An unguarded moment

FROM A Soldier Of The Great War by Mark Helprin

Alessandro’s pack was too heavy. He had to carry 150 rounds of ammunition, probably far more than he would need, heavy clothing, enough food to last for a few days, and water. This, combined with the weight of boots, belts, clips, leather pouches, rifle, bayonet and sheath, pistol, pistol ammunition, and the many miscellaneous items that had accumulated in his pack and pockets, weighed almost as much as he did.

At four in the afternoon he halted in a clearing of young chestnut trees. Even before summer was over, the leaves were beginning to yellow—not, as elsewhere, from the heat, but from the cold at high altitude. At several thousand meters, the gradually receding forest seemed more appropriate to Northern Europe than to Sicily, and so dark and well watered that it looked like a wood in medieval France, or the Villa Borghese at the beginning of December. In their sweet alarmed chatter, the birds seemed to be saying that they had never before seen a man, although that could not have been true, because the peasants came to Aetna to gather chestnuts. Perhaps the birds had never seen a soldier.

Alessandro dropped his pack and rifle, and without the weight on his shoulders he felt like an angel drawn skyward. He sat down. For many hours he had labored up the mountainside, through forest, scrub, vineyard, field, and over black lava runs that scuffed his boots and bruised his ankles. His uniform had darkened with his own sweat, and the part of the pack that rested against his back was wringing wet.

Twice he had passed Guariglia, though no one else, and they had remarked that they would never find anyone, because with their eyes stinging and their heads bent forward with the weight on their shoulders, they did not have the freedom to observe.

“Undoubtedly,” Guariglia had said, “they hear us and they see us.”

An ice-cold stream in the middle of the clearing was just deep enough to flow over Alessandro as he pushed himself down in the middle of it. The breeze was cool and he knew that the night would be frigid, but he would find Guariglia, hunt for the first time, and they would roast their dinner over a fire.

He emerged from the stream, shook off the water, dressed, and went to sit on his pack. A long way in the distance, the sea as illuminated by the hot afternoon light. Something about the color blue, placid and cool, far away, in a silent dazzling band below the horizon, allowed Alessandro to give up all care and let the moment have its way.

He leaned over, grasped his rifle near the base of the bayonet, and pivoted it around to rest it against the fork of a sapling, ready and within his sight. At sea a ship moved slowly across the strip of blue, the white speck of its wake becoming a thread that eventually disappeared.  Alessandro picked up a chestnut and smelled it. It made him think of Rome in autumn, of lookin down the Via Condotti from the Piazza Trinità dei Monti at dusk when the fires began to blaze in restaurants along the Tiber and a darkening orange sky silhouetted the royal palms on the Giani-colo. He regretted not having taken his mother to see the views of Rome that he had come to know as he was growing up. Never would she see them again, and never had they seen them together, because she walked slowly, and he had not had the patience to walk slowly with her.

Suddenly, he was thrown forward as if he had been butted from behind by a bull. He flew over half the clearing and was about to smash headlong into a fallen log when he was turned in the air away from it. Whatever had launched him was clinging to him still, and for its own convenience had rotated him belly up so that he now saw nothing but blue.

As they landed, and as all the air left Alessandro’s lungs, he received a tremendous blow to the face. He had no chance to move, no opportunity to respond. In split seconds, he tried to comprehend. Then an enormous, balding, blue-eyed man pulled back, left him, and casually walked over to the rifle. After he took it from the forked sapling and removed the sheath from the bayonet so forcefully that it flew into the air, he twirled around and came at Alessandro.

His own bayonet, with which he himself had killed a man, was moving toward him like a routing hound, but more swiftly and more surely. The man guiding it seemed unperturbed, as if he were about to stick a shovel in a pile of earth before sitting down to have his lunch.

Alessandro watched the oiled silver point and sucked in his breath. He had a choice. He could think, now I’m going to die, and this is the last thing I’m going to see, or he could find himself a tenth of a second to one side of the blade, just having escaped and not knowing quite how.

Though he had no balance or strength, his muscles exploded and he flew to the side. The bayonet went into the soft forest floor and cut a clay-colored gash in the underside of the fallen log-Alessandro somersaulted backward into the brush and rolled down the hill, his flesh torn by rocks and branches. To encourage gravity, he pushed with his legs and arms whenever he touched anything, windmilling recklessly down the slope until he found himself, breathing like a whore, at the bottom of a little grassy knoll.

He had a clear line of sight all the way up to where he had been, miraculously far away, and he cocked his head to see if he were being pursued. The breeze didn’t even move the leaves, and the balding blond man was disappearing straight up a lava run at disheartening speed, carrying Alessandro’s pack and rifle.

Without thinking, without at first even standing up, Alessandro set out after him.


Published in: on March 3, 2010 at 5:15 PM  Leave a Comment  

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