A New Era in Self-Discipline

I am going to post something every day for the next two weeks. This is for sure. Day One of a New Era in Self-Discipline.

“Pl. Francesco Maria, 3”

The two are silhouettes against the moonlit sea. A city of clouds bustles silently past on the horizon. In the city below, periodic pops and clattering of automatic fire. Intersections are lit briefly, and then go dark. Only rarely does a voice drift up—usually a chorus of voices, a charge of drunken rowdying or both.

The cigarettes are important to these men. If there is coffee, the late shift is much better. If it were not for the rough cotton uniforms, the weighty overcoats, and the presence of another man who becomes a stranger again on these distant nights, this could be a lover’s stroll.

He thinks of a night before the war. There’d been a party in the gothic quarter, dancing in the Placa Reial. Formal attire. They’d danced and watched the dancing, and collected empty cava glasses at their table in the corner. Musicians dressed in white jackets, with polished instruments, played by the fountain. Lanterns were strung from balcony to balcony like a floating ceiling. Afterwards, they’d taken a carriage to the foot of Montjüic, to her apartment. It was just in the foothills, and from the terrace they could see the lantern ceiling as a dim glow across the roofs of the old city.

She’d played with his hair. The white strap of her dress had slipped off her shoulder. In the room behind a bed, a desk, a neat bookcase. Curtains. A warm, thoughtless night.

Now he leaned against the cold stone, a kilometer from her balcony. He didn’t know where she was, but many had not left the city. It was safe to stay inside—safe enough—and empty houses were soon discovered and looted or conscripted for soldiers. She might be there.

He blew the smoke out and turned to his companion.

–What time is it?

–Almost one o’clock.

The other man was younger, but of a similar olive complexion, with the same black hair. His beard was sparse in patches on his chin. This one turned and stubbed his cigarette into the wall.

–We haven’t gotten any mail for a week.
The man looked at him. Looking out to sea.
–I’m expecting a letter. Where’s the post? I wouldn’t have signed up. I wouldn’t have signed up. I could be home. My father is a teacher at the university in Tarragona. I had a place there. If I’d known, I wouldn’t have signed up.

–What did you expect?

–I expected to pose for pictures, sit behind sandbags, and doze off.

A young man’s dream of war is war’s first casualty.

–What did you expect? Is this what you expected?

–This is good. It’s four hundred meters straight down to the harbor, and two thousand down the hill to town. The road is guarded. This is a good job.

The young man huffed.
He watched him.

–In Madrid, I didn’t stand up straight for six months. We even crouched inside houses, because of snipers looking in through the windows. The aide-de-camp at our house, Adolfo Garza, had the “A” and “G” keys shot off his typewriter. He panicked because they were his initials. He thought the sniper knew him and was toying with us. It’s impossible, a shot like that, but we couldn’t convince him. He sat a few days beneath the window, trying to see the sniper, but he didn’t see anything.

–When the new typewriter arrived there were loose keys rattling around in the box. It had been crushed somehow on the way. When Garza saw that, he got very nervous and quiet. He filled his satchel with ammunition and took his rifle and went out to look for the sniper. He thought the man was taunting him. At that time, tension about death—about the moment of death—was actually greater than our fear of it. We charged crazily in battle. We couldn’t stand the tension.

–We urged him not to go, but there is no reason when all decisions are made by violence. There are only perception and courage. Or lack of courage. To avoid being a coward, to aovid being an object of fun for the enemy, he went out. We could see him, crawling from rooftop to rooftop. Several times enemy planes flew overhead. They could have torn him to pieces with their machine guns, but he lay still and they never saw him.

–Near dawn, he reached the rooftop he had decided was the place. He lay behind a chimney and began examining lines of sight through his own rifle. We were taking turns watching him through a set of field glasses. A sniper actually did use that spot, it turned out. When he arrived, Garza was lying on his belly, facing away. I had the field glasses, and I could see the sniper walking up behind him. We were looking right into each other’s eyes as he was shot in the back.

–It’s impossible to know what was real in Garza’s thoughts—whether he knew more or less than us. Maybe that sniper was a real virtuoso, shot the right keys off. I wouldn’t have believed it, but I would also not have believed many other things that did happen. But Garza was dead, and that was the only test.

Too young and too old, the silhouettes strolled quietly above the moonlit sea.


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