ZLEE AND I WERE LUCKY TO HAVE JOINED UP TOGETHER. Basic training, with its weeks of constant drilling from dawn well into the night, seemed a thing requiring no effort. We were used to a life of early mornings and physical labor outside all day. It knocked us down a few pegs, got us used to hearing obscenities for marching sloppily or wearing scuffed boots, or maybe it was just to remind us that there was someone whose job it was to tell us what to do every waking hour of those days, and I began to miss the leisure of books and conversation, but I confronted these obstacles as a simple rite of passage. And Zlee, Zlee had this way—maddening to our corporal, who had never seen battle, and would likely have turned tail if he had—of conforming to the least detail with obsessive perfection, all the while making it clear by his indifferent, canine stride and aloof, unanimated face that these least details (which he would see to their completion) meant nothing to him. Zlee was as indomitable as he was bereft of guile.
But it wasn’t until the final weeks, when we began to practice on the rifle range, that our fate, you might say, was sealed, when the training officer discovered that we really could shoot.
Conditions on those firing ranges were ideal—no reflecting sun, no tree branches, no animals bolting when you got a bead on them. The only thing we weren’t used to were the Steyr Mannlicher rifles we fired, standard infantry issue in the army of the empire. They were thin top-bolt rifles with a five-clip magazine, one of the first of their kind. They had a strong kick and could jam easily when exposed to dirt, but we didn’t have to worry about any of this yet. It took the two of us a few rounds to sight them, and after that, on the twenty-five-yard range, Zlee and I hit ten out of ten bull’s-eyes, dead center, some of the rounds piled up on top of one another. The other conscripts barely raised dirt around those targets.
At first, we were assigned, along with all the others who mustered in Eperjes, to General Kray’s command. Kray was a Napoleonic Hungarian who led a brigade made up of Slovak march batallions, which meant that we’d be fighting with men who shared not only a common language but the experience of daily life, ritual, and labor. Kray’s soldiers were known for being good fighters because they worked the land and weren’t soft, and I had a deep sense of having done the right thing, feeling as though I had been called somehow to take leave of my father and Pastvina and to prove myself in the world.
Then, at the end of our basic training, Zlee and I were pulled from the ranks without explanation and led into a tent where a captain sat behind a desk made up of two trunks with a board laid across the top. He was Austrian, which was evident by his uniform, and spoke to us in a bookish-sounding Hungarian. He wore black boots that had a soft, worn gloss to them, and he fiddled with a riding crop.
“So, you are from one of Kray’s regiments,” he said, and began to pace behind his station and question us about our village, our parents, how it was we had learned to shoot so well. He seemed intrigued by Zlee’s insistence that he was an orphan adopted by my father and that we were brothers not of blood but of labor and the land.
“Labor,” he said. “You sound like a Communist. Don’t all mothers labor to bear their sons in blood?”
Zlee said that he had never met a Communist and so couldn’t say what one sounded like. What he meant was that he and I were as close as brothers because of the life my father had given us both. “Sir, I have seen him work on the land, and so I know what this Soldat will do in battle,” Zlee said, staring straight ahead as he spoke of me as a Soldat, which I was, all the while maintaining the soldier’s respect for his superior and never once making eye contact with that captain, who cursed and spat and said, “You know nothing of battle.”
Then he turned to me. “Und Sie,” he said. “_Was haben Sie über diese Bruderschaft zu sagen?_”
I don’t know why he switched to his native language then, but I knew enough German to understand that he wanted to know what I thought of this brotherhood Zlee spoke of. The summer before I signed up, I had studied the standard commands of the army so that I wouldn’t be turned away if they questioned me, and the language came easily. Could he have known this? Could he have known, too, that Zlee’s German didn’t go beyond twenty or so words because he had no head for anything that required study, from a book, that is? No, this captain was testing my loyalty—it was plain to me—wanting to see how I would respond if I was given a chance to speak privately. And so, thinking not in German but in a foreign language I knew fluently, I replied in English, “Sir, there is nothing my father taught me that he didn’t teach him also.”
The captain looked surprised, smiled, and asked Zlee, “How is your English, Private Pes?”
Zlee, still staring doggedly at some point on the wall, said, “Herr Hauptmann, better than you might expect.”
A few days later, just before the entire battalion was supposed to move out, we were released from our regiment, given lance corporal stars to attach to our uniform collars, and boarded a train with a company of other soldiers going in the same direction, but not the same place.
That night, we arrived at a camp on the Danube outside of Pozsony. A sergeant barked orders at us there in the dark, where we stood at attention for what seemed like hours, until two officers showed up, and the sergeant snapped to attention himself and then receded. One, another Austrian captain, did all the talking, while the other, whose uniform was German but whose overcoat looked more like some Bavarian hunter’s, stood by, listening and surveying us there in the harsh light.
Nineteen sixteen was the year the Austrians started sending sharpshooters to learn sniping skills for the front. Most of these schools recruited men from the Tirolean region of the Southern Alps, on the border with Italy, and were run by German officers. Scharfschützen, they called them. The Italians called them cecchini and (we were to learn in time) feared them more than anything else in those mountains. Under that veil of mock secrecy, it emerged that we were being sent to a place in Austria called Klagenfurt to be trained as Scharfschützen for the empire’s defense of its culture and threatened borders on the southern front. We had been chosen, the captain told us, not only for our marksmanship but for our character and ability to endure hardship in conditions under which most men would buckle, although I’m sure he knew or cared nothing about my character. The emperor himself understood who we were and how important our mission was, he said to us, and from there on out we were ordered never to speak unless spoken to by a superior officer, and any soldier showing the least amount of weakness or lack of discipline and restraint would be sent straight back to his regiment and a trench on the eastern front.
There we were, forty of us, men from the ranks—although there were only four other Slavs, two Bosnians, and two Czechs—brought together because we had a common skill that was about to be pressed into service. I didn’t understand what it meant then to have what the captain referred to as a gift. There were plenty of Frontkämpfer, he said, the frontline infantry, who wore the marksman’s badge and would line up in the trenches next to machine gunners when the enemy attacked. We weren’t riflemen, though. Weweren’t Frontkämpfer. We were hunters who already knew how to stalk game in the mountains and forests we had lived in before the war, and who were now being taught to hunt men, observing their numbers, their movements, their skills or the lack of them, their habits, and ultimately their faces—front or back—through the crosshairs of a rifle scope, all so that we might kill them, one at a time, with a silence that terrified them more than anything because it held nothing of the glory they imagined they’d find in battle. In Klagenfurt, we trained and practiced—not just drilled but practiced—as though virtuosi who would one day be given their concert hall solos in some great symphonic concerto, conducted by our maestro, Sergeant Major Bücher, who had been fighting on the western front since August 1914, until he lost a leg to a long-range French shell that had caught him leaving the line at Verdun. He limped well enough with the prosthetic limb a puppet maker in Leipzig had carved for him, but the Germans were one sharpshooter down at the front as a result. So he offered his services as an instructor and would always say, as we stood at attention at dawn on snow-packed and frozen ground while he paced before us, that the sharpshooter should consider himself above rank and disregard it, as it is rank that ought to be hunted first, killing from the top down in order to leave an army leaderless and demoralized. Search for whom and what seems out of the ordinary, he instructed us. The nonuniform, the affectation. Field glasses around the neck out in the open. A scarf of school colors catching the wind. A knitted pullover. An umbrella.
“To desire rank is to desire death,” he intoned aphoristically. “You must find the soldier of rank, and find in yourselves the will to remain calm, silent, and alert. Then kill as though it were your only chance to live.”
For the first week, we never fired a shot. We cleaned our rifles six times a day and became familiar with the meticulous care of optical sights. We learned to read maps and draw maps and study maps taken from prisoners, so that we could see our ground from their perspective. We dressed in white cover to blend in with the snow during those late-winter months and practiced Nordic techniques until we could ski fifteen miles with a thirtypound pack on our backs and not fall. We learned how to range, judge distances, take into account variations of topography, spot and report small troop movement, and how to move instinctively—against the instincts of the average man— toward higher ground there in the Alps, while we sought out a good hide, and a good means of escape. That was, Bücher said, if we knew and could employ well the full quiver of our skills, the most important weapon we could find, a safe place to hide, and this exercise made up the second week of our training.
Each day, we disappeared into the woods, wanting to see and not be seen. Most of us they had chosen in twos, and so we worked in twos, Zlee and I seemingly inseparable now as spotter and shooter. After we were dismissed into the forests in teams, the remaining men fanned out to find us, just as my father and I had done in the mountains years ago, hunter and hunted making notes on details of an occupied position, until the hunter ultimately revealed his target. If the hunted—watching from the hide—had more information on the hunter, the teams switched roles. The one with better notes got the kill. Sometimes it was as insignificant as the fold in a man’s cap.
Zlee and I started out against a pair of Tiroleans from the Landesschützen, severe and insular men of the Alpine regions who had remained loyal to the Habsburgs. They kept to themselves and seemed especially derisive of the standard Austrian officers. They hated Slavs, too. It didn’t matter that we were fighting for the same king.
We found them easily enough because they whispered to each other in their mountain dialect as they hid in the socket of two large boulders, which created a kind of sounding board. They must have thought we couldn’t hear them if we couldn’t understand them, and so they cursed us when Zlee inched his head over the top of the rock, looked down, and said in a whisper, “Boom.” I had a page of notes on them, even jotting down a word I transliterated from their Austrian, which Bücher knew I could not have known, and he called them “useless joker,” and sent them back to their regiment. Once Zlee and I were given the chance to disappear, no one found us, not even Bücher, who had his own perch with a telescope, from which he made notes—good ones, too.
It was just as well that we couldn’t be found, because, but for the sergeant major’s attention, we were ignored. The men we trained with were mostly Austrians, and the training we got was unique to the man sent to instruct us. In spite of Bücher’s insistence that the best weapon the empire had were the men who lived and survived in her mountains, captains who did the recruiting chose as sharpshooters young Austrian men who knew the luxury of sport hunting and who arrived in Klagenfurt with their own rifles, like gentlemen showing up at school with their own horses. That’s where I saw my first Schoenauer, a beautiful and powerful rifle with the precision of a surgical instrument. I saw the Norwegian model of the Krag, German Mausers and Gewehr 98s sent down from the western front, and a few other strange-looking cannons that looked as though they should have been left in the nineteenth century. But the weapon didn’t make the shot, and in the end more than a few of those gentlemen were sent home with their rifles, where they’d live to hunt game-park deer, not Italian soldiers.
Twenty-five of us remained by the third week, and that’s when we took to the range again, this time firing a long-barrel Mannlicher 95 with a double-set trigger and fitted with an optical sight, the physical effect of which was still something new for Zlee and me, despite the fact that we had been carrying them around and caring for them for weeks. We were trained to make head shots and aimed for the teeth, which seems ludicrous until, on a cold morning, across the distance of a valley through refracted light, you can suddenly see a man’s breath, see that he’s speaking to a comrade, or perhaps only to himself, having a smoke, singing a song he loves, or maybe giving voice to some prayer, words that will be his last. It was hand-to-hand combat, except that the enemy never saw your hand, and lifted his to no effect.
As a team with rifle, rounds, field glasses, and maps, Zlee and I were a rarity, spotter and shooter equally good at both. Bücher called us die Zwillinge, “the twins.” And then, almost as quickly as it began, just shy of a month of training in that mountain forest by the lake and on ground soft and thawing in the sun, we were pronounced ready, given gold-colored sharpshooter cords for our uniforms, told to keep silent and alert, and sent off to the front, unaware of what kind of war awaited us there.
The above is excerpted from “The Sojourn” by Andrew Krivak. Excerpt from The Sojourn. Copyright © 2011 by Andrew Krivak. Published by Bellevue Literary Press: http://www.blpbooks.org/. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.