… Once it was said they died for us …

Randolph StowTourmaline by Randolph StowThe call of a bugle in the early morning. …

The day of the dead began. …

We stopped by the war memorial. Slowly the others gathered, from the shanties and from the camp, called by that ancient and haunting bugle-cry, whose sound to me is like the memory of a grief so old that all pain is gone from it and nothing remains but a kind of pleasure, a bitter-west reminder of vitality in which grief was possible. We have no ceremony, no celebration, but this.

Slowly they gathered. And Mary came to me, carrying a wreath of leaves she had made, as on every year. And as on every other year I went forward and laid it at the foot of the obelisk, the tip of which was receiving the first rays of the sun from over the small hills.

I turned to address them all, watching the light slide down their still bodies. I said what was true, that I had nothing new to say. ‘We come every year to remember the dead, and there’s not much more to add. Once it was said they died for us. But we’ve never truly known what they died for. Some for us, some for God, some for themselves. Most for no one, for nothing, not understanding, not even asking. Once it was taught that their death was somehow to our credit. We could come, in the name of the dead, to admire ourselves. That was a long time ago. Now all we understand is that we don’t understand. But we come in humility, and in guilt, knowing that in some way we are all murderers, we are all cannibals, and the dead have been our victims. We come to acknowledge our guilt to the dead, because we have eaten their flesh and drunk their blood, and because their curse is on us, and the seed is dead in the ground and in the bodies of men and women, because of them. And in remembering them we remember also God, who lives and reigns in the galaxies within us, and was and is our judge and accomplice, before and now and forever; and we ask him, in good time, to revise our sentence.’

The old words came easily. But I felt them as new. All eyes were on me, but I did not think of myself, I did not imagine myself standing, pontifical, before the obelisk. I spoke as a voice from the stone; I felt myself to be the stone, the law and memory of Tourmaline. …

Again the bugle sounded, on the empty fire-flooded heights. And when it had trailed away we began to sing, ruggedly and uncertainly, a hymn of which no one remembers the words, but which is nevertheless the only formal expression of our unity. And when that ended the bugle broke out again, wild with triumph this time, but dwindling to grief, and then reviving, and sending its brave cry to wander through the immensity like a lone traveller in the desert, until struck down by weakness and sinking, without pause or tremor, to earth; and there, at last and utterly, dying away.

– from Randolph Stow’s classic Tourmaline

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