Saturday, 18 December 2010

Isaac Babel: The Death of Dolgushov (1924)

The curtains of battle were moving toward the city. At noon, Korochaev, in a black cloak, the disgraced commander of the fourth division, fighting alone and seeking out death, flew past us. On the run he shouted to me:

'Our communications links are broken! Radziwillow and Brody are in flames!'

And he galloped off, fluttering, all black, with eyes like coal.

On the plain, flat as a board, the brigades were repositioning themselves. The sun was rolling along in the crimson dust. The wounded, in ditches, were snacking. Nurses were lying on the grass and singing quietly. Afonka's scouts were roaming the field, searching out the dead and uniforms. Afonka passed by within two feet of me. Without turning his head he said:

'They smacked us right in the face. Ain't no doubt about it. They're thinking of changing the divisional commander. The soldiers don't trust him.'

The Poles came up to the forest three versts from us and set up their machine guns nearby. Bullets whine and scream. Their lament grows unendurably. Bullets wound the earth and dig into it, trembling with impatience. Vytyagaichenko, commander of the regiment, snoring in the sunshine, cried out in his sleep and woke up. He got on his horse and rode off to the lead squadron. His face was crumpled, in red streaks after his uncomfortable sleep, and his pockets were full of plums.

"Son of a bitch," he said angrily and spit a seed out of his mouth. "What a hell of a mess. Timoshka, pull out the flag!"

"Shall we get going?" asked Timoshenko, taking the staff out of the stirrup and unfurling the banner, which had a star on it and some wording about the Third International.

"We'll see what's up there," Vytyagaichenko said. Then he suddenly let out a wild yell: "Girls, to your horses! Squadron commanders, get your men together!"

The buglers sounded the alarm. The squadrons lined up in a column. A wounded soldier crawled up out of a ditch and, covering his face with the palm of his hand, said to Vytyagaichenko, "Taras Grigorevich, I'm a delegate. It looks like we're going to be left behind."

"Defend yourselves," Vytyagaichenko mumbled and reared his horse up on its hind legs.

"We kind of have the idea, Taras Grigorevich, that we won't be able to defend ourselves," the wounded man called after him.

"Don't whine," Vytyagaichenko retorted. "It's not like I'm gonna abandon you." And he gave the order to get ready.

Just then, the whining, womanish voice of my friend Afonka Bida rang out. "Don't go racing off, Taras Grigorevich. We've got six versts to cover. How you gonna fight if the horses are worn out? We'll make it in plenty of time."

"At a walk!", commanded Vytaygaichenko, not raising his eyes.

The regiment set off.

"If I'm right about the Divisional Commander," whispered Afonka, holding back, "if they replace him, things will start moving. Period."

Tears flowed from his eyes. I stopped by Afonka in amazement. He spun around like a top, grabbed his cap, started to wheeze, let out a whoop, and galloped off. ...

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