“… In a communiqué from Paris received just moments ago, the French government confirms the earlier announcement that a state of emergency has been declared in the four departments bordering the coast, and that reinforcements are being deployed to the south. It has also been confirmed that the President of the Republic will address the French people at midnight, tonight, Paris time, with a message of grave concern. The Soviet government has decided to make public the statements contained in that message, as soon as they have all been reviewed by the Central Committee of the Party, presently meeting in Moscow, in extraordinary plenary session …”

“Ah, Zackaroff! I can see myself now. Hero of the Soviet Union, from grenadier cadet at Stalingrad to general in the artillery, commander of the northern bank of this blasted Amur … And all of a sudden, a year before I’m supposed to retire, they’re going to turn me into a butcher of women and children! … Well, all we can do now is figure how much vodka we’ll need to make those Chinese look as if they all have uniforms. Then we can shoot them without a second thought. … What do you see? What’s happening over there?” Colonel Zackaroff replied without turning his head. Through the peephole in the command-post bunker, he had his sights trained across the river, watching the Chinese swarming in silence since morning along the Amur’s southern bank.

“We’re going to have our hands full, General! We knew what to expect, but it’s still pretty hard to believe! So many of them, squatting on the ground, lined up in rows as far as the eye can see. Like a giant collective, with Chinamen sprouting wherever you look. On the right, the babies. In the middle, the women. On the left, the young ones. And behind them all, the men. From here, if you count them in squares, like cabbage, I’d say there are two or three million. From a plane, maybe five. And still they keep coming! … Are they just going to pile up in the river? Or do you think they can swim?”

“They’re like dogs, these Chinese,” the general answered. “They know how to swim from the minute they’re born. … Listen, Zackaroff, don’t stop watching. You’ve got to be my eyes. I can’t bear to look. I never could pull the trigger when an animal looked me in the face. … Anyway, don’t waste your pity. Don’t be fooled by those sweet little tots, those clean-cut girls and boys, those helplesslooking women! You can bet when we shoot up that crowd each one we kill will find just the right dramatic pose before they fall in a heap. Anything to impress us. With that faraway look in their eyes that they do so well. And the wounded ones will writhe at our feet, like no other wounded bastard you ever saw. Twenty lessons to learn the whole act, with group drills and practice sessions, and special instructors in make-believe. They love all that. And the ones that put on the biggest show, the ones that seem to be hurting the most, maybe won’t have a scratch. You won’t know who’s wounded and who isn’t. A real Chinese opera! You’ll see how much fun it’s going to be! … What are they up to now, Zackaroff?”

“Nothing’s moving over there. No talking. No singing. No laughing. No nothing. I haven’t seen one of them take a bite to eat all day. Or even move their jaws … You know, there’s one thing that puzzles me: do they pee while they’re squatting like that?” “Tell a Chinaman ‘don’t,’ and he won’t eat, or drink, or piss, or screw, or think. … Give me the vodka, Zackaroff. Those characters are beginning to get me down. I think I’ll put them all in the Chinese army.”

“I can see something else, General. Every hundred yards or so … Trucks, with loudspeakers on top, aimed this way.”

“Of course. And in each one there’s a damn little Chinaman who speaks Russian, and thinks he’s the star of some second-rate play. A few words from him, and we’re all going to burst into tears! ‘Proletarian comrades of the great Soviet Union, the time has come to return to the Chinese people, in a spirit of brotherly love, these Siberian lands so long a part of their sacred ancestral home. Our women, our children, our peasants stand before you, helpless and unprotected, your brothers and sisters, here to open your eyes, to show you the truth and reclaim what is theirs. Please don’t shoot. We’re unarmed. We’re just poor, humble folk trying to make our way …’ And blahblahblah, and more of the same! … Well I’ll tell you, you have to watch out when you talk about poor, humble folk to other poor, humble folk who haven’t heard anything else but poor, humble folk for some sixty-odd years. You might just take in a few, don’t you know! Then all of a sudden we’ll be sitting by the Urals, across from an unarmed army of pathetic old men, all ten years old, and yellow peons squatting on their haunches! … Give me my bottle, Zackaroff. I’ve got to get uniforms on them all, and stripes!” “I’m not worried about you,” said the colonel. “I know you can do it. Just like in Berlin, when your vodka turned that crowd of young fraüleins into an SS company of panzer grenadiers … I remember … But here you have two hundred thousand men, General. If the order comes down to shoot, what will you do? Will you get them all drunk? All two hundred thousand?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time. The armies of Peter the Great weren’t sober for a second. The sailors on board the Poteinkin were terrible drunkards. Stalin himself used to dictate his finest maneuvers while he rolled around under the table each night. Yes, I’ve given it some thought, my friend. But the drunk soldier has no prestige anymore. Not in this world of ours, mucked up with brotherly love the way it is. Or the soldier, period. We’re caught in the clutches of the great hermaphrodite, Zackaroff. We’re all its serfs. And we can’t even cut off its balls!”

“Sir?” the colonel queried. “I’m not sure I …”

“World conscience, illiterate prole! World conscience! Imagine how shocked it would be at a piece of news like this: ‘Drunk Russian army slaughters five million unarmed peasants, women and children …’ Anyway, if the French decide to shoot, that mob over there will take the hint and stay where they are. But frankly I don’t think the French can do it. They’ve always been the fair-haired boys of something or other—of the Church, of logic, of love, of revolution. And now, of that blasted hermaphrodite, the dears! So it’s going to be up to us. We’ll have to be the ones to shoot. Thank Heaven our garden-variety muzhik is still the same good-natured oaf he’s always been. Both feet on the ground, head screwed on straight. You see, being slaves to tradition isn’t all that bad! By the time I show up, the hunt will be over. They’ll have bagged themselves five or six thousand Chinese, maybe more. Unfortunately, on an empty stomach, even a muzhik gets tired of splashing around in blood …”

The general closed his eyes and rubbed his lids, as if he were trying to shake off a weariness, heavy and deep.

“Zackaroff,” he said, in a strangely different voice, “tell me again what you see over there. Are there really women and children?

Women with breasts? With long, slender necks, and delicate wrists? With pants that hug their bellies and outline their sex? And children too, with those great big eyes? So serious-looking, the way only children can be … You know what I mean, don’t you, Zackaroff? You know how serious children can be when they make up their minds, and play it for all it’s worth …”

“There are women and children, all right! And the way they look from here, General, you’re going to need plenty of vodka. Just like Berlin.” All at once a voice boomed over from the southern bank, the metallic voice of the damn little Chinaman, star of the second-rate play, mouthing the opening lines of his part:

“Proletarian comrades of the great Soviet Union.

“What did I tell you!” the general smirked. “Time was, we would soften the enemy up with a few rounds of fire. Today they just pound you to hell with their bullshit. The world has had enough of us, Zackaroff. I think it’s time we quit …”

The roaring voice rolled across the river, from one bank to the other:

“You see here before you our women, our children, our peasants, helpless and unprotected, your brothers and sisters, here to open your eyes, to show you the truth. Soon we’ll start to cross the river. Please don’t shoot. We have no arms. We’re just poor, humble folk trying to make our way …”

“What time is it, Zackaroff?”

“Three-ten, General.”

“Then it’s ten past midnight in Paris. That means their president has just finished his speech, and Peking has made up its mind.

They’ll be at it like this for the rest of the day, and all through the night, until morning. Call the field marshal, Zackaroff. Ask him for permission to shut up those loudspeakers once and for all …”

“Permission denied,” said the colonel, setting the general’s red phone back on his desk. “Not a drop of blood, except on specific orders from the Kremlin,” he added, with a laugh.

“And you think that’s funny? Can’t you see that those windbags in Moscow have decided not to act, but to keep on arguing, back and forth, in the name of a bunch of principles they think it’s their sacred duty to protect! We’re caught in a crossfire of words, Zackaroff. That’s no good for a soldier. It spoils his final bow!”

“I’m laughing at something else he said, General. He told me to tell you that ‘no blood’ doesn’t mean ‘no vodka’!”

“Ah, him too!” he sighed. “He must wonder what in hell he was doing in China when the first war was over. You should have known him then. A rabble-rousing cutthroat if ever there was one! Well, choke down your regrets, old friend! Come dawn, we’ll all be plastered!” He shook his fist. “Three sensible drunks at your service, Mother Russia! … Come, Zackaroff, let’s drink! And close up that peephole. I don’t want to have to hear that loudmouth! He sounds like a priest, and he’s getting on my nerves. Now that every last padre has his pen or his mike, you can’t even hear yourself drink anymore. Yes, it’s padre time, Zackaroff, that’s what it is. All over the world.

They’re oozing out of every country. Thousands of everyday priests, ready and willing to poison the minds of millions of idiots.

Bleeding hearts puking out gospels galore … Ready, Zackarofli Forward, march! One, two! One, two! One, two! Keep in step! Head up!

Eyes front! Stare vacant! Head empty! Amen!”

“If you don’t mind, General, I’ll pour myself a drink first. I can see we’re in for a good long night.”


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