From “The General Makes Up His Mind”, a short story

The General has been summoned from retirement to lead the defense of a walled city beside a river.  He encounters an old ferryman.

“Good morning, general.”  The old man snaps him a mock-smart salute, like a joke between them.  The general recognizes him now; he had been standing at the western gate of the city as the general entered, and he had saluted just so.  Knowing the language of the south — everyone had studied it in school — but not the customs, the general had returned the salute on the off-chance that not to do so might give offense.

The aide, suddenly noticing the intrusion of this unauthorized person, steps forward, his eyes narrowing, but the general reaches out to hold him back.

“And good morning to you, grandfather.”

The old man’s chin bristles with whiskers normally shaven only once a week, to spare the dear blade.  When he grins, his skin crinkles audibly like underbrush.

“I am not your grandfather.  We must be about the same age, you and I.”

The general clears his throat.  “I meant it only as a term of respect for your years, as you called me ‘general’ in respect for my rank.”

The old man grins more broadly still, revealing the two last teeth remaining in his upper gum.

“It’s not your rank I called you but your title.  Don’t you understand anything?  An old man like you should be more in the know.  You’re a general.  I’m a ferryman.  That’s what they call me when I’m at my work and they don’t know my real name.”

“Well, ferryman, then.  Good morning.”

“A fine day.”

“To be sure.”

The old man spits on the ground, gathers the breath through his nose.  The aide leans forward, clearly impatient for the old man to be gone.

“Well, I’ll be off, then,”  says the old man, taking a step downhill, towards the river.

The aide, unable to restrain himself, demands: “Where to?”

“Why, the river, of course.”

The general’s face grows long with amusement, but the aide scowls and replies: “No one goes to the river today.”

The old man whistles through his broken teeth: “I’ve gone to my ferry every day but Sunday since I was a boy, just like my father.  Hey, armies come and armies go but life must go on, hey?”

Angered by these simplicities, the aide shifts his beefy shoulders.  “Nothing goes up or down the river today, and nothing gets across.  There’s a war on, don’t you know that?”
“Well, I won’t be in your way.  What have I got to do with wars and such?”
The general’s voice is furred and gentled with weariness.  “Why not go home and wait behind the city walls?  You’ll be better protected, and, besides, there will be no passengers today.”

“Not to worry, general.  There’s always some cattle-dealer or some lad leaving home needs to get across.  Life goes on.”

“Life does not always go on, ferryman.  The enemy will allow no cattle-dealers through their lines, and no lads will leave home today, I assure you.”

“What harm can there be if I wait in my usual place by the river, just in case?  Hey?”

The aide interjects: “And get shot to pieces in the cross fire?”

“I don’t mind the danger.”

The general is puzzled.  “Why would you want to take such a risk?”

“Isn’t it obvious?  You’re a general, you fight wars.  I’m a ferryman, I wait by my ferry for a call from the other shore.  That’s what I do, fair weather or foul, every day but Sunday.  I could hang around the tavern with other old men instead of going to my ferry, but then I would be a lay-about and not a ferryman, and I wouldn’t recognize myself.”

The baleful features of the general’s face relax.  “Well, do it, then, but be advised that I cannot safeguard you or your ferry.”

“Never mind that, general.  Who wants to shoot an old man?  I’ll do some fishing if, as you say, there aren’t going to be any passengers.  Maybe I’ll bring you some fish for your supper, hey?”

“Was that wise?” the aide admonishes when the old man is out of sight.  “He could relay messages to the enemy about the state of our preparations.”

The general answers very coldly: “There is nothing he can tell the enemy that they cannot see with their own eyes or a pair of field glasses.  And how do you expect us to lift the fighting spirits of these city people if they bear us a grievance?  Let him go to his ferry and return at nightfall, if the attack hasn’t begun, and tell everyone he meets that the commanding general is a decent fellow.  We’ll get some good will out of it.  The people know what monsters we face, these murderous tyrants.  The defenders of liberty ought to be seen as kind-hearted and lenient.”

“A dangerous philosophy, with all respect,” the aide retorts.  “We’re soldiers, not politicians.  Our job is to fight and win and do it quickly.  If an iron hand is required, well, let me use the heaviest one and have done.”

But the general is watching the old ferryman scuffle away, down the steep bank to the water’s edge and dart into a small cabin where he leaves his basket and emerges with a stool on which he sits to watch and wait, smoking a pipe.  The ferry bobs on the estuarial flux a few yards offshore, a makeshift barge with a long tiller and a motor housed in a box beneath a scrap-wood canopy in the middle of the deck.  It is moored by a frayed rope to a stump at the ferryman’s feet.  On such a primitive contrivance as this the god might have passed over the river on his way to the site where, in legend, he raped the daughter of the local priestess of a rival god and on which the city was raised in commemoration of his pleasure.  And just such a ferryman as this might have carried him over.

Deep in the morning, the aide draws the general’s attention to a small group of enemy soldiers who have gathered at the opposite shore to whistle and call.  The ferryman rises stiffly from his stool and makes signals back to them, at which they fall silent.  Some agreement has evidently been concluded.

“By God!” the general chuckles.  “He has got a passenger.”

The ferryman darts into the shack and, returning with a tin jerry-can, jigs merrily down to the shore and draws his vessel closer by the anchor line.  With unlikely success, he leaps the intervening water and lands on the weathered deck.  Removing the top of the box, he pours fuel from the jerry-can into the motor and gives several tugs on the starter cord, making some little adjustments after each attempt.  At last, with a belch of smoke, the engine coughs into life, and the ferryman gives the anchor rope a deft flip, releasing it from the stump.  Freed from its mooring, the barge begins to drift upriver with the inflowing tide.  But the ferryman leans on the tiller, rotating the craft to face the current, and opens the throttle.  Water churns over the stern planks as the boat pushes downstream, hugging the shore where the current is weakest.  Half a league on, and almost to the headland where the river meets the sea, the ferryman leans hard on the tiller again.  The boat shoots out into the stream and, as it is borne swiftly back upriver, races diagonally across the channel, gaining the far shore exactly at the rock outcropping where a uniformed party awaits it.

“Elegant!” the general exclaims under his breath.

The aide does not hear him.  “Enemy agents, sir.”  And he orders a contingent of infantrymen down to the shore to offer a challenge.  Across the river, a solitary soldier steps from the assembly, lifts a white handkerchief to the breeze and boards the ferry.  A thickening light gleams on the bright sheet and glints from the polished buttons on the soldier’s tunic.  Deftly the old ferryman turns the boat and crawls along the far shore until he is nearly opposite the headland; then, he steers directly into the current again and is propelled in two directions at once through the flickering chop directly towards his first landing.  His passenger stands on the foredeck, erect as a horseman.

“An envoy,” says the general.  “Order the escort to bring him directly to me, with all the formalities.”

The escort by the river, receiving their commands and clearly relieved they will not be told to shoot, make ranks and snap to attention in a neat square as the ferry approaches the landing.  It has described a pair of intersecting and identical right triangles; each crossing has traced a hypotenuse opposite the right angle formed by the bank and the line connecting the outcrop and the anchorage.  Such geometry brings comfort to the general’s eyes.  His soldiers’ toil promises only a tangle of trenches curling fortuitously around the cannon wherever the sergeants have found a flattening of the ledgey banks.  Such lines inscribe nothing legible; in them no strategy can be read.  There is, the general reflects, no strategy to be employed, only to fire relentlessly on any attempt to bridge the river and hope the enemy artillery cannot, by luck or mathematics, pick his cannons off.

copyright 2009 R.D. Eno


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