There was a war on against the Turks. My uncle, the Viscount Medardo of Terralba, was riding towards the Christian camp across the plain of Bohemia, followed by a squire called Kurt. Storks were flying low, in white flocks, through the thick, still air.
“Why all the storks?” Medardo asked Kurt. “Where are they flying?”
My uncle was a new arrival, just enrolled to please ducal neighbors involved in that war. After fitting himself out with a horse and squire at the last castle in Christian hands, he was now on his way to report at Imperial headquarters.
“They’re flying to the battlefields,” said the squire glumly. “They’ll be with us all the way.”
The Viscount Medardo had heard that in those parts a flight of storks was thought a good omen, and he wanted to seem pleased at the sight. But in spite of himself he felt worried.
“What can draw such birds to a battlefield, Kurt?” he asked.
“They eat human flesh too, nowadays,” replied the squire, “since the fields have been stripped by famine and the rivers dried by drought. Vultures and crows have now given way to storks and flamingos and cranes.”
My uncle was then in his first youth, the age in which confused feelings, not yet sifted, all rush into good and bad, the age in which every new experience, even macabre and inhuman, is palpitating and warm with love of life.
“What about the crows then? And the vultures?” he said. “And the other birds of prey? Where have they gone?” He was pale, but his eyes glittered.
The squire, a dark-skinned soldier with a heavy moustache, never raised his eyes. “They ate so many plague-ridden bodies, the plague got ’em too,” and he pointed his lance at some black bushes, which a closer look revealed were not made of branches, but of feathers and dried claws from birds of prey.
“One can’t tell which died first, bird or man, or who tore the other to bits,” said Kurt.
To escape the plague exterminating the population, entire families had taken to the open country, where death caught them. Over the bare plain were scattered tangled heaps of men’s and women’s corpses, naked, covered with plague boils, and, inexplicably at first, with feathers, as if those skinny legs and ribs had grown black feathers and wings. These were carcasses of vultures mingled with human remains.
The ground was now scattered with signs of past battles. Their progress slowed, for the two horses kept jibbing and rearing.
“What’s the matter with our horses?” Medardo asked the squire.
“Signore,” he replied, “horses hate nothing more than the stink of their own guts.”
The patch of plain they were crossing was covered with horses’ carcasses, some supine with hooves to the sky, others prone with muzzles dug into the earth.
“Why all these fallen horses round here, Kurt?” asked Medardo.
“When a horse feels its belly ripped open,” explained the squire, “it tries to keep its guts in. Some put bellies on the ground, others turn on their backs to prevent them from dangling. But death soon gets ’em all the same.”
“So mostly horses die in this war?”
“Turkish scimitars seem made to cleave their bellies at a stroke. Further on we’ll see men’s bodies. First it’s horses, then riders. But there’s the camp.”
On the edge of the horizon rose the pinnacles of the highest tents, and the standards of the Imperial army, and smoke.
As they galloped on, they saw that those fallen in the last battle had nearly all been taken away and buried. There were just a few limbs, fingers in particular, scattered over the stubble.
“Every now and again I see a finger pointing our way,” said my uncle Medardo. “What does that mean?”
“May God forgive them, but the living chop off the fingers of the dead to get at their rings.”
“Who goes there?” said a sentinel in a cloak covered with mould and moss, like a tree bark exposed to the north wind.
“Hurrah for the Holy Imperial crown!” cried Kurt.
“And down with the Sultan!” replied the sentinel. “Please, though, when you get to headquarters, do ask ’em to send along my relief, because I’m starting to grow roots!”
The horses were now at a gallop to escape the clouds of flies surrounding the camp and buzzing over heaps of excrement.
“Many’s the brave man,” observed Kurt, “whose dung is still on the ground when he’s already in heaven,” and he crossed himself.
At the entrance they rode past a series of canopies, beneath which thick-set women with long brocade gowns and bare breasts greeted them with yells and coarse laughter.
“The pavilions of the courtesans,” said Kurt. “No other army has such fine women.”
My uncle was riding with his head turned back to look at them.
“Careful, Signore,” added the squire, “they’re so foul and pox-ridden even the Turks wouldn’t want them as booty. They’re not only covered with lice, bugs and ticks, but even scorpions and lizards make their nests on them now.”
They passed by the field batteries. At night the artillerymen cooked their ration of turnips and water on the bronze parts of swivel guns and cannons, burning hot from the day’s firing.
Carts were arriving, full of earth, which the artillerymen were passing through sieves.
“Gunpowder is scarce now,” explained Kurt, “but the soil of the battlefields is so saturated with it that a few charges can be retrieved there.”
Next came the cavalry stables where, amid flies, the veterinarians were at work patching up hides with stitches, belts and plasters of boiling tar, while horses and doctors neighed and stamped.
The long stretches of infantry encampments followed. It was dusk, and in front of every tent soldiers were sitting with bare feet in tubs of warm water. As they were used to sudden alarms night and day, they kept helmet on head and pike tight in fist even at foot-bath time. Inside taller tents draped like kiosks, officers could be seen powdering armpits and waving lace fans.
“That’s not from effeminacy,” said Kurt, “just the opposite. They want to show how they’re at ease in the rigors of military life.”
The Viscount of Terralba was immediately introduced into the presence of the Emperor. In his pavilion, amid tapestries and trophies, the sovereign was studying future battle plans. Tables were covered with unrolled maps and the Emperor was busy sticking pins in them, taking these from a small pincushion proferred by one of the marshals. By then the maps were so covered with pins that it was impossible to understand a thing, and to read them, pins had to be taken out and then put back. With all this pinning and unpinning, the Emperor and his marshals, to keep their hands free, a...