Winner of 2017 Giller Prize

Winner of 2017 Giller Prize
Michael Redhill for his novel Bellevue Square

Friday, February 13, 2009

Martial Arts by Keith Johnson,part 2

You can access part 1 by scrolling down or by clicking
http://literarythunderbay.blogspot.com/search/label/Keith%20Johnson

In Italy, during World War II, Martin and team are ordered to capture a monastery on a hill.

In response to queries from his mates, Matin explained he had found what he thought might be Epsom salts or some facsimile thereof. Its taste reminded him of the grand old magnesium sulphate so common to his Saskatchewan home. Unaccustomed digestive systems protested vigorously to its presence in the drinking water. If it wasn’t magnesium sulphate then in all likelihood it would be sodium sulphate--whatever? Epson Salts or Glauber's salts he was ready to bet that either would have an interesting effect of the lower digetive system ofanyone who consumed it.

Doffing his helmet, he then drew the three corks. His tin hat served as an impromptu punch bowl in which he blended a couple of ounces from each bottle with a third of his package of seasoning, stirring it until dissolved and then returning equal portions to the bottles. Next each bottle got a vigorous shake and taste test before laying home new corks which materialized from his kit-bag. Spitting to get rid of the after taste he said “definitely not Mum’s extra dry.” Eric, who would be in charge of the hill top operation, took the bottles and the remnant of the white powder which he could find some way to use advantageously. Eric, Pietro and Larry the third member of the hill top trio crawled onward and upward through the night. Martin made his way laterally toward the resounding gurgling burp.

The sky off to the southwest flickered with more man-made lightening. At this distance from the explosions, Marin pondered whether the atmospheric shock waves and the audible krump, krump had deluded his imagination or was it possible that ground tremours could be transferred an estimated fifty miles? He was convinced that he could feel these insults to the earth well before the sound and almost coincidentally with the flash in the clouds.

At the pump, he made a cursory inspection—if you can do an inspection by feel. The intermittent illumination of the beacon helped him to see how to deactivate the pump. He had scrounged a small pipe wrench and an adjustable Westcott wrench. If he could he wanted to dismantle it without damage, but as a backup, he did have a fistful sized wad of gelignite and detonators. Larry had spared him that much.

Pietro was one of the partisan saboteurs of the monastery. His cohorts, as well as the friars, were all in the vicinity and still remained more than willing to add to the discomfort of their German overlords.

Out of the seething cauldron of Italian politics many spits and bubbles had escaped. Our cordial”enemy” hosts were ideologically opposed to the aggressive acts of the Nazis. So it seems was the leader—Il Duce, Benito Mussolini. His posturing and puffing had landed him with a strange bed-fellow who had beguiled him into believing that war not imminent, that he would have at least four years to prepare. Having allied himself with Adolph he tired some opportunistic aggressiveness in northern Greece and Albania, only to be beaten severely, such that he became the laughing stock of outsiders and also a joke to some of his countrymen.

Politics was not Martin’s forte. He was a hands-on doer, a craftsman., leaving the talking and the negotiating to others. A bit of raw humour or barrack room banter said,” As the undertaker covers the doctor’s mistakes, so the soldiers look after the diplomat's failures.” He was becoming impatient as he readied his watch for the next sweep of the beacon, about 12:55. When the time came, it would simply be a matter of undoing six cap screws and lifting the top off the pressure cylinder. The unit resembled and egg sitting in an egg cup. The bolts were of brass and hopefully they would not be seized with corrosion.

Up the hill, a dog barked and yelped. A shot, then a huge fireball erupted, more shots and heavy explosions. A siren wailed and lights came on throughout the building. Associating with Pietro had brought some grasp of the Italian language but now intensified by the surrounding silence, harsh guttural phrases of a different language hung on the night air to drift down to Martin’s straining ears. Though he didn't have the foggiest notion of their meaning, the tone of sheer panic that they conveyed evoked a smile on his bewhiskered face.

There were two more rapid explosions and a staccato of small arms fire. Then followed the muffled whump of a confined grenade detonation and the lights went out, the siren wail choked off in a parting growl. The rush and gurgle of running water was interjected into the momentary lull. There was no more beacon but bolts were undone one after another. Six gone, a good swift kick, the top half of the egg removed and water gushed forth from the egg cup.

Pandemonium seemed to be widespread at the hilltop. Little fingers of light probed the darkness. The big fireball had subsided to a sustained dance of jabbing tongues of flame. There was a chatter of small discharges, another whump and a billowing of black smoke and sparks. Several powerful blasts initiated a spectacular aerial display, followed by mush shouting and some rapid gunfire. A half track, something like a Bren gun carrier started up and moved a few feet only to disappear in another fireball eruption.

The loose potion of the pressure chamber weighed about fifteen pounds and Martin decided to tote it along with him as a guarantee that no one would be able to reactivate the pump. He was a bit envious at having missed the excitement and also somewhat apprehensive at all the shooting that had occurred. He and his half egg shell were approaching the stone wall at the foot of the hill where they planned to regroup.

The clouds parted and a torn thumbnail of a moon peered down as Martin once again sought protection from the stone wall and dropped his luggage. He instinctively twisted a cigarette then pulled his head into his tunic like a turtle while he lit it. Cupping it in his hand, he inhaled deeply while intently studying the hill side. He was becoming anxious to hear from his man. Finally he could make out movement, the olive drab uniforms of Eric and Larry did not stand out whereas Peitro’s black coveralls seemed to create a sharp unblending shape. The trio was upon him now. End of part 2.

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