Excerpt from “A Soldier of the Great War” by Mark Helprin ~~Hammer~~

picture-SoldieroftheGreatWar-HelprinSquads of men veered off to ledges and tables on different levels, but Alessandro, being near the end of the line, went as high as it was possible to go, to a platform of clean rock a hundred meters above the quarry floor. He and a dozen other men were taken to a forest of iron stakes, which served many purposes. They made fissure lines for the eventual separation of the slabs, provided bases and pivots for cables, cranes, and hooks, and, in a fanciful sense, they killed the virginal marble just as harpoons kill a whale before it, too, is cut into slabs.
“Take this one,” a sergeant instructed Alessandro, guiding him to a stake that was waist high. “Work on it until you lose so much blood that you faint.”
“I beg your pardon?” Alessandro asked.
“Fainting is a pleasure, and, don’t worry, we carry you down.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Your hands. The skin will come off your hands.”
“Why not use gloves?” Alessandro asked.
“You’re better off facing it directly,” the sergeant said. “If you use gloves it takes longer, you’re more exhausted because you’re not yet fit, and you tend to succumb to infections more readily. And a glove will stick to the tissue underneath the skin.”
Alessandro found the sergeant’s account hard to believe, thinking himself strong enough to drive this and other stakes without much injury to his hands. “It all depends on control of the hammer,” he told the sergeant.
“Exactly. The more the shaft moves, the faster you come apart. Grip the shaft hard,” he said as he left.
Alessandro looked at the iron stake. The head was partially flattened and exfoliated, but its disintegration had been checked as if the stress of the hammering had hardened it.
He swung the hammer, and when he connected with the stake he heard a lovely metallic ring that joined the fast-moving chorus on the cliff face. The first strokes were pleasant, as were the following dozen or two, even though ten minutes of labor pushed the stake in only a few millimetres.
Because he knew he couldn’t rest he started a slow and deliberate stroke that he hoped would protect him. After half an hour the skin of his palms and fingers was pink and blistered. Had he or anyone else been doing this in the garden, he would have gone inside for lemonade.
He stopped. The blisters were not painful, but they covered the inside of his hands. As he was looking at the stake and hoping for the best, the sergeant returned with another sergeant in tow. Now Alessandro became acutely aware of the pistols at their sides.
“Why stop now?” the new sergeant asked.
“Blisters,” Alessandro said, knowing their answer and that they would give it with utter dispassion.
“Not a reason for stopping, a blister or two.”
“My hands are like water skins.”
“The bar has hardly moved.”
“All right,” Alessandro said. “If it has to be,” and he knew it did.
The blisters didn’t break until he had struck the stake twenty times or more, and when they did break, the fluid kept the pain from him for another twenty blows.
“Keep on,” the sergeant ordered.
When his hands had dried and the handle was hot, each bell-like ring rolled up the loose skin that had been hanging from his palms and tore it so that eventually it all fell to the ground. In fifteen minutes his hands were the color of a rose, and in half an hour they had started to bleed, to exude viscous white fluids, and to crack apart.
The air itself hurt his harrowed fingers and palms. To grip something solid was out of the question, to hold a heavy object, quite insane, to swing a sledgehammer, unimaginable – and yet he did, for he knew that when he had bled enough he would faint and they would carry him down.
He surprised them with how long he kept going, and they had to step back because the blood flew in distorted parabolas that made thickening lines upon the rock floor. At times it appeared to be raining in a dense windblown cloud whose underside had turned red as it passed over a raging fire. The sergeants waited for Alessandro to fall. He didn’t fall. Instead, he struck as hard as he could, for he had come to believe that he was holding s piece of the sun in his hands, and that he would use it to cleave the rock as Guariglia had severed his own leg. His muscles tightened and then relaxed, his arms flew out before him as flexibly as elastic bands, and the head of the hammer struck the top of the stake with costly precision. The stake was driven down until it disappeared flush into the floor.
Alessandro’s clothes were soaked with sweat and blood, and his eyelashes were stuck to his eyebrows by drops of blood that had blown against his face like raindrops in a squall. He dropped the hammer and turned to the two sergeants. “Is that the procedure?” he asked, and fainted dead away.

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1 Comment

Filed under Fiction, Literature

One response to “Excerpt from “A Soldier of the Great War” by Mark Helprin ~~Hammer~~

  1. Mark Helprin was born in Manhattan, New York on 28 June 1947.
    “A Soldier of the Great War” was published in 1991.

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