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Vsevolod Garshin: Four Days

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Russian writers on war

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Vsevolod Garshin
Four Days (1877)
Translated by Bernard Isaacs

*****

Before me lies the man I have killed. What did I kill him for?

He lies there dead and gory. What fate had cast him here? Who is he? Perhaps he, too, like me, has an old mother. How long will she sit on the doorstep of her squalid little clay hut in the evenings, looking northward to see whether her beloved son, her breadwinner and worker, is coming home?

Had I given up all that I loved, all that was dear to me, had I made this thousand-mile march out here, suffering from hunger, cold and the blazing heat, did I lie now here in such agony, merely for the sake of taking that poor man’s life? What useful military objective had I achieved apart from this murder?

His face had gone. It had slid off the bones. The ghastly skull, fixed in the eternal grin of death, was more repulsive to me than ever before, although I had often had occasion to handle skulls and anatomize whole heads.

This skeleton in uniform with shining buttons made me shudder. “That is war,” I thought, “there is its image.”

*****

I remember running through the woods, forcing our way through the hawthorn bushes, while the bullets whizzed around us, snapping off branches. The shooting became heavier. Red flashes spurted here and there on the edge of the wood. Sidorov, a young soldier of Company One (“What is he doing in our skirmish line?” I found myself wondering), suddenly slumped down on the ground and looked back at me in silence with great frightened eyes. Blood trickled from his mouth. Yes, I remember that clearly.

I also remember how, in the dense undergrowth, within almost a stone’s throw from the edge of the wood, I first saw him…..He was a huge fat Turk, but I went straight for him, weak and thin though I was. There was a report, and something flew past me, something enormous, it seemed to me; there was a ringing in my ears.

“He is shooting at me,” came the thought. With a scream of terror he recoiled against a thick hawthorn bush. He could have gone round it, but in his fear he did not know what he was doing and flung himself upon the prickly branches. I struck out, and knocked the rifle out of his hands, then struck again and felt my bayonet sinking into something soft. There was a queer sound, something between a snarl and a groan.

Then I ran on. Our men were shouting “hurrah!”, dropping, shooting. I remember firing several shots after I had come out of the woods into a clearing. Suddenly the cheers sounded louder and we all moved forward again. I should have said “our men” instead of “we,” because I was left behind. I thought it rather odd. Still more odd was it when all of a sudden everything disappeared, and all the shouting and the shooting were silenced. I heard nothing, and saw only a patch of blue; it must have been the sky. Then that went too.

I have never been in such a queer position before. I am lying, I believe, on my stomach, and see nothing in front of me but a small patch of earth. A few blades of grass, an ant, its head lowered, crawling along with one of them, bits of rubbish from last year’s grass — that is my whole world. And I see it with only one eye, as the other one is pressed hard up against something — no doubt the branch on which my head is resting. I am terribly uncomfortable, and want to shift my position, and simply can’t understand why I am not able to do so. Time passes. I hear the chirr of grasshoppers, the hum of bees. Not a sound more. At last, with an effort, I disengage my right arm from under my body, and pushing away from the ground with both hands, I make an effort to get up on my knees.

A pain, intense and swift as lightning, shoots through my whole body from knees to chest and head, and I fall back. Again darkness, a void.

I wake up. Why do I see the stars shining so brightly in the blue-black Bulgarian sky? Am I not in my tent? What made me crawl out of it? I make a movement and feel an excruciating pain in the legs.

Yes, I have been wounded. Is it dangerous or not? Both my right and left legs are clotted with blood. When I touch them the pain gets worse. It’s like a toothache – a continuous gnawing pain. There is a ringing in my ears, and my head is weighted with lead. Dimly I realize that I have been hit in both legs. What’s the matter? Why didn’t they pick me up? Have the Turks beaten us?

I begin to recollect what happened to me, at first vaguely, then ever more clearly, and come to the conclusion that we have not been beaten at all. Because I dropped (I do not actually remember that, but I do remember everyone running forward while I wasn’t able to, and being left behind with something blue before my eyes) – I dropped in the clearing, just on top of the mound.

Our little battalion commander had pointed out that clearing to us. “Make for that, boys!” he had cried in his ringing voice. And we had made it, so we could not have been defeated. Then why hadn’t they picked me up? It was an open spot here, they could not have missed me. Besides, I probably wasn’t the only one lying there.

They had been shooting so rapidly, I must turn my head and have a look. I can do that more comfortably now, because when I had come to myself that time and seen the ant with the blade of grass crawling along head downwards, I had tried to get up and had dropped again not in my former position but on my back. That’s why I can see the stars.

I raise myself and sit up. It’s a hard thing to do with both my legs crippled. I had almost given it up in despair, but managed it at last with tears of pain springing to my eyes.

Overhead is a bit of blue-black sky with a big star and several small ones shining in it surrounded by something dark and tall. It’s the bushes. I’m in the undergrowth – they have overlooked me!

I can feel the roots of my hair crawling on my head.

But what could I be doing in the undergrowth when I was wounded in the clearing?

I must have crawled over here dazed with pain. The odd part about it is I cannot stir a limb now, while before I had been able to drag myself over to these bushes. Perhaps I had been hit only once then, and the second bullet had got me here.

Faint pink circles began to swim before my eyes. The big star faded and some of the smaller ones vanished. It was the moon rising. How good it was at home now!

Strange sounds reach my ears. It’s like someone moaning. Yes, it’s a moan.

Is it someone else lying next to me overlooked, someone with crippled legs or a bullet in his stomach? No, the moans sound so near, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone near me….My God, why it’s me myself! Low piteous moans; is the pain really as bad as that? It must be. Only I do not realize it, my head is so leaden and clouded. I had better lie down again and go to sleep – to sleep, sleep….Would I ever wake up, though? Who cares.

Just as I am preparing to lie down a broad pale strip of moonlight clearly illumines the place where I am lying, and I see something dark and big lying within five paces of me. The moon picks out bright spots on it here and there. These are buttons or accoutrement. It’s a dead body or a wounded man.

I don’t care what it is – I’m going to lie down….No, it cannot be! Our men could not have retreated. They are here, they have driven back the Turks and are holding these positions. Then why is there no murmur of talk, no crackle of camp-fires? It must be that I am too weak to hear anything. They must be here, I am sure.

“Help! Help!”

Wild, hoarse, frantic cries burst from my throat, but remain unanswered. They resound loudly in the night air. All else is silence. Only the grasshoppers keep up their ceaseless chirp. The round face of the moon looks down on me sorrowfully. If he were wounded he would have come to from such a cry. It is a corpse. One of ours or a Turk? Ah, my God! What difference does it make? And sleep descends upon my burning eyes.

I lie with closed eyes, although I have long been awake. I do not want to open them, as I can feel the sunlight through my closed eyelids; if I open them the glare of the sun will hurt. And I had better not move either.

Yesterday (was it yesterday?) I was wounded; a day has passed; more days will pass, and I shall die. Who cares.

I had better not stir. Let my body lie still. If only I could stop my brain working, too! But nothing can check it. Thoughts and memories throng in my head. That is not for long, though; soon the end will come. All that will remain will be a few lines in the newspapers saying that we had sustained few casualties – so many wounded, volunteer Private Ivanov killed. They will not even write the name; just – one killed. One private, like that wretched little dog.

A vivid scene leaps to my mind. It was long ago; but then my whole life, that life I had lived before I lay here with shot up legs, was so long ago….I was walking down the street, and the sight of a crowd of people made me stop. They were standing in silence, looking at a bleeding ball of white that was whimpering piteously. It was a pretty little dog that had been run over by a horse tram. It was dying, as I am now. A janitor pushed through the crowd, picked the dog up by the scruff of its neck and carried it away. The crowd dispersed.

Would someone carry me away? No, I am – to lie here and die. And how beautiful life is! That day (when the accident occurred to the dog) I was happy. I walked along drunk with joy, and had good reason to be.

Ah, aching memories, leave me alone, do not torment me! The joy that was, the anguish that is…let the anguish alone remain; it is easier to bear than memories which compel comparisons. Ah, what agony! You are worse than wounds!

It is becoming hot, though. The sun is blazing. I open my eyes and see the same bushes, the same sky, only now in daylight. And there is my neighbour. It’s a Turk, a corpse. What a huge man! I know him, it’s that same man….

Before me lies the man I have killed. What did I kill him for?

He lies there dead and gory. What fate had cast him here? Who is he? Perhaps he, too, like me, has an old mother. How long will she sit on the doorstep of her squalid little clay hut in the evenings, looking northward to see whether her beloved son, her breadwinner and worker, is coming home?

And I? And I too….I would gladly change places with him. How happy he must be not to hear anything, not to feel the pain of his wounds, nor the deadly anguish, nor the thirst….The bayonet had pierced him to the heart. There was a big black hole in his uniform with blood round it. I had done that.

I had not meant to. I had had no grudge against any one when I went to fight. The thought that I would have to kill anybody had not occurred to me somehow. I had merely seen myself putting my own chest out to meet the bullets. And I had gone and done so.

And now what? Ah, fool, fool! And this poor fellah (he was wearing Egyptian uniform) – he was still less to blame. Until they were packed into a steamer like herrings in a barrel and shipped to Constantinople, he had never heard of Russia or of Bulgaria. He had been told to go, so he had gone. If he had not he would have been bastinadoed, or some pasha perhaps would have shot him down with a revolver. He had made the long and gruelling march from Stambul to Rustchuk. We had attacked, he had defended himself. But seeing what formidable men we were – men who had kept pushing on and on in face of his patented English Peabody-Martini rifle – terror had struck his heart. And when he had wanted to retreat, some little fellow, whom he could have killed with one blow of his dark fist, had rushed at him and plunged his bayonet into his heart.

Was it his fault?

Was it my fault, for that matter, although I did kill him? This thirst is terrible.

Thirst! Who knows what that word means! Even when we were going through Rumania, marching fifty versts a day under a terrific heat of over a hundred degrees, I had never felt what I am feeling now. Ah, I wish somebody would come!

My God! Why, he must have some water in that huge flask of his! How can I get to it, though. At what cost? But get to it I must.

I begin to crawl. My legs drag, my weakened arms barely push my inert body forward. The corpse lies within fifteen feet of me, but for me this is more – not more, but worse – than fifteen miles. But crawl up to it I must. My throat burns. Besides, you’ll only die quicker without water. As it is, you stand some chance.

And I crawl forward. My legs drag over the ground, and every movement is agony.

I scream, scream and weep with pain, but crawl on. At last I reach the body. There is the flask…it has water in it – a lot of water! It must be at least half full.

Oh, that water will last me a long time – it will last me till I die!

You are saving my life, my poor victim! Leaning on one elbow, I begin to unstrap the flask, when suddenly I lose my balance and fall face downward on my saviour’s chest. He is beginning to give off a strong smell of putrefaction.

I drink my fill. The water is tepid, but it is still drinkable and there is a lot of it. It will keep me alive a few more days. I remember reading in The Physiology of Everyday Life that a man could live without food for over a week, so long as he had water. It gave the story of a suicide who had killed himself by starvation. It had taken him a long time to kill himself because he had had water to drink.

What of it? What if I do live another five or six days? Our men have retreated, the Bulgarians have run away. There is no road near by. All the same I’ll die. Only instead of three days’ agony I have given myself a week. Would it not be better to put an end to it? Next to my neighbour lies his rifle, an excellent English fire-arm. I need only stretch my hand out; then – in a flash – it will all be over. The cartridges lie there, too, all in a heap. He had not had time to use them up.

Well, should I get done with it, or wait? Wait for what? Rescue? Death? Wait until the Turks come and start flaying me, stripping the skin off my wounded legs?

Better to put an end to it myself.

But I must not lose heart; I must hold on, fight till my last ounce of strength. If they find me, I am saved. Perhaps my bones are uninjured; they will patch me up. I’ll see my country, my mother, Masha….

God, don’t let them learn the whole truth! Let them think I was killed on the spot.

What will happen to them when they find out that I had been suffering for two, three, four days!

I feel dizzy; that journey to my neighbour has taken it out of me. And that horrible smell, too. How black he has gone…what will he be like tomorrow or the day after? I am lying here only because I haven’t the strength to drag myself away. I’ll have a rest and crawl back to my old place; the wind, by the way, is blowing from that direction and will carry the stink away from me.

I am lying utterly exhausted. The sun is burning my face and hands. I have nothing to cover myself up with. I wish it were night already; it will be the second, I believe.

My thoughts wander, and I drop off.

I slept a long time, because when I woke up it was already night. Everything is the same: my wounds hurt, my neighbour lies there as huge and still as ever. I can’t help thinking about him. Had I given up all that I loved, all that was dear to me, had I made this thousand-mile march out here, suffering from hunger, cold and the blazing heat, did I lie now here in such agony, merely for the sake of taking that poor man’s life? What useful military objective had I achieved apart from this murder?

Murder, murder. . . . And who? I!

When I had decided to go and fight, my mother and Masha had not tried to dissuade me, although they had cried over me. Blinded by an idea, I had not seen those tears. I had not realized (now I do) what I had done to those I love.

What’s the use of looking back now! The past is gone and done with.

And how queerly many of my acquaintances had regarded my behaviour! “The man is crazy! He doesn’t know what he’s letting himself in for!” How could they say that? Row do such words tally with their notions of heroism, love of country and other such things? To them I was the embodiment of all those virtues. And yet they called me “crazy.”

And so I went to Kishinev; I was loaded up with a knapsack and all kinds of military equipment. And I went off with thousands of others, among whom you would hardly find more than a few odd men like me, who had volunteered. The rest would have stayed at home if it had depended upon them. Yet they go as we “intelligent ones” go, marching thousands of miles and fighting just as well, if not better than we do. They perform their duties despite the fact that they would immediately drop the whole thing and go away if they only had the chance.

A keen morning wind springs up. The bushes begin to stir, and a sleepy bird takes wing. The stars grow dim. The dark-blue sky pales and becomes flecked with soft fleecy clouds; grey shadows rise from, the earth. It is the third day of my….What can I call it? Life? Agony?’

The third….How many more remained? At any rate very few. I have grown very weak, and I don’t think I’ll be able to move away from the corpse. Soon we shall be on even terms and won’t be objectionable to each other.

I must have a drink. I will drink three times a day – morning, noon and evening.

The sun has risen. Its huge disk, criss-crossed with the black branches of the underbrush, is red, like blood. It is going to be hot today, I think. What is going to happen to you, neighbour? God knows you are hideous enough as it is!

Yes, he was hideous. His hair had begun to fall out. His skin, which was naturally dark, had become blanched and yellow; the bloated face had drawn it so tight that it had split behind the ear. Worms were swarming there. His booted feet were swollen, and huge blisters pushed out between the hooks. His whole body had distended enormously. What would the sun do to him today?

Lying so close to him was unbearable. I must crawl away at all cost. But could I do it? I can still lift my hand to open the flask and have a drink, but shifting my heavy, inert body? But I must move away, no matter how little – be it even at the rate of half a pace an hour.

I spend the whole of that morning moving away. The pain is bad, but what does it matter now! I no longer remember, I cannot even imagine, what the sensation of a healthy man is. In fact I seem to have got used to the pain. That morning I manage, after all, to crawl away about fifteen feet, and find myself on the old spot. But I was not to enjoy the fresh air for long – if you can call it fresh air within six or seven paces of a decaying corpse. The wind has shifted round and the stench is nauseating. I have a gripping pain in the pit of my empty stomach. The fetid contaminated air keeps flowing over me in sickening waves.

In despair, I start crying….

Utterly worn out and stupefied, I lay almost unconscious. Suddenly….Could it be the fancy of an excited imagination? Hardly. Yes, it was a sound of voices. The tramp of horses’ hoofs, human voices. I was about to cry out, but checked myself. What if they were Turks? What then? To these tortures would be added others more horrible, tortures the mere reading about which in the newspapers makes one’s hair stand up on end. They would skin me alive, roast my wounded legs. I might even expect worse; they were so diabolically ingenious. Were it really better to end my life in their hands than to die here? But what if they are our own men? Damn those bushes! Why have you grown all round me in such a thick wall? I can see nothing through them; only in one place a small gap between the branches allows me a glimpse of a hollow in the distance. There is a brook there, I believe – the brook from which we drank before going into battle. Yes, and there is the great slab of sandstone thrown across the brook. They will probably ride over it. The murmur of voices ceases. I cannot make out what language they are speaking – my hearing has grown weaker. God! If it’s our men….I’ll shout to them; they will hear me at that distance, surely. Better than running the risk of falling into the clutches of the bashibazouks. But where are they so long? I am in an agony of suspense; I don’t even smell the corpse, although the stench of it is as bad as ever.

All of a sudden I catch sight of Cossacks at the crossing of the stream! Blue uniforms, red-striped trousers, lances. Half a sotnia of them. At the head a black-bearded officer on a magnificent horse. No sooner had the unit crossed the stream than he turned back in his saddle and shouted: “Forward, at the trot!”

“Stop, for God’s sake, stop! Help, brothers, help!” I shout, but the tramp of the heavy horses, the clatter of sabres and the noisy talk of the Cossacks are louder than my hoarse cries-they do not hear me!

Damnation! Exhausted, I fall face downwards on the ground and begin to sob. I have upset the flask and from it flows the water-my life, my salvation, my respite from death. By the time I notice it there is hardly more than half a glass of water left; all the rest has drained away into the dry thirsty earth.

What words can describe the numb stupefaction that came over me after that frightful experience? I lay motionless with half-closed eyes. The wind kept shifting, now blowing fresh clean air upon me, now overpowering me with putrid whiffs. My neighbour that day had become hideous beyond description. Once, when I opened my eyes to glance at him, I was appalled. His face had gone. It had slid off the bones. The ghastly skull, fixed in the eternal grin of death, was more repulsive to me than ever before, although I had often had occasion to handle skulls and anatomize whole heads.

This skeleton in uniform with shining buttons made me shudder. “That is war,” I thought, “there is its image.”

Meanwhile the blazing sun beats down relentlessly. My hands and face are scorched. I have finished the rest of the water. I was suffering so keenly from thirst that I had swallowed it all in a gulp, although I had decided to take only a sip. Ah, why hadn’t I shouted to the Cossacks when they were so close to me! Even if they had been the Turks it would still be better than this. At most they would have tortured me for an hour, or perhaps two hours; as it is I don’t know how long I will have to lie here in this agony. Oh, Mother, darling! Tear your grey hair, beat your head against the wall, curse the day you gave birth to me, curse the world for having invented the scourge of war!

But you and Masha will probably never hear of the tortures I am undergoing.

Farewell, Mother, farewell, my sweetheart, my love! Oh, the anguish, the pain! My heart cries out.

Again that white little dog! The janitor had had no pity for it; he had knocked its head against a wall and flung it into the dust hole. But it was still alive. It had suffered the whole day. But I am still more wretched, because I have been suffering for three whole days. Tomorrow will be the fourth, after that the fifth, then the sixth….Death, where are you? Come, come and take me!

But death does not come and does not take me. And I lie under that terrible sun with not a drop of water to cool my burning throat, while the corpse poisons the air around me. It has decomposed completely. Masses of swarming worms drop from it. When he is consumed and only his bones and uniform remain, it will be my turn. And I will be just like that.

The day passes, then the night. No change. Then comes morning. No change.

Another day passes….

The bushes stir and rustle, as if holding a whispered conversation. “You will die, sure, sure, sure!” they murmur. “You’ll not see, see, see!” answer the bushes from the other side.

“You can’t see them here!” a loud voice sounds close by.

With a start I come to myself in an instant. The kindly blue eyes of Yakovlev, our lance-corporal, gaze upon me out of the bushes.

“Spades!” he shouts. “There are two more here – one of ours and one of theirs.”

“Don’t bring spades, don’t bury me, I’m alive!” I want to shout, but only a faint moan escapes my parched lips.

“Good heavens! I think he’s alive! Mr. Ivanov, d’you hear me, sir? Boys! Come over here, quick, the gentleman is alive! Call the surgeon!”

Half a minute later water, vodka and some other drink were being poured down my throat. Then everything disappeared.

The stretcher moves forward with a measured swing. The rhythmic movement lulls me. I come to myself and doze off again. My dressed wounds do not hurt me; a delightful languor flows through my body.

“Ha-a-alt! Lower stretchers! Relieving squad, fall in! Stretchers, up! Forward!”

These commands are being issued by Pyotr Ivanovich, our medical officer, a tall, thin, very kind-hearted man. He is so tall that by turning my eyes in hp direction I can always see his head with its long straggly beard and his shoulders towering above the heads of the four tall soldiers who are carrying the stretcher on their shoulders.

“Pyotr Ivanovich!” I whisper.

“What is it, my dear boy?” he asks, bending over me.

“What did the doctor tell you, Pyotr Ivanovich? Will I die soon?”

“Die – who ever told you that! You’re not going to die. All your bones are whole.

You’re a lucky fellow! No bones or arteries affected. I can’t understand how you managed to survive these three and a half days. What did you eat?”

“Nothing.”

“And drink?”

“I took the flask from the Turk. I can’t talk now, Pyotr Ivanovich. I’ll tell you later.”

“Why, of course, my dear chap. Go to sleep.”

Sleep again, oblivion….

I come to myself in the divisional hospital. Doctors and nurses are standing over me, and among them I see the familiar face of an eminent St. Petersburg professor; he is bending over my legs. His hands are bloody. He is not long at it. Then he turns to me, saying:

“Well, you can thank your lucky stars, young man! You’re going to live. We’ve taken away one of your legs, though; but that’s nothing. Are you able to speak?”

I was, and I told them everything I have described here.

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