Sunday, June 22, 2008
The brown earth keeps the blue sky humble, though it remains aloof. And life is an intruder on life, one can only choose whether to welcome it or not.Nikolai walked over to Julie and kissed her brow. It was warm but salty from the sweat. She opened her eyes and gave him a weary smile that expanded slowly until her lips grew slightly apart and the white of her teeth showed, and a wetness welled in her eyes.
Thursday, April 3, 2008
The policy on the dead was clear, there weren’t many options really: collect valuables and leave alone. What to do with the injured, however, needed to be determined, and this had been the subject of a short meeting a few months ago, in a smoky room where a few generals gathered with their cigars, ice-clinking scotch glasses, oiled mustaches and tidy attire to come to the final decision that those injured and unable to walk were to be shot. “A conquering army is constantly moving forward, and a moving army can not afford the deadweight of injured prisoners” one of the generals had exclaimed with confidence and pompous nonchalance before taking a big drag of his cigar.
And so the soldier was walking through the room, checking pulses here, ending pulses there … nothing but orders being followed, nothing personal. Nikolai was sprawled on the floor, eyes coming to focus slowly on the black muddy boot moving among the bodies, stopping, a loud shot, walking again, this time towards him, a hand descending on a neck to check for a pulse, five or six bodies away. He figured he had about thirty seconds, might as well wait here, wait for him to come near then try to grab the rifle. But he wasn’t even sure if his hands could move, and if they did, whether they can do it fast enough.
The soldier walked out of view. Nikolai was not going to risk moving his head and blowing his cover to be able to see him. He could hear his steps; along with the crescendo of his heart pumping blood with increasing, anxious fear.
The next shot was too close, right behind his head. It sent a jolt through Nikolai’s body which the soldier didn’t miss. He took a quick step and was now standing right over him, gun pointing at Nikolai’s head, the darkness of its barrel the thick darkness of death. “Death” Nikolai thought “It’s here … that was it … that was my life” and felt a strange melancholy take over him thinking of the contrast of the noisy bustle of life and the silent soil he will be buried in and become one with.
It was Julie, standing in the door frame, a tear leaving a trace on her cheek, her voice shaky and filled with plea. The soldier looked at her and then at Nikolai and her again. Nikolai having lost a good amount of blood was weak and that mixed with the anxiety was causing him to fade into unconsciousness again, but in the fixed eyes of the soldier and Julie a wordless negotiation was taking place.
The soldier understood why Julie was doing what she was doing. He himself had loved and had been loved. But he also longed. He longed to touch, to hold, to slip into the warm, soft, inviting embrace of nature and to leave, though be it for one night … even one hour, leave the filth and blood and the weight of the war that had been around him for much too long, leave it behind and taste the sweeter side of existence.
So he walked toward Julie, slow, with no signs of threat or haste. There was an unspoken mutual understanding between the two, each wishing things were different yet stoically content that they were not worse.
to be continued
Friday, March 14, 2008
But now those dreamy dawns were themselves distant dreams, lost in the haze of war. The war that had been spawned by humans, conceived of the mating of many individuals’ actions and their consequences, but had at some point assumed an identity of its own, had superseded its creators and now seemed to be more of a cause than a consequence, destroying with oedipal blindness.
In the city hall bullets ricocheted off walls, window glasses shattered with shrill bursts of noise. In short pauses of incoming fire people moved around, came out from behind their covers and fired back and ducked when they heard stronger machine guns presenting stronger arguments.
At first Nikolai was paralyzed, he had his back to a wall segment between two windows and couldn’t move as the red bricks broke into pieces at the edges of the windows where bullets landed. But now he was slowly finding himself, balancing fear with control and realizing the limitedness of his options which, as he knew before on a head level but now felt in his gut, included neither waiting for the storm to pass or fleeing out of its path of destruction, he started firing out the window, uncovering as little as possible of his head, but enough to aim.
One thing that was on his mind, and many others’ trapped there with him, was where the enemy tanks were. Outside, there were infantry with rifles and machine guns but there were no signs of tanks, the decisive heavier fire power of which would no doubt shorten the duration of their struggle, though in the same way as a rushing guillotine blade would have shortened the struggle of fallen royalty.
The reason for the slowness of the enemy tanks to arrive, enemy here being a term that signifies a relation, not intrinsic values like good and evil, was their understandable overestimation of the defense plan. Judging by the minimal resistance they had met in the jungle, and the readiness of the defense to retreat, they had concluded that there must be a ruse and suspected the path of the retreat embedded with anti-tank mines which would allow the defense, consisting of nothing but infantry, a safe retreat as the mines would not go off by their treading, but instead would wait snug and smiling in the darkness under inches of earth … would wait for the heavier cue of tanks to blowup, sending man and machine parts into the air.
And so it took a few hours of inch by inch scanning of the harmless mineless fields for the tanks to make their way to the city. But eventually they did arrive and like guests late to a party make up for the time lost by drinking faster, they started a torrential shelling of the city hall.
In the basement of the city hall where it had been decided women and children should stay during all this, it felt like an unending earthquake. Like a giant was walking through the city whose every step shook the floor and walls. There sat Julie among mothers wrapping their arms around their children, old women gasping and sobbing with every hit and children with eyes widened, too shocked and confused to even cry.
A few feet above, time was lost in flashes of sound and light from guns and tanks. The morning seemed like an eternity away to Nikolai, as if he was falling in an infinite well and the peace of the time where air was not filled with flying pieces of metal intended for your head was the receding brightness of the well’s entrance.
to be coninued ...
Things were not always so bleak for Nikolai. A few weeks ago, on the same day of the week as the day the war finally reached and touched their village, a Saturday, Nikolai was asleep beside Julie and was having a dream, right before dawn: he was standing on the edge of a lake, water rippling slowly to the breeze that blew across it so gently, as if the air was whispering something in the lake’s ear. He chugged a small rock at the lake, trying to get it to skid along the water’s surface as many times as he could, which it did a few times before it disappeared under the blueness. He wasn’t satisfied. He started looking for another rock that was more suitably shaped. He found a dark grey one, its surface was smooth, somehow pleasing to the touch, its shape almost completely round as a disk.
In the dream, he held it in his hand for a while then skipped a few steps forward and flung it. As he let go of the stone, suddenly as if compelled by some force outside of him, he decided to close his eyes, and as soon as his eyes were closed … he was the stone. He felt the air rushing along its smooth surface as it approached the glassy ripples of water below, there was a joyous excitement in the anticipation of contact with the water which was getting closer, closer and closer till suddenly there was a moment’s touch, a wetness that pleasantly tickled his underbelly followed by his almost involuntary reaction to push himself back up ... and he was airborne again, on another arc, rising to fall once more. He felt like he could keep going for as long as he wanted to, He could even cross the lake, and there was something deeply, physically and mentally, enjoyable about this dream-sport.
But after a while something started to pull him away and out of the dream, a wetness … a wetness of a different nature. Something, somewhere outside of the dream was pulling, and it kept on until he finally surfaced into waking consciousness, the remnants of the pleasant dream still lingering in the air.
It was Julie and the wetness of her lips on his nape which she was gently kissing that had waked him up. That had indeed awoken him from a pleasant dream into another, more enjoyable one.
Ahhh … one almost has to give out a wistful sigh when thinking of the joy of the touch of a woman’s lips on a man’s nape, the soft touch of her hand sliding over his back and on his chest, the soft sound of her breathing the only sound he can hear in the predawn darkness of a room with thick velvet curtains … the sweet joy of the presence of this woman that he loves and whose breasts spread and flatten out against his back as she pulls herself closer, her body so familiar, at moments like this almost like an extension of his own, or his of hers, pressing itself against his, warm, wanting, wonderful.
Indeed not. Things were not always so bleak for Nikolai.
to be continued ...
Presently, the stream of gunshots became less frequent and soon subsided to a trickle and then there was silence, a silence more tense than a scream. He slowly raised his head outside the trench after he saw the army officers taking peeks. White smoke of something burning in the distance moved slowly among the evergreens like a beautiful autumn mist. The scene seemed to stand there still for a moment, serene, reflective, beautiful, oblivious to the human drama right at its heart.
The imagery imposed itself on his mind for a moment too brief to be fully registered and was interrupted by a distant rumbling beyond where the tall trees limited visibility. All heads turned, knuckles white gripping the minimal reassurance of bayoneted guns, breaths held in in anticipation, adrenaline soaked brains running through simulations, weighing different options at speeds too high to be articulated in internal monologues, until suddenly the wait was over: two pine trees made a screeching sound as they broke and fell loudly to the ground and from behind them a tank emerged like a tight iron fist with a long middle finger extended towards the sky. It stood there while its muzzle rotated like an animal sniffing the air for prey. The infantry caught up quickly and soon the Morse code of gunshots began again, alas without anyone making any effort at interpreting it.
The defense obviously lacked in numbers and weaponry … no surprise. Soon there were shouts of “fall back” coming from the senior army officers. The retreat plan was to divide in two groups that would take turns in moving back and firing back, while making their way with hopefully minimal casualties to the city hall which had been deemed the most suitable building for them to make their last stand.
to be continued ...
Nikolai's room was filled with books. A poetry anthology lied face down beside the bed, the second volume of war and peace rested on the edge of the desk beside the typewriter. A notebook was kept open by a pen, containing the first few lines of a poem:
The Lily's roots run to the deep beneath
Yet on the surface jolly as a wreath
Goes up and down on the sea’s heaving breast
Toyed by the wind, the sun and all the rest…
But he wasn’t in his room. He had not even entered it that day. All night radio messages had announced the fall of army strongholds that had stood between their village and the enemy line that now seemed to advance like the sweeping hand of night, a dark blade, at its edge a red margin of blood: a twilight... And now he was gripping his gun with sweaty palms among other volunteers who had stayed to fight alongside the army.
At first the war was a joke, the latest conversation topic for his father’s friends, another item on the long list of things his mother could worry about and an excuse for his brother to drag people into passionate Marxist debates, or rather lectures since he would be doing most of the talking.
It was remote, impersonal, a backdrop for his days wallowing between books, staggering between small tables of bars on his way to their toilets, Sunday mornings laying in bed with Julie until hunger drove them out and midnight poundings on the type writer’s keys: the piano that played the waltz to which the world outside of him held the hand of the one within while they gently danced.
But now the war was anything but remote. Distant gunshots echoed in the jungle, sounded like a great ax falling on tree trunks, and each time they sounded a bit closer, which no doubt played some part in causing what had been a mild discomfort in his stomach all day to turn into a more serious need to use the toilet.
to be continued ...