The Deserter
Thus deprived of his three pals, Arcenel began to feel fed up. The war was no joke, of course, but it had been just about livable with the four of them when they'd at least been able to get together and talk among themselves, trade points of view, argue so they could make peace again. They'd never wanted to imagine their reassuring bond could possibly be severed, in spite of the increasingly obvious danger everywhere. The thought had vaguely occurred to them, true, but they hadn't really prepared themselves to see their group broken up, dispersed, and had taken no social precautions, never attempted to make other friends.

So Arcenel found himself alone. He did try, during the weeks and months that followed, to fit in better with the troop, but it was always a little artificial and he encountered resistance because he and his three buddies had been seen as standoffish, so the others now took revenge by ignoring him, although given the harsh conditions that winter, a certain solidarity had in the end kept everyone together as a company.

When spring arrived, however, dragging its feet and with no letup in the fighting, the usual groups re-formed without Arcenel finding a place in any of them. That's why one morning, since they were camped near the village of Somme-Suippe for a breather before rejoining the front lines, Arcenel, feeling blue, went off for a walk. Just a walk, for a moment, taking advantage of some anti-typhoid procedures. Reporting for a vaccination booster shot, Arcenel was one of the very first to receive his, thanks to his prime place in the alphabetical list, so since everyone was all lined up, discreetly baring their bums to the needle with a frisson of fear, Arcenel just as discreetly walked off on the spur of the moment, without any particular plan. He left the camp with an evasive wave to the sentinel as if he were just going to go pee against a tree trunk, which in fact he did, while he was at it, but then he went on. When a path appeared, he took it simply to see, before turning off onto another and another without any precise intention, advancing automatically into the countryside without really meaning to wander off.

Relaxing instead into his appreciation of the burgeoning spring --- it's always moving to admire the spring, even when one has begun to recogonize the pattern, it's a good way to brighten a dark mood --- Arcenel paid just as much attention to the silence, a silence almost untainted by the rumblings at the front, never very far away, rumblings that this morning even seemed a trifle fainter. An incomplete silence, naturally, not entirely restored but almost, and almost better than if it were perfect because it's clawed by the cries of birds, cries that somehow amplify it and, giving depth to a background, exalt it, in the way a minor amendment gives strength to a law, a dot of contrasting color intensifies a monochrome, the tiniest splinter confirms the smoothest polish, a furtive dissonance consecrates a perfect major chord --- but let's not get carried away: let's get back to business.

Some animals appeared, still there, seemingly bent on showing the flag: a raptor was up in the sky, a June bug sitting on a stump, a furtive rabbit, which hopped out of a bush to stare at Arcenel for a second before promptly dashing off, spring powered, without the man instinctively grabbing for the rifle he hadn't actually brought with him, not having brought along even his canteen: proof that he'd never planned beforehand to leave the military zone, being moved solely, by the idea of ambling around a little while, abstracting himself for a moment from the horrific shit hole, nor even hoping --- because not even thinking of it --- that this stroll would pass unnoticed, forgetting that the men were recounted all the time, and the roll call endlessly repeated.

Beyond a bend, the fourth path broadened into a grassy clearing carpeted with cool light filtered by the freshly unfurling leaves, a delicate tableau. But on a corner of this carpet were three men on horseback, in tight uniforms of horizon blue, backs straight, mustaches brushed, expressions severe, aiming at Arcenel three examples of the 1892 S-millimeter French service revolver while ordering him to present his service record booklet, but he hadn't brought that along with him either. They asked him for his serial number and enlisted assignments, which he recited by heart --- section, company, battalion, regiment, brigade --- while opting to meet the gentle, attentive, and deep gaze of the horses rather than the eyes of the gendarmes. Who did not bother asking him what he was doing there: they tied his hands behind his back and ordered him to follow, on foot, the equestrian detachment.

Arcenel should have remembered about them, the gendarmes, so hated were they in all the camps, almost as much if not more than the fellows across the way. Their task had at first been simple: to keep the soldiers from slipping away, to make sure they would go get themselves killed properly. Positioned in lines behind the troops during combat, they'd formed a barrier to break up waves of panic and check spontaneous retreats. Soon they'd taken control of everything, intervening wherever they pleased, maintaining order along all thoroughfares in the confusion attendant on the fluctuating movements of troops, policing the military zones in their entirety, at both the front and the staging area behind the lines.

Responsible for checking the passes of soldiers on leave and overseeing all who tried to cross the official perimeters surrounding military units --- mainly the wives and whores attempting for various reasons to rejoin the men, but also (and these met with more indulgence) the tradesmen of all kinds, who, selling everything at sky-high prices, proliferated as eagerly as the other parasites on the infantry's back --- the gendarmes also tracked down soldiers overstaying their leave, drunks and troublemakers, spies, and deserters, into which last category Arcenel had just unknowingly and unwillingly placed himself. That's how come, back in camp, Arcenel spent the rest of the day and then the night in the locked pump house for the village of Somme-Suippe, without either bread or water, and appeared the next morning before a court-martial.

Arcenel was pushed more than led into the village schoolhouse, where this improvised tribunal sat in the largest classroom: a table and three chairs, facing a stool for the accused. A creased national flag behind the chairs, a Code of Military Justice on the table next to some empty forms. These chairs were occupied by a three-man court: the regimental commander flanked by a sublieutenant and a senior warrant officer, and they watched Arcenel enter in silence. Mustache, erect posture, and cold eyes: to Arcenel these men looked just like the ones from the day before, mounted on their horses in the clearing. Since the hour was grave and the shortage of manpower serious indeed, perhaps it had proved necessary to recruit the same actors for this scene, giving them just enough time to change uniforms.

In any event, it all went very quickly. After a brief summary of the facts, a glance for form's sake at the code, an exchange of looks among the officers, the court voted with a show of hands to condemn Arcenel to death for desertion. Sentence to be carried out within twenty-four hours, the court reserving the right to refuse any appeal for clemency, the idea of which had never even crossed Arcenel's mind. He was returned to the pump house.

The execution took place the next day near a large farm at Suippe, at the firing range, with the entire regiment present. Arcenel was made to kneel in front of six men lined up at attention, arms at the order. Among them, from four or five yards away, Arcenel recognized two men he knew, doing their best to look elsewhere, while a divisional chaplain stood in the background. Between them and himself, in profile, an adjutant in charge of the firing squad was waving his saber. The chaplain did his little job and after Arcenel had been blindfolded, he did not see the men he knew raise their rifles as they stepped forward with the left foot, did not see the adjutant raise his saber, he just heard four brief orders shouted, the fourth being Fire. After the coup de gráce, at the end of the ceremony, the men were ordered to march past his body so they would reflect upon his fate.

--- from 1914
Jean Echenoz
Linda Cloverdale, Translator
©2014 The New Press
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