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 by Frank Wu

“What do the victims matter, if the gesture be beautiful?”

Laurent Tailhade

Illo: Umberto Boccioni, The Charge of the Lancers, 1915


Dearest Giannina,


I had told you that I would not write again, that I would let you decide.

Now I’m reneging on that promise.

I am sitting alone, utterly alone, in the choir loft of my church.  Snowflakes swirl in listless spirals round the inside of the sanctuary.  They blow in through a hole tapped in the ceiling by a stray bomb.  They fall, brushing against the marble ribs of the church dome and tumbling past the expressionless faces of carved prophets.  Settling over the shoulders of the grandmothers, who sit in the pews as gray and silent as the saints.

Our church no longer has an organ or a choir-- both have also been lost to the war.  I am the only musician left.  So the music depends on me and the ocarina I wrote about before.  It is a fine instrument, double-barreled, one chamber in C, the other in F.  I can play my own accompaniments.

This morning I played “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel”, because it is the fourth week of Advent.  The hymn asks us to rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel will come.  Yet the tempo is like a funeral dirge, as if the hymnist himself did not believe.

So much has been displaced by war.  Men fighting far from home, snow inside the sanctuary, and me so far from you.


Veni, veni, Emmanuel,

Captivum solve Israel,

Qui gemit in exilio,

Privatus Dei filio.

Gaude, gaude, Emmanuel

Nascetur pro te, Israel.


Oh yes, oh yes!  O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, I plead as I play.  I am the captive, longing to be rescued.  I am the one mourning in lonely exile, in a church not my own, a place not my home.  I have been waiting so long, Lord, so long for the one who will bring my heart, as if in a parcel from far away.  Where is she?  Why does she tarry?  She knows I cannot go to her.

The grandmothers can hear my music, but they cannot see me from the pews.  The only one who sees me is Father Emilio.  A few days ago, he told me that one of the grandmothers wanted to meet me.

I told him, “No, I play music so the Lord may be praised, not the musician.”

He nodded and went away.  He never even looked at me.  He never looks at me.

Why does he torment me so?  He knows that I see no one, that I want to see no one.

Except you.

I dreamt about you last night.  In my dream you came to me, gliding past black and wet tree trunks, drifting.  In my dream you had a hundred toes, and they spun like propellers, lifting you into the air, so you floated, coming to me.  In my dream, the sunlight fragmented into shards and planes as it passed through your hair, and your whole head sparkled with the prismatic colors of Christmas tinsel.   In my dream, you came to me. 

Please, come.  You know I cannot go to you.

Before I went to war, you gave me a guitar.  Do you remember?  I remember.  I wish I had taken better care of it.  I wish I had never lost it, never received the ocarina in exchange.  I hate this ocarina.  It keeps me from coming to you. 

But not you from coming to me.  If that is your choice.  

Please, please, come.

I cannot wait any longer.


Eternally in love with you,




Paolo sat on the floor of the troop train, his back against the metal wall, his face leaning into the guitar case cradled between his knees.  A splinter of late afternoon autumn light fell between two soldiers standing nearby.  Paolo turned his head slightly, and the light warmed his scalp.

“Want a smoke?” asked a soldier, shifting from foot to foot.  His name was Pietro and he was quite tall.  

“Y-yes.” Paolo took a cigarette eagerly.

“That guitar...” Pietro said,  “you hold it like a baby.”

“My fiancee gave it to me,” Paolo said.  “I...  I... don’t want anything to happen to it.”

“Did you enlist to impress her?  Or run away from her?”

“Oh, no,” Paolo said.  “It’s just that--”

“So you want to hear my story or not?” said another soldier.  His name was Angelo, and he was much shorter and wider than Pietro.  “After all, we’re going to war.  We might as well be prepared.” 

Pietro said, “Sure, let’s have it.”  Paolo nodded.

Angelo smacked his lips and said, “A friend of mine was marching, not even that close to the front.  An Austrian shell came out of the air, out of nowhere.  Dropped straight down on them.”

“Was he killed?” Paolo asked.

Angelo laughed a great belly laugh.  “Was he killed?  No, because then he couldn’t tell me the story then, could he?”  Paolo shrunk back, blushing slightly.  Angelo continued: “Heh, heh.  He didn’t get a scratch.  But the guy behind, right behind him...  Heh heh.  Vaporized instantly.  Nothing left of him except a cloud of red particles hanging in the air.  For just a moment.  Then that was carried away by the wind.  Flew up very high and disappeared into the night sky.”

Paolo said, “That’s not true, is it?”

Pietro said, “What’s so horrible about that?”

Angelo said with a shrug, “Well, I guess it’s not true that there was absolutely nothing left of him.  My friend said that later he was cleaning out his backpack.  He found these little holes in his pack, like bullet holes.  Strange, he thought.  He hadn’t been shot at.  Then, as he unpacked the bag, in among his rations and tools, he found some bloody bits of the other guy’s teeth.  That’s all that was left of this noble son of Italia, just a molar and a couple incisors knocked out of his jaw by the explosion.  If my friend hadn’t been wearing his pack, that guy’s teeth would have bit him in the backside.  He would’ve needed a surgeon to dig them out.”

“You made that up,” Paolo said.  “Didn’t you?” 

“Aw, come on, Angelo, I’ve heard worse than that,” Pietro said.

“The front can’t be that bad,” Paolo said.  “They would have told us in training.  I didn’t come here to...  I came here--”

“To be a hero?” Angelo said with a laugh.

“Well, yeah,” Paolo said. 

“Hey, everybody!” Angelo shouted to the hundred soldiers in the train car.  “Hey, look, our new national hero!”  No one paid him much attention.

“Trying to impress that girl of yours?” Pietro said.

Paolo said, “I was told that there’s all sorts of commendations available for scouts and couriers.  I hear it’s not as dangerous as people think, if you’re careful.”

“Careful or not, doesn’t matter,” Angelo said.  “A stray bomb and you’re blown to bits.  All that’s left of you is your teeth in someone else’s ass.  Oh, and there’s more.  Suppose you got another soldier who’s shot in the face and gets his teeth knocked out.  Well, you get a surgeon and he takes the teeth out of that one guy’s ass and sticks them in to fix the other fellow’s mouth and…”

“Oh, don’t listen to him, Paolo.”

“It’s true!” Angelo said.  “The doctors can do all sorts of thing these days.”

Pietro said, “You know what I hear is the worst thing about being at war?  It’s not getting blown up or shot.  It’s not even dying.  The worst thing is the waiting.”

“Waiting?” Paolo said.

“Waiting,” Pietro said, “waiting for the next shell to fall on you, waiting for the next friend to die.  Waiting to kill some fellow you’ve never met before.  It’s the waiting that drives men crazy with shell shock.”

“You’re just trying to scare me,” Paolo said.  “How do you know?”

“I know it’s true, I know it’s true,” Pietro said, shaking his head grimly.  “They’re kept in special tents near the military hospitals.  Their faces are gray and shapeless like putty.  Their eyes are glassy, and they don’t blink like normal eyes.  I knew a fellow before he went to war.  Full of life, just like you.  Then I saw him in one of those special tents later.  He was like that.  Putty-faced, eyes not blinking.  He’d lost all the color in his cheeks, and his mouth was a quivering little slit.”

“The doctors must be able to...” Paolo said.

“Sure they can,” Angelo said, “They can do all sorts of stuff.  I hear they use radical surgery...  Lobotomies...  Whatever it takes until they’re happy, happy, happy all the time.  And one of their favorites is shock treatments!  They strap these wires to your head, and then, bzzzzaaap! and you’re all better.  All ready to go back and kill and kill and kill some more.  I hear that after a while you get to like it.”  Angelo held out his arms and convulsed.  A wild monkey smile spread across his face.  “Gimme gimme shock treatment!  Gimme gimme shock treatment!” 

“How do you know this?” Paolo asked.  “How long have you been at the front?”

“Actually,” Pietro said, “we’ve never been.  We’re going there for the first time now.”

At that moment, the door at the end of the train car opened.  A pair of enlisted men entered.  Paolo turned his feet in, and Pietro pressed himself against the wall.

“The thing about being in the army that gets me most,” he said, “is the constant discomfort.  Like this train!  Look how crowded it is.  We’re packed in like sheep to the slaughter.  They go out of their way to inconvenience us.”

“What I wouldn’t give for a seat!” Angelo said.

“My knees are aching,” Pietro said.

As he spoke, the train door opened again, and another man entered -- this time, a lieutenant.

The men began to snap to attention, but the officer put them at ease.

Paolo always felt nervous around officers.  And this one was taller than Pietro and wider than Angelo.  Paolo held his breath until the lieutenant began to speak.

The officer looked down at Pietro and said, “Why do your knees ache, soldier?”

“Sir, there aren’t enough seats and we’ve been standing this whole trip.  That’s over five hours, sir.”

“You lazy imbecile!” The lieutenant snorted.  “You shouldn’t be complaining, but celebrating!”  Pietro tensed his neck, but did not talk back. 

“Do you know why we’re fighting, you maggots?” the officer screamed at him.  “What we’re fighting for?  Don’t you know that this war will overthrow everything outdated and hateful in our nation?  Our backward nation!  Don’t you know that war is the only hygiene of the world!”

The lieutenant turned his attention from this one soldier to the hundred men crammed with their duffel bags into the train car.

He clapped his hands together and shouted, “All of you, listen!  Since childhood you have all been told about the splendor that was Rome!  The splendor that was Rome!  The past greatness of the ancient Empire!  I say, let that tiresome memory be erased... by a modern Italian greatness a hundred times greater!”

A small cheer arose among the men.

The lieutenant turned again to Pietro and asked, “Soldier, do you know who are our enemies in this war?” the lieutenant asked Paolo.

“Me, sir?”  The tentative answer came back: “Austria and Germany, sir?”

The officer said, “No!  Don’t you mealyworms know anything?  We don’t fight nations, but institutionalized sheepishness!  We fight the dullness of traditions!  The professional pedantry that suppresses us all!  You and you and you!  We, all of us, together, have the power to liberate ourselves from everything that oppresses us!”

Then the lieutenant took a sack off his shoulder, and, giggling to himself, thrust in his thick, knobby fingers.  He withdrew handfuls of tracts, which he distributed among the men.

Some papers advocated universal voting rights; others, equal pay for women or socialization of the land.

He shoved tracts into the hands of weary soldiers and littered the laps of the sleeping. 

Then the lieutenant reached past Paolo’s ear to fling open a window.  Soldiers yelped as frosty mountain air swept through the car.  Tracts flew from the officer’s hand and out the window.  “This train is the pyrotechnic beast, tunneling into the future!  Our manifestos are the smoke and power of its breath!  The breath that breathes life into our lifeless nation!”  The lieutenant flung a handful of papers out the window to seed the passing villages.

“He can’t be serious,” Pietro whispered to Paolo.

Then the officer turned to Paolo, pressing his chest into the boy’s face.  The officer’s name tag jabbed Paolo in the cheek.  It said “Mazzini.”

“Soldier, can you read?” the officer asked.

“Y-yes,” Paolo said.

“Then read!” Mazzini thrust a tract into his hand.  “Read!”

Paolo read, “There... is, um, nothing for us to, uh... admire today...”

“No!  No!  No!” Mazzini shouted.  Furioso!  Everything a Futurist writes should be read this way!” 

“What’s a Futurist?” Paolo mumbled.

Mazzini seized the paper from Paolo and read as loudly as possible, “There is nothing for us to admire today!  Nothing!!  Nothing except the dreadful symphonies of shrapnel!” 

Giggling at the sound of his own voice, the officer handed the tract back to Paolo.

The paper shook in his hand, and he looked nervously around the train car.  All the other soldiers were watching him, all staring at him. 

“Sir?”  Paolo began to say, weakly.  Then the lieutenant slapped him hard on the back, and he coughed a word from his mouth.  “Nothing!” Paolo coughed, in a volume that startled even himself.  Mazzini smiled and slapped him on the back again, and Paolo coughed, even louder, “Nothing!”  Then he shouted: “Nothing but the mad sculptures!  The mad sculptures that our inspired artillery molds in the masses of our enemies!”

The officer clapped his hands and motioned for the men to cheer.  Most did, at least a little. 

Paolo smiled.  Sometimes it was hard to speak his own words without mumbling.  But now it was surprisingly easy to shout someone else’s.

The office clapped his hand on Paolo’s shoulder and smiled at him.

Looking into Mazzini’s eyes, mesmerized by his gaze, Paolo shouted, “War is the only hygiene of the world!”

Then, following the officer’s lead, Paolo grabbed a handful of tracts and flung them out the window.

Paolo laughed and defenestrated more papers.  Then he thrust his head out the window and watched as some of the papers, white in the moonlight, were sucked down and trampled under the train’s wheels.  Other sheets flicked off the train’s black metal skin, settling down on the dark railbed.  Still others flew very high up and very far away, disappearing into the clouds, perhaps someday to rain down on an unsuspecting villager.

“Well done!” the lieutenant said to Paolo.  “Come with me and I will make you a Futurist among men!”

Then the officer shouted, “Fight on!  Fight on, all of you!” as he made his way down the narrow aisle, knees and boots withdrawing to clear a path for him.  “Fight on!  And stupidity and dullness will fall before us!”  Hands reached out to grasp his. 

Pietro was shaking his head, and Angelo glanced at the officer and rolled his eyes again. 

Paolo looked again at Mazzini, who had stopped in the middle of the aisle and was beckoning Paolo to follow. 

It was not a command, it was a decision.  A choice.

Paolo glanced back at Pietro and Angelo for just a moment, and saw their dead eyes full of fear and complaint.  He looked again at Mazzini and he saw energy and passion. 

Paolo waved goodbye to Pietro and Angelo and their horrible stories, and then took up his guitar case and his duffel bag.  He followed the lieutenant out the train door.


Paolo and Lieutenant Ugo Mazzini arrived at the Italian Third Army, and stood for a moment to watch teams of men tied together with ropes, hauling impossibly heavy loads.  For a moment, Paolo thought: I’m not in the Alps to fight the Austrians... I’m in ancient Egypt!

The Austrians, Mazzini told him, had long been entrenched in the mountains, with heavy artillery installed high in the cliffs facing Italy.  Now the Italians would have to haul their guns to the same heights of the opposing rocks.

Paolo watched as an enormous artillery piece slowly inched up a foothill, columns of men dragging it with ropes.  The barrel was at least three meters long; the wheels of the gun carriage were taller than the captain directing the operation.  Paolo couldn’t guess the gun’s weight, but he could count the soldiers pulling.  There were four columns, and one column numbered sixty men.

“Sir,” Paolo said to the lieutenant, “I never realized so many were here just to move things around.  Sir, I want to be just...”

If you don't want to move things around, Mazzini said, I believe there are a whole lot of latrines that need to be dug, and mess tents that need to be scrubbed out.

“I want to do something important.  I want to be able to go home and say more than, ‘I was there, and I didn’t get killed.’  I was thinking that I could volunteer to be a scout or a courier...”

“Oh no,” the lieutenant said.  “Don’t be a fool.  There are safer ways to make you a hero.  That’s what you want, isn’t it?  I have all sorts of plans for you.  The entire world will look at you and say, ‘Ah!  There’s a Futurist!’”

“A Futurist, sir?” Paolo asked.  “Is that like a Communist?”

Mazzini’s face flushed red suddenly, and, for a moment, Paolo feared that the officer would lash out.

“No!  No!  No!” Mazzini shouted and started walking more quickly.  “We are not Communists!  We are Futurists!  We have our own revolution!  And we are not papists, we are not syndicalists, anarchists, socialists, or monarchists, either!  We are Futurists!  Futurists!” Mazzini pounded his fist into his hand.  “Don’t forget that simple thing!” 

“But, sir, what is a Futurist?” Paolo asked.

Mazzini threw up his hands in disgust and ran ahead of Paolo, who stood still, wondering if Mazzini was still his friend.

The lieutenant turned around and yelled at him, “Are you coming or aren’t you?  Hurry up! Hurry up!  All too soon it’ll be too cold to fight.  This war won’t last forever, and we have so much to do!”


They arrived at the lieutenant’s quarters, which bore the sign: “Art House.”  It was not a house at all, but a dugout, a cave chipped and scooped out of the hillside.  Paolo had heard that French dugouts were primitive affairs, overrun with rats, with no more furnishings than a naked lamp and a rickety table.  In contrast, German officers drank cognac in theirs and slept in warm brass beds.  The Futurist Art House was another thing altogether.

When he went inside, Paolo realized the house was designed not for military purposes, not for living comfortably, but for making art.  A rough wooden bunk was shoved into a corner, with rolls of canvas piled around it.  Drafting tables made from crates butted against each other.  A small press was tirelessly printing in another corner. 

Shelves overflowed with little sculptures of heads and horses.

Paolo leaned in to look more closely.

Some horse sculptures were anatomically correct, with even the recessed areas in the shoulders and elbows carefully defined.  Another horse sculpture was a jumbled mess, with a dozen legs splayed out in all directions, as if the head and neck were the handle of an old mop.

One clay sculpture of a man’s head had features that were jagged and exaggerated, the edges sharp like freshly chipped limestone around the cheekbones and eyes.  Another head, in plaster, was bald except a line of hair worn in the style of the Mohawk Indians.  Upon closer inspection, Paolo realized that the “hair” was closely-packed shards of colored glass.

Paolo reached out to touch a sculpture, but the lieutenant shouted at him, “Be careful!  Those are prototypes!”

A call came from outside the house: “Lieutenant Mazzini!  Lieutenant Mazzini!”

Paolo turned around to see the lieutenant embracing an enlisted man with energetic eyes and a cheerful face.

Mazzini introduced the man as Aroldo Baracca, another Futurist.

“Great news, lieutenant!” Aroldo said.  “Colonel De Pisis has authorized a Futurist evening!”

“Excellent! When?”

“Four days!” Aroldo exclaimed.

Mazzini asked, “And General Cadorna has no attack planned before then?”

“No,” Aroldo said.

“Four days is not much time,” Mazzini said.  “There is so much to do.  Are you making progress?  Are the pipes finished yet?  You know how important that project is.”

“They won’t be ready in time.”

“Excuse me, sir,” Paolo said.  “But what do you mean by an ‘evening’?”

The lieutenant looked at Aroldo knowingly, laughed a small laugh, and then gestured for Aroldo to explain.

“A Futurist evening,” Aroldo said, “is a performance, a combination of political rally, art exhibit, musical concert...”

“And, if at all possible,” Mazzini said, “a fight and a riot!” 

“A riot, sir?” Paolo asked.

The lieutenant laughed at his own words, and then asked, “Are the others here?”

Aroldo called out, “Carlo!  Gino!  Matteo!”

The three young man came into the Art House.  Carlo grumbled and dressed his face in a sneer. He had three parallel scars on his left cheek.

"This is Paolo Pascoli, my friends," Mazzini said.  "He would like to be a Futurist."

Each man introduced himself. 

"Sir, what can I do?"  Gesturing at the sculptures and art work, Paolo said, "You seem to have all the talent you need already."

"I could use some help cutting pipe," Matteo said. 

"I see you've brought your guitar with you," Mazzini said.  "Let's hear you play."

Paolo placed the guitar case on a bench and opened it.  It felt like an audition.  He strummed a C chord, and then tuned, the wooden pegs squeaking loudly.   

He looked around nervously and began to play.

Aroldo nodded, but Mazzini wrinkled his mouth.

"What is that?" Mazzini asked.

"Bach," Matteo said, "from Suite Number Three in C major.  The Bourrée..."

"I thought so," Mazzini said.  He listened for a few more bars, then exclaimed, "That's enough!  Bach is archaic music summarizing even more archaic music."

Aroldo said, "He's actually not bad..."

"The Colonel would like that," Matteo said. 

"But his choice of music is all wrong,” Mazzini said.  “Bach is the encrusted crap they use to quench creativity in music school."

“I’ve never been to--”

“But you have learned their small-mindedness and pedantry!”

Paolo said, "I thought you said that a Futurist evening would be a musical concert, so..."

"Don't you know anything about Futurist music, real music?" Mazzini demanded.

Paolo said shook his head.

"You've never heard of the intonarumori, the noise organs?"

"What are those?"

"He knows music school crap, but he's never heard of the greatest innovation in the history of music!" Mazzini said with a haughty laugh, looking at the other Futurists.  They laughed politely.  "The noise organs were invented by the master Futurist composer Luigi Russolo!  They will do nothing less than revolutionize the concept of music!"

Noise organs, Paolo thought.  What were these?  He looked around the Art House.  Several musical instruments were on the shelves: a violin, a flute, an ocarina.  These were covered with dust, as if not been played recently. Then, considering Mazzini’s apparent interest in technology and instrumentalities, Paolo said, "Are these noise organs like steam-driven pipe organs, or a new type of harpsichord?"

“No no no,” Mazzini said.  "Aroldo, please...”  Paolo wondered what kind of instruments these noise organs might be.  Perhaps a French horn with extra loops like a bowl of spaghetti?  A guitar with extra strings? 

When Aroldo returned with a noise organ, Paolo exclaimed, "That's it?"

The noise organ had no f-holes, no stops, no keys.  It was undecorated, without pearl inlays or brass trim.  It was just a plain wooden box with a speaker sticking out of it.  Only a small lever was mounted modestly in the side, and it had an unassuming handcrank in the back.

"That little box is going to revolutionize the concept of music?" Paolo asked.

"Never underestimate the power of a single machine to change history," Mazzini said.

"Oh, I understand!" Paolo said.  "It's a new kind of Edison phonograph!"

As Aroldo began to turn the crank, Paolo became excited, hoping to hear something amazing, perhaps a surprisingly clear recording of Enrico Caruso, perhaps even Caruso singing the part of Canio in Pagliacci.

The sound that came out of the noise organ wasn't Caruso's soaring tenor, but a sound like tin cans ground with a cheese grater.  Scree-eeech...

"This isn't a phonograph," Paolo said.


Gino shook his head.

"Oh, that's repugnant!" Paolo said.  "Please stop!"

Instead of stopping, Aroldo looked up at Mazzini, who raised his hand and said, "Voce di testa!"  Aroldo flipped the lever up and turned the crank more quickly.  The grating sound rose half an octave and became more clipped:  scri scri scri.

"Beautiful music, eh?" Mazzini said.

Paolo covered his ears.

Then Mazzini lowered his hand and Aroldo flipped the lever down and turned the crank very slowly.  The sound dropped an octave plus two.  Sckurhee ...

Paolo said, "How can you call that 'beautiful music'?  Or music at all?"


Aroldo wrinkled his brow and said, "The overtones could be fuller..."

"You are so limited, Paolo," Mazzini said.  "You think beautiful sounds can only be made by a handful of sanctioned instruments.  Why is the bassoon allowed in the orchestra but not the drill press?  Why is percussion of wood on leather acceptable, but not pebbles on glass, or steel on terra cotta?  This is the modern age, and the world needs modern instruments!"

Mazzini glanced at Aroldo, who then said, "All around us are interesting sounds.  Not just sounds, but music.  In the leaves in the wind, in the water dripping into a pool, in a small animal rustling in the underbrush..."

"Not just that!" Mazzini shouted.  He picked up a pencil and waved it like a conductor's baton.  "The thoughtful chanting of smokestacks!  The delirious rhapsodies of metal stampers!  The feverish arias of howitzers at dawn!"

“Is that music or just noise?” Paolo asked.

“Why the arbitrary distinction?” Mazzini demanded.

"We have a whole series," Aroldo explained to Paolo.  "Some make sounds like thumping or rumbling, some rustle, some whisper.  We shall play them all at the Futurist evening."

"Do you think the men will enjoy this?" Paolo asked. "Is this what the Colonel had in mind, sir?"

“The Colonel will get a good revue,” the lieutenant said.

Then, after a pause, Paolo asked, “And what am I supposed to do, sir?”

A broad smile spread across Mazzini’s face and then he said, “I have a special plan for you, my son.  Maybe we can make use of your ability to play Bach.  Dozens, hundreds will learn of your... your...”

“Talents, sir?” Aroldo suggested.

“Yes, talents.  You do still want to be a hero, don’t you?”

“Yes I do,” Paolo said.  A hero! he thought.  Giannina will be very impressed.



PART 1 - PART 2 - PART 3 - PART 4

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