The San Sebastian Chronicles, Part III
Just then, we — that is, the American volunteer Johnny, and I, a humble and dutiful Hauptsergente in the army of San Sebastian, Die Gran Königliches Esercito des San Sebastian — were interrupted by Undercorporal Desotto. He was half-singing a line from the San Sebastian national anthem, which we’d all just finished belting out with grangusto, as we did nightly, to the tremulous burples of Tomasso’s trumpet.
As our Etruscan foremothers strove, for food, for love, for motherland, San Sebastian
“I think we have quite a fine national anthem, don’t you think, Hauptsergente?”
I nodded, “Indeed, Desotto. Sergente is fine.”
“I came to meet the American,” Desotto grinned.
“Well, here he is,” I said through a particulated miasma of the finest Turkish tar.
In valleys low and mountains high, down rivers swift, and o’er fields of gold and green we wave our flag, San Sebastian
Desotto and Johnny exchanged greetings as I admired the icy orange sunset above the knifing peaks to our west. As our trench was on a slight rise in the valley, if I stood a bit on my footballs I could just see through the balistraria opposite and into the valley. There I could see the sunset’s setting of the peaks’ shadow racing to the east across the valley where our trenches teared and traced through the little farms and copses. In a deep valley, a sunset’s shadow can move with striking celerity in the right light, and this one did, its penumbra crossing the few miles of the valley in a matter of a handful of decaseconds.
It was a fine valley, just on the northern frontier of a finger of San Sebastian sovereignty, quite near the village of Verel,which was also known as Fehrhoffenburg, or, to some, Torregisse. The village had a warm inn, a well-stocked bar, and a tobacconist who was willing to overlook formalities regarding ration stamps.
I looked again to the western peaks. Yes, this would be a good dusk for it, as most were this time of year. I turned back to the racing shadow, which had then just reached the steep ascent of the eastern mountains across the valley. There the sprint of the shadow’s edge slowed to climb up the outcroppings of Monte Pietro, Haarberg, and the other summits on the valley’s oriental edge.
I looked back to the west, squinting at the mountaintop. I thought I could just make them out. Two specks on the icy vertex. Back to the east I looked, over the trench’s edge, through my pipe smoke. And there it was. The Spettro di montagna. The teutons on the other side would call it the Brockengespenst. In just the right conditions, the smallest shape on a mountain peak, when backed by a sunset or sunrise, would cast a giant shadow of itself in the antipodal clouds, or, in this case, the mountain face across a steep valley.
On a summit occident were Nuzzo and Gabler, two of our finest alpinistos. Both were waving to get our attention. We could see their flailing arms clearly, forty feet tall each at least on the rocky outcroppings to the east. The phenomenon would last only a couple of decaseconds, so after waving just a few times, Nuzzo ducked out of sight. I smacked Desotto on the shoulder.
“Atta-ta-ta-ta! Desotto!” I pointed to the east.
“Ah, American, shut up, please and look!” Desotto admonished.
The three of us turned to the eastern mountainside. There, Gabler, who was quite an accomplished gymnast, had looped is arms over his head as he faced his body perpendicular to the dimming sunrays and ducked his head down away from the light. Across the valley, this contortion formed a child’s caricature of a person. A stick man with a giant head.
Then, just so, Gabler raised his right leg, the one away from the sun, up nearly parallel to the sunlight but hidden within the shadow of his left leg and his trunk, so the shape of the giant-headed spettro remained the same. (I knew what he was doing because I had been there when he and Nuzzo hatched the plan and had given it my approval, or at least did not forbid it, as the company’s sergente.) We could hear shouts arising along the trench, and some from the trench a few hundred longsteps to the north. It appeared the Austrians — or perhaps the Liechtensteiners — had joined in the fun. The spettro was now a hundred feet tall on the mountainside if it was a foot.
Just about now, Nuzzo, who was a head shorter than Gabler and skinny as a calf’s leg, would be standing up between Gabler and the setting sun, his shadow totally hidden behind Gabler’s. As he did this, Gabler, using the careful balance and exquisite muscle control he had learned from hundreds of hours spent practicing his gymnastics in the Sokol since age five or six, moved his outheld right leg toward the north, where he was facing. On the opposite slope, this caused the spettro, now a hundred fifty feet in height, its head approaching the eastern ridge, to grow a new appendage, perpendicular to its body and parallel to the valley floor, about a quarter the length of its shadowy thorax.
Now, with the sun about to disappear over the western mountains beyond he and Gabler, Nuzzo extended both his arms together outward to the north in the same direction as Gabler’s protruded right leg, pointing them, hands interlocked, toward the ground about three or four feet in front of him. He then moved them furiously to his body and out again to the angle at which he had started.
A great cheer and bellows of laughter went up from our trench and that of the enemy! Hats flew in the air and some of the men collapsed on the ground in guffaws as we all watched the giant Spettro di montagna as it engaged in the greatest act of onanism ever seen since the last pubescent Gibborim boy roamed the Antediluvian Earth.
Someone fired a mortar, another a flare.
The cheers went on for four or five seconds as the spettro built to his climax. And then, with a grünerblitz cast against the eastern ridge, the sun disappeared and the Brockengespenst with it as the valley fell into darkness.
The cheers went on.
Desotto put his hands around his mouth and shouted, “To Gabler!”
The men responded in roars, “To Gabler!”
Desotto shouted again, “To Nuzzo!”
The men called back, “To Nuzzo!”
Across no-man’s land, some of the enemy set off a great, red firework in celebration. Desotto and I were laughing mightily. I could see some tears coming town the cheeks of a clutch of men nearby.
“What in the damn Hell didIjustsee?” the American gaped.
Just then, about twenty feet down the trench to the west, the great oaken door of the company commandant was kicked open with a frightful bang. The captain emerged, lifting his bracers over his shoulders, shaving cream on half his face and an impressive amount of blood flowing from a cut on the other half.
“What in the bloody name of shit is going on out here! I demand to know! What is it?!?!”
The commandant stamped his boots on the floorboards of the trench, sending his mustache-ends aquiver.
The men quieted for a moment. The commandant’s barber, Giotto, peeked out from the door, “Ah, did I miss it? The great wanking spectre?!”
The commandant spun on his heels, “Giotto, you ass, get inside!” He turned back to us, “All of you loafing cowshits, you must clean all night tonight. Inspection tomorrow! No more of this idiotry! Giotto, blast it, clean the razor and get the clotting powder.”
The commandant stormed back in his quarters, slamming the door behind him. The men paused a moment, and then burst into laughter again, slowly making their way back to their duties and stations.
“Ah, apologies, American, but sometimes, you know, we have to have some fun in this war. Otherwise, we would be dour. Dour indeed.”
A couple soldiers walked by. “Gabler! Can you believe it?,” exclaimed one.
“Flawless work by Nuzzo as well,” the other nodded.
Desotto continued to chuckle, wiping his eyes.
“Oh, yes. Ah, Johnny, where were we?”
“Johnny has a new duty tonight,” I patted him on the shoulder.
“What is that, sergeant?” Johnny asked eagerly.
“Keeping watch for a semen avalanche!”
Desotto and I doubled over again.