"You don't mean to say—" our captain said
And took a drag from his Red Hussar,
Savoring the flavor of that drawn-out pause
More than the standard-issue twist of shag.
"You don't mean to say," he said at last,
'That you've never kissed a woman?"
The words crumbled into smoke.
The captain's face, lit blue from the lamp
Above the officers-only door
Reminded me of ones I'd seen that week,
Mouths agape and eyes so newly dead
They still wore expectation where they lay.
Behind that door were otherworldly sounds:
Wheedling phonograph, wailing laugh,
Coins jingled into the box for a "rapid fire,"
They called it in Rouen.
A woman scolded to the rooms above,
"Virginie! Virginie, maintenant!"
Another lieutenant swung out the door,
Shoved a bit of blooded lace into his pocket,
Swayed on the step to finish his buttons.
"Madame la warflower!" a lad sang out,
Reedy tenor drowned by cheers
And bottles clattering empty on the floor.
"Christ," the captain said to me, unfolding the sigh
Reserved for scenes of special pity: a dog trapped
On the wire, rum sloshed out of a ration jar,
A man sniped reaching for his Enfield.
"You poor young bastard."
He patted my cheek, the little fag-end fire by my temple.
The lieutenant, now arranged, reeled away
Listing right and leaving a moment
Sudden, furtive, still as the land
When a star shell flares and falls.
My captain leaned nearer
As if to tell the secret of the thing
And put his mouth to mine
So that I caught the swell of his lower lip
Firm as a young plum.
The door banged open, throwing blazing light
And a girl thin as a bayonet
Raged into the road, all bony hinges and spars
Showing through her shift. Men howled after her.
Blown by her fury she ran but fell at the turn
The lieutenant took.
As she lurched back along the gutter
The captain clapped my shoulder,
Replaced his last inch of Red Hussar
In the corner of his mouth,
And left in mine this taste
Of smoke from a burning orchard.