BLOOD RAIN ON THE SOCHA RIVER
A clear vault rising overhead,
Upon it tear-streams, blood rain rattle
beating down – a hail of lead
and thunder, lightning – blaze of battle!
Simon Gregorchich, Sochi
The eagle sees all. It sees the long military convoy below in the valley. Its wings are like sails. It circles the expanse high above the Mangart summits. The wind whistles around its proud head. It turns its piercing gaze upon the black dots by the forest below. The emperor’s soldiers are attacking Italian defences.
The eagle sees a grenade hit the centre of the convoy. It sees a grenade rip several Austrian soldiers apart. It sees the Austro-Hungarian captain hit by several bullets. It sees the fallen soldier corpses in the field below. The eagle’s eyes are very sharp.
The eagle sees all and knows all. It’s smart and experienced. It knows this is finally food for its offspring. It hopes that those, mercilessly killing each other below won’t have time to bury their numerous bodies.
It sees the soldiers escape, confused, to the forest, to shield from further attack.
It smells of gunpowder and blood. The forest is damp and dark. The soldiers, tired, cower beneath the branches in the muddy brush.
The great wild bird is happy. The slain soldiers lay scattered in a large circle across the vast field. Soon the eagle will dive down from the mountains, descend on the blood-soaked meadows and fields, and sink its beak into the wretched meat for its hungry nestlings. In the evening dusk it will be very pleased with the ample meal.
Five drunken soldiers lay under the spruce tree.
»Crazy! Knee-deep in mud the whole day!«
»The captain said that we mustn’t interrupt the offensive at any cost…«
»But the whole regiment fell there under the mountain…«
»Yes, it’s worth dying for the homeland!«
Late in the afternoon, comrades reel in the fallen Slovenian captain. His body is riddled with countless bullet wounds. Already in the early morning, he fell in the battle against the Italians. He suffered several mortal wounds. Some bullets also hit his face.
The mourning soldiers wash and clean him, so he wouldn’t seem like some apparition. In the embrace of death and war they try to make him proper again and regain his due dignity. Some kneel before the corpse, saying the rosary and Paternoster. Later, when the curate arrives, they will bury the captain behind the forest under the mountain, provisionally but with dignity.
The guns will sound the final battle salute. Commander Colonel Lukich will hold a short address.
»Comrades,« he’ll say, »we are burying our brave and loyal countryman Franc Bohinc, hero of our great and illustrious army, who fought the treacherous enemy until his dying breath for the holy faith, our beloved home, and our incandescent emperor. He deserves fame and our eternal gratitude! God grant him eternal rest and peace!«
It’s night again. Somewhere in the trenches soldiers are singing Slovenian folk songs. These are sad songs filled with longing for sun, love, and life; but these songs hurt because now, in these hard times, death is everywhere for all to see.
Up in the wood the eagle’s young are sleeping. Only the bear remains awake. It’s listening to the noises of the night. It turns its big brown head angrily, agitated by the sounds of gunshots and explosions of war. It observes the serene starry skies but cannot settle down. It growls, sharpens its teeth, and vanishes in the depths of the forest.
»Excellency, it’s cold today!«
Socha… Galicia… Verdun… Disunited soldiers of all lands, unite! There has been enough war… young men, don’t remain eternally cannon fodder… don’t walk into the mill of human bones… don’t be the well gathering your blood…
But the general has other worries on his mind.
»Excellency, it’s cold today. And war!«
»Yes, war. War. And beer!«
»At your service excellency. Your loyal servant. But war.«
»Yes, war. What’s war again… We’re going to win… Beer…«
»I understand. At your service. Beer. War!«
»We have war… and we have beer!«
»Yes, excellency. Beer.«
»At your service, beer!«
»Thank you. Beer!«
A paraffin lamp flickers in the shack. Confusion sounds behind the darkened windows. On the large desk beside the lamp lay remnants of cigarettes. Three soldiers are sat at the table. They’re dozing off, lonely. One of them starts talking about his mother. He says that his eyes are exactly like his mother’s. Her eyes are large and blue as well. Like the blue sky. She is tall too. Just like he. The other soldier is quiet. Listens. Says nothing. He also, is thinking of his mother, who has been ill for a long time. She fears for her son. She worries about both her sons, who had to go to war.
The wind is howling around the wooden paling by the barracks. The soil cries in the rain. The mother cries as well. She cannot sleep. She prays and waits. There, far beyond the tall mountains she waits for both her sons.
The soldiers in the barrack are quiet again. They cannot understand that things can be this bad in this world. What use are these long wars? It's cold. The hills and forests behind the barrack are sinking into darkness.
Fear and despair are spreading through the trenches of both armies. The soldiers squat in damp cold holes and wet tunnels yearning for peace. Everyone is fed up with war. They want out of the suffocating trenches, they want to go far away from the hard times of killing and destruction ...
They remember singing the eternal »Holy Night« by the scrawny Christmas tree a year ago in the same tunnels with longing in their hearts, hoping this dreadful absurdity would soon end… And they remember that hearing this same song resounding from the other side, from the damp holes of the opponent, at first quietly and then ever louder. It started in broken German and then switched to some other language they didn’t understand, but they knew that it was the same song, about peace and love among men …
Even now, a year later, the soldiers still squat in the tunnel next to a broken spruce tree that is blind to the war, which they decorated with dirty red strips of newspaper cut-outs… they sing and hope, but there is no end to the war in sight …
Christmas eve at the front. The soldiers are singing, smoking, crouching, dead tired, their eyes closing they want to sleep. Some lament and row. A few are reading letters from their families.
»What? Tell us!«
»I killed one over there on the other side!«
»Yes. So what?«
»I killed a man!«
»It’s necessary to kill the enemy!«
»It’s necessary to kill!«
The soil cries, shots fire, the grey wind has no mercy for the wretched mankind. Soldiers huddle in a dirty cattle wagon. They are riding sideways into nothing. No one knows what will happen. It’s raining. The wagon is filled by a mass of hands and legs. Heads and backs are pressed together like sardines in a can. Some sing drunkenly.
The song »Travnichki so zhe zeleni« sounds out…
Men in uniforms of the Emperor-King’s army are cannon fodder, even though there is constant blabbering of imminent great victory.
»Oh, you happy Austria!«
»This has gone beyond all measure!«
Black clouds hang low just above the hill. It stinks of fire and dynamite. One of the soldiers is seizing frantically on the floor, laughing like a madman.
From the train the rainy landscape running past seems blunt and cold, as though petrified in the terror of war. Happiness hid behind the clouds and the Moon behind the forest’s edge. Darkness is falling. Nothing is visible anymore.
The train rattles through the forest. The night is nigh.
The forest whirrs. The wind whistles. The night is starless. It’s a night of hundreds of black holes pissed in by mangy dogs. It’s raining like there’s no tomorrow.
The seizing soldier is laughing excessively again. From the very beginning, all things living are ready for death.
Nothing left but mud, mud, mud. Paths and dirt-roads are wet and muddy. The convoy is choking in mud. Cannons, wagons, teams, all in mud. Soldiers knee-deep in the swampy ground they’re crossing, mud sticking to wet clothes, pushing its way into their bodies.
It’s raining ceaselessly. Hell.
Unpleasant dusk covers the land. From the distance shots resound. From the opposite side rounds shriek, a machinegun rattles from the forest.
The corporal stands at the restless horses yelling: »Fast, faster!«
Soldiers skip across puddles, mud spraying to their faces.
»This war is completely unnecessary!« rants one of the soldiers.
The corporal looks up, grabs his gun.
Shots from the forest. Bullets whizz from all sides. It thunders, thuds, rages… grenades exploding… Men falling in mud… all around mud and blood… Anguish and fear… All around mud, mud, mud… The world sinking in blood and mud.
Each day the morning wakes this blood-drenched soil of ours and green tree- and brush branches on the banks of the Socha bow to the water. Brilliant light spreads across the meadows, forests, and hills as though nothing happened. The land, hilly and hard, climbs steeply to the hills, its sharp dark forests rising towards the sky…
Suddenly, an angular slash appears among the trees, reminiscent of a dark green tree-leaf… The incision widens to the left and right… Slides among the people. Ignites unrest… This is no longer the normal world of old… It is some other unpleasant world, that starts strangely swaying… It stands headless on its head… The angular incision among the trees turns black.
The skies fill with lead, tiny trees above the Socha suddenly become monstrous and anxious apparitions. For a few moments, the entire landscape is covered in black-and-gold dimness. The old Austrian anthem booms, only to be drowned in the water under the steep banks a moment later. Perilous flashes cross the land. The drowned elegy of times-past haunts among disjointed wind howls and the gloomy noxious blotches blending with the fast torrential mountain river.
Translated from Slovenian by Jaka Jarc