regret. "As such, I have as many sins to answer for as anyone else."
They sat in silence for a long while, watching the last of the other men file out of the chaplain's tent. They listened to the disjointed melodies of their conversations, the shuffle of their feet, the clicking of the guns strapped to their backs. Somewhere outside, Captain Aaronson's voice barked out an order to knock it off. Patrick wondered if a fellow new recruit had just found himself caught in a fight between Johnson and Mason's pals.
"I refuse to play for the officers," Father Joachim said. "It would be dangerous for one who cannot feel to lead. Others, though, choose not to listen."
Patrick nodded. When one possessed the power to part you from the very core of your being, if only for a time—a childhood's worth of Sunday catechism told him that Johnson had been right to call it devil's work. And yet…
"Will you be among those who choose to listen next time?" Father Joachim asked.
Would he? Only a moment ago, Patrick had been determined to take Father Joachim to task for what he had done—and then for not having done it sooner. Now, though, Patrick wondered if the chaplain had done him a favor by not playing for him before that first firefight. He could not remember how his second battle felt, but because of the first, he knew that he didn't want to.
"Yes, Father," Patrick said at last. "I think I'd like to hear you play again."
* * *
The soldier hummed a half-forgotten song during every battle, a song different from the hymns the chaplain played. He did not know the song's purpose, and he even sensed that he should not hear the music at all, but it was not his place to question. Only to carry out his orders. And he knew that when the job was done and he heard the violin play, he would remember the words. He and the song would be one.
Yet there was no music in the chaplain's tent this time. Only a pile of rubble. Beside it, a motionless figure huddled over something in the debris. The soldier flipped the figure over. The chaplain stared back at him, breaths shallow, the white of his collar soaked red. On the ground beside him, shielded from whatever blast had hit the tent, lay the violin and its bow.
"Play for them," the chaplain said weakly.
The solider glanced behind him. Other men from the unit had gathered, awaiting music or an order.
"Play for them," the chaplain said again. "Please. You know how."
Please. That was not an order. And yet, the soldier felt compelled to pick up the violin and pluck a string. A clamor of voices sang and then faded. Another pluck of a string, and the voices returned. The soldier recognized one voice among them. It sang the half-remembered, wordless song he always hummed on the battlefield. The voice called for him to play, but there were things in the tune the soldier did not want to remember: Fear. Guilt. Cowardice.
"Be still, my soul," the chaplain sang, his voice a strained pianissimo, "the Lord is on thy side." The next phrase was unintelligible, the words drowned in a mouthful of blood, yet the priest sang on. "Leave to thy God to order and provide."
Leave to thy God to order…
A chaplain took his orders from God. But if the chaplain could not carry out those orders, then someone else must.
The soldier stood, violin and bow in hand. He settled the instrument between his shoulder and chin. He remembered this part: the mechanics. The technique. But hadn't there been more?
The soldier drew the bow across the strings; a rusty sound filled the tent. Something lurked in the cracks between notes. It poured out with the music, enveloping the soldier in warmth until, finally, the words of the half-forgotten song came back to him.
Patrick. His name was Patrick.
The men standing before him shook their heads and rubbed their eyes, as if roused from a long slumber.
His performance was terrible, Patrick knew; he was an amateur playing for the first time in years. The instrument felt heavy and awkward in his grasp. Yet by the enraptured faces of the men around him, he suspected they heard beauty in the music.
Feeling, Patrick remembered his violin teacher once instructing him. Feeling was just as important as technique. Perhaps more so.
The men were staring past him now, toward where the chaplain lay. Their faces darkened, and Patrick's playing darkened with them, each note shadowed with a sorrowful timbre. Mason began to sing, and the others soon joined in:
Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul; when change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.
A final solemn note, and Patrick lowered the bow. He knew without looking that Father Joachim was dead.
* * *
Another decade, another war, and yet the soldiers looked the same. Their uniforms had changed, the guns they carried were sleeker and deadlier, young women stood among them now. Their faces, though, all possessed the same youthful wariness—at least in their unguarded moments. While some of them never seemed able to hide their fears and their doubts, others quickly concealed such things behind cocksure demeanors. Even in his old age, Patrick still envied the latter.
The explosions, the blood, the stink and the death—he had learned to endure such things after Father Joachim's death. At times he wished he could banish such memories. He wished he did not so often wake in the night, drenched in sweat, ears ringing with gunfire and screams he hadn't heard in years. But it was those memories, he knew, that made his need to spare others all the greater.
A young woman approached him, callow and hesitant as he had once been. Patrick chuckled when he saw the name patch on her fatigues: Johnson.
"Some of the guys said I should come see you, sir. They didn't say why, but…" Her eyes fell on the violin resting on Patrick's lap. "Hey, I used to play too."
"It's never too late to start again," Patrick said with a smile. "Music is good for the soul."

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