The Ghosts (Excerpt)
“Everywhere they go, the ghosts leave their footprints on the earth,” Tan said, as he dug around a land mine while Kwon and Tsin stood by and watched. Gently moving the edge of his bayonet around the device, he removed a layer of mud. “This one has been here a while,” he said, looking up and smiling, then wiped his forehead with the arm that held the weapon.
The bayonet was not his – the Labour Units were only issued shovels and without rifles there was absolutely no reason why they should have something to attach to the end of a weapon, Major Jolliffe explained. Jolliffe didn’t last long. He’d been followed by Hobart, then Carruthers, then Miller, and now the young Bingsley who wanted to be home and rid of his “Asians,” as he called them.
The truth behind the Labor Battalion’s lack of rifles was that their officers simply didn’t trust them, at least that’s what Kwon said when the Chinese diggers–in uniforms but not entitled to call themselves soldiers – had moved through the trenches and collected bodies of the fallen. They were unable to defend themselves against the enemy. They made pikes and used their shovels as weapons but such things were useless against munitions.
Kwon kept count of how many Chinese he had buried in the Canadian cemeteries. The Chinese dead were kept to one corner of the memorial grounds, “their own place,” as Major Jolliffe said. At least their headstones were of the same white marble as the others. Their names were known only unto God or to those who could read Mandarin. Most of the laborers were Cantonese.
Tsin took the mine from Tan’s hands and carried it over to a length of lumber where other mines lined the board like pies cooling in an afternoon breeze. Someone else from their battalion would come and detonate them later.
“Where is the next one?” Tsin asked.
Tsin was not good at finding them, only at unburying them. During the course of the day, as they worked their way across a shell-pocked field half a mile outside Ypres, they uncovered three tons of salvage metal, mostly steel, some brass, a dozen unexploded ten-inch shells that were probably German because, as the war lingered, the munitions workers lost heart and fewer shells exploded. They had uncovered an entire tank but were told by their CO Bingsley that unless they could smell bodies inside it wasn’t worth the effort to dig it out.
“Well?” asked Bingsley.
Kwon shrugged as if to say, “Well what?”
He pretended he had trouble with English when it suited him, although he knew exactly what was being said whenever one of the ghosts opened their mouth.
(Please read the complete story in The Hong Kong Review, Vol. II, No. 2)