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December 19, 2014
To the reader: This story is based on the črtica (the short sketch) by the great Slovenian writer, playwright, essayist and political activist, Ivan Cankar. The story is based on the short story titled Gospod Stotnik or Mr. Sergeant, telling the tragic story of war on the Isonzo front dring the First World War. The sketch was a part of the Podobe iz sanj, a book containing a series of stories relating to the First World War and its effect on the Slovene people. Along with this book, Cankar created many wonderful pieces of literary genius, that are read even to this day. His influence as a novelist has still not faded and his plays are still among the most popular theatre pieces in the Slovene theatres. He is regarded as the greatest writer in the Slovene language, and has sometimes been compared to Franz Kafka and James Joyce.
I hope you will enjoy the story.
The quiet village of Han Tui is where our little story unfolds. As all stories, true or made-up, even mine needs a quasi-hero. For those, who are wondering, the quasi hero is me, Shu Pao. Not much can be said about me, as I am merely a pawn, a small figurine of a much "grander thing" called the Dai Li.
Now, as every hero needs a backstory, here's mine. Born as an illegitimate child of a factory worker and a common maid, I was quickly forgotten and left to fend for myself. Years of my life went by and I didn't do anything. I just either sat in the prison I was forced to call my room, or I wandered the streets of Ba Sing Se's Lower Ring. I didn't have a completely miserable childhood, there are some not entirely depressing memories, but most are. As a child of the street, I was bullied a lot. I was bullied and called names, and maybe that's what triggered the desire to fight for the weak, to defend those who couldn't defend themselves. So, when my 13th birthday showed up, I didn't blow up any candles, I didn't open any presents, I ran away. I ran to the only thing I thought was right in this world, the only thing that assured balance, and that was the Dai Li. As every new recruit, I underwent horrific training every day for half a year. They said that I had some potential, but not much. After our basic training we were forced to watch a gruesome prosegiour, called brainwashing, or as the Dai Li liked to call it "the only way to secure balance!". I quickly saw that the organisation wasn't the same as I thought it was. Courage was replaced by corruption, valour with manipulation. But there wasn't anything I could do. After a year of training I officially became a Dai Li Agent. At first I believed, that the Dai Li could change Ba Sing Se for the better, but then I simply didn't care anymore. I walked the streets of Ba Sign Se, imprisoning people for crimes they committed or didn't commit, brainwashing people who thought either right or wrong, and various other despicable deeds.
One day, I was ordered to bring a message to a Colonel of the Earth Army, who was fighting mere miles from the outer wall of the city in the small village of Han Tui. As I brought the message to the short, fat colonel I was surprised, how feared the Dai Li was. Even a senior officer of the Earth army, the "largest and most courageous army in the world", he showed me abundance of respect and even feared me, me, a simple, young Dai Li agent. After I had given him the message he politely asked me to stay the night, as it was raining outside. Out of sheer boredom and the noble desire not to get wet I stayed. The bed was surprisingly comfortable, but the view was terrible and depressing. The only thing I saw from my 1st floor bedroom were several erected green tents, where the soldiers slept. Because it was autumn, the ground was all muddy, the trees had no leaves on them, and everything seem that it was dying.
In the morning I looked out of the window. The surroundings were all foggy, as if a shroud of death engulfed the whole valley, slowly reaching towards us from the surrounding mountains. Only a few arrays of sunshine reached the ground. Instead of lightening the mood, the few sunshine's created a melancholic mood and depressed me ever so much. As I watched out of the window that apparently had never been washed before I could clearly see the happenings below me. Even the voices were all clear in the morning air, so that I could understand every word. The courtyard was covered in a thin layer of black ash, do doubt from the previous battle last week. The ash combined with the moisture in the air created a heap of mud, which stuck on every barrack, every tent and every tree. By one of the old oak tree, a single soldier held the straps of an Ostrich horse, his eyes widely looking at the Sergeant. The Sergeant was quietly, calmly and with slow, heavy steps inspecting the company.
The Sergeant was unnaturally tall, a whole head higher than anyone of the company he was leading into battle. He wore a dark, long grey coat, under which came a pair of scrawny, long legs. In his bonny hand, he held an ornately decorated commander's baton, usually used for army parades. Behind him, a flag bearer held up a chart, containing the names of all men of the company. I could see the despair in his eyes, a fainting wish to leave this dreadful place, to be free from the burden of war once again, to smell the fresh air, at least one more time. But he was a broken man. He didn't have the courage to leave. He knew his faith. The Sergeant started conducting the final overview of the troops. He came to the very first man at the line, staring at him boldly, he approached him.
"What is your name?"
The young lad told the sergeant his name, and a shiver went down my spine and I said to myself: "I know you, you beautiful young soul! You, with your heart gazing at your bright future, why are you here! Such a young talented mind. If our society was a tree, if anyone would cut you the whole tree would be hurt!"
The Sergeant asked:
"Do you have a Father?"
"He died last year."
"How many siblings?"
"I had two. They both died two years ago, on this date."
"Is your mother still alive?"
"Yes, she prays to the spirits that I would return. I'm all she has left!"
I could see something changing in his eyes. A light appeared as he mentioned his bellowed mother, his heart was filled with the love of her.
But then, the Sergeant raised his baton, and tapped his shoulder with it and wagged to the flag bearer behind him. The flag bearer started to pull the chart out from his sleeve and circled the pour soul's name. The boy's face went pale.
The Sergeant passed another without staring at him for a single moment. He stepped to the third in line and carefully looked at him. The soldier was a happy, garrulous young man, a passionate singer and a true ladies man. He had a healthy, round face, by his small ears lay short, blonde locks, his colourful red lips were dazzling in a pleasant smile.
"Do you have a bride at home?" asked the Sergeant.
"I have, Sir Sergeant!" Even louder, his vivid green eyes sang, sang so loud that an ode of joy spread as far as the ear could hear.
The Sergeant casually lifter his baton, placing it on the man's shoulder. The vivid song stopped in his eyes. The ode was silenced and the lively flame that engulfed his interior was extinguished. And so, the Sergeant slowly, casually, with heavy steppes marched to the end of the line. Some soldiers, he didn't even look, but sometimes he talked and picked five, or even six in a row. And it came to me, that he was purposely selecting the very best that our nation had to offer. He chose only the strongest, most beautiful individuals, the intellectuals and the kind hearted.
The Sergeant finally reached the end of the line, lifter his baton for the last time and then he slowly walked to his Ostrich horse. It was then, when I saw his face and I was transfixed with horror. The man had no flesh, to nose, no ears and no lips. Instead of eyes, the Sergeant had two holes dug into his skull, his long, pointy teeth were smiling over his naked jaw. I now knew the Sergeant's name. His name was Death.
The company quickly followed its dooming officer, with firm footsteps they marched down to the valley. In front of the company, the Sergeant rode his Ostrich horse; high upon the mist, his dark coat flapped.
Even to this day, I still don't know whether I was dreaming or experienced the glimpse of what awaits us all.
For the collective works of the author, go here.