The Normandy Curse - Alan Baxter
Updated: 4 days ago
The Normandy Curse
by Alan Baxter
Clancy James had no idea how much longer he could resist death.
For so long it hadn’t mattered. Then age began to show itself and he’d wondered about the past. Then infirmity kicked in and the fear came with it. Now there was no doubt, and he thought perhaps it was purely terror keeping him alive.
He stared at the coruscating colours where the wall should be. The flexing shadows. The ink dark tendrils questing forward, reaching, writhing. Clancy put one hand to his toast rack of a chest, felt the hammer of his heart through the papery skin. His breaths were shallow and ragged.
“Not now,” he muttered. “Not yet.”
But how much longer could there be? Just turned 96 years old, alone and unnoticed, it had to be weeks now at best, not months or years. And this, whatever this was, would be waiting. As promised.
Henry bounced forward, front legs stiff, his hackles a ridge of fur from under his collar to the base of his tail. He barked, deep and threatening, his most serious voice. Grey around the muzzle, a little tight in the joints himself, but always young at heart.
“Henry!” Clancy gasped. “Back up, boy. Back up!”
Henry glanced quickly at his master, then back to the impossible portal. He barked once more, sharp and angry, but did as he was told.
“Good boy,” Clancy said, bony fingers with swollen knuckles scratching deep into the brown fur of Henry’s rump. With his other hand, Clancy shook out one of the small white heart tablets, managed to put it on his tongue with shaking fingers. He gulped cold tea from the mug beside the chair where he’d fallen asleep, only to wake with tautness in his chest, sharp pains in his arm, shortness of breath.
“Not yet,” he whispered again. “Not yet.”
He forced himself to breath deeper, will the darkness away.
“This old carcass can’t have much left, eh, Henry?” He scratched the dog’s soft, hanging ears as the stretched reality where the wall should have been slowly faded back to grubby plasterboard. “This old heart is nearly spent.”
Henry whined, put his soft, warm chin on Clancy’s bony knee. Clancy stroked the smooth dome of the Labrador-cross’s head and smiled. “I know, you old mongrel. Love you too.”
It started in 1944 when Clancy was 19 years old.
When the ramp from the troop carrier hit the water and sand shortly after dawn on that dreary June day, Clancy looked into the mouth of hell. Men screamed, some cried openly, as they ran and splashed through the shallows up onto the Normandy beach. The gunfire that met them was indiscriminate and appalling. The sea was cold, but moments after reaching the sand, the spray Clancy felt was warm across his cheek as a man named Parker’s head peeled in two and he ran four more steps before pitching forward. Mines sent body parts spinning through smoke-filled air, screams of fear turning into wails of agony. A sea of men poured up the beach, leaving the ocean behind them. A man Clancy had never seen before fell sideways blood across his chest. He reached up, eyes beseeching, but Clancy ran on.
Strong winds had blown the landing craft of the five sectors – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword – east of their intended positions. Utah and Omaha, it seemed, had been affected the most and Clancy’s fellows in Omaha fell under a rain of fire from gun emplacements overlooking the beaches. Something snagged at his leg and Clancy realized he’d stumbled into rolls of barbed wire. Sobbing, gasping, choking on the swirling smoke, he yanked his leg free, felt his skin tear. The man beside him struggled and lost his footing in the loose sand, fell with his hands forward into the wire.
“Help me!” he yelled, eyes rolling like a terrified cow. Burton was his name, they’d trained together.
Clancy reached down and Burton jerked and ragdolled as bullets tore his shoulder off, punched through his neck and chest. The heat of rounds tore past Clancy’s face and he threw himself sideways and down, over the rolls of wire. For a second he held his breath, tensed, but no further pain blossomed. Had he avoided being hit?
Self-preservation was all he could think about and he scrambled forward, coughing on smoke, spitting out sand. Three men sprinted by him, shouting incomprehensible curses, firing as they ran. Two were raked to bloody pulp by gunfire and the third sprinted on into roiling clouds of smoke, his scream continuing long after Clancy had lost sight of him.
Time stretched into irrelevance. All that existed was noise and pain, smoke and fire, the stink of metal and gunpowder and blood and shit. Clancy dragged himself forward through the sand, not daring to climb to his feet. His hand slipped sideways, slick with something warm and wet. He looked up into the terrified eyes of a man younger than himself. Private Dan Kelly, always making a joke, always getting yelled at by the Sergeant-Major. Kelly cried as he gathered his intestines and tried to cram them back into his lower half. His legs were nowhere to be seen.
“Sand on it!” the young man wailed. “Got sand on it!”
He looked at Clancy, ropes of pink and red around his fingers, and his eyes began to glaze.
Clancy was vaguely aware of vomiting, of gasping, acid and bile in his mouth, eyes streaming. Something hard hit his knee and as he turned to look at what it might be an explosion only a few feet to his right deafened him. Flesh in smoking green canvas spattered around him, something heavy and wet hit the back of his head. He surged to his feet and ran, knuckles white around his weapon. He hadn’t fired it once.
Bitumen under his feet and he realized he’d reached a town. Had it been minutes or hours? How far had he come? Bursts of gunfire and shouts confirmed he was still in the heart of the fighting, allied soldiers gunning down a squad of Germans right in front of him. He saw a German uniform, the man’s eyes meeting his, the man’s weapon rising. Clancy screamed and fired, red sprays bursting from the grey jacket, and he realized this wasn’t the first man he’d killed. How many now? He couldn’t remember how long he’d been fighting. Sobs erupted from him, hitching his chest, tears blurred his vision.
Someone barked orders and he blindly followed. An explosion blew a shower of glass into the street and the man who had given the order turned, his face a shredded mess of blood. One eye spun hectically in the socket, the other a flood of red, exposed cheekbone profanely white. As the man collapsed, Clancy ducked and ran.
Minutes or hours later he found himself in the blown out shell of a house, alone, hungry, exhausted. Things had quietened down, whether because the fighting had stopped or he was too far away he didn’t know. He shuddered, his body jelly and shock. His eyes flickered closed and he fell into a fitful doze.
A voice woke him hours later, full dark outside peppered with distant stars. The words weren’t English. They weren’t German either, or French. They were unlike anything Clancy had ever heard.
“Mr. James, you’ve been keeping up with your medication?”
“Of course. I rattle when I walk and hiss when I piss.”
The nurse grinned, then did her best to suppress it, but failed. “You won’t consider moving into care?”
“You know the answer. I’m a stubborn old man.”
“And you know I have to ask.”
It was Clancy’s turn to smile. He liked Nurse Chapman, and didn’t begrudge the high expense of in-home care. He had money to burn and no kids to leave it to, so why not make the most of it? Besides, if he moved into a home, how would he explain the nights when death came near? When the awful gate opened. One day he wouldn’t be able to resist it any longer. He would die at home, he was sure of that.
Nurse Chapman’s smile softened, her eyes too. She tipped her head a little to one side. Clancy liked the warm brown sheen of her skin, she was a beautiful woman. The name Chapman, he’d suggested once, didn’t seem to match her appearance. She’d explained she was Sri Lankan, but had married an Englishman.
“You okay?” she asked.
“Tired.” He shrugged. “Bad night.”
“More and more often lately, huh?”
“Yeah. Not long left, I guess.”
Chapman tutted. “You’ll smash through your centenary and keep going, Mr. James. You’ll still be here when I’m in aged care.”
Clancy barked a laugh. “What are you, 25?”
“You’re very kind. I’m 32.”
“Still a long way from aged care.”
“I hope so.”
Clancy had been 32 when he’d set up on his own, started the company making bolts and fittings that ended up netting him a small fortune. Taking over post-war industry had worked out well for some. He’d been 34 when he met Sandra, 36 when she’d died taking their unborn child with her. He’d never been able to love again. Back then he’d suspected the curse from that horrible day in Normandy. But it didn’t fit. Just terrible luck, or lack of it, in this godless world. Godless in the biblical sense, at least. Things were out there that might as well be gods, but they weren’t benevolent or kind.
His wife and child dying, that was just bad luck. But something was coming for him now. Something promised all that time ago.
“What are you thinking about, Mr. James.”
He jerked in the armchair, startled by Nurse Chapman’s presence. He’d drifted off, forgotten she was there. “Are you a religious person?” he asked her.
She frowned, lips pursed. “My mama is a Hindu, which isn’t all that common in Sri Lanka, and my husband’s family love Jesus in every cliched way.”
Clancy let a half-smile lift one side of his mouth. “That doesn’t answer the question. What about you?”
“I guess not. If I’m honest, I never really understood it. My mama’s zeal, I mean, or my in-law’s. So no, I don’t think I am especially religious. But I’m not not religious, if that makes sense. I guess it doesn’t matter to me. I do my best to live a good life and be kind. I figure that covers everything, right?”
He wanted to tell her it did. Because it should. Gods and devils, churches and synagogues and mosques and all the rest, it was all so much man-made bullshit. Kindness should be the only thing anyone ever needed. And a part of him, some sliver still left untarnished, believed that to be the case. But there was more. Things capricious and chaotic. Things malevolent and mean. No amount of religiosity would change that. Or irreligiosity for that matter, so maybe kindness to each other was all they had left. “Yes,” he said. “I guess that does cover everything.”
Chapman looked down as Henry came over, leaned his heavy brown body against her leg.
“Hey, dawg,” she said, scratching into the thick skin of his neck. His tail thump-thumped into the side of the couch behind her.
Henry pushed up into her hand, his grey snout split in a doggy grin. Chapman dug around in her pocket then looked up at Clancy, one eyebrow raised. He nodded. She pulled a Schmacko treat out and gave it to Henry. He huffed and chomped, happiness embodied in fur.
“Okay, Mr. James, I’d better be off. I’ll be back to see you safely into bed, okay?”
“I’ll see you at nine.”
She let herself out and Clancy clicked the TV on. Henry came and curled up at his feet, let out a deep sigh.
“Maybe tonight, eh, old pal?” Clancy said quietly. He was so damned tired. He felt like one of those flat Lunaria seed pods, empty and translucent. There couldn’t be too much of him left in this world. “I don’t want to go, Henry. I’m scared.”
The old dog lifted its head, turned to look up at him.
Tears breached Clancy’s eyes, ran through the deep wrinkles of his cheeks. Henry clambered to his feet, a little slow, a little stiff, and put his soft chin on Clancy’s knee. Clancy stroked his head. “Sorry, Henry. Didn’t mean to make you get up.”
The dog sat, leaned against Clancy’s calf, and shut his eyes as Clancy’s liver-spotted hand continued its rhythmic petting.
The voice that night in Normandy continued its strange lilting cadence for a moment, then silence. Clancy hunched down in the deep shadows that concealed him as two men came in through the blown out wall, backlit by starlight. One wore an English Army uniform, and Clancy almost called out, but the other man gave him pause. Black leather coat, a peaked cap, and something glinting silver in the light. A badge, like a circular sun with many crooked arms. But in the centre, a Swastika. A Nazi symbol? What else could it be?
“Is this okay?” the man in the English uniform asked.
“Yes, it will do.” The other man’s English was clear, but his accent definitely German.
What the hell was this? Nerves began to ripple through Clancy and he tried to still his breathing, desperate to not be seen.
The German crouched and laid a few items on the rough ground, brushing aside debris to make room. Strange items that reflected the starlight. “You have the list, yes?”
“Yes, yes. Here.” The Englishman handed over a note, dirty and torn. “Each of those generals will be instrumental in coordinating the invasion. Your work with the weather is quite something, but they’ve still landed. Don’t underestimate their ability to rally. But you take out these men and the Allies will be rudderless.”
Clancy swallowed, his nerves ratcheting up. This bastard was a spy? In league with the Nazis? And what did he mean about the weather?
“And the possessions?” the German asked. “I need something from each of them, something personal.”
The Englishman dug in his pockets. “I did my best. Here’s a hip flask from one, a comb from another, a notebook, a pen, and a pair of eyeglasses.”
The German nodded, lips pursed. “Maybe enough. I don’t know about the pen…”
“Surely if your demons take out even just some of them, maybe not all, it will be disruptive enough?”
“Perhaps. We will have to see.” The German looked up. “And not demons, Mr Clarke. Nothing so… human as that. But best you don’t know too much, eh?”
Clarke nodded, wringing his hands together. “Of course, of course. And my money?”
All this for money? Clancy thought, appalled. The entire war effort compromised for money?
“Yes, yes, here.” The German reached inside his leather coat and drew out a Luger pistol. He levelled it at the Englishman’s chest and fired.
Clarke staggered back, sat down hard. He stared at his blood-soaked jacket, then back up at the German.
“Thank you for your service,” the German said, and fired again. The back of Clarke’s head sprayed up the broken wall and he slumped sideways.
Clancy sat frozen in the shadows, hands shaking, eyes wide. Could he really be seeing this? The German paused, scanned around the night-darkened ruin. Clancy held his breath as the man’s eyes passed right over him, but he went unnoticed. The shadows he sat in must be truly ink-black.
The German sniffed, then crouched again before his items. He spread them out, took a handful of small black candles from his jacket and lit one beside each of the things the Englishman had delivered. He muttered to himself in German, then began that strange lilting speech again. It wormed in Clancy’s ears, made him feel nauseated. Before he could allow himself to think much further, he glanced down to make sure his weapon was ready, then sucked in a long breath. As his chest filled, he stood, levelled the rifle, and fired.
The German cried out as his shoulder exploded with blood, the thick leather of his coat flaring out like a flower. He staggered sideways from his crouch and sprawled on the ground, turning to look with shock and pain as Clancy stood over him.
“You scum!” Clancy yelled, and levelled his weapon to fire again.
The German held out one hand, palm forward. “Wait, you don’t understand!”
Clancy was pretty sure he understood more than enough. And this was war. He saw the German’s other hand inching towards the Luger that lay only inches away, where he’d put it down after shooting the English spy.
Clancy yelled incoherently and fired again. The German’s chest spouted blood and he slammed back onto the cement ground. Clancy crept forward, looking to see if the man was dead. The German’s eyes were open and he stared up with undisguised hatred. Through blood-spattered lips he spat words in that foul tongue and Clancy felt himself struck, as though a strong wind had gusted cold rain onto his skin, despite his clothes.
The German’s mouth split in a bloody grin. “You have no idea what you’ve done, but you’ll pay. When you finally die, whenever that might be, they’ll have you. You’re marked for them now. They shall have you and all you will know, forever, is pain.”
“What?” Clancy managed.
“You couldn’t even conceive of them, but you’ll suffer forever. Enjoy whatever life you have left!”
The German’s eyes glazed over and he fell back. Clancy stood and stared for a long time, before he finally ran.
He saw many other atrocities during the war, and still thought of that night often, but his life moved on. He only started thinking about the German’s words again, that strange sensation of cold impact, when his life moved on far enough that death once more became an ongoing concern.
Clancy lay in his bed, staring at the coruscating colours on the wall. Henry stood at his master’s feet, hackles up, growling.
The curse that man had put on Clancy in those ruins had turned out to be real enough. Now Clancy’s age and infirmity were real enough. Even Nurse Chapman had kissed his forehead as she left, something she’d never done before. “Good night, you old rascal,” she’d said.
Clancy had replied, “Goodbye, Nurse. And thank you.”
She’d smiled and left without another word. She knew, and she knew better than to bullshit him. Clancy’s chest hitched with short, shallow breaths. He felt as though an anvil sat on him, its weight constricting every vein.
“I got nothing left, Henry,” he said, a wheezing whisper. “I’m all done.”
The old dog turned and trotted up the bed. He leaned in, gave Clancy a lick across one cheek.
“I love you too, old boy,” Clancy said, then gasped, his heart stuttering. Blackness rippled in at the edges of his vision. He felt both heavier than lead and lighter than moonlight. Dizziness swept through the fear as colours rippled across his face.
Whips of night writhed forward from the impossible portal on his wall, reaching for him. Henry began to bark and leap, running side to side on the carpet between the bed and the wall, snapping at every squirming arm of night that reached for Clancy. With each bite, the dark tentacle burst apart like smoke, retracted and swirled back into rippling colours of the irregular oval leading to even the gods didn’t know where.
Through occluded eyes, Clancy marvelled as Henry showed a vigour and athleticism unseen for years. The old dog jumped, snapping and snarling. The dark tendrils took more cohesive form, became twisted parodies of people, their limbs unnaturally elongated, reaching, grasping. Clancy saw a hellish simulacrum of young Private Kelly, then Henry hit the apparition with his front paws. The young soldier swatted and struck at the dog, Henry yelping in pain, but his jaws, foam-flecked, ripped and tore. Kelly dissipated into black smoke. Clancy’s heart clenched tighter as he saw Sandra, still as young and beautiful as she’d been when she died in childbirth, but her face was a mask of rage, twisted in hate. She stretched and lunged towards him, but Henry worried her leg, dragged her back. He whined in pain as she hammered at his old brown head, but he surged up, tore at her throat, and she burst into clouds of billowing black.
More questing tendrils, more slow and broken formations of people he had known, trying to get to him, their faces nothing but fury and hate. Henry let no apparition, no questing tendril of darkness, by him, biting them all into smoke. He staggered and yipped, blood tinged the foam at his jaws pink, but he was relentless. Repeatedly the dog glanced back, checking on his master, then danced side to side again on shaking legs, attacking the darkness.
He's saving me, Clancy thought, incredulity pushing through incessant pain under his ribs. Old Henry, he’s letting me go without these things getting me.
A twisting rope of darkness mutated into an arm, a hand, and slipped by the dog, wrapped swiftly around Clancy’s bare and bony wrist. Its touch was ice cold, and it sucked, drew Clancy towards the bottomless opalescent gateway. Everything that made Clancy who he was stretched and began to tear, eternal ice consuming him. A howl of triumph rose up, inside and outside Clancy’s head. Then the bed shook, Henry’s jaws snapped right by Clancy’s arm, sharp pain in his thin skin, and the coldness slipped away. Clancy felt himself untethered again.
Thank you, Henry!
The dog twisted and jumped, leaped back into the fray, biting, panting, growling, snarling. He began to stumble, old limbs exhausted, fur lost in patches, blood from his nose and mouth, an ear torn, but he didn’t quit.
Untouched, unmolested, Clancy slipped from mortal pain into peaceful darkness, alone.
Henry the dog had no idea how much longer he could resist death.
For so long it hadn’t mattered. Then age had begun to show itself and he’d wondered, would he live longer than Clancy? The master’s kind were close to immortal, after all, but eventually they too left for the shadowlands. He’d seen that before in the master’s friend, Bill. But Clancy was plagued by something and Henry refused to go until he’d seen the master safely on first. In his heart, he knew that was his duty. Clancy had saved him, when he was a puppy, taken him from that place of cold cement and metal fences. That place where he smelled chemicals and fear. That bad place. He refused to let the master go anywhere as bad.
He stared at the coruscating colours where the wall should be, watched them slowly fade away. He sensed great anger and frustration, fading along with the gateway to the bad place.
Panting, pain in every joint, Henry tried to rise, but collapsed back to the carpet. He let out a soft whine, so many hurts in so many places. He’d lost a couple of teeth, maybe something unfixable had happened to one leg. His breath was sharp and made his insides pulse with points of agony. For a while, he just lay there.
Eventually he managed to clamber shakily to his paws, climb the three steps the master had put at the end of the bed when jumping up had become difficult. He staggered along the mattress. Clancy had gone on now, peacefully beyond into the shadowlands, where he should be. Henry had done his job. Clancy would have told him he was a good boy, and that was all that ever mattered. He only ever wanted to be a good boy.
He lay and put his chin on the master’s unmoving chest, tried to get his own breathing back under control. His old bones ached, everything hurt. But he would be okay, he thought, for a bit longer. Perhaps the nice nurse would take him with her tomorrow, now the master was gone. She was always kind. Henry would be happy doing his best to be a good boy for her in whatever time he had left.