Shorty by Mikhail Naima
Translated into English on July 7, 2013
By an unknown soldier
France, September 1918
My friends laugh at me and I laugh at my friends. They laugh at me for my quirky nature and I laugh at them for their quirky nature. Though nowadays, I laugh at myself for having acquired many of their traits. As the saying goes: Live with a group of people for forty days and you either become like them or you leave. And I have become one of them as there is no way for me to leave. Where could a soldier like me possibly go.
Joyful things are sometimes mixed with sad things and sad things are sometimes mixed with joyful ones. I was happy today to have been transferred from the barracks to the hospital. I am sick, but it is nothing too serious. I have what my friends would call The French Itch, which most of them appear to have been struck down with. It seems as though mine is somewhat severe given that I have nearly torn my skin to shreds from scratching. During the medical examination today, the physician felt sorry for me, which is why he asked that I be taken to the hospital for special treatment. They say that this itch is due to tiny microscopic insects that come out of the sewers where our barracks are located and enter the skin forming a terrible scab. One then cannot help but scratch that scab, relentlessly, not stopping until another one forms in some other part of the body.
I am currently in the unit for skin diseases, with a small desk to write on, a bed filled with pillows and a heavy woollen blanket. I'll have the most relaxing sleep ever tonight. There won't be a sergeant waking me up at midnight ordering me to stand guard, nor will I have to worry about being drenched for half the night, rifle and all, while counting my footsteps and listening to the sound of my boots as they step over pebbles and twigs. This makes me happy: a soft bed full of plush pillows that look and feel like snowflakes, a warm blanket and a restful sleep. And most importantly, no work tomorrow.
Yet this same happiness makes me sad because it reminds me of how I used to be. Many years ago, I enjoyed nothing more than to sit on a wooden floor surrounded by books, covered not by a warm blanket but by a bare ceiling. I would stay up until the early hours of the morning, thinking to myself, questioning things, as happy as I could hope to ever be in my solitude, content with myself. That was me. Today, I find that being alone is no longer as satisfying. What makes me happy is merely the pleasure of sleeping in a soft bed, much like a child might be happy for the simple pleasure of playing with a new toy. I long for the former and despise the latter. That is why I say that joyful things are sometimes mixed with sad ones.
When I first walked into the hospital, some of the patients were playing cards, while others lay on their beds, daydreaming. Having spotted me walking in, they abandoned their pastimes and approached me, eventually welcoming me as their “new brother”. I presumed that they were all suffering from the same French Itch that was eating at my skin. One of them asked:
So you're a victim of mustard gas as well then?
I had heard that mustard gas was the most devastating of gases, burning anything that it comes into contact with, with ruinous and, sadly, incurable results. I felt sorry for my comrades, if indeed they were all victims of it as they claimed. In answer to the question, which seemed rhetorical but may not have been, I said that my disease wasn't all that serious. They looked at one another, unsure of how to react, and then finally burst out laughing as I stood there, dumbfounded, not knowing what was so funny.
One of them said:
Why try to hide it? Look, there's ten of us here and we're all victims of mustard gas and are not ashamed of it. So why the camouflage? Do you think we haven't seen others like you before trying to hide their inflictions with lame excuses.
I replied, no more enlightened:
I told you, comrades, that my disease is nothing serious. It's just the French Itch. If I had really been exposed to mustard gas then it would have been an honor and I would have proudly said so, rather than trying to hide it.
A roar of laughter erupted, as the crowd chanted “French Itch, French Itch”. They eventually dispersed.
* * *
Amongst my colleagues is someone they call Shorty seeing as how short he is. He always smiles and has a way of speaking that is comforting. One never gets bored of listening to him, which, truth be told, isn't something that I could say of the other talkative people I know. He can be cheeky at times, but his cheekiness isn't too harsh on the ears nor is it too taxing on the soul. When he does occasionally curse, it somehow doesn't come across as a vice. When he jokes, his jokes are witty and when he acts something out, he does it so gracefully.
So no matter what he does and what he says, he always manages to make everyone around him laugh and applaud. Were it not for him, this hospital would have been a cemetery, and these beds coffins. He was the one who gave me the nickname The French Itcher, without ever asking me for my real name. When he calls me that, he never does it scornfully, unlike the others. Little do they know that my spirits are immune to their ridicule.
* * *
I have seen a lot of people in my life, but none like Shorty. On the outside, he looks hideous. He has a snub nose, a wide forehead, thick lips, protruding cheekbones and pale skin. His hair is long and rough and sits on his head much like a hedgehog's quills. Each strand of hair sits far from the other, as though separated by some insufferable feud. His eyes are small and are hardly visible under his long hair, as are his ears. And yet, they have a strange twinkle in them that makes them glow beneath his thick eyelashes. I do not know what draws his friends to him, those eyes of his or his unsightly features. They all, undoubtedly, like him though. Whenever he is not around, the place turns silent and the men busy themselves with playing cards and dice. Though the moment he walks in, they go crazy, laughing and screaming their lungs out in a dance of joy and silliness, each endearing himself to him in a different way. It was Shorty this and Shorty that the whole time.
Shorty, were it not for you, we would have all died a miserable death.
Shorty, tell us again the story from last time.
Shorty, what do you think about this or that thing.
He is their philosopher and their poet and their clown, all at once. Indeed, I have heard him express opinions on a lot of topics, some ridiculous and humorous and others sublime and tragic. The strange thing is that whether he is talking about the French Itch or the afterlife, he provokes the same reaction in his listeners who split their sides from laughter. As for him, his laughter is always conveyed with a simple smile.
My comrades frequently get together and exchange war stories. One might tell a tale from the Battle of Château-Thierry while another about the hardships of this campaign or that offensive. As for Shorty, I have never heard him speak a word of the battles that he has taken part in, and I know from having spoken to the hospital's deputy that he was awarded a Croix de Guerre and was recommended to receive an excellence in service medal from the United States Department of War. I once heard someone ask him what he thought of war. He pretended not to hear the question and proceeded to change the topic.
* * *
As the physician was finishing up his notes and walking out last night, Shorty proceeded to quietly follow him up until the physician walked out the door. Shorty stood there for a minute and then walked back and screamed:
How about some whiskey, men!
Everyone laughed, thinking it a joke, for it would have been more likely for an angel to descend to earth than for whiskey to be found anywhere in the hospital.
Shorty was adamant.
Enough kidding around. If not whiskey, then by God, something very much like it, so what do you say?
The men responded jokingly, still not willing to believe that Shorty was at all serious:
Very well, then. Why don't you do that! Our throats are dry from thirst.
Shorty disappeared for a few seconds and then returned with a large bottle that had a white liquid in it.
Come to me, and let me quench your thirsts!
The men jumped up from their beds and surrounded him as a bracelet would a wrist. They looked at the bottle, still unsure what was in it and whether in fact it had any resemblance at all to whiskey.
Shorty was quick to resolve their doubts by telling them that the bottle had a high-quality spirit in it. He had inspected it and, as a Chemist, was certain that were it to be mixed with some water, it would taste very much like whiskey, if not better. He had found the bottle in the medicinal storage room, which the deputy had somehow forgotten to lock. The men immediately came back with their glasses, holding them up high as Shorty filled them with the spirit. As they began to drink, their loud shouts slowly turned to soft whispers, as though they were muttering some celestial song of praise. They asked me to join them, but I refused. Fearful that an emergency might arise, Shorty asked one of the men to stand guard. He then filled his own glass up to the brim and held it high and addressed his friends:
Brothers! The strangest of circumstances in the strangest of situations brought all of us here, where we got to know each other and enjoy each other's company. Our common ailment bonded us, for we are all victims of mustard gas.
The room erupted in laughter at the mention of mustard gas and the crowd began chanting:
Mustard gas, mustard gas, oh what a toxic and fatal gas it is!
Shorty went on:
I came to you a stranger and became one of you. I came to you and saw that you had lost hope, that despair had dug deep into your hearts. So I tried to alleviate your sorrows by turning myself into a clown. And it worked. I have been with you for nearly a month now. A month spent laughing and playing to the point that we forgot all about mustard and mustard gas. Anything that you asked of me that I could do for you, I did. I never let any of you down. Indeed, I spent all my time from the moment I got up from bed until the time I tucked myself into bed again at night doing just that. I say this to you now not because I want any kind of reward. All I wanted was your love and friendship and for you to consider me a friend. And now, in place of that friendship, I would like to ask of you a small favor.
The men spoke in one voice:
Anything, Shorty. Anything you want.
I never doubted your love for Shorty, brothers. All that I ask of you is to leave me alone tonight. Do not ask anything of me and do not approach my bed. I would like to spend the night with myself, for I am in need of that.
We have drunk and laughed together. And so now, let us drink to being well, until we meet again. For as strange coincidences brought us together, so too shall strange coincidences separate us. Who knows what tomorrow holds.
And with that, he drank his glass, as did the others. Then he raised the empty glass and dropped it to the floor where it shattered. He picked up one of the shattered pieces and slit his finger. He then brought a broom and cleaned the place of broken glass and finally went into the storage room and came out with some gauze, which he used to wrap around his bleeding finger. After that, he walked to his bed and lay down. All of that happened in an instant, and to the bemusement of the nine others who did not speak a word. They quietly gazed at Shorty, perhaps trying to make sense of it all.
I was watching Shorty very closely as he spoke and noticed that his expressions were very different tonight. His voice had a strange ring to it, and as his speech drew to a close, I noticed that his smile quickly faded and his eyes darkened. I think I even saw them start to tear up.
Apparently, the others noticed this as well, which is why they took his request to be left alone seriously. After Shorty retired to his bed, each of the others did the same, quietly walking on the tips of their toes, careful not to disturb him. And when they spoke, they whispered. I heard one of them say to the other:
What do you suppose happened to Shorty? It was as if he was giving a farewell speech? Did they perhaps cure him and tell him that he would be leaving tomorrow? Good for him.
* * *
It has been a week since I last wrote in my diary. Up until this moment, I couldn't gather the courage to pick up my pen and write.
What Shorty had foretold about strange circumstances bringing us together and then drawing us apart came true. Our knot is now undone and today we are without Shorty...
After I closed my diary last Tuesday night, I lay down on my bed and started drifting to sleep. Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder, to which I woke up terrified.
Don't be scared! I ask you, by God, to get up. Not a word!
It was Shorty. Before I could get over my astonishment, I heard him ask:
Do you have a pencil? Do you have a candlestick? Do you have paper? Light your candle and sit down. Here is a match. Quiet now. We don't want to wake anyone up.
And so I lit my candle and sat up in bed while Shorty stood beside me in his full uniform, boots to hat. His finger was wrapped in a gauze, his dark, wild hair was sticking out from underneath his hat and sparks were flying from his eyes. Before I could say a word about what all of this commotion meant, he said:
Come follow me and don't ask about anything. Bring your candle with you. Don't forget the pencil and paper. Follow me and walk quietly. Not a sound.
I somehow felt that I had no will of my own and so I promptly obliged. I had suddenly turned into a child in his presence, being driven this way or that without the ability to question. I followed him until we ended up at the storage room. We both walked in and Shorty locked the door behind us.
He asked me to place the candle on a desk and to sit on a wooden box while he stood next to me. He finally spoke:
Don't ask me any questions; you will understand everything in a minute. And don't be surprised that I am calling you by your name. I know you well. You carry a trait that I did not find in any of the others, and that is the trait of silence. Not the silence of an imbecile, but rather the silence of a deep thinker. You clearly are not one to muddle your thoughts with spoken words because you have tasted the sweetness of silence. That is why I chose you out of all of them. Because you understand and they do not. So take your pencil and write, as I find myself unable to compel my hand to do so.
“To the respectful Mr. Woodrow Wilson”
I wrote that down and was ready to carry on, but he took the pencil from my hand and crossed out that line and then gave it back to me and said:
No, write the following:
“To His Excellency General John Pershing...” Did you write that? No, cross that out as well. Did you erase it? Write the following:
“To my love,
“I do not wish to call you by any name because, of all the names of women, there isn't one that would befit your stature. And names, what are they but imprints that people use to distinguish themselves from one another, as one might do with cattle. A name says nothing about a person's character. And your character could never be encapsulated in a name. You are more dignified than any name and beyond any description.
“You have no idea who I am, and yet I know you, even though I do not quite know who you are or where and when you were born. I am certain that you are breathing at this very moment in some place, in some distant land. To everyone but me, you look ugly. But not to me. I adore your snub nose and your rectangular chin and your protruding jaws and your hairy forehead and your neck, which appears lost in between your head and your shoulders, and your hunched shoulders and your chest, which appears as though it is stuck to your back, and that waist of yours, which conceals your hips. I like your thick eyebrows and your tiny eyes. Those tiny eyes through which I am able to see your soul.
“You have kept your body pure of any vice whereas I, well, I have desecrated mine with all the filth of this world, not to mention that a malicious disease is eating away my flesh and gnawing at my bones and sucking my blood dry...”
My hand started to shake and I felt goosebumps all across my body. I had to stop writing and look up at Shorty. As he saw the look on my face and the question lingering in my mind, he preempted my interruption and said:
Why did you stop? Did the mention of my cancer surprise you? Do you not know that it has spread throughout my body?
I have heard you complaining of burns, from mustard gas!
He shook his head and then drew a smile on his face of both bitterness and sadness and replied:
That is a term we use around here as a “camouflage”. I did not think that you were so ignorant. And now, I ask you by God not to interrupt me again. Carry on:
“...I am a living corpse walking amidst other living corpses. My hands are stained with innocent blood because I am a soldier and a soldier's job is to kill. I deprived wives of their husbands and lovers of the hope of ever reuniting with each other. I begot countless widows and orphans and destroyed the hopes of countless hopers. I plucked countless eyes and demolished countless homes. Others saw what I had done, and for it all, they called me brave and awarded me accolades and epaulettes. Yet I know that, in your eyes, I am a criminal. I confess my crimes to you and do not ask forgiveness in return, since I do not wish to offend you. I have offended you enough.
“If I did not know you, I might have asked for it. However, as it happens, I do know you and know very well that were you in the position that I am in right now, you would have done the same thing that I am about to do. What else can an ignorant person do after betting everything and losing? What else can a living corpse do? How did I throw away my life, you ask, and why? Here is my story:
“I was born without a mother and father. Some say that I am a bastard. Regardless of whether or not I actually am one, what I do know is that I grew up without a mother and father. That is how I was raised in this world. Despite that, somehow, someone decided to give me a heart that beats with a fiery passion. A heart made of burning sulphur, you might say, with arteries made of electric wires that connect to everything in this world that lies still or crawls or walks or flies.
“I carried this heart with me for twenty six years during which time I could not find a single person that would willingly submit to its raging flames. I could not even find someone who was willing to acknowledge that I had such a heart within me. Whenever I attempted to show it to anyone, they would run away from it, terrified. And if I sprinkled some dust on it from the dust of people's manners and traditions and disguises, they saw me as some inanimate object. An inanimate object with a snub nose and short legs and spiky hair. I spent twenty six years among such people, carrying in my chest a furnace of love. Not once did I find anyone who would dare draw their heart close to mine so that they could both die on the alter of love. Nor would my heart burn up or that oil of love drain out for good, so that I could finally rest.
“Then the war began and so I said here's my chance to transform that fire of love to a fire of hatred. After all, hatred is today a world religion, and so if my heart were to burn with hatred, other hearts would as well. If my heart couldn't burn in love, then let it burn in hate.
“That is how I volunteered to join the army.
“After a while, I thought to myself:
“So now, I am a vengeful man amongst other vengeful men. Who else is there to pour my hate on?
“I heard my comrades denouncing authoritarianism and tyranny and injustice and barbarism and totalitarianism. And so I thought, those will be my new enemies. I went to the battlefield with all the rage that had built up inside of me, however, I did not find my enemies there. All I found was ignorance ramming against more ignorance, and human beings butchering other human beings, all driven to this place by others, rather than of their own free will. I realized that human beings are only capable of hating other human beings and that they can never hate some abstract notion of evil nor can they ever love an abstract notion of love. I concluded that their fire of hate is the same as their fire of love; it is but a spark that goes out the moment it flashes.
“It was then that I covered my hatred with dust and went into the world again, praising that which people praise and vilifying that which people vilify. I shrouded my heart with a smile that I drew on my face. People saw my smile and liked it. As for the heart shrouded beneath it, they did not see it nor did they care about it. I buried my sorrows under a guise of obscenity and that pleased people. And so I said, let me march with them until the very end, enjoying what they enjoy. I walked into their caves of pleasure and came out, as you see today, a living corpse. I wouldn't have been sorry for a heart void of love nor a body filled with sin had I not seen you in a dream.
“I realized that the heart that I was looking for and the soul that I was longing for are real. That heart is your heart, and that soul is your soul, and you, wherever you happen to be, are real.
“I wish I had known you before my love died down and before my body lost its chastity and my soul its purity.
“I wish we had met when my soul was full of grace and my body purer than snow.
“Instead, we meet now that I no longer have anything of any worth to offer you. You could not possibly accept me in my current state and, even if you did, I could not possibly agree to desecrate your purity with my filth, nor to blow out your love with my ashes.
“Are you tired of all my babbling? Who else could understand my babbling. You see what I do not, and people, well, they only see superficial things. You truly understand my suffering, whereas others, see my smile and hear my obscenities and say:
“Good for him, he has nothing that worries him.
“That is why, even if I were to lose my life today, I would say that I found my life in your arms. And in order to be worthy of receiving it, I will have to cleanse my body of its defilements and then reignite that fire of love within it. Only then, will we be able to have both our hearts burn together everlastingly. Goodbye – Shorty.”
* * *
As I wrote down those last few words and noticed that my body was shaking. My thoughts were muddled and my brain felt like it had turned into a fine paste, and that some veiled hand had grabbed that dust and scattered it into a valley filled with smoke. I looked up at Shorty and could hardly believe what I saw. Shorty no longer looked like Shorty, but a dark and strange ghost. His face looked as though it had been painted with dust and his eyes looked like they had turned to glass. They were empty and lifeless. He moved his lips and I felt as though Death were standing in front of me, speaking to me. I heard him say:
Read back to me what you wrote.
His voice pierced through my ears like the grinding of teeth or the grating of bones. I read it back to him from the very beginning. As I approached the last few lines, I heard him say, while still standing up, swaying like a ghost:
Blabber, blabber...I wonder if she will understand all that blabber. Yes, of course she will.
Then, without looking at me, he placed his hand on my shoulder and said:
Fold this letter and place it in an envelope and hold onto it, until the time comes. I ask you, by God, to hold onto it, as you would your eyes. If you return home safely, and you will, then hand it to her yourself. Did you hear that? You, not anyone else. Now, you may go back to your bed, I have kept you up for far too long.
He said that while his hand held onto mine, which felt like I was shaking hands with Death. Then he continued:
Thank you, brother. May the Lord protect you and keep you pure in mind, heart and body. Do not ask me where I am about to go. I need to cleanse myself. Goodbye.
He walked to the door and unlocked it and stepped out. A few moments later, he came back and said:
If the deputy or physician ask about the bottle of spirit, tell them that Shorty injured himself and found that bottle and used it to clean the injury, but he accidentally dropped it.
He then stepped out again and I felt like my heart had stepped out with him.
I remained still for a while, trying to gather my thoughts, to no avail. Then I looked at my candle, which was taking its last breaths and so I blew on it softly and the place went dark. I walked back to my bed, like a drunkard, feeling my way around the place. My sleeping friends' snores were as loud as ever, rising at steady intervals throughout the hall. It suddenly seemed to me that those snores were but desperate, smothered cries being released from chests that Death had decided to camp on. And that those beds were but coffins carrying souls that didn't realize yet that they were indeed dead, despite the world calling them “protectors of the nation and flag-bearers of truth and freedom”.
I fell into my bed, exhausted. My eyes looked through the dark, but didn't see anything. My thoughts swam through a sea of nothingness, and couldn't find anything to settle on.
As I lay there, I suddenly heard the watchman outside shout:
Halt! Stop! Who is there?
There was a silence. And then again:
Stop! If you do not stop, I will fire!
Then a hail of bullets. My heart shriveled. The person sleeping on the bed next to me mumbled a few words and then turned to his other side and carried on snoring. The place went silent once more. It was a terrifyingly dreadful silence.
Every time I look at Shorty's bed and see it empty and abandoned, my eyes tear up. I comfort myself with the thought that he is now finally cleansed, and right where he wanted to be. Good for him!
Translated into English by Ali Almossawi · email@example.com · July 7, 2013