In memory of my dear friend Max Blatt
We had dug in before Warsaw. The series of trenches was perhaps sixteen or twenty miles long, running roughly north–south in a more or less even curve. Every few hundred yards or so there were gaps at which the troops of cavalry were stationed. To our front, towards the west, stretched a plain without a single feature to interrupt the distant skyline. It was the end of summer and I remember that it rained almost every day. After the rain a mist would rise off the plain, and for an hour or two the skyline would be obscured.
It was quiet there, very quiet, and although rumours and counter-rumours circulated among us constantly, they did so without causing us any real alarm. They were a kind of necessary entertainment for us, and they passed among us, were embellished according to our peculiar needs, and passed on. We became attuned to the subtlest nuance of meaning—the exact nervous pitch as it were— of these rumours, and maintaining our ‘ear’ for them soon became our principal preoccupation. You see, although we began there as individual men, each with his own ideas, it was not long before we really lost this very personal sense of separateness and became—to use a metaphor—somewhat like a shoal of fish that swerves or dives or is still according to a common sense.
Towards the end of the third week, and apropos of nothing, Pawel, my usually taciturn companion, said, ‘Ah, you see? So there you are!’ and he smiled ironically. ‘Whatever are you talking about?’ I asked him, for his sudden remark seemed to me quite without point.
‘The hawk,’ he replied drily, ‘don’t you see that it’s gone?’ And he spat contemptuously onto the parapet of earth.
I was startled, and I carefully searched the sky in all directions. But the hawk, which every day hunted above the plain, and whose horizon of course lay beyond ours, had indeed departed. But whatever it was that the keen-eyed bird had seen was still hidden from us, for the plain was as silent and empty as ever.
I turned to Pawel and laughed—not of course because I was amused, but because I was afraid. ‘Really Pawel,’ I said scornfully, ‘you’re a proper yokel. What old woman’s superstition will you come out with next? Now tell me,’ I went on, in a condescending tone and as if I were speaking to a child, ‘what do you suppose that bird knows about war?’
Pawel shrugged, he knew nothing of war himself. ‘The bird knew when it was time to run,’ he said, again without in the least attempting to conceal the contempt he felt for my inability to comprehend the obvious. He actually looked at me then, and grinned in a peculiarly malicious way. ‘And you, my friend,’ he said, poking me in the chest with his finger and leaning close to me, ‘will learn something of running when our time comes.’
Pawel was an illiterate peasant. I, on the other hand, was an educated young man of the new generation, so naturally I pretended to be unimpressed by his foreboding. Even so, I secretly watched the sky in the hope that the hawk would reappear. Nor did I feel sufficiently confident to go on teasing Pawel about it at that moment.
That night I woke up and lay still, watching the broken clouds above me and listening. I felt that something had woken me, though what it was I couldn’t tell. Off to the south of the line I could hear the quiet clink of hobble chains, and a little behind us and to the north a group of officers were drinking in the back of a truck. The officers’ laughter was coming in uncertain gusts, like fitful wind before a change in the weather. There was nothing in all this to alarm me, yet I continued to feel uneasy and could not get back to sleep.
I wrapped myself more tightly in my blanket and tried hard to think of something pleasant, for I’d often found this to be an effective cure for insomnia. But as I turned over, searching for a more comfortable position on the lumpy earth, I noticed with a start that Pawel was sitting up. His knees were drawn up tight against his chest and he appeared to be listening.
‘Pawel!’ I whispered urgently, not wishing to disturb the other sleepers who lay all around us in the trench. ‘What’s up? What do you hear?’
It was as if he had not heard me, and for a moment he did not respond. Then, slowly, he turned his face towards me and just looked. I could see his white teeth in the starlight, but the expression of his eyes was hidden by the brim of a woollen cap that he wore. At last, and in a tone of voice which implied that I really was a bit of a fool to ask such a question, he said, ‘I would like to smoke a cigar, eh?’
‘Oh would you really!’ I replied sarcastically and, reassured, I turned over and faced the other way. I knew how Pawel was tortured by a craving for tobacco, but I had no sympathy for his suffering. I must add, however, that Pawel was a man who could keep his troubles to himself, and he never pestered people with complaints. So it was rather a surprise to me when a moment later he whispered, ‘Janek! Are you awake?’
‘Yes,’ I replied quickly, again alarmed, for my nerves were very much on edge. ‘What’s up?’
He sighed deeply. ‘I can smell their Havanas, eh Janek?’ he said, as if it were the most solemn disclosure of which his soul was capable.
‘Damn your triviality!’ I whispered fiercely at him, thoroughly angered by the fright he’d given me, and feeling immeasurably superior to this man who had permitted himself to become so slavishly dependent on such an irrelevant thing as tobacco (how truly young I was then!). ‘Listen here Pawel,’ I said, almost gritting my teeth, ‘why don’t you have the guts to go and ask them for one, if you’re so unhappy?’
He didn’t reply, just hugged his knees closer to his chest, like a man who is very hungry.
I think I must have felt that he despised me. ‘All right, if you’re too cowardly,’ I said scathingly, ‘I’ll go and ask them for you.’
He stared at me and said nothing. I think my challenge had really surprised him. Certainly it had surprised me. I mean, when I spoke I did so without being thoroughly prepared, if you see what I mean, to go through with it. I was thoroughly dismayed when I saw that Pawel had taken my words seriously. I wanted to say, Now look here Pawel, we’re comrades after all you know, and you can’t really expect me . . . and so on. But, and here I must explain my peculiar position. I was a Communist, and Pawel knew it. I was, despite my youth—though in some ways no doubt because of it—the Secretary of a certain province. And ever since the first day I had met Pawel, there in the front line, I had been at great pains to convince his simple intellect that the salvation of mankind depended entirely on the Party. Not only this, I had I believe bragged a good deal about the courage, among a host of other things, that being a member of the Party enabled one to possess. Courage, I had carefully explained to him, was not, as he and the rest of his untutored fellows believed, simply a matter of dashing blindly into the most dangerous situation without fear; it was, I insisted, the ability to overcome fear by considering consciously the principle behind one’s action.
Oh yes, there is little doubt that I had managed to say a great many interesting and very intellectual things to Pawel about courage. And there is even less doubt that the net result of all this had been to convince Pawel that I had not the least idea of what I was talking about. He, on the other hand, had never said a word about courage. And now that I had rashly stated that I would go and ask the officers for a cigar he just sat and silently stared at me. And I, nonplussed as I was at finding myself in such an awkward situation, just sat and stared back at him.
The silence between us dragged on for several minutes and finally became too much for me. ‘Well,’ I said angrily, ‘why don’t you say something?’
He certainly took his time about replying, and indeed I was almost on the point of cursing him, when finally he said, with a sense of immense gratitude in his voice, ‘Thank you.’
‘I see,’ I said icily, meaning by this, So you are going to insist, are you? You are going to let me risk my life for a stupid cigar, is that it? What kind of man are you then, if you will permit a comrade to risk his life because he was rash enough to offer you a smoke? Are you a typical example of our common people? Are you—I asked myself, though of course I said none of this aloud—are you worth it? And so I went on for quite some time, sitting there mumbling to myself and trying to outface him—to beg from him, if you like, a reprieve. But his silence was much stronger than mine. It was simpler. For him, if I did not go then I was a coward and there was an end of it.
I believe in the end I said something like, ‘Yes, well I see that you are quite immovable,’ and at once began making a great show of discarding my blanket which, until that moment, I had kept securely wrapped around me. But Pawel did not say a word, either to encourage or to discourage me. He just sat and watched me and waited to see what I would do.
Of course it was strictly forbidden for us to leave our sectors. In the strained atmosphere of our long vigil, during which nervous guards mistook their own shadows for a sinister prelude to the expected attack, it was undoubtedly an almost suicidal act to get out of the trench and start walking about. And this was especially true at night, when spies and deserters were known to make their moves. And these must have been desperate men, for as everyone knew they were shot without ceremony. Despite this there were a great many desertions from among our ranks, and some even got clean away, though to what ultimate refuge I could not say. Most however were caught. I had myself, only a few days earlier, been detailed to assist with the burial of one of these unfortunate men from our own sector. So, you see, for the sake of a cigar I had placed myself in a rather bizarre position—though it is true to say that really the escapade had reached a point where considerably more than a cigar was actually at stake for me. But, never mind, it was not that but the grotesquely ridiculous nature of my position if I were caught that struck me at the time. Who, except perhaps someone as unbalanced as myself, would believe me if I said that it was not my intention to desert, but that I was simply on my way to get a cigar? And from whom? From officers who neither knew nor cared to know whether the men under their command even got enough to eat, let alone smoked expensive cigars.
As I carefully and very slowly folded my blanket, watched all the while by the silent Pawel, it is no exaggeration to say that I felt like weeping and begging him to let me off. And why I did not do so remains a mystery to me to this day. At last I was ready and there was nothing else for it but to climb out of the trench. I found it a dreadful struggle to get up onto that low earth parapet, over which in the normal course of my duties I would leap easily. And the more careful I was to proceed silently the more noise I seemed to make—and still that cunning peasant watched my struggles without uttering a sound.
At last I was out of the trench, sprawled on my belly on the muddy ground, and awaiting with terror the inevitable bullet. It is difficult to say how long I lay like that, but I felt dreadfully short of breath, and I think it must have been for some time. From where I lay I could clearly see the truck in which the officers were having their party, for the canvas had been carelessly fastened and a warm shaft of light struck outwards into the dark. I must say that I cannot express to you how difficult it was for me to stand up. I can only say that if you have ever been forced to jump from a great height then you will know something of my feeling at that moment. My desire to crawl back into the shelter of the trench was so powerful that when instead I suddenly stood up, indeed leapt to my feet, I felt as though I had cunningly tricked myself, and I even wanted to laugh.
Standing there on the plain, alone under the faint starlight, I experienced a dizzy exultation, and so great was my irrationality that I actually felt safer than I had when I’d been lying in the mud. And instead of sneaking fearfully forward, inch by inch, I stepped out boldly and with almost a feeling of arrogance, towards the truck. I might say honestly that I did not want my courage to go unnoticed, and I dare say I could have walked to Warsaw in such a mood—or so I felt during the thirty-yard walk to the truck.
On reaching the truck without being challenged, however, my careless optimism subsided as quickly as it had arisen, and gave way again to a painful uncertainty. The officers were making a great deal of noise, shouting and laughing and forgetting their worries with the help of vodka, and I could scarcely bring myself to imagine the kind of reception they would give me. Timidly I raised my hand and shook the canvas backdrop so that the metal rings clattered noisily against the wood. The noise inside the truck stopped as if it had been switched off, and for a moment the night around me was still. Then, very slowly, the canvas was pulled back an inch or two and the startled face of Captain Sienko peered cautiously at me. No more than a foot separated us, and for a moment we stared uncertainly into each other’s eyes. When at last he recognised me, a bemused rage overcame his features and he violently wrenched the canvas aside, so that I stood in the full glare of the pressure lamp.
‘Why it’s that fucking little red Jew!’ he shouted, and so relieved were the other officers to discover how groundless their fear had been that they too began immediately shouting abuse and threats at me, all, that is, except the colonel. He just regarded me with a peculiarly malevolent stare, as if I had been a cockroach that had dropped from the roof.
‘Get him in here,’ the colonel said quietly—and such is the nature of real authority that no amount of noise will drown it out.
Captain Sienko not only heard the colonel’s order above the din, but immediately put it into effect. He reached down and, grabbing the front of my blouse with both his huge hands, he hauled me bodily over the tailgate of the truck and set me down in front of him. I stood there and immediately the rest of the crew quietened down and waited to see what would be done. The captain appeared to me to be very drunk, for he swayed about as if he could hardly contain his impulse to murder me.
Without so much as glancing at me, the colonel addressed himself quietly to Sienko. ‘What does he want?’ he asked, and it seemed to me that he was very much enjoying the spectacle of the captain attempting to keep his rage under control. And perhaps it was the colonel’s sinister enjoyment that gave me courage then—heaven knows, my position was desperate enough—for invariably in such circumstances one notices little things that might be to one’s advantage. But whatever it was, I drew myself up, stared Sienko squarely in the eye and, with the arrogance of an assumed equality, said, ‘Could one of you gentlemen spare me a cigar?’
At this the officers’ hilarity burst out like a firework display, though not Sienko’s of course. For their laughter was as much directed at him as it was at me. He screamed at me, almost choking with bile, ‘I’ll shoot your fucking balls off first, you pismired little yid!’ and with that he drew out his revolver and rammed it against my crotch. I have no doubt that he would have carried out his threat there and then and without any hesitation if the colonel had not said, in a tone of voice that would have befitted the atmosphere of a drawing room, ‘Put away your gun, captain, and give the young man one of your cigars.’
There was a stunned silence. All eyes, including my own, were focused on the captain’s face. Like an enraged bull that has received an electric shock and does not know which way to turn in order to crush its adversary, Captain Sienko shivered and rocked his head from side to side. The colonel did not repeat his order, but waited silently in the expectation of being obeyed, no doubt revelling in the exercise of such refined cruelty. After what seemed to me to be at least an hour of agonised suspense, during which the point of the revolver remained pressed against my body, Captain Sienko at last, slowly, and with the greatest reluctance and disgust, sheathed his revolver and handed me a cigar.
As I took the cigar from him our eyes met, and I knew in that instant and for a certainty, that as soon as he could arrange it, this man would have me killed. Undoubtedly the colonel knew it also, but for him my fate was a matter of the utmost indifference.
I got back to my sector and slid into the trench beside Pawel. My teeth were chattering and I was shivering violently with the effect of delayed shock. I was quite sure I had just accomplished the stupidest and the last thing of my life—but fate, as you see, was not to let me off so lightly. Pawel, who still sat with his knees drawn up and his back against the earth, did not turn to look at me as I wrapped myself in my blanket beside him. I took his silence for the usual stoic indifference that was so characteristic of him, and in that moment I hated him for it, and determined that he would beg me for the cigar before I was finished with him. I am quite certain now that I was wrong in my interpretation of Pawel’s silence on that occasion, and that it was not indifference but a surfeit of feeling which prevented him from speaking. Had I handed him the cigar without a word, I am quite certain now that he would have generously given me his friendship in return, for he perceived in my action none of the complexity and self-interest that I have attributed to it, but saw in it rather the simple action of a sincere comrade. For him, in that moment of my return with the cigar, I suspect that I was the hero I had so often claimed to be. But I had determined in my heart to humiliate him, to demand from him what he would freely have given.
When I had recovered a little, and Pawel had still not acknowledged my presence, I began to toy with the cigar as if I were considering what I should do with it. I rolled it between my palms as I had seen smokers do, and I sniffed it and altogether did my utmost to tease the poor fellow out of his wits. At last my game proved too much for him, and he turned and looked at me. Then, very quietly, and as if he had been dealing with any common Jew in the marketplace, he said, ‘How much?’
I pretended not to have understood him, and turned towards him with an air of surprise, as if I had until that moment been unaware of his presence. ‘What did you say, Pawel? How much? How much what?’
There was a sort of grim inevitability, a, to me, frighteningly self-conscious offer of surrender, in his voice when, after a considerable pause, he said, ‘How much do I have to pay you for the cigar?’
‘Pay me?’ I laughed with feigned incredulity and thrust the object at him. ‘Here, take it! Whatever made you think I wanted payment for it?’
He took the cigar and gazed at it, nodding his head and saying nothing.
Fearing suddenly that I had dangerously overplayed my hand—as indeed turned out to be the case—I said, with an effort at cheerfulness, ‘Come on Pawel, light it up.’
Ignoring me and with much care, as if it were his most precious possession, as I suppose apart from his life it was, he hid the cigar away inside his blouse— such was his self-control! Then he turned to me. ‘By my true mother,’ he swore solemnly, ‘I shall pay you, Janek, everything that I owe you.’ And with that dreadful promise he turned away from me and lay down.
I did not sleep again that night. I sat hunched in my blanket in that damp and chilly trench and contemplated the inevitability of my imminent death. Gone was all my anxiety about the coming attack, my fear of enemy bullets, thoughts of my membership in the greatest movement in human history; all this dissolved in the face of the certainty that for personal reasons two men would soon seek to kill me. Why didn’t I run away, take to my heels and risk being shot as a deserter? I didn’t think of it, it’s as simple as that. Does a rabbit struggle when the jaws of the hound are on its throat?
The morning brought with it a partial and very welcome distraction. As it turned out I had not been the only one to have been awakened by something mysterious during the night, and at breakfast the whole regiment was astir with speculation. Pawel offered no opinion on the matter. Understandably I watched him that day with a special interest, and was deeply impressed by the way he remained unaffected by the general mood of instability. It was as if he already possessed a secret certainty and was sure of how to act in the face of it. I looked again for a sign of the hawk, but it did not appear.
By the early afternoon it was possible to feel a continuous tremor running through the ground. I am certain that not one man among us had any doubt as to what this phenomenon signified, yet everyone went on acting as though its cause were a mystery, and as the tremor increased so the theories grew increasingly fanciful.
Towards mid afternoon the cavalry mounts began to grow restive, so much so in fact that their attendants soon had their hands more than full coping with them. Some foolish officer decided that what was needed was for some of the infantry occupying the trenches closest to the troop to come in and assist with quieting the frightened beasts. Naturally enough such inexperienced handling, by men who were themselves nervous and overwrought, only resulted in the horses becoming even more disturbed.
Pawel, who was himself a horseman, was for once noticeably affected, and indeed thoroughly disgusted by the scene of confusion that was rapidly developing. But for all his cursing and pleading, our lieutenant wouldn’t permit him to go to the picket lines. Pawel even raised his fist and threatened to slit the lieutenant’s throat, but the officer just laughed and told him to calm down and to stay at his post. But the confusion grew, and with it the noise. It was soon impossible to converse in a normal tone, if one wished to be heard one had to shout and it seemed that all at once every man of us wished to be heard above the others. Some took advantage of the situation, and there was a good deal of nervous hilarity and abuse. And when the order came to stand-to it had to be repeated several times and accompanied by threats before it had the least effect. It was quite late in the afternoon before some semblance of discipline had been restored to the lines by the officers, but even so the atmosphere was more like that of a country wedding than a front line.
Then, quite suddenly, the mood of everyone took a different and rather more serious turn. A low rumbling, rather like a distant goods train passing slowly over a trestle bridge, became faintly audible in the west. Gradually this noise increased, and, as it did so, the noise of shouting began to subside. At first in ones and twos, but soon in large groups, and finally in a body, the men turned and silently watched the horizon. It was, as I mentioned earlier, late summer, and as the sun was about to set it was impossible to see anything clearly for the glare. When finally the sun did sink below a ridge of cloud which hung over the horizon, the stupefying scale of the German attack was revealed to us at once. The horizon, from one end to the other and without a single break, was entirely obscured by a line of tanks which were thundering towards us under full power and with an irresistible momentum. No man, however pessimistic his soul, could have foreseen this. Shocked and dumb, we stood like corn in the path of the mower.
And so we may have continued to stand, until we were cut down, had we not been alerted to a new circumstance by the sound of motors revving wildly close at our backs. On turning around I saw our lieutenant running towards the truck where I had got the cigar. He was shouting something and waving his cap. But he was ignored, and the truck turned in a tight circle and accelerated away rapidly in the direction of the Warsaw road. The hasty retreat of the colonel pulled the plug and drew after it the flood. Bedlam ensued, and men, trucks, motorcycles and horses converged in a panic-stricken mob onto the road and streamed away through the deepening dusk towards Warsaw.
Pawel touched me on the shoulder, his beautiful white teeth gleaming as he bent close to my ear and shouted, ‘Now, Janek!’ I stared at him and he smiled slowly, then shouted, ‘Now, Janek, you will learn how to run!’ He unclipped his bayonet and leapt nimbly out of the trench. His rifle he left lying in the mud, the bayonet he rammed firmly into his belt.
‘Pawel!’ I yelled, senselessly—it was like shouting into the teeth of a storm. He paused and looked down at me, his lean frame poised for flight. Then the first salvo of shells shrieked over our heads and detonated beyond the lines among the retreating mob on the road. Pawel turned and began to run.
Someone trod on my hand and I was knocked violently aside. Grovelling about in the bottom of the trench I was gripped by panic and I struck out, slipping and stumbling as I clawed my way onto the parapet and, hurling my rifle aside as if it had been a drowning companion, I sprinted after Pawel’s retreating figure. I shall never forget how I thrust myself through the press of men and called on God to keep Pawel in my sight. But no, I did not choose to follow Pawel, it was he who chose to lead me!
Pawel’s pace was steady, almost unhurried, a regular clip-clip of his heels going up and down. So naturally I soon caught up with him, for my pace was headlong. If I had not indeed checked my pace abruptly I would have crashed into him. As soon as he reached the road he dropped lightly into the drainage ditch which ran along just off the verge. The ground was muddy and uneven in the ditch, with pools and rivulets of water to further impede our progress. But the congestion was a great deal less than it was on the road, and in addition to this the parapet provided us with an excellent shelter from the lethal shrapnel with which the air was now filled.
Also, it is worth adding, even had I wished to I could not have passed Pawel without first knocking him out of the way. Those on the road above us were fairly flying along, overtaking us with ease and, it seemed to me, leaving us in the rear. In my panic I urged Pawel, with all the force in my lungs, to go faster. He may as well have not heard me for all the difference it made to him. Clip-clip, clip-clip, went his heels and he may have been running for the exercise of it to see him.
It was at this point, being forced to content myself with the unhurried regularity of Pawel’s pace, that I began to overcome my panic and to perceive the sound common-sense behind his attitude. I settled in a pace behind him and it was not long before I noticed that the crowd of figures on the road had started to thin out. The strain of their initial sprint must have begun to quickly tell on them.
Also I was further encouraged after a time to notice that the shells were now exploding more often to our rear. Unlike me, Pawel looked neither to his left or to his right, but kept on, his heels going like clockwork and his arms held up and swinging like a real runner. It occurred to me that perhaps the whole front had not broken before the onslaught of the tanks, and that perhaps only our sector had bolted in panic, the rest remaining behind to engage in a hopeless struggle. But I had no thought of turning back. It was too late for that, and I stayed in close behind Pawel, who ran not as a man who is running away from something in fear of his life, but as a man who has a destination to reach. Also, I must say, that despite my strong initial sense of being led by him, he ran as though he were alone. It was impossible to say whether or not he knew that I was close behind him, for if he knew he gave no sign. So, copying his style as well as I could and disciplining my breathing to the regular rhythm of his pace, I followed.
We ran on into the deepening night, leaving the roar of the battle further and further behind us, and any straggler who was still on the road above us we overtook with ease. It was a great reassurance for me to feel the firm shump of my boots and the energetic drive of my legs carrying me along. I was his shadow. Clip-clip, clip- clip went our heels, spattering the mud effortlessly aside. And while I was still fresh then and able to view the situation with a little clarity it seemed to me almost beautiful, this running not like a scared rabbit ahead of the dogs but running with control and rhythm, driven on by a purpose not by fear.
It is easy enough for a man in the last decade of his life to become intoxicated with memories of his youth, and not difficult at all for him to create a legend for himself. You must understand that such beauty as there was that night was brief.
Without the slightest change of pace or of direction we ran on, our boots thudding in unison like the steady beat of a pump, and an hour or more or less passed. By now I was seriously feeling the strain. After sitting in a trench for three weeks without drill or other exercise my muscles were slack and my wind, despite my attempts to control my breathing, was shallow and erratic. A pain which had begun in my knees was rapidly extending upward into my thighs and making each stride an effort. Somewhere far in the rear I thought I heard the sound of a motorbike and this put thoughts of calling to Pawel to rest quite out of my mind. And Pawel? Well he just kept on running. A metronome could not have maintained a more imperturbable measure.
My chest and thighs felt red hot, and at every breath and every step the pain increased, and I was soon calling on unimagined reserves to measure stride for stride with Pawel. And minute by minute it began to seem to me that he was going faster and faster. The mud itself seemed to congeal and grope at my boots, as if it had a conscious design against me, and all this time Pawel moved seemingly with the ease of a phantom. Once I slipped and almost fell. So close was I to Pawel that my outstretched hand touched his heel, and that accidental, minute event was enough to keep me going. Though it was almost certainly too dark for me to see his boots, my imagination was enough, and I believed that I could see his heels flicking back at me with each stride. Undoubtedly I could hear the thud and splash of his boots, but it was not that, it was the imagined sight of them which mesmerised me and kept me compulsively attached to him from then on.
And so we ran measuring stride for stride until the lapse of time ceased to have any meaning for me. The moon rose and I saw then how the distance between Pawel and me would increase perceptibly the moment I permitted my concentration to falter. That is when I began seriously to fight in order to retain my clarity. So long as I held doggedly to the unwavering and rhythmical flick of Pawel’s heels I could keep up, but the moment I permitted fatigue to blur my vision I would begin dropping behind. Though it was impossible that any man should have been unaffected by the strain, Pawel ran, or seemed to me to run, as though his energy and spirit were without limit.
My goal, which was now simply to keep up with him, began to seem to me hopelessly unattainable. I prayed that his stride would break, that he would trip or stumble or change his pace, but he ran relentlessly on like a machine. All I prayed for was a sign from him that he too was suffering, that the strain was also becoming intolerable for him, that he was human flesh like me. But I received no sign and the race continued with the hypnotic insistence of a nightmare. The end lay in the vague moonlit spaces ahead of me, where I would at last drop, and where Pawel would run on, his emphatic strides carrying him into another world that lay somewhere beyond my endurance.
I ran, and I entered at last into a final strange dimension of exhaustion in which weird and fantastic images leapt into my mind, dazzling and bewildering me, as if a flashbulb were being repeatedly exploded in my face. I scarcely knew whether it was the moon I saw or Pawel’s heels, and the struggle for clarity—to keep clearly before my mind a sense of the real—became harder minute by minute. Impressions of huge birds sailing and looping around my head distracted me, and I shied wildly as grotesque and threatening shapes leapt at me from the passing shadows. I would shake my head and thrust myself forward through the illusions and for an instant I would regain touch with those relentless heels.
But increasingly the illusory became more seductive as the pain of my reality increased. I gave in for brief moments without really meaning to, then came to with a start, terrified for an instant that I had actually ceased running. In the end it was only my pain which told me whether I was still running or had finally given in. If I could feel pain then I knew that I was still in the race, but the moment a warm feeling of effortless wellbeing began to spread through my consciousness, I knew that I had at once to renew the struggle without a second’s delay. To renew the struggle at each lapse I had forcibly to smash my way through this mental barrier, I had to cry out in my mind that to give in would mean death. But no sooner had I broken through the numbness to a sight of Pawel’s heels than I was again assailed by unbearable pain, and the question arose once more . . . Why not death? And so it went on, like the seed of a sycamore spiralling towards the earth, relentlessly returning on itself without a moment of respite . . . Why not death? Because, I cried in my mind, because . . . because Pawel! And so it assumed the metre of a chant, an echo and reinforcement of the physical rhythm, and I could not relinquish my hold, I refused to die, and the wind roared in my lungs and I was shackled to the mud and I tore my feet from the earth with my teeth and I ran and ran and ran in pursuit of the unreachable Pawel. And like a phantom of my mind Pawel ran on ahead . . .
He must have hit the wooden footbridge a split second ahead of me and I must have crashed into him, for I came to my senses with a feeling that I was suffocating beneath a great weight. I hadn’t the strength to push his body off me, and lay there half deliriously aware that there was nothing to be done about it. I think I passed out a couple of times before at last beginning to regain a real sense of my surroundings.
With an effort I struggled out from beneath Pawel and rolled him onto his back. On all fours and shivering like a wet dog I gazed down into his face. His mouth was wide open and he was making a loud snoring noise. The blow had smashed out most of his teeth and blood from a large wound on his forehead was welling blackly across his face. I sat back on my heels and closed my eyes. My body was throbbing all over as if it had been tumbled about for hours inside a machine.
As I sat there slowly recovering I became aware of the distant sound of gunfire. Another sound, intermittent and closer than the guns, began after a time to intrude on my consciousness. I listened, then crawled up onto the bank with difficulty, and gazed back the way we had come. The skyline was lit by a continuous series of flashes, and from my new elevation the sound of gunfire was much louder. About a mile down the road a powerful light swept the fields on either side; slowly it traversed, probing this way and that and occasionally coming to rest briefly, then moving on again. About twenty yards off to my left, and no doubt served by the bridge that had proved our downfall, there was a barn. I slid into the ditch and began alternately hauling and pushing Pawel up the bank. It took all my remaining strength, but with frequent rests I at last managed to drag Pawel into the barn and out of the moonlight. Then I lay back on the straw and gave myself up to exhaustion.
I opened my eyes and saw him. Pawel was kneeling at my feet and swaying slowly from side to side. He was a ghastly sight. His toothless mouth, through which he breathed noisily and with difficulty, gaped blackly, and without his cap his shaven head and deep-set eyes gave him a cadaverous appearance. In his right hand, with the point lightly touching the open palm of his left, he held his bayonet. His gaze was fixed steadily on my face. We confronted each other thus for a full minute before I managed to speak.
‘So,’ I said, and my voice was like a dry whisper in the straw, ‘you are going to kill me, Pawel.’
He gave no sign that he had heard me, but went on rocking slowly from side to side, and I realised that he was working himself up to the point where suddenly he would plunge the bayonet into my chest. My body contracted involuntarily beneath the threat, my muscles cringing away from the steel shaft in his hands.
Suddenly the roar of a machinegun shattered the silence and, as Pawel’s lifeless body fell—it seemed with an infinite leisure—I glimpsed the silhouettes of two German soldiers in the doorway of the barn.