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Raven and the delight of battle


I am still unable to explain, even to myself, the delight that grips me before every battle. It trembles through my entire body like a living thing. My heart sings, my pupils dilate, my palms tingle. If there is a firm resolution that we go forth into battle today or even tomorrow, I cannot find a place for myself, something shakes me from the centre of my being. I saw that this feeling affected not only me but all of us were captured by this delight, only we all lived through it in our own way. One guy would strut like a rooster, another would clean his pistol, someone else would hum or whistle and there was one man who would sit motionlessly while his eyes burned with an evil flame. When we suddenly forswore the battle, I experienced a feeling as though a young woman had refused me at the last minute and I remained alone with my longing.

         No, there was no fear in any of us. It had been scattered to the winds along with hope and when hope leaves a man, how can there be any fear? The blind sorceress, Yevdosia, would have said that there was nothing to boast about; she whom I went to when everything began. She could gather pain from the human body, she who was able to heal the soul. I went to her one day and said, 'Take from my being two unnecessary things, draw them out of my spirit so that no trace of either remains.'

         'What unnecessary things?' she asked, smiling with her unseeing eyes.

         'Fear and regret,' I said. 'First draw the fear from me and then the regret.'

         'Those cannot be removed from you, for without fear and regret you would swiftly lose yourself.'  

       I have recollected her words more than once when I have been decapitating people in a way that was no longer like war for me, but had simply become an everyday occupation that made my hands ache at night.  

        That is how I had become when we captured some Chinese soldiers. You can imagine the kind of captivity it was for them, for there was no clemency in our hearts, we would put our prisoners to the sword immediately without squandering bullets on them. On this occasion we led them to the block and I ordered them to lay down their heads ready to be executed. I do not know, even now, why it was that the Chinese who fell into our hands laid their heads under our swords so willingly, it was as if they were in thrall to some enchantment. There was no pleading for mercy and no whining, only a completely submissive compliance with a reality that they could not change. When between ten and twenty heads had rolled and the grass had become crimson with blood, the last one came to the block. He was skinny, not very tall, and bow legged. It seemed to me that, if I had grabbed his knees and spun him, he would have rolled, like a wheel, who knows in what direction. He was a complete calamity. The front of his head was shaven and the hair on the back was plaited into a pigtail. What was particularly interesting about this 'walking calamity' was that, when he knelt down and laid his neck on the block, he suddenly grabbed the pigtail and gathered it onto the crown of his head. This made me laugh. What was it about? Was he afraid of losing this 'beauty' and moved it to prevent it from being separated from his head? Or did he gather it from the nape of his neck to stop it being spattered with blood?

        My hands descended. I did not know whether to laugh or what to do, but I saw clearly enough that there was not a drop of fear in his eyes; it was as if he thought he was heading straight for paradise and the son of a bitch was only worried about ensuring his pigtail was whole, clean and well groomed for the next life. I grabbed him by that tail, pulled him sharply from his knees, and turned his face towards me. There was still no shadow of fear in those dark, narrow eyes. As he looked at me with some quiet curiosity and understanding, he suddenly spoke, 'Chan fights for whoever gives him a bite to eat. If you give him something to eat he will fight for you.' I released his pigtail and, instead of throwing his neck onto the block again, I turned to the lads and said, 'Well, shall we take this Khodya with us? Maybe we could train him like a dog.'


I did not foresee then that the dark hour would come when I would be alone in the woods with this Chinese man as we ate our first raw crow without salt ...


From Raven's Way. A novel by Vasyl Shkliar. Translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj.