THE SECRET THOUGHT OF DYING
I say to the Bouncer's and Tom's little mother:
"So passed a woman's soul, a dream, and a longing, into 'eternal life'!"
We are no more remarkable than is the grass of the earth. [p. 90] Why? The grass grows low and is suffocated by the shadows of the forest. It yearns for light, air, and the warmth of the sun. After millennia of longing, hereditary longing, small gripping tendrils develop on the stalks. The low grass has become a clinging growth that can climb up tree trunks toward the light, the air, and the sun.
Is it any more remarkable that within us we bear all the longings of the dead, all the possibilities of the unborn?
Man longs eternally after the most momentous of all powers — that of love. It is a force which, if we possessed it uncorrupted or almost uncorrupted, would give us the strength and authority of a Jesus Christ or St. Francis of Assisi.
To be able to love is to believe.
Tom wanted to get drunk. He often used to drink out there when something filled him full of spiritual disgust. He could drink himself quite helpless, and he would maintain that intoxication was a "partial suicide." He knew also that he was the kind of man who all his life wages war upon himself in order to "arrive at a conclusion." In contrast to his brother, he did not believe himself capable of anything at all. He knew from the moment that he began something that it was sure to fail, and for that reason he engaged himself as little as possible, said as little as possible, in order to "do the least harm." His most natural pose was to lie stretched out on a skin rug with his hands under his head and an expression on his face that reflected all the troubles of the world, even when he slept — or perhaps especially then. We used to stand watching Tom when he slept, and we were astonished at the dumb cry of pain that spread over his ugly face. The Bouncer would laugh in embarrassment.
When Tom drank a good deal, he always reached a certain stage where he began to dance. In some ways the [p. 91] dance was heart-rending to see. It betrayed and underlined that which was beyond redemption in his nature. His dance was an expression of contempt for himself, for his clumsiness and his joylessness. His thick lips would assume a bitter grimace. He lifted his feet alternately, raised and lowered his shoulders, and cut the air with his great, flat hands. That was all. But he would continue for some time with this macabre exhibition, a critical self-observer's flagellation of his own image.
A day and a half after the Bouncer demonstrated his cordiality toward us all with the account of his vengeance on the foreign woman, we found ourselves, Tom and I, out in the snow at just that place where the enemy attack had originated. We searched for Lúnnaja for a little while, but that was not our real mission. We knew anyway that the Bouncer had made off with her immediately after his revenge and hidden her somewhere beneath the snow. And the wind had wiped out all tracks. No, our mission was to look for vodka bottles, not fully emptied, and the fact is that we came upon a good many. It was that hour of the day when the air hangs heavy and sticky, like grey spiderwebs, not yet really dry. Tom poured all the remains into a couple of larger bottles and then said to me with a little smile:
"There, brother. Now I have about enough for one dance demonstration . . ."
We started back. When we reached a point about halfway between our old fortifications, now covered with new snow, and the occupied earth-pits deep within the woods, Tom, who walked ahead, turned to me and said in a low voice:
It was Ledin whom he had detected among the trees. Ledin's physique permitted him to move upon the snowed-over [p. 92] paths with a certain grace and ease, but we nevertheless decided that his unusual equilibrium meant something special just now.
We were certain of one thing. Since yesterday Ledin had had it in for us, Tom and me. He had sat and observed our reactions while the Bouncer recounted his experience with Lúnnaja. He clearly thought that we were keeping something hidden from him. All day yesterday we had had a feeling that Ledin was giving us a certain period of respite while he waited for the confession of what we kept in secrecy. He would never stoop to solicit a confession. But he had hung around in our company more than usual, staged artful silences, and created favorable situations to drop some pointed remark or other. But Tom and I kept our silence. And each time that Ledin's eyes moved in our direction, they became clearer and younger, a change that meant he hated us.
Finally when he came toward us, we knew that he had reached a decision. Nevertheless I made a clumsy effort. I gave him a friendly smile, nodded, and stepped to the side. He came very close to us, stood between us, and laid one hand on Tom's shoulder, the other hand on mine. We had never before seen his face at such close quarters and by daylight, although a very poor excuse for daylight. Really we saw only the chin area quite clearly. He was, as always, unusually clean-shaven, but the rest of his face, which had not had any contact with shaving soap, was grey with dirt and merged, as it were, into the spiderweb-grey light all around. We could see his mouth clearly, and a little smile played around it. It began to speak calmly, amiably, and with restraint. It began by saying that a certain affair was very sad indeed — namely, Plennik's condition. For more than a day Plennik had sat hunched up, completely apathetic, with his empty eyes shut most of the time. [p. 93] He ate nothing, drank nothing, smoked not at all, said nothing. It was a shame about the man, Ledin said, an enormous shame about him. It was enough to tear your heart just to look at him.
Ledin paused for some time, looked at Tom, looked at me, and let his hands play on our shoulders as if he were petting us. When he spoke again, his speech was interrupted by long intervals. He said he didn't know . . . the real . . . cause . . . that he could see . . . that Plennik was in distress . . . and that Plennik ought to be freed . . . from his distress.
Ledin stressed the firmness of his decision by immediately leaving us, after making a playful gesture in the direction of my automatic pistol and saying:
"You two are to take care of the matter. With this. And you ought to be finished within, let us say, five hours."
We watched him continue his walk down toward the fortifications.
When we got back, we found Plennik sitting alone in the hole precisely as Ledin had described. We caught no more than a glimpse of the Bouncer in between two of the holes where he was trying to persuade someone to accompany him on his foray against the machine gun nest. But he seemed to be getting a poor reception everywhere.
Tom fired the stove. We had recently got permission to fetch wood from more distant places. Then Tom set about warming the vodka. It had been lying out in the snow, which was nearly 20 degrees below. Tom, the unlucky bird, had on an earlier occasion drunk vodka without this precaution and burned his intestines with the fluid cold. We sat there in silence.
Once when I looked at Plennik his eyes were open, almost staring. They were directed at the vodka bottles. So I spoke:[p. 94]
"Do you want some? It's vodka."
He hesitated some time before he answered.
"I want some," he said. "All of it."
I looked at him in astonishment.
"Yes," he said. "And when I've drunk it, then I'd like to take a little walk."
I understood him immediately. He wanted to get himself thoroughly drunk, walk out into the snow, lie down, and sleep a deep sleep. A very pleasant way to die. I explained how it was to Tom. He nodded.
"It's the best way. You and I could not bring ourselves to put a shot into him," he said.
I saw that Tom's hands were shaking and that his face twitched. It was difficult for him to refrain from drinking since his throat was conditioned to alcohol. But he did not take a drop.
Plennik drank. He drank as if the liquor were milk. By the time he had emptied the first bottle, we still could see no noticeable change in him. But as he began a new bottle, we noticed that one eyelid drooped lower than the other and could not be raised again. Then his face began to assume the expressions of one who is listening to conversation or who is himself talking. He was clearly addressing himself. And in a few minutes he began to talk aloud, but very thickly, thoroughly exhausted. I could not understand all he said, but one word kept repeating itself: hunchbacks. It sometimes seemed that he looked at Tom and me when he spoke that word, and since it didn't seem in his nature to insult anyone, I thought his anguish had befuddled him. Among other things, he said that we who were in the hole were volunteers in the war and that therefore we were the war. He repeated the assertion over and over again, sometimes taking long pauses as if he had dozed off, but coming to again and drinking from the vodka. He said he [p. 95] could understand us, because he himself was once a hunchback. He had stood with a stone raised high over another man, Father Timofej. Actually he had wished to destroy himself then. We had wished the same thing, he said, when we signed up in the war.
He directed his gaze downward at the spruce branches and mumbled gloomily that men seek something at the front — otherwise they wouldn't be there. Suddenly he raised his head and said in a loud, clear voice:
"In the face of death, so much that is twisted in us is straightened out. Our hunched backs are straightened out. They are hammered out with blows. With blows!"
He put the bottle to his mouth and took a sturdy pull at it. I had difficulty understanding him, but he said something to the effect that at the front there is a little fragment of heaven that attracts you by its purity — and that was what was so terrible. That's why there will always be war. "It's funny," he said, "that you can take a map, an ordinary printed map, bought in a store, draw a thin line on the map, and say: "Heaven and hell meet at just this line. That's the front. No matter how thin you draw the line, it will be too thick. You can't draw it fine enough with a pen; the line is so precise and sharply defined. It is a strange thing," he said.
And for a long time he sat sunk in thought about the line that was so uncommonly thin. Then he roused himself, took a drink, and said in a loud voice:
"No man in human history has gone to the front with the secret thought of killing. He has gone with the secret thought of dying."
He changed his position, this time kneeling, and continued in a whisper:
"When a man is eye to eye with the enemy or lying curled up in the cold of night by a dying reindeer who will soon [p. 96] be as cold and hard as its own antlers, then . . . then something remarkable happens."
Tom and I were looking at him, but I don't believe he even noticed us. He was talking to himself as if he were alone.
"Oh yes," he repeated, "something remarkable happens. It is that holy moment when nothing visible happens and yet the greatest thing of all."
"The holy hour," he continued, "unstained by words or thoughts. The hour when a man's head becomes as motionless and silent as a reindeer's head under its crown of horns. — That slow moment when he is born into the animal's dignity. Into himself."
He stood up to full height, but then his legs betrayed him and he sank back down again. He smiled gravely and said with deliberation:
"The collapse, I tell you, sometimes destroys just that distant thing which is the cause of the collapse, and wipes it out! To hell with it! Or to hell with us!"
He raised the bottle to his lips and emptied it. The sagging eyelid had sunk even lower.
"They're playing!" he said, looking up suddenly. "They're playing, the black ones! They're playing for us! They like to play for hunchbacks. Do you hear them scattered out there in the snow reaching for their instruments? Do you hear them! They're playing merry songs . . ."
He listened for a long time. Then he stood up, this time without falling. He opened the ceiling door, listened, and clambered out into the cold.
Tom and I followed him.
No northern lights illuminated the sky. Everything was silent and black. We could hear his steps in front of us and occasionally glimpse his heels. He went down to the fortifications, crossed the clearing, and continued into the [p. 97] woods. Once there, Tom and I stopped and waited till we no longer heard his steps in the snow. Then I raised my automatic pistol and fired — for Ledin's benefit — a short volley straight up into the treetops.
Then we turned and went back at a brisk pace.
Copyright © 1945 by Medéns Förlags Aktiebolag, Stockholm, Sweden. Used by permission. English translation copyright © 1965 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved. Use of this material falling outside the purview of "fair use" requires the permission of the University of Wisconsin Press.
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