Second place

Lieutenant Watanabe had shouted the command and hurried on through the yellow mist while Sugio was still lighting the smoke pots: the other men of the infantry spread out and vanished from sight: because of the cover produced by the smoke screen, Sugio could not orient himself at once: distances seemed enlarged and the terrain was blotted out: he was baffled, there were shouts, a shot was fired: he moved toward the sounds, first one way and then another, hurrying as he let himself down a hillock, his ankle boots filling with fine sand at every step: then he stumbled and fell rolling with his rifle out ahead of him.

He got up at the bottom of the dune, standing waist-deep in a basin of stunted pines: a rust-colored horse tied off to a big eucalyptus tree shook its head and sneezed: something was wrong with what Sugio saw next: amid the haze of yellow smoke pouring down over the sand hills, a dark figure, bulky as a she-bear, swung its head around and grunted at Sugio: beneath the bear-like figure lay a prostrate body: the body was wearing a Japanese uniform: without another thought, Sugio lifted his rifle, cocked his elbow and fired: a tiny thump and a toss of sand in the dune behind the bear told the story.

The bear rose to face his attacker full on: only, the bear was a Mongolian partisan now, dressed in a wooly sheep's uniform: Sugio moved quickly to chamber another bullet, but the receiver was packed with sand: when he tried forcing the handle on the bolt cover, the screw joint between the barrel and the receiver broke: though Sugio could not reload his weapon, he did not hesitate – lowering his bayonet, giving the war cry, he rushed full-tilt at the Mongolian: before he reached his target, however, the ground swallowed him up whole.

The Mongolian gave a rich laugh as he approached: Sugio, clawing at the stubby pines around him, would sink nearly to his breast before he gave up on trying to escape the quagmire of quicksand – In this fleeting moment, why resist? the partisan more announced than asked in his native tongue which, of course, Sugio could not understand: the Mongolian crouched and made a gesture of using the rifle to pull Sugio out of the pit, but Sugio clung tenaciously to his weapon: there was a sound of mortar cannon fire nearby, and as Sugio turned his head away to listen for the inevitable explosion, the Mongolian yanked the weapon from his hands: the partisan rose and swung the rifle around, offering the barrel for Sugio to take hold of, bayonet-end first: then he gave a tug, lifting Sugio a few inches out of the quicksand: still leaning back on his heels, the Mongolian repositioned his grip on the rifle stock before pulling again: Sugio relaxed slightly, and in that instant the Mongolian lurched forward – almost effortlessly, then, the bayonet was thrust through Sugio's chest.

Sugio heard a faint hiss as the blade was extracted from the slit: he looked up into the face of the Mongolian whose eyes were not surprised and were not brutal, but appeared very amused indeed: somewhere between the next sight and sound, the rush of Sugio's thoughts slowed to a crawl: he was aware that the Mongolian had thrown the rifle away and he that he was looming over him: what Sugio could not know was that his injury was not fatal – the bayonet had been deflected by the edge of a rib, missing the upper chambers of his heart by a fraction: but the pericardium was sliced open, and as serous fluid emptied from the cardiac sac, a chain of deathly spasms was set off by the friction of membrane rubbing against membrane – on the verge of passing out from the pain, with the stench of mud and decaying matter wafting from the fabric of his uniform, Sugio realized that he was being dragged out of the quicksand by the shoulders of his coat.

He was awakened by the noisy huffing of the horse: he saw the hindquarters first, then the head of the animal bowed to the ground, snuffling through flaring nostrils: with terrific effort, Sugio lifted his head and found the Mongolian grinning at him, surprised and pleased that he had come to – The body of our birth is not forever, the Mongolian told him, drawing a curved dagger from the brass sheath on his belt: he showed Sugio the image of a stag and a hare engraved on the blade, then used the knife to cut through the crotch of Sugio's pantaloons: there was hardly time for Sugio to cry out before he felt a warm invisible hand tugging his testicles away from the trunk of his body: the sight of the dagger swinging skyward was followed immediately by a flash of light and the sensation of warm fluid splashing over his thighs: Sugio's head rolled to one side and he vomited: the death mask of his compatriot, Adachi, came into view, not a meter away from Sugio's face – asleep, without cares, unstable yet fixed, an exposed crag of ice – Adachi's mouth was shut, chaste almost: but beneath his chin, where the throat had been cut, bubbles of blood were gently expressing from another, larger mouth.

A cold sort of intelligence came to Sugio: he watched dispassionately as the Mongolian rose to hang the severed scrotum with the other 'trophy' he had collected this morning around the horn of his saddle: then the partisan picked up Sugio's rifle – the gun was the property of the Emperor: it was considered a disgrace to lose a weapon that still bore the Imperial seal: there had been no time to scratch off the chrysanthemum marking on the receiver ring – No! Sugio gasped in a helpless rage, and was on the point of trying to wrench himself up until the jolt of pain in his chest prevented it: the partisan made a face and smacked the rifle against the trunk of the eucalyptus tree repeatedly until the wooden butt stock split: then he threw the gun to one side and gathered up the cartridges that had spilled from the magazine: he returned with his boots making a crunching sound in the sand – Don't perish of pride, the Mongolian said, standing over Sugio – Restrain yourself decently!

The partisan moved off now to untie his horse: he mounted, or rather seemed to flow upward into the saddle: sturdy-backed, without looking once behind as he rode away, the enemy soldier spurred his horse into a springy trot, and the mare kicked up sand where her hooves touched the trackless basin.

Soon the only sounds that penetrated the solitude of the basin were the intermittent notes of a whippoorwill and the ceaseless drifting drone of mosquitoes: no shelling or gunfire could be heard, and Sugio wondered when his comrades would gather up again after pursuing the enemy: expecting to be discovered within hours, he never guessed that his platoon had been massacred or that the corpses of his countrymen were scattered in the dunes around the basin where he now lay: he placed his hand over his groin – he was not ashamed of his situation exactly, but it seemed rather pathetic that he should be found with his privates exposed – a thought occurred to him: or an impulse that overwhelms thought: an instinct, not human but animal: Sugio untied and slipped the sash from around his waist, the red Sennibari that renders Japanese foot soldiers immune from bullets: he gathered up the remaining meat of his scrotum and, without grimacing, wrapped it with the stitched sash, cinching the knot tight around his penis: as he lay listening, there was little left to do beyond swatting mosquitoes away.

When Sugio roused again, crickets were chirping like a ravenous crowd, and the sun had vanished behind the hills, its ruddy light lingering in the high branches of the eucalyptus: the terrific heat of day was rapidly giving way to the desert night: he tried to move his legs and couldn't: but he thought, I'm not dead, because the dead can't think, they only have memories – suddenly Sugio was colder than the chill in the basin would seem to warrant, for he had just seen a horse and its rider posted in a fixed attitude on the dune above the eucalyptus tree: then the horse was easing sideways down the slope, loosening sand with every step: the rider circled Sugio twice and halted the horse: nothing stirred until the rider made a click-click sound between his teeth and the horse stamped its hoof near Sugio's head: observing Sugio flinch, the rider dismounted in a single sweep off the saddle and slapped the rear of the horse: it bolted, stopping with a heavy snort to graze a little further on.

Of course, the rider who drew near was the Mongolian: Sugio was struck by the barbaric beauty of the man's features in the pink glow of twilight as he bent over him and cautiously unwrapped the red sash: now the Mongolian moved swiftly, pulling two small jars out of his kit bag: from the first jar he scooped a quantity of what appeared to be congealed fat, and from the second he poured honey, mixing the two ingredients in his palm: he dabbed at the place between Sugio's legs with the rancid-smelling grease until he seemed satisfied by the result, then thumped a few times at Sugio's penis: but Sugio gave no response: the Mongolian made a remorseful face and shook his head: he got up and hung the Sennibari sash over a branch of the tree, and next he removed the shirt from the dead soldier, Adachi, securing it like a diaper around the loin's of Sugio who turned his head away while he worked.

Using both his hands as scoops, the Mongolian began to bury Sugio's body over with sand – naturally, there was fear: not so much fear of being buried alive, as fear of being taken for one about to die: Sugio thought, Am I dying? and seeing the fine sheen of sweat break out on the partisan's face, it occurred to him that it was only a mere glistening that distinguished the flesh of the living – Does my skin shine like yours? he asked his enemy: but the Mongolian made no reply and went on scooping whole armfuls of earth now and patting it into a rounded mound, leaving only Sugio's face exposed.

Satisfied, the partisan sat back on his haunches and took a draw from his canteen – Ayrag, he said, pointing away in the direction where the horse could be heard ripping up grass – To good health! the Mongolian declared, offering a drink to Sugio who grunted and made a smacking sound with his mouth: he was so thirsty he would have drunk anything – Ayrag, repeated the partisan: he was only too happy to let Sugio drink his fill from the canteen: the milky fermented liquor was refreshing and sparkling on the tongue: dehydration and alcohol combined to powerful effect, for Sugio soon felt contented and warm.

Now the partisan produced a pack of cigarettes and lit one for Sugio – You will tell the story, he said, placing the cigarette between his lips: Sugio's head was swimming after dragging deeply: the Mongolian rose to his feet, making a low kissing sound: in a moment, the horse had crept into Sugio's range of sight, and the partisan mounted it without the use of stirrups: the rear of the horse swung around with a whip of its tail and, without holding the reins in his hands, the Mongolian straightened the mount and spurred it into a gallop that receded from earshot:

Sugio spit the cigarette away from his face: in the east, the first star of the evening was dissolving delicately, then the night sky bore down and froze the star: the heavens were mighty but not appraising: distant, indifferent, bedazzled with stars spattered like diamonds over black velvet: gradually, incrementally, after many determined blinks and fearful breaths, the desert scene vanished and was replaced by a bone yard – They were together, Sugio and the Mongolian who had brought him here in order to save his soul: they were greeted by a devil plaiting the ligatures of men into strands: these were laid over a glowing brazier: the devil was hardly more than an articulated bone: the Mongol urged Sugio to feed on the clotted blood the devil offered him: when Sugio would not eat, he was decapitated: his head was set to one side so that he could watch with his own eyes as his limbs were removed and disjointed, his torso cut to pieces, his body fluids poured into a hole: the devil scraped his flesh with an iron hook and hung up to dry on the wall alongside the skins of others who he recognized: there was Kotaro, no longer plump about the neck, and Shigenobu whose soft youthful cheeks were shriveled with fine lines now, and Toyama with the olive complexion that appeared burnished in the orange glow of the chamber underground, and, lastly, their commander, Lieutenant Watanabe, stripped of all insignia of authority, his eyeless head withered and empty as a sack: after this, Sugio's skeleton was disassembled on the floor: the devil pointed to the pelvic region and snatched up a small bone – 'Here's the one that caused all the trouble!' the devil cried and threw the bone away: afterward, Sugio's skeleton was covered with new flesh and the devil bathed his body with water from a brass bowl filled with eucalyptus leaves – Sugio came to smelling eucalyptus: he heard the leaves rustling on the branches of the tree towering above his head: he wondered how long he had been asleep, seeing that the stars had wheeled in their spiral course around the sky: then Sugio was not at all confused: a tear trickled down his cheek and froze thickly – So beautiful, he whispered. end story

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