|Dead Horses Around
Ilaria Dal Brun
2007 by Ilaria Dal Brun
It’s been almost a week. Everything has suddenly come to a halt. No more fire, no more bullets whizzing two inches above my back, no more booming echoes of not-so-distant bombs. Stillness. What shall I do? I’m no longer used to taking my life for granted. Recently I’ve been quite busy coming to terms with the idea that I may turn the page at any moment, that I may walk this alien, boundless steppe without dragging my exhausted body with me. Now, all of a sudden, I realise I have time. I have time to breathe, I have time for myself. And I don’t know what to do. Then I become aware of something prickling all over me. A tickle. Could it be a slowly increasing surge of life and hope in my being? No. Lice. I haven’t washed since... I can’t remember. After all, when death becomes your most faithful companion, it goes without saying that you stop counting the days and start counting the seconds. The seconds you have been fortunate enough to live, the seconds you still hope to live.
I’d better do something about these lice. They’re bothering me, full of life and blood as they are. Life and blood, a living contradiction. I see plenty of blood around me. But no life. And these crawlers expect to be alive, they insist on feeding on me, they suck my own consumed essence away. Yes, I might sound excessive, pathetic and melodramatic. After all they are lice, not Yersinia pestis bacteria. But you see, when you have been spending the last six months of your life in a land that has become a playground for death, every drop of blood counts. Especially when it’s your own. So I’d better do something about these lice.
I’ve spotted a hole nearby. A bomb exploded, don’t know when, and left a crater there. The rain filled it up. A perfect pool, a luxurious bath for me. Only trouble is that there’s an acrid, penetrating stench growing stronger as I approach the hole. All around there are dead horses, they’ve been left there to rot away. Yet, their stinking carcasses don’t disgust me. I see in their death my faithful companion, who may soon decide to stop playing with horses and turn its attention to me. No, it’s not the rotting flesh that I wish I could turn away from. It’s this debauched halo of death wrapping up around me, never seeming to dissolve. I suppose I’ll have to grin and bear it. The stench of death, I mean.
I lower myself into the cold water and giggle. If my wife could hear me now, she would open her grey eyes wide and reconsider the reasons that made her chose me. Actually no, she wouldn’t do that. Even before reconsidering me as a husband, she would look at me, and so she would simply think she had married a heap of crawling insects. In any case, she can’t hear me now. She’s miles and miles and miles away, safe in a less forlorn land.
A smile suddenly alters my worn-out expression. My wife... My wife is three years older than I. These three years probably make her also much wiser. She’s good looking, you know. Once I heard someone saying she’s not so pretty, because her face is homely and rustic. I never believed it. She proudly tells everybody she rejected seven men before accepting me. Seven! She’s sweet and impertinent, she has that boldness that comes from having seen far too many miseries around her and knowing that the best way to survive them is to lift one’s head and challenge any type of order. Including holy orders.
Something weird has happened in this hole while I thought of my wife. I’ve just realised my faithful companion is no longer in sight, despite the fact that I’m taking a bath among dead horses. Where has it gone? The dead horses have become nothing more that rotting flesh and that lingering halo doesn’t feel so suffocating now. Did my companion take it along, when it left?
I’ve almost started to believe that there’s a good star shining for me in this sometimes grey sometimes pitch-dark sky above my head. But suddenly I spot a hazy-silhouetted figure coming towards me. An eerie shape brandishing an even more sinister object. There it is, my skeletal companion. It came back, not wanting to forsake me. I should have known it couldn’t stay away from me. Isn’t it ironic that in this limbo of desolation the only thing that keeps cherishing you is death? Here it comes back, and the dead horses around me become again symbols of shattered hope. I close my eyes. For a while I had dreamt of going back to my wife. Of going back clean, without lice. Now, instead, I think I’m going to die clean. I’ve been washing myself just to die among rotting horse carcasses, in a hole as putrid as the breath of my faithful companion.
I open my eyes. In front of me, no trace of my gloomy companion, no enemy brandishing my passport for an equally nonsensical world. In front of me there’s one of my friends. One of those who are sharing this mishap with me. He too has a wife. She just wrote to him. He’s holding her letter.
“Good news, you’ve become the father of a baby girl! Your daughter was born two weeks ago!”
I giggle again. Dead horses around a hole. A bomb hole. I’ve been taking a bath in a place of death. I’ve been thinking obsessively about death, almost relishing the moment. I’ve been imagining my faithful companion ravenously marching toward me. But that companion has gone. Never mind, I’ve just met a more exciting companion. My friend brought it with him. He has come here, to this pool of death, among dead horses to bring me life.
Note: Though the life-death underlying theme is my own speculation, the episode of the man getting to know about his daughter’s birth while taking a bath in a bomb hole with dead horses all around is taken from real life. In fact, it is the only episode in his experience as a soldier in WW2 that my grandfather enjoyed to remember. He told it over and over, always with a smug smile
Ilaria was born in Italy. She holds an MSc (UMIST,
Manchester, UK) and a PhD (University of
Warwick, UK), both in Translation Studies. She has been working as a freelance translator
(English/French/Spanish >Italian). She has a keen interest in orality, storytelling, and the 19th
century, and enjoys writing short stories, mainly introspective ones. She has a cat called Othello.
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