He woke up when he felt the horse nuzzling his face. Hungry, he thought, yes, you and me too. And cold.
He lay for a while with his eyes closed and sensed the pain in his leg and the cold in his whole body as he woke up and feeling came back.
The horse stood close to him, sniffing at his coat. He got hold of its mane as high up as he could reach. He pulled himself up to a sitting position. The horse stood still. He bent his good leg and pulled himself upright by the horse’s mane. The heel of his wounded leg hit the ground. He groaned and threw his other arm across the horse's withers to keep himself from falling over.
Have to get hold of food today, he thought. And keep moving. The snow was the same here in Russia as back home in Soule. He knew about snow and cold. At home the farms had tall, steep roofs for the snow to slide off. And when you were looking for a sheep lost in a blizzard, you had to keep moving, or you would freeze to death.
Keep moving. See to the animals first. He pushed the horse toward an opening where the wall of the outhouse had fallen down. Together they moved outside.
He pulled down some straw from the low roof for the horse to eat. Then he put some snow in his mouth and felt it melt into cold, metallic-tasting water. Funny, he thought, just half of the roof burned. And it's straw, it should have burned completely. Too bad I can't eat straw. Have to find food today.
I could eat the horse, he thought. No. No fire. And not strong enough to slaughter it.
The horse, a dirty brown, with all its ribs showing, had walked up to him on the road. It looked like it was saying, come on, human, feed me. The saddle was French cavalry, but the blanket was just a gray woolen rag. He had somehow managed to get into the saddle, it hurt his leg, but not having to put weight on it was good. Riding made him more visible, he supposed, in case the Cossacks came, but he did not care any more. He had to keep moving, had to find food.
The half-burned outhouse was the first quiet and sheltered place since Smolensk. He was part of the rearguard when the French retreated and the Russians had been waiting for them in what was left of a small village. He got shot in the leg and crawled in behind the wooden front steps of a house, then passed out. When he woke up, it was over. There were quite a few dead, mostly French. He tore a piece off somebody’s shirt to tie around his leg. He thought about looking for food and shelter. On the next day the horse found him.
Now he bent down to pick up the saddle. That started his head spinning and his vision going black. He stood panting, with the saddle in his hands. Then he dragged it up over the withers and let it slide into place on the horse’s back. He leaned against the horse’s side to rest. Straighten the saddle blanket. Bend down to find the girth strap. Rest. Fasten the buckles. Too cold. His fingers were stiff inside his gloves and he breathed on them. Then he could manage the buckles. The last pair of holes in the saddle straps. Ought to be tight enough. Now the bridle. Loop the reins over the horse’s neck. He took off his gloves and fumbled with the straps and buckles. Too damn cold. He breathed on his fingers again. Push the bit into the horse’s mouth, pull the headpiece over its ears. Buckle the throat lash, then the nose band. Make very sure nothing’s twisted. The bridle and reins, that’s what I’ve got to steer with, he thought. No fancy riding with this leg.
He turned around so he could get hold of the wall for support, undid the lowest two buttons of his coat and fumbled with the buttons of his breeches. The buttons were small and he had to breathe on his fingers again to manage them. He urinated, cursing the cold, did up all the buttons carefully and pulled his gloves back on.
He pushed the horse over to where he could step with his good leg up on a piece of crumbling wall. Now to get the bad leg over the horse's back. He clenched his teeth, grabbed the cloth of his breeches and lifted his bad leg with his hand, his boot dragging across the horse's croup. He slid into the saddle with a groan and almost blacked out again. He lay slumped forward over the horse's neck. Then he straightened up, found the stirrups, got hold of the reins and kicked the horse’s side with the heel of his good leg. The horse moved forward at a dragging walk.
Cold. He held the reins in one hand and reached up to straighten the brown woolen scarf that was wrapped about his head and neck. His tall, black infantry officer's hat was gone, since even before Smolensk. The scarf he had picked up someplace was warmer. Would not attract the Cossacks as much, either. His saber was gone too, just was not there when he woke up after he got wounded. He had a bayonet. Almost like a knife. A much better tool. It took strength to handle a saber.
The field they were crossing was a dirty grayish white, the same color as the sky. There was a small thicket of trees and bushes some distance to the left. He reined the horse that way. Not much else to be seen. Like this we at least have a direction, he thought.
The horse’s croup moved sideways with each step of its hind legs, left, right, left, right. With every shift there was a pang of pain through his bad leg. Hope it doesn’t start bleeding again, he thought. Left, right, left, right... Hope I won’t fall off. Hope I can find food today. Left, right... Got to find food. Left, right, left, right, left, right...
So this was his military career. The French Imperial Glory crap they had been feeding him ever since he got drafted. A long way from Harizpe, a Basque sheep farmer’s son, to Duchêne, a Light Infantry officer of the III. Imperial Corps. No Basque names in the Imperial Army, of course. All good and French. So, would it be Pierre Duchêne or Peio Harizpe who starved to death in a Russian field someplace west of Smolensk? Who cared. Not the Emperor. Not Maréchal Ney, even if he was still alive. The horse, maybe, he thought. It needs me to feed it. So let’s find food.
They rode into the thicket. A good place to rest, he thought. Out of sight. Ought to get off the horse and rest. Maybe eat some more snow.
He leaned forward on the horse’s neck and tried to get his bad leg over the croup. He barely got his foot out of the stirrup. Too stiff. And lifting his good leg over the croup or the neck could land him on his bad one.
He sat slumping in the saddle. He let go of the reins and felt the horse’s sides heaving as it breathed. He reached out and took some snow from a branch to put in his mouth. The cold hurt his hand straight through the glove. After a while he picked up the reins again and got the horse moving. The horse stumbled on the frozen, uneven ground. Once it almost went to its knees and he had to grab hold of the mane to stay in the saddle. It hurt his leg. He held the horse still and waited for the pain to lessen and for his head to stop spinning. Then he rode out of the thicket.
The smoke was gray against the gray sky and he almost missed it. Smoke could mean something recently burned down. Or it could mean a house, with people in it. Maybe a farm. Possibly food. Or having a peasant kill him if he was caught stealing.
Smoke could mean a Cossack encampment. Got to risk it, he thought. If the Cossacks or the peasants don’t get me, hunger will, or the cold.
He pulled at the reins and turned the horse toward the smoke. It was still a long way away. The horse was walking faster. Maybe it thinks there’s food over there, he thought. Wonder if horses can hope. Nonsense. A horse lives right here and now. It sees and hears and smells and feels. No thinking ahead. No hope. No worry. Pretty good to be a horse, sometimes. No reason to worry about Cossacks and peasants. They’d just feed it and keep it. Good for you, horse.
Left, right, left, right. The cold had numbed his bad leg again and the jolts were less painful. Cold air was getting inside his scarf, stinging his ears and neck. He took the reins in his left hand and pulled at the scarf with his right. He pulled it up over his mouth and breathed inside it. That was better. He was less cold and the horse moved on without urging. I’ve managed to keep my coat dry, he thought. Good coat. Good and warm. And there may even be food ahead.
He slumped in the saddle and let the horse move at its own pace. Left, right, left, right. Much less cold now. His hands rested on the cantle in front of him. His head drooped. His eyelids felt heavy. Step, step, left, right, left, right...
He woke up when the horse stopped moving. He shook his head and blinked hard a few times.
The smoke was coming from beyond a clump of trees a short distance away. There was a building there. Maybe a farm, he thought.
The horse had stopped in front of a wooden door set into the side of a low mound of earth. It sniffed at the door and snorted.
A root cellar. Food, he thought. Food.
He reached down and pulled the stirrup off his bad foot. Then he leaned forward over the horse’s neck and lifted his good leg over the croup. He kept his weight forward and twisted around in the saddle until he lay across it on his stomach. He held on to the saddle with his hands and lowered himself to the ground. Moving his bad leg made it hurt again. He held on to the stirrup and waited for his head to stop spinning. Then he pushed the horse out of the way so he could get at the door. He let go of the stirrup and took a step. He cried out and fell down on his good knee at the cellar door. His bad leg would not bend completely and it stuck out awkwardly sideways and a little to the back.
The cellar was locked.
The lock was rusty. The wood of the door was old and the surface had begun to rot. He got his bayonet out and hacked at the wood next to the lock. He hit a nail and dropped the bayonet. He fumbled for it in the snow, found it, hit the door with the point again. There were splinters coming out of the wood. Hack. Hack. Hack. More splinters. His head was spinning and he was breathing hard. He stopped to catch his breath. Hungry. Thirsty. He ate some snow and got back to hacking at the door with his bayonet. There were lots of big splinters now. He shoved the point of the bayonet into the crack near the lock and pushed. The wood creaked. He pushed harder. His vision was going black. He pushed. The bayonet slipped and cut his hand through the glove. He lay on his side next to the cellar door, breathing hard. Then he pushed himself up to his knees, picked up the bayonet and pried at the door again.
Creak. Creak. Creak.
The door swung outward and he had to roll out of the way to get it open wide enough to pass through. The cellar smelled of damp earth and something else. Potatoes. Food.
There were a few stone steps leading down into the dark. He grabbed hold of the door frame and pulled himself to his feet. His leg hurt, but it moved a little better now. He had to put his full weight on it three times to get down the stairs. He grunted with the pain each time. His head was spinning.
Most of the cellar was dark and he felt his way around. There was a big wooden box and shelves with deep trays filled with sand. He felt inside the box. Straw, sacking, and underneath it damp, earth-smelling lumps. Potatoes. He grabbed one, rubbed it on his coat and bit into it. A cool, starchy taste. He chewed and swallowed, bit, chewed, swallowed, again, again...
He picked up another potato and started eating it. His eyes were slowly getting used to the dark. He swallowed the last of the potato and searched in the sand trays. They kept roots in sand for winter storage here, just like they did back home. Big rough lumps, celery. Small round ones, beets. He pulled a beet out of the sand, hacked it in two with the bayonet and gnawed at the pulp. The juice wet his glove and stung where he had cut his hand.
The horse snorted. Feed the horse, he thought. He picked up another couple of beets and potatoes, put them in the pockets of his coat and turned to the door.
He opened his mouth to call the horse and nothing happened. His voice was gone. He tried again and made a croaking sound.
He put his good foot on the first step, reached out and pulled himself up by the doorpost. Then the next step. And the last one.
He reached out and handed the rest of the beet to the horse.
– Here, he said. Eat.
The horse picked up the beet with its lips, dropped it in the snow and then bit into it. He took another beet from his pocket and was reaching for his bayonet when he heard the scream.
– Aaaah! Du Schwein! Marodeur! Scheiss Franzose!
The woman, bundled in gray and brown wool, was trying to run and was stumbling and slipping in the snow on the frozen ground. She was holding a hoe in both hands, with the shaft across her body. When she came close enough, she swung the hoe at his head. Her face was pale. She had stopped screaming and was breathing hard.
He ducked the hoe. His bad leg buckled. He fell down and dropped the bayonet. The woman lifted the hoe again and swung it at his head. He propped himself up on one arm and lifted the other one to stop the hoe. He grabbed the shaft. The woman pushed, pulled and jerked to get the hoe free. Then she jerked the hoe toward his head with his hand still holding the shaft. He felt the iron touch the scarf on his head.
– No, he said. No. I’m hungry. Have to eat.
The arm that was keeping the hoe away from his head was going weaker. The woman jerked the shaft out of his hand and swung at him again. He wanted to lift his arm. He wanted to move out of the way. He rolled over on his back and fainted.
He lay on his stomach, doubled over something that was moving joltingly. He opened his eyes. There was a patch of leather in front of his face. He twisted his head and saw a leather strap, a piece of gray woolen cloth, and he had to look up to see the ground. He was lying face down across the saddle of his horse. The horse was walking and a hand was holding on to his coat collar to steady him. He was feeling sick and there was cold sweat on his face and back. Then the horse stumbled and jolted his bad leg. A bitter taste filled his mouth and everything went black.
He woke up in a bed. His eyes were closed, but he could feel that he was in a bed, in a warm room. There was a sharp pain in his bad leg and he tried to move it away. Something held it.
– Hold still, a woman’s voice said.
He opened his eyes.
The woman kneeling at the side of the bed had pale skin, red hair in an untidy knot, and was wearing a white blouse with the sleeves rolled up. She was doing something painful to his bad leg and was speaking in fluent, heavily accented French.
– Got to get this cleaned up. There is no-one here who knows how to cut your leg off without killing you.
He closed his eyes again and tried to keep his leg still. It hurt. He moaned and put his arm across his face. After a while he got hold of his shirt sleeve with his teeth to stop himself from crying out. The shirt was good linen and it smelled clean. Not his own shirt. The pain was really bad. Then it got worse. Then he felt nothing at all.
He woke up and felt himself lying on his back in a feather bed. Home. He opened his eyes and twisted his head around to look at the window behind his head. It was not there. Gray light was showing through the cracks in the shutters of windows on his left and right. His right leg hurt, just above the knee. He tried to turn over on his side and the pain got worse. Shouldn’t move the leg, he thought. He pulled his right arm from under the comforter and held it before his eyes. He was wearing someone else’s shirt. The arm looks strange, he thought. He made a fist, opened his hand and stretched his fingers, closed the fist again. Feels strange, he thought. Used to be strong.
The room was big and there was someone else sleeping in it. He could hear the breathing. Very sensible, he thought. Get some more sleep.
He closed his eyes.
There was a smell of food. He felt spittle running from the corner of his mouth and down his chin. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and opened his eyes. The window shutters were open. The red-haired woman was standing next to the bed with a bowl in her hands.
— There is food, she said. Can you sit up?
He tried to push himself up toward the headboard. The woman set the bowl down on the table and put an arm around his shoulders to help him. She was very strong.
She handed him the bowl. He took it and fumbled with the spoon.
— Thank you, he said.
He dropped the spoon. She sat down on the bed, picked up the spoon and began feeding him soup from the bowl. The soup had beets, potatoes and cabbage in it and was spicy and hot. It burned his mouth and he had to eat slowly. Then the bowl was empty and the woman stood up.
— You’ll get more food later. Now it would make you sick.
— Thank you, he said. I am... I am Peio Harizpe.
— Doesn’t sound French.
— Basque. We had a farm outside Tardets, in the Pyrenees. Sheep. A few pigs, for the ham, but mostly sheep. Then the French came, said I had to join the army. Called me Pierre Duchêne. Taught me French the hard way. Did the wrong thing, got beaten up or jailed. Learned to understand orders pretty quick... You speak very good French.
— My father was a teacher. I am Margareta Petrovna Nolte.
— Doesn’t sound Russian.
— My grandfather came from Hamburg and my husband’s family from Bremen. My husband worked as steward at the Alimov estate. I got to keep this farm when he died. Very fortunate.
She turned away and put the used bowl and spoon into a wooden tub next to the fireplace. She picked up a piece of white cloth, sat down on a bench by the window, threaded a needle and began sewing.
He lay back in the bed, enjoying not being hungry any more. There was very little furniture in the room, just like back home, but there was a book cupboard in the corner near the bed. Its top pair of doors had once had glass in them, but now the right one was broken and had been mended with a couple of rough boards.
Could do that better, he thought. And maybe even fix a proper wooden floor instead of just earth.
Then he went to sleep.
He woke up and knew he had to find a latrine.
The woman was still sitting on the bench, sewing. She had lit a candle in an iron holder in the wall.
Sitting up in bed was easier this time. Lowering his feet to the floor hurt his leg. He sat on the bed, fighting the pain, looking around for his boots.
The woman put down her sewing, went to a clothes closet by the door and got out a pair of gray felt boots. She knelt down and put the boots on his feet. Then she stood up, put on a brown woolen shawl and brought his coat. She helped him to get up and put it on.
She put his arm around her shoulders and supported him all the way to the privy and back. Then she helped him to get back into bed.
She said nothing.
He woke up in the middle of the night and heard sobs from the bench behind the bread oven. He sat up in bed and tried to lower his feet to the floor. His right leg was too stiff. He took hold of it with his hands, moved it off the bed and then lowered the left one as well. He waited for the pain to pass before trying to get up.
In the dark he found the big table in the middle of the room and used it for support. He remembered the stools he had seen under it and took care not to hit his leg on any of them. He walked around the table as far as he could. Then he took another two steps and grabbed hold of the cooling bread oven not to fall over. He found her pillow on the bench behind the oven, groped for her head and began stroking her hair. It was smooth, fine and a little greasy. Her breath caught when he touched her and then she lay perfectly still for a long while.
All of his weight was on his good left leg and he wished he could sit down. He leaned his free arm on the oven and went on stroking her head. Then she moved away from his hand.
— I’m sorry, she murmured. I didn’t mean for you to wake up.
She propped herself up on her elbow and looked at him.
— You shouldn’t be walking, she said.
— You shouldn’t be crying.
— Just a moment. I’ll help you.
She climbed off the bench and shuddered when her bare feet touched the earth floor. She put her arm around his waist and his arm across her shoulders to support him. They walked to the bed, slowly. She supported him when he sat down on the bed, bending her knees and keeping her back straight. She moved the comforter out of the way, helped him to lay down, picked up his legs and lifted them up on the bed. She pulled the comforter over him and felt around his legs to make sure they were covered, then his arms. Very lightly she touched the side of his face. Then she turned away and took a step toward the oven bench.
He reached out and took hold of her hand.
She stood still for a moment and then she pulled her hand free. She walked around the bed and lay down on his left. He put his arms around her and held her close, both of them careful of his bad leg. After a while she went to sleep with her head on his shoulder.
(Lund, July -93 – October -94)