The Polish writer Tadeusz Konwicki (1926-2015) was famous for his novels including A Minor Apocalypse, Bohin Manor and The Polish Complex. He was also an acclaimed film-maker, whose movie credits as writer and director include Salto, The Last Day of Summer and Issa Valley, adaptation of the book by Czesław Miłosz. He did not write many short stories, except in the early part of his career when he was experimenting with socialist realism. However, this story dates back to the earliest days of his writing career, when he was only 21, and it is clearly inspired by his own experiences as a teenage partisan fighting for the badly under-equipped Polish Home Army. Although the story shows some of the immaturity of an emerging writer, it is powerfully shocking.
“Squad, stand easy… and fall out!” crowed Corporal Billygoat, in a voice that betrayed it had only broken lately.
And at once, off duty now, he slapped Dragon on the back and said: “Hey, brother, go find out what’s for dinner.”
Dragon eagerly set off for the nearby farm buildings where we were having our break that day. The thick blue smoke rising from the chimney of the cottage where our commanding officer was billeted was giving us the hope that today’s dinner would make up for the last few days’ lack of food.
Meanwhile, idly swaying from side to side (he always had his legs bent at the knees, which made him look as if the chair had just been removed from under him), Corporal Billygoat went over to a pile of crumpled straw and, with a low grunt, sat down. Then he cheerfully surveyed the squad surrounding him. The lads idolised him ‒ or so at least it was said.
“Why are you all standing there as if you’re at a wedding? Onyourarses-sit! Aren’t your legs aching? Maybe you want some more drill?”
Corporal Billygoat was a fine fellow. Maybe just a bit too sharp. Though that probably came with obeying the rules ‒ he was a great stickler for the rules. Even after the longest march no one could lie down without roll-call and prayers. An hour before going into action he was quite capable of putting the platoon through his favourite drill. Truly, that drill was enough to put the keenest men off walking a step further. In any case, none of us had much faith in it ‒ why did anyone need to know how to march in swarm formation if the first random ricochet could finish him off? Whereas Corporal Billygoat felt wonderful during drill. He would choose a hilly site for our exercises. He would take up position on a natural rise and strike his crop against his boot tops as he shouted the commands in a shrill voice:
“Fan out, men!”
“Take your positions!”
“One by one at a jump forward march!”
Here, regrettably, I must add that Corporal Billygoat’s one weakness was that wretched shrill voice of his, totally at odds with the gravitas of the rank he held (leader of the first squad, sometimes deputising for the commanding officer). Apart from that, Corporal Billygoat was, to make no bones about it, the typical, all too familiar martinet of an NCO. Perhaps only slightly odder, because he was very young, and operating within the particular conditions of a partisan army. Several times since, from the distance of many years, which has galvanised me to take a more critical view of Corporal Billygoat, I have often wondered whether his entire attitude was actually a pose, adopted from something he happened to have read. But these thoughts may also have been prompted by the events I’m going to describe.
The sun was already brushing the threadbare tops of the pine trees, and there was a stink of sweat-soaked footwraps on the air. We were sprawled about on the grass beside the corporal’s pile of straw, none of us in the mood for talking, because it was quite stuffy, and a man becomes terribly idle in such a sultry atmosphere. Corporal Billygoat slowly pulled off his boots, then unwound his footwraps, sniffed them in disgust and spread them out on the grass. As the footwraps lay steaming, suddenly the corporal said: “Well, boys, what if the war were to end right now?”
We made cheerful but non-committal noises. For what could we say? It was often mentioned, but if it were to happen, we wouldn’t actually have known the whole thing had started ‒ “the whole thing” meaning civilian life, as lived at peace. Damn it all, we had grown up during the war and we’d got used to it.
Corporal Billygoat’s question was awkward. And yet I ventured to take up the debate.
“To tell the truth, sir, I’ve had enough of the war by now,” I said.
Billygoat gave me an indulgent look. I passed in the unit as a duffer – the intellectual sort who can’t even carry out a food patrol properly, “because it’s a pity to take the last hen,” as I had excused myself once to the corporal.
Billygoat disdainfully scratched his chin, on which the first few hairs had managed to push through, resembling gingery down.
“Bonehead” – such was the pseudonym they had given me, despite my desperate protests – “you’re an arse. Cos you’re afraid of everything. Can’t do this cos it’s a pity, can’t do that cos you’ll go to hell…”
I kept silent, in keeping with military form, while Billygoat turned his drying footwraps over. There was no sound, just a crane calling from somewhere in the marshes.
“You don’t win war by being kind-hearted, brother. If you don’t blast the bastard first, he’ll finish you. That’s the basic principle of war. We don’t take any prisoners here.”
His final words stirred the interest of the squad. I had already withdrawn from the debate, for in this situation what could a man say who until recently had recoiled at the sight of blood?
“So what if we were to take prisoners, sir? What would we do with them?” asked Mollusc timidly.
Corporal Billygoat didn’t lose his temper. He didn’t even show ironical surprise, but raised his right hand and motioned with his index finger, as if pulling the trigger of a rifle.
“We’d rub them out.”
“Shoot the bastards,” retorted Wiktor, famous among us for his courage.
“Sir, let’s have Chaffinch or Bonehead blow away the first Kraut we capture,” cried Blackbird, and the squad roared with laughter, making some anxious dogs respond with barking from the farm buildings.
Corporal Billygoat stretched his legs out and began keenly examining his dirty fingernails. We all knew he was on the verge of telling a story. I moved up, and lounged on the corporal’s straw, perhaps overstepping the mark, but he didn’t notice that, and after a glance at the yellow sky, he began his tale.
“Last summer, when I was still in Thunderbolt’s unit, three of us went to the highway. We were bloody short of guns in the company and there were nothing to eat. I was itching to get my hands on a Luger. So off we go, I’m leading the way. It’s quite hot, so we stop at this village for buttermilk.” (Corporal Billygoat always told his stories in great detail.) “Then we follow the borders of the fields to reach the highway. The corn ain’t been harvested yet, so we get up really close. We lie down in these bloody prickly juniper bushes. There was a ditch full of water by the highway. We were thirsty. So Pinetree – he was a brave lad – he crawls into it and drinks the rainwater. We lie there for an hour or so. Until we hear an engine…”
The corporal broke off his narrative and started fumbling in his pockets. He took out an old pipe tobacco tin and began to roll a cigarette. Some cows were lowing on their way back from pasture.
Snorting smoke, Billygoat continued his story.
“So we look, and there from around the bend comes a truck, mottled all over. Meaning an army truck. I lob a grenade onto the highway, my mates blast a few shots at the engine, and we jump out into the road. The cab doors slowly open and, brother, two arms slide out. I look and there’s this dream watch. So then we drag out two krauts. Nothing special in the vehicle, just a bit of fuel. They got tins of food in the cab, a rifle and a sub-machine gun, the ones I’ve got now. We stripped the krauts right away – those bastards were quaking with fear something dreadful. Pinetree says: ‘Slug ‘em, sir?’ I just wink, and he drags one of them by the shirt and off into the bushes. The German starts moaning, but Pinetree says: ‘Zum Komandant’. I grab the other one and off we go the same way too. Just one blast from the gun – it was primed. We set the lorry on fire. Pinetree lugged the tins back with us. We counted – there’s seventeen of ‘em. It was just a shame about the truck. Great vehicle, but not much use if the cylinders are shot through…”
Corporal Billygoat was done, and looked around at the lads, who were silent. After a pause Chaffinch asked: “Sir, what about the watch?”
Billygoat stretched out a skinny arm, and there on his wrist we saw a bright nickel watch on a metal band, the first time we’d noticed it.
I don’t know why – somehow I always blurted things out at the wrong moment – but I said: “When is it so… like, er… killing prisoners…”
The lads exchanged glances and snorted with laughter. Corporal Billygoat laughed the longest. And then he grew serious and said: “Yes, brother, you don’t fight a war with books.”
I wanted to speak up again, but the corporal fell back supine and suddenly sighed: “Huh, I could do with a nice piece of arse…”
The conversation moved on to girls, and being no expert on this topic, I limited myself to listening. In any case I felt quite intimidated, and had no desire to take further risks.
But Corporal Billygoat was feeling pleased with himself, laughing in a rather squeaky tone that startled the swallows trying to get under the thatch of the barn outside which we were lying.
Our unit commander was a lieutenant not much older than we were. In fact, he was just a boy. He did look quite impressive – he was very tall, with huge black eyebrows, a massive hooked nose and rather bovine eyes. He was very concerned about the unit’s moral standards (not even Corporal Billygoat dared to curse or start up an indecent conversation in his presence), and generally he ran the unit in keeping with the rather literary rules of the gentleman commanding officer. He was also very strict. I don’t know if I can repeat this, but according to Wiktor, who had been in another unit with him somewhere else, our commander had quite a tragic past. At the end of his cadet training the top brass organised a combat mission for some of the novice cadets, including our commander, as one of the most promising officers. The aim chosen for the mission was to destroy a German Stützpunkt – a fortified strongpoint, which was held by the Lithuanians. The Stützpunkt was situated in one of the many manor houses in the area. That night the small unit, on their first mission, crept up to the estate’s outbuildings. The first men to go inside the manor house were to be our commander and a close friend of his. Their task would be to terrorise the Lithuanians, who would be taken by surprise. The rest of the unit were to provide back-up, and to occupy the remaining estate buildings. True to plan, our commander and his friend went up onto the porch of the house and stood outside an open door, through which light was falling. They were close enough to hear the Lithuanians’ voices. As it was their first mission, they were all extremely excited, which is quite enough to explain what happened next. Our commander’s friend was the first to race through the open door, shouting: “Hӓnde hoch!” There was a burst of gunfire, and minutes later when our commander’s friend came out again, in the total chaos our commander mistook him for a Lithuanian (they were wearing German helmets). A short volley of shots rattled from his Soviet PPD (a fine automatic, the commander’s pride and joy) and then he heard his friend groan: “They fucking got me,” before slumping into the darkness. The mission was a success. But one more birch cross was put up in the Gojcieniszki village graveyard. He was the only man killed during the mission. Apparently our commander had lost his mind for several months after that, but somehow his madness had abated and he had started to lead his own unit. He had been unlucky. The story wasn’t at all original, and Wiktor may very well have made it up, and yet the young commander’s permanent sadness and strictness lent some credence to the story. I was personally connected with the commander by some ties that were hard to define. At the start we had had a number of conversations. But in time this had come to an end, because the commander never allowed himself to distinguish me for that reason. Instead he was more demanding, and often punished me for various offences, which he called “Bonehead’s oafishness”. Whereas I did not want to create the appearance of imposing myself, and began to keep away from him.
So next morning my surprise was all the greater when, shortly before dawn, while I was on watch by a broken fence, staring at the rose-pink sky, the commander came out of the cottage, relieved himself under a lilac bush and slowly walked up to me.
“Well then, Bonehead, all quiet?” he asked, buttoning up his flies.
“All quiet, sir,” I said, straightening my hunched shoulders in military style.
“It seems we haven’t had the chance to talk lately, Bonehead. The way it goes I’m permanently exhausted and can’t pull myself together.”
I looked closer, and sure enough, I could see a fog of weariness in his eyes.
“I’m not doing too well, sir, I’m afraid I’m a bit of an oaf,” I started clumsily justifying both him and myself. “I’m no good at the requisition patrols. It’s like… bloody hell, like waging war on women. Because if there’s action, at least everyone’s shooting, so then I shoot too. And, apparently, I’m a coward,” I added after a brief hesitation.
I was expecting a protest, a denial on the part of the commander. But he gave me an almost hostile look, very harsh, and said: “Don’t you forget that I demand more of you than the others. You’ve got to overcome your intellectual complex. The fact that you don’t want to take anyone’s boots away isn’t an ethically justified gesture of honesty. Don’t forget this is war, and this is your unit. Any moment of weakness ricochets back on all of us.”
By now the sun had cut its way out of the purple strip of forest and was shuddering in the red mist. The day promised to be blazing hot.
“Yes sir,” I agreed in soldierly manner.
The commandant fixed his bovine eyes on me and stared for a while. Then he pulled his belt up and began to chew his nails. He knew he’d never be able to convince me. In any case, the point of our dispute was something we couldn’t easily define.
Now in an official, if not a hostile tone (or maybe it just seemed that way to me) the commander asked: “Who’s on watch after you?”
“Chaffinch, sir!” I said, clicking my heels.
The rifle was weighing me down, so I shifted it to my left shoulder.
The commander slowly walked back to the cottage, and I felt as if I’d broken an expensive watch.
Then roosters began to crow somewhere nearby, the cattle mooed as they were herded out of the barns, and a dishevelled girl carrying a bucket walked past the fence, heading downhill to a small well. Her shirt was open, making it easy to see her wobbling breasts. She laughed at me stupidly and lustfully. “What a bitch,” I thought, and angrily turned to face the cottage, where I could hear the rap of wood being chopped to light the stove. Then Chaffinch dragged himself outside, sleepy, sour, and shivering with cold.
“Screw the bloody watch,” he muttered. “Just make sure they replace me on time,” he muttered as I got myself ready to leave.
For an hour I dozed at the table, still conscious, but then I crashed on the straw and fell asleep.
When I awoke, the sun was high in the sky. The merciless heat had wrung large beads of sweat out of me. I raised my head. Beyond a rainbow of dust my comrades were sitting at the table, eating. The stink of small wooden tubs full of pigswill hung in the air. The dirty, sweaty housewife was clanking cooking pots on a large stove. Flies buzzed.
“On your feet, men!” joked Corporal Billygoat as I sat up, yawning, on the straw.
“Come and get your blinis,” Chaffinch invited me.
The squad was busily slurping away. Billygoat amicably drew up a bowl of blinis for me. I was hungry, so I set about eating.
“Tuck in, lads,” said the corporal, wiping his greasy chin. “We deserve a good rest. Looks like it’s quiet round here. We can sit in peace. This evening when it cools down we’ll do some exercises,” he added.
“Corporal,” argued Wiktor, “couldn’t we call it a day now? It’s so bloody hot it’s probably going to rain.”
“It won’t do you lot any harm to get some air in your pants. Are you an army or a bunch of civilians?” raged the corporal at such overfamiliarity. Then he rolled a cigarette and went to get a light.
After breakfast we went out into the yard. The sun was blazing down so hard that we even took off our shirts. At once there was a delectable sound of lice being squashed.
“Fuck this bloody war,” said Wiktor. “The lice bite worse than the Germans. And whose fault is all this? Those bastard krauts. Shoot the whole bloody lot of them and there’d be peace.” Furiously he hurled a stone against the side of a kennel, in which a moth-eaten mongrel was dozing.
But the Germans were far away, the district was quiet, and soon we were sprawling on the grass, adroitly avoiding the chicken shit thickly strewn about the green yard.
For a while I stared into the heated sky, then lazily shifted my gaze to the ripening fields. Blackbird was on watch by the fence, wiping the stream of sweat that was pouring from under his helmet (on the commander’s orders we had to wear helmets; Corporal Billygoat made sure the order was obeyed). Past the fence, another guard was standing outside a second cottage, the one where the commander was billeted. Sometimes a breeze would briefly arise that did little to cool our burning bodies.
Corporal Billygoat appeared in the doorway of the cottage with a girl, the one I’d seen that morning.
Then I must have dozed off a while.
I was woken more by instinct than by any particular noise. I looked up and saw Blackbird come running from the fence. His helmet was bouncing comically on his sweaty head. I felt a wave of anxiety. The other lads began to look up nervously as well. I noticed Billygoat in the doorway, on his own now, after getting up in a hurry.
“Germans,” was all Blackbird could gasp breathlessly…
We were dumbstruck.
For some seconds there was such total silence that Blackbird’s panting brought the danger closer. We hastily jumped to our feet. I suddenly felt sick and almost keeled over. But the lads had already raced indoors. As I was running into the cottage Corporal Billygoat appeared in the doorway again, hurriedly loading his sub-machine gun. Inside the boys were silently turning the straw over to fish out the guns they had tossed there carelessly.
After some feverish clattering we ran outside again. As usual, I was the last. It seemed I was never quick off the mark.
Blackbird was already kneeling by the fence with his rifle to his eye. Slightly to one side of him, Corporal Billygoat was crouching under a lilac bush. We stealthily ran up to the bushes dividing the yard from the country road. I remembered my rifle. The butt was already slippery with sweat from my hands. I loaded it. The clank of the bolt was so loud that I thought it had caused an echo.
“Quiet, you bastard,” whispered Billygoat angrily and leaned forwards.
I heard a German voice.
A split second later, through a gap in the undergrowth I noticed a head in a grey forage cap about ten metres in front of me.
After that I couldn’t keep track of the rapid sequence of events.
It seems Billygoat leaped out from under the bushes screaming: “Hӓnde hoch!”
Several other voices instantly repeated this order in various tones. Before the astonished Germans – only two of them – had had time to make a move, the lads had torn their weapons from their hands. As I crawled out of the bushes (last again), Wiktor was patting down the Germans’ pockets. They stood with their arms raised, as if trying to check which way the wind was blowing. Their eyes expressed utter amazement and terror. Corporal Billygoat stood with his braces down in the middle of the road, brandishing his sub-machine gun. The rest of the lads, a dozen half-naked ragamuffins, surrounded the captives. My hands were shaking. I wanted to say something.
“Where are their weapons?” I asked.
There was no answer. Just heavy, rapid breathing. Then I noticed the two Mausers in Chaffinch and Blackbird’s hands.
From the Germans’ pockets Wiktor proceeded to remove some packets of cigarettes, boxes of matches, a wad of letters, wallets with documents, folding knives and some smaller items that I couldn’t see. Then he undid their cartridge belts.
“That’s all they’ve got, sir,” he reported.
Corporal Billygoat straightened his braces and thought for a while. Then in a voice that was almost calm he said: “Escort them to the cottages.”
Wiktor pointed the barrel of his Mauser towards the cottages and ordered: “Quick march!”
Not understanding, the prisoners turned on the spot and began to walk backwards in the direction indicated. They were still holding their hands hesitantly overhead. Wiktor prodded the one on the left with the barrel of his gun.
It was almost pitch dark in the cottage after coming in from the sunny yard. The prisoners sat down on the straw in a corner. Slowly they lowered their hands and gazed anxiously at the circle of men surrounding them. Through the window I saw Billygoat running to the commander’s billet. It was still unbearably quiet.
“Blackbird, why have you left your post?” I asked, to break the silence, and my own voice gave me a shock.
The prisoners glanced at me in terror. I felt sorry for them. Blackbird went back on watch. The housewife and her children were trembling by the stove.
By the time the commander arrived with Corporal Billygoat we had almost entirely calmed down. Wiktor had even tried to make a joke, saying: “Chaffinch, I can tell you got scared,” and then sniffing the air. But nobody laughed.
The commander took a look at the prisoners and told them to hand over their documents. I went closer, ready to help, though I didn’t know a word of German.
The commander turned in his hand a little green booklet, on which it said “Soldbuch” in Gothic script. Then he opened it and read out: “Erich Knothke.”
The straw rustled. It was one of the prisoners moving about. With some difficulty the commander translated the data from the army booklet. Obergefreiter – or Lance Corporal, born in 1925, conservatory student. The other NCO was a tailor by profession. The booklets smelled of sweat and army cloth. Flies buzzed against the window panes. The prisoners sighed in the corner.
Gradually we returned to our normal occupations. Wiktor and Chaffinch went outside, while Signal stood by the prisoners. He would keep watch on them. Corporal Billygoat even put his sub-machine gun down on a bench.
On his way out the commander said: “Keep a close eye on them.”
And that was all.
Corporal Billygoat gazed at the prisoners for a long time. Finally he stood up and approached them. He made signs to tell them to get undressed. They blinked, failing to understand. “Schnell,” Billygoat urged them. Suddenly the younger one began to sob. They held out their hands, begging for something. They thought there was going to be an execution. Corporal Billygoat started explaining, half in German, half in Polish and partly in sign language that he only wanted them to swap clothes because his soldiers were in rags. They understood, and quickly began to strip off their uniforms, while feverishly trying to explain something. They were clearly expressing their readiness to hand it all over in exchange for their lives.
Later, when we assembled in the yard, while the prisoners went on sitting in the cottage in torn rags under guard, Billygoat appeared, in spite of the heat, in a German NCO’s jacket. He seemed quite proud.
In fact all of us were feeling a certain joy. And a little anxiety. After all, they were our first prisoners. We were pleased. But as ever, I stupidly blurted: “Sir, what are we going to do with them? We’ll let them go this evening, won’t we?”
Corporal Billygoat laughed out loud. Several others joined in. For a while he examined the flashes on the epaulettes of his new, ex-German uniform and then suddenly, as if wearily, he said: “What? You know that ‒ they get rubbed out.”
I realised my arm had gone numb. I turned onto my other side. Somewhere crickets were chirping. I felt sorry for the prisoners. I always had been sentimental.
“Bang, and the head explodes,” said Wiktor, snapping his fingers, and laughed unpleasantly. I was afraid of him. A red-legged rooster strode across the yard. Dinner time was approaching.
We ate our dinner out of doors. I was pleased about that. I couldn’t bear the sight of the prisoners hunched in the corner. By a lucky turn of events I wasn’t tasked with guarding them either. The sun continued to blaze down on us. Still in the uniform, Corporal Billygoat smeared the bulging beads of sweat across his brow. The dog lay lifelessly by its kennel. “When will they do them in?” I wondered, as I gazed at the black hole of the window. The first small clouds were starting to appear on the horizon. The soup was impossibly hot. The conversation dragged along idly. Then we lay on the grass.
After recent events the exercises Billygoat had announced probably wouldn’t happen. The hens were moving their heads in a comical angular way. I was feeling anxious about the evening ahead.
Corporal Billygoat turned lazily from side to side, and then calmly, as if spontaneously, as if he’d only just remembered, said: “Hey, Bonehead, go and give the prisoners something to eat.”
I moved slowly on purpose, to avoid showing too much eagerness, in the hope that the corporal might yet rescind the order. In no hurry, I walked over to the dog and scratched him on his bony side. Panting fast, he glanced up at me from a festering eye. As I entered the cottage I felt the gaze of the lads on me. I tried to listen, in case they said something. But they remained silent.
Inside it was almost chilly. The prisoners were sitting still in their places. The guard was playing with the safety catch on his automatic. I didn’t look in their direction. I fetched two plates of soup from the housewife and put them down in front of the prisoners. Then I went back for some bread. The prisoners livened up. The younger one, from the conservatory, began to whine about something. His eyes were damp, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. I guessed he was afraid. I looked out of the window. The curtains were rippling in a light breeze.
“Nicht Tod,” I lied. “Essen, then nach Hause,” I said, pointing at the bright rectangle of the door.
They looked at me mistrustfully. I smiled again.
They believed me. The younger one said something else, but in a calmer tone this time. Then he reached his bony white hands out for the plate. They ate in silence. The younger one just slurped away, while the Unteroffizier occasionally smacked his lips.
Noiselessly, to avoid attracting the prisoners’ attention and to escape their eyes, I slipped outside. It was quiet. A shadow of cloud slithered across the ripe corn and brushed soundlessly against a linden tree.
I lay down on the grass beside my comrades, and there we remained for ages, measuring the time by the narrow shadows of the clouds.
The day was still extremely hot, but luckily it was drawing to an end. A flock of crows gathered above the woods, debating loudly, and then flew off into the colourless sky. Then they reassembled, and the noise of their cawing muffled our heavy breathing.
Corporal Billygoat was sitting on the threshold, his right hand shamelessly fiddling with the girl’s breasts. Occasionally he laughed and cast a glance at the squad flopping on the grass, to see if anyone had noticed his love-making. But the lads were dozing. Somehow I felt anxious. I was afraid of the evening.
Wiktor was on guard by the fence.
At some point I heard footsteps. I raised my head. The commander was coming over to us from his billet. He had a jacket thrown over his sloping shoulders.
Quickly I got to my feet. Roused from their slumber, the lads looked up. The girl disappeared into the darkness of the cottage, and Corporal Billygoat came the other way.
“So what about the prisoners?” asked the commander.
“They’re sitting quietly, sir,” replied Billygoat. “They’ve been given dinner.”
The commander stood lost in thought. As we stood around them in a circle, my hands began to shake. The commander smoothed his hair.
“Billygoat, your squad will shoot the prisoners this evening,” he said firmly but quietly. I felt myself flush. Corporal Billygoat shifted from foot to foot and noisily swallowed his saliva.
“Yes sir,” he said softly and neutrally.
“You’ll draw lots. The two who draw the marked lots will shoot the Germans this evening when we’re on the march.”
We said nothing.
The crows cawed alarmingly in the yellowing sky.
“All right, Billygoat, get on with drawing the lots!” snapped the commander.
Billygoat stirred, then straightened up and said: “Yes, sir!”
Then he slowly walked towards the cottage. We followed him. The commander stood up straight in the middle of the yard. There was a moist breeze from the meadows. I shuddered.
We stopped outside the cottage. The corporal went inside. We could hear his footsteps and the rustle of straw. Soon he came back out with a page torn from an exercise book. Somewhere nearby cows were lowing.
The corporal addressed the commander, asking: “Do I have to prepare a lot for myself too?”
Billygoat slowly tore the sheet of paper into eleven strips. I leaned against the door frame. Then he licked the stub of a copy pencil, and on two of the strips he drew a crooked cross. There was total silence.
The commander was standing still with his eyes closed.
The corporal rolled up the strips of paper and tipped them into his greasy four-cornered cap. Then he stirred them with a finger. We all went up to the commander.
The first to draw was Chaffinch. As he unrolled the scrap of paper and glanced at it, his eyes hardened. We didn’t ask him the result. Then other hands plunged into the cap in turn and drew out more scraps of white ruled paper.
I stepped back to the outside of the circle, counting on someone else drawing the fatal lot before me. But I couldn’t keep still. I could feel a tight knot in the pit of my stomach, a familiar sensation from school. The lots were drawn in turn by Wiktor, Blackbird, Ploughshare, Button, Mollusc, Antek and Signal. Then Dusky went up. I held my breath. But he too tossed a blank scrap of paper to the ground. I turned round to face the fence. My hands were shaking. Now it should be Corporal Billygoat’s turn to draw, and to take out the slip of paper with the clumsy cross.
But I heard him saying irritably: “Who hasn’t bloody well drawn yet?”
I realised that mine was a lost cause. He was counting on the same thing as I was.
I went up to the circle. My comrades stepped aside in silence. The commander watched calmly and malevolently. As I reached into the cap, I noticed that Corporal Billygoat’s lips were quivering. Or maybe I just imagined it?
The ticking of Billygoat’s watch was loud, very loud in that silence.
I unrolled the slip of paper. A wave of heat flooded over me. The paper was marked with a cross. I made an effort to smile.
Billygoat asked calmly: “Well, so there’s no need for me to draw?”
The commander nodded.
“Ts-ts-ts-ts-ts,” cried the housewife, calling in the piglets. The dog began to bark by its kennel.
Without looking at us, the commander said: “So Chaffinch and Bonehead will carry out the execution. Chaffinch can use the corporal’s sub-machine gun and Bonehead can have my Luger. Once we’re on the march the corporal will explain the rest.”
And he slowly walked off to his billet. We saluted.
Then gradually normal conversation took off again, perhaps more animated than usual. Everyone, except for me and Chaffinch, was overjoyed. The corporal sat down on the threshold again.
I couldn’t gather my thoughts. I lay down on the grass, and listened to the blood pulsing in my temples. That brought me relief. I also avoided looking in the direction of the cottage. I felt stifled, even though the sun was sinking on us.
I lay there for ages, trying my best the whole time not to think about anything. I kept shifting my gaze to a different spot. I tried focusing on trivial things that would keep me from looking at the dark rectangle of the window that linked us with the prisoners. And yet time dragged very slowly. The yellow sun was bursting and turning red, getting ready to leap into the blackening horizon. I thought about other metaphors to describe the sunset. But my gaze kept creeping like a thief towards the cottage. I was sweating. I don’t know if I was feeling for the prisoners. I was just afraid to put an end to life. We had always valued life.
Then the cows came home. Earlier than usual, because the unit was to have a drink of milk before leaving. The piebald cows with drooping udders mockingly gazed at me with the eyes of the commander. The air was muggy.
Totally at their ease, my comrades were listening to Wiktor’s jokes. They had shifted the whole business of the prisoners onto me and Chaffinch. I suddenly felt thirsty. I walked around the house in search of a bucket, but didn’t go inside. Something rustled in the raspberry bushes, and I could hear squealing. It was Corporal Billygoat lustfully violating the girl. I walked downhill to the well. A crane let out an alarming screech. I leaned over the side of the well and saw an almost childlike face, which the wrinkles of water were twisting into a grimace of laughter. Quickly I turned away, and without drinking any water, went back to the yard. The sun was now touching the line of the forest. The cry of the crane rang out from the marshes again.
An hour after sunset the liaison officer came from the commander. We’d be marching out in fifteen minutes. We gathered up our kit. I hung an ammunition belt over my shoulder and put on a knapsack filled with bullet pans for the Degtyaryov machine gun. My rifle felt strangely heavy. We led out the prisoners. They scanned the sky, bright amid the falling darkness, and they were uneasy. Blackbird and I guarded them. They made signs to ask if they could go now. I shook my head. They were starting to guess what was up. The younger one burst into bitter tears. The Unteroffizier was silent. The younger one tried to ask if he could go to one side. I shook my head. I showed him he had to relieve himself on the spot. At gunpoint he lowered his trousers and began to do his business. I turned away from the stink. He hadn’t even the right to shame.
Then we went to the commander’s billet. The two other squads were already standing there in readiness. They stared in curiosity at the ragged prisoners with bare heads. Corporal Billygoat kept order in the uniform from which the Unteroffizier’s insignia had been freshly unpicked. It was getting cold.
I kept far away from the prisoners. The commander came out of his billet and disappeared at the head of the column. We got moving. We were seen off by prolonged barking from the dogs, answered by others yelping in the distance. The sky was going dark and the first stars were twinkling. Then Orion floated up, to be our guide that night. The Great Bear, our compass yesterday, remained to one side, behind us. We came onto a sandy road that was at once surrounded by forest. In my knapsack the ammunition in the machine-gun pans sang monotonously.
Once swarms of stars were crowding the sky, indicating a time of roughly an hour before midnight, the order went to the front: “Head of column, halt!” The column halted. My heart missed a beat. I knew this was it. But I didn’t move from the spot, as if hoping they’d overlook my presence and manage without me. But I could already hear Corporal Billygoat’s hushed voice: “Where’s Bonehead? Bonehead! Bonehead!”
I stirred myself.
“Here,” I whispered, using a hand to quieten the ammunition rattling in my knapsack. I walked up to the corporal. He sought my hand and stuck the Luger in it. By the faint light of the stars I noticed that the hairs on his juvenile chin were trembling. I was shocked by the gravity of the moment.
“There you are,” he whispered hesitantly.
He walked off, but immediately returned. He said nothing, but as he turned around, he waved a hand and muttered: “It’s loaded.”
I drew level with the column. At once against the background of the sky I recognised the bare heads of the prisoners. Chaffinch was already there too.
“I’ll take the musician,” I told him.
He didn’t reply.
Somewhere nearby Corporal Billygoat’s watch was ticking insistently.
I tugged the younger prisoner by the sleeve. He understood. He tried to kneel down, weeping and grabbing me by the hands. I pushed him away.
“Zum Kommandant,” I explained.
He didn’t believe me.
“Zum Kommandant,” I repeated, and dragged him along. I hid the Luger behind my back and noiselessly released the safety catch.
I told him to walk ahead, and we went in among the trees. He was snivelling the whole time. I was afraid of him, even though he had no weapon and very soon he was going to die. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I raised the Luger. At that moment the prisoner turned around and looked down the barrel of the pistol. He stepped back and shrieked – “Aaaaa…” – and without aiming, I pulled the trigger. A streak of flame touched his forehead. In the final split second his white sneering teeth shone in the dark. Then the top of his head disappeared, his body began to sway, and like a balloon deprived of air he wilted to the ground. On my way back I felt springy moss beneath my feet. A short volley clattered from the sub-machine gun. That was Chaffinch. As I was nearing the column, a startled tawny owl cackled. I squatted down in shock, and then quickly retook my place in the column. I tossed the rifle onto my back. Nobody came to get the Luger. I handed it forward to the front.
Then came the question: “All in order?”
We were silent.
Then someone said in an angry tone: “In order.”
We set off. I felt total emptiness inside, like the corpses that had remained there in the moss. I began to laugh nervously. Somebody took the rifle from me. A voice said: “Fucking hell.”
To one side I noticed that someone was hurriedly tearing off his jacket. German metal buttons flashed and a uniform floated down onto the road behind us. A shadow in a white shirt joined our column. At the rear behind us a shapeless patch remained on the road: the discarded Unteroffizier’s uniform.
Poetic Orion tirelessly guided us onwards amid the clamour of vigilant grasshoppers.
*From the Polish “Kapral Koziołek i ja” © Maria Konwicka, published by kind permission of the copyright holder.
*Image: Warsaw Uprising street mural art celebrating the 1944 Polish resistance fighters