The wood rustled in a fitful breeze. Sometimes the wind died, at other times it went mad, howling to torture the many souls that wandered there. He walked, his hobnails planted in the blue mud thinly-concealed under a golden counterpane of dried leaves. The leaves trembled in occasional vicious draughts. Like light, rapid creatures, the draughts chased each other between black tree trunks and twisted branches, a tragic surge scattered over the grey of clouds migrating in a frizzy woollen flock, ceaselessly grazing the bare treetops.
He moved with difficulty because the mud stuck. Blue as his uniform, it held him back, sucked at his boots, slowed his flight. He pushed ahead, moaning breathlessly. He checked behind him often, distinguishing nothing among the increasing multitudes of black tree-trunks that exploded in a thousand vanishing points, tiring his eyes. He wanted to fall to the ground and sink into the infinite sleep of a tombstone. He’d been walking like this for three days without sleeping, the harpoon of cramps planted in his thighs, the leaden distances pulling at his calf muscles. Every step was a wrench. The earth wanted him. It stuck to him with the primitive stubbornness of a slimy mistress who loved his flaws. He resisted her and continued forward, following the curves of the terrain into a hollow where the bed of leaves was clogged with water. He stopped to get his breath. He could no longer hear his heart beat – perhaps he’d lost his heart on the way. He leaned against a tree, bent over, mouth open, panting. Saliva dribbled from his lips in long sticky strings that sparkled in the eerie light. His eyes opened on a kaleidoscope of luminous flies that flew around his head and finally disappeared in a blinding flash. The clouds, very near now, and curious, reached down and covered his spine with their cold breath. He lifted his head, held his breath again: there was no sound. No one was coming. Only the wind shook the branches that creaked like tumbrils laden with bodies, straining in squealing ruts. His feet were wounded from the long walk in rough over-thick and tattered wool socks that were sticky with sweat. His uniform was as hard as coffin wood.
He wiped the beads of sweat off his forehead with the back of his sleeve. The sleeve was stamped P. B. These were the initials of Pierre Boursac, industrialist, manufacturer of colourful magazines, honourable businessman, friend of ministers, close friend of kings, heir to three generations of industrial and speculative profit. Pierre Boursac clothed soldiers, Pierre Boursac clothed France so that she could kill and be killed. Without him, they’d be naked. In his agony, the deserter smiled at the idea of naked soldiers.
Six months earlier in the barracks of Cochons sur Dupry, they’d been squashed into makeshift shacks. They’d come from neighbouring regions, above all from country areas, uneducated, tanned and dishevelled by sun and wind. When ordered, they undressed, sweating and trembling before manicured and gloved lieutenants with pink cheeks, men who were inaccessible and patriotic, ready to die and have die, barely out of famous far-off schools with pediments engraved in gold lettering, shining with the herald of future victories.
The night before, they’d thrown themselves on squeaky bunks. He hadn’t slept, caught between the snores of those whom nothing can disturb – not even war – and the muffled sobs of others who were still fearful children. In the morning, eyes swollen from sleep or hollow with lack of it, they’d obeyed, docilely removing their clothes and receiving the uniform neatly tied in a bundle, the shiny brand-new boots sitting on top, smelling of new leather. The whole lot weighed heavily on their naked goose-pimpled arms that would soon smell of dead meat.
The officers didn’t see them: pink and neatly groomed, hair parted in warlike fashion, sharp as their bayonets, they gazed afar, sometimes dreamlike, sometimes challenging the horizon. They stroked little blond moustaches and lifted graceful goatees (which their girlfriends loved), already resembling the grandeur of the statues that would one day glorify their defeat (and thank the dead with a gift of cheap cement).
Plonked in their boots, glued to the floorboards, the officers gave short ill-pronounced orders. They hiccupped. In a word, they made quack-quack sounds. They morphed, imitating cannons, rifles, hails of bullets and the thunder of victories that would cover their chests with gold medals.
Gazing at the dirty roof-beams that held up the roof, they thought about their families, about marriages planned for their next leave – in a month’s time, wasn’t that right? They saw themselves as heroes; admired, future son-in-laws feted with champagne. They became intoxicated (she loves me, she loves me not…) beneath the windows of châteaux, in parks manicured by gardeners, before their betrotheds who simpered under parasols, their ampleness packaged, their behinds, burning breasts and limbs compressed in deceptive corsets and ruinously-expensive outfits financed by investments. These beautiful images the lieutenants carried to the battle front, sensuous images of a life of leisure that inspired them, images they hung from the dirty roofbeams before waking up, stung by the fear that their faces might reveal their fairytales. Hence the hiccups, the quack-quacks, the morphing, the orders. These boors had to be disciplined!
The story went (news travelled fast) that one of the officers, haughtier and more astute than the others, was to marry Albertine Boursac, daughter of the manufacturer of the very uniforms they were now unparcelling. Freed of their string these were laid out before a nudity stolen from changing cabins and summers at the river. Pierre Boursac had already sold millions of these uniforms and invested the gold bars thus earned in the biggest safes in the world, in America: in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Pierre Boursac had promised his future son-in-law, taking him by the arm to lead him aside (what’s his name, by the way, that smug fellow with the watery eyes?): ‘I will take you to America, dear boy, to the country of vastness, of triumphal business, I will introduce you to my friends, you will earn millions, you will be rich like me. Have another glass.’ He’s inebriated. You appear delighted.
The soldiers are naked before this billionaire on probation who’d been born to dine, dressed to the nines, in restaurants built by excess and screwed to the metal giants that cross the Atlantic, steamers smoking with pride, ploughing the waves with the boiling thrust of their four-hundred-ton propellers.
He smiles with pride, this young lieutenant, upright in his gleaming boots, from the height of his 25 years, framed in braid stripes that give stature to his skinny shoulders. He’ll marry his Albertine, in a month’s time, rub himself against the silk of her 17 years and become the Boursac heir, close to top management, friend of ministers, intimate of presidents, supplier of everything that is honest and dishonest in the procession of institutions.
The lieutenant watched the soldier unfold his bundle, keep the cord and dress himself, slowly putting on the rough wool uniform produced in the family factories.
He climbs the other side of the hollow. It is slippy, the blue mud is everywhere underneath the leaves that gild the landscape the colours of an ancient icon. The wind has risen again, he turns up his collar, P. B. on his sleeve. His rifle? He threw it into a ditch. His helmet is gone too, caught in a branch, become a mess-tin for birds. He no longer needs these things, now that he’s deserted. He must flee, escape his pursuers who are still far behind. He can’t see his lines any more. He heads towards the enemy.
Enemy? What enemy? What has the enemy done to him? Nothing at all, dammit! His enemy isn’t ahead but behind him. His enemy is dead now, stamped into the mud, his stripes and his epaulettes dirty, his slender silhouette confused with filth. The pink has deserted the cheeks fed on the breast and on pride.
He killed this child who gave him orders, choked him with the rope he’d pocketed, tightened it as much as he could. The still-warm cadaver still slept in the mud. The blue mud.
Now to join his enemy, his enemy-friend, his friend on the other side who was waiting to hold him in his arms and make peace. Let us make peace! Let us leave our battlefields! Let us too taste champagne in wonderful gardens that dance with chateaux under skies eternal with promise, watched by Albertine spinning her parasol and pretending not to care.
He hadn’t noticed: the enemy is there, a big lad all in grey enveloped in his uniform. This is the designated enemy, the official one, the Blues against the Greys – those are the rules. Red face, double chin, glassy eye, surprised, full of drink under his grey helmet. His mouth is crushed by his jugular, the upper lip seized in a rictus of disdain that barely covers yellow decayed teeth.
Grey comes towards him, perky. Grey was scared at first but Blue has neither weapon nor helmet. He fixes bayonet, threatens, signals for Blue to halt.
Blue pushes forward, smiling: ‘The lieutenant is dead! The war is over! I surrender!’ He runs forward, his arms open, ‘Come on, big fellow, hug me!’
Grey doesn’t get it. He bawls, the noise of a beast crawls up his innards. He plants his bayonet in the entrails of Blue. The smile fades, the weakened arms fall.
Peace will not come, not now, ‘Peace is for me to decide,’ as Boursac often says beneath the understated glitter of hypocritical ministries.
The soldier looks at the hands of his murderer, the big fingers gripping the rifle, cold, deadly and whitened by tension. On the grey sleeve he sees the initials P. B. and behind them the chateaux, the champagne, New York, Boston, Philadelphia… Albertine… Albertine and her outfits…besotted Albertine… silky Albertine… full of airs and graces under her parasol, Albertine, the bayonet… Albertine and the mud… the blue mud… in which he lies dreaming.
Where, at last, he can sleep.
tirée de Bruno Adrie, Sous ton nom, Liberté, j’écris mon nom, ISBN: 1514156156
Article de Clara Piraud sur Benzine
Préface par Philippe Rouached (CLEA-PAris IV, Sorbonne)
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Mary Byrne est traductrice littéraire