What To Do with a Handful of Flags

by Kenan Orhan

The window behind me was open and Felix looked over my shoulder at what was left of the world. I moved to prevent it from leaking in through the hospital window. The retreat was bad for morale. “Who cares, Leo? The war’s over,” Felix said.

“I haven’t seen anything signed yet,” I said.

No matter how I barricaded the window, the sounds of carts and boots and horses skulked their way into the room. In the corner, there were maybe five or six portraits of Franz Jozef crammed into a crate. Candles lit the room along with the purple morning sky. An electric light hung from the center of the ceiling, but there was no bulb in the can. There wasn’t any space for a fire. I wondered how they’d keep Felix warm in the winter.

“Which leg is it? They both look so healthy,” I said.

“Fuck off. I can’t dance with beautiful girls anymore.”

“They wouldn’t dance with you anyway.”

I wanted to be honest with Felix and say it was damned foolish to ask to keep the leg. The smell stayed tucked into the sheets because of the cold, but we were kidding God to think it wasn’t falling apart – flesh from bone, joints from sockets, skin from muscles – under the bandage. The nurse came in because she thought we were yelling.

“No one yells at a time like this,” Felix said.

“Speaking of beautiful women,” I said.

“Try your luck,” the nurse said. “My husband will snap your neck.”

“No one in Austria has a husband,” I said.

“You’ll be banned from the hospital,” she said.

“You’d better stop,” said Felix. “I need you to keep smuggling in wine.”

We laughed trying to get the nurse to laugh as well. I felt bad trying to get her to laugh. She looked ill at ease, like the only one in on a terrible secret, but it wasn’t a secret. I wanted to tell her it was good for him, but she would only say what’s the use. Her eyes went all over the room, searching: what’s the use? She left us with blades and scissors and bone saws on the instrument table, and we created our own pretense so as not to notice.

“Do you hear that racket?” Felix asked. The soldiers navigated the clutters of rubble in the narrow alleyway outside. The officers guided their column of misery back to Vienna for official dismemberment. “Even in the night the bastards sing or wail as it suits them. The way the trenches were, I didn’t think there were so many goddamned men left.”

“Another day and it’ll be Italians, and you can curse them,” I said.

“No. Yugoslavs.”

“What’s a Yugoslav?”

“You’re lucky you’re so ignorant,” Felix said. “They’ve claimed their own state. The Navy’s handing them everything just to keep the fleet out of the enemy’s hands.”

Felix and I talked for a while about the justifications of empire and the price of feta cheese. I didn’t believe him about Yugoslavs, I’d never seen one before. Hungarians I’d known, and I’d shot a Serb once, but Yugoslavs were new. Felix said they were part of the dozens of newly liberated ethnicities. Who knew a goddamned thing about ethnicities? I wasn’t even sure what Felix was, but the nurse said I ought to pull my head out of my ass and look alive.

“I’ve been looking alive for so long I must be dead by now.”

“I’m telling you, merchant ships and all. Admiral Horthy isn’t even bothering trying to sell them.”

“They can have them,” I said. “Do they have a Navy to receive ours?” I wondered who would pilot the Yugoslav ships. I couldn’t picture Yugoslavs manning their own cruisers and battleships mostly because I couldn’t picture a Yugoslav. Did they have black hair or beards? Did they dress in rags and turbans? I thought they were a fiction, a population invented by opportunistic politicians and lords, preying on the decline of my country to gain further influence.

“Well, it doesn’t matter. The Italians will take them anyway,” Felix said.

“Yes,” I said. “But what will they do, drag it behind them on their march to Germany?”

I told Felix I’d have the nurse give him extra wine rations. On my way out, the nurse asked me if I knew of his condition. Then she asked me if we were close. I told her I didn’t really know him, but that it wasn’t her fault. She looked at me funny and I realized there was no point in joking with her.

“There’s a war going on,” she said.

“Is there?” I asked. “I suppose that’s awful for morale.”

She wasn’t a beautiful thing but she had a face with potential if only she’d smile. I wanted to be the one to make her smile.

There wasn’t really a war going on. In July, the Balkan states seceded. Two months later, Baron von Burián was reinstated as Foreign Minister and issued an avocation of peace settlements though we did not have the upper hand. Last Wednesday, Austrian high command ordered the general retreat. Czechoslovakia declared independence the same day. Our troops at Vittorio shriveled up like paper on fire. Yesterday, Hungary withdrew from the union. France and Greece slaughtered our southern front forcing Bulgaria’s capitulation. It was a matter of time before we signed an armistice.

Felix would lose his leg.

When we first arrived, he exaggerated to the nurses just how far I’d carried him. In truth it wasn’t more than meters. I loaded him onto the bed of a truck and drove opposite the sound of shelling. We were deserters when faced with the facts, but it was too late to bother with that.

Outside the hospital, it was a lovely day. The sky overhead matched the deep color of the Adriatic, and at the horizon it whitened and asserted a border against the sea. I wondered what the borders would be now. I wondered who would draw them.

Along the coast of Pola, the Austrian fleet loomed, its new owners playing soldier and practicing orders and hand gestures. It was early in the morning. The sun stuffed mostly behind the hills and lighted just the tips of steam columns crow’s nests of the battleships and cruisers all in neat rows at the naval base. My sergeant would’ve been proud of the parallel lines.

I walked down the road to the docks. I thought maybe I’d get the two of us jobs with the new navy. It’d be hard for Felix to do anything. The salt off the cool water smelled so thick you could cure meats.

On the deck of the nearest battleship, a few men marched about and yelled to each other. Two others floated in a lifeboat off her bow. One set to scraping off the large letters of the name Viribus Unitis, and the other started painting in the outline of Jugoslavija in its place. The men of the ship looked like an alliance of misanthropes, wearing different uniforms and slinging varied languages at each other. The frenzy of voices exploded from the bridge and washed over the deck and turrets and masts.

“State your name,” one of the men on deck yelled at me.

“What’s it to you?” I asked.

“Fucking Austrian, get the hell out of here.”

“Come down here, tschuschen, and make me.”

“Stay then,” said an officer. “Blow up with the ship.”

I looked back to the lifeboat, but the painters were gone. The deck of the ship flooded with men writhing into each other. The gangways slouched in the middle as all the sailors ran in a hurry off battleship. A few of them pushed me over. They all screamed things at each other. I couldn’t understand a word of it. The din bounced between the steel hulls of the cruisers and battleships and in ten minutes, the entire crew of maybe 500 men rushed off the Viribus Unitis and stood on the dock and sat over the planks and pushed and yelled the word ‘bomb’ over an over. The dock creaked under our weight. Men kept telling me to get the hell away from here, but we all stood on the narrow dock with eyes fixed on the hull of the battleship. It was the new dreadnought-class. I’d been in Trieste when it was laid down, and the admiral gave a speech about Austria’s future being soldering into the plates of that ship.

I asked the fat man next to me what the hell was going on. He replied in something Slavic. I asked the man to my other side, and then the one past him, but they all were Slavs or Croats or something. The captain of the Viribus Unitis came down the largest gangway with a squad of officers and guards and two handcuffed men in wet-suits.

“Italians,” the man behind me said.

“What are they doing?”

“Bomb,” he said. Then he went on in Serbian. I told him I didn’t understand. “They put a bomb on the underneath.”

“So take it off.” I gestured the removal of a bomb.

“No. It will explode now.”

I watched the captain and his officers hand over the Italians to a group of men in black colored uniforms. The dock would surely sink under the pressures of a shockwave and hundreds of men, but still we all stood in packed column, in the blast radius. The Italians talked fast and kept patting each others’ backs and laughing the uncontrollable laugh of surviving a shelling.

The battleship stood strong in full sunlight now. Its twelve large guns shone bright in the morning. The portholes glinted with the water, their reflections scurrying over the dock and shore and faces of men. The belt armor had to be at least twenty centimeters thick, the two masts struck their tips into the bluing sky, the two smokestacks growled out inconsistent, off-white puffs. The bow cut into the sea. The ship’s anchors stretched for the harbor floor. Someone ought to have taken a picture. The battleship truly was a thing to look at: empty with her crew standing alongside, a bomb set on her keel, a megalith of metal.

I might as well have been looking at a photograph. For fifteen minutes nothing happened. The men started yelling again. I couldn’t think of a better form of expression. The black-shirted men loaded the Italians onto a newly-arrived truck and sent it off on its way to a prison or death camp.

The sailors followed their captain back onto the not-yet Jugoslavija. I asked men passing if this was a drill, if they did this for exercise, if they knew what they were doing, if they knew what I was saying.

“The Italians lied,” an ensign said to me.

“They do that,” I said.

“Claimed a mine would go off at 6:30.”

It was already near seven in the morning, and I was getting hungry.

All the men clambered back onto the ship, half disappointed they’d been denied an explosion or at least a commotion. For the rest of my life I thought I’d see long processions of men marching.

It didn’t take long to restock the battleship. In ten minutes they had the engines running, and the crew prepared for embarking. The dock was clear. It was level and open, and I felt like having some fun because that hadn’t been rationed out during the war. I ran down the length of the dock. I ran down the length of it imagining I was an airplane. I yelled engine noises and hollering curses at the men on board. All the way to the aft of the ship I yelled.

“What the hell was a Yugoslav anyway?”

“Who the fuck is this lunatic?” They yelled back.

Some of them waved back. Some of them made faces and showed their asses. At the end of the dock I thought about diving in and swimming a lap around the ship. I thought of Felix and how he wouldn’t be able to swim laps, how he wouldn’t be able to slap his feet against a track, how he’d never feel again the burning of lungs in the absence of enough oxygen, but I couldn’t make myself feel pity for him.

I looked into the Adriatic. It surely was cold. I slipped off my coat and shirt and trousers, and prepared to dive into the water-pane. I didn’t stand a chance though.

A suppressed and concentrated rumble burst up from below the waterline. In unison, long strips of the hull ripped back and exploded in dingy charcoal and powder-burn reds. A sphere of smoke, fire, and shrapnel cleaved the steel and spilled the guts of the ship into the air and sea. The Italians must’ve rolled on their backs laughing. The Austrians must’ve scratched their confused heads. The Yugoslavs must’ve been drowning. The battleship craved the bottom of the harbor. I didn’t know what it would mean for the young nation’s neutrality in the war, but there really wasn’t much of a war left. There wasn’t much of a fleet left.

I waited until the tips of the masts struck deep into the sea, and I left before any of the bodies popped up along the surface. I thought I’d check on Felix to see how much of his leg they could save. It was a beautiful day for November. Maybe the ski inns would open once more.

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Kenan Orhan in a Turkish-American writer and MFA candidate at Emerson College. His stories appear or are forthcoming in the McNeese Review, Newfound Journal, Alt Hist, and others. Between naps, he makes coffee, plays tennis, and watches James Bond movies.

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