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The Second Annual Fiction Issue

The Arm

During the war, a colonel received a letter from his wife. She missed him very much, it said, and would he please come visit because she's worried she will die without having seen him. The colonel immediately applied for leave, and as it happened that...

Illustration by Stephen Sprott TRANSLATED FROM THE RUSSIAN BY KEITH GESSEN AND ANNA SUMMERS During the war, a colonel received a letter from his wife. She missed him very much, it said, and would he please come visit because she’s worried she will die without having seen him. The colonel immediately applied for leave, and as it happened that just a few days earlier he’d been awarded a medal, he was granted leave for three days. He flew by plane, but just an hour before his arrival, his wife died. He wept, buried his wife, and got on a train back to his base—and then suddenly discovered that he had lost his Party card. He dug through all his things, returned to the original station—all of this with great difficulty—but couldn’t find it. Finally he just went home. There he fell asleep and dreamed that he saw his wife, who said that his Party card was in her coffin, on the left side, it had fallen out when the colonel bent over to kiss her during the funeral. In his dream his wife also told the colonel not to lift the veil from her face. The colonel did as he was told: He dug up the coffin, opened it, and found his Party card next to his wife’s shoulder. But then he couldn’t resist and lifted the covering from his wife’s face. His wife lay there as if still alive, except for a little worm on her left cheek. The colonel wiped away the worm with his hand, covered up his wife’s face again, and reburied the coffin. Now he had very little time, and he went directly to the airfield. The plane he needed wasn’t there, but then a pilot in a charred jacket pulled him aside and said he was flying to the same place as the colonel and could drop him off. The colonel was surprised that the pilot knew where he was going, but then he saw it was the same pilot as had flown him home. “Are you all right?” asked the colonel. “I had a little crash on the way back,” said the pilot, “but it’s all right. I’ll drop you off, it’s on the way.” They flew at night. The colonel sat on a metal bench running the length of the plane. He was surprised the plane could fly at all. It was in terrible shape on the inside, clumps of material hung everywhere, some kind of charred stump kept rolling underneath the colonel’s feet, and there was a strong smell of burned meat. They soon landed, and the colonel even asked the pilot if he was sure this was the right place. The pilot said he was absolutely sure. “Why is your plane in such poor shape?” the colonel asked, critically. The pilot explained that his navigator usually cleaned up, but he’d just been killed. And right away he started lugging the charred stump off the plane, saying, “There he is, my navigator.” The plane stood in a field, and all around this field wandered wounded men. There was forest in every direction, a campfire burned in the distance, and among the burned-out cars and artillery, people were lying and sitting, others were standing, and others were milling about. “Damn it!” the colonel yelled. “Where do you think you’ve brought me? This isn’t my base!” “This is your base now,” said the pilot. “I’ve brought you where I picked you up.” The colonel understood that his division had been rounded up and defeated, everyone killed or wounded, and cursed everything on earth, including the pilot, who was still messing with his charred stump, which he insisted on calling his navigator, and kept pleading with it to get up and go. “In that case, let’s start evacuating everyone,” ordered the colonel. “We’ll begin with the military files, then the regimental flags and the heavily wounded.” “This plane won’t fly anymore,” the pilot noted. The colonel took out his pistol and promised to shoot the pilot right then and there for disobeying a direct order. But the pilot ignored him and went on trying to stand the stump on the ground first one way, then another, saying over and over, “Come on, let’s go.” The colonel fired his pistol, but he must have missed, because the pilot kept mumbling, “Come on, come on,” to his navigator, and in the meantime the roar of vehicles could be heard and suddenly the field was filled with a mechanized column of German infantry. The colonel took cover in the grass, the trucks kept coming and coming, but there was neither shooting nor shouting of orders, nor did the motors stop running. Ten minutes later the column was gone, and the colonel raised his head—the pilot was still fussing over his charred stump, and over by the fire there were still people lying down, sitting, walking around. The colonel stood up and approached the fire. He didn’t recognize anyone, this wasn’t his division at all: There was infantry here, and artillery, and God knows what else, all in torn uniforms, with open wounds on their arms, legs, stomachs—only their faces were clean. They talked quietly among themselves. Next to the fire, with her back to the colonel, there sat a woman in civilian dress and a kerchief on her head. “Who’s the senior officer here?” demanded the colonel. “I need an immediate report on the situation.” No one moved, no one paid any attention to the colonel when he started shooting, although when the pilot finally managed to roll his charred stump over to them, everyone helped him throw his so-called navigator on the flames and thereby put out the fire. It became completely dark. The colonel was shivering from the cold and began cursing again: Now it would be impossible to get warm, he said, you can’t light a fire with a log like that. And now the woman by the fire said, without turning around: “Oh why did you look at my face, why did you lift my veil? Now your arm is going to wither.” It was the voice of his wife. The colonel lost consciousness and when next he woke he was in a hospital. He was told that they’d found him in the cemetery, next to his wife’s grave, and that the arm on which he’d been lying was seriously damaged, and now might have to be removed. THREE STORIES | 1 | = 1199) { echo "2 | "; } if ($limit >= 1200) { echo "3 | "; } ?>