The Wilhelm Scream

by gm

Paul Vermeersch


“Yeah, I’ll just fill my pipe.”
—Private Wilhelm

We’ve heard him die a thousand times.
He answers Death the way we first call
for our milk, but Wilhelm’s scream
comes fully grown, and not
from just one mouth.

Of course, his voice is not our own.
We hear our voice in private ways.
Each of us is given one at birth
and we announce ourselves
with it. Congenitally,

our true name brands us, and mommy
and Death cannot mistake it —
so when we fall, or are afraid,
we answer their roll call
with our scream.

But with whose voice do the nameless
announce themselves? If there is
only one scream to be heard
from nameless mouths,
it might as well be Wilhelm’s.

It is a solid, all-purpose scream.
It’s kept on file on miles of tape,
and re-used and thrown to the lions,
and re-used and severed
in the mouthparts of a giant ant.

This is not the scream
of a Norseman’s brittle paint,
but a shot-with-an-arrow scream,
a sudden shriek that’s been impaled
on a blade and flung down a hill.

Wilhelm’s scream is the one
we aren’t supposed to hear
in a vacuum — but do — the scream
we aren’t supposed to make
with another man’s voice:

an identical, digital yelp placed
in our mouths by hand, like a pebble
we suck on to keep from screaming.
So let it be Wilhelm’s scream
that we toss from the cargo truck

to the hood of the speeding, green jeep.
It is one faint shriek among
the jubilant masses. One cry alone
on a cliff-face in a vast expanse,
so that Wilhelm too is soon anonymous.

But it is not the scream we make
when we see the faceless man
smoldering in the doorframe,
but the other scream, the one
of being made faceless, of seeing too late

that we’ve stepped into the path
of the advancing propeller. And it’s
a voice we all know — never our own —
the only sound we make
before a thousand final descents.