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25. The army

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

The leader stands on a column above the army. This assembly is a test; it is a test to see who will begin the march to the east. The ranks stand in formation, day upon day. Men faint and are carried away; they are the fortunate ones, permitted to return to their villages. The guard units stick a bayonet into their bodies as a test before they are allowed to return home; if they twitch, then they are pulled up, given a little opium, and their comrades hold them up until they can stand unaided. You have to be carried off on a stretcher if you want to go home. They say that some men are hardy enough to stand the stabs to their bodies, but most prefer to stand. They know that those who are uncovered as fakers will be sent to the front ranks in the battle to come; failure to conceal weakness results in death, one way or the other.

The leader makes speeches to his army; he encourages and exhorts them. He tells them about his visions, his visions of eagles fighting in the sky. At other times he is more reserved; he makes clipped reports on the baggage train behind the army. Rarely, he talks about the sweetness of victory and the women and plunder every man will take.

Does the enemy in the east know what is coming? The spies reply in the affirmative. They arrive at the base of the leader’s column and provide reports to his general staff. These men have seen movements on the plains and heard conspiracies in the palaces. There is fear in the east. Their storehouses are empty and their armour has no lustre. The eyes of their kings are dead. The leader, by contrast, is handsome; his hair is golden and has a healthy sheen. His son is young and is playing in the palace with his mother. His tutors expect him to be a greater man than his father.

The old wise men have consulted the oracle. All indications point to a quick victory. These timid fellows become afraid when they hear the army marching in place. It is a great caravan of death straining to leave its starting gate. The young officers struggle to keep the army in place; they were at high school only a few months ago, now they command men older and wiser than they are. The army has its own mind. The leader is merely a channel or conduit: he has to take its pulse, keep its trust, and ride it to victory. There is very little reason at play here.

At night, he watches the stars from his column. He lets the dreams and spirits enter him; he sees the east in flames. Below, the army sleeps, though, here and there, he can hear soldiers whispering to each other, speculating about the combat to come. Where will they go and how will they die? Others are simply playing dice. The leader allows them their fun; the tightest reins slip with greatest ease.

The order to move comes on an unremarkable day. The leader raises his arm, points to the east, and, with very little compulsion, the army begins its movement. At once, dust is thrown up beside the column. The leader vanishes for a moment behind a dirt screen thrown up by his own men. He appears through the separating clouds—his body straight and erect—as the army moves. When the last soldier has passed the column, he descends. A horse waits at the bottom. He throws himself on and rides to the head of the army; it takes him about an hour to reach the first men. As he moves up the ranks, the men cheer him on. He raises his arm in recognition.

When the leader returns to his home, victorious, as you know, his son is dead. He dies the day after his return, under an olive tree, his heart quite broken.


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