Night and the Lost Armies
American Short Stories
BY BENEDICT THIELEN
AS the sun set the sea became like a A great sheet of purple silk, a canopy spread out for some magnificent event which was taking place beneath its surface. From time to time it rippled slightly, as though lifted by the breaths or by the gestures beneath it of many people in unison. Where the small waves fell with a short lapping sound on the shore the foam edged it with a border that was white and delicate as fine lace. Above, the sky was hung with trappings of scarlet and gold.
Groups of men walked slowly away from the shining water — five men together, ten, twenty, coming together into larger groups, one hundred, going toward the fires that were being built farther back on the shore, flowing together, five hundred, toward the fires that were being lighted against the night, the hum of their voices, a thousand, rising with the rising darkness, five thousand.
‘But not forever. We can’t stay here forever.’
‘Where will we go? They can’t send us back.’
‘That would be sending us back to die.’
’What do they care?’
‘They are human. Many of them think as we do.’
’It costs them millions of francs a day to keep us here.’
‘ if we had won . . .’
‘If . . . if . . .’
' When . . . when . . .’
‘Mother of God, stop that coughing!’
‘He can’t help it. He’s sick.’
‘if he’d stop . . . Why doesn’t he die? If he’d stop . . .’
‘If . . . if . . . when . . . when . . .’ Ten thousand voices.
And it was strange, because it was the hour and a place where you would expect to be alone. Over all the world on shores like this people have sat alone, listening to the silence, lost in the half-thoughts of the dusk. People have sat by such shores, by this shore, and felt the first touch of night and seen the slow rise and fall of the great silk canopy that hides the stirrings and the breathings of the sea’s depths. At such times a single figure has walked slowly along at the water’s edge, pausing sometimes to look down at a tuft of seaweed or held for a moment by the fleeting iridescence on the fragment of a shell. On a beach like this, on this beach, a single figure has often stayed until the night came, then turned and gone back across the sand toward a light burning in a house beyond the level fields. One man has often walked slowly, shadowed by the dark wings of his twilight thoughts, wrapped in the impenetrable mystery of his alien self.
All this men have told about. All this has been written in books. Men have sat reading a book by the falling light in which these things were written. Their eyes lowered against the band of red that hung across the face of the sky, they have read the words slowly to themselves, then put one finger between the covers of the book and closed it. They have raised their heads and looked up from the words which had been written about one man’s suffering, about the questing of one lost and desolate mind. They have raised their heads to see their own reflections mirrored in the sky, still to hear the echo of the words murmured by the sea and by the wind in the dry grass by the side of the road. The world has given back to them with a kind of comfort the voice of their melancholy and the burden of their grief.
We have told of man against the world. We have sung the song of the sickle in the field, the spade in the mine, the axe against the tree, the plough in the furrow. We have written of pity for one woman’s sorrow and of suffering with one man’s pain. We have wept for the memory of love and death’s quick forgetting. We have walked alone beside a barren shore at dusk. We have raised our eyes and seen blood smeared across the sky and known that it is less bright than the blood that will flow, unseen and to the end of time, from our own hearts. We have walked in solitude across the darkening fields. We have looked up again and still seen only ourselves and our own wounds in the gashed and bleeding sky.
But on this shore were fifty thousand men. Some walked slowly, without hurry, because there was no place for them to go. Some stood and looked up at the sky. Their figures were pasted flat against the red sky, like images cut from paper. Some waded in the still water, bent over, their arms thrust down, searching for food in the shallows. Many lay upon the sand. Above the edge of the horizon the red sun glared straight into their eyes. Their eyes were red and swollen from the wind-blown sand. Those that could move turned from the sun and crept into their tents. The tents were sticks covered with a blanket or a piece of sacking. Those that had no tents dug holes for themselves in the sand. They burrowed shelters for themselves beside the crabs, the spiders, and the worms. They hid themselves and their vermin in holes in the ground. Many were carried to holes that others had dug for them.
Now with darkness fires sprang up on the beach. The separate spots of light glowed warmly, like lights from the window of a house across the fields. Fifty thousand men could think together of a window toward which they had walked across the darkening fields, each window different and each window the same. Their thoughts could fill the darkness, and the silence of their closed lips could fill the darkness with the voice of their thoughts. Fifty thousand men sitting by a fire could walk across the fields toward a light, fifty thousand men could feel the weight of the scythe across their shoulders and the glow of the flesh on their necks from the long day of harvest sun. One hundred thousand men could speak together through closed lips.
‘When I returned she stood there by the door, her white arms folded and the flour still on them, on each fine dark hair of her round arms. The warm smell of the bread came from the oven. There was a smell of earth and bread in Catalonia and Andalucia. (What is this place again, what do they call it? Argeles. Crack this bread with a hammer, pave the street with it. But we are lucky to get anything. Where would we go if we left here? Think how many francs a day it costs them to feed us — just for this one loaf of bread, this handful of dried beans. Where are we going?) The smell of the hay came across the fields, far from the sea, sweet and dry, filling her hair. My wife and my house smelt of hay and new bread. (Here now, with night, the wind changes as the sun sinks, and mingled with the hard salt of the sea there is the stink of soured sweat and open latrines and of heroes’ dying.) From the barn came the hollow thump of my horse’s hoofs on the wooden floor. (We have eaten our horses. Those that we could not eat — those that were sick or wounded, already rotting while still alive, like us — lie in ditches, their hoofs in the air, bloated like grotesque balloons, like toys for the children of giants. Their slow corruption wreathes a garland above our heads, a crown of honor for soldiers.) On the table there were olives and behind me on the wall hung a skin filled with wine. Then the darkness fell over the earth, and over me and over her, lying by my side. (There will be peace again, they told us, when the tyrant is overthrown; there will be peace and plenty.)'
The light was gone from the sky and the great revolving wheel of night rolled slowly forward, pressing its dark furrow across the earth. It scattered the dust of its passing in soft oblivion for some, it seized the bodies of others and racked them with the madness of its whirling, the wild unrest of its dreams. In the deepening silence the eyeless creatures of the night crawled out from under stones and out of damp wood to search for food. In the chill wind, men and their vermin crawled more deeply into the hollows in which they lived.
Two hundred thousand men can speak together with a single unheard voice.
‘I never saw the sea before, and now that I’ve seen it, well, I don’t like it. I like it better at home. (Iowa, Dakota, Illinois.) When I came home at night she’d have the beer out on a tray — because she knew I didn’t like it right out of the icebox; it was too cold that way — and we’d sit around there and have a couple, and then she’d fry up some hamburgers or maybe a good thick steak with French-fried potatoes and we’d have some more beer. I’d give some to my dog, too, and we’d laugh, every time. I’ll bet you never heard of a dog that liked beer. But this one did. He was some dog. He was an Airedale and his name was Jerry. (What in hell’s the name of this place again? St. Nazaire. Yeah, don’t it ever stop raining, though? The mud’s like chocolate pudding.) And sometimes she’d make that too, and she could make it, let me tell you. She was a good cook. (But there’s no chocolate pudding now. The nearest thing to it is the stuff they gave us before they took the X-rays. Bismuth, they call it, and it’s flavored with chocolate.) And we’d get in the old bus some summer evenings and we’d drive out, straight out over the prairie, and there’d be this sunset, and there’d be a breeze out there, cooler than back in the house. (We’d go back there, they told us, just as soon as we did our job over here, just as soon as we saved civilization, we’d go back there, they said. And after that there wouldn’t never be no more wars and everything would be better than ever.) But it’s not so bad right now. Back there, I mean. You know how it is, open, and nothing but sky above you and maybe a sunset, and this breeze coming over the wheat so it looks like waves, rippling, only better than waves, warmer and not cold and wet like this ocean here. You feel good. You know how it is back there. You feel good, and free, sort of. Nothing’s holding you down. Some nights in the car out there on the prairie it’s almost like you’re flying, you and her together. You feel good, and free, sort of. (Listen to them out there in the street outside the hospital, still singing their heads off, “Where do we go from here, boys, where do we go from here?”) ‘
One by one, the black velvet layers of silence were piled upon the earth. The canopy which hid the sea’s depths scarcely stirred beneath the weight of the night. The sound of the ripples on the shore was no more than a faint breathing, a faint rhythmic rise and fall, like a clock which has almost stopped, whose pendulum will soon stop swinging. The wind had left the sky and the stars seemed frozen forever into place. The men lying on the beach were lost in the motionless blackness between the earth and the sky. For a brief time the living seemed wrapped in peace. But forgotten armies march in the night.
‘They stood by the doors, the women and the children, dim in the rising fog (from Penzance to Inverness), and watched us as we marched away, down to the shore to the ships. The fog swept around them, but behind, through the open doorways, the fires glowed warmly in our homes. As we climbed up the gangplank I could see my own boat still tied to the jetty. (What is this place — what do they call it? Flanders. Where is he — where is the monster, Bonaparte?) I see her as I come up the hill from my boat, carrying my nets. I see the women sitting by the house doors, mending the nets. At their feet the cats tangle their claws and roll in the fishsmelling nets. I see the women with the baskets on their heads, selling the fish we have caught. I hear the cry of the gulls and the quick regular sound of their wings, like silk rubbed together, as they fly close by overhead. I made a boat for my little boy. It had a sail on it made from a piece of an old skirt of hers. When my boy grew older I could see him sailing my boat into the harbor past the jetty, while I sat with the other old men on the wharf, smoking my pipe, reading the weather in the sky. (But not till the tyrant is dead, not till there is peace again in the world. This is what they tell us.) ‘
But night does not last forever, and one by one the stars went out. In the east a slow brush stroke of dark gray was drawn over the black of the sky. A man moved in his sleep. A breath of wind passed over the land. It rustled the dead grasses by the road and for a moment shook a dried seed pod, scattering a few grains of pollen on the ground, then was lost, dissolved by the stillness. The peace of the night was slowly withdrawing from the earth. But it was not yet dawn. The earth had not yet been given back to the living. The voices of the night were still the voices of the dead.
‘And it was good to be going back, after all these years. It was good to be returning to Home. (We are going back to unseat the monster from his throne. When the tyrant, when Nero is dead, there will be peace again in the world and plenty.) I remembered the crowds in the streets and the chariots and the gladiators in the circus and the corn and olives and wine. I saw her treading the grapes with her bare feet and the purple juice running over, the land green with grape leaves and our fingers stained with purple. (Where we marched we stripped the trees and the vineyards for food and for wood to make fires for the cold nights. We chopped the gnarled stems of the vines and burnt them and behind us the land was bare as after a flight of locusts.) In the hot summer sun our hands tilled the ground and pruned the heavy-hanging fruit trees and cared for the grapes hanging in the broad shade of their leaves. Our hands made the land blossom, and the sweat of our bodies watered the fruitful earth. The corn was piled high in the granaries and the bees brought honey to our doors. (Here by the shore, searching for food, we turned over the rocks of the sea and dug in the cold waiter with our hands, looking for shellfish to eat. There are many men and the sea is big, but the sea is not like the land. The sea does not pour its bounty into your lap with reckless abundance. The sea gives grudgingly of its fruits. These you can eat, but not those. Break those hard shells and the purple juice drips from them, but it is not the purple juice of the grape. This is poison. They gather these and crush them, and from the purple blood they make the dye that stains the robes of emperors. A thousand crawling snails are crushed to edge a robe with purple. This is the Tyrian blood that stains their robes and the high canopies above their heads. But we cannot eat them or drink their blood. This purple on our hands is not for us. It is not food for hungry men.) But they say we are going back to the hillsides, to live forever in peace and plenty, there where the grapes hang heavy from the vines, where the purple juice spills over from the pressing vats. They say we are going home.’
Thinly at first, like distant chimes, the light crept up above the rim of the sea. The black sand became gray. From a house across the fields there was a cockcrow. The wings of birds moved against the sky with a swift and living rhythm. A fish broke the surface of the water in a golden arch. The lengthening lines of light slid toward the clouds until they touched them and the dawn shattered the gray silence.
Now over all the beach there was the movement of men. Under the golden flaming sky men went toward the sea and waded in to stand knee-deep, bending over, groping with their hands for food in the great purple canopy. The cold waters clamped their wrists with steel bands, iron bars pressed down across their bending backs, and hunger bored in their bellies like a rusted awl. The red sun stared into their red and swollen eyes. The hard rocks tore at their hands, and their own blood mingled with the purple flood. They stirred the cold and sterile waters, while behind them on the shore the sick and the wounded plucked with their fingers at the grains of sand. The murmur of their voices rose with the rising day, subdued at first, then louder, swelling more deeply, rising into the sky, filling it, the voices of the living and of the dying, the hunger of the living and of the dying, and, echoing back from the earth and the sea, the voices of the hundred-millionthroated dead.