An Ordinary Day

What do their fates mean to the world – the fates of those nameless, lads who got stuck in trenches far away from home? We could only pin clichés onto their fates, but in my mind, I have countless questions about the colors of the world that surrounded them.

Black and white world. A world of black and white photographs. Frozen moments. Faces devoid of emotion. Bodies in a strict pose. Bodies unaccustomed to posing or pretence. Faces and bodies sending a message to the future.

An innocent, uncrippled world, existing before we started documenting the mess and creating archives according to which we form our views of the past and build foundations on which our present must dwell. This is the twenty-first century and the future does not exist, it is only dreamed of. It is lived as a never-ending, sticky present that no imagination could wash away. A present through which we are dragging our feet as if through a muddy trench in Galicia. A present that does not allow us reminiscences such as kneeling blindfolded in front of a firing squad. Every frozen reminiscence is a message we failed to learn, to understand. Obsessed with the inability to move. The present is holding us in place.

Messages do reach out to us, but we cannot move. How can we understand those stiff bodies, those looks that we cannot read? How can we understand the black and white, when we are stuck in the grey snow of time we once believed to be the future; the time to which we were lured by thousands of colourful air balloons that oscillated over our heads to the rhythm of some careless music that was neither inviting us to dance nor love – a music that was inviting us to stop being worried about our tomorrow since it was right there, around the corner, a day after, bright as the air coloured with balloons. The tomorrow we live is the dream of a youngster who was stuck in a trench above which bullets were buzzing like vinegar flies. His face has survived in the photo. How innocent and naive that is! That face, those eyes exuding a belief that youth is worth spending in the trenches for the sake of a future that won’t exist! What was the name of the man I’m writing about? What would the knowledge of his name change in my perception? Could I write him a letter? Talk to him as a friend?

I should like to ask him a couple of things. First and foremost, I should like to know the color of the fields above his trench. Yes, that’s what I would like to know. Colors. I want to know the colors. That black and white world was colored. The messages that came from it, it is only those that are black and white. If I knew the names of his fellow soldiers, I would ask them the same thing. And why are they there in the first place? Who invented that madness we continuously get stuck in? The earth has been scorched. I could make things up. Tree stumps are charred. I could lean against all those clichés. But I am upset because I cannot read the message from their eyes. For who could read those eyes, the looks, that intricate language? The smile is there because of the future they are fighting for?! I could spend days piling up questions, but I have no one to send them to.

The present does not care for them, while the past is a mute archive of mixed emotions the man from the future is leaning on. The future that no longer exists, I repeat. It does not exist because we agreed to fight only to realise that we have wasted that which is now the past. The re-setting of the world. Earthquakes relay the Earth’s plates. War relays the world as we know it and spits us out into an unknown landscape. Scorched earth. Time is interrupted. The thread is disrupted, the continuity. If there is no future, there is no man of the future either. If there is only the present and a dusty archive of the past, what possibilities are there for the man of the present – the man who hasn’t dipped his head into the dusty past and who doesn’t want to wash the syrupy substance off himself, right here and right now? Why am I writing this?

My thoughts are clenched like a palm clutching a gun. I can’t read people’s eyes. I can’t color a black and white photo. I can’t sympathise with faces and bodies. I can’t bring myself to think that they feel anything other than I imagine them to feel and I don’t have the strength to impose a made-up destiny on them, what would be the good of it? Not even a cigarette or a naked woman lying on a bed in a town in the background, a bottle of wine or a soothing song comforting the sad soldiers. Paramedics may have taken them right after this photo was taken. In a field infirmary, a sister of mercy closed his eyes with the palm of her hand.

The air behind the lads in the photo does not smell of death. However, I am taught to imagine it preying on the grass over the trench. If I am able to imagine it, can I then claim to sense the smell of it in the air? Who am I, and what do their fates mean to the world – the fates of those nameless, dirty-faced lads who got stuck in trenches far away from home? We could only pin clichés onto the fates of those lads, but in my mind, I have countless questions about the colors of the world that surrounded them. The sky above their heads, that grey photographed sky may have been crystal clear; there may have been some strange cloud hovering above, entertaining them with its shapes. One of them used to enjoy drinking at the pub, one of them loved to dance, one of them played tin music, one of them was a miner and footballer, some of them were idle, one of them had crabs, and there they all were, wearing muddy boots, standing in the mud through which somebody’s blood was flowing.

That distant black and white world of their war was theirs alone. It ripped their lives apart as if they were the warm intestines of an animal that we are to feed on. Has anyone ever walked out of a trench a better man? I give in. Their looks are wearing me out. How can everything be so perfectly grey when I’m craving colors and some other form of perfection? I could be thinking about food and then try to write about what they could have been eating that afternoon. I could assume that they hadn’t eaten at all. I could play with the fate of those frozen looks and stiff bodies. Such thoughts cheer me up for a moment, I see a playground before my eyes, but soon I am overwhelmed with shame. Their fates are sealed, resting in a dusty archive of the past from which, every so often, new blood is spilled so that we can defend a present that has no future. I can’t wash the muddy faces. I can’t discover their features. I am weak. I have no one to whom I could send my list of questions, I don’t know the names of the addressees. But then I suddenly catch myself imagining an ordinary blue sky instead of a black death in the turfs above their trench – I can see the ordinary, juicy green; at the end of the trench, I can make up a peaceful provincial town with cellars full of wine and meat and at the town’s end, a completely ordinary road and a sign with the name of another provincial town, a completely ordinary life. But none of those things are fair to those muddy boots and faces and I am therefore letting it be at this very instant.

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Winner of the Intercultural Achievement Recognition Award by the Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs

Post-Conflict Research Center
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