by Iona Douglas
Poland has not yet perished,
So long as we still live.
– Poland Is Not Yet Lost Jósef Wybicki, 1797
SHE PICKS HER way over blood-stained standards, trips over pieces of ammunition and broken sabres. She kicks a drum. It rolls to a body, face down, bloodied and trampled. The army would have made off with the good stuff—the cuirasses, helmets, arms, clothes, boots and tokens. Then the camp followers—the noisy brood of soldier’s wives, trawling behind with their children. The children who threw stones at her, and doused her in cold water at night. Neither did she think much of the harlots who clung to the outskirts to be found later, skirts off in the belly of the camp.
It has rained, and the mud sucks at the man as she pulls him from the mud.
It is not him.
She has grown accustomed to this. His teeth look okay, but she has no time to dawdle. She could come back for teeth later. Routine now, she trails forward, systematically. She inspects every corpse she comes across. Death mingles with the must of upturned sod, familiar to her now.
She hasn’t plundered much during her travels—not having the strength to carry it, and needing to travel a great distance. She has her sabres, stolen at Borodino, which she uses as knives. She has a Russian knapsack from Leipzig. Her pliers she’d bought before she’d left home, for she had always been a prudent woman, and knew they would be useful. Still, she has more than most, and she doesn’t want it stolen.
She has her bags of teeth. The pouches are horse-hide. Tied around her neck, tucked under her breastplate. This is their future. When she finds him—this will buy them a home. She won’t sell them yet, she’ll wait until after, and find the best price. She’d keep the best for herself, of course. She is missing all but three of her own front teeth. They’d get a nice little farmhouse, somewhere quiet, far away from the calls for partition. She’s had enough politics and fighting for a few lifetimes. She pats the bag, shushing it as she had comforted him, when he was a child, disturbed by strange dreams.
They could have a few chickens for eggs and a cow for milk—lord how she misses eggs and milk. A cow was a large thing. A goat, perhaps. Maybe she’d find him a wife, and they’d leave her to the chickens, and the cat. There would be a cat. Or maybe they’d stay, and she could retreat to a part of the house, and be kept to look after
She settles in a coppice by the graveyard. Some stragglers from the camps have returned, and make their way through the carcasses. The wind blows the smell away from where she sits. She longs for a fire, but a battlefield, even a cold one, is no place to be found alone.
There were fires in the camps. Big, communal fires that smelled of woodsmoke, not flesh. The priest would be reading a sermon at this time of the evening. There was a time when she had prayed. Prayed for her country. Prayed for revolution, for the soldiers to stop coming. Prayed for her son to ignore the cries of ‘Poland has not yet perished’, to ignore the pull of La Grande Armée. Prayed for his safety, his life. When neither God nor Napoleon listened to your prayers, either they had forgotten you, or never cared in the first place. The valiant exultations of Wybicki’s anthem were a firm favourite amongst the Polish legions. He had sung it, when he was a boy, dreaming of warfare with his wooden officers. Then it had been little more than a mockery, in a country partitioned, with Russia breathing down their necks. How much they had lost already. How could they lose more? Now she held onto the song, steadfast. All would not be lost if she found him.
IT RAINS DURING the night, and the next day her job is harder. She slips into pools of water and blood, balances on the leg of a horse as she clambers over to check the face of the rider. This one’s face is bloated.
She takes his teeth, sequesters them in the second, fuller bag. He is young and has a lot. A boot lies by the man’s head. It is still connected to a body. The boy is naked but for the boot and a cap. He looks to be the same age as her son, but this boy’s blood-stained hair is yellow, and he is lankier than he ought to be. She takes off her knapsack and squats, settling her heels for a better grip. At this stage of rígor mortis, boot removal is difficult. Shame the right was missing, why had he been left with one? Still, better to have one good shoe than two leaky ones.
She tugs, slips. She steadies herself, concentrates all of her strength, she has a lot of it now. The body slides, and jerks. The boy’s eyes open, and land on her. He screams in pain, or tries to. He has lost his voice, and can only muster a raspy shriek. She drops the boot like a hot coal, curses. The boy spits out clots of blood. He stares at the hole in his shoulder.
The shock of the ball had produced such an extravasation of blood, that his face, shoulders and chest are black, splashes of blood red against his limbs. He manages to sit.
She kneels, and takes hold of his boot again, one hand steadying his calf, already convulsing. He shivers violently and pulls his snow-covered hat from his head to cover his balls. He opens and closes his mouth a few times as she works his boot from his foot. His sock comes off too, and she throws it to him. It lands on his chest with a wet slapping sound.
Hey, he croaks. That’s my boot.
She sits on the side of the horse, removes her own shoe. She slips her foot into it. Wriggles her toes. It is too large. She stuffs the toes with some rags from her knapsack. Cries out in satisfaction at the new fit.
That’s my boot, the boy says again. The woman sighs.
Reckon I need it a lot more than you, son. The word sticks in her mouth. It has been so long.
I have nothing. The boy continues to convulse, breaking up his speech into staccato sounds, like hiccups. Y
ou have a hat, a sock, she throws her old left boot to him. And one leaky boot. More than most. She hoists her knapsack over her shoulders, and turns in the other direction. The boy frantically tries to pull her boot on but his fingers, numb, slip over the leather. He whimpers.
Madam, please! I can’t—my fingers. He cries, and shakes. Blonde, taller than hers, but of the same age, or thereabouts. Her heart softens—a difficult feat, for the war had reached its icy barbs into it months ago. She sighs, and returns.
I don’t have time for this. She makes quick work of his boot, fastens it tight. Then she rummages in the folds of her bag and hands him two slices of rusk. The boy waters his mouth with a little snow and ravishes it. She pulls out her bottle of rum and hands it to him.
You drink all of that and I’ll leave you with nothing. The boy nods, and takes two swigs, wincing.
Thank you, he says. He pulls himself up with the horse’s fetlocks. He shivers, his hands covering his genitals. She turns, and stumbles past howitzer shells, cannonballs and craniums towards a coppice. The sky has turned, and this business has turned her stomach. She has seen enough dead and barely-living boys for today.
I need a doctor, he calls, stumbling behind her. He can’t match her pace, his steps laboured, his right arm hanging limp. Where’s the legion?
Moved on by now. Was them that took your clothes. You’ll find
doctors in the camp.
Where is the camp? Two miles west of here. Will you help me? I’m afraid I won’t make the distance.
I can’t waste time taking you there. I have my own boy to find.
She continues. She doesn’t look at him. She has done more than her fair share to help him. Most people would have walked on. Even if she wanted to, her own supplies of rusk are running low, and she only has a rabbit left. They’ll both be dead before they reach the next village if she shares with him.
You’re a scavenger, he says.
You don’t have much.
Because I’m not a scavenger.
Teeth, is it? Her pouch rattles with every step. She pushes forward. I’ll give you my teeth if you help me. She spins, marches over, odd steps in odd shoes. She grabs his jaw, no bristle here. She squeezes, and he opens his mouth wide to give her a better look. He has all of his own teeth. Not that she’d take them, but he was desperate.
Please, let me share your fire and I’ll leave at dawn. She pulls her knife out and holds it to his neck.
I’ve not lasted this long in the trail of death by letting soldiers share my fireside.
Please don’t leave me here. The boy cries. He stumbles back and steps on the cold fingers of a comrade. He yelps.
Can you mend?
Can you mend, boy?
Good. She points to the rabbit tied to her knapsack. I’m not about to give you any knives, but I can trust you with a needle while I see to this.
Their fire is small, and sputters, threatening to give out. She feeds it with some dry kindling she always keeps on her, and sets about skinning the rabbit. The boy has balanced her pliers on a stone by the fire. She keeps an eye on them, and grips her knife tighter as she slices her carcass, though she didn’t think he had the strength, or cause, to lunge at her.
He cleans his blackened and bloodied shoulder with some snow. She has lent him her blanket. She has also bequeathed him with her dirtiest of shirts and stockings, and some clean rags. It has annoyed her, but, she supposes, if one were to find her boy in his situation, she would hope someone would help him. She makes a make-shift spit with some twigs and sets the rabbit up.
You’ll have the giblets, and you’ll have to mend those socks yourself.
Thank you, he says. His face cracks into a smile. It looks like an effort. He uses a corner of the blanket to pull the pliers from the flames. He bares his shoulder, the ruby hole that has destroyed the paleness of his skin. The ball had gone right through, which he tells her is a blessing, though it doesn’t look like one. He clenches his jaw, and pulls the first piece of shrapnel from his flesh. He hisses with the pain, and deposits the piece neatly by his feet. He repeats the action, but has to dig deeper this time. He whimpers, clenches his jaw. He pulls it out, and places it by the other.
I don’t think I can do this on the other side, he says as he picks a flap of skin back to reach another piece. I need to get to the camp. I need a doctor
You have someone there?
No. He pauses, leans forward and exhales, manages the pain through his breath. That makes two of us. Deux petits pois dans une cosse.
What do you mean? If you weren’t a scavenger, you’d be welcome to camp with them. Your accent—Polish? She nods. Your French isn’t bad.
You’re talkative for someone pulling metal from his shoulder.
It’s a good distraction. The boy flicks a piece of metal from his flesh. It lands in the fire somewhere. He looks momentarily disappointed. I worked with a few Polish conscripts. Learned a little.
What can you say? She turns the rabbit.
I learned my Polish from boys and soldiers. I wouldn’t use that kind of language around a woman. He throws the knife to the ground, exhales loudly. He retreats into the blanket and hunches closer to the fire. May I borrow your knife? He asks. She hands it to him, handle first. He balances it blade-first in the fire.
You said you were looking for your boy.
You wouldn’t have met him.
I knew men in the Polish legions. He’s lucky to have a mother like you, looking for him. What’s his name?
She grunts. She doesn’t need to explain herself to him. Besides, he can’t help her.
My name’s Jean-Baptiste. He pulls the knife from the flames and presses it to his wound. He yells, does not restrain his voice.
Quiet. We don’t want to alert people to our presence. She pulls flesh from the bones. It is not bad, though there remains a little metal in the meat. She spits out the shrapnel. The boy whimpers and hunches over. She sets the rabbit aside and stands, takes the knife from his limp fingers, and crouches behind him.
Where are you from, boy?
Belfort. She gouges a little metal from the cavity in his shoulder, prising it from the flesh. My family is still there. My mother, my younger siblings. She has five of them. Louis, Gabriel, François, Anais and Napoleon. She gouges a little deeper on mention of his name, helps a piece out with her fingernail. He grunts. My father idolised Napoleon, hence my youngest brother’s name.
Where is your father?
Dead. A piece of metal pings off stone. A river of blood flows from the hole it has left. She bends to heat the knife in the fire once again.
This will hurt.
Just do it.
When the metal burns white, she pulls it from the fire.
Un, deux, she brings the metal down onto his skin. He screams. Small bubbles form under his skin around the knife edge. Some of them burst, the blisters forming and evaporating within seconds. She pulls the knife away and crawls over to the rabbit. She hands him the liver and heart. He drops them twice before he finds the strength to grasp them, wipes the twigs off onto his blanket.
Dziękuję, he thanks her. His Polish accent is distinctly French, but she appreciates the gesture.
Better that she’s with your siblings, than in that camp.
It’s full of hypocrites, scavengers and whores.
How would you know?
I travelled with them. For a time. My French wasn’t good enough for them. My son’s pledge wasn’t good enough for them. Things are easier outside the camp.
I have nothing. If I make it to the camp they’ll clothe me, give me some rations, help me get home. She laughs.
You’ll be lucky if you get a hot bath. They’re starving as much as I. I’m not welcome there, nor get any news. I follow, checking the faces of the dead for my boy, praying I don’t find him. As long as I don’t find him, I traipse behind in the wake of death.
You didn’t want him to conscript?
She sighs. Do you know how many times they have fought for Poland? How many lives, squandered on our fields? And all the while, our lives continue. We send our boys away, and for what? We don’t reap the rewards of their sacrifice. He was born the day of Kosciusko’s failed revolt, which I always took as a bad omen. Still, he’s always had revolution in his blood, on his mind.
The war is coming to an end. I fought at Borodino. He pauses, pokes the fire. I suppose you were, too. He doesn’t need to remind her. Too many for the graves, overflowing with limbs.
You fought at Borodino, you saw the horrors of war, and yet you continue to fight? Why?
Liberté, égalité, fraternité. I want to fight for a world worth living in. Even after Leipzig I continued to hope. His naivete is unbecoming to her. What will you do if you don’t find him?
Return to Poland. Wait for his return. I’ll clothe you, share my rusk and rum with you. In the morning you’ll help me look for my boy, and then I’ll take you to the camp.
They’ll have left by then—I don’t think I can—
Those are my conditions.
SLEEP IS NOT found, only a restless anxiety on the edge of sleep. They lie a few inches apart, desperate to share body heat, neither daring to reach out and touch the other. Dawn shocks them into life, the sunlight demanding action.
The earlier we start the earlier we finish, she says. She shares a slice of rusk and a swig of rum with him, and they set about checking the corpses for her son.
How will I know it’s him? He has brown hair, and a birthmark, the same as mine, here. She pulls back her coat to bare her shoulder, a deep wine-coloured pattern. The bodies will be changing colour now. First they turn green, then purple, and then black. We’re early enough that it should still stand out.
She is swifter than him. His gait is slow and uneven. Corpse checking has become perfunctory to her, she does not squeam at the marbled skin, empty eye sockets and open mouths. The vultures have helped themselves to the eyes and tongues, the only winners of this war. The boy lags, trying not to linger on the faces of the fallen. He is sick.
You’re not looking! I won’t take you to the camp until we’ve checked every corpse. She slices a tunic arm from a body. Every left arm. You need to see.
I can’t. I knew them. You know what’s worse than seeing the body of someone you love? Not knowing. Not knowing if they’re dead. Not being able to grieve, yet grieving all the same. Every face you recognise is an answer. A door you can close. Their mothers will want to know. So find them. Find them and when you return to your picturesque little valley you can tell their mothers.
The boy points to her chest, her pouch of teeth thrums against her sternum. Will you tell their mothers? He asks.
Not until I find my boy.
As they work, she thinks of the cottage they will buy, the curtains she will make, the doilies she will crochet for his future wife, the toys she will whittle for her grandchildren. A horse. A horse would be difficult to whittle. She would start with a soldier, for their father, a maid for their mother, a babe, for them. Perhaps she would carve herself. Then a cat, a few chickens. She would build a small house, a replica of the cottage, for them to live in.
She almost does not recognise Jean-Baptiste by the end of the day. His jaw has set, his dull eyes seem darker, whatever vestige of
innocence or hope that had remained after the ordeal of battle has been vanquished. The sight stirred conflicting emotions in her. A shame to harden a boy so young, a good thing, too, for he would walk the earth a little more protected, a little more likely to survive.
I’m sorry, I found none with the birthmark you described.
Then hope remains, but so does the unknowing. I’ll take you to the camp. There’s plenty of cantinières to help you.
THE CAMP HAD once been a sprawling mass of followers, coursing through the landscape like a scourge of ants. She wonders what it looks like from above, imagines bird formations, though not as organised, and imbued with a chilling beauty. Now the German winter had made its mark, and the flock has thinned to a winding stream of people, thinning as it courses forward to an unknown sea. An officer approaches them, stern faced.
“No place for scavengers here. Go, or I’ll send you on your way without your pickings.”
“I’m no scavenger. I’m part of this camp. I fell behind.”
“Can anyone vouch for you?”
“The vivandière, Luce. She knows me.” The soldier nods to his comrade, who spits on the ground before jogging to the camp. Jean-Baptiste sits, moans.
“A deal is a deal,” she tells him.
“What deal?” the soldier asks. He appraises her, suspicion knitted between his brows.
“The camp is much smaller now.”
“It’s been dwindling for months. We used the baggage vehicles for firewood weeks ago,” he says.
“When did you say you fell behind? Do you have a husband fighting?”
The soldier returns, Luce following, concern and fear etched across her countenance, a musket thrown over her shoulder.
“This…person claims she’s part of the camp, says you know her.”
“Alix?” Luce peered at her, her voice tinged with disbelief. “Yes, I know her.” The soldiers nod, disappointed to have missed an opportunity to discipline her. They leave them.
“You might need their help to carry this one,” Alix says, motioning to Jean-Baptiste. “I don’t think he’s much strength in him.”
“It’s been a long time,” Luce searches Alix’ face, though for what she can’t fathom. “I’ve not seen you since Borodino. Some of the children said they saw you a few weeks ago.
“Would they be the same kids that doused me in water?”
“I’m sorry they stopped your rations. It’s not customary for the grieving to stay… After.” Luce strokes the handle of her musket, nervous. “Are you hungry? You know we don’t have much, but our traps were full this morning. I can offer you some rabbit.”
“I’m fine, but he could do with some feeding.” Alix nudges Jean-
Baptiste with her boot. “Get up, boy. He’s French.” Luce observes her as though she were a ghost, her grip on the musket tightens, she throws a look towards the guards, still retreating.
“Why don’t you go home, Alix? This is no place to live, if you could call it that.”
“He needs a doctor, a nurse. You’re not bad at that. He helped me look for Marek, so I said I’d bring him to you.”
“Your son is dead, Alix. Marek is dead. You burned him at Borodino. We had to pull you from the pyre.”
“You were pretty sure at the time.”
“I didn’t see his birthmark. His right shoulder—”
“Was blown clean off. The lieutenant identified him. So did you.” Alix has had enough lies, she hadn’t left the camp to continue with this charade. Jean-Baptiste has disappeared—so quickly, and without saying goodbye...
“Where’s he gone?” She spins. No sign of him or the guards. “You’d think he’d say goodbye. I gave him half my rum.”
“Come by the fire. Share a drink with us. To your boy.”
“Will you look after him? Jean-Baptiste, his name is. He can’t have gone far.”
“Are you blind, woman? The boy, I brought him here in return for helping me look for Marek.”
“Marek is dead, Alix. You have his teeth around your neck.”
“Then give them to me.” She strokes her breast-plate, above her pouches. Two. One for the teeth she prised from boy’s mouths, the teeth she sold when they passed a town. The other she used to keep Marek’s milk-teeth in, by her bed. Used to. Then he graduated to losing bigger teeth, though he hadn’t been old enough to grow wisdom teeth. And Jean-Baptiste?
A ghost, Alix. She spins, sees the lines of men behind her, empty, toothless mouths gaping.
You have our teeth, they say. Take them to my mother, they beg.
“You can’t have them until I find him!”
“Alix,” Luce looks distressed, but the musket stays on her shoulder. “Who are you talking to?”
“Them—the ghosts that wander these barren lands. They follow me. Why doesn’t he follow me? Where’s his ghost? Why do they plague me when he won’t?”
“There’s a caravan of widows leaving this evening. Nothing here for them now, Liepzig and Hanau have taken their sons, too. Nothing here for you, either. They’ll be passing through Warsaw. I can introduce you.”
“Nothing for me in Poland.”
“The children said they saw you pulling teeth. That’s more of a fortune than I’ve ever had. Use it.”
“I need to find him.”
“And when the war is over?
“I need to find him.”
“You’re not the only one who’s lost someone. Forty thousand less this month, thirty thousand captured at Leipzig. Will you continue peering at the corpses of dead boys until they’re all gone?”
“When the war’s over, we’ll go home.”
“The war is over, Alix. For you and for Marek.”
THE BODIES ARE innumerable. Too many to count, but count them she does, like stars in the sky. She doubts the stars smell like this. The campaign has ended, but her search doesn’t. The bodies are putrid now. Eyeless, blistering. She wraps her hands in leather, so she doesn’t touch the liquid that oozes from blisters as she pulls them. When the bodies burst, and the skeletons remain, she touches every skull, femur, vertebrae, waiting for a vibration, a feeling, a voice to tell her that it is his. She is not alone. The ghosts still follow her, and she adds to them still, her knapsack full of teeth. They chatter as she walks.
Tell our mothers.
Tell our mothers. Tell our mothers.
Iona teaches English by day and writes by night. She's passionate about etymology, climate justice and natural history. Her work has previously appeared in Stories of Yore and Yours, Bob's Short Story Hour, and Bewildering Stories.
© 2020 Iona Douglas