Winter. A bombed village square. The ground is covered with burned books. A broken tailor’s dummy or any suitable symbol of destruction. On the upturned bath a chessboard is laid out – with a game in progress. The DESERTER, wrapped in a blanket, sits beside it – completing a move on the chess board, then returning to his work – correcting the homework of the absent children. PETAR enters with pistol in hand, fearing an ambush. When he takes in the relatively peaceful scene, he gets fascinated by the chess game, moves one of the chess pieces. The DESERTER fleetingly looks at the move and makes a swift counter while concentrating on the exercise books he is correcting. PETAR studies the chess board and surreptitiously removes a pawn which would obstruct his attack on a rook. Distracts the DESERTER’S attention whilst he takes the DESERTER’S rook with his queen. The DESERTER makes a move and says: “Mate” – which is the case. PETAR gets angry and attacks:
PETAR: Who are you?!
DESERTER: The children will come now, and there are lot to be marked yet: I need to hurry, I promised them for today…
PETAR: Whose children?
DESERTER: Children; they come here from everywhere, from nine villages. Some even walk for days to get here.
PETAR: You’re bluffing!!! (Press the gun to his throat.) Whose side are you on?
DESERTER: (Pause.) I ran away, I had to… The children are waiting for their marks.
PETAR: They’ll find you here…
DESERTER: They do not study hard, it’s difficult to tame them. They lie in the sun on the grasslands all day long; their blood is boiling…
PETAR: Where did you run away from?
DESERTER: (Pause.) From everywhere.
PETAR: You think you ran away?
DESERTER: I don’t.
(PETAR abruptly stands up.)
PETAR: I’m leaving.
DESERTER: Where? This is the place.
PETAR: What place?
DESERTER: The one you’re looking for.
(The DESERTER stands up from the chair, takes a few steps forward and kneels down. He lifts a handful of earth and lets it slip through his fingers. The DESERTER sings:)
THE WAR SONG
Deep in the cold earth Petar lay.
Through his bones the green grass grew.
Nine years and more the nine stars shone,
Nine years the nine winds blew.
“Petar, my son, tell me at last,
Why do you lie, your bones so bare?
What sins were yours that cloud those eyes?
Nine years the same fixed stare.”
“Mother, I’ll tell you what sins were mine,
Why I hold the same fixed stare.
Nine barns I burned, with young lambs filled.
Brave soldier. Brave new war.”
“Lambs must be killed, son Petar mine.
Why do you lie, your bones so bare?
“Nine rooms I burned, with nine young boys.
Nine mothers I burned there.”
“Rooms must be burned, son Petar mine.
Why do you hold that same fixed stare?”
“Go mother, leave me. The night grows cold.
Bare bones are all my share.
Green was the grass two lovers trod.
Happy the child they held so tight.
Build here a fire and bake your babe.
Brave soldier I that night.
Carve up your child. Nine portions carve.
Three each for you and three my share.
Stone-eyed the mother bared her breasts;
She suckled the sliced child there.”
“Petar, my son, nine years is long.
Through your ribs green grasses soar.
Let snakes and rats your bare bones breed.
Rot on for nine years more.”
(Long pause. They look at each other.)
PETAR: You know it?
DESERTER: I heard it sung.
PETAR: They sing it all the same (From the army rucksack he takes out a teddy bear with holes in it)… I didn’t kill it.
DESERTER: Bury it here.
PETAR: I found a shot; and maybe I killed it, there was a lot of shooting that day. I’ve been looking for a place for days. I sometimes buried out, but you could still hear it sing; sing, sing, sing! It’s unbearable…
(The DESERTER starts digging a hole in the ground. PETAR puts the teddy bear in the dug grave. They fill it in. Long pause.)
PETAR: You think it will shut up?
DESERTER: (Pause.) I should ring the bell for class, it’s time…
(The DESERTER slowly rises.)
PETAR: (Rising.) How’s my son?
DESERTER: The lean one, with freckles on his nose?
PETAR: Yes, him, with a bullet through his heart.
DESERTER: A smart boy.
PETAR: Is he doing well?
DESERTER: He sings well, he could get a decent education.
PETAR: I don’t have any money, I work in a slaughter house.
DESERTER: Money can’t buy wisdom.
PETAR: Does his chest still hurt?
DESERTER: This is the place for him.
(Long pause. PETAR heads towards the exit of the stage.)
DESERTER: Petar, if you pass by the upper grasslands, tell the
children to come back, it’s already cool and they don’t notice it.
PETAR: You know my name?
DESERTER: (Pause.)… I must have mistaken you for someone
PETAR: Come with me: they’ll find you here.
DESERTER: I’ve been there; there is nothing there; this is the
(The DESERTER continues to go through the notebooks. PETAR exits. After a while ANDREJ enters – twenty years old, wearing a patchwork uniform, a machine-gun and a handgun. He acts as if he is following somebody. ANDREJ and the DESERTER notice each other at the same time.)
DESERTER: (Joyfully.) Andrej!
(ANDREJ immediately shoots and kills the DESERTER, and exits in PETAR’s direction. A train passes the school; as the train moves the stage darkens. PETAR and ANDREJ immediately return, place a coffin next to the DESERTER’s body. They put the body in the coffin and roll it on a trolley in position to stack the coffin among the others. They are a well-practised team. For each new dead body they use a new coffin, which we, the audience, did not see before. In this way, the number of coffins on the stage increases as the play progresses. Having completed the job they settle down in their “railway carriage”.)