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Mikhail Sholokhov: Who was he calling for in his hour of death?

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

Russian writers on war

Mikhail Sholokhov: Selections on war

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Mikhail Sholokhov
From And Quite Flows the Don (1928-32)
Translated by Stephen Garry

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As the Cossacks marched out of the village they began to fall in with wounded, at first in ones and twos, then in groups of several at a time, at last in entire droves. Several carts filled to overflowing with serious cases dragged slowly along. The mares pulling at the traces were terribly emaciated. Their skinny backs revealed the marks of incessant whipping, and in places the bones showed through the wounds. They hauled the carts along with difficulty, snorting and straining, with their nostrils almost touching the mud. Occasionally one would stop, her sunken sides heaving impotently and her head hanging despondently. A blow of a whip would stir her from the spot, and she would drag on again, swaying from side to side. All around the carts wounded men were clinging, assisting themselves along.

The Cossack company turned off the road and entered the forest. Until evening they were huddled together under the streaming pines. The rain leaked beneath their collars and wandered down their backs; they were forbidden to strike any lights, but in any case it would have been difficult to do in the rain. As dusk was falling they were led off into a trench. Not very deep, hardly more than a man’s height, it was flooded with water and stank of slime, of sodden pine-cones and the moist, velvety soft smell of rain. From the trench the company was led on again through the darkling pine forest. They marched along endeavouring to encourage one another with jest. Someone began to whistle.

In a small glade they came upon a long trail of corpses. The bodies lay flung down shoulder to shoulder in various, frequently horrible and indecent postures. A soldier armed with a rifle, a gas-mask hanging from his belt, stood on guard over them. The Cossacks were led close to the bodies, and they caught the cloying scent of decay already coming from them. The company commander halted the company, went with the troop officers up to the soldier, and stood talking to him for a minute or two. Meantime the Cossacks broke rank and went over to the bodies, removing their caps and staring down at the forms with that feeling of secret, fluttering fear and bestial curiosity which all living beings experience before the mystery of the dead. The bodies were those of officers, and the Cossacks counted forty-seven of them. The majority were youngsters between twenty and twenty-five years old, judging by their looks. Only one on the extreme right, who was wearing the epaulets of a staff captain, was elderly. His mouth was wide open, concealing the mute echoes of his last cry in its yawning depths; above it hung heavy black whiskers; the broad brows frowned across his deathly pallid face. Two or three of them had no covering to their heads. The Cossacks stood staring long at the figure of one lieutenant, handsome even in death. He lay on his back, his left arm pressed against his chest, his right flung out and holding a pistol in an everlasting grip. Evidently someone had tried to take the weapon away; his broad yellow wrist was scratched; but the steel had fused to his wrist and they would never be separated. On his curly flaxen hair was a broken cap. His face was pressed cheek-downward to the earth, as though fondling it, and his orange-bluish lips were contemptuously, amazedly writhed. His right-hand neighbour lay face-downward, his greatcoat hummocked on his back with its tail torn away, revealing his strong legs with their tautened muscles in khaki-coloured trousers and short chrome-yellow boots, the heels twisted to one side. He had no cap, nor had he the upper part of his cranium, for it had been cut clean away by a shard of shrapnel. In the empty brain-pan, framed by damp strands of hair, glimmered rose-coloured rain-water. Next to him laid a stout little officer in an open leather jerkin and a torn shirt. His lower jaw rested crookedly on his bare breast; below the hair of his head glimmered a narrow white band of forehead with the skin burned and shrivelled into a little tube. Between the brow and the jaw were merely pieces of bone and a thick black and crimson mash. Beyond these were carelessly gathered pieces of limbs, rags of overcoats, a crushed leg where the head should have been. Then came a boy with full lips and a charming oval face. A stream of machine-gun bullets had swept across his chest, his greatcoat was holed in four places, and burnt knobs of flesh were sticking through the holes.

“Who – who was he calling for in his hour of death? His mother?” Ivan Alexievich stuttered with chattering teeth, and turned sharply away, stumbling as though blind.

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