Poison Maiden, Open Skies
by Laurie Tom
The wagon comes to halt and tips forward as the pulling soldiers set the shafts down. It is
so cramped inside that I'm able to brace myself against the walls and my seat to keep from falling
Hell is raining ahead of us. Our artillery pounds the German trenches, but the window
before me is so tiny that the only thing I see is the dark of night with the occasional flash from
the falling mortars.
Metal scrapes against metal and my enclosure shudders as the soldiers unbar the wagon.
One of them raps lightly on the door; the signal that they're leaving. Two minutes.
I count out the seconds for the soldiers to get clear, knowing that Beth, Charlotte, and the
rest of the Harpies are doing the same. When I reach zero I push against the door. The airtight
seal breaks with a pop I can feel more than I can hear. The artillery is louder outside.
Our escort has fled, leaving us in the middle of no man's land. No one ever wants to be
near Harpy Squad once we're out.
Susan yawns and slings her rifle over her shoulder as she joins us, clustered at the head of
the wagons. The enemy trenches stretch out ahead and the wind is with us tonight. Once the eight
of us get close, we'll spread out every three hundred yards. We can cover a lot of trench and
incapacitate soldiers quietly and more efficiently than any chemical weapon. Our poison doesn't
require hours to work. Minutes is enough, and few survive.
"Do you ever think about how many are down there?" asks Olivia.
Charlotte spits. "Wouldn't make you feel better." She is always angry. The hope for a cure
is the reason she keeps fighting.
Beth waves for us to follow. "Come along, girls. The shelling's only going to last a few
more minutes, and we've got to get into position."
I wish I was back home. In a month it will be Christmas. My brother Albert would still be
serving with the army, but at least I would be with Mum, Dad, and my sisters. Thomas too.
Maybe. Thomas is only here in Belgium because of me. If I had never been contaminated, I'm
sure they would have kept him home in England, and we would not have had to postpone our
wedding. He's a researcher, not a soldier, and far more valuable as one, even if they had to
conscript him to get him to work.
Thomas hates the use of chemical warfare, because of accidents like the one that changed
me and the others.
"Wake up, Edith." Katherine's face appears close to mine. I look up and see we're almost
"Sorry," I mutter.
Beth signals for us to split up and I mouth a prayer as I press my fingers against the
blouse of my uniform. I can feel the reassuring touch of the glass rosary underneath, a gift from
Thomas after the poison gas devoured the wooden one I had worn since childhood.
I hunker down as the shelling comes to an end. There is barbed wire in front of me, so I
know I am not far. Carefully, I use my wire cutters to clear a path and creep in.
A strangled cry of alarm comes from the trenches as the first wisps of gas reach them.
Shots ring out and I can't help but flinch, but I am unharmed. They don't know where I am.
I don't need to climb inside the trench myself, just close enough for my poison to seep out
and down to where the soldiers are. I'm told the pain is excruciating. Masks are useless, and the
affected collapse in moments. Their skin blisters. Their eyes water and shrivel into their skulls.
We are far worse than any mustard gas the Germans ever used.
My rifle is more decoration than weapon. The mere presence of a Poison Maiden is all it
takes to kill, and there is no place for me or any of the others save on the battlefield or in a box.
I stop when I find the lip of the trench. I don't want to look over the edge and see the
bodies. The smell of their burns is bad enough. It should be as horrible as their wounds, but
instead it's oddly pleasant, and makes me think of baking bread. I never want to see another oven.
Something explodes far to my left and I cringe. Grenades. The last resort of a dying
soldier. Even if he can no longer stand, he can throw one over the lip of the trench, and if he is
lucky . . .
The blast lands where Beth is supposed to be. I think I hear her cry out, but I cannot
move. We are positioned to maximize coverage of the enemy trench, and . . . these are our orders.
I stay and wait, trying to not think. There is nothing I can do until we are certain our poison has
permeated our assigned area.
When I know it is past time to fall back, I sneak over to see if Beth needs help, but what I
find cannot be saved. We have to leave her, and she knows this. She will continue to give out
poison for a while after she dies.