Sir, Captain (english translation of Ivan Cankar’s short story)

It’s been some time since my dreams, and dreams of any man at that, have obtained a completely new, peculiar figure. They are no longer desolate wanderings, temporary mists, which melt into nothingness without sense or cause. They are no longer the dreams that you wake up to with sleepy eyes, half-smiling, half-angrily waving your hand: »The Devil take you from where he took you!«, making them roll back into the abyss like those early morning gnomes hole up into the woods. Dreams which I’m dreaming and which you dream are shades of the genuine truth. They’re shapes, terribly enlarged, eerily twisted and warped, yet the truth remains – you discover it immediately and your heart is torn.

It was a cold winter morning, the mists were gliding through the valley and crawling over the steep mountain ribs. Fresh snow, which had fallen during the night, was glittering on the peaks in rays of early dawn. The sky was clear; still showing traces of the midnight snow and the cold morning stars, but already awaiting the sun.

I was watching through a window; this window has never been washed, so it was like peeking through a web, yet I could still discern precisely what was happening in front of me – even the voices were so clear in the fresh morning air that I could hear and comprehend every word. The courtyard was covered with a thick layer of black dust, which turned into greasy mud over night. That same smoke also covered the low rooftops of the barracks and the withered leaves, fallen from the walnut tree, which stood isolated in the centre of the courtyard. Underneath this walnut a soldier held the reigns of a saddled horse, who whinnied and shook due to the cold and anxious air.

A group of soldiers stood in a long, straight line, ready and equipped to leave for the battlefield that very hour. They stood there as petrified, not blinking an eye. Their lean bodies were slightly bent under the weight of heavy backpacks. Never before have I seen so much young beauty in one small place. All the faces were still pubescent, almost childlike and all were pure, as if washed in dew and dawn. Dew glowed in their eyes as well, which stared as if from a distant place, from a beautiful dream; but they were all pointed at Sir Captain, who treaded up and down the voiceless line with a slow and indifferent step.

The captain was of strikingly tall figure, a head higher than the rest of the group. He was draped in a loose black coat, revealing a pair of long, thin legs. In his hand, which resembled a bony claw even in gloves, he held a baton, on which he leaned as he went. I could not see his face as he was turned towards the group. Following his every step was a young flag-bearer, who shyly glanced around as a person glances, when he wants to escape but realizes that he is mercilessly shackled.

Once again Sir Captain began his inspection from the top. He paused in front of the first number in the line – a tall, lean young man, who stared at him with black, tounge-tied eyes. The Captain stepped right before him.

»What is your name?«

The boy told him his name and it was then that it struck my mind: I know you, you handsome, young man! Full of thought and heart, with so much ahead of you! A man among comrades, an attentive child among the wise elders! A lively branch on a tree – if one sawed it off, the tree itself would be hurt!

The Captain asked again:

»Do you have a father back home?«

»Not anymore!«

»How many brothers and sisters?«

»None!«

»Does your mother still live?«

»I still have my mother!«

And his vacant eyes lit up.

Then the Captain raised up his baton and with the ironed end touched the young man’s chest, nodding at the flag-bearer who stood behind him. He took a notepad out of his sleeve and with a shaky hand wrote down the young man’s name. And the young man turned pale as stone.

The Captain passed the second soldier without paying any attention to him. He moved to the third one, studying him. This one was a happy, talkative, booming young man, a well-known singer, loved by the girls. He had a healthy, round face, with golden locks circling his small ears. His azure eyes sang and his dark red lips curved in a pleasant smile.

»Do you have a bride waiting for you at home?« the Captain asked.

»I do, Sir Captain!«

His azure eyes shone and sang even louder, their song echoing into the luminous distance.

The Captain raised his baton, the flag-bearer wrote. And the song died in the azure eyes.

Thus Sir Captain slowly walked along the lengthy line – inspecting, questioning and choosing. Sometimes he skipped two or three soldiers, not even looking at them, sometimes he marked five or six without stopping. It seemed to me as if he purposely and carefully chose the strongest and the best-looking.

He reached the end, raising his baton one last time and then suddenly, he turned. It was then that I saw his face and my heart stopped. His face was barren of skin and flesh with two hollow sockets carved into his skull in place of his eyes. Long, sharp teeth grinned on his naked, strong jaw. The Captain’s name was Death.

»Onwards… Walk!«

The group turned abruptly and descended into the fog with a determined pace. Sir Captain rode in front of them, his black coat rising above the mist..

(translation by Svit Komel)

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