Considerations Beyond Understanding: episode twenty-two
Trenched in at Galicia, he had risen cautiously from a sheltered position to meet a telegrapher’s runner bearing a message…the message might have been anything. Keeping low, fearful of the sniper’s bullet, he had reached out his hand. A shell exploded, almost overhead.
Kneussl had been away from the front for some time. For some time, every assaultive nervous sensation, every sound, smell, touch, every shift from light to dark, had ignited under his skin. He despised the other shell-shock cases. Of all alternatives, that worse than death had seemed to him thought, and time for it. He had wanted nothing more than to return to the front.
Still, unexpectedly the echo…invasive, clamorous…made it difficult to speak.
“Nothing,” he’d found himself repeating. More he no longer recalled.
He’d fallen silent, and this was more satisfactory, or so it had seemed; slackness and indifference in the men at last eradicated. He felt he had brought the hammer of aristocracy down upon the rabble. The soldiers answered with closed, antipathetic faces, and he was glad.
From the right, he heard a man say, “I can tell you something about nothing.”
Impossible to tell the man’s rank; he was dressed like a battlefield scavenger. He looked at Kneussl with meaning, and Kneussl believed they knew each other, but had no idea of a time they’d met.
“They’ve had to beg for an armistice, your leaders; they will accept what they’re offered…if you don’t like to think so, you will learn differently. The world is smaller than it was. Bohemia belongs to the Czechs now. That won’t do you any good, citizen von Kneussl. In reality, you’re not one of us.”
Speaking with a specific and vengeful knowledge, but for what cause?
A sound like gravel sliding from a bucket…then, within a silent emanation of dust, the heavy gun sheared away and vanished, along with the horses and nearly with one of the men. A circle had moved closer to Kneussl and the stranger, when he had spoken news of the armistice. Winter, who’d walked over to lend Kneussl his support, grabbed the endangered soldier by the arm and roughly shoved him onto the path. They heard a clanking crunch, distressed animal cries swiftly silenced. Kneussl went to look over the edge. Winter followed with one or two of the others. Both horses were dead. One had split across the rib cage against jutting rocks. This bloody flesh the men gazed upon dispassionately, perhaps wistfully. It was no remarkable sight.
Winter said, after a while, “This is not a safe place to stand for long.” The ranks had begun a spontaneous march under pressure from new arrivals. The stranger had gone. Kneussl shoved his way across to where the third horse stood untethered. He would not allow it to fall into enemy hands, not the least thing that might be of use. Fate had supplied an answer. He drew his pistol, touched the barrel to the animal’s glazed, watering eye, and fired, point blank.
(2014, 2018, Stephanie Foster)