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from the October 2008 issue

Story of an Island

And in the desert between the two rivers the battle which had been going on for many days continued. Day and night the whole desert was filled with the intermingled sounds of cannon and machine-gun fire, the neighing of horses and the shouts of soldiers. In disorderly groups, one after the other, the soldiers of the disrupted army fled south to the farther end of the desert straight for the Mediterranean Sea. Many cannonballs caught up with them and exploded in the middle of these crowds of soldiers, flinging sand upward into the sky together with arms, legs, and other body parts. Sight was obscured by hurricanes of sand spiraling upward from the desert. Here, battalions, regiments, bayonet to bayonet, battle cries of "Allah! Allah!" resounding from one edge of the desert to the other; there, whistling bullets piercing the dense light.

In hot pursuit of the tens of thousands of exhausted and demoralized soldiers collapsing in spent heaps on the steep banks of the river, came enemy cavalry, sword in hand . . . When the cavalry reached the riverbank, the soldiers, stabbed, struck, dead or wounded, tumbled into the river… There in the water they sank or swam. The surface of the water darkened, filled to the brim with shouting and screaming soldiers crying for help, those destined for death dying immediately, the living and the dead jostling one another as all together they were swept along, striking the bottom or the sides of the river while on shore those struggling with death expired: within a few days the smell became appalling. No one would come near the mighty waters of the River Tigris, even if he were dying of thirst, because of the stench of human corpses piled one on top of the other.

The cavalry, pursuing the fleeing soldiers on tired horses frothing at the mouth, were unable to pull up when they reached the banks, or if they could rein in, were unable to stop, and sank into the water with those they had been pursuing.

The cannonballs never ceased, the center of the river exploding in fountains of spray, arms, legs, body parts, and pieces of horseflesh rising into the sky, while in the water soldiers who had been at each other's throats embraced one another in the throes of death . . .

Pitched battle on the one hand, and, on the other, enemy soldiers lying side by side in death in the middle of the lonely desert, the wounded fighting to survive, some groaning, others breathing their last breath, eyes fixed on the sky as they lay stretched out face-up on the sand . . .

And horsemen at full gallop coming to use their swords on the wounded and those struggling for life. And lying on the sand of that vast and lonely desert fallen horses, soldiers, gun carriages, dead mules and camels . . . And from the far mountainsflocks of eagles coming to circle endlessly around the sky . . .

Side by side, wing to wing, the eagles coursed along the flowing river, on the surface of which dead bodies floated, from time to time wheeling down on the corpses bumping against the river bank.

And in the desert the battle continued, amid the burning heat of a desert from which rose a stench to make the guts heave . . . The desert pulsated with waves of sound: machine guns, cannon fire and the cries of soldiers. The sand glittered with blinding brilliance as over the world the intensity of light faded into darkness . . . The sky paled and the brightness departed, leaving behind it an empty void.

From all four corners of the battlefield came the sounds of combat together with the intensity of the desert storm, and with the storm came hurricanes. From the mountain heights herds of deer slipped down toward the desert like a wide-branching, swift red flood. When they reached the edge of the desert, startled by the noise, the deer panicked into a disorganized mass, bunching one on top of the other, before sorting themselves out, and streaming forward once again. Arriving at the trenches where the soldiers engaged in ruthless combat, they scattered once more and, though once past the trenches they collected themselves, they were then plunged into the middle of the battle. Bullets and cannonballs rained down on every side and, not knowing where to go, in mortal terror, the deer increased their speed, leaping into the air, legs bent, like crescents, coming to earth only to spring up again immediately like a drawn bow. Those the bullets truck lay there unmoving on the sand like dead infants, their black eyes wide and mournful.

The panicked herd, mad with fright, wheeled to the right, where those who fell remained, those left standing scattering, before immediately herding together again, then sweeping in waves toward the left, again to the right, on the right the fallen, toward the left again . . . decreasing in number, exhausted, like a red flood sweeping down and pressing upward, milling around in the middle of the battlefield, ever decreasing as they fled, staining the sand crimson. The surviving deer, seeking a way out of the battle field but finding no exit, arched in the air in small, despairing crescents, tired and exhausted, many of them turning on their own axis, tossed this way and that.

As the battle went on the fighting grew fiercer. The deer, their numbers halved, no longer drew crescents in the air, their white bellies no longer seen, their swiftness spent, no longer sweeping in sudden waves right and left, up and down; they were unable to go back to hit the trenches and be reduced by half. It was as if, having reached the middle of the desert, that was where they would remain in their piled-up heaps, yielding themselves up to death.

Suddenly the deer pausing there in bewilderment came back to life and fled once more in a red flood right and left, up and down, springing into the air, white bellies flashing, arched in red crescents, half of them struck and falling as bullets rained down on them, cannonballs exploded in the middle of them; raveling and unraveling in terrified skeins, strained beyond endurance, leaping and running, they fell.

Increasingly the deer became more frightened and bewildered; whichever way they went wherever they came to a halt, bullets still rained down on them; the legs of the herds of fallen deer lying bleeding on the sand of the desert would quiver for a while and then stiffen and stretch out full length along the ground. In a short space of time the battlefield was filled with dead deer. The desert itself was bleeding.

The deers' strength must have deserted them so when they came to a central space, for a while they stayed there exhausted, huddled one upon the other, before, raising their heads and pricking up their ears, they looked in terror, right and left, ahead toward the mountains, bathed in enchanted light. Just at that moment the battle suddenly broke off, replaced by a ringing silence. The deer that had stayed there exhausted, rooted to the spot, once more pricked up their ears, glanced at each other, huddled a little closer, and then, all at once, jumped up, drawing a taut crimson bow as they leaped over the soldiers, crossed the trenches and fled the field of battle.

As soon as the last deer had departed and the battlefield was empty, once more on all four sides bullets began to fall like rain and cannon thundered. A little later, bayonet struck bayonet. The desert groaned to the skies with the voice of thousands of soldiers.

On the sands of the desert, dead soldiers and dead deer lay side by side, hearts touching.

Read more from the October 2008 issue
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