The Grand War
The San Sebastian Chronicles, Part X
It was all I could do to avoid loudly stomping my boots on the dusty terrazzo on the way out of the church. I doused myself with holy water from the stoup in a flurry on my way out of the door, likely splashing much of it on the floor. Good. Maybe the priest would slip into Heaven on his way out! (If you will pardon me.)
I was then further frustrated nearly to the point of having to head back to the confessional for having used the Lord’s name in vain after impotently pulling on the handle of the door which, of course, needed a push! I was able, barely, to contain my blasphemy, and pushed the door open with all my might. Luckily its massive weight prevented it from banging against its own hinges as I clacked down the stone steps, huffing loudly enough for anyone in bugleshot to hear.
What mad man designed those door handles!? How do they tell me to push? Just how? The little gargoyles look to anyone blessed with a half-functioning brain like they are to be grabbed for a hearty pull! A church door designed by Satan. There’s an irony. What a cowshit!
Were it not such a blatant anachronism, I would have referred to the church door as a Norman door. Given when it was, I called it what I did and kicked a stone at the stairs’ bottom down the path for good measure.
I was nearly back to the trenches when Desotto revealed himself from around a pile of sandbags surrounding a mortar, waving a paper. We both jumped as the mortar lobbed a shell toward the Austrians a few hundred longsteps away.
“Sergente, did you hear the announcement?”
“No, Desotto, but I will hazard a guess: Father Koblenza has been relieved of his station as chaplain and replaced by the reanimated remains of Father Tomás de Torquemada.”
“How did you — ”
“I’ve just been to confession with Koblenza’s successor, unbeknownst to me.”
Desotto walked with me now, back toward our bunk.
“And how did — ”
“A full rosary, plus eleven Hail Marys, eight Our Fathers, three Hail Holy Queens, and an earnest regular apology to boot!”
“Well that’s not — ”
“All to be performed in the chapel at the Sanctuary of San Romedio, Desotto! San Romedio!”
By the time we arrived back at our bunk, I was still going on.
“No allowances, Desotto. No allowances made for the exculpatory nature of wartime circumstances. No allowances made for the temptations of modern advertisements in town. Did you know, Desotto, when I was visiting the tobacconist there was an advertisement for a bergamot liqueur painted on the sidewall of the next building showing the beginnings of the top of the décolletage of the young woman thereon depicted, depicted conspicuously I might add, without any ring or indication of her marriage, and shown bare armed, calves exposed, and obviously dancing! The lass was painted doing this while all while holding a tray of bergamot liqueur in one hand and a taszsche of the stuff in the other into the bargain. Think of it! How is a man supposed to keep his discipline in matters of chastity when we are exposed to such pornography every time we go to buy cigarettes and booze?”
Desotto nodded in sympathy.
“What’s worse, Desotto, is that this new formalist of a confessor added the pilgrimage only at the end, when I confessed to my role in Nuzzo’s and Gabler’s gargantuan pantomimic masturbation situation! I know because after each sin I confessed, I could hear him making little marks with chalk on slate like some boys’ headmaster, but after the epic shadow-penis spat, which I saved ’til the end, there was no chalk-mark sound, you see. He just gargled rocks and clucked his tongue in disappointment. He said, ‘Yes, I have heard of this.’ Then and only then did he make his pronouncement! It was quite apparent that he had already totaled up his little chalk marks before I admitted to approving the massive masturbating mime shadow and then — then!— as if I had passed some damnable sum line on his slate — he tacked on San Romedio. All just a little arithmetic and a list of sins on his knee. I might as well have had a confession performed by a Mechanical Turk!… albeit a Christian one, I suppose. Not that it would matter if it were mechanical, but you see my point!”
Desotto kept nodding, “That is quite a — ”
“And what is even worse, Desotto — worse! — is that it was not until after he pronounced this penance — I was in quite a shock, and I had been distracted during the act by the chalk-marking sounds, as there were so many of them throughout — that I realized that I had forgotten about the Czech that we caught when the enemy last charged toward our trench in that probing assault last week, you remember?”
“You remember how I beat him to death with the butt of my rifle despite his screams for mercy!”
“Well, I had forgotten about that — given the intervening days of warfare, dinner, cards, and visits home — “
“I had honestly forgotten — and I could have let it go, but I didn’t; I was trying to make a good confession — but even though I had honestly forgotten it, I didn’t want to leave it omitted, so after the priest pronounced my penance, I said, ‘One more thing, Father. I, eh, I forgot that during a recent battle a bludgeoned a Czech soldier to death with the butt of my rifle in spite of his pathetic please for mercy.’ …And do you know what he said, Desotto?”
“I don’t, no.”
“Of course you don’t know. He said, ‘Well, that’s war. Let’s just leave the penance where it is, shall we?’ Can you believe it?! Well, that’s war!? Leave it where it is?!! For smashing a man’s skull and brains into a thick, bony soup?! — something similar to which, by the way, I am sure the priest was trying to clear his throat of during the entire confession. Do we live in a mirror, Desotto? A mirror? If anything, send me to San Romedio for that! Not that I’m asking to go…”
Desotto enhaled lengthily through his nostrils while nodding, and looking off to his left as one does when one has heard about enough of another’s complaints. I took the hint.
I fetched by grandfather’s bone pipe, packed it, and lit it in a few seconds. I sat down at the table. I wondered if my little worm was still alive. I searched within arm’s reach for a bit of food I might provide the little microchaetus. I found only a few crumbs on the edge of the table. Desotto kept the place tidy. I swept the crumbs into my hand while surrounding myself in a haze of sweet, calming atomized tar. I bent over to drop the crumbs into the crack in the floorboards.
“All the same,” I said more calmly, “he is the ordained one and I shall have to do my penance, and I should do so gladly.”
I leaned back into my chair and sighed. I began to scold myself a bit for my tirade. On the one hand, it was selfish of me to decry my penance when I brought it upon myself at the end of things. But on the other, it was most unfair and harsh! Especially considering the standards the faithful in our regiment were used to under the good Father Koblenza.
“Yes, sergente, that is true,” Desotto remarked. He sat on his bunk, idly nibbling his finger nail.
“You!” I barked half-jokingly.
“Me, what?” said Desotto leaning back in faux shock, beginning to grin.
“You what? Is that a feather you’re chewing on?”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you mean, what do I mean? You’re the cat who ate the canary, aren’t you, Desotto.” I went on, mocking Desotto’s high voice, “‘Oh yes, sergente, you should take your penance gladly!’ Ha! This from the man who escapes with the last, lightest wrist slapping from Father Josef Koblenza! Ten Hail Marys?! Ha!”
Desotto bellowed with the laughter of the caught. “Well, I can’t help it, sergente. I happened to go to confession early. Father Koblenza happened to be still the chaplain and still in the confessional. I happened to confess my sins — ”
“Omitting your role in the great mountain-sized vole-thumping caper!”
“My venial — at most — role in that caper, yes, I omitted it. But what of it. You know Father Koblenza would have said it was a childish thing, unworthy of time in confession. We’re only humans, he’d have said.”
“Yes,” I shook my head in disbelief at my bad luck. “Yes, he would have.”
I puffed again on my pipe.
“I still can’t believe it. San Romedio.” I chortled.
Desotto chuckled. “Yes, that is quite a knuckle-rapping, there.”
“Indeed. I mean, it is three days travel just to get there.”
“Assuming no bad weather. No freak snow storms. No avalanches. No landslides. No floods. No winds strong enough to carry a man away from a ridge trail and drop him from a thousand longsteps in the air…”
“Yes, and no dwarf attacks.”
“Ha! Don’t be ridiculous.”
“No, it is true. There are dwarves in the mountains near there. And bears. Both quite ornery.”
“Shut your dwarf mouth. There are no such homunculi. There are smugglers, though, and not to mention the actual enemy with which we are currently at war. The Austrians could be stalking the trails, lying in ambush, hoping to shake down a smuggler or two, and if they could kill or capture some Sebastianos into the bargain so much the better for them. Cold be regular brigands too. Possibly wolves. And there are bears, true. It is no easy journey, all told.”
“No, no, it is not,” Desotto yawned, reaching for his cigarette pack.
I rolled up my eyes and bounced them back in forth, tallying my to dos as if I were watching a hurried tennis match.
“I need to visit my mother first, and I have to speak to the Captain about leave. That shouldn’t be problem. Oh, and I need to see about getting the American released. Perhaps I can commandeer him. I could use him as sort of a pack mule and bodyguard… I need time to pack…Shall we leave the day after tomorrow?”
“We? You mean you and the American?”
“Yes, and you, Desotto! As my attendente.”
He froze. Ha! He hadn’t been expecting that. I didn’t want to put him in danger, but he was, in fact, subordinate to me and my assistant in military matters. True this was not strictly speaking a military mission, but it would be approved and allowed for by my military superiors as a duly ordered religious penance (San Sebastian not having yet taken to American ideas about the disentangled relationship between the church and the state). And at any rate, I could use the company.
I stood up and stretched. “A little exercise will do us both good, Desotto, and any Hauptsergente needs a good batman for a journey such as this.”
Desotto stayed conspicuously seated.
“Come on, Desotto. Go gladly, remember? Accept our penances and all that!”
I had him now! Honestly, I did not want him to get hurt for my penance, and I recognized the bitter irony for him given that his penance has essentially been a bed time prayer. But wasn’t he as likely to get killed here on the front as on my penitential journey?
Desotto blew out a puff of cigarette smoked through a sniff and a half smile.
“Yes, sergente, a little walk would do us good. It’s just a light hike after all. Not dangerous at all!”
“That’s the spirit.”
“Merely a few days’ jaunt through a windswept, dwarf infested, bear-ridden wilderness dotted with smugglers’ dens and man-swallowing ravines, not to mention whirlwinds that could fling a man to Bergamo…”
“Yes, well, a little adventure is good for the soul. Not that your soul needs any goodening, Desotto. After all, you’re fully in God’s graces, having finished your penance before you hit the door at church this morning, good man! You’re off to Heaven if we die on the way — if you can keep yourself in that condition, of course. I, on the other hand, am facing purgatory if not Hell itself if I don’t get to San Romedio soon, dwarf-bears or no!”
He shook his head with a disbelieving huff. “Not dwarf-bears, dwarves and bears.”
“Come on, Desotto. You’ll help me, won’t you? You’ll help your sergeant and friend avoid eternal damnation, yes? Just a small favor, avoiding Hell. Only that. Just like offering me a smoke.”
Desotto stood up. “Well, when you put it that way Hauptsergente, how could I refuse?”
“That’s a good man! So day after tomorrow then. I’m off to home. Perhaps you can go by the quartermasters and get supplies?”
“Of course, Hauptsergente.”
I donned my just-undonned jacket.
“Oh, and Desotto.”
“Just sergente is fine. There are no haupts among friends like us.”
Finally, he smiled and laughed. “Yes, of course. I’ll get the supplies. Any special requests?”
“I don’t know. Like what?”
“Shovels, lime, small wooden crosses, ink for will writing…”
“Very funny. No, no. Be a good sport, Desotto. How about some whisky, cigars, and… bergamot liqueur?”
He brightened up considerably then.
“Oh, and one other thing, Desotto.”
“What’s that, sergente?”
“We’ll bring Tomasso.”
We both let out a hearty laugh.
“Wonderful!” Desotto exclaimed. “Can I tell him?”
We laughed again.
“Good, I’ll go tell him now then have him come to the quartermaster’s with me.”
“You know, if you’d only gone to confession a little earlier this morning.”
“Aiche! You cowshit! You know, it was Tomasso that delayed me! He has sent us both to San Romedio. The bugle boy!”
“Maybe we’ll use him as a kite?”
“Rickety-bridge strength checker.”
“Quicksand depth stick.”
“Ha! Yes, alright, enough…”
Desotto guffawing, holding his belly. “Yes, too far.”
“We will use him for a prisoner exchange. If one of us gets captured by the Austrians, we will dress Tomasso up like an officer and exchange him to get out!”
“And bugler, I suppose.”
“Yes, we will need one.”
And with that, we set out, Desotto shutting and locking our bunk’s door behind us.
We walked through a connecting to the trench past two back-trenches and then into the rear, ascending a ramp to ground level. We turned back north. Above us was a most gleaming, azure blue sky. Before us were the most verdurous grass meadows. Beyond them was a hellish wasteland of mangled corpses, barbed wire, and denuded craters. Beyond that, miles of trenches filled with sneaky, conspiring, murderous Austrians and their oily co-imperial compatriots and henchmen, plotting with every breath how to kill us all. And beyond that a most beautiful scene of singing birds, emerald pine forests, sparkling granite peaks, coruscating streams, and picturesque paths… all possibly filled with vicious dwarves, bears, smugglers, and swarthy enemies of every sort. And somewhere within it all a monastery where I had to say some prayers under threat of excommunication and eternal separation from God.
It was a wondrous day, it was a dreaded day, each of these.