I was tired, and threw myself into bed--let the doctor go back to the partisans without me! It was the end of June 1944: midsummer in the Arctic. I turned on the radio: every day brought more battles, more bombardments, more massacres. As soon as I snapped off the switch, the horrendous smell of blood hovering over Europe began to dissipate. And the silence, the splendid purity of the Nordic summer, started to gain the upper hand.
Svarstrom came in to where I was resting and announced, "They have taken Rome."
"Je m'en fous."
"It's your country," said Svarstrom.
"Je m'en fous."
"Don't you care who has taken Rome?" asked Svarstrom.
"It was the Allies. They entered Rome last night. The Pope blessed the Allied army from the Loggia of St. Peter's."
"Je m'en fous."
"I don't understand you," said Svarstrom, shaking his head. And then added, "They have landed on the coast of France."
"The Allies. Who else would it be?" said Svarstrom.
"I thought it might be the Eskimos."
"I don't understand you," said Svarstrom.
A half hour later, a sissi came to collect us: the doctor needed help after all. We set out along the trail, and near the river met a pack of wolves. They were loping along through the trees about a hundred yards away, turning to look at us with their red eyes--during the summer when food is plentiful, wolves were not likely to attack human beings. And, in fact, they seemed like dogs. Like big dogs, except for the red, glassy eyes which gave their expressions a clear and sad cruelty.
It took a couple of hours to reach the partisan camp, and when we arrived everyone was asleep, even the doctor, who was stretched out on a pile of furs over in a corner, almost underneath the table. Only the Russian was awake, staring at us with his shining, fevered eyes.
"The news on the radio is encouraging," said the Russian. "The Allies have taken Rome."
"That's their business," I said.
"Don't you care?" said the Russian.
"It doesn't concern me at all," I said.
"That may be stretching it a bit," said the Russian, studying me.
"It doesn't concern me at all. If the Germans took Moscow, I couldn't care less."
"This war doesn't interest you?"
"No. Not at all."
The doctor woke up and began going about his business.
"You're right," laughed the Russian. "This war is interesting for only one reason: it has murdered Europe."
"Exactly," I said.
"But Europe was already dead before it was murdered," said the Russian.
"Not everybody knew that," I said. "Now everybody does."
The doctor asked me to translate for him. It was necessary to amputate, as expected, but the gangrene had progressed, and he wasn't sure if it wouldn't continue to progress even after the operation. He felt it was his duty to try anyway.
"All right," said the Russian.
While the doctor prepared his instruments, Svarstrom and I went down to the river's edge: that odor of rotten flesh made me nauseous. It was the smell of winter 1941 in Russia, and I had had enough then of that frightening smell.
The shepherds were working around the reindeer stalls and enclosures, gathering sheets of lichen and hanging them on racks to dry in the sun, like the skins of great lizards. Three men returned with a salmon they had caught in the river. They carried it on their shoulders, bent under its weight, and the women busied themselves lighting the fires, getting ready to boil the fish in an aluminum kettle.
Two shepherd girls were bathing in the freezing current, swimming slowly with deep, powerful strokes, laughing loudly and calling out to each other. They approached the shore and climbed out of the water, naked. The air was cold, and it was drizzling lightly, but the sun was warm, and they lay down on the grass and closed their eyes. They were young, tall, lithe, with that particular ash-blonde hair that Lapp girls have, their faces covered by thousands of tiny, almost invisible freckles.
A reindeer paused to gaze at them with his round and gentle eyes.
When we reentered the cabin, the doctor was busy washing his hands in a basin. The Russian was unconscious and his amputated leg lay on the table. A heavy, greasy stench emanated from it: the unbearable smell of Naples during the bombardments; of Russian villages along the Don; the stink of Europe. I picked up the leg by its heel.
"Let's bury it," I said to Svarstrom.
We took the leg outside, and it seemed to grow heavier, dangling from the tips of my fingers. And now that horrible smell seemed to be coming from me, from my own flesh. We reached the bank of the river, and Svarstrom began to dig a hole.
The girls were sitting up, smoking their pipes in silence, watching us. They were still naked.
Underneath the topsoil Svarstrom hit a layer of granite, so he moved a few paces away and started to dig again.
The girls began scrubbing themselves, pipes clenched in their teeth, using handfuls of grass soft from the rain. The younger of the two stretched on the tips of her toes to gather some leaves from a birch tree, and used them to scour her long, supple body.
The shovel rang out a second time against granite.
"Hurry up. I can't take it much longer," I said. I wanted to let the leg simply drop to the ground, but I didn't, and I can't say what kept me.
"Just toss it in the river," said Svarstrom.
I swung the leg back and forth several times and then flung it into the water: it stayed afloat, spinning slowly for a while, and then began to slide along with the current.
The girls watched the lazy rotations of the leg and then started playfully wrestling with each other, laughing softly--almost moaning. They continued for a while, rolling around on grass still shining from the rain, until one bit the other on the shoulder right near the throat.
Meanwhile, the leg caught up against a boulder, disappeared under the water, bobbed to the surface, then finally floated away, leaving horrible ripples in its wake.
The girls stood up, got dressed, and set off toward the village, turning around every so often to look back at us and laugh.
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