I wasn't an officer who obsessively followed decorum, but still, as a quarter lieutenant, ranking member of this particular ragtag garrison, I felt I deserved some sort of salute. Instead, the three seemed impatient, and kept their gazes fixed in the direction they were heading, barely turning to look at me, much less observe the chain of command.
We were at war, and I had spent days watching from my cupola as our armies had advanced south to join the battle. What had come down the road those months ago had not been men marching but a force of nature, a river overflooding its banks. The infantry in files of five, two hundred men in each company; the lancers in columns of four with not a gonfalon missing; the quickfire circular guns and field pieces an hour in passing, each ammunition wagon creaking under its burden of shot and shell; the sputtering armored cars, with metal slits cut in their gray steel armor and their circular guns protruding from their castle-like turrets. There was a band playing marches. Motherland, oh motherland.
At the sight of the first few regiments, I had been thrilled with interest, but after an hour and then a half day without halt, the procession became tedious, an unbroken line of khaki, the dirty canaries lined up to the horizon, their blackened rifle barrels jutting skyward like tiny, beseeching beaks. The first regiments had indeed been impressive, tall, strapping young men, our finest meat on the hoof, but then had come less distinguished units, smaller men, shoddier uniforms, knackered horses, these companies, in the way their soldiers' eyes fearfully roved the horizon ahead of them, embodied the expression "scimitar fodder." Then came the vast and chaotic supply trains, wagons trailing eight-horse teams, individual carts pulled by single donkeys, vast strings of camelids harnessed to smoking cookstoves on wheels. The delicious, yeasty smell of bread baking in mounted ovens pulled by teams of musk ox. Postmasters on horseback who rode up and down the column distributing letters from the capital. Flocks of sheep, fluffy and dirty white, moving up the road like cotton swabs sliding up a pin, their destiny, presumably, to put food in the belly of men who may not live to shit it out.
And finally, the camp followers, the many, many prostitutes who followed the army, and dozens of children, presumably the whores' spawn, who walked in the trail of dung left by the vast contingent of military livestock.
Now, the first soldiers to make the return trip are these three men on their bicycles. (I didn't even recall seeing any bicycles in the vast train going south.)
"How goes it?" I asked.
One of them shrugged, another looked behind him anxiously at the southern horizon, and the third, a sub-ensign, to read his insignia, turned, as if noticing me for the first time. "Do you have any tobacco?"
I nodded. He reached into his tunic and held out a pipe. I obliged him and filled it from my pouch. He studied the bowl of his pipe, damped it with a thumb, and held it up to his mouth, apparently waiting for me to light it.
Another of the riders could stand it no more and began peddling furiously up the road, away from us.
"Halt!" I shouted. "Aron! Yosef!" I called out to my subordinates in the cupola, hoping that, by some miracle, they would muster and at least pretend to give pursuit. When they failed to appear, I shrugged and turned back to the man with the pipe, who didn't seem to have noticed his colleague and was still waiting for a light.
I found a match, lit it, and he inhaled deeply.
After taking several puffs, he calmed, and began to tell us of the disaster that had befallen our army. Waves of horsemen had swept north from the primitive tribal lands. The landscape had gone from abandoned and lifeless to teaming with squadrons of these aboriginal warriors, who fell upon our camps and took our men while they ate, slept, shat, pissed, shaved, bathed, read, engaged in onanism, or fornicated. Our army, these apparent deserters swore, was no more; their equipment had fallen into the hands of the savages who were now making their way north, and would, indeed, soon be here.
"Do you mean to say, sub-ensign, that you two, or three, are all that remains of our army in the south?" I asked.
Before he answered, I dismissed his report as hysterical.
Finally, Aron and Yosef emerged from the cupola door, shirtless but for suspenders, and their feet clad in slippers instead of boots. Fortunately Private Yosef had brought his short rifle, and I ordered in a loud, precise, commanding voice for him to put his weapon on the bicyclists.
Private Yosef looked at me quizzically, as he may never have heard me speak in such an authoritative tone before, but I nodded at him and said, "They are deserters."
Private Yosef shrugged, put the short rifle to his shoulder, and held it there.
"Now, dismount." I ordered the sub-ensign and his comrade into the cupola tower. I had Private Aron remove the flour and beans from one of the storage larders and locked both men inside. A rider would arrive from the capital soon, I hoped, and once I was back in communication, I would be given instructions on how to dispose of these deserters.
I was the third child of a freeholder whose farm to the north of the capital produced a monthly income barely sufficient to buy my older brother a commission in the City Hussars and my older sister a dowry of weight and hoof enough to win her a decent match. The remains of our estate left budget only for this quarter lieutenancy and a garrison posting minding a bridge over the perpetually muddy, shit-colored, Metherine River, the winding, snaking source of irrigation for much of the southern plain's bounty.
As a boy, living on our manor north of the capital, I hadn't kenned exactly what opportunities I would be denied. I had watched as my older brother, Mario, was kitted in a fine blue-and-red uniform with bright silver breastplate and brocade, and a tall wool-haired helmet with brass planchet struck in the hussars' flying-horse crossing golden-eagle standard, beneath a golden plume holder of yellow horse mane. Tall and strikingly handsome, he was being dressed to attend a great ball in the city, the first of many to which he was invited, and as he rode out of our long, cypress-lined driveway on his journey to the city, I watched him go, believing that I would soon enjoy this same, fine, life.
I was given just a taste, when the youngest daughter of the marquesa, acquainted with my brother through her own circles, invited me to a reception in the capital. We rode into the city in my father's buggy and retired to the Kapinsky Hotel, where we joined our distant, better-heeled relations for supper. My great-aunt Flaminia had been waiting at her table to the rear of the dining room, and when we sat down, she studied me carefully, tugging and pulling at my features, even mussing my pomade, as if grading a winter coat she was considering.
My father bowed, sat down, and fell into his wine.
When the waiter came, holding in one hand a small, square pad and in the other a long, golden-skinned pencil that looked like a knitting needle, my aunt ordered for all of us.
"The cod salad is excellent," she leaned over and seemed to offer as a confidence.
I didn't know to savor the courses as they were flourished. The consomme, the lark, the entrail pudding, the suckling, and finally, the potatoes, leeks, peppers, and cod of the salad. I gobbled almost all of it, my great-aunt glowering at me over her fork, but at the salad, already surfeited, I slowed and so could roll on my tongue the flavors, the way the salted cod mingled with the sweet vinegar of the peppers, the stabilizing bedrock flavor of the potatoes and the leeks, the drizzle of sea-urchin brine poured over the whole of it. The hotel's degustations, I now believed, were intensified because they hinted at all the richness of life that, I imagined, lay just ahead.
And for an evening, I was right. I never attended a grand hall, but the marquesa's reception following the dinner was so sumptuous that I use it as a proxy when imagining such an affair. The carriages pulling up before two sweeping staircases around a fountain; the marquesa herself in the lobby greeting guests; the dozens of beautiful women, in ball gowns, ribboned pumps, and long evening gloves. I was presented to Bebe, the nickname of the marquesa's youngest, near an oval table with yellow linens on which stood a pyramid of square, golden miele cakes.
Bebe, dressed in a gown of lilac crepe and silk, had her hair trussed in a blood loop knot. She had been dipped in powder, painted with rouge, doused in rose water. I was fifteen, but dressed in my blue suit and bodkin trousers, I perhaps seemed older. We spent the evening in easy conversation, becoming exclusive dance partners and slipping away from the reception for an unchaperoned walk through the geometrically precise grounds. We spoke of our ambitions. I told her I intended to join the hussars alongside my brother, Mario. She confessed her apprehension at studying angles and proofs in the fall. As we strolled and palavered, we turned toward each other on occasion, our glances aligning. We both fixed our gazes, unwilling to break away. Her eyes, I saw, were brutally blue, with catenary eyelids above and below. This was everything I imagined a grand evening in the capital to be--moonlit night, beautiful woman--the first of many fetes, I was sure, to be spent among the courtly swells.
At the end of the evening, as my father waited for our buggy to be brought around, I took my leave of Bebe, who bowed courteously and offered me a cheek to kiss. I pecked happily and promised to call on her again, hoping I sounded gallant.
Bebe, I would discover later, was only thirteen. Still, she was of an age where she could receive visitors. When I sent enquiries to the marquesa, asking if I could perhaps call on her youngest daughter, I received no reply. Instead, my great-aunt Flaminia sent word through my father that I was not to trouble the marquesa again.
My older brother took up his commission and was gone, heading off to the south to fight the bandits. I was never again invited to the capital. When I asked my father why, he shrugged into his cups. Nobody knew why or how one person or another was chosen for a gilded life while another was found wanting, he told me. Nobody knew.
The Metherine Bridge was a two-towered, eight-arch, white limestone bridge spanning eighty-seven meters of muddy, deceptively fast-moving water. The arch abutments and plinths were set into the river at seven-meter intervals, the 90-degree haunches beginning about three meters above high tide. The keystones, made of gray granite, were three body lengths above the river. The parapet was waist high and we sometimes, in low tide, fished for perch and eels from the arches closest to the northern bank, occasionally hooking the caimans that lurked in the shallows. The bridge had been exquisitely carved, by different masons working from each bank. The two towers, each two arches distant from the banks, were themselves simple pointed arches with the old royal seal-the eagle in profile, sword in talon--carved atop the rectangular carillons. But on the parapet extending from the north bank was a floral pattern, vines intersecting, heavy with bud and fruit. On the other parapet was a subaquatic theme, frogs, newts, fish, and mermaids swimming through lily tendrils. Also extending from the southern bank was a frieze, badly eroded by the elements, of one of our great sagas, the story of a young man exiled from court, who spends his life wandering the southern wilds, encountering mythical creatures, a centaur, a harpy, an aboriginal prince. I knew this story, was familiar with the hero's return, his betrothal to a princess, his discovery of his true love when he hears her singing behind a lacquer screen, his joining with this chambermaid and jilting his intended princess This was considered one of our great national sagas, yet I always considered it implausible, and here it was, carved in delicate, though weathered, relief, onto the parapet of my bridge.
Nobody knew who had built the bridge, just as no one knew who had written the story of the exiled prince, hut both works had the attribute of being beyond the scope and talent of our time. We no longer seemed capable of making anything this exquisite. The bridge over the Metherine was isolated in both space and time. For sixty leagues in either direction, and for five hundred years, it had been the only crossing. We slept in the keep, an unsightly modern structure plopped onto the anchorage block, built in the last decades. My subordinates bivouacked on the ground floor, with me in my officer's quarter one story below the cupola. We kept chickens and goats in pens up and away from the river, lest caimans take them. Our keep held our supplies: beans, rice, and pulses to last us months; water and wine in clay jugs; ammunition in belts and tallow boxes; safety powder explosives in zinc-lined cases with wire, batteries, and switches carefully sealed in waxy canvas.
From the cupola, near where the bridge deck made its north hank landfall, I could survey my lovely bridge, the stone turning beige in the evening light, the perfect horizontal line of the deck making landfall on the southern bank, the gentle rise of the gravel road as it wound south.
My deployment orders had been to maintain the bridge. But how do you maintain stone? We had dropped lines from the center arch to gauge the water level. We noted the traffic over the bridge, and the occasional canoe or skiff that braved the current and passed under the arches to points south. But soon we tired of these meaningless statistics and observations; I made up the numbers that I entered into my logbook. These we packed into communication cylinders and handed off to the occasional dispatch riders, who had come galloping up from the south on their way north. Or I gave them to merchants driving their camelid trains to market, ordering them to deposit the cylinder at the next gendarmes station.
Within twenty minutes of my locking up the deserters, there came another squadron of bicyclists, also peddling furiously, frightened faces over their handlebars. I stopped the first few, but the rest just swerved around me and kept riding north. I asked them for news from the south, and they shook their heads. We had indeed been badly mauled by the barbarian horde. Our forces were scattered, wandering the wasteland, and the enemy horsemen were sweeping north as we dawdled on this bridge.
"Now let me go!" begged a young soldier, terror-eyed, gulping air. I informed him that he was a deserter, but that because our brig was currently occupied by other deserters, he would have to turn himself in at the next gendarmes station, and could he take with him this communications cylinder reporting on the supposed calamity to the south.
He took the cylinder, swung it over his shoulder by the strap, and pedaled away.
Yosef was atop the cupola, pointing a spyglass south, and he shouted down to me. "A rabble approaches!"
"Friend or foe?"
"By their uniform ... friend!"
It turned out our army had literally been chopped apart. For the next hour, we witnessed a parade of the wounded and broken, though these words fail to convey the desperation of the men--and they were all men, for I can't imagine what happened to the women and children--who now passed over the bridge. I suspect that if those statesmen and ministers who so eagerly volunteered our young men for war could have watched this motley retreat, they would put forth more effort at negotiation and appeasement. There was every type of gash and cut, on every human surface. Any limb or protrusion or extremity that could he hacked off had been so dismembered. The men walked on stumps, crawled on the vestiges of arms, had plopped themselves on boards and fixed wheels to them and propelled themselves with wooden blocks. This caravan of carnage left in its wake a pink trail where blood mingled with earth. I saw here and there among them the crest of the hussars, and asked after Mario, but these men just shook their heads and begged for water.
Aron dispensed water from a barrel, ladling it into the mouths of those who had lost hands and arms. A dozen men fell upon the side of the road when they came to our northern bank, and half of those died where they lay.
Was there no one in command? Every soldier I asked shook his head.
"The bandits cut off the officers' cocks," said one boy, blinded and with both nostrils sliced and flayed. "And made them swallow them."
This was a troubling development, the lack of any commanding officer for the hundreds, and soon thousands, who were stumbling north.
Finally, at dusk, a rider came in from the north, his brown mare blood-sweating and the dispatch rider himself aghast at the train of suffering he had ridden against. He carried with him orders that I was to destroy my bridge.
The next morning I ordered Aron and Yosef to muster in the armory next to our sacks of lentils and beans. Locked in the empty larder were our deserters, the sub-ensign and his comrade, a boy who had fallen asleep with his head in a corner. I directed Aron and Yosef to examine the glycerine tubes, the charges, the wires; they looked at me unsure of what they were looking for, but I was equally at a loss as to what we were inspecting. I walked over, and with a bayonet, pried open the lid of one of the zinc-lined boxes--they were similar in width and length to a child's coffin-and pulled out the banded tubes of safety powder, which had sweat during their time in the box, leaving a pool of oil along the metal interior. It was then that I noticed what was written atop the box, in black lettering hard to make out on the dark wood--"Rotate Daily." We had never rotated. I gathered up the clusters, studying them and determining that, besides the sweating, they were intact.
We had six such boxes, and we had to somehow move them toward the middle of the bridge, placing them above the keystones at each archway. I had never been much of an engineering student, and during my officer training, curtailed because of my family's circumstances, my demolition instruction had been particularly perfunctory. But how difficult could it be? Lay the safety powder tubes, insert the charges, attach the wires, and then run the cable back to a sheltered point where we would attach the cable to the battery.
I told Aron and Yosef what would be required, and then offered the sub-ensign and his comrade their freedom if they would help us port the zinc boxes to the pressure points. They agreed and were unshackled.
Each box weighed ten stone, and wrestling them onto our strap-iron and wood cart took two men. The sub-ensign and his comrade were delegated to pull while Aron and Yosef walked ahead of them, clearing the wounded from our path. It is remarkable how quickly one can become used to the most ghastly of sights, so that after just a day of this macabre procession, we hardly noticed the gashed and flayed and one armed and one legged who kept hopping and stumbling across the bridge. We hadn't been burying those who died on the hank, but overnight, the caimans had taken some of the carcasses, and by the screams we heard, some of the wounded as well.
I saw Bebe again, a year after the reception. It was also the last time I would see my brother. I had come to the capital to watch the deployment parade of his company, the City Hussars, resplendent in their blue-and-red uniforms, their tall wool-hair helmets with silver chin straps--helmets very much in favor with the bandit hordesmen, or so I would later hear from the wounded. That afternoon there were no thoughts of bandits or war, just of the parade, the horns blaring martial music, the bright uniforms, the maidens on the review stand. This was a celebration, though now I wonder what we were celebrating beyond the future dismemberment of a nation's sons. It is perverse to have a party at the dispatch of our soldiers, yet that's what this was. I had been so disappointed at my shunning by Bebe's family, by the courtly swells, but I had not turned that disappointment into anger, but just kept it as a sense of longing and hurt. I had been found wanting, and instead of hating those who had judged me, as I would later learn to do, I wondered what was wrong with me.
That bright day, the splendid horses shining and with manes brushed, the hussars riding with swords at present arms, my brother near the van of his squadron, tall and gorgeous with his pleasing high cheek bones, the slight inverted arc of his cheeks as they descended to his strong jaw. I was so proud of my brother, yet at the sight of Bebe, a year older and now, plainly, a beautiful young woman, I became acutely self-conscious, decreasing my smile, and silencing my cheer. She was perched on a second-story balcony, seated with three other young noblewomen. Bebe wore a taffeta day dress and white tights. She laid a sun parasol over her shoulder and sipped sec from a glass nute. After she sipped, she held up her glass for a footman who stood poised behind her to take, and was handed in exchange a pair of golden opera glasses, through which she studied the parade. The four girls all leaned into each other, exchanging observations, I presumed, about the men passing before them.
I could no longer focus on the parade, and after my brother passed, I edged toward the ornate, yellow-walled and white-columned building. Their balcony was marble balustrade, and hung beneath an ornate marble lintel of carved acacia leaves and branches with doves alighted. She hadn't noticed me, of course, as in all the noise and commotion it was natural that one's eyes fell easiest on the most glittering objects, the fabulous cavalrymen on their mounts, so I took up position a few meters from the balcony and studied her. She had become, if possible, even more beautiful--blue eyes, olive skin, and raven hair; she stood out not only among her company on this balcony, but among all the women in the world. I believe I never again saw beauty this severe or cruel.
I mustered the courage to call her name. It was, I still believe, the bravest act of my life. She didn't hear. I called louder. One of her balcony mates, ginger haired with a long, narrow nose, noticed my voice and tilted her head, as if at a thought she was having. Then she looked down at me, and seeing that I was the source of the call, she turned and pulled at Bebes sleeve to get her attention. Before Bebe could set down her opera glass, her friends had already taken my measure, and were already studying Bebe to see how she would react to my intrusion.
She looked down at me, her expression revealing nothing beyond mild curiosity.
I waved, held my hands out as if to reintroduce myself.
She shrugged, shook her head and told her friends, I believe, that she did not know who I was.
I wondered if she had truly forgotten me, or if she didn't want to admit to her clique that she knew me. I truly hoped that she had forgotten me, as that would indicate better character, at least, than to have pretended not to have known me. For I wanted to think the best about her.
We set the zinc-lined boxes next to the parapet above the keystones, and through the holes drilled near the lids, we slid in the cable and then fixed the charges into each cluster of explosive tubes. Once the charges were set, we ran the cable up over the bridge parapet and then I ordered Aron, Yosef, and the deserters to attach the cable to the exterior of the bridge by screwing hooks into the mortar between stones. The youngest deserter had already vanished, however, joining the rabble heading north, but the sub-ensign, surprisingly, had rediscovered his sense of duty and enthusiastically joined us in fixing the charges. The sallow wounded shuffling past us barely seemed to notice our efforts, or intentionally ignored our work.
When we had finally run the cable all the way back to the cupola, we discovered that our supplies had been ransacked, our beans and nuts and water and wine all lootedby our retreating comrades. Our goats were now gone. Thank heaven our batteries and switches weren't edible, otherwise they would have been taken as well.
"When?" the sub-ensign asked, pointing to the streams of men still crossing the bridge.
Yosef climbed the cupola and determined the train of our retreat continued to the horizon. We would be condemning those caught on the other side of the bridge, perhaps condemning even my brother.
"The horsewave could appear at any moment," the sub-ensign argued. "They materialize out of the desert, like a gust of wind. We can't take the chance."
We must wait until the last possible moment, I decided.
The sub-ensign put his head into his hands. He was plainly terrified at what was on its way. He was a swarthy fellow, furrowed brow, the type who looked perpetually worried, so that now, when he was actually worried, his expression was a triple ration of concern. Still, I wouldn't have my command decisions influenced by the fear and panic that pooled around me.
"We must test it!" the sub-ensign demanded. "What if it doesn't explode? We'll be chopped."
I ordered Yosef to watch the switches and batteries and climbed up to the cupola. We would sleep in shifts in the cupola, a man on watch on the first floor of the keep.
I was so parched I couldn't sleep for more than a few minutes at a stretch. We had drunk all the water in our skins, and were reluctant to approach the river in the dark for fear of the caimans, who seemed to have multiplied, drawn by the bounty of corpses and the blood in the water. At dawn, I was taking my turn at the watch, barely noticing the stream of torn and flayed men who continued to stumble over the bridge, a dozen or so every half hour. By now we had a few score passed out on the banks of the river, and while I did my best to urge them to keep their distance, many of these men were so badly wounded they passed out where they fell. We had pulled dozens back from the river, though after I had pulled a man's arm off at the socket while attempting to relocate him, I stopped and left the wounded to fend for themselves. I had nothing to offer them but the relative safety of being on this side of the river.
I was walking along the cable, to make sure it was still fastened to the parapet, and marveling again at the wonderful relief carved into the parapet. It would be a shame to send all this fine rendering to the bottom of the river, but then I supposed the barbarians would have little interest in such artwork. I was looking down from the parapet when I noticed what appeared to be a hussar's helmet on the bank, next to a half-dozen prone men. I rushed back to the landing and around and down to the bank, where I shook the man who lay closest to the familiar helmet. He'd had an ear hacked off, dried blood staining half his face, and so struggled to hear me through his remaining ear.
When he finally understood I was asking after the man whose helmet that was, he told me there had been a hussar here last night. He had stumbled across the bridge, fallen by the river, and in the morning, he was gone. They'd all heard his struggle with the reptile, but in the dark, they hadn't dared to approach the river.
"His name?" I demanded, of the earless man, and of those who lay in the silt around him.
They shook their heads.
Our last night in the city, before I was to board the coach headed south to relieve my preceding garrison here at this post, I went with a few of my class from the academy, fellow lower-tier commissions, progeny of families with similarly shallow means--for our state excelled at nothing so much as perfectly assessing the assets of its citizens--to a dancehall near the grand bazaar. It was then the fashion among the civilians to wear tunics interwoven with shining thread, the filigree attempting gilt imitation of gold and silver. The overall effect was almost martial in appearance, and perhaps this was intentional, as a kind of war fever was infecting the city. A wealthy few had the means to wear genuine gold weave in their garments, and these swells were the most sought after by the women who frequented these low-ceilinged salons with cut-glass chandeliers that obscured the view of the stage.
There was a small band--horns and stringed rubabs, gloved drummers on stretched goatskins-and the mood was festive, as it was understood the battle was soon to be joined, that at last the scourge of the southern bandits would be dealt the stern blow they so deserved. As uniformed officers, we were welcomed into the establishment and set a table near the band. Though we were unsure of how to properly act in such an establishment, we took our seats as if we were accustomed to such comforts and revelry, and stared straight ahead at the wheezing, cacophonous quiver of musicians and waited for our drinks as, slowly, boys and girls drew closer around us, such was the intensity of veneration for the uniformed on the eve of battle. One by one, my fellow lieutenants were inveigled to dance by a boy or a girl, and each calculated how much of his monthly draw he was willing to part with for fucking a boy or a girl on his last night in the city.
I had in the inside pocket of my jacket the folded up, scented, sheepskin-pouched letter I had received some days before, in Bebes own hand, apologizing for her behavior that evening on the balcony, explaining that she had been so surprised by my sudden appearance that she hadn't known how to appropriately respond and hence hadn't responded at all. But she remembered me and had often thought of me. She had wondered what had become of me. Her mother, the marquesa, had never told her of my inquiries.
She had retired with her mother and their servants to their country estate, to wait out the war. She was excited about the upcoming battles. And regretted that she would be unable to witness them for herself. Some women, she understood, were planning to book passage south and to observe the battles through opera glasses. Her mother, more practical in all ways, had refused permission to join these observatory missions.
She included in the flat, soft, folded envelope a common charm on a chain, the stamped face of the hero Hercules, a popular symbol in the state, his heroism being one of our founding myths. It was a trinket, of the type that might be sold by the barefoot boys who hopped onto train compartments with their wares displayed on wooden trays hung by twine from their necks: individual cigarettes, licorice plugs, twisted wax-paper pinches of stomach powder or dried emu oil.
A young woman caught my eye, dressed in a similar creamy green taffeta as I had last seen Bebe. She had lustrous dark hair and a rosy complexion, and only as she drew close did I recognize the hair was colored with lacquer and her skin reddened by lark's blood. I asked her name and she said she was Lizina, but I could call her as I would and do with her as I would, for a price.
The night was spent in a hot, close room, the sloped ceiling of the atelier so near that as I looked up at the harlot mounting me, she had to bend her head to accommodate the angle.
While I slept off my drunk, the woman rifled my coat pockets. She even took the letter, mistakenly believing the charm an object of some value for the fine envelope that held it.
This is my memory of woman.
This is all I know of love.
All was blood. All was ruin. Around the keep, laying in rows along the bank and beside the road, were the prone, the corpses and the living; dirty khaki enclosed dirty flesh, bump after bump extending east and west along our river. I no longer thought of them as men, or soldiers, but as bundles of thirst, of pain, of hunger, of fear. And into these maws of needs I had nothing to pour, so I pretended not to hear the screams and begging. I understood, for the first time, why a mother might leave a starving baby if she has nothing to offer it. What good does it do anyone to watch helplessly the death of another? And I was watching the death of so many, of hundreds, of all those who couldn't go farther up the road, to the north.
Now, rattling down this road, came a black buggy, forcing aside wounded attempting to walk or crawl their way farther north.
The driver stopped, settled the motor but would not shut it down, and then climbed from the vehicle and removed his goggles. He handed me a communication cylinder, and I returned the favor, then he climbed back into his noisy buggy.
"News from the capital?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Rumors fly," he said. "Word of our collapse in the south has reached our citizens. They are fearful. The bridge must go."
He pointed to the cylinder in my hand. When I opened it, I read the reprimand for not yet having destroyed my bridge.
The dispatch rider had to unholster his pistol and fire it into the air to clear a path for his buggy, and with a cough and backfire, he was gone, back up the road.
Very well, I retired into the keep. I called for Aron and Yosef, but only the sub-ensign remained. He shook his head. My troops were gone. Only my deserter had not deserted me.
I ordered the sub-ensign to climb to the cupola, take the spyglass, and tell me what he saw.
He told me our men were still making their way to the bridge. But on the horizon, he said, there was dust, a vast cloud.
I climbed up. This was a man-made storm, I concluded, the earth and sand raised by the hoof-falls of a hundred thousand horses. The horde approached.
We would wait until the last possible moment, I told the sub-ensign, to allow as many of our boys to cross as possible.
The cloud rose higher, the fulsome curvature of brown air in the sky looking like the prow of an enormous ship crossing the desert. The sight of this dust storm frightened our men. Those on the south rushed to cross the bridge while those on our bank who could still walk redoubled their limp north.
I descended to the keep, from which I could see the progress of the approaching horde, the first horsemen now visible a few leagues away, black letters lined up on the horizon, like a single sentence in a book held up far away.
I thought of Bebe, of her beauty. I saw her again as she had been the night we met, the only night we had spent together, her blue eyes, her unblemished skin. I reimagined the life with her I had imagined so many times, of a marriage, a home, children, growing old together, of the comparative ease of such a passage through our time, all of it, I knew, complete fantasy, an utter impossibility, and anyway, soon to come to an end. I came back to how she had rejected me, of how her family, her whole caste, had rejected me. They were the state, they were the capital, they were what we were all here in the south defending. They were who my brother died defending. They were why I was supposed to blow up this beautiful bridge.
The horsemen approached, now rising in the distance, overtaking our own men, who fell under their swords, were trampled under their hoofs. If they forced this bridge, here was nothing to stop them, to slow them down, between here and the capital, between here and Bebe.
I attached the cable to the batteries, my fingers fumbling with the capstans, threw the switch, and, as I already knew would happen, nothing happened. A puff of smoke, a small explosion, but once the smoke had cleared, the bridge, my bridge, was still standing. And as the first horsemen took the south parapet, hooves beating on stone, their shouts sounding almost melodious despite their awful, swarthy appearance, I thought of Bebe, tried to conjure her image, but instead, felt my trousers soak with my own warm urine, and I turned, for I now understood the panic that had overtaken those who had marched south and then been routed north. Close by there was a corporal, previously unconscious but now roused by the impending assault. He was attempting to mount a bicycle with a flattened rubber but still-rounded rims, and I, instead of turning and facing the enemy, instead of removing my pistol and attempting a defense, I struggled with this boy, as to my rear, I sensed the approach, could feel the heat of the onrushing horde. They were upon us, the smell of them, of horses' breath, of sweat, of hot, meaty effluvium. I took a deep breath, and another, and then another, expecting each to be my last, and another, my last thought is that this is my last thought. I have been struck. I have fallen.
This is all I know of life.
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|Author:||Greenfeld, Karl Taro|
|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2019|
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