Home > Uncategorized > Zoé Oldenbourg: War provides a feast for the vultures

Zoé Oldenbourg: War provides a feast for the vultures

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

French writers on war and peace

Women writers on peace and war

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Zoé Oldenbourg
From The Cornerstone (1953)
Translated by Edward Hyams

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The noon air lay ponderous on the blackened stones of the houses.

The hamlet had recently been burned and the acrid smells of charred skins and smoldering wool were still apparent; here and there, on the piles of rubbish in front of the houses, rotten straw still smoked. Perched on a slope among rocks, the little black township breathed out the heat of death into the blue air, already heated by the sun…

The stony way climbed and turned about grey rock with moss growing in its crevices. Vultures hovered in the blue sky. The pilgrims went down towards the Uzès road with the idea of following the bank of the Gard to strike the Rhône again at Beaucaire. From time to time they could see armed bands in the valley below, famished rovers moving swiftly towards Nîmes and Montpellier in the hope of pillages or employment as soldiers. When he knew they were so near, even the old man crossed himself and held his breath…

The drinking-trough for sheep lay a little aside from the road; beside the meager trickle of water which overflowed the stone trough the grass grew more thickly. Flocks must have passed that way quite recently, for the stream was muddy and the grass trampled and there were mule and goat droppings and the marks of wheels. No doubt the peasants of the burned village had taken this road.

A man with his head bent towards his knees was seated on a large stone which had been rolled up to the trough. His feet were soaking in the mud of the stream. At the sound of voices he sat upright with difficulty and began, in a cracked voice and a whistling accent, to chant:

“Beati misericordes quoniam ipsi misericordia consequentur – Beati misericordes.”

His eyes were covered with a dirty bandage of yellow linen and his grey beard hung in locks down beside his neck. His long garment of good black wool was covered with mud and torn on one shoulder.

“What bird have we here?” Riquet said. He stopped to fill his gourd, when the man, extending two long, swollen hands, seized him by the lapel of his coat and clung to it, still chanting his “Beati misericordes.”

“Hey, old Lazarus, let go! We’ve nothing to give you. You’ve chosen a fine place for your begging!”

“Have pity on the blind,” the other mumbled, “noble lords, noble ladies, good people, brothers in Christ, for the love of the Holy Virgin, Queen of Paradise, a bit of bread for pity’s sake.”

“Blind?” Ansiau said, and his hand went to his wallet.

“Wait,” Riquet said, “he’s no more blind than I am. Let go, I say, old Cut-purse! I know this kind of blindness. He’s not even good at it; there’s others do it better. I’d be quite as blind with a bandage over my eyes. It’s a lucrative trade and it costs nothing to learn.”

“Riquet,” Ansiau said, “a man would surely not do that where there is no one about. The poor old man is blind. Lead me to him, I am going to cut him a slice of bread.”

But Riquet was confident in his judgment. At the word bread the man stretched out his arms before him and was groping about in the air with open hands.

‘He’ll be worth a good laugh,” Riquet said. “All right, old man, never mind the play-acting or it will be the worse for you; those tricks will cost you a beating!” With a swift movement he ripped the bandage from about the man’s eyes.

The other did not even cry out, but uttered a kind of gulp followed by a sigh, then raised his hands towards his head but without even daring to cover his face. Where his eyes hand been were two dark red cavities, clots of dried pus were stuck to his eyelids, a thread of blood trickled from a scab which had been torn away with the bandage. Auberi crossed himself and huddled against Ansiau.

“Poor man!” he said, “his eyes have been put out.”

***

Beyond Saint-Hippolyte the sky was red; the bush was on fire; from sacked castles women and children, with bundles and water-pots on their backs, were making their way down to the road. Wounded lay at the roadside displaying their festering sores and holding out a hand for a bit of bread or a drop of water…Great vultures glided about the encampment, perhaps in hopes of a meal – that summer, like the two preceding it, had been good ones for them; there was no want of carrion.

***

The earth, at least, must hold some memory of so much pain, of the martyrdom of so many men; and it is earth, indeed, that remembers them best, since it is earth that keeps their bones. And now, here he was, alone among these bones, come to watch over them; alone with the vultures.

They, the vultures, had enjoyed fine feasting indeed, if you counted only the ten thousand men-at-arms left unburied. On flesh, baptized and circumcised alike, they had fed and grown fat, so that now they must have little taste for other meat.

***

“Remember, my son, what Our Lord said to the rich young man: commit not adultery, kill not, steal not, do not bear false witness, wrong no man, honor thy father and thy mother; and the young man, greatly your superior, had already accomplished these things. Only then did our sweet Lord tell him to sell all he had and to follow Him, and the young man, albeit so righteous, fell back in the face of such a decision. Now, you have committed all the sins which this man had not committed. For you have lusted after a married woman, you have become a soldier, consequently a murderer, you are rich with goods which belong to the poor, and you honor not your father…”

***

Vultures hovered about him, as they had over the field of the dead at Acre. Then their wings seemed to draw circles, to close like pincers. Endless circles of vultures with white and empty eyes swooped down to crush him from all sides. He still had an instant to think: “Such are men – I am a vulture. God is a vulture…”

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