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A Poet’s Life

by Mike Florian

The eleven men were led towards the back of the white building. They were allowed to stop, sit, lean against the wall and wait. The plaster was falling off in large flat sections, revealing red bricks and white mortar. There was no more glass in the windows. Puddles of rain collected in the March drizzle. Two of the prisoners sat in the mud, staring into their laps, one hand raised, tied tightly with heavy rope to the next man standing.

A woman in black stood silently watching from behind a cart. She was a hundred meters away. Her horse stood unhitched, its rump against the wind, its tail waving. The woman tied the horse to the handle of an old well in the center of the village and walked towards the prisoners.

The ten soldiers of the winning side and their captain were as drenched as the prisoners. Their uniforms were water-stained and streaked with blood. Most had revolvers, some had hand guns, and some only had rifles leaning against their sides. A yellow epaulet was stitched on the captain’s left shoulder. On the other it was torn off, revealing bare skin and a gash. The woman in black approached him. She was alone.

The villagers had long ago left Rosdorf at the start of the shelling and the fighting. The village consisted of about twenty small houses, a church with an Orthodox cross and a small silver dome, the water well, and muddy streets. No other woman was within a hundred kilometers. The captain had watched her over the days, keeping her distance, leading the horse and cart.

“Tovarich,” she said as she approached. The captain looked at her. In her black coat and wide, flat boots, she was not pretty. Her feet protruded out of one boot showing blackened nails and twisted toes. She shared one glove between her hands, warming her against the cold winter rains. Her head was covered with a rag. Her eyes, as black as her boots, were framed by deep circles.

“That one,” she said pointing, “doesn’t belong here. I will take him home. I’ve brought the horse. He will be no trouble.”

The captain looked down at her feet and turned away. “Get ready to line up,” he said to his soldiers.

“He doesn’t belong,” she said again. “He’s not like the others. He’s a Russian like me. My husband.”

The captain kept his back to her. He didn’t acknowledge her. “Line up and each one of you aim at the head of one man,” he said to his men.

“I’ve been following you for five days, he doesn’t belong. He’s a poet,” she said in Russian.

The captain still kept his back to her. The men were lining up in single file.

The routine of the troop alarmed the woman. She looked at her husband, second from one end of the roped, line-up of men. He was standing, the only one not leaning. Both of his arms were pulled straight towards the ground by the others as they lay or sat on the ground. Some prisoners were sobbing, others were praying, a few like her husband were on their feet, silent.

With a sense of controlled urgency she spoke in Croatian, Hungarian, Austrian, Slovakian... anything. She had tried Russian and even Prague Czech. She thought she detected a movement when she said: “He doesn’t belong to you,” in Slovakian, so she continued in that language.

“That man was helping both sides. He has no guns. He provided medicine and alcohol for treatment to both sides. He’s a pacifist. He only got caught on the other side by you and your troops by circumstance, by bad luck. He isn’t the enemy, tovarich.”

The captain continued sitting with his back to her. She dared not approach him or touch him. She continued to talk: “He saved many on your side and also on the side of your enemy. He would run across the lines like the fool that he is with the alcohol and treat the wounded. When his horse was killed by a mine, he continued to run on his feet.

“I followed him over the mountains. He wanted to stop the killing and the dying, the fool. He’s a poet, not a soldier. Here, here are his poems,” she said, gently shuffling over to the side of the captain. She placed beside him, in the mud, a packet of paper with scribblings of words, streaked or washed away by tears or rain.

The captain with the one epaulet stood up and as he walked away his boot pressed the poems into the mud. He walked up to the man, her poet, her lover, her fool, her life. He pulled his revolver out of its holster and shouted to the other ten men to do the same behind each prisoner.

The woman in black watched as he barked the command to execute and saw the enemy soldiers fall. She only saw the captain and his gun and her husband. When the blue smoke hung over the bloodied group, her man remained standing.

“Let’s get out of here,” said the commander to his men.

“What about him?” they asked.

“Leave him,” he said.

The woman in black hitched her horse to the two-wheeled cart and walked to her man. He was kneeling when she came up to him. She untied the rope that bound his wrists and almost carried him towards her cart. Once there she helped him up and slid him onto its floor. The soldiers were just disappearing over the hills, the dead men lay at the side of the white stucco wall of the house.

The woman climbed into the cart and turned towards her husband, wrapping her arms and legs around him. She took in the smell of his urine and shit. They both cried, muffling the noise into each other’s shoulders.

A few years after that war had ended, he died of pneumonia and she lived alone during her many remaining days.

Copyright © 2012 by Mike Florian

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