The Courage of the Cowardly Soul

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The Remembrance of Amalek

Chapter 6: The Remembrance of Amalek

Over the next few days, what seemed to be the entirety of France’s military power on the German front assumed its defensive posture at our monastery. The enemy, impersonal in disposition and overpowering in force, took on the stature and character of evil itself within my mind. I also feared, intensely, recognition by some former comrade or eagle-eyed commander, from one day to the next existing in abject terror.

The axe-stroke of military justice did not fall, but remained positioned over my neck with the potency and dread of the fabled Sword of Damocles. Everyday conversations became a minefield of obscure and unknowable traps. I approached every word and inflection with the hesitancy and caution of an actual bomb-defusal. Once again, my fears were unfounded.

At the end of one of these especially taxing days, when not a shred of my masculinity remained, I lay on my bed, for a moment afforded the decadent luxury of privacy, and wept. I looked in the cracked, dirty slip of glass which stood for a mirror on the wall. A tentative hand explored the by now foreign peaks and contours of my face. What horrors the previous few months had wreaked on the remnants of my youth!

The sunken eyes and permanent hint of scowl which adorned the visage on the wall were not immediately recognizable as mine, and a disbelieving sector of their addled brain rejected them. How I wished I could have rejected my body in reality, but that was beyond the limited scope of mortal power. Whatever vibrancy, whatever life had once occupied the sallow cheeks and dead eyes had vanished. I was old before my time. Internally, these changes made themselves manifest in peculiar, and subtle ways. Sleep called out to me more strongly than it had before, and the vigor that normal interactions called for had to be screwed up rather than flowing easily.

Something as simple as responding in the negative, when the true and correct answer was in fact “no,” took a moment of marshalling courage. The entirety of the earthly plane was obscured in some nonspecific sense from my consciousness by a vaguely colorless and dim filter. The joys which had once been so self-evident of the vistas of the countryside were divorced from their essential natures and became, to a degree, mysterious.

The bits and pieces of fraternal conversation which I was able to pick up on in the hallways contrasted to such a degree with the hollow man my bent body had become that I wondered, at times with genuine curiosity, how I could ever have existed among them. The boy who drank and laughed, shot and killed occupied a unique status in my memory. Objectively, and with a sort of cold detachment, I recognized him as myself, but not intimately. If we were to meet and strike up conversation, I had no doubt that we would have struggled to find enough areas of commonality to sustain the endeavor for any length of time.

Once or twice, I made paltry, feeble attempts to talk with a group of soldiers, and by that way regain a modicum of the normalcy my life had lost. At my best, I have never been skilled at such things, and at my worst there was scarcely any point in trying.

“So,” I often interjected, at rude and inopportune intervals. “So, how’re the preparations going?”

This frequently earned me little more than quizzical stares and stony silence. As a former soldier I should have known better than to subject them to a question like that.

“They’re coming along,” some told me, icily. I would generally leave, clearly sensing that I had no place there. Soon, the routine grew tiresome, and I took to wandering the halls and laying inert during my leisure time.

A deeper loneliness enveloped me than any other in my lifetime. Its nature was also unique in that it was distinct from aloneness. I was among other people in body, but in spirit we did not meet. There were whole days in which the animating spark of human nature buried to some unknown depth within my being did not appear. Instinct... drifting... I was a ship lost at sea. The horizon was visible, no doubt, but there could be no guarantee that to drive towards it was a worthwhile endeavor. Indeed, it could very well be the opposite of the truly necessary direction.

Whole afternoons passed in the blink of an eye, and a heavy sense of dread, an instinctive recoiling accompanied my feelings of acceleration. Days passed, life continued, but I did not move. I stood, helpless, at the banks of the river of time, watching its passage, its inevitable, inexorable rolling forward and was overcome, occasionally, by the desire to throw myself into it body and soul. To drown in its embrace.

The soldiers spent this time working, piece by piece preparing our house of prayer for war. Trenches were dug out front, ammunition was stored in spare rooms. Barbed wire sprung up outside and marked the lines of battle.

I was surprised by the degree to which life continued uninterrupted by this grim business. Morning brought the sun and breakfast, evening brought the moon and dinner. My semi self imposed isolation erased, to an extent, the internal, unconscious marker of time we seem to carry within us. Even sleep does not normally shut it off, for moments after opening one’s eyes an approximation of the hours passed is felt. I lost this sense occasionally, and was often surprised by the approach of the next meal or time for prayer.

Scarcely anything calls itself out among my memories, flawed as they undoubtedly are, of that time period. Their smooth, stone surface was without almost any imperfection.

A dream stands as an exception, and has retained a spot in my personal history. It must have been a few days after the soldiers arrived, and I was feeling truly despondent. Defeated and nearly broken, I threw myself onto my mattress and passed into sleep.

All around me was darkness. A terror gripped my throat as I failed to see my own hand before my eyes. There was no concept of up, or down, left or right. It was silent. Aside from my own conscious experience, I had no verification of my existence.

It was cold, and instinctive shivering accompanied my isolation. Hope vanished like mist on a winter breeze. Even if I could see, even if I knew which direction to move towards I could not. A deep depression paralyzed every thought of movement. What point was there in expending useful energy to drive towards... anything? The shock of this dream, which has never truly left me, was this. I briefly felt an absolute nihilism towards the world itself. Good food, laughter, beautiful women, these were an assortment of atoms but totally impersonal. I felt incapable of finding them again; the future was void of any semblance of potential happiness. There was only this darkness, and the empty, infinite nothing.

My waking self-pity was amplified here a thousandfold. I was not worthy of anything more. I deserved to be in this pit. The evidence was all around me. Here I was! I had allowed it to come to this. I deserved nothing more.

I woke from that dream into a cold sweat. My feet hit the floor with the weight of cinder blocks. Eyelids which could not open more than a crack, knees that shook too much to bear the weight of their torso, fingers which trembled so deeply they could not close around the edge of my table. It was in these ways that my body detached itself from conscious control.

After a gray breakfast of uninspiring and mysterious meat I decided to seek out Father Matthews. Perhaps he would be willing to provide a measure of comfort to a pathetic soul. It was his job, after all. His office was empty, and so it did not seem impudent to knock on its door. Regardless, its occupant responded with uncharacteristic frustration,

“Yes? What do you want? I’m busy?”

“It’s me, Jacque,” I replied, losing my nerve.

“I’m in the middle of quite a bit of work here, Jacque, could you come back later?”

Father Matthews was too polite to tell anyone to “piss off,” but that was most certainly the subtext of his dismissal. It was just as well. In truth there was not much for me to say to him. Dejected at my failure to engage what had become my only friend in conversation, I left the monastery and began to walk. There was no particular direction or goal to my wanderings, but to stay in that place a moment longer would undoubtedly have driven me insane.

People, maddeningly unconcerned with the collapse of all that had been good and joyous in my life, passed me by on the road. There is nothing more infuriating than seeing others happy when life has robbed you of the same pleasures. It truly is strange that this is so. It makes no sense upon cursory reflection. It’s not as if their happiness is contributing to your misery. And, likewise, there is no reason to think that your misery brings them any happiness.

It was at times like these that strength utterly deserted me. What was there left for me to do? I thought of the bar I had visited with Father Matthews, but realized that I was likely not welcome back there. There were others, though, and they would do just as well. Hopefully there was a sufficient quantity of spirits available to stop me from thinking about my own.

The dimness and muted atmosphere matched my own heart. There was no laughing or loud conversation: just depressed, blissful silence. Solitude amongst the crowd, now that was an accomplishment. It was even commendable, to a degree, how we managed to be lonely under such circumstances.

My brief vacation from human contact was shattered, however, by a rather visibly drunk man depositing himself across the table from me and taking a long drink from his cup.

“Name’s James,” he informed me, breathing alcohol into my nose. I coughed, making no attempt to conceal my disgust.

“Jacque,” I replied, not taking my eyes off the table.

“Well, isn’t that something?” the newcomer guffawed. “I had an uncle named Jacque.” This asinine observation rubbed me the wrong way, “Half the men in France have an uncle named Jacque,” I told him, coldly.

“That they do!” he laughed: an infuriating sound. So carefree. So without concern for the suffering and misery of the world.

“Look, pal. I don’t know you...” I began.

“You look like you could use an ear to listen to you,” he interrupted.

I sighed. Perhaps he was right. What did I have to lose anyway? He was so intoxicated by that point it would be a miracle if he made it out of the tavern on his own two feet. He wouldn’t tell anyone. No one would believe him if he did. No more than if he told them the earth had suddenly opened up and swallowed Paris.

“Maybe I do.” “That’s the spirit! Now, what’s troubling you?”

“I live at the Mercy of Christ Monastery,” I began.

“Lovely place.”

“It is. Or, at least, it will be for another few days. The Germans are coming and there’s no way of knowing for sure if we’ll survive the siege. The army’s defending us. They owe us, I suppose. But, I can’t help feeling bad about all the boys who are going to die in the process.”

“There’s a war on. Boys die every day.”

“But these ones are going to die in our name! On our soil! How can we do that to them, in good conscience?” “What good is good conscience? I’ve never had any use for it.”

“You’re drunk.” “That doesn’t make me wrong.” No. It certainly didn’t. What was I doing? Taking life advice from some drunk? What did he know that made him worth listening to? But, it hit me then. I realized. There was no one else. No friends, no girlfriend, no comrades in arms. I’d never have those again. And Father Mathews wouldn’t always be around to coax me back from the pit of despair. There would always be times like these when his expertise was needed elsewhere. Perhaps this drunk, this vagrant, this nobody was all I could count on in this life. He was permanent: or people like him. The everyday, downtrodden masses, faceless and formless, they would always exist. I had happened to pluck him from the crowd, but whenever I needed a soul to confide in, any other individual member would do just as well.

“I defected from the army, you know.”

“Yeah, and why’s that?” my intoxicated companion asked, his eyelids drooping and his speech slurring terribly.

“I couldn’t stand it anymore. The thing that sent me over the edge was my friend killing this dog. I know, that must sound insane. Maybe it is insane. The bullets, the gas, the explosions. It all wore me down until this one act of cruelty was too much. It’s like... a river cutting a path through stone. Have you ever seen that? They wear them down over thousands and thousands of years. One day after the next, ceaselessly and patiently curling their tentacles around and through the rocks. Can you imagine that? Something as mighty and permanent as the rocks giving way under the humble assault of simple water. And me. What good am I if I can’t stand up as a man? If I can’t fight alongside my brothers? What sort of life am I living, waiting for the river to cut me in half? Is slow death by erosion truly better than a quick death by fire? Does honor mean nothing anymore?”

A moment of awkward silence accompanied the conclusion of my outpouring of emotion. I found my vision clouded by tears I had not called upon, rushing to my eyes. The gentle rush and fall of measured breathing informed me that my audience had fallen asleep. Irrational anger gripped my heart, clenching my jaw. It had nothing to do with me, though. He was simply too drunk to stay focused.

I stood, laying my payment on the table, and including enough for my “friend” as well. My suffering had slid into the black void of non-memory which contained the lives and pains of so many of history’s forgotten victims. A vague ennui accompanied this realization of futility. It was fitting, I supposed, that my pain would not even live on in the distant memory of this pitiable drunk. It was not only fitting, but a perfect embodiment of the state of my life at the time.

I sat at a tree overlooking the sanctuary for a while, wanting to delay my return a while longer. The regiment of soldiers took on an eerie quality in the dimness, the lack of light erasing whatever identifying features they once had. They were a colony of ants running across their hill. I did not feel superior even in my elevated position - merely distant. Was physical distance less painful than the emotional kind? At least then one has the illusion of possibility. Perhaps this return will be the one. Perhaps this time they will have grown fonder in my absence. I entertained brief fantasies of fame. A life of decadent brilliance flashed before my eyes.

But, it was too fantastic to maintain itself even within my own mind. I sighed, and laid down staring at the spot in the sky where the moon would have been had it not been a new moon tonight. A strange sympathy grew within my heart, or, at least, where it used to be. The drunk at the bar and his inability to suffer through my story came back to the forefront of my mind. Was there a more pathetic failure than to have one’s life story not event merit the attention of such a man?

Was there even a point to returning to the sanctuary? I stood, and walked over to the edge of the hill. The vast emptiness consumed my vision. The rush of the wind rustled my hair, and I knew immediately, without having to see the bottom, that to fall would mean certain death. My eyes closed, my feet balanced on the edge of life and death, the whole world became more acute. The rush of survival instinct and the bitter cut of fear sharpened sensory experience until it all felt hyper-real. What a relief from the boredom of everyday mundanity.

A little closer now.

It took increasing counterpressure to maintain the precarious balance. Like a drug, the alertness of terror was irresistible, and a frightening voice called out from the depths of unconscious desire:

Do it.

My eyes snapped open and my feet wrenched themselves away. Too cowardly for the coward’s way out. A moment of heaving recovery separated the deadly game from my state of full consciousness.

The monastery looked less appealing than ever as footfall after footfall took me towards it. Against every objection of flesh and soul my mind pressed forward, rebelling against its own body’s rebellion. Back to life, back to the suffering of existence and away from the final release of the clif’s mysterious edge.

Was it more courageous to live than to die? Certainly it was less courageous than the sacrifice of my former brothers. Their contempt and half-concealed sneering was a hard won privilege to which I had no right to objection.

With the most empty sensation I had ever experienced, my arms pushed open the door to the sanctuary, interrupting evening prayer, as I made the way back to my room. It was another victory for the crushing burden of existence as my civil war between courage and cowardice entered its most confusing dimension. To choose pain and reject release was its own kind of nobility I decided as temporary unconsciousness claimed the body which had rejected the permanent variety for at least one more day.

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