THE LITTLE SOLDIER (ING.)
THE LITTLE SOLDIER
TRANSLATION BY THOMAS J.KIEHN (11.26.2003)
The first time he saw his father was on the movie screen. At that time he was about five years old.
It happened in the big white sheepfold where every year they would guide the sheep to be shorn. The sheepfold is still there behind the State-farm village, at the foot of the hills, near the road.
He ran there with his mother. She, Jeyengul, worked as a telephone operator at the village s post office, but every summer at the beginning of shearing season she would take on work as an temporary worker at the shearing station. She would take holiday leave and work there until the last day of shearing season. She was paid by piecework, so it wasn t bad at all to pick up work there. And for her, a soldier s widow, every last kopeck was needed. Even though her family wasn t large it was just her and her son , it came down to the same thing: family is family and you had to have clothes, shoes. . . Yes, there are a lot of things you need.
Her son would have had to stay at home by himself, so for this reason she brought him to work with her. There he would run around all day, dirty-faced and happy, among the shepherds and their dogs.
He was the first to see it when the mobile cinema van arrived in the courtyard of the sheepfold and also the first to spread news of this extraordinary event:
The movies are here! The movies are here! he shouted.
The movie began after work, when it had gotten dark. It was about the war.
He and his mother found a place for themselves on the bales of wool, right behind the others. It was easier to see, sitting there. He, of course, wanted to sit in the very first row, where a group of youngsters from the village had gathered around the screen. He started to move toward them, but his mother stopped him.
That s enough. You ve been running around the whole day. Stay with me for now. She said as she sat him on her lap.
The movie projector clicked and the war began. Everyone watched intensely. The boy s mother sighed as she watched, and every now and then she would wince with fear and grip her son tightly.
It wasn t as scary for him. In fact, to the contrary, he sometimes found it funny when the fascists were killed in battle. And when it was our soldiers who fell, it seemed to him that they would always get back up.
Generally, it s amusing when people are killed in war. Just like when the kids would play war. He could fall like that himself. It would hurt a little, of course, but it wasn t too bad. He just had to get back up and he was on the attack again. But those men didn t get back up. They just laid there on the ground. He could get killed differently, in as much as the bullet would always hit him in the stomach. Then he would announce that he had not been killed and he would begin to fight again. But these men weren t getting back up.
The war continued. The movie projector clicked. Then the artillery men appeared on the screen. There were about seven altogether, but one of them did not look Russian. The boy may not have even taken notice to this if it wasn t for his mother.
Look. That s your father. She whispered to her son.
And from that moment the man on the screen was his father. And now the whole film was about him, about his father. His father turned out to be quite young, just like the young guys from the village. He wasn t particularly tall, and he had a round face and quick eyes.
Mom, is he my father? Avelbek asked his mother.
What? Sit quietly and watch the movie.
But you said he was my father.
Yes, of course. He is your father. But, stop talking. Don t bother people.
Why did she say that? Why? Maybe, it just so happened that she wasn t thinking at that moment. Maybe she became so stirred up that she remembered her husband. But he believed it, and it made him so happy that he was beside himself from this unexpected and unknown joy. And like any child would be he was proud of his father, the soldier. This was quite a father! And to think that all the other boys had teased him about not even having a father. Just let them see now! And the shepherds, too! These shepherds never properly knew the boy. All the shepherds, every single one of them, would ask without fail, So, what is your name?"
Avalbek he would answer.
And whose kid are you?
I am Toktasun s son.
The shepherds would not understand right away what he was talking about.
Toktasun? They would respond. Who was this Toktasun?
I am Toktasun s son he would repeat.
His mother had taught him to answer like that and his blind grandmother had told him not to forget the name of his father.
Ah, wait a minute. You are the son of that telephone operator at the post office, isn t that right?
No, I am Toktasun s son. He would continue, holding his ground.
Then the shepherds would try to figure out what was going on.
All right then, you are Toktasun s son. Good boy. And don t be offended, we work in the hills all year round, while you kids grow up like weeds here. It s hard to recognize all the kids.
And then the shepherds would amongst themselves try to remember the boy s father. They would whisper to each other that he was so young when he left for the front that most people here couldn t even remember him. But it was a good thing that he left a son, because so many bachelors had gone to war and left nobody to carry on their name.
From the moment when his mother had whispered to him, Look, that is your father , the man on the screen became his father. And the boy already thought of this man as his father. He did indeed actually resemble the young soldier in the war photograph. The same photograph which they later enlarged, framed under glass and hung on the wall.
From then Alvabek looked at his father through the eyes of a son, and in the child s soul arose a passionate tide of, until now, unknown filial love and tenderness. It was as if his father had from the screen realized that his son was watching, and as if he wanted to show himself, by his momentary appearance in the movie, in away that his son would always remember and be proud of him: as a soldier. From that moment war no longer seemed amusing to the boy. And there was nothing funny about it when people died. War became serious, unsettling, and scary. For the first time he experienced a feeling of fear for someone close to him, for someone who he had always missed.
The movie projector clicked and the war continued. In front of them they saw advancing tanks. There were many of them. It was becoming frightening.
It seemed to the boy that he himself was there, next to his father, amidst the fire and thunder of war. He grew quiet when our soldiers fell. They were becoming fewer and fewer. . . His mother was crying, her face wet and warm.
The movie projector clicked and the war continued. The fighting grew intense with newfound force. The tanks came closer and closer. Another soldier was killed. There were only two left his father and another soldier. An Explosion. A flame and darkness. Only one soldier got up from the ground. It was his father. He was still alive. He slowly gets up from the ground and walks toward the tank. In his hands he carries a grenade.
His mother squeezed his hand so hard that he almost gasped. He wanted to get up and run to his father, but his father had fallen like a chopped down tree. His father tried to stand up, only to fall once again with his arms stretched out.
The movie projector fell silent and the war abruptly interrupted. It was the end of the first part. The projectionist turned on the light.
As the light flooded the sheepfold, everyone blinked and squinted, returning from the world of movies, from the world of war, to their real lives. And at that moment the boy slid down from the bail of wool and triumphantly shouted, Guys, that was my father! Did you see him? That was my father that they killed.
No one was expecting, nor could they explain, what had just happened. The boy ran with triumphant shouts towards the screen, to the front row where his young friends were sitting, but particularly to the ones that he was closest to. A strange, awkward silence fell upon the sheepfold. The absurd sense of joy that the boy received from seeing his father for the first time had not yet reached the other people. No one understood a thing; everyone remained confusedly silent and shrugged their shoulders. The projectionist dropped the box of film. But the little soldier, the son of the fallen soldier, kept trying to persuade them.
You saw him! That was my father. . . They killed him! he said, but the more excited he got, the more silent the others grew. He didn t understand why they weren t as glad or as proud of his father as he was.
It was the boy from next door who decided to be the first to tell him the truth.
That wasn t your father. What are you shouting? It definitely wasn t your father, it was an actor. Even go ask the projectionist.
The adults didn t want to ruin the boy s bitter and precious illusion, and so they hoped that the visiting projectionist would set the boy straight by telling it like it was. They all watched him, but he too remained silent. He just occupied himself with his projector, making it seem like he was very busy.
No, that was my father! My father! the boy said, not calming down.
Which one was your father? Which one? challenged the boy s neighbor.
The one who went up to the tank with the grenade. Did you really not see him? He fell just like this!
And with that the boy threw himself onto the ground and rolled over like his father had fallen. The boy did it exactly like it had happened; he laid there in front of the screen with his arms stretched out wide.
The others couldn t help but laugh. He just laid there like he had been killed, not laughing. Once again there was an awkward silence.
What is all of this? Jeyengul, why aren't you looking after your kid? an old shepard woman spoke up with reproach. Everyone watched as the mother sternly and sadly walked over to her son with tears in her eye.
She lifted her son from the ground.
Let s go, son. Let s go. And that was your father. she told him quietly, and she took him with her out of the sheepfold.
The moon was already high in the sky. The mountain peaks became visible in the dark-blue night, and the valley below laid immense and pitch dark.
And only then, for the first time in his life, the boy experienced the bitter taste of loss. He suddenly felt unbearably offended, aggrieved, and saddened by the killing of his father. He suddenly wanted to hug his mother and cry for a while. And he wanted her to cry with him. But she was silent. So he, too, became silent clenching his fist and fighting back his tears.
He didn t realize that it was at this moment that his father, who had died in the war some time ago, began to live in him.