Some of the more attractive incidents described in the following story — the stuffing of windows and doorways with the bodies of the dead, the scientists engaged in research while fighting rages around them, the officer attending to his wig — these all did happen during Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, according to contemporary accounts.
It is also certainly true that the entire complement of the First Division of the Young Guard (General Berthezene’s command) were lost during the campaign in Russia. Of his six battalions (approx. 8,000 men), not a single soldier was left to answer in roll call.
Of the 50,000 that were the total of the Guard (the Young, Middle and Old combined), 1,100 survived.
As for Napoleon’s death on the roof of a burning library outside Borodino — I’m absolutely sure that that happened.
B E R T H E Z E N E
Under a tree on a hill, from the top of which is visible everything that is about to concern us, gather two shades, both recently departed from the world.
One is, or was, French, and is, or was, a Soldier of the Line, his uniform torn and dirty in a manner that leaves us little doubt as to the unenviable nature of his demise.
His companion — but wait, the word is suggestive of a friendship, so let us say his colleague — is a different affair. He is clearly not a peasant, or any other sort of villein. His dress identifies him as a Russian, and an officer, and — forgive the allusion — a gentleman, and used to enjoying a greater degree of comfort and civility than the Frenchman; nevertheless — and here is the proof that some things cannot be postponed and will wait for no man — he is just as dead as the other, just as incorporeal, and just as much a matter of spirit.
Below these two, stretched out on a plain of gold and green under the fading warmth of the autumn sun (a minor detail, the temperature, now of interest to neither of the two watchers), an army, a hundred and more thousand strong, streams out of a burning city.
The French ghost speaks: “So, they leave Moscow.”
“Yes. They resisted the notion, but there was never a doubt, after the fires.”
“Look how many there are! And do they not still bear themselves as much like the host of some new heaven as they did when they arrived?”
“Hah! Oh, my Gallic friend, heaven indeed! If any of them still hold to that idea, it is most surely a delusion. They are fewer, by half at least, riven by disease and battle — though they are still many, and though their standards fly, and their officers yet ride horses; they are most certainly thinner, by rank and by substance. And it was only fifty days ago that you arrived here! And now, the winter comes for your countrymen…”
“Ah, winter! Let it take care of itself. See how warm the scene looks, how golden that sun. But is it deliberately, my Russian friend, that you distract us from the state of your Capital? Even your adversary, my own dear Emperor, whose star led us here, pales at its condition…”
“You have my measure there; I admit it, I grow sad at the sight. Look at what has become of her, my City, the population all fled, the palaces burning pyres, the avenues and streets desolate, left to the columns of smoke and flame that play quadrille between the houses. All empty, even now of the conqueror, who flees in the face of the fires set around him.”
“He does, he leaves… with all his army, in such chaos and so badly drilled he departs, amazed that the Russian abandoned his capital so thoroughly, or at all! And no less amazed at the fires which roar behind him, denying him his prize…”
“The prize will mean nothing soon, my friend, whether it be held or lost. The agents of the Czar have denied the invader food and drink and shelter from the coming winter. In just days there will be cold such that your soft European hides cannot imagine. Your Spaniards, your French, your Prussians, your Italians, they may think they know what a brisk day is, and how to turn their collars up, but I swear, even as they expire, they will beg for death! And they have been warned so very well…”
“Indeed they have. And there has been no shortage of Russians to belabour the point, just as you do now. And so, how shall we write it?”
And one of the ghostly pair sits at a table of the finest Swedish hardwood, and takes up an exquisitely weighted silver pen, and readies the first of the sheets of vellum.
“Shall we mention, perhaps, that the flames that consume Moscow are the same as those which melted the wings of Icarus, son of Daedalus?”
“True perhaps, but too poetic for our audience and our purpose. I think we can take that as a given, just between us? Let us limit ourselves to the facts. Like this, perhaps…” and the shade of the Russian officer proceeds to inscribe:
“Ranked and ordered,
bearing high their flags and eagles,
four and eight abreast,
weapons squared and horse held straight,
first a thousand
then ten thousand
then a hundred thousand,
that they leave the city hungry,
because there are so many of them,
and the noise and clamour and din are so great,
and the spectacle distracts them,
and everything seems to be endless.
The Grande Armée fills the world!
from one horizon to the other.
The Emperor proclaims to all
that his star is in the sky.”
“Large talk, my friend, but let us let it pass. But look on their baggage train, and what they have filled it to bursting with! All the gold, all the silver, all the books and tapestries, all the fine clothing and paintings… all shall come to nothing.”
“I fear that you may have something there; but then, as always in war, we shall see…”
“So many dead or eloped already, and yet there are still so many left who do not think of what slopes so roughly toward them, just a few days hence. Look, see those fine carriages, carrying the foreign women, and their servants, their portmanteaux and hat boxes…”
“It is so warm, the sky so clear and blue…”
“So you said. Oh, the sky will stay clear for your companions, have no fear on that account; as clear as ice. Look, Saxons, Poles, Spaniards and Austrians… did you bring all of Europe with you?”
“They gathered most easily. It was not hard.”
“Quite so. How unfortunate that the land they thought to take was already possessed. And now they depart, and the only Russian soil that they can lay claim to will serve them as a grave. How shall we put this? We must introduce Berthezene, you know…”
“And behind, left among the flames
so outrageously and well set,
with his eight thousand Young Guard,
all but two of which are past their prime use,
and shamble where they should most fearlessly and in order stand,
Berthezene, one of the Corsican’s favoured sons,
is charged with the guarding
of the Grand Collective Rump
— as the one hundred and forty thousand,
and the fifty thousand horse of all description,
and the six hundred pieces,
with powder and shot for each,
and every bauble that the horde
could unscrew, tear up, decamp or lift
— Oh the weight, and breadth, and height,
and what a sight! —
is made to file out of the gate
and take the road — oh my,
even ghosts as we might blanch at this —
all the way back to Borodino.”
“Fairly said, I have no issue. And now, look, at Napoleon’s command they will destroy anything of value that has not already been burnt by the Czar’s own saboteurs.
“General Berthezene, unable to trust his own troops to do the work of setting the charges, so dishevelled and easily distracted (by loot, among other things) are they, has pressed into service an army of prisoners, of local citizenry, of foreigners, the old, the sick, the wounded — and these are forced to dig and mine under the Kremlin and the palaces, and to place explosives
When that is done, and the Grande Armée has all but left the City, and there are ten thousand Cossacks under Winzingerode in the vicinity of the outer suburbs to the east and making their way towards the centre, Berthezene commands his troops to remove themselves, which they are happy to do on account of their booty and the fact that they are left alone in the city, and have been restraining themselves somewhat and, primarily, because they are regiments of the Young Guard.
Berthezene himself lights the fuses, and those fuses are so long that it is not until he and his men have almost rejoined the body of the the Grande Armée that the centre of the City and the Kremlin and the palaces and the storehouses of the rich and noble are blown to pieces in sudden fire and unbearable noise, along with the thin crowd of the common and base who have run in, on seeing Berthezene and his men depart, thinking to help themselves to what is left of the possessions of their Russian masters, or just to wander loudly and disdainfully through the hallways and dance in the boudoirs, or to lie on a Lady’s bed, or to lord it over a Count’s chamber pot, or to clear the kitchens or the workshops of what can be taken — no matter their motivation, they are all disintegrated, each and every one, so that in the hail of glass and masonry and well-turned wooden shards that rains upon the city, there is a garnish of blood and torn limbs and riven pieces of flesh and bone, and clothing, and shoes, all stripped and torn and bloody… in this way the destruction of what was left of the better part of Moscow was brought about.”
“That was a longish passage, my friend. Let us call it apocryphal, and leave it at that.”
“With that I cannot argue. But I felt the need to establish, for posterity, the true provenance of this singular train of events.”
“You are no doubt right; we can never be too careful with the causes of all this, and that train of events that you mention. They will try to forget the typhus, you know. But now, let us attend. Advance, the tale of General Berthezene!”
And soon, upon the vellum these words appear:
When the Grande Armée crossed the Neimen,
full of the flush of adolescence,
its armour and will impenetrable,
the Emperor’s host, gathered from every quarter,
six hundred thousand by some accounts,
and if that is an overstating of the case,
it is not by much.
And in the Young Guard’s First Division,
General Berthezene’s was the sole brigade,
and his brigade was six battalions,
and the long shadow
that those eight thousand cast
was a reputation fit for legend!
When they passed,
the regiments of the line would
make way, and present arms in silence.
An officer of the line would salute
A sergeant of the Guard, and
the enemy would pray that they would never,
this day or any other, face the Guard —
the Young, or Middle, or Old —
for upon each Division
the mantle of hardened steel
wrought by the Empire’s will
rests equally, and with awful precision.
How General Berthezene’s heart had swelled with pride, not too many weeks ago; to see his regiments, his voltigeurs and tirailleurs, his batteries, his supply trains, his standards and eagles, all flourishing under his watch, and the eyes of his men would turn in admiration as he rode by, and when word had gone out that the Emperor himself had made mention of General Berthezene as an exemplar of generalship, his men had cheered, and every one of them was glad to be among the First Division of the Young Guard.
And the Young Guard had entered Moscow in better order than most, because even though disease and privation had cut down so many, and the Armée was half what it had been, still the Guard had been held back at Borodino when the battle there had finally been joined, and the army of the dead had recruited none of Berthezene’s men for its ranks.
Moscow is just a few days behind them, and the cold is come, suddenly, as if from nowhere. Of the eight thousand that began, Berthezene now has just five thousand left in any sort of order; and most of these no longer have soldiering on their mind, so much as a simple regretting of their current situation.
The trees that tower darkly above them, stripped to their tops to become corpses themselves, offer those who trudge below them no shelter or word of solace. Each man nurses his own secret horror at his weakness amidst this immensity, and at the vast distance between him and his home. It is a gradual destitution in which the depression of the soul keeps company with the debilitation of the body. It is destitution of which the end is certain.
They march on, any hope of order lost, the line strung out and disintegrating into groups of soldiers and stragglers, threading through horses and men dead or dying from exhaustion or wounds or the cold which has now come upon them with a vengeance beyond knowing.
Berthezene’s pride is a thing of the past. His men are falling around him like rain. They collapse into the snow and are left to fend for themselves, which is to say that the Cossacks and the peasants will find them if the cold does not, and that will be the end of them, at the leisure of their enemy, which will not be hurried.
General Berthezene, the sergeant is rasping, and he rouses me from something I would like to have called sleep, but it is not, the cold will not allow such things. We are too exhausted to sleep. The officers, the sergeant is saying. They are not there…
Not there? I say, and before I can ask their whereabouts, he says that they are all dead, and that the few among the enlisted men who will answer to an order are answering to him, a sergeant. Then carry on, and take a horse, I tell him, and keep them together as well as you can.
My own horse will soon die under me, or I under it. It reels in the cold, and has almost no strength left.
I have taken a greatcoat from a private in the infantry. His corpse had no further use for it. Where he got the coat, I do not know, but it is issue, from one of our allies in Europe, I can see that, and at least it is a winter coat. They gave us summer uniforms! My hands and feet have not frozen solid. That pleases me.
We have reached Borodino, the site of our engagement just weeks ago with 120,000 Russians under Kutusov; the battle that the Emperor finally achieved and the adversary finally allowed. 30,000 corpses lie half-devoured, rotting in the snow, circlets of skeletons guarding hills and redoubts gaze down upon us. None of us say much, my men and I. There are so many dead here that it feels impossible to notice even one. There are so many ghosts to haunt us, and we were here so recently, and, worse, it is our doing.
We keep our eyes down, and I hear my men whispering, it is the site of the great battle, and we do not look at the trees all broken down to the ground line, at the smashed artillery and wagons that litter the ridges and roads, at the endless sea of broken and dismembered bodies.
We pass the battlefield, and all the while, we die a little more with every step. There is no Grande Armée any more.
The town of Borodino is empty. Some vagary of this vast traffic of humanity and materiel has left it silent and desolate while I lead (if you can call it leading…) my men through the streets. The buildings are hollowed by fire, and there are bodies perched and hanging from every piece of wood or masonry that protrudes or offers even the meanest purchase for a piece of flesh or bone. Borodino most surely is a town of the dead.
A man and a woman have died before me in the gathering darkness. Frozen solid as they leaned against a tree, standing as if they wait for something.
Everywhere is destruction. No one speaks now. The night has fallen, the ice has taken on the darkness that presses us so hard from every quarter, and offers no respite but death. I hear the sounds of movement around me, and there are moans and sighs, and there are forms which I suppose to be men or women, but I cannot be sure and I do not care. No one calls for their general.
My horse is dead. I slit his poor throat, then warmed my hands in the wound.
In silence we depart the center of Borodino, like travelers through a gate of hell. I have no idea how many men from my regiments remain. I know it is not many. No one reports to me. I do not ask.
On the outskirts of Borodino, a crowd has gathered. We see them, their backs to us, there is something there that makes us quicken our faltering, freezing steps, and we join the throng. And then we see a building. According to the words above its doors, it is the town’s library.
The mass around the building numbers in the hundreds. They, and soon we as well, are mesmerized by the warmth that radiates from its stone walls.
And near the wreck of Borodino
where no breath is drawn
and no soul moves but
that bland spirit that in keeping with its nature
riles for retribution,
and shudders towards the centre,
its frozen claw outstretched,
he in whom resides the Empire
has taken to the shelter
of the only building
neglected by artillery and fire
and so left to stand intact.
He paces on the rooftop,
seeing glass in hand
and scours the heavens
for his star —
but it does not appear,
and flames burn hot below
and the flesh that boils and turns
is far from caring any more.
Barely human, sense recoils.
“How sorry is this sight?”
“He could not hold forever. The centre never can.”
I can see him! Through the crowd of frozen, wounded, and all-but-dead — he is up there, on the roof. The Emperor, himself! — he paces about, stopping every few steps to curse and look up at the night sky through his telescope. He sweeps his gaze across the firmament, stopping here and there, looking for his star, but never finding it. Although it is a clear and cloudless night, there is not a single star to be seen; and the sky is a dark featureless plain, relieved only by the pale disc of the moon that has appeared above the horizon, from where it is rising slowly above the scene, illuminating all equally with a minacious light.
Between the breathing grenadier and the rigor-mortised cavalry colonel who has been dead in his saddle for a day and a half; between the smashed and overturned artillery piece and the wagon that once held hay sitting somehow unscathed and untouched behind the shelled-out church; between the mother holding the body of her baby and the field marshal who ordered that a thousand Russian prisoners be put to the sword — between all these and each other, and between all these and my own breath which freezes almost before it exits me, I can longer discern any difference.
The Emperor curses and hurls his glass away. He snatches another from one of his aides, and raises it desperately to the sky, muttering as he begins his search again. As I watch, his officers move away, glances exchanged. Even faithful Berthier leaves, and soon Bonaparte is left alone.
A murmuring arises in the crowd.
The windows of the library are closed, and through the shutters is visible the flickering of a light that can only mean fire. The crowd surges forward, for there must be heat! And only when they begin tearing at the doors and windows, trying to gain access to the interior of the building, do I see that the entrances are barred not with doors or sheets of wood, but are stacked full with bodies, laid like cordwood so as to keep the extremes of wind and temperature at bay.
The dead in their hundreds are piled up in the window bays, doing a final service in the place of destroyed glass; and in doorways lie the frozen bodies of infantry, and cavalrymen, and generals and wives and peasants, all substitutes for doors long taken and burned for heat.
The people begin to pound and tear at the bodies, ripping them from their resting places, and hurling them, in the case of the few who possess the strength, and dragging them tortuously, in the case of most — aside, so that dead bodies soon form grisly passes into the flame-lit interior of the building.
And the crowd pours into the library, and I am swept along with them — not against my will, because I have no will any more, and because just the promise of heat is breath-taking — and then I am in a hall lined with books, and the officers that have deserted the Corsican and come down from the roof are rushing past me, fear and loathing on their faces, and I see that fires have been set under the tables, consuming them, and that the flames are being fed by books, pulled from the shelves, and torn apart, and thrown onto the pyres, and there are bodies among the flames as well.
The reprieve from the cold is too much, too instant and overwhelming. Now I am burning. I realize with horror that the smell of charred flesh makes me think of food and my own hunger before any thought of revulsion attains the place it should. The smoke thickens and the tumult is soon intolerable as the rooms and hallways become crowded with shuffling, frostbitten invalids, carrying armfuls of books with which they appear to be intent on fuelling fires over which to cook themselves or someone else.
I am in hell.
I do not know how long it takes me, but I force a passage to the outside. Smoke streams from the doorways and windows, and flames have begun to leap from the upper storey windows. The air is full of burning fragments of books and manuscripts, fluttering and swooping through the air like fireflies escaping into the night.
A Russian shell lands nearby, directly in a group who are slicing flesh from bodies and placing the pieces in a cooking pot placed over a fire of books. The blast eviscerates them all instantly. Blood and scalding soup, of whom or what I have no idea, covers me.
And now I am beside myself, incapable of thought or navigation, weary beyond humanity or pain. I find myself at the foot of the library wall, collapsed or collapsing, I cannot tell which. As I wipe the blood from my eyes with one hand, my other hand is resting on a bundle on the ground beside me. It moves against my touch.
When I regain my senses a few — or many, I have no idea — minutes later — or an hour, or several hours — the coat that I had been wearing has been removed and lies near me, torn and bloody beyond any reasonable notion of use. It has been replaced, through being placed around my shoulders, by a heavy fur coat, of the type the local peasants use. It is roughly made, but suited to its purpose.
A child, a young boy perhaps ten years old, stands before me, regarding me and saying nothing.
“He can barely stand it, poor Berthezene. Perhaps he is a more sensitive soul than either he or we realized…”
“He is a general for the Corsican! He should have plenty of tolerance for evisceration and blood and shit, of any hue.”
“Well, a reed can bend, and bend, but sooner or later it will break… and they are all so far from home.”
“My friend, forget this Berthezene, he is of no importance…”
The Emperor seeks his rising star
In an empty sky from a burning deck
And in clawing, heaving, hoar and ice
Fire consumes the narrow house.
Heaven is not there
to swallow the smoke
Borodino is behind us.
We are struggling through an endless wilderness of snow and ice. We are dying.
The Russians persecute us relentlessly. Their Cossacks, their infantry, their peasants, all kill us whenever they can.
We have no formations, we fall apart, each one a tattered coat on a cage of bone and withering flesh.
The column of smoke from Borodino haunts us like the Emperor’s missing star.
I did not think it could get colder.
It is colder.
A circle of men and women around a fire died where they sat, roasted on one side and frozen solid on the other. Do not sit near a fire in this; the heat will kill you. Men eat corpses to survive. The urine of horses, if drunk straight from the horse, is hot.
If we see someone about to end their own misery, no one moves to stop him. We envy him.
The River Berezina comes upon them like a wall,
there is no egress from this
save a pair of broken bridges,
or through eighty thousand Russians,
all fed and warmed and honed
like a sharpened butcher’s blade,
replete with such untempered propensities
for revenge and nemesis,
and each Russian will take
as many Frenchmen down to hell
as hell will take.
The river Berezina has stopped them. They gather in a disordered mass on its banks as dawn breaks. Ice flakes sweep through them, driven by the approaching storm, cutting into the flesh of man and horse alike. In the gathering light, they can see the Russian columns approaching.
The child has stayed with him. There has been no asking, no questions or stories. Just the constant presence, the watching face. It was the child who put the coat on him, the child who found some charred horse flesh on which he restored his strength, and the child who stayed with him on the march from Borodino, and who now stands beside him, hand gathered in his, in front of the ice and waters of the Berezina.
And so now the shades’ work is almost done.
“Eighty thousand! And every single one of them desperate to cross this one little Russian river… all across these two little Russian bridges…”
“You make light…”
“And the bridges are broken.”
“Then they will be repaired, and see? Look now. Let the children of France marvel forever at the bravery of the sappers who work until they die in the freezing waters, suffocated by the cold, crushed by the ice, swept away by the current, one after the other, until the bridges are repaired.”
“It is good and selfless work, it is true, any man will admit that, and must further admit to awe.”
“And while the Russian armies circle round and gain position, these titans struggle through the day and then through the night by the light of the enemy campfires, while the weather proves itself to be more Russian than a Russian, so ideally do the temperature and wind and sleet all conspire to keep the river from freezing, and it flows rough and hard, and all the while panic grows, and grows…”
“This can be written easily, I think.”
Chaos, dark, and manic,
Though the day is bright and clear,
Eighty thousand, heaving, gasping fear,
Hell’s midsummer is about to solstice early,
And about to solstice here…
Berthezene sees a group below a tree. It is the remnants of the Academy of Sciences, occupied with the geometry of snow flakes, and the seeking of an academically reputable explanation for the direction of the wind which tears at the waters before them. Beside them, a Count who has lost his regiments sits on a snow-covered tree stump, powdering his wig.
And as the night proceeds, the Russian artillery, relocating so that it might better slaughter, finally reaches its redoubt, and taking aim, proceeds to sow terror wide. The Count loses his wig, with his head still in it.
Masses moan, and heave, and clamour, the weak fall below the hooves and wheels of their own countrymen, to the side, or into the water and are swept away. The Russian shells reap a rich harvest, such that no fragment of them ever touches the ground, the flesh that they gorge on is so tightly packed.
Among the Armée, new leaders rise and fall, dynasties are deposed in a breath by a Russian shell or the blind weight of a stampeding horse.
My sergeant comes up to me. He takes me by the arm and cries, his tears turn to hoarfrost on his cheeks. They are gone, he says, who, I say. The men, the regiments, the entire division, he says, all that are left are you, General, and I, and half a gun crew, who have lost their gun. We together are all that remains of our eight thousand.
This is my command, then. Half a crew without a gun, this old sergeant, and a boy. We are the First Division of the Young Guard, all of it. There is no more.
As a fog settles around us with the dying of the wind, the miasma that has clutched my own mind clears. The boy says his first words to me. The horsemen, and he looks beyond us, and I turn, and I see them coming.
The enemy’s artillery has gone quiet with the coming of the dawn, and the Russian General Wittgenstein’s cavalry, another part of his 50,000, is sweeping down towards us, sabres bared, throats roaring, and before them scatters, crying for God, our sorry horde, broken and disarrayed to a new pitch again.
The mass of us surges with renewed and thoughtless determination to the bridges. Officers force a path through the press, crushing all in their way beneath the hooves of their horses and the wheels of their carriages. A group of Spanish horse cut their own way across the bridge closest to us, pushing unfortunates into the swollen river. As many drown or fall to the side as make it across, and as the movement of the crowd takes us across the bridge, the boy and I cling close to each other. I turn to my old sergeant, to see him fall away into the torrent, his chest blooming a red rose sprouted from the impact of a musket ball.
Two carriages of nobility and whores careen and collide, and under their weight the bridge sags precipitously, and from their cases and bags and chests spills their hoard of gold and silver coins, and icons of Jesus and Madonnas, and reliquaries and precious books and crystal chandeliers, and with a clear mind and eye, I see the boy slip from my grasp into the water.
I watch as if from a distance as I reach for him, falling with the looted objects and the carriages and the screaming horses into the water, which swallows them all with equal ease and finality, folding over them like a winding sheet.
The boy is lying still, unmoving in the current where he has fallen beneath a frozen sheet of water. I take up a fallen soldier’s musket, and strike desperately with the weapon, until I have made a hole through which I can reach into the depths below.
And I reach for him, but now the boy has been carried along by the current, and as I am lying down, stretched out on the ice, my arm submersed to the shoulder and numb in the freezing water, and my heart beginning to weep and break for the young boy, who is so young, and who knows nothing of bayonets and cavalry charges and flechettes and firing squads and typhus and gangrene and everything else that we have brought with us, and which we have visited on them and which they have visited on us — I see, in the shifting of light and shadow in the water, and the shapes of drowned men and horses, and carriages turned into watery tombs, a movement that comes towards us, and there is a figure, a woman, I am sure, and I see her clearly as she rises from the black depths towards us, and she takes the boy with one hand, and she takes my wrist in a cold grip with the other, and she brings us together, so that I take hold of the boy, and with all my strength I pull him towards me and up, and through the hole, and onto the surface of the ice, and instantly he is laid down I turn back, and the woman is no longer there, and the water is empty.
The shade of the Russian speaks. “Has your general not come a long way…”
“Further than his men. But here he stays.”
“Your Corsican brought with him enough grist and gristle to feed this maw for a long time yet.”
“And there are tens of thousands of morsels still to be served up. The hunger for lives is insatiable. And see! Where the flesh leads, the gold and chattels follow soon enough.”
“No hunger will be sated with Berthezene, or the boy, that much I suspect. The details are unknowable, true, but their destinies are certain.”
“I will wager that he dies.”
The eviscerated corpse of the Armée crawls, finally, bloody, across the bridge.
The carnage here is complete.
Berthezene lies on the snow of the river bank, dying.
Everything is so large. I do not have long.
I am so cold, to my core. The child kneels with me. He leans close and whispers thanks for the episode just played out on the ice. And he adds: I shall have no leaders, for look what leaders have done.
I am thinking clearly still, the clarity of ice and death and peace all together, and in that, I can see that my own is upon me. I raise my hand to touch the child’s face, and see a band around my wrist, where the woman’s grasp has burned into my skin. At the sight, I feel my breathing ease, and the last thing in me that was resisting gives up the fight.
I hear the sound of horses approaching, at their leisure.
Go, I tell the child, and he rises and retreats to the bridge. I cannot turn my head now. I lie prone on the ice, with my breathing more shallow with each pass, and I feel the ice forming over my eyes and in my mouth.
I can see the boy depart the bridge to the other side of the river and I watch, as if it is played out on a dimming stage, as he is approached by a colonel on a horse, but he sends the man away. And a scientist from the Institute approaches him, but the boy sends him away. And then a priest, fresh from blessing corpses, approaches him, but he sends the man of god away as well.
Hooves arrive in my field of vision, the iron-shod monsters of a Russian warhorse. I can see, as my failing, occluded eyes scale its heights, a Russian officer lean into his pommel, taking in my condition, and beside him, another cavalryman.
A general, here he is, he says, but of course I do not understand his speech.
Yes, here he is. We had so many, says his companion in French, and so of course I can understand that, and they turn their horses away.
Но все-таки, я не понимаю….
* * *
From Air for Fire, a collection of short stories.