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Vol. 2, No. 3

Partisans, 1944
by Curzio Malaparte

II

One night, when we arrived at the usual place, we found the partisans already there, standing among the trees, pale and silent. One of them, whom they had left back at camp, needed a doctor.
  "What is the matter with him?" said our captain, Svarstrom.
  "He is sick," said the Norwegians.
  "Don't you know what the matter is?" said Svarstrom.
  "No," said the Norwegians.
  Svarstrom turned and conferred with his sissit in a low voice, then turned back to the partisans.
  "It would be better if I knew what was wrong with him," said Svarstrom.
  "We don't know," said the Norwegians.
  "I don't want to insist," said Svarstrom. "Is he wounded?"
  "No," said the Norwegians. "He is just sick."
  "All right," said Svarstrom. "I think we can trust each other. I will send for a doctor."
  "Not a German," said the Norwegians.
  "We don't have German doctors in the Finnish army," said Svarstrom.
  After a couple of hours, we returned with the doctor, a young medical student from the University of Turku, and found the Norwegians already waiting for us at the usual place. We followed them for a bit, but then they stopped.
  "The doctor should come alone from here on," one of them said. "And we need to blindfold him."
  "No," said Svarstrom. "We are all coming together, and without blindfolds. We are not enemies."
  "All right," said the Norwegians, moving on reluctantly.
  After an hour more, we arrived at a Lapp encampment. Hundreds of reindeer browsed in the fields around the shores of a small lake. The Norwegians took us over to a rough shed, and we entered.
  A few partisans were seated around a table, smoking and reading. Over against the wall was an older man, around forty, lying on a cot. He sat up a little as we entered: he was graying, with a short, hard beard. He had staring, clouded eyes, and his hands trembled.
  "Good morning," he said, in English.
  "Good morning," I answered.
  Everyone else was now standing, looking at us. The doctor came over and sat on the edge of the cot, feeling the man's forehead.
  "I don't have a fever," said the invalid.
  I translated for the doctor, who didn't speak English.
  "What is the matter with you, then?" asked the doctor, taking the man's pulse.
  "I am afraid," said the invalid.
  "Afraid of what?" asked the doctor.
  "It is a special kind of fear," said the invalid, and then added, smiling, "but not a fear of dying. I am afraid of everything. Especially everything of which people normally are not afraid."
  "What did you do, in civilian life?" asked the doctor.
  "A pastor," said the invalid. "I was a Lutheran pastor."
  "When did you begin to feel sick?" asked the doctor.
  The invalid did not answer. He kept silent for a few moments, then said, "I am afraid of God."
  "So am I. Everyone is afraid of God," said the doctor. "That is not a sickness."
  "I never said that I was sick," answered the man.
  The doctor leaned closer and examined the man's eyes. "War makes for a cruel sense of humor," he said.
  "War is a ridiculous thing," said the invalid. "It is a pretext for men to hurt each other. A ridiculous thing. A children's game. Hurting each other is a children's game."
  "I will give you a sedative," said the doctor.
  "Thank you," said the invalid, then added, indicating his fellow partisans, "They are also afraid."
  "Certainly, we are also afraid," said one of the partisans, smiling.
  "Yesterday one of them committed suicide," said the invalid.
  "That happens on our side, too," said the doctor. "It is a question of nerves."
  "It isn't nerves," said the invalid. "It is something deeper."
  "Do you have any alcohol?" asked the doctor. "I brought some brandy with me. Take a sip now and then, when you feel like it."
  "Alcohol," said the invalid, "is only a way of changing the subject."
  "That's just the point," said the doctor. "Every now and then you need to change the subject. It will do you some good."
  "If I am sick, then you must be sick, too," said the invalid.
  "Yes, I am sick," said the doctor. "We are all sick. It is the fault of this war."
  "No," said the invalid. "The war is just the symptom of the disease. Are you married?"
  "Yes," said the doctor. "With two children."
  "Then you need to think about killing them," said the invalid, "so that they don't get sick as well."
  "Of course," said the doctor. "As soon as the war is over, I will go home and kill my two children."
  "You think I'm joking," said the invalid, "but I'm not. We are preparing a horrible future for our children. Only death can save them."
  "Here is the sedative," said the doctor, offering the invalid a tube of bromides.
  "You don't understand anything about me or my illness," said the invalid, pushing the tube away. "I have nerves of steel. Anyway," he added, "it wasn't for me that you were called, but for someone else. A Russian."
  "A Russian?" said the doctor.
  "A Russian partisan. One of the bunch that assassinated the Archbishop of Rovaniemi. He was wounded and we picked him up. I think his leg is turning gangrenous."
  "A Russian," said the doctor.
  "I know you hate the Russians, that they are your enemies," said the invalid, "but you are a doctor, and it is your duty to help him."
  "Where is he?" said the doctor.
  The invalid pulled back the wolfskin that he was using for a blanket, revealing a black, swollen leg, roughly wrapped in bandages.
  "Ah. He is you," said the doctor, frowning.
  "Yes, he is me. A Soviet engineer. With a wife and two sons," he added, smiling, "whom he regrets not having killed before leaving home. Can you do something for the leg?"
  "I didn't bring my tools with me," said the doctor.
  "That doesn't matter. You can examine it anyway. And then come back tomorrow."
  "The leg is gangrenous," said the doctor.
  "I know," said the Russian, "and it needs to come off. As soon as possible."
  "At once," said the doctor. "But I don't have my instruments. I will be back in a few hours." And he stood up.
  "Thank you," said the Russian, letting himself fall back onto his cot.

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