Saturday, October 01, 2011

The survivor

(Found on the body of a partisan)*

My Dearest M—,

As you are no doubt aware, on the 12th day of this month the invading army, after an extended siege, was able to breach the inner ring of our defenses at several points on the eastern side of the city, leaving our forces in an untenable position. Amid the general evacuation that ensued, our unit was among several assigned to hinder the enemy's advance and thus gain time to permit our army to retreat in an orderly manner and to remove or destroy any remaining matériel. After several days of ferocious fighting, during which we were repeatedly forced to abandon our positions while sustaining severe losses (I am happy to say that we inflicted much of the same in kind on the invaders), several of us, now detached from the other members of our unit, fell back to a textile mill along the L— River, from the upper story of which we had a commanding view of one of the two main bridges leading to the western outskirts of the city through which our army was evacuating. Here we stationed our machine gun at a window and for the time being were able to prevent the advance guard of the enemy from securing the bridge and crossing the river. In the meantime other units, still fighting block to block in the center of the city, were able to prevent the enemy's main column from reaching the waterfront and putting our position within ready range of their artillery.

Of our friends that you would remember, only Trofim was still with us at this time. Some of the others may have escaped after we became dispersed, but I am sad to say that many of those whose memory you cherish no longer walk upon this earth. For two days and two nights we heard the incessant retort of shelling and gunfire coming from across the bridge, and we knew that our brothers were valiantly resisting the oncoming army and perishing in the streets of our beloved city. At last, when all had fallen silent except the roar of the enemy's advancing columns of tanks, a messenger arrived bearing orders to fight on only until our position became impossible, along with instructions on where to rendezvous with other units after our retreat. A few hours later, having used up the remainder of our ammunition and disabled the machine gun, we slipped out of the back of the building just after nightfall, hearing as we did so the percussion of the first rounds of artillery being lobbed across the river at our now empty outpost.

As the enemy chose not to attempt the crossing of the bridge until morning, we made our way unimpeded through the deserted outskirts of the city, where many buildings had been set afire by our retreating army and still smouldered in the dark, but where not a child or a dog remained, all having withdrawn in the army's wake. By dawn we had left the city at our backs and were walking through fields of ripening barley. No longer hearing the sounds of battle, the scene radiated a sense of great peace, though we knew that within days or even hours the enemy's motorized columns would be hastening along these roads in vain pursuit of our retreating army.

It was near midday when we reached our appointed destination, a large farmhouse set in a little grove of chestnut trees. Here we were reunited with several of our comrades, including H— whom you no doubt remember well, but here we also shared sad tales of those who had lately fallen, whose number is too painful for me to relate. A few of the survivors had been wounded, though none gravely, and the kitchen of the farmhouse had been pressed into service as a dispensary and surgery, as well as to provide us with tea and a welcome hot meal after so many days of short rations.

Three small military trucks had been assigned to evacuate ourselves and our remaining supplies, which if truth be told were no longer substantial. A fourth, larger truck, which had been commandeered from civilian use, stood by as well, but the back of this truck, which was open to the sky, was still occupied by a large and thoroughly placid elephant. This beast, which had evidently been removed from a circus or the zoological park during the retreat, seemed reluctant to descend and surrender its place, and four or five soldiers were gently trying to coax it down the ramp at the back of the truck. Though the animal could easily have turned on the men and crushed them against the side of the truck or trampled them underfoot, it seemed to be of a quite genial disposition, only unwilling to be persuaded. At last, lured by a handful of fruit, it trod with heavy step onto the dirt driveway and was left to amble off on its own as the final truck was loaded with guns and ammunition and the remaining soldiers climbed aboard. As we drove off it watched us with what seemed a rather bemused but patient expression, as if it were indulging us in the little game we were playing and expected our return in good time.

As I hope to return to you, in good time, if not in this world then in another.

Your own,


*Unlike the various items of found correspondence that I have posted here from time to time, this one is entirely fictional.

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