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D. L. Major

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Berthezene
By D. L. Major
Saturday, April 02, 2011

Rated "PG" by the Author.

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This piece is a reference to two myths: firstly the Celtic Ceridwen myth, and also to the Norse myth of the birth of poetry (from Barbara Picard’s Tales of the Norse Gods and Heroes, Oxford University Press, 1967, where it is titled The Mead of Poetry). The differences, and similarities, between the two myths are fascinating.

The two commentators derive from the supposed ancient Celtic custom of bards from both sides in a conflict retreating to a hill and observing and recording the contest together. Apparently, anyway. That one sounds like a stretch to me, but nevertheless it’s a nice idea.

The historical facts of the French-led invasion of Russia in 1812 are so well-established that to play loose with them is no great disservice.

Wherever I have mentioned troop numbers, commanders’ names, and locations, I have tried to cohere with reality – but where I have felt inclined to make it up, I have done so readily. The general train of events – the burning of Moscow by Russian partisans and the attempt by the French to finish the job when they left, the passage of the retreating Grande Armée through the corpse-strewn battlefield of Borodino, and the catastrophic crossing of the Berezina River – these all happened. (Napoleon’s death on the roof of a burning library outside Borodino, while his troops cook and eat corpses in the surrounding snow-covered fields – I’m not so sure.)

It is 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), approximately 1,100 survived.

 BERTHEZENE

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 well beyond the ken of the two watchers), an army, a hundred and more thousand strong, streams out of a burning city.

The French shade speaks: “So. They leave Moscow.”

“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 friend, that you distract us from the state of your Capital? Even your adversary, my own 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... in his thousands, in such chaos and so badly drilled, he departs, amazed that the Russian abandoned his City 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 cold. In just days there will be a winter 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...”

“...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 shades 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 enough 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 proceeds to inscribe:

“Ranked and ordered,
bearing high their flags and eagles,
four, eight abreast,
weapons squared,
and horse held straight,
first a thousand and then ten thousand and then a hundred thousand,
forgetting that they leave the city hungry,
forgetting 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,
and 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 rough toward them, just a few days hence. Look, see those fine carriages, carrying the foreign women, and their servants, and 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 were offered was already taken. And now they depart, and the only Russian soil they can lay claim to is that which will do them service as a graveyard. How shall we put this? We must introduce Berthezene, you know...”

“And behind, left among the flames so outrageously and so 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 Russian’s own saboteurs. If Alexander would deny him, then he will with interest deny Alexander, on that sovereign’s return.”

* * *

“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 (forgive the term, given the circumstances), encouraged by force of arms, of prisoners, local citizenry, 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, and then when that is done, and the Grande Armée (Grande just, and just for now....) has all but left the City, and ten thousand Cossacks under Winzingerode being in the vicinity of the outer suburbs to the east and making their way resolutely 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 containing themselves somewhat and primarily because they are regiments of the Young Guard, and he 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 torn and blown to pieces in sudden fire and unbearable noise, along with the multitudes of the common and base who have run in, on seeing Berthezene and his men depart, thinking to help themselves to what has been left of the possessions of their Russian masters, or just to wander loudly and disdainfully through the hallways and dance halls and 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... and so 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 so, upon the vellum appeared:

“When the Grande Armée crossed the Neimen,
Full of the flush and flesh of adolesence,
Its armour and will seemingly impenetrable,
The Emperor’s host, gathered from every quarter, numbered
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,
A reputation fit for legend!
When they passed, the regiments of the line would
make way, and present arms in respectful 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 held the thought dear, and they were every one glad to be 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 had finally been joined, and the masses of dead there had recruited none of Berthezene’s for their 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 good 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 so darkly above them, stripped to their tops to become corpses themselves, offer those who trudge below them no word or mote, not a single thing, of solace. Each man soon nurses his own secret horror at his weakness amidst this immensity, and at the vast distance distance between him and his home. This is the gradual destitution in which the depression of the soul keeps company so closely with the debilitation of the body. The destitution of which the end is certain.

They march on, any hope of order lost, the line strung out, disintegrated into groups of soldiers and stragglers here and there, threading through horses and men dead or dying from exhaustion, or wounds, or the cold which has now come upon them with a vengeance almost beyond knowing.

Berthezene's pride is a thing of the past. His men are falling around him like rain. Those who grow too weak 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 is not possible to notice even one; so many ghosts there are 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 up 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, and the scattered remains of horses and weapons and standards that assail us with their awful ubiquity.

We pass the battlefield, and all the while, we die a little more with every step. There is no Grande Armée.

* * *

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 (lead! such matters are becoming theory...) my men through the streets. The buildings are hollowed from 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 is a town of the dead.

Two men have died before me in the gathering darkness, frozen solid, leaning against a tree, standing as if they wait for something, dreaming with their dying thoughts of a comrade with a warm carriage and a full flask to carry them home.

Everywhere is destruction. No-one speaks now. The night has fallen, the ice has become one with utter darkness, it is Afagddu who presses us so hard from every quarter, and offers no respite but death. I hear the sounds of movement around me, and moans and sighs, and there are forms which I suppose to be men or women, but I cannot be sure and I barely care. No one calls for their general.

My horse is dead, I have slit his poor throat then warmed my hands in the gaping wound.

In silence, then, we depart the centre of Borodino, like travellers through one of the gates of hell – I have no idea any more 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 the town, 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 we see that there is a building. Letters carved in stone above its colonnaded doors proclaim it to be the town’s library.

The mass around the building numbers in the thousands, I see now, and 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 and roils 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 and so left to stand intact.
He paces on the rooftop,
Seeing glass in hand
And scours the heavens above
For his star –
But it does not appear
And flames burn hot below
And the flesh that roils and 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! – paces about, stopping every few steps to curse silently and peer up at the clear 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 shattered body of her baby and the field marshall 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, freezing 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, beginning his search again.

As I watch, his officers move away, glances exchanged, even faithful Berthier leaves, and 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, towards what must mean 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 not barred with doors and windows of wood and glass, but are all stacked full with bodies, laid like cordwood so as to keep extremes of wind or temperature at bay. The dead, in their hundreds, are piled up in the window bays, doing service in place of long-disintegrated glass; and in doorways lie the frozen bodies of infantry, and cavalrymen, and generals and wives and peasants, filling in for doors long taken and burned for heat.

And the people (how barely fitting, that term...) begin to pound and tear at the bodies, ripping them from their resting places, if rest it be called, 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-illumined 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 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 realise 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 fueling fires over which to cook themselves or someone else. What design for a hell is this!?

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 the bodies of a horse and a woman, 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 who or what I have no idea, covers me.

And now I am beside myself, incapable of thought or navigation, weary beyond humanity. 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 is lying near a smouldering fire, 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 well suited to its purpose.

A child, a young boy perhaps eight 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 he or we realised...”

“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... and they are all so far from home...”

“My friend, forget this Berthezene, he is nothing;”

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 endless wilderness covered with 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 newly rendered bone.

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, done to a turn, 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 his decision.

* * *

So. 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 in judgement,
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 the banks as dawn breaks, ice flakes sweeping 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... 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, after the other, until the bridges are repaired enough to bear the weight.”

“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, 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 as to better slaughter, finally reaches its redoubt, and taking a leisurely 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, and never touch the ground, the flesh that they gorge on is so tightly packed.

Among the Armée, new leaders rise and fall, dynasties created and deposed in a breathe 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 your eight thousand.

This is my command, then. 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 fog that has clutched my own mind clears.

And the boy says his first words to me. The horsemen, and he looks beyond us, and I turn, and after a few minutes, I see them coming.

Their artillery has gone quiet with the coming of the dawn, and the Russian General Wittgenstein’s cavalry, another part of his 50,000 fed and rested, 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, and 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 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, and I watch 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, and I crawl across the ice. 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 flail and strike desperately with the weapon, until I have made a hole, through which I can reach into the depths below.

And I do, 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 to this country, 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 there, a woman, I am sure, I am sure, and I see her clearly now as she rises from the pale 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.

* * *

The shade of the Russian speaks: “Has our 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 to be served up yet. The hunger for lives seems to be 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 still, their destiny is certain.”

I will wager that he dies.”

* * *

The eviscerated corpse of the Armée crawls, finally, bloody, across the bridge.

The Carnage right here is complete.

Berthezene lies on the ice of 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. And 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, and 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, and in a moment I can see him 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 he sends the man away. And then a priest, fresh from blessing corpses, approaches him, but he sends that man away as well.

Hooves arrive in my field of vision, the iron-shod monsters of a Russian warhorse. I can see, as my failing, occluding 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 they turn their horses away.

But still, I do not understand.

Nor I.

* * *

 


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