Sunday, October 15, 2017

the last book I ever read (The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth, excerpt fourteen)

from The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth:

The officers hadn’t taken off their clothes for a week. Their boots were waterlogged, their feet swollen, their knees stiff, their calves sore, their backs couldn’t bend. They were billeted in huts. They tried to fish dry clothes out of the trunks and wash at the meager wells. In the clear, still night, with the abandoned and forgotten dogs in scattered farmyards howling in fear and hunger, the lieutenant couldn’t sleep, and he left the hut where he was quartered. He walked down the long village street toward the church spire, which loomed against the stars with its twofold Greek cross. The church with its shingle roof stood in the middle of the small churchyard, surrounded by slanting wooden crosses that seemed to caper in the nocturnal light. Outside the huge gray wide-open gates of the graveyard three corpses were dangling: a bearded priest flanked by two young peasants in sandy-yellow smocks, with coarse-plaited raffia shows on the unstirring feet. The black cassock of the priest hung down to his shoes. And sometimes the night wind nudged his feet so that they struck the circl of his priestly garment like dumb clappers in a deaf-and-dumb bell; they seemed to be tolling without evoking a sound.

Lieutenant Trotta approached the hanged men. He peered at their bloated faces. And he thought he recognized some of his own soldiers in these three victims. These were the faces of the peasants he had drilled with every day. The priest’s black, fanning beard reminded him of Onufrij’s beard. That was his parting image of Onufrij. And who could say? Perhaps Onufrij was the brother of this hanged priest. Lieutenant Trotta looked around. He listened. No human sound was to be heard. The bats rustled in the belfry of the church. Abandoned dogs howled in abandoned farms. The lieutenant drew his sword and cut down the three hanged men, one by one. Then he slung the corpses, one by one, over his shoulder and carried all of them, one by one, to the graveyard. Then, with his bare sword, he began loosening the soil on the paths between graves until he felt he had room enough for three corpses. Then he put all three of them in, shoveled the soil over them with sword and scabbard, and trampled on the ground till it was solid. Then he made the sign of the cross. He hadn’t crossed himself since the final mass at the military academy in Hranice. He wanted to recite the Lord’s Prayer, but his lips moved without producing a sound. Some nocturnal bird shrieked. The bats rustled. The dogs howled.

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