Back to Science Fiction stories



 by Frank Wu



The blast of air from the exploding shell passed over Paolo, and then a brief shower of mud pellets dropped on him.

His right leg was bent at an ugly angle underneath him, so with tremendous effort, he lifted himself up, just enough to swing the leg out straight, and then he fell onto his back.  The crank of the portable noise organ in his hand slowly turned, but no sound came forth.

Through the broken smoke, Mazzini staggered toward him.

"Are you hurt?  Where are you hurt?"

"Oh!  My leg!  My leg!" Paolo screamed.

A great gash was ripped across Mazzini's forehead, and blood was pouring down over his face. 

"You need to take me back to the field hospital!" Paolo shouted.

"Are you all right?" Mazzini asked.

"I just told you!"

Putting his hand to his head, Mazzini tilted a little, but did not collapse.  Then he stumbled forward, and Paolo saw Mazzini's huge hands reaching toward him.

"Help me get back to the hospital!" Paolo said.

Then Paolo realized that Mazzini wasn't reaching for him.

"What are you doing?"

Mazzini did not touch Paolo, but rather seized his noise organ.  Then he mumbled to the organ, "I'll get you to safety...  Don't worry now...  Everything's going to be all right..."

Leaving Paolo in the mud and taking the noise organ on his shoulder, Mazzini staggered for a moment, and then started off at a run, a slow, steady pace, so as not to jar the noise organ too much.

Paolo cried for a few minutes, and then he gathered his strength, gritted his teeth, and dragged himself forward through the mud.


Paolo was lying on a dirty wool blanket outside the field hospital.  Mud was caked on the skin around his facial bandages.  Why won't anyone wipe it off for me? he wondered.

As a nurse walked by, he moaned, "Please bring me inside..."

She glanced at the bandages on his face, and then turned to go when she realized it was an old wound.

"No...  My knee..."

"You'll live," she said.  "More critical cases are inside."

"Then please bring me another blanket..."  A snowflake fell from the air and dissolved into Paolo's bandages.

The nurse nodded and ran off.  She did not return with another blanket.

Wetness had soaked through his coat and through his pants, leaving his skin raw and irritated.

He had been lying in the dirt for four or five hours now.

The snow was falling heavier now.

Soon, soon, he thought, he would go home to Nina.  Very soon.  And it would be all over.

Suddenly, a voice shouted in the darkness: "You must help me!  Paolo!  Paolo!" 

It was Mazzini.


"You can't let them find me!"

"Who?" Paolo asked.

"If they catch me, they'll shoot me."

"The Austrians?" Paolo asked.  "How did they get so deep into our territory?"

"No, not the Austrians," Mazzini said.  "The carabinieri!"  He was looking over his shoulder.

"I thought they only shot traitors and deserters, sir," Paolo said.  "What have you done?"

"I brought the noise organ here, so it might be bandaged up..."

"You mean, here to the hospital?" Paolo asked.

"Yes!  Yes!  But it was so badly injured from the shrapnel.  I had to get to Milan..."

"What is in Milan?"

Mazzini answered, "A better military hospital than this one.  And as I was driving the ambulance..."

"You stole an ambulance?"

"I had to!" Mazzini exclaimed.  "And as I drove I felt something dripping.  At first it dropped slowly and regularly, and then it pattered into a stream.  The noise organ was hemorrhaging..."

A soldier was leaning against the outside wall of the hospital.  Mazzini snatched the crutches from him, and he crumpled to the ground.  The soldier did not move.

"Come!  Get up!  I need you!" 

"Sir, can't you see I'm wounded?" Paolo shouted.  "Why did you leave me after that explosion?"

"Sometimes the idea is more important than the man," Mazzini said.  "But now I need you!  I do not want to die alone..."


Mazzini lit his lantern and started to walk away.  "I have a special sculpture I have been building.  It is very large...  You must see it.  Now!"

Turning back, Mazzini lifted Paolo up and then handed him the crutches. 

Mazzini mumbled as Paolo tried to follow him.  “I chose you...  I chose you because once I was like you.  Timid, shy, confused.  Once I was like you...  Until I found myself.  Now you can be like me...”

Snow was falling steadily.

Paolo struggled to keep up with Mazzini's jittering lantern as he led them up a hill to a cliff face where he had carved the forms of five horsemen in bas relief plaster.

The riders had shattered faces, and among them, the horses had at least three hundred hooves.  One rider was playing the noise organ; another, an ocarina. 

Below each of the five horseman, a name had been carved.  Except for one, whose name had been obliterated.

"This is where I have chosen to die," Mazzini said.

Three red and blue plumes appeared over the ridge.

"They have found me!"

A fourth figure was walking alongside the carabinieri.  He moved awkwardly, with each step swinging his arms uncomfortably, as if unaccustomed to walking.

"What is happening to you, sir?" Paolo asked.

"Don't worry about me!" Mazzini said.  "I am irrelevant.  The idea is more important than the man.  I bequeath the future of Futurism onto you, Paolo Pascoli!"


"I am drained of everything you once knew worthwhile in Ugo Mazzini."

"Lieutenant!  This time you have gone too far!" the Colonel said.

"What have you done to him?" Paolo asked Mazzini.

"In the Art House, Paolo, you will find the prototypes and plans to complete the Futurization of the world."

“Sir, wait!” Paolo called out.

“I hope you like your ocarina!” Mazzini said.  “My final gift to you!”

“What ocarina?” Paolo asked.

“You will find it in the Art House!”

The three carabinieri came to a halt and arranged themselves into a firing squad five meters from Mazzini. 

"The body penetrates the air!" Mazzini said.  "The air penetrates the body!"

"Ready!" the Colonel said.

The carabinieri raised their short-barreled rifles.

"Colonel!  Don't do this!  Think of all he's done for the war effort!" Paolo shouted.

From his coat pocket, Mazzini withdrew a stick grenade.

"Aim!" the Colonel shouted.

"The wind carries me throughout the world!" Mazzini shouted.

"Wait!  Colonel!  Sir!" Paolo shouted.  "You can't shoot my only friend!  Don’t leave me alone!"

"Fire!" the Colonel commanded, but before the carabinieri's fingers squeezed the triggers, the exploding grenade atomized Lieutenant Ugo Mazzini's body into a fine red mist, which was gathered up by a swirling wind that flew very high up and very far away and disappeared into the clouds.

Paolo watched the mist vanish and he thought over and over again, Alone, now I am utterly alone.  Utterly alone, without a single friend left.  Completely alone.

After staring up at the clouds for some time, Paolo turned again to look at the bas relief sculpture.  Not all of Mazzini had been caught up in the wind.  When he died, some of his blood had sprayed out and filled the letters under the sculpture, so the wet blood gleamed in the darkness.

And under the portrait of a horseman playing an ocarina, Paolo read the words, PAOLO PASCOLI FUTURISTA.  As he read the words, he said to himself, I am all alone.  What am the hell am I supposed to do now?


Paolo sat outside the Art House, near the motor-less truck that was once an ambulance, twirling a length of polished pipe in his hand.  Now Mazzini was dead, and Paolo was left wondering, Who the hell was he?  Did he really believe the outrageous things he had said.  Why did he act the way he did?  He understood the others.  Carlo’s sophomoric anger.  Aroldo’s loyalty, until the very end.  Matteo’s attention to details.  But Mazzini himself?  He was an enigma.   

Of this group of Futurists who had come to war, only Paolo had survived.  What should he do?  He had come to war only so that he would not be called a coward and could earn the love of Giannina.  The snow was falling very heavily now.  He had survived.  Now Paolo would go home and get what he wanted, but what about Mazzini?  Aroldo?   Carlo?  Gino?  Matteo? 

What would become of their Futurist visions now?

Very slowly, Paolo collected Mazzini’s clay models, wrapped them in straw, and then in a layer of linen, and then placed them carefully in a wooden shipping crate.  The crate would be sent to Mazzini's family.

Paolo picked up Mazzini’s charcoal drawings and rolled them together.  Several of the drawings Paolo had not seen before; they included many sketches of an ocarina, which Paolo found on top of a pile of papers on a desk.  The ocarina was smeared with colored chalk, as if Mazzini had held it with one hand, while drawing and redrawing it with the other.

Was this his gift, his last gift from his commanding officer?  It didn’t seem like a gift.  It didn’t make any sense. 

Puzzled, Paolo placed the ocarina and the drawings into the crate, too.

From all the papers, sketches and sculptures, Paolo picked two pieces for himself.  One was a copy of Aroldo's manuscript for his noise organ symphony. 

The other was a sculpture of a horseman made from wood, plaster, and bits of shrapnel.  From the fragments of rosette pattern, Paolo knew the wood had come from Nina's guitar.

By the printing press, he found a large envelope, thick with papers.  On the outside was written "Paolo Pascoli, Futurista." 

Perhaps the ocarina gift was inside.

The first things he pulled from the envelope were pieces of art that opened up more of the mystery of who Mazzini was.  They were pictures of a beautiful young woman, probably in her mid-twenties.  One was a drawing done realistically, and had a smooth, low-contrast look to it, as if it had been based on a photograph.  Another drawing was the same woman, her face broken into planes of light.  Another was a collage, the face shattered and re-assembled.  All the pieces of art seemed to based on the same image, the woman sitting in a chair, with her hands folded neatly in her lap.  He face was turned down to the floor and she looked sad.  In among the fragments of paper in the collage, Paolo thought he picked out the word “Mother.” 

Was this Mazzini’s mother?  If so, what did she think of his art?  Was he symbolically destroying her over and over in anger?  Or did she support his art, and was this a tribute?  Paolo didn’t know.

He went on to the other sheets in the packet.

Inside Paolo found assorted drawings and printed manifestos and handwritten pages torn from Mazzini's diary. 

These were the plans of which Mazzini spoke! 

They described a Futurist universe, a world where suffrage was universal, where work days were eight hours long.  One paper sung the praises of war in all its marvelous mechanical forms.  Another described Futurist foods to shock the taste buds.  Another diagrammed huge and disrespectful toys, violent and aggressive, protecting child and adult alike from dull conformity.  Another paper was a plan for an artificial landscape, where boring nature was replaced with pyrotechnic metallic beasts rampaging across the world in a conflict of creative forces, slaughtering each other in a marvelous conflagration.  Futurist film, Futurist theater, Futurist dance, Futurist clothing, Futurist architecture!  It was all here. 

The musical truck had been just a side project.  In his hands, Paolo Pascoli held nothing less than the blueprints for completely transforming the world.

Paolo sat for a moment and considered.  He shook out the last of the contents of the package.  The only thing left was a small flat package, wrapped in paper decorated with colored chalk.  When he opened it, Paolo found a small hand mirror.  Written in red paint in a corner were the familiar words, PAOLO PASCOLI FUTURISTA.  He turned it over, but nothing was written on the back. 

Did Mazzini mean this to be a constant reminder of all he hoped Paolo would be?  Of all Mazzini expected of him? 

Now the envelope was empty.  There had been no ocarina inside, no obvious gift, except possibly the mirror.  What did it all mean?

Another question lingered: Now that Mazzini was dead and he left Paolo with these Futurist plans, what would he do with them?


That afternoon, Colonel De Pisis paid Paolo a visit, riding up in a motor truck with a 13-pound British gun mounted in the back.

Paolo did not immediately snap to attention, prompting De Pisis to say, "The Lieutenant was not a plebeian.  I am disappointed that he has not taught the common ruck to respect rank.  Fraternizing with soldiers is only one of his crimes."

Paolo said nothing.

"At ease," the Colonel said.  He approached Paolo and shouted, "War is the only hygiene of the world!"  Then he laughed, mocking Mazzini's open-armed laugh, and said,  "War has cleansed the world of Futurists.  All except one, who alone must straighten out the mess Mazzini has left behind." 

The Colonel paced around the Art House, looking at the piles of drawings and sculptures.  When he saw the pipes and the truck, he said, "I was supposed to have that musical truck a week ago.  Will you finish the project, soldier?"

"I believe I will, sir," Paolo said.

"Yes, carry on!  Complete the jobs Mazzini has left behind!" De Pisis said.  "He said that the streets of Vienna, the most musical of European cities, would be filled with Futurist music.  He said that any bourgeois with no talent could be a musician simply by driving down the road."

Colonel De Pisis spat on the ground and shook his head.

"He was a visionary, sir," Paolo said, sadly. 

“Oh, yes, he definitely saw things differently,” De Pisis said, "but that does not excuse his behavior.  And I cannot abide among my officers treason, theft, cowardice, desertion, destruction of the property of superiors, and criminal atrocities."   

"Sir," Paolo said.  "I know nothing of these crimes of which you speak, but I respectfully submit that the Lieutenant meant no harm.  He was simply trying to get to Milan--"

"No harm?" the Colonel shouted.  "No harm?  If you say that, then you do not know the malfeasance your friend has committed against me."

"Perhaps not, sir," Paolo said.

The Colonel picked up a flyer from atop a stack of drawings.  At the bottom of the sheet was his picture. 

“Not even a flattering photograph.”  He tore the paper in half and said, "Then I will show you Mazzini's crimes."


Paolo rode in the back of the motor truck with the gun crew.  The day was bright and the snow had stopped falling.

Over the loud clanging and rattling of the motor truck's engine, Paolo could hear the gun crew talking about how many women they had had, challenging each other with lies of amorous conquests.  Yet Paolo could tell that each longed to return home to his one true love. 

The truck arrived at a farmyard ten kilometers behind the front line.  A soldier yanked a recalcitrant donkey out of the driveway as the truck pulled in.

A goat was chewing casually, and a rooster, the smallest animal in sight, strutted past arrogantly.

What terrible thing could Mazzini have done in such a charming place?

When the motor truck engine was cut with a sigh, and the rattling died away, Paolo heard a horrific snort, like a great animal in tremendous pain.  He looked around, but none of the soldiers tending the animals paid it any mind.

Then Paolo heard a rush of hooves coming at him, like the thundering of a farm tractor.  Through the bars of the animal pen, Paolo saw a team of three or four horses racing, running madly in a circle, their hooves smashing, slapping at the earth, throwing dirt and mud into the air in a great cloud around them. 

Some of the horses were white, some chestnut, some spotted gray -- an odd combination indeed.  

Then he noticed that some of the legs weren't really moving at all.  They were flapping against the horse’s body, like unnecessary decoration, like the glove stuck into the Colonel's belt.  How could these horses be moving so quickly with broken legs?  Then Paolo realized that this wasn't a team of horses, but a single horse, with one head, one neck, one body, and dozens of legs.  Just like the horses in Mazzini's paintings and sculptures. 

"Who would have done this, sir?" Paolo said.  "Not Mazzini!"

"Not Mazzini himself.  He's not that multi-talented.  Mazzini was giving a surgical apprentice three times a doctor's pay.  When the surgeons found out and confronted him, the apprentice tried to defend his actions with socialist nonsense about taking advantage of the rich at every chance.  The surgeons were so horrified at what he had done that they asked me to have him executed." 

The Colonel crinkled his mouth and stared into the pen.  "You know, that had been my horse.  My horse!" 

The stallion raised its singular head, its lips drawn back, its eyes bulging in pain.

De Pisis said, "Mazzini wanted to make an entire cavalry division thus."

The horse tried to rear up on its hind legs, but could not.  The weight of the legs was too much.

"You are the last Futurist here," De Pisis said.  "Mazzini began this project.  You must finish it."

"How, sir?" Paolo asked.  "What must I do?"

The Colonel drew the revolver from his holster and held it out.

"Oh no, sir!"

"If you do not, soldier," De Pisis said, "you will be Mazzini's accomplice and I will have you executed without benefit of court martial."

"Isn't there some way to save the animal?"

"Do this now," the Colonel commanded.

“Sir, sir, I can’t, I can’t kill a defenseless animal!”

“Then you have decided you would rather be executed.”

“I’ll tell, I’ll say---”

“Who would believe your word against mine?”

The horse howled in pain.  It was a miserable whine that made Paolo’s chest ache, as if the cry had come from his own lungs.   

The Colonel said, “Did you hear that?”

“Y-yes, sir, I did.”

“How can you stand it, soldier?  I cannot.  Doesn’t it pain you to hear that?”

The horse cried out again.

“Sir, I can’t, I can’t---”  Tears were streaming from Paolo’s eyes.

“Do it now, and you’ll never have to hear that again, soldier.”


The horse howled again, and its throat and vocal chords seemed shredded.  It screamed as if its entire body throbbed with a singular pain, and if Paolo did not kill it now, it would die from the agony.

In one quick gesture, Paolo seized the revolver from the Colonel's palm, aimed at the running horse and fired. 

Despite having so many legs, the great beast collapsed to the ground. 

Cautiously, Paolo climbed into the pen and circled the horse at a safe distance, until the flailing hooves were pointed away from him.  Streams of blood and mouth foam made candystripes around the horse's head.  One cheek in the mud, the horse opened an eye, blinked, and looked right at Paolo.  The legs stopped flailing and the horse held its body rigidly still.  Paolo thought, please, please, Lord, please, I hope it's purposely making itself an easy target.  Oh dear Lord, please.  Then he emptied the Colonel's revolver.

Feeling weak and nauseous, Paolo climbed out of the pen and handed the gun back to the Colonel.  Then he fumbled for a stool and sat down, panting.

De Pisis walked over to him.

“Isn’t that better, soldier?”

“Sir, I feel terrible for doing this.” 

“You don’t hear the screams now, do you?”

Paolo said, "Sir, that was awful.”

The Colonel said, "Ready to finish more Futurist business today, soldier?"

"What do you mean, sir?"

Paolo looked around at the stables, but the Colonel motioned toward the truck.

"Where are we going, sir?"

The Colonel said, “Are you ready to see more of an apprentice's work for hire?"

Paolo's eyes widened in horror.

Without saying a word, Colonel De Pisis ushered Paolo back into the truck.

De Pisis did not say where they were going, but that was unnecessary.


When they arrived at the field hospital, the Colonel led Paolo past coughing and gurgling men dying of cholera, past the smells of carbolic acid and ether, past the gray and silent statues of Saint Anthony, and up the stairs.

They paused for a moment at a set of double doors. 

Two soldiers stood grimly.

“In all the hospitals, in all the Italian armies stationed along the front,” De Pisis said, “this is the only guarded ward.  Do you know why?”

He waved the two soldiers aside and opened the door.

In the first bed, Paolo saw a man whose features were jagged and exaggerated, with sharp edges like freshly chipped limestone, as if the man's face had been beaten to bits against the edge of a stage, or smashed against the floor like a bric-a-brac Napoleon, then reassembled and shattered again. 

One man wore his hair in the style of the Mohawk Indians.  Then Paolo realized it wasn't hair, but closely-packed rows of cast-iron spikes.

One man had a bayonet attached to his forearm, the skin stretched and wrapped around the blade's handle. 

Another man scurried on his hands and knees, a water-cooled machine gun bolted to his thoracic vertebrae. 

Another man had nails and shards of shrapnel thrust through his ears and cheeks.

Another had pyramidal shapes rising up from beneath the skin on his cheeks, his forehead and chin, as if a cube were superimposed over the contours of his face.

Another man had one eye three centimeters higher than the other.  Stitches ran horizontally and vertically across his face, as if it had been cut apart and reassembled solely to move the one eye relative to the other.  Both eyes blinked and moved simultaneously to look at Paolo.

Paolo gasped and fled from the room.

De Pisis joined him outside.

"What has Mazzini done?" Paolo said.

"The better question, soldier, would be, 'How will you dispose of this?'"


The Colonel said, "This is a Futurist project.  You are the last Futurist.  I have, of course, discharged these men from any further responsibility to the army.  Their appearance would have a negative effect on morale.  They are now your complete responsibility."  The Colonel patted his revolver and said, "It's reloaded now."

"These aren't horses, sir!" Paolo said.

"Perhaps not, but in any case they are of no consequence to me."  The Colonel handed Paolo the revolver, and then said, "Here's an extra box of cartridges."

Paolo stood by the two guards outside the double doors, as the Colonel started down the staircase. 

Turning back to Paolo, he said, "Once you are done with them, you, too, will be dismissed from the army.  You Futurists were amusing and useful for a time, but I've become bored and impatient.  The results weren’t quite what I had hoped.  I have no more need of you.  I have a war to conduct.  There yet remains opportunity for more attacks before the snows are too heavy."

The Colonel started to walk away, but turned back to say to Paolo, "You may keep the pistol.  Consider it a gift for a job well done.  And think on this.  How many foot soldiers will get such a gift from a Colonel?"  Then he disappeared down the stairs.


Scratching at the bandages on his knee and his face, Paolo paced around the Art House. 

What should I do?  What should I do? he wondered. 

How should I finish this job?

The Colonel’s revolver sat on a shelf, next to the box of cartridges, next to clay and plaster prototypes.

If the sculpted men were truly his responsibility, then he could simply discharge them, and walk away.

That didn't seem right.

Mazzini had once mentioned that there were other Futurists.  Luigi Russolo.  Francesco Pratella.  Perhaps Paolo could contact them and ask them to come and figure out what to do.

Yes!  That is what he would do.  There, it was decided.

Paolo would find a way to communicate with them in the morning.  Somewhere in the Art House were Mazzini’s personal papers and his correspondence.  In them, he could find an address to write them.  Those other Futurists would decide what to do.

With that decided, Paolo climbed into his tent for the night.


However, as he lay on his cot, he found he couldn’t sleep.  Something was wrong.

No.  It wasn't right.  Paolo hated politicians who inherited problems and then talked and talked, but did nothing but pass the problems to the next fellow.

Now he was prepared to pass along the dilemma he had inherited.  No.  All of his life, he had allowed himself to be too influenced by those around him.  He wondered: Did I follow Mazzini only because he had the strongest personality?  Did I go to war solely because of Giannina’s father’s biases? 

If he were to live his own life, to have his own opinions, this was the time to start.  He would resolve these men's fates himself.

In the morning, he returned to the field hospital, ignoring the insults of the doctor who had told Mazzini and him never to return there.  He spoke to another surgeon, explaining the extent of the men’s alterations, diagramming the shattered the Napoleon and the man with the split-level eyes. 

The surgeon shook his head.  "You forget," he said, "that surgery is still pretty crude.  It's much easier to make men ugly than to make them beautiful again.  Some of the alterations might be partially reversed, but none of the men would ever look truly normal again."

Still, Paolo decided that he would have to try.  He would organize the surgeries, arrange for the doctors and nurses.  He would even carry hot water or sterilize tools himself if that was needed.

He would explain to the men that they could only do their best.

This is what he had to do.

He walked out of the Art House, leaving the revolver on the shelf.


When he arrived at the ward of sculpted men, he announced to all those present, "My name is Paolo Pascoli and I am a Futurist.  I have arranged for surgeons to--"

"A Futurist!  Have you brought Lieutenant Mazzini with you?"  The words came from the shattered Napoleon.

Paolo fidgeted a moment.  Then said somberly, "Lieutenant Ugo Mazzini is dead, as are Aroldo, Carlo, Gino, and Matteo."

The men in the room bowed their heads.

After a moment of silence, Paolo began to speak slowly.  He said, “Lieutenant... Ugo Mazzini... was...”

“A genius!” the shattered Napoleon shouted.

Then, as Paolo listened in astonishment, the cube-faced man said, "Lieutenant Mazzini freed us from ourselves.  He was our liberator."

"War is the only hygiene of the world!" Napoleon said.

"He wanted to free us from all oppression," the cube-faced man said. 

Paolo stumbled backward. 

The cube-faced man continued: "Oppression from the government, oppression from tradition, oppression from the very flesh that confines us.  We do not need to accept what we are, politically, economically, or biologically."

The spiked Mohawk nodded in agreement.

"He supervised my operation himself," the bayonet-armed man said proudly.

Now what am I supposed to do? Paolo wondered. 


These men could simply ride home on the same troop trains that would bring hundreds of thousands of others home from the front.

An easy solution.

It felt wrong, though.

"Gentlemen," Paolo said.  "I have been authorized to tell you that your duty to the army has been fulfilled.  You are all free to go."

Celebratory shouts rose up from the men.  As the din mounted, Paolo held out his hand, and said, "Please, please, one more word, if you would."

The men eyed him eagerly.

"I would be remiss in my duty if I did not share with you what is in my heart," Paolo said. 

None of the men made a move to leave.

"Lieutenant Mazzini was honorable not just because he created bold art, but because he interwove that art into a complex political philosophy.   Mazzini believed in that philosophy, even to the point of death.  Such devotion to anything is rare is any age."

The men voiced their agreement.  

Paolo swallowed hard.  Now for the difficult part.

"Lieutenant Mazzini believed in the revolutionary power of war.  But I ask this: Was Mazzini a fool for believing in war, or was he betrayed by such a horrible war as this?"

The men were absolutely silent.

Paolo said, "In this war, a quarter of a million of our countrymen have died.  Not to mention the British and French casualties.  And what have we gained?  A few hundred kilometers of mountains.  But I believe...  Mazzini...  I believe..."

The cube-faced man stood up.  "What are you trying to say?"

Paolo wiped tears from his eyes.  "I loved Ugo Mazzini!  We all did!  I will never again feel such exhilaration as when I was in his presence.  I will miss him the rest of my life, but... Did I kill for nothing?  Did I risk my life...  Did we destroy an entire generation... for nothing?"

"War is the only hygiene of the world!" the machine gun man shouted.

Paolo braced himself. "The, the bitter answer I return to, is, Yes, it was for nothing.  We must be so careful what we choose to believe in."


"I know some of you must agree with me," Paolo said.  "I have arranged for surgeons--."

"We are Mazzini's handiwork!" the bayonet-armed man shouted.

"Listen to this man!" the cube-faced man shouted.  "He has told me the truth for the first time in my life.  We are betrayed by Mazzini!"

"You are the traitor!" Napoleon shouted at him.

Even dead, Mazzini stirred up trouble everywhere.

The man with the bayonet came toward Paolo, thrusting the blade at him.  "If you hate Mazzini so, why is your face covered with bandages?"

Paolo's eyes opened wide, and his palms started sweating.  “What..?" he stammered.  "I was hit in the face by..."

“Hypocrite!” the man with the split-level eyes said.  "Take off the wrappings!  Let us see your face!"

"Yes!" Napoleon demanded.  "Your face!"

Paolo said, "I didn't..."

"If you despise Mazzini, why did you let him sculpt you?" Napoleon shouted.

Again, in disbelief, Paolo touched the bandage on his face.

The men looked at him in absolute silence.

"I...  I..."

As Paolo pressed his fingertips against the thick bandages, he realized that it did not feel like a thick wad of bandages.  It felt like a thin layer of bandages covering an enormous mass of flesh.

"Hand me a mirror!" he shouted.  "Somebody, please!"

The men murmured among themselves, and finally Paolo received a small mirror.

Frantically he stripped the layers of bandages off his face, not caring about the pain from the tape. 

When he was done, he looked at the mirror and saw two lumps of flesh, plump and jolly like a yellow squash, hanging from his face where his nose had once been. 

The lumps were hollowed out and perforated with fingerholes.

“I see the lieutenant has given you the gift of beauty, too!” Napoleon shouted.

“My God!” Paolo screamed in agony.  “What has he done to me?”


Paolo dashed about the Art House, gathering the papers into a single, disheveled pile.  He didn’t carefully wrap the sculptures in straw, but dumped them on top of the papers.  Clay legs broke off the horse sculptures, bits of noses and ears flew from the heads.  He rolled the full-size noise organs into the pile and tipped them over, so they crushed the sculptures, and spectacular clouds of dust and plaster flew into the air. 

The falling snow extinguished his first match.  But not the second.

Flames rose from the bonfire. 

A burning noise organ tumbled out of the fire, and Paolo snatched it up and tossed it into the cabin of the unfinished musical truck.  The upholstery caught on fire, and fire appeared in the side view mirrors.  When the truck exploded, Paolo did not flinch.

He danced an angry dance, pointing his toe, stomping his heel.  As a plaster head with a swollen nose rolled out of the flames, he kicked it back into the fire.

The cube-faced man stood nearby, warming himself by the fire, as Paolo danced to the sound of crackling and hissing and sputtering, the final sounds the noise organs made.



Dear Nina,


This is the last letter I will write to you.

I have been discharged from my duties to the army, but I cannot come home.

War transfigures all flesh. 

I am indescribably ugly now.  Mazzini has betrayed me.  After I was wounded in the face, I thought that I would be repaired.  Mazzini ensured that I was not. 

Instead of a nose, I have hollow, perforated lumps on my face that look like deflated balloons. Surgeons could remove this horror from my face, but not enough remains to reconstruct a nose.  I would have a depression where my nose should be, smooth and shapeless with scar tissue.  They showed me a prosthetic, a pathetic lump of putty, but I could not wear it.  Surgery is so primitive.  It is easier to make a man ugly than make him beautiful.

 I cannot bear to let anyone see me.  Even if I disguise my appearance under wrappings and coverings, no matter how pretty, I feel dirty, defiled, horrid to the core. 

Why would you still want me when there are so many other boys coming home with stars on their collars, medals on their chests, and noses on their faces? 

I have found a place to stay.  I am treated well here, and I have a semblance of peace and wholeness. 

Oh, Nina, what I have seen!

I have seen men--boys!--become old and stooped from the pounding of shells.  I have seen shell-shocked boys with untouched faces and bodies, become stuttering, shuffling babblers.  I have seen a land once dotted with chestnut trees and oaks reduced to shell holes and cesspools.  Even this church in which I live has been scarred, the roof punctured by the explosion of a 220-mm Austrian minenwerfer, the church organ destroyed in the same blast.  Nothing is immune.  We are all wounded. 

You see, it is appropriate that I am here.

Why did Mazzini do this?  Perhaps he thought of it as a gift to his Futurist heir apparent. He knew I played music, but he insisted it be Futurist music. 

If I can snatch one morsel of happiness from my sorry state, it is that, when I press my fingers to the holes and exhale forcefully, the lumps on my face form musical notes, not unlike the tones of an ocarina.  Mazzini tried to make musical instruments from machines, from howitzers, from motortrucks, and now from my very flesh.

I play music for the church now.  My spirit, if not my body, has been transfigured by the Lord Himself. 

The Father has told me I can stay here indefinitely. 

This is where I will live the rest of my days.


I love you and have always loved you.  I will never stop loving you.  If you hate me because I am ugly, I will understand. 

I went to war, wanting nothing else but to go home to you.  Now I need you to come to me.  To rescue me and bring me home.  I need a touch of your beauty to make me beautiful again.

If you do not come, I will understand.

But if you still want me, I will be here, waiting for you.


Forever in love with you,



He knew she would not come.

When the Father was not speaking, and when Paolo was not playing his ocarina, the church was utterly silent. 

The faithful grandmothers, the carved prophets, the snow falling in the sanctuary --- none made a sound.

He hated the silence, feared the silence.  He obliterated the silence with music.  He played every song he knew. 

The only printed music in the church was the pew missal book.  He played all the songs printed in it, in order.  It took a week.

When he was done, he began again.

All day long, he played his ocarina, pausing to hear the Father speak, and to eat the rigatoni that the priest brought him.

All night long he dreamed of Giannina floating past the black tree trunks, lifted by a hundred toes spinning like propellers, her face like porcelain, her hair like Christmas tinsel...

He knew she would not come.


One day he awoke, his pillow wet with tears, and he decided he had to move on.

He was still young.  Maybe he could find a different surgeon.  Maybe one that could repair his face.  If not completely, then perhaps enough that he could go out in public.

He could not stay in that church forever.

He decided he would rise from his bed and tell the Father that he was leaving.  He couldn't use the church as a hiding place anymore.

This he decided.

Then he realized his bed was too comfortable to leave, too warm, so he fell asleep again.


Paolo was in the choir loft when he saw an unfamiliar old woman in rags wandering up the aisle.  He recognized all the grandmothers by now, and this was a stranger.  She was dirtier than the others, a rumpled dark mass, limping slowly past the gleaming marble pillars, one foot wrapped in soiled burlap. 

Her hair was shapeless, tattered and matted.  Her face was smeared with grasses and clay. 

Well, God's house is a house of prayer for all people, Paolo thought generously.

As snow flakes fell on her shoulders, the woman turned around to look up at the hole in the roof.  Then she spun around in the empty, silent sanctuary and called forth in a young woman's voice, "Paolo?"

She shouted his name again.

Not hearing a response, she turned to leave.

Paolo ran down the stone steps of the circular staircase to the sanctuary. 



She moved to embrace him, but he backed away.  He stood in the shadow of candlelight, a hood covering his head.

"H-How are you?" Paolo asked.

"Fine," she said.

Paolo adjusted the edge of his hood to make doubly sure she could not see him.  "H-How was your trip?"

"I rode for weeks on a mule.  My bags were stolen, I slept in a ditch, I haven't eaten since..." she said.  Then she looked straight into the shadow of his face and said, "Paolo...  What's wrong?  Is it because I'm so dirty?  I'm sorry."

"No...  That's not it...  I...  I..."

"Why won't you come near?  Isn't this what you want?"

"I am so afraid," he said.

"Not of me, Paolo?"

"Afraid that you..."

"Paolo, for once, be honest with me."

"I am afraid to lose you.  I...  I am afraid that you came here because you really didn't believe what I wrote.  I am afraid you came here because of some idealistic notions about love."  He laughed a small laugh.  "You don't know what I really look like...  It's almost better to have you near, despite the impossibility of love, than to know that you are gone forever."

"Do you think I came so far just to make fun of you?  Or to say goodbye again?"

"Oh, Nina, please..."

"I love you, Paolo," she said, "and there is no fear in love, and perfect love drives out fear."

Paolo shivered and then moved slowly out of the shadow. 

“Perfect love drives out fear,” she repeated.

He hesitated another moment, and then drew back his hood, and in the bright, slightly yellow light she saw the twin lumps of flesh where his nose had been.  She saw the dark red lines of scar tissue where the lumps were joined to each other and to his cheeks.  When he saw her eyes widen in horror, he turned so the light displayed his wounds more clearly.  She saw the sets of fingerholes on each lump.  He raised an index finger and touched each hole, one by one.  The edges of the holes were inflamed and chapped, a shining clear rivulet streaming down from one of them. 

He stared into her eyes with such intensity that she winced and turned away.

Paolo's eyes shot down toward the floor.  "Go..." he said. "You don't have to look back..."

The he saw her face move towards his, and though he had no sensation in his ocarina, he saw her lips kissing it. 

She drew him into a long, tight hug.  At first his arms stuck straight out like poles.  Then his elbows slowly bent and his hands moved to touch her. 

He pulled away, just once, looking into her eyes to make sure that she knew whom she was hugging. 

She smiled, and they embraced again, and tears rolled down from his eyes.

After a very long hug, they walked upstairs to the choir loft.  He showed her where he slept, where he ate.  He played her some hymns on his ocarina.

Then he turned to her, looking very serious, and said:

"Before I left for the war, you asked me when I was going to ask you to marry me.  Do you remember that?"

She nodded.

His heart started racing, and sweat formed on his forehead.  He had to say the words before he fainted. 

"Oh, Giannina, I love you so."  He got down on one knee.  "I have proved my love for you by going to war, by risking my own flesh to bring honor to you.  By making this sacrifice..." He pointed to his wounds.  "For you.  I love you, and I will always love you.  Will you marry me?"

Giannina looked straight into his eyes and said, "Not yet."

Paolo did not move for a long minute.  He started to speak, but then he stopped.  He started again, but then stopped again and began to cry.  Then he said,  "Oh, Nina, Nina, please, Nina...  I knew it couldn't be true...  I knew you would change your mind...  I knew you really didn't love me...  Go...  Go...  Don't play with me, don't pretend you love me when you don't.  You are so cruel..."  For a moment, he thought of rushing from her, of jumping from the choir loft, of tumbling down through the air toward the hard stone floor of the sanctuary...

"Oh, Paolo," Nina said.  "Please wait."

"Wait?" he said.  "I've been waiting for you so long."

"And I've been waiting for you even longer.  You really don't understand, do you?  You really think my love for you is that fragile?  What do you think our love is made of?"  She hunted her mind for the proper simile.  "Is it breakable like glass, or is it made of something solid?"  Her tiny fist pounded the pew.

"Nina?  What do you mean?"

"Why did you go to war?  Didn’t you know I wanted you to stay home with me?"

"Because your father..." Paolo began to say.   Then he turned away from her and said, "Did you come all the way here just to criticize me?"

"No," Giannina said, and moved so that she could look him in the eyes.  "I came here to release you.  You went to war because you were lost, confused.  You felt inferior.  If we don't settle this now, I'll never be sure you won't go off on some other stupid adventure.  You don't need to prove your love ever again, never needed to from the beginning.  The thing you need to understand before I marry you is that I love you as you are.  There is nothing you could do to make me love you more and nothing you do to make me stop loving you."



Paolo was silent.  What more could he say?  He thought about what she had said.

"Oh, Nina..." he said.  "As I am?  You love me as...  I am so sorry..." 

Slowly, very slowly he began to weep.  "I have been so stupid and foolish and gullible..."  His lower lip quivered uncontrollably.  "How could you possibly want to marry me?"

"Ask me again," she said.


Giannina stood before him, her face again white as porcelain, her dress a blizzard of lace and silken roses.  Candles filled the altar, and in their light, her hair flickered and sparkled like Christmas tinsel. 

A priest spoke.

And as the priest spoke, the moment became so intensely wonderful that Paolo felt as if his soul had been lifted out of his body.  He felt completely disconnected from the sinews and bones that held him upright.  His soul returned to a time when he was a small child, and his father had borrowed a motor truck, one of the few in the village.  Paolo had not closed the door properly, so it flew open as they drove.  For a moment, he was thought he would fall out, so he swore very loudly and slammed the door shut.  He thought his father, a very religious man, would punish him for swearing.  But he did not, and instead stopped the truck and wrapped his arms around young Paolo and hugged his head and neck until his shoulder was stiff. 

That was how he felt at that moment.

And as he stood at the altar with Giannina, tears came to his eyes in a great flow, and as he sobbed, Giannina took him into his arms, and for the first time since he came from war, possibly for the first time in his entire life, he felt completely at peace.

He stood in the candle light, without a hood covering his ocarina, Giannina lending him her beauty.  He wept boldly, his emotions stripped bare for all to see. 

It felt wonderful.

That night, despite the cold of the falling snow, Paolo ripped off his shirt and danced in the public fountain, playing his ocarina as he kicked at the water.  Mothers and sisters and fathers and brothers, who had come back from the factories and the front to fill the church assembly, danced with him.  

War was over for now. 

One of the men in the congregation, a fisherman, grilled his entire day's catch of fish in an enormous barbecue, his sons wrapping the fish in paper and handing it out for free to celebrate the wedding. 

When Paolo received a grilled fish, he found that the paper wrapped around it announced, “Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe.”

Paolo laughed out loud.  Thumping and grinding sounds as music?  Ha!  Marvelous mechanical forms of war?  Ha!  The socialization of land?  Ha!  What crazy ideas. 

Ha!  Lieutenant Ugo Mazzini!  Paolo thought.  You are dead, and I am going home to work in my father's bakery, going home with my new wife, going home to live the quiet life I have always wanted. 

He ripped up the tract and tossed the confetti into the air, as if destroying the paper would obliterate the ideas it contained, or erase them from the minds of those who thought them.

War was over, at least for him.

He did not see the fine particles of red mist slowly collecting among the dark clouds. 



PART 1 - PART 2 - PART 3 - PART 4

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