Authors: Josef Holub
Translated by Michael Hofmann
By the year 1811, Napoleon was ruler of a huge French Empire. His allies stretched across Europe, from Spain to Germany to Poland. But one of his allies, Czar Alexander of Russia, refused to adhere to Napoleons strict system of controlling trade.
Napoleon decided to teach Russia a lesson. Starting late in 1811, he mustered his troops and called on the rest of his allies to supply as many soldiers as possible. About 450,000 men marched in the resulting force, called the
It was the biggest army the world had ever seen.
Despite being warned about Russia’s severe winters and the enormous distances that had to be covered, Napoleon set out in the spring of 1812, confident that he would conquer the Russian Empire in a quick campaign. But the warnings proved to be correct. The food and supply wagons could not keep up with the huge army. Czar Alexanders generals confused the French military leaders with unconventional attacks. And the soldiers’ thin uniforms and weakened conditions were no match for a viciously cold winter.
Less than a quarter of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers returned safely home.
It’s only barely after midnight.
The farmer has just shot me through the heart with his new hunting rifle. Only it doesn’t seem to hurt. Perhaps the shot wasn’t real, but just the mischief of a dream.
So I’m not really dead at all. Otherwise, I would hardly have woken to mull over these crazy night spooks. Just to get rid of the slightest doubt, I give myself a sharp pinch. I feel it, thank God. I am alive. Gratefully, I sit up on my straw mattress and blow the last of the dirty dream air from my lungs.
What causes a dream like that? If only I knew! No one thinks up these sort of things by himself, not in the daytime. What would possess the farmer to shoot me, his farmhand, through the heart? Stupidity? Desire to kill? Irritation? Not possible! Least of all, my farmer. He has to think a thing through at least twice before he does it
even once. Three years ago now, he took me on as his youngest farmhand. I’m not especially big and strong, but I work hard, and already I understand a thing or two about farming. There’s really no reason to shoot me.
Stuff! It was just a dream. I turn onto my front and draw up my left knee against my belly.
But I can’t relax completely. Leftover scraps of the old dream feed a new one. And once again, the farmer is involved. This time, he doesn’t shoot me, he shakes and shakes me. He’s so merciless about it that my bones rattle and my muscles twitch. I don’t stir. What am I going to do against the farmer, anyway? Am I supposed to fight him off? Of course I’m not allowed to do that, not under any circumstances. Not even in my dreams. The farmer comes just after God and king. He gives me one or two more shakes, then he seizes me by the shoulders and pulls me bodily upright.
“Farmer,” I groan. “What’s the matter? What do I have to do?”
No more sleep. I rub my eyes awake. This dream is different from the last one. The farmer refuses to vanish, he stays there. He’s hunkering down by my sack of straw, as large as life, and he’s shaking me vigorously awake.
“Get up!” he commands me.
It’s pitch-black, and the other farmhands are snoring away. Why am I the only one who has to get up?
“Has something happened?” I ask, half awake. “Is
Olga calving already?” But then I think, this can’t be about Olga. She’s not due for another four or five weeks. And even if she were calving now, it wouldn’t be me but the oldest farmhand that the farmer would have come for.
“Splash some water on yourself, and put on your Sunday best,” the farmer commands. “We’re going into town.”
Did I hear correctly? Really — into town?
Into town. My heart starts to thump with happiness. What could be so important that the farmer drives into town with me?
Then it comes to me. Right! Could it be my birthday? It must be today or tomorrow, or perhaps it was yesterday or the day before. On one of those four days I must have turned or be turning sixteen. But that can’t really be the reason.
“But who’s to muck out the cow shed?” I ask back cautiously.
“Never you mind! I’ll see to that.”
He’s right. The farmer’s always right. He can get the cow shed mucked out by anyone he says and anytime he wants it done. Or if he decides he likes it better that way, he can leave it with the muck in it.
The farmer’s wife is banging around in the kitchen. With a sour old face. She often looks like that. Especially
in the morning. Of course, she hasn’t heard about my birthday, and so she doesn’t offer me her congratulations. Not that she would congratulate me if she did know. There isn’t much congratulating on this farm. No one in the whole village knows one jot about my birthday. Why would they? A person gets born, whether he wants to or not.
The pan with milk is already on the table. I wait obediently for the farmer to cut the bread. As usual.
“Cut your own,” the farmer’s wife says to me quietly.
The world is about to end, I think. Or is the violation of the bread rule something to do with my birthday, after all?
Something’s amiss. Of course, I cut myself a big thick doorstop of a slice. I’m even allowed to put butter on it myself. Which I do equally lavishly. The farmer’s wife makes big round eyes when she sees me, but she doesn’t fuss, and she doesn’t stop me.
“You eat!” she says. “Lord knows when you’ll have something in your belly again.”
“Will we be staying so long in town?” I venture to ask back. But no one gives me an answer. It’s not fit for an apprentice to ask a cheeky question like that.
The farmer’s wife never had to give anyone a second invitation to eat. She’s more likely to put on the brakes. The farmhands always eat as much as possible. If there is
anything to eat. They had better be quick about it, too. It’s a matter of survival.
“Harness up the sleigh,” orders the farmer.
“You heard me, the sleigh!”
The horses are sleepy and lazy. They don’t want to go out in the cold, and I have to push them in front of the sleigh.
We set out, the farmer and I. Just the two of us.
The morning is dry and cold. Far too cold for November. Up in the mountains there’s already lots of snow. What will it be like once the real winter comes? Behind the royal woods, a bit of light creeps into the eastern sky. In the valley below, there’s now more day than night. Sleighs and carts have flattened out the snow on the road.
A wild joy creeps under my ribs and pokes out in places. In all my sixteen years, I have never once been to town. Of course, there was never any reason to. No one goes into town without a reason. Today, apparently, there is a reason. The farmer will know what he’s about. Even so, I’d like to know, too. I wonder if it’s so I can say my oath of allegiance to the king? But normally you don’t swear oaths in town, but before the bailiff in Bohringsweiler. So it must be something else.
He is a good man after all, the farmer. Maybe he even likes me. It doesn’t have to be a big, fatherly love. A little bit would be plenty. Toward a sort of second, alternate son. Because he’s got one already, who is Georg. There might have been five by now. But there aren’t. They all of them died except him. Either in infancy, or later on with scarlet fever, convulsions, or the quinsy. Apparently, the farmer’s wife can’t have any more children. “Her belly’s completely wrecked!” That’s what the stable boys and maids whisper to one another.
Now what if the farmer wants to have another son? Who’s to say he doesn’t? Then I’d be a candidate. Who knows? He’s known me for three years already. For a little while now, I thought I could sense something like a little bit of affection coming from him. Even if the farmer’s usually strict and brutal, and never uses two words where one will do. But then he doesn’t talk much to his wife, or to Georg, his son, either. Anyway, it’s me he’s taking into town now. Who’s to say that’s not a good sign?
A new, incredibly big slice of the world lies ahead of me. Unfamiliar and exciting. I don’t know where to look, so I look left and right and straight ahead, and paint the passing pictures in my memory. There’s so much to look at. Tonight I’ll tell the other farmhands all about it. I can see them all openmouthed with astonishment, but also with envy.
I wonder if the houses in town are really all stuck
together like stillborn calves? The farmhands and maids talk such nonsense sometimes.
It’s late morning when we reach town. The snow on the roads gets thinner and mushier, and the sleigh scrapes against the stones quite often. That makes it difficult for the horses, and they’re steaming with effort.
It’s true that most of the houses are stuck together. Amazing. So they weren’t kidding me after all. What all isn’t possible? So many houses, and such a lot of people.
I wonder if I should tell the farmer how excited I am.
I peer at the farmer from the side. But he’s just got his horse-faced expression on, and not a little bit of what he’s thinking shows through. Probably better I don’t say anything foolish to him. There’s no knowing how he might respond to my blathering.
On both sides of the street, it’s just one house after another, and none of them have decent dung heaps. That means the people who live in town can’t be especially rich. Although the houses all look big and grand. Perhaps the rule about dung heaps in front of houses doesn’t apply in town. Perhaps the people who live here are rich, even though they don’t have any livestock.