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Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua

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The first time he lit the taper, the flame didn't take. The wick gleamed red for a moment, then stuttered and died. It was a poor omen, and when one meant to speak with the dead, one couldn't afford to ignore the ominous.

Siegfried struck a new match and held it against the wick until the matchstick curled up at the ends of his fingers, and only then did he shake it out and put it aside. The draught made the candle flame flicker, but there was nothing to be done about the draught. Give up on the taper and fetch a squat, fat candle already melted down the middle, perhaps; the wax might keep the wind at bay. The taper smacked of pretence, either the high-church ceremonial sort or the pentagram tomfoolery of a Bennett or a Crowley.

These things had a form to them, though, and a military man knew that forms had to be followed.

The wax at the top of the taper was already beginning to soften. That meant there was nothing left to do but speak the invocation. It would be a Latin invocation, too; the spirits seemed to understand nothing else, as though even the most plain-spoken of Englishmen should expect to be mobbed by ardent Romans on the moment of his death and induced thereupon to learn a dead language.

There were two kinds of men, Siegfried thought, who wrote poetry in Latin. The one kind meant to borrow the grandeur of the ancients to cloak his own insignificance; he spoke the language of the academy and the Vatican because he wished to speak with bishops and dons, and not because he had anything particularly to say to them. The other kind of man -- the other kind wrote poetry in Latin because his teachers had raised him to revere it, and he knew no other language for reverence.

I, too, saw God through mud. "A touch too blasphemous for the Hydra, I'm afraid," Siegfried said to spirits present and absent. "And the second line was a syntactic horror. Still, the rest had promise."

It felt wrong to say Arma virumque cano. That was Owen's place, to take down the war in sharp-edged fragments and make each one keep meter -- to call an indictment an apologia, and to empty the heavens of every god but the almighty shell.

It felt only a little better to say, "Musa, mihi causas memora." Muse, remember to me the reasons, for everyone else has already forgotten them.

He kept his eyes fixed on the candle, watching the flame dance whenever his breath caught it; soon the effort of keeping still the candle flame stilled his breath as well. His hands felt heavy upon the table, upon the flattened matchbook with its corners creased. He watched the candle until it seemed a column that held the world up -- if the world was a circle of fire, which he had no real reason to believe it wasn't.

"Are you there, Owen?" he asked. "I expect you know that they've put your poems about after your death. And in your name, too; Wilde would have some cutting remark about the relative anonymity of the living and the dead, but I haven't the heart to make it. It would shame your modesty, or make modesty of your shame, and I'm not entirely sure which is worse. There's even been a call to publish the unfinished ones, which as far as I'm concerned is terribly poor form. A man ought to determine the content of his own literary legacy, don't you agree?"

When the dead learnt to speak Latin, perhaps they forgot their English. This is what glossolalia feels like, he thought. Only a spill of sounds, incomprehensible and irrepressible.

"Remember Plackett? He used to babble like this, whether or not anyone was there to hear it. A rare find, among mutes and stutterers, or so the doctors said; I believe he was a Catholic. Some deep confessional impulse, or something like that. Speech as a necessary precursor for atonement."

There was a creeping itch on the left side of his nose, but he couldn't make himself raise his hand to scratch it. Rivers would have something to say about psychosomatic paralysis, which fixes the body in place but lets the mouth run on without end.

"Do speak up, Owen. I can feel you hovering on the edges of the conversation, waiting for a polite place to jump in."

What do you want me to say?

Siegfried closed his eyes. He wanted to believe that the voice was Owen's, but he had spent too many months in imagining an interlocutor; he could perfectly imitate Owen's lingering stutter and the way he had of blushing audibly, and at times he even fancied that he'd managed a touch of the steel undergirding the shyness. I want you to tell me that you're watching over me, he could have said, or I want you to say that the dead are in a better place -- lie if you have to; only tell me so that I'll believe it -- but all he could manage was, "Tell me that you're really here."

Don't look up from the candle. I can't promise that we'll be able to go on if you look up.

When he opened his eyes again, Owen was sitting on the far side of the table. "Don't look up from the candle," he said again. "And be especially careful not to meet my eyes."

"Orpheus and Eurydice, I take it."

"Something like that." Even through the haze of the candle, Siegfried could see that Owen's uniform was shining-slick with new blood. "Did you really call me back just to have a chat?"

"I've missed our chats," Siegfried answered; he was shaking, and if it was with laughter or skin-crawling terror, he hadn't the power to divine. "I have dozens of friends who will talk about poetry with me -- none of them with quite your gift, but a good deal more of them with properly fanatical dedication to craft and years of formal training --"

"If you're going to take that tone with me, I'm going to leave." Owen had ducked his head as if to hide a smile, though, which put the lie to his show of spleen.

Siegfried could only smile in return, while Owen's blood pattered like rain upon the floorboards. "But sometimes, amid these eminent poets, I want to talk with a man who dreamed of raising pigs." Eyes still fixed on the candle flame, he reached across the table for Owen's hand.

"I can't take that," said Owen. "Believe me, I'm tempted, but ... let's talk about poetry instead."

"I suppose that dying's taken your appetite for war poetry. No place for anything but 'Batter my heart, three-person'd God' among the heavenly choir, is there? The war is an experience, until experience has met its surcease." He left his hand lying palm-up on the table between them, the offer plain and unspoken.

Owen laid his hand palm-down beside his, near enough for Siegfried to feel it leaching warmth away. "It's not ... it isn't like that, exactly. It isn't that the war ceases to matter when you're out of it, because you can't ever really be out of it. Never, no matter whether you survive it or you don't. It still clings to you, weighs you down like sucking mud, and it rots you from the outside in. You can't be out of it any more than you can be out of an amputation, because it's taken a part of you."

"'If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow' --"

"It isn't like that." A trickle of wax ran down the side of the taper. "It's the living who pass on the torch and say, 'Take up our quarrel with the foe.'"

"And what do the dead do?"

"We find words for fellowship in our suffering." Owen's hand twitched as though he meant to place it in Siegfried's, but he seemed to think better of it and left his palm flat on the tablecloth. "That was why we went back, wasn't it? Not for England, and not even for the victory. For our fellow-men, so that we could suffer together."

"As a great poet once wrote, 'I have made fellowships-- / Untold of happy lovers in old song.' Or perhaps that should be, 'These men are worth / Your tears: You are not worth their merriment.'"

Owen laughed. "Did I write that?"

"You did. But honestly, 'where shell-storms spouted reddest spate'? You had to know that was terrible --"

"I liked the alliteration. You could hear the hiss of the shells and the pop of the guns in it."

"It's a nightmare of tortured locution. Although I grant you the alliteration." If he only stretched his smallest finger, he could brush it against the side of Owen's palm. "What would happen, if I looked into your eyes? If I took your hand?"

"You know what would happen," Owen answered gently. There was an undercurrent of surety in his voice that Siegfried had only seldom heard in life. "What happened to Orpheus?"

He lost Eurydice, Siegfried thought, but that was no answer. "The Maenads tore him to shreds," he said instead. "His severed head went singing down the torrent; all that was left was an incomparable song."

"I wouldn't see that happen to you," said Owen, still gentle as a touch. "I want you to grow old, and love good men, and see that they aren't alone. I want you to have friends and lovers and children -- and pigs; someone ought to have pigs --"

"I am not raising pigs in your name, Wilfred Owen," Siegfried said sternly.

"You would die so as not to lose me, but you wouldn't raise pigs for me." Owen drew his hand back and folded it in his lap, wincing only a little as his forearm brushed one of his many wounds.

Siegfried remembered his mother's spiritualist friends gossiping about seducing spirits, about an aunt's sister-in-law who wasted away after her dead husband called at her bedside, a nephew's schoolfriend who shot himself when his sister led him to the brook where she had drowned.

They were always lovers or brothers, these too-welcome guests; it was all too easy for them to slip into their appointed places and lead their loved ones away by the hand. A man who was almost lover, almost brother -- such a man had only to place his palm against Siegfried's to draw him away into that infinite fellowship of the dead.

There was a red hole like a wound in the world, thin and bright as a candle flame. "So this is what it comes to," said Siegfried eventually. "If I asked for your hand, would you offer it?"

Owen only shook his head.

When Siegfried raised his eyes from the candle, Owen was gone.

He raised himself heavily to his feet and rubbed his eyes, but still the afterimage of fire lingered like a will-o'-the-wisp. He licked his fingers and pinched the candle out, then sat alone in the smoke-shot darkness until his hands had grown waxen and cold.