My Desert Places
This place is no longer a place, this landscape no longer a landscape. Not a blade of grass
remains, no stalk of wheat, no bush, no hedge of prickly pear. The captain looks
around for the lemon and orange trees Vita used to talk to him about, but he
doesn't see a single tree. Everything is burned. He stumbles in grenade holes,
gets entangled in shrubs of barbed wire. This is where the well should bebut
the wells are all poisoned now, rotting with the bodies of the Scottish
fusiliers killed in the first assault on the hill. Or maybe they were Germans.
Or civilians. There is a smell of ash, of petrol, of death. He must be careful
because the path is strewn with unexploded bombs, lying right in the middle of
the road like big-bellied carcasses. Dozens of empty cartridges, useless rifles.
Rusted bazookas, 88-mm stovepipes, long since abandoned and already overgrown
with weeds. Dead donkeys blown up like balloons. Clusters of bullets like goat
droppings. Bones stripped of flesh stick out of the dirt. The captain covers his
mouth with his handkerchief. No, it can't be. My God, it wasn't supposed to
be this way.
The road to Tufo is cluttered with burned-out vehicles. Motorbikes trucks cars. Bullets have opened dozens of eyes in the doors, the wheels are reduced to scrap iron. Heaps of wreckage appear in front of him. As he gets closer, he realizes they're tanks. He passes them warily, as if they were a monument to defeat. He's not sure if they are the Churchills they lost in January or the Tigers the Germans lost the first time they abandoned the village. He climbs over the wing of a planeintact, severed clean, the Luftwaffe symbol still visible. Its cabin lies exploded in the valley below. Finally he sees a tree: the firstor last. He quickens his step, his soldiers trudging along behind. It's hot and the sun is already high. What's gotten into you, Captain? Take it easy. It's an olive treecompletely incinerated, black as ink. It crumbles in his fingers. The cloud of dust makes his eyes water despite his Ray-Bans. Or maybe it's the smoke rising off the stones. Those smoking stones strike him more than anything else he has seen so far. His thoughts flow uncontrollably. Suddenly he has the feeling of having reached the place that was destined for him.
On the slope an emaciated old man approaches him. His hair is crusted with dust, his gaze glassy. He passes the captain as if he were a phantom. As if he weren't there. The captain is sweating in his uniform, and wipes his forehead with his palm. His men slow down, start joking around. They're young, recent arrivals sent to fill in the gaps on the southern front. But he knows why he's here, and he knows he is late. He should have come earlier, he really should have. But every now and then he was assailed by fragmented and involuntary images of memories not his own, vexing somehow, like the residue of a dream. They harked back to a lost and incomprehensible land populated by individuals with alien, remote faces, and the fear of having his estrangement confirmed had kept him far away. In the end, though, he'd come. They had entered other towns on top of their tanksand to the sound of applause. But here the road is blocked, and they arrive on foot. His pockets are full of gifts, even though he's ashamed of bringing them, for his arrival also brings dust, destruction, and noise. The smoke clears; a stone wall emerges. So this was the spot. This, the first house of the village. But it is no longer a housebehind the wall the ground falls away. "That one came down in January," the old man mumbles. Or at least that's what the captain thinks he said because he can't really understand him. The old man studies the captain's uniform, the stripes on his epaulettes. Only twenty-four and already a captain. But the old man is not impressed. When the captain holds out a pack of Lucky Strikes, the old man shrinks away and disappears behind a heap of ruins. Could he be his grandfather?
Excerpted from Vita by Melania G. Mazzucco. Copyright © 2003 by Melania G. Mazzucco. Translation © 2005 by Virginia Jewiss. Published in September 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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