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Joie de Vivre
Author's note: Several weeks ago, our school participated in a program called "The Big Read". All of the students read a book titled "Before We Were Free", written by Julia Alvarez. Despite the many themes of the story, one that stuck out particularly to me regarded the growth of the main character, Anita. I realized through the novel that growth is often the realization of childishness and naivety--when a person finally realizes that they are still children at heart. Perhaps this applied more to a proud fighter who realized what a fight was. Thus Yves was born, to reveal to the world that maturity is the realization of immaturity in oneself.
Le Belle Epoque. The beautiful era. The aroma is pleasant, and the sweetness of the times is manifested in the corners of the city’s lips. Paris is blessed. But my lips remained untouched, unfulfilled by the beauty around me. Some considered me one of the lucky ones. One of the more fortunate. One of those who had survived to savor the joy and wonder surrounding me. Perhaps that was the problem. Perhaps I smiled less because I was the soldier who had never fought.
I am known as Yves Bonaparte, and Bonaparte meant more to me than one would ordinarily imagine. I shared a name with the Great Napolean Bonaparte—the great hero of France. Our so-called leader—Pierre Waldeck-Rosseau, prime minister—was nothing. Great Napolean was our leader, for France actually had somewhere to follow him to. But where had Waldeck-Rosseau led us? What had he done for France other than keep it the way it was? To sustain is not to lead.
Time had always transpired slowly, but in recent days there had been no relief to the vapidity of everyday life. Every day seemed like a monotonous and redundant pattern—it was almost as if I was stuck in one part of my life, a broken phonographe playing the same day over and over again. I recall it to be Albert Einstein who insinuated that time is relative not only to space, but to the condition of life—“When you are courting a nice girl, an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder, a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity.” Perhaps excitement in itself is such a red-hot cinder. Perhaps when you are excited for the future, you are never content with the present.
This sudden deceleration of time was due mostly to something that had occurred several days before—the exact length of time is at this moment unclear since I lost track of days in my utter boredom. A rumour had suddenly sprouted among the men that we were called to fight in Africa, and from that day forth there was no end to my keenness. I eagerly and nervously awaited the call to action, the fulfillment of the prophecy. Days were weeks to me, and weeks may have very well passed before I no longer felt the apprehension. I have no patience, but what little patience I had was tested again and again as I anticipated the confirmation of the rumour, as I anticipated the march.
However many days passed eventually, and I soon found myself in a broken system. When I woke up, it was not yet dawn, and the trumpet played a strange tune. The encampment was unusually congested on that day, many soldiers crowded around the tall, shining pole. I stared up at the top—the point we always ensured was the highest point in the entire camp. The flag of France. I recall a story of the fleur-de-lis, when a man was asked to lead France. The man had a particularly long name and many titles, but all I remember of it was that he was called Henri, Comte de Chambord . France offered him the throne and requested that he be their king. However, he was then denied the right to preside over the country since he requested that the tri-colour flag—blue, white, and red—be lowered and the flag with the fleur-de-lis be raised instead. A rather stupid decision, I must say—a flag represents a country. I honestly believe that whatever some proud and powerful leader, or overzealous fanatic, puts on the flag, whatever the symbols on the flag represent, the flag itself shall always represent France. The motherland. Home.
I despised seeing that flag waving when I stood on Parisian soil without a gun on my shoulder. I felt like an obnoxious, boisterous child playing soldier. I needed to see war. I needed to know that I have really fought for my country rather than staying back in the country, “just in case”. Awaiting the first battle, awaiting my first deployment, waiting—I joined the army to be a soldier. Not a boy waiting for the men to come home. I wanted to fight for the motherland, not watch as other men do it instead. I wanted to be a man. But knowing that I would be made it even worse, for I abhorred waiting. I couldn’t stand being idle, to have a future but no present.
I cut through the crowd of men until I could see, for I was never a tall person, much like the great leader I idolized so. The discord and vivaciousness surrounding me was quite uncharacteristic of the men—the camarades I knew so well. It was ridiculous—even pathetic—many of these boisterous men had been in the army for years. One would expect them to know to act maturely. To act like soldiers.
Standing where I was, I caught glimpses of two messengers from between the wave-like movement of the men in front of me, bringing tidings from battle. Even them I envied. Even they were at the front lines, even they experienced the thrill of war.
They stood at the base of the towering flag pole in the center of the camp, a tall man with one distinctly bulky arm and one slightly less muscular, accompanied by a man of average height, slim, but still visibly strong enough to be a soldier. Their legs were lean, most probably from running as far as they often did, and they wore lighter, sleeveless uniforms.
Despite the calming hollers of the senior officers (one major problem with our superiors was that they had no idea how to deal with a crowd), it still took several seconds for the men to settle down enough for the messengers to speak. Soon, the unsettling waves of the men became light currents of movement; the men, for some reason or another, still found the need to sway. Once the calm had lasted for several moments, the taller one straightened his back, cleared his throat, and then shouted powerfully into the ocean of men in a distinct but slightly indecipherable Corsican accent of French, “Major Jean-Baptiste Marchand has requested another set of troops to arrive at Le Nil!”
The wave of men started moving more violently again, but soon calmed down as people looked back up at the messengers and realized they had more to say. The tall man took a deep breath, and then continued once more, “He expects them there in several months at which time he himself should be arriving there!”
With that, the man saluted the crowd, and the men saluted back in a staggered wave. I stood motionless for several seconds. I had known that we were being called to fight, but not in Africa—not to fight in the mad dash for Fashoda! As I recalled, Le Nil was in Eastern Africa. A surge of relief flooded my body. The rumours were true. Suddenly, the slight anxiety I had felt before spiked into true excitement—burning, wild passion—and I felt an irrepressible need to smile. I was to be a soldier. I was to be a true soldier.
Most of the men surely shared the same uncontrollable emotion. There were some whoops, and several men actually threw their caps into the air. There was great shifting and motion among them; I recollect that it reminded me of a school of fish darting away from sharks. Utter chaos.
It came to my attention that some of the men seemed not to be too thrilled. In fact, they seemed almost morose—melancholy, I should say. I pondered on whether or not to investigate, but decided against it. Perhaps they were simply shocked. It was possible that some had simply never heard rumour of our mission, and would soon drown in the same overwhelming emotion that the other men had already experienced once their shock wore off. Something was still wrong, but I forced myself not to think about it. Being human, after all, I feared the unknown.
The two messengers started climbing down from where they stood and left for the barracks, craving rest after a long journey. It occurred to me that we wouldn’t be able to meet Marchand at the Nile as he had a huge head start, but I reminded myself that he was carrying about a hundred tons of supplies. We didn’t need to carry anything, for what we didn’t have strapped to our shoulders and backs Marchand’s men were hauling across East Africa anyway.
We scrambled into our barracks, trembling enthusiastically like les chiens petits . There was a pressing need to be quick, and everything we needed was packed in minutes, the life of a soldier was minimalistic. With our weapons slung on our backs, we soon lined up in the encampment, the large, green-hued tents around us totally empty. War was my new home. I knew it to be where I belonged, fighting beside my fellow soldiers for Paris, for la République .
Marquis Amoux de Sauveterre, leader of my company, stood before us. He attempted to keep his face stern as a military officer should, but he had in his eyes the exhilaration that had washed over us all. After all, he was young, a great leader, but a zealot all the same. Just as so many of the men were. Just as I was.
He began speaking fluently in French. “Vous le entendîtes! ” We needed nothing more. A cheer rose among the men, and our march began. We set off to the Nile with “La Marseillaise”, the beautiful national anthem, and we sang it—chanted it, rather—in total unison. Indeed, there was no tune at all, and the rhythm slowly changed to match only our footsteps. It was our anthem. We could do what we wanted with it, for it was the soldiers that kept it alive.
It had never occurred to me before how tiring a march could be. I typically imagined it as just a long walk—almost relaxing—but I was totally off. It was not quite so relaxing with a gun on my shoulder and a twenty-pound backpack strapped to my back.
We set up a camp several miles from what, unbeknownst to us, would be our first battle. Perhaps “my first battle” would be more specific—I had found on the journey that most of the other soldiers had fought before. In fact, I was beginning to believe that I was the only soldier who had not fought before. The child awaiting his test of manhood, utterly conspicuous among men. With over-flowing pride, I watched as the men, as my comrades raised our flags over the tent. We had the power of France behind us. There is no defeat with that.
Sleep was no option for me on that night. It was almost as if I could feel the upcoming battle, and there was no relief to the constant bursts of what I assured myself was excitement. My own heartbeat seemed to blast through my entire body; I could practically hear it when I listened hard enough. I arose, convincing myself that insomnia was natural for a soldier. Obviously, I was simply preparing myself for the hardships of tomorrow. For battle. For victory.
The ground was soft and wet beneath my bare feet, and it was clear to me that we were nearing the Nile River as I walked out and gazed at the moon. The clouds were passing over it like veils of black, blurring but not covering the light of the moon. There was an old tale that my mother had told me as a boy. She had thought of it on the fly, as my father told me, and it remains to this day one of my best memories of my mother. The one time that she wasn’t pretending not to be sorrowful of our poor life. The one time that she cried tears of sadness, even with a smile of sincere happiness. It was almost as if one half of my mother felt more pain than I will ever feel, and the other half more joy. The sorrow of a difficult life. The joy of a difficult child.
Long ago, a powerful and beautiful enchantress fell in love with a gentle farmer of Earth, who returned the love many times over. However, time passed, and the mortal soon became decrepit and did what all mortals ultimately must. The enchantress, in her grief, cast the farmer in the moon, and with him herself to spend an eternity mourning his death. It was no doubt a childish tale, and not a very thorough one, but it is one of my greatest memories of my mère belle, my beautiful mother. Whenever I view the moon, I see not a man, but a woman, gazing down in search of her beloved’s home to cast light on where he had lived and died.
The rest of the sky was clouded, and the air carried the smell of salt water. We were definitely close to the river. From the corners of my eyes, I saw a flame in the center of the camp, and I was suddenly aware of the crackles coming from that direction. Urging myself to reconnoiter, I lightly jogged to the fire, holding up my baggy trousers, for I had placed my belt next to my cot in the barracks before I had laid myself down to sleep. I was rather shocked to see several other men, staring into the fire. Their eyes were dull, swimming with tears, and their expressions glum and weary. Most of them were older soldiers, and several wore thin green shawls. These were not soldiers. These—these could not be soldiers.
Reflecting on the moment, perhaps I was not very kind as I approached the men. I may have even been impudent, snickering as I entered the circle of men surrounding the growing reddish flame. Still standing, I scanned the men, feeling quite superior to them. “What’s wrong, comrades?” I inquired, mockingly. None of the men responded to this question, for it was clear to them that I was just being obnoxious. “Avez le cafard? ” I practically puffed out my chest, looming over the men condescendingly. “Manquez vos meufs ?”
Several of the men shot malicious glares at me. After a pause, one stood and left without a word. Suddenly the man sitting on my right struck me with a stiff slap. Caught off my guard, I fell back on my elbows and began rubbing my cheek. The man stood and glowered over me. “Do you know nothing of war?”
I stared at him blankly. Another man gesticulated for him to sit back down. “Felix…” The man, however, ignored him. He repeated himself, “Do you know nothing of war?”
Pointing after the man who had just left, he continued, “That man was out massacring people in a battle when his wife died of a fever in la France.” He moved his finger slightly to point at another man, who was staring into the fire solemnly. “His son fought at his side and died defending him. He outlived his own son in battle.”
The man slowly moved his finger to point at himself. His slender finger was vibrating, yet his light blue eyes remained austere. “I…” He paused for a second, thinking of what to say. Then he continued, “I was out massacring people. And that is enough to make me hate war.” In the fire, his face seemed to transform until it was much softer. I could see now his face, and noticed that he had no facial hair save a few whiskers. His eyes, however, were weary, as if he was much older than he looked. Perhaps he was.
Emerging from his pensive state, his eyes narrowed once more, and he scowled at me. “There is no atonement for what you have just said in your ignorance and pure stupidity.”
I looked at him a puzzled expression on my face. “But we are soldiers!” I pointed out. “We are trained to be strong—trained not to cry!”
Stooping down on one knee, Felix looked me in the eye. “We are men,” he replied softly, “and men cry.”
Never before had I realized what a battle was to a soldier the day it was fought. Even as the trumpet blared, I felt myself stiff and unmoving—my mind soared off into a quick flash of a fantastic daydream, millions of people applauding me for my bravery—but the second blast of the familiar tune brought me back where I needed to be. Now.
My clothing was on in under a minute, my gun assembled in under two, and I dashed out of the barracks just as all the other men emerged to see the problem. The sun protruded just over the horizon, a giant red flame to reveal our enemies. From the light rose hundreds of black figures blurred by the rising heat. Their shadows reached our encampment from where they were, the sun emphasizing their every feature.
I felt a pump of adrenaline as I ran into the lines that were being set up. The outlines were clearer, and I was able to make out many men wielding crude weapons. They ran with animal-like strides, their weapons, though crude, were sharp as rapiers. I was out massacring people. The words suddenly entered my mind while I watched with exhilaration. I tried to convince myself that the words held some appeal to me, that massacring people was an idea I cherished. It is interesting what a soldier tells himself when he lies to himself about fear. About morals. About honour.
Mon capitaine Amoux held up his saber. I quickly swung my gun until I could aim it, looking over the kneeling rows in front of me. My trigger was surprisingly cold, and my aim suddenly became somewhat quavering. Steadying myself, I looked directly at one man, a young man with a finely crafted iron spear. The sword remained raised for several moments, and my eyes remained fixed on that one man, his spear raised in a violent charge. As the aggressors approached us, I could make out cuts on his forehead that seemed to follow a pattern. He seemed to have had a rite of passage—a ritual of manhood. He seemed to have had a life.
The sword was lowered. The trigger was pressed. The bullet embedded itself in the center of his ribcage, and he doubled over, blood leaking out of his mouth, his nose, and his wound. I watched as he squirmed on the ground, writhing in agony, the very grass around him defiled. I was out massacring people.
Averting my eyes, I realized that the sword was raised once more. The attackers were about four hundred mètres away, and they seemed unconcerned that so many of them had been shot. Several trampled the bodies of their companions. I quickly reloaded my gun, and took aim at another man. I tried not to think about who he was, but my thoughts naturally wandered there. He was much older than the other man, and seemed to have so much more of a purpose as he ran out into war. He seemed to know what he was doing—a veteran in their tribe, perhaps—but all the same, he was an enemy. The vision around him was blurred, defocused, while he himself appeared to me a sharp image, a soldier, a man.
The sword lowered just as I remembered what Felix had told me earlier. Men cry. Reluctantly, the trigger was pulled, the shot was fired, and a man fell back, clutching a gash in his face near his right eye. In my hesitation, I had caused him more pain than if I had killed him outright. Than if I had seen him as a soldier. Not a man.
Totally indifferent about the collapsing men around them, the tribe began sprinting as they neared us, a mere fifty mètres away, shouting raucously as they did. Along with the others in the first few rows, I swung my gun back onto my back and drew my saber. A thrill overcame me then. These were not men. They were bounding towards us like animals. I assured myself—lied to myself—that there was no need to be humane, no need to be merciful. That animals were to be slaughtered. From behind me, one last rally was fired, and as the tribe clashed with our army, all swords were out.
The first row practically melted in the onslaught, and the second were being killed like insects. In a wild lunge, I stabbed one attacker as he approached me, but another gashed my hand with a small, hand-held razor. My sword dropped, and I fell back in terror. Kicking frantically at his legs, I buckled his knee, and the man collapsed on the ground, but he lashed out with his razor. My cheek was torn slightly, and blood spewed from the wound. When I looked back up, the man was standing over me with my saber. He lunched at me ferociously, but I rolled away, my hands searching for anything I could use as a weapon. My heart was practically just shuddering, and my hands trembled in the grass as I tried to escape the inevitable. There was a firm foot on my back, sending a searing pain up my spine. I cringed, waiting for the killing blow.
There was a gunshot, and the pressure on my back relaxed. Opening my eyes suddenly, I turned around. My tormenter lay on the ground, blood gushing from his skull. Felix was standing several mètres away, his finger pressing the trigger of a handgun. He turned to me. “And that is enough to make me hate war.”
It was almost painful to be able to think at times; there was often no break from thought when I wanted one. I felt a burning premonition, and in my mind I continually constructed fantasies of a horrible defeat at the hands of our enemies. Not dreams, but fantasies—try as I might, I could not reach that or any state of sleep.
Instead, I lay awake, staring at the dark roof to the tent. There were shadows looming over every bunk, and not much was visible, but I enjoyed watching these figures more than such fantasies. We were France. I was raised to believe in this, to put all of my faith in my country. Why, then, was I so fearful? This was truly not the mark of a soldier. However, I realized that an attempt at sleep was at the present futile, and I arose, wandering aimlessly around the tent.
After about an hour, I abandoned the notion of sleep altogether, and wandered out to gaze at the moon once again. There were no clouds—the rays of moonlight cast a sharp light over the Nile. The salt created a refreshing odor, and I realized that at this point, I was more awake than I was during the day. The world around me seemed to live as I did, and every minute detail of my environment was obvious to me. The sounds of the rolling river, the shifting of the loose soil and sand around my bare feet, and the flicker of Felix’s constant flame were distinct, and they all seemed to invigorate me even more.
Wordlessly, I took my regular place around the fire, and took to my regular silence. For several weeks, I promised myself every day that I would thank him for saving my life, but everyday my silence and my solemn thoughtful expression seemed to be my only communication. The fire, however, appeared to moved towards him, and my gaze continuously shifted to meet his. He stared at me with a hard unreadable expression, and his eyes were unmoving. Swallowing, I bent my head at him. “Merci.”
There was more silence, after which, he nodded and turned back to stare at the fire. I was suddenly greatly intrigued by this character—a silence for so many days that I had ignored in fear of him, in gratitude to him. I was not the only one who remained speechless for so many days, and it took me until I spoke to realize this. All of my fear of this tall, powerful man dissipated as I viewed him with wonder. “Why do you hate war?”
He maintained his silence for several seconds, then, turning away, muttered softly, “I told you this, did I not?”
“You told me that you massacred people,” I responded, “but we are soldiers. We tend to do that.”
He turned towards me, smiling gently, and repeated, “We are men.”
This did not content me, but I held my tongue. The fire seemed only to grow larger, and once again filled me with the irrepressible need to speak. “What happened?”
Felix leaned into the fire, as if his memories were materializing in them. His eyes closed, and he sighed gravely. Shadows appeared over eyelids as he bowed his head. “The death of a dear friend.”
With a calm, reassuring voice, I reached out and, placing my hand firmly on his shoulder, affirmed him, “It wasn’t your fault.”
Felix’s eyes remained closed even as he began visibly trembling, his face contorting with rage. “You assuming, egotistical, naïve, ignorant…” He seemed to lose his ability to speak for several seconds, then screamed, “Débile !”
I was taken aback, for his rage was totally unexpected. Catching myself just before I began arguing back, I noticed tears streaming from Felix’s eyes, mixed with a strange anger. Somehow, I had not only made him angry, but I had broken the restraint he had left—something about Felix simply snapped. I moved backwards, keeping several feet from him.
He, however, made no move towards me, and began sobbing horribly. I slowly inched towards him, unsure of whether to comfort him or to avoid him, for it seemed to me that my effort to comfort him had incited this breakdown. The fire seemed to dim, and his shadows over his face faded, leaving only moonlit features. At this point, all of my nervousness around him had disappeared; the solemn and stern fighter gave way to a weeping mortal—a man.
Finally, Felix buried his head in his legs, curling up near the fire. His sobs were muffled, and came less frequently as he began to regain his composure. “I shot him.” He looked up at me, locking his eyes on mine. “I was aiming at an enemy, and I shot him.”
I nodded slowly, and remained silent. He continued, taking out his handgun, “I hold the revolver that took his life. There are three bullets. There have been three since his death.” He paused, and clasped his head, grimacing in guilt and sorrow. “Perhaps, if someone had shared my anger, had shown me anything but sympathy… I needed—I need someone to hate me so that I don’t hate myself alone.”
There was a long pause. The fire had almost completely died, and the moonlight cast shadows over the sand. I finally understood what it meant to be a man. To be a man would be to relish le joie de vivre, not la vie de décès. To relish the joy of living, not the life of death. “You miserable wretch,” I responded, softly. Felix smiled.
Never before had I realized what a battle was to a soldier the day it was fought. What I would call a battle was to be eternally changed, so transformed that the disagreement with the Nuer tribe (the tribe we had encountered two months before) would not fit its definition.
I thought I was ready. As soon as the horn sounded, I was out of my bed and into my clothes, gun strapped to my back, all within the minute. Major Marchand stood before us, expecting no less than the speed that we had, and the lines were set up much faster than ever before. We were prepared, gazing off into the distance. The British were coming.
In all my years, I have not yet found out why we fought that battle in the first place. It was as the famous Lord Tennyson described, “Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.” We had fought for what I had then simply perceived as the “glory of France”. I never took the time to think what that really meant.
This was not to be a mad charge like the barbarians—the animals we had faced previously. This was no tribe protecting the territory that we were simply crossing over. This was a powerful nation—the powerful nation—here to take the territory that was rightfully ours. A great, vast sea of men, their guns in pristine condition and ready for use. Ready for bloodshed.
The French army stood totally steadfast, gazing at the horizon. The English army stood totally steadfast, gazing at the horizon. A face off. Potential equals. I had been reassured of France’s power when we had won our previous battle, but I was weary after months of marching, and the line at the horizon seemed to just keep growing as the English lined up. Two armies of equal men, disparate numbers. There was no motion among the men; each stood with a rifle on his shoulder, a handgun in his belt, a sword in his scabbard, and a heart in his chest, just waiting to be shot. I had felt a thrill when I saw the barbaric tribe charging at us, but for the first time, I felt nothing but fear. Apprehension. Was I a soldier? Or was I merely a man?
Hours seemed to pass, but there was not a flinch. Not a sneeze, not a cough. Fear against honour—the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, an ethereal calm battling panic before the battle between the men. The swords of both leaders were raised, but their arms simply hovered there. Gun aimed at gun, man pitted against man, but no one fired the first shot. Yet.
I couldn’t see it when it happened, for I was all the way in the sixth line of men. There was a huge synchronized explosion, followed by three more with no halting whatsoever, and the first four rows of the French army were washed away in a wave of bullets. The sudden gunfire was detrimental to our army, hundreds of us dying before a single English soldier fell. These were no barbarians, but their barbarity was unbelievable. I heard little more, for the guns had deafened me for the length of the battle, but I remember the feeling of pulling the infernal trigger many times more, watching the men fall. I did hear gunshots reverberating from everywhere in the battlefield, and remember smelling blood in the very air, the stern and solemn face of Felix as he collapsed to the ground…
I was no soldier. I was a child, playing soldier, pretending to be more than a child, more than a man. Waves of men died, all pretending to be soldiers, pretending to be totally obdurate, pretending not to care. But I did care. I was out massacring people. And that is enough to make me hate war.