THE revolutionary stands up and looks towards the town outskirts, to the smoke, flares of flame and sounds of ricocheting fire that come from within the shattered walls. He will reach there, he thinks, by the late-afternoon, and it is still early morning.
There is little food left, only some cold meat going rancid and a heel of stiff bread from the small town he has passed through days before. There is a revolution going on, but he has not yet joined it. Home has been long left behind, and he has wanted – the sole desire left in his not-yet-old life – to add to the fight, and have his indignation felt.
But he can’t be sure where it is. The others, the kindred spirits he has met on the road, have, one after the other, somehow fallen by the wayside. There has been Lena, of the beautiful, deep eyes; dark as madness, rich as tombs of untold wealth. She has invited him to join them, and taken his hand, saying that once justice has been won, they can’t imagine the future, how good it will be. He hears things in her words that might not be there, and imagines that when she talks about that future, it is one they will share. Late one night, when her brother Luis has drunkenly lurched up in front of the campfire and swung his arm into the cell-leader’s face, an older man called Libero – that same night she has slipped her fingers into his trousers and held him there, in darkness, in a silky conspiracy. But Luis has held most of her attention, because he is always drunk, crazy, younger than they are, and her brother.
Libero tells them where to go and they follow him. He is an older, harder man who has been on many campaigns before this one, so they can only trust his better judgement. He has three fingers missing on his right hand, though he still rolls cigarettes with the two left to him, his other hand usually occupied with taking field-notes in a small notebook. He walks with a lame left leg, his only reward, so he claims, from his time with the resistance in Central America. Despite these credentials, he isn’t able to speak easily to his comrades, and has quietly suggested to Lena that she leave Luis behind in the next town. “He’s a danger to himself and the rest of us,” Libero tells her. “We don’t have room for such as him in this fight.”
Luis is a drunkard but like many nostalgists he has an uncanny intuition as well. He understands he is being denied and disregarded, that he will have no place in their future victory: an outcast in both worlds, a pariah in both corruption and that paradise cleansed of it.
But Luis knows he is an honest man, that he loves men more than most do, more even than the stray dogs he collects on the country roads they traverse. He is, and is proud to be, an idealist. He has always defended the weak and disenfranchised, just as his sister does for him. He loves mothers, weak-minded children, wounded birds, and his broken harmonica, even moreso because it is broken. He loves humanity, the idea of brotherhood, the beautiful image of a life lived, later on, in honest toil, simplicity, equality, communal care. He is heavy and maladroit, but he would defend every one of them with his life, so he says, even if he knows no-one would do the same for him. “If there’s one thing I know,” he says, “it’s that in the end, no matter what we say, no-one really cares about anyone else. It’s each for themselves.”
“Why do we do it, then, who are we trying to help?” the would-be revolutionary asks him.
“It’s for the race”, Luis replies. “We just want to survive.”
It seems to their new arrival, though, that Lena cares for her brother, and all of them, more than anyone can guess. She gives most of her food to Luis, who has the appetite of a sybarite, and tends to Libero for days on end when he comes down with relapses of his old malaria. She never complains about the hard conditions, the cold, the perfunctory food, the privations of sharing small enclosed spaces with crude, sometimes callous, men. They never touch her, but they joke and spit around her, so that she can smile indulgently at them and treat them all as the flawed little boys of her flock that they are.
Until the time when one of the newer conscripts, a farm-hand they have discovered on a Sunday, pulling apart an engine, barely eighteen but massive as the stone church he disdains to put a foot into, starts paying her some attention. He blows Lena sarcastic kisses over their nightly gruel, camped out in the fir forest outside the town he has now left for good. Once, when Lena is laying tarpaulin above muddy ground to keep them from a night of rain, he trips her up to see how she might punish him.
She picks herself up, says not a word, and finishes the task she has started. It is Luis who lumbers over to the behemoth youth, pokes him in the shoulder, and receives a choking smash in his chest, sending him sprawling in the mud, his tender, sentimental heart breaking in his rib-cage. No-one, not even Libero, does a thing, or says a word, and even Lena whispers to her brother No, don’t save me, little brother. When you can barely save yourself.
When Luis disappears the next day Libero says nothing, and Lena keeps her negligible sobs to herself. The young giant is told merely to keep his attention on maintaining the vehicle they have lately appropriated from a neglected farm, so that they can reach the place of insurrection in good speed. Because the revolution, so Libero says, has already started, and it would be foolish, this late in the day, to miss it.
It’s ironic, as such stories usually are, but just when it seems they have come on the heels of the place of battle and triumph, they are hamstrung by a matter of chance. Only some hundred kilometres before the town of Dvorets, where they will merge with the frontline of the resistance, they meet with a tirade of smaller trucks and armoured cars barrelling towards them. Libero suggests they are escaping military or high-level functionaries, keen to reach safer territory before their power falls. When shots sting out from the passing, faceless trucks, rifles aimed invisibly on any approaching unknowns, it seems he is probably right.
Their larger, lumbering vehicle, a cattle truck, is hit in several places and lurches clumsily off the road into a ditch of weeds and broken glass, its two front tires ripped apart. They have no spare wheels. They brew coffee by the side of the road and wait for someone else to come by, something else to happen, the sound of bloodshed coming from only a valley or two away.
The young revolutionary asks Lena then, “Will you look for Luis?” She smiles and shakes her head. “He has his own fight to wage,” she says, “that has nothing to do with this one. He knows that, that’s why he’s left”.
“He is your brother,” the newcomer says.
“Even your own blood is expendable,” Lena tells him, “when it comes to winning freedom.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” he says.
“No, of course you can’t. You still see things in the normal two or three dimensions. But when you know only one thing, one dream, there is only winning it, and everything else serves it, or fails to. It’s not personal, which is what my brother will never understand.”
The revolutionary understands that Lena is powerful, strong and admirable and most likely far more disturbed than her brother. But he feels he would follow her to the end, no matter what happens. He loves the depthless light in her eyes, the touch of her weathered hands. That night they play cards with Libero by the campfire, and even sing the revolutionary songs of nearly a century before. It is heartwarming to consider that the flame has not died, the cause not lost hope, that people are still living and dying for something that one day will vindicate so much suffering.
Vive la revolution! Libero manages to exclaim above something more than a whisper in his sandpapery voice, though his hand shakes as he downs his shot-glass of liquor.
The others drink too and that small moment of solidarity with other warm and breathing men and women is able to make everything seem purposeful again. The would-be revolutionary goes to sleep happily that night under the stars which shine down on his purified heart with another purity altogether, one that has nothing to do with his human happiness and its hoped-for resolutions.
The vehicle they have entrusted to the farm-hand proves irreparable, and they take to the road again. The sun beats down on the dun heaviness of their uniforms, their guns slip in the sweat of their hands. They are within a day or two’s march of the town, which lies pressed in between two steep mountainsides.
Moving by day is dangerous, when anyone who approaches them on the road could be armed and hostile. Their mobile phone contact moves in and out of reception, and Libero reports that he receives conflicting pieces of information: that a general mobilisation is now imperative in view of making a conclusive strike on the last strongholds, that a retreat and dispersal of forces is imminent. He isn’t sure what to think, he confesses through his moustache. He looks at Lena and after contemplating the ground for some time, he suggests that they both make a reconnaisance mission for the town, and return within forty-eight hours. They will leave contact and code details in case of emergency. He, the revolutionary-in-training, will be required to stay behind with the six or seven conscripts still remaining to them, and maintain order until their return.
There seems to be no choice, though the young revolutionary feels a certain nausea in his bowels at the responsibility that has been placed in him. Still more, he wonders if he will ever see Lena again. The same night she and Libero are due to leave the group, under cover of a new moon and a light rainfall, he asks her to be careful, for his sake. “I’m not sure I could survive losing you, Lena,” he says under his breath, concerned that anyone else should hear him.
She smiles again, but more brightly, more lit-up than he has seen her even with Luis. “What are you saying?” she almost laughs. “Of course I’ll see you again. We’ll be back within forty-eight hours,” and she thumps him on the shoulder. “Don’t forget the future,” she says, as she pulls her weapon over her shoulder. “We can never lose that.”
She slips into the subdued echo of the forest that is entirely without light. Neither their voices nor their footfalls will be given away in that dense cover that seems to keep all life from detection. It is as if, to him, as soon as his back is turned, that Lena has never existed at all.
The revolutionary returns to his comrades. They already have some of the stores of liquor re-opened, and others are asleep and soon snoring in the darkness. There is nothing for them to do but wait and receive further orders within the coming two days. Their new group-leader settles down to the wait, not admitting to himself that there is only one thing, with one reason, for which he is waiting. And that one thing a different one than that Lena has confessed to him. He already feels, at that moment, that he isn’t sure what freedom is.
When the young mechanic starts singing too loudly with one of the others, he asks them to quieten down, and they comply with him. He smokes a cigarette and gazes at his boots like mute animals inanimate in the shadows. He thinks of the home he has left, far behind him now, and of his mother whom he has last seen standing at her kitchen window, waving goodbye again as he caught the last bus from the main street of his hometown.
On the bus the radio had been mis-tuned, and different waves of static mixed with sounds and human speech, had come through the speakers. He’d heard a military band, and a sportscaster reporting the results of a dog-race, though the winner of the race was lost to him when the voice was engulfed in waves of white noise. It was easily rectifiable, this trivial problem, but no-one did anything about it. It is these kinds of imperfections the revolutionary has begun to be unable to tolerate. It is for these kinds of reasons, he has admitted to himself in his quietest moments, that he has become a revolutionary. He wants to rectify imperfections, if that were possible: every last one of them.
As the time passes in their makeshift camp, it begins to seem uncertain what they are there for. The men, lead by the teenage mechanic, break open more of the liquor, and when they are well doused, begin to fire rounds into the air, as if to celebrate their stasis, their lack of any certain direction.
The revolutionary stands up and tells them to put down their guns and stop drinking. “It’s a matter of a day,” he tells them. “I’m sure you can hold onto yourselves and be patient until then.”
The teenage fighter is still holding his gun. “What do you know, big man? Who are you to tell us what’s going on?” he yells, livid with the alcohol in his blood.
“I’ve been appointed standing commander for these two days, and I intend to honour that trust.”
“Trust!” he yells, spitting at the mouth. “You’re a fool! If you trust those two you’re a bigger fool than any of us. They’ve taken off! Taken the committee funds to have their honeymoon with.”
The revolutionary isn’t sure what to make of the idea. “We’ll wait until the forty-eight hours are up before deciding anything,” he says. The others only laugh at him, throw things onto the fire, and break open another bottle, singing to the wolves and the gunfire that doesn’t let up so close, yet still very far, from them.
The revolutionary doesn’t sleep that night. He walks around in the neighbouring stand of trees contemplating their next move. He can recall odd moments of his schooldays, when teachers projected vast world maps against the white-washed school walls, and pointed to illuminated red areas, spread like cancerous growths. Areas of conflict, they called them. Disputed territories, that through centuries of contestation still belonged wholly neither to one nor the other side of an invisible rift, inexplicably separating this man from that. The campfire flickers through the leaves and he knows he will be unable to cross that division that keeps him from his fellow insurgents on the other side. Yet they are intending to fight – not yet there – on the same side.
In that moment the idea comes to him to quietly pack his few belongings and disappear without a footfall back into the forest, as Lena and Libero have done. No-one would miss him. But he wouldn’t follow them – not knowing in any case which precise direction they have taken. He would retrace his own steps, back to his home, to discover if nothing else why he has started on this course in the first place. He had good reason then: his own father has died as a casualty of nearly a lifetime of servitude to the corruption of the nation’s rulers. His mother is still now bent down under the same unseen yoke. All of them are, in one way or another – Lena and her blind heroism, Luis’ hopeless nostalgia for something that has never existed, Libero and his dogged, dumb pursuit of something, with his few mediocre words, he can’t even describe.
The revolutionary finds himself, however, turning back to his comrades, to the fire that is at least a warm, even human thing, in the pall of uncertainty surrounding them. “Maybe you’re right,” he tells the teenager. “I underestimated their treachery, and your intelligence. I’m sorry. We’ll start in the morning, of our own accord. We can’t wait here forever.”
“Right you are”, the young belligerent drawls, spread out by the fire. “Have a drink while there’s still sense in you,” and he bursts out laughing, copied in a predictably infantile way by the few others, perhaps as young as he is, he has gathered round him. The revolutionary realises he isn’t even sure of their names, is certain to confuse them should he try to address each of them directly. They havn’t included him in their drinking and singing games. He doesn’t understand their country dialect so well. He realises he doesn’t know much about them at all, and that in the few hours left to them, he still hopes that Lena and Libero will come sliding back, along that umbilical safety-rope, to their camp, their trust and solidarity.
He should know what will happen, even though this is only his first campaign. Sometime in the early hours, while he is sleeping, the others have found and bound him to the fir tree under which he sleeps, so that he wakes with the rich, tangy scent of resin under his nose. He loves the smell, which returns him in an instant to his earliest days with his parents before the takeover, in the forests and the summers, the long weeks of dreaming time by lakesides. He can’t move, and his entire torso stinks of urine, it is in his hair, and ash and excrement have been dumped into his boots, his pack, his sleeping-bag. His feet have been bound with fishing-line, his revolutionary cap gagged in his mouth. They have, at least, not wounded him in any other way, have not broken his skin. To have your skin intact is still something.
He lies there under the tree through the hours of the day, entertaining the flies, too tired, even amused by the novelty of his condition, to move. He sees that his revolver has been stolen, as well, so he is left with very little with which to defend himself. While he lies dazed, moves fitfully through different states of consciousness, increasingly close to losing consciousness altogether, he thinks largely of one thing: going back home. Even in his debilitated state, though, he is lucid enough to follow that thought with the realisation that he isn’t sure, anymore, where his home is. To be a revolutionary, he realises now, is to leave the past irrevocably behind.
He can still see his mother in the yellow light of her kitchen window at twilight. She has problems with her legs now, some kind of arthritis; he can’t be sure if he’ll see her again. It would be difficult for her to get any message through to him in the critical circumstances of the insurrection. He can’t even be certain if he will survive it or not.
He lies under the tree, through long desolate hours of the night, surrounded by bird and animal calls that he wonders alternately are either trying to communicate with him, warning of danger perhaps, or threatening him with outright hostility. He can be sure of none of these things, and in his state of semi-delirium he begins less and less to care. As it is, as it often seems to prove, nature has no argument with him, he is left entirely untouched by it, apart from the cooling breezes and occasional rain-showers that fall for brief periods, washing the leaves, the soil, his own face, and then stopping.
On the second day of immobility under the tree he starts to chew, feebly, through the twine that binds him. His head lolls on his chest, as if overcome with a dementia, as he tries to break the plastic material that catches him around his rib-cage. After hours of this laborious, futile effort, his mouth and his neck wrecked by it, he discovers a sharp-edged, small stone that has been lying under his hand, obscured by leaf-litter, all along. He uses this to hack at what remains, freeing first his upper body, and then his feet, which have lost circulation, turned blue and numb, perhaps gangrenous. He has a strange fantasy of cutting off his own foot with the sharp stone to prevent any infection reaching the rest of his body, but is so nauseated by the inhuman effort it would require of him, an effort he could barely summon in any case, that he leaves his foot alone. He hopes it will look after itself.
The road is much as it has been before he left it. It is, as then, mostly deserted, though he can still hear the sounds of artillery and bombardment in the near-distance. Strangely though, despite the territory covered with the cell, he seems no closer to the revolution itself. Could all the entreaties and calls for solidarity he has heard back home, and on the march, been just a perverse kind of propaganda? Where is the road leading, finally?
The main thing at this time is not hypothetical: he needs food. Passing what looks to be an abandoned small-holding, he stumbles through the strands of a barbed-wire fence and in sheer desperation chases and catches hold of a rooster, wrings its neck and that night puts it on a fire, with its feathers, to roast. He has come across a flask on a stone wall by the road, opened but full of water. Anything could be in it but he is unfussy now about where his sustenance is coming from. As he sits gazing at the scrappy fire, smoking with the feathers he has left in it, he thinks again of turning around and going home. Fiddling in his inner pockets, he finds a mobile phone which one of the young mercenaries must have left on him as an obscure joke. When he turns it on a brief message, an obscenity, appears on its screen before rapidly fading out. There is no power in the phone, and no-one he could call in any case, unless he try Libero himself. But what could he say to Libero? – ask him why they have been left abandoned, an untrained, unruly, under-aged gang armed with dangerous weapons? What could that taciturn man say to him?
It is a disturbing coincidence that the day after the revolutionary has been speculating on these things, he comes across the body of Libero by the side of the road, with a bullet-wound in his heart and charcoal burnt into his chest. His left arm stands awkwardly half in the air, the two intact fingers pointing to that eternal, untouched victory that has been denied him. His eyes are closed, his military cap low down over his ears. Someone has made some effort in burning a word into his bared chest: it says traitor in capital letters. But it is signed, as if a casual afterthought, with an L., as if with love. Libero has been false to some ideal, apparently, but still sent off with some affection afforded him.
The revolutionary considers that it could only be his own betrayer, Lena, who could have done it. Has she thought that Libero, with his mixed messages and scrambled phone-calls, his changes of strategy and odd, speechless moods, could have been working for the enemy? Such a thing is possible, but he can hardly see Lena then committing this ugly and tasteless act of defamation. If she has felt true fidelity, even love for him, it might explain, as outrage, the intensity of her feelings. Has she loved him, though, or anyone besides herself? Has love entered into any kind of equation in the act?
Rhetorical questions swarm like flies in the revolutionary’s mind. It seems there is only one direction to go, which is, willingly, into deeper and deeper ignorance. The more he considers this, though, the more it offers him a strange comfort of failure. He can watch his own lack of knowledge and be sure of it, at least. That’s how it is so easy, he thinks, for injustice to pass through the net of conscience – if no-one is entirely certain of what is occurring it can quietly be allowed to pass through. He can feel confident, despite this, that his is the right kind of injustice, the ignorance that fights for the right side.
At nights there are occasional displays of a beautiful fireworks of carnage on the distant horizon. He looks over there and imagines what kind of horrors, and spectacular glories, could be going on. He has, all his life, wondered and fantasised, stimulated by constant, lurid report, of what happens, over there, beyond his own horizon. Now, finally, he feels he is close to really finding out.
His foot still feels numb, even dead, in his shoe. He wonders if it is the cause of his curious lethargy the closer he approaches to the revolution. The phone is in his inner-pocket and it sends him no call, no message, no clue to pursue. It could, of course, have been Luis, as well, who has done the work on Libero. Luis who has been spurned by the older man, who might have been like a father to him, who could have hidden not far from their camp after defecting from it, pursuing the other two on their escape until an opportune moment presented itself. The burning of the word, too, is a romantic gesture. But Luis was a scared, feeble man, not likely to commit that type of violence.
The revolutionary can’t be sure. He can’t be sure of anything, and certainly not of the motives of other people. They have escaped his confidence entirely. He feels more faith with the mice and rabbits on the roadside, than anything else. He feels that his own, innocent foot might end up being the thing to kill him.
Late in the day, though, as he comes closer to the outskirts of the town in conflagration, the exquisite red flashes of mortal destruction leading him on, the revolutionary sees a figure at the far end of the road, framed by the purple, dusky sky, the unnatural light of the fire and smoke, lifted high in the air, behind it. It could be Lena, it could be Luis – the brother or the sister – he isn’t sure. He doesn’t desire the one, nor pity the other, anymore – he knows that. But the figure, vaguely familiar, seems to call for his help, with beckoning arms, desperate hands flagged against the failing sky. He has thought, before now, to go home, turn around and leave all this uncertainty, the obscure danger shrouded around him, for good. But the figure in front, far down there, seems to call for him in need, though it could be for something else, he can’t be sure.
It seems to need him, the figure, as if the last soul left at the edge of an inferno. So the revolutionary moves toward it.