I walk. As yesterday I walked. And I am unsure how many days before that. There were two of us this morning. But Pierre lay down and would not get up. And now I am walking alone.
Before I came to this place, I had never seen snow. I can’t imagine it now. The idea of not knowing the snow, since now it is all that I know. It is so pitiful that it makes me want to laugh. But I mustn’t do that. Laughing would only crack my lips open, further even than they are already. I can feel the crusts of my lips with my tongue. Separated into many dry continents of skin, rough and spiky. And anyway, I do not think I could manage it besides. To laugh I mean. I cannot feel my face at all. If my mind were to command it, I don’t think my muscles have the warmth, the blood or the life to enact the instruction.
I imagine my nose has blackened now. My big nose, which my father said was a sign of nobility, but which my brothers always used to make fun of. And now what they would say about it? If I ever see them again.
I think about the great coats and fur lined boots. I try not to, but they turn over in my mind. On the march towards M. we noticed that each of the dead enemy had one rolled into the top of his pack. I remember laughing with the gunnery captain. “What kind of soldiers are these?” I had said “no wonder they are so slow, they carry a whole damn village with them everywhere”. I remember kicking one of them over and his bear skin fur jacket unfurled beside him. I had even picked it up, thought about bringing it home as a trophy. My God, to think of it. I had actually picked it up. More valuable now to me than any gem or gold or coin. That deep fur jacket, its velveteen folds as desperate to me as a mother’s arms. But then, I had never seen snow. I didn’t know what I know now. “It has blood on it” I had said and rubbed at it with my fingers, considering it. “What do you want that shit for?” Francois said, sniffing “we’ll be in M. before the summer ends”. And I had shrugged and dropped the coat there.
To think of that coat now. What a punishment memory can be. I think I could cry. But I shouldn’t do that either. No laughing, no crying - only walking. It would be a sin against my life to waste the moisture of a tear.
The experience of ice, of snow, is very, very thirsty. If someone had told me back home I never would have believed that. But in a frozen sea, the thirst, is like no other I have known. It is not the thirst of the desert, which I knew well before coming here. It is an alien kind of thirst, a feeling I did not know that I was capable of having, until I came here.
When we marched out of M. I did not understand it. The victory had been swift. Our casualties few and when we arrived, we found the city abandoned. Neither the enemy nor its people. No fighting in the streets. None of that dirty business would be needed. “These people are deserters, like rats” I had said. But I didn’t realise that they had not abandoned their city, not really, I know now they had just abandoned us to the elements. To their snow and cold, their great general, who vanquishes all comers.
There were fires in the next few days. Much was destroyed. The weather was turning. And then we had our marching orders, we were leaving again. I remember passing back out under the same gates we had so recently marched in through and Francois under his breath muttering that we should stay and Pierre, a giant who stood two head taller than any other man in the company, rejoined him “we should keep marching, go inland, find the enemy, fucking cowards, cut their heads off, fuck all their women”. And the captain told us to shut our insubordinate mouths: “We march because our glorious commander tells us to march, that is all you need to know”.
Yes, our glorious commander. Ah me. At that time, glutted with victory, and with glory, this was enough for us. We believed in our glorious commander. Myself as much as any. And why not? He had led us from victory to victory. Tactics never the same, never predictable. He was the Hannibal of our nation, the Augustus of our age. Everything was part of his plan, the clockwork of his warfare. It was a common knowledge that he was a singular genius. That’s what I thought then at least. And now, now I would cut off my own blackened nose to stick my fingers into his eyes, knock out his teeth, strangle him, what delight I would feel in his wind pipe crushing, to feel the limpness in his dwarf sized uniform. I’d mount his head on that golden sceptre and plant it in the ice. I didn’t see it before. I suppose because too much winning can make a soldier blind.
He is mad. I’m sure of it. This march was madness. This invasion was madness. And worse than that, we too must have been mad for having ever followed him into this wasteland. So many pieces of a game that he has finished playing.
I stop for the night. I cannot go further. I sleep. Fitfully. I do not dream. Then it is morning and I awake. It is an awful miracle that I do. I do not think I can stand but find I am able. And then I walk again. Like yesterday, which was once today, but has passed away. And all the days before it.
I fought campaigns in mud, on sand, in grass, in pine tree forests, hedge rows, in rocky valleys between mountains - but never had I seen the snow, never had I marched in it. Forgive me if I repeat myself. This place does that to you. There are no mountains here, no hills, no villages and no fences, nothing to describe one day from the last, one league from the previous or from the next. And in all the emptiness, my mind wanders outward, with nothing to hold it in, nothing to press back against it, and the words I spoke yesterday circle across the ice and are whispered back into my ear like a demon’s voice in the wind.
I had never seen snow before, but I know it now. I know all it’s moods and all it’s signs and all it’s wax and wane and period.
I’ve learned there are a great many kinds of snow. There is soft snow and light snow, heavy lacerating snow, slanted snow and straight falling snow and sideways snow. My favourite kind is the wind driven snow, the blizzard sort, which fills the world and blinds you to an inch. Because on the clear days, when I can see for leagues and leagues ahead and all around, I realise how godless this place is and how lost I am in it. I don’t believe the Lord has ever turned his mind to this place, it is a leftover piece of that world from before The Flood, a wasteland of original sin. When he remade the Earth anew, he left this land untouched.
Days pass. I find the carcass of a bird. I eat it. And later I vomit but there is very little to come up, and so I wretch. And I walk. And I wretch. And I walk.
I wonder, if in truth, I have already died. For it is improbable is it not? My still being alive, still walking. Is it not perhaps more likely that somewhere along the march, I was one of those who fell and did not get up again. Those whom were left, soon buried in the snow drift. I remember I said prayers for the first and closed his eyes over. A young lad. I had thought his death was a terrible thing and it made a strong impression. But I thought hardly at all of the hundredth. And nothing at all of the thousandth. Later, I thought nothing of anyone at all, only of myself. I wonder if this place is not my purgatory? The priest from my village told us that the ninth circle of hell, the innermost, where Satan resides, is not molten and fiery as one would expect but frozen. I always thought that was strange. That the devil should be locked in ice and not fire. But now I understand.
I try to count the days since I left Pierre behind. Ten? Twenty? Huge, immovable Pierre. In the beginning he had carried his musket, thinking we might run into a band of Cossacks. As we roamed deeper, and we got colder, he clutched the musket to his jacket. Then he left it behind one morning and instead clutched his own shoulders. I think now, he was trying to hold his soul inside him, to stop the life pouring out from his chest, like a steaming warm faucet. But it didn’t help. It poured out, in and around his fingers. “Come on” I had said in the morning, kicking him. “Come on, get up, you have to get up”. I remember thinking a profane thought when I looked into his frozen blue face. That his red beard, his blue skin, and his frozen white eyes - together these made the three national colours. Here was our glorious flag, planted in the purgatorial ice.
I am following the western star, but I don’t believe I can reach the end of this place. Not any more. My thoughts turn to my wife.
We left on bad terms. I am a hard man but she is a hard woman too. “You’re both as stubborn as asses” my father had said to me “You’ll make a good match”. Twenty years old but imperious as a matron. I married her and this made her happy for a time. But then she wanted me to give up soldiering: “What else would I do?” I had said, angry that I should be questioned “I know how to load muskets, and to kneel and march and shoot and dig latrines - that’s what I know how to do”. She suggested I ask her brother to apprentice, but I wouldn’t. I told her that a veteran of the African campaign would be no smith’s apprentice. But really, it was because I would not work for my own brother-in-law. Plain pride and nothing more. Now, of course, now I would lick the black from my brother-in-law’s hammer, I’d lick the dog shit from his shoe caps, all day and all night I would lick, if only it would deliver me from this place. Pride is a cardinal sin the priests said, and I see why now, it is pride after all that has brought me here, to purge that sin, to see what it is to be truly humbled.
I think about her and I think about home. It is dangerous I know, it weakens the resolve, but I cannot help it. The candles lit, the hearth orange with embers and glow, my wife over the stew pot, and she would run her hand through my hair, scold me for the cobblestone muck on my boots and come to bed with me.
This image is so clear and full and heavy in my mind, it is so much more real and weighty, its outlines so much darker and deeper, than this white and empty and markless place, that my knee buckles beneath me and I fall into the snow. I lay for awhile, panting steam, and then tell myself “Get up now, get up”. But I lay awhile longer. “Come on now, get up” I urge myself, “get up”. But I can smell it. Yes, I am sure of it, the broth of a stew, and where once there was only numbness, now I can feel her lips on my eyelids, closing them with a merciful kiss, and I can feel the warmth of our bodies together, and I do not want to leave, I do no want to give it up, so may lay here and find sleep, just for awhile, just for a little while.
A snow storm - 30th Jan, 2016, Bergen, Norway.