Katherine Parhar

My grandparents' accounts of both World Wars are very vivid for me. But I didn't want to tell their true stories second-hand since they tell them better than me. Instead, I tried to get at what terrified me most, which is what my grandparents withheld from me. I tried imagine what it was like to face - to die in or survive - a new, mechanised kind of killing, which made the individual human seem like an expendable thing.

Katherine Parhar

Dear Unknown Soldier,

The sight of you near moved me half to prayer, son, the way you fell that day, thrown down, and the sound coming a split second after, like always, a loud afterthought, and you, your face side-on in the dust, one nostril snuffed in soil.

Forgive me, son, but you were beautiful, how you fell there, one leg straight, the other one bent up, with your foot pointing in at your knee, and your arms flung up over your head, the fingers parted, reaching out.

It was the last look I got of you. And I carried it with me, all the long days, for it was a wonder, in that hell of stumped limbs and caved faces, that a man, which is a precious thing, could be left so intact, that death ever came so complete.

You were the exception, son. I’m sorry. We did not burn you. We could not carry you back. You lay on, a hump of cloth on the skyline, limbs as they fell, by accident, beautiful as a dancer who tries for years to get such grace.

At least it was summer, and not a bastard winter, my friend, there’s that. You weren’t out there long, like a living thing flung on stopped film, or ice, only to go to pulp in spring, when all the world, bar us, was rousing to seed and bloom.

You went quick, my friend, and that’s the truth this time. But I wondered, until I went myself, old and by my fire, if as you fell, you thought the bluntest thoughts: Christ. Oh Jesus Christ. What a balls up.

Or did you forget why you lay face down in a place that slipped your mind, seeing things in a new light that came, not from the sky, or the gas that covered it, but from the loose ends of all your hopes and your shrinking efforts to keep close track of who you were and where it was you started from.

In my prayers, son.

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