September 26, 2020

Pelecanimimus and the Battle for Mosquito Ridge

From We Will Remember Freedom



This story first appeared in the anthology Resist Fascism, published in 2018 by Crossed Genres.


Dedicated to the Memory of Oliver Law (1900 – 1937), the first Black American to command white troops and leader of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (Spanish: Brigada Abraham Lincoln). Known for his bravery in action while leading his troops at the battle of Mosquito Ridge. — Bordewieck, Crystal, and Lila Chen, editors. “We Must Stop Them Here”: The Struggle of the Early Antifascists, Crossed Genres, 2019, p. 3.


Is there a connection between the reemergence of dinosaurs and the many-worlds theory? So my colleagues theorize. I can only say this: history is contingent, and much of it is outside our control. All any of us can do is act responsibly. Which brings me to the battle of Mosquito Ridge. — Arendt, Chaya. “The Re-emergence of Dinosaurs: Three Implications.” World Dinosaur Symposium, Berlin. May 1, 1943. Keynote Address.


July
5, 1937

My
Dear Eli:

I
hope you will excuse my recent silence. We have been engaged in
making a barricade against the Fascists, for they seek to take
Madrid. We will not let them. I have been slow to write due to a
wound, and because I fear that you may not have forgiven me for my
foolish parting words. Perhaps I can find a way to say in writing
what I could not say in your embrace.

I
have been serving under Commander Oliver Law, in the machine-gun
regiment. In late winter, I took a bullet in the palm. By the grace
of G-d, it did not grow infected, but my left hand is near useless to
me now.

I
will need to send you home, Law told me. A man who cannot steady a
rifle is of no use to me.

Sir,
I will go to Hell before I will abandon this fight, I told him.

Law
is as brave a man as I know, the first black among us to be made
commander, and a Communist. He no more believes in Hell than I do,
but he only smiled and said, well then, we will find a way to make
you useful. Pride ran through me like a river, for I have many times
seen Law lead the charge into the teeth of the enemy, and there is no
officer I more admire.

We
plan an advance against the Fascists, to ease their siege on Madrid,
and cut them off from their supply lines. I am still nimble and quiet
and sharp-eyed, so now I scout ahead.

I
can imagine your words in my head, chiding me for not coming home
when I could. Even now, I hear you say, we could be mobilizing
workers each morning and in each other’s arms each night. There are
tens of thousands of volunteers, you told me on our last day
together, but I have only you.

When
I think of the look in your eyes, I feel as though I’ve been sliced
open. But I believed in this cause then, and now I have seen proof
with my own eyes: we must stop the Fascists here, or they will spread
across Europe. There are German bombers overhead and Italian arms on
the other side of the lines. I long for your arms, my Eli, but I
fight to make the world safe for us, and I have seen soldiers (of all
genders) fight on despite worse injuries. I believe we will triumph,
and I will return to you. Should we fail, I take comfort in this,
that the struggle is worth all.

I
do not know when this letter will reach you. I cannot send it now,
for fear of revealing too much to the enemy, and knowing that I have
expressed my love for you in a way many of my Comrades would loathe.
I will keep this letter to myself and, if G-d wills, find a way to
get it to you soon.

Yours
Always,

Mordechai


July
6, 1937

My
Dearest Eli:

We
have made good progress. Our initial attack caught the Fascists
off-guard, and they have little answer for the Soviet tanks. While
the governments of the world look away, it remains to us volunteers,
the Spanish Republicans, and our Soviet allies to push back the
rising tide of Fascism. We have captured the town of Brunete, and I
scout beyond the edges of our lines.

Our
brigade is in position beneath the outcropping they call Mosquito
Ridge. It rises well above the dusty hills and plains. We are
positioned to its north, and to the south of it, Franco’s forces
await us. I went scouting, hoping to assess what defenses await us
should we seek to claim the high ground of the ridge.

That
was how I found something remarkable. The weather has turned hot, and
there is not so much as a cloud to cool us. This is a dry land, with
little water. I use the arroyos here to move unseen, and sometimes I
find trickles of muddy water to quench my thirst. I was filling my
canteen in one of these–the fighting well away from me, and the area
fairly quiet–when there was a rustle to my left. I thought myself a
dead man. The noises were not approaching troops, however, but some
creature moving in the brush. A head poked out at me, something like
a chicken’s, but larger and much longer. Two wide eyes stared at me
from perhaps four feet off the ground, in a face of tan feathers with
a gray circle right between its eyes. Through the thick tangle of
scrub, I could spy its body. It made a sound like a raven’s quork
and ducked its head back in the shrubs.

I
had never seen anything like it!When I inched forward for a better
look, it kawed at me with such ferocity that I swiftly backed off.
When it didn’t re-appear to further antagonize me, I pulled a
handful of bread from my pack and ate my small mid-day meal. I had
some hope that clouds might appear before I would have to leave the
shade of the arroyo wall. No sooner had I begun to eat than the
bird-thing poked its head back out and watched, quorking as it did
so. I ate another bite, then tossed a small piece toward it. The
creature was clearly hungry, and I had a little I could spare.

It
lunged forward and ate quickly, then darted back. It was much longer
than I had guessed, several yards long, at least, and its forelimbs
were long and feathered. Perhaps I should have been afraid? But for
all its impressive size, I could see in its gaze that it did not mean
me harm.

With
another bit of bread held out to it, the creature edged toward me,
wary. Its eyes were dark and clever like a raven’s, but when it
cautiously took the bread from my hand, I saw hundreds of small,
sharp teeth. This time, it did not eat the bread, but carried it
between its jaws back into the bushes. The brush must go deeper there
than I realized, for from inside I heard much squawking and quorking.

I
took one more bite of bread and then tossed the rest into the brush.
The eager noises I heard were my reward, and reason enough to go
hungry for a few hours.

I
did not tell anyone at camp about the creatures. Perhaps I keep them
secret out of selfishness–a bad trait in an Anarchist–or perhaps I
simply worry that my hungry Comrades would see them as food. For now,
I keep this secret safe between us.

I
lie awake this night, thinking of them and you. Do you remember when
we first met? It could not have made as much an impression on you as
it did on me. You were speaking passionately, supporting the Hotel
Strike, your voice booming over the crowd. I stood enraptured, unable
to look away. I was smitten at once, and hopeless, for I could not
then imagine that you, handsome, tall, and possessed of such
authority, could love me, reed-thin, small-voiced, and a man besides.

Then you met my eyes, and it was as though a vice, cruel and welcome, tightened in my chest.


July
8, 1937

Dearest
Eli,

The
heat refuses to relent. It rises from the land in shimmering waves,
with not a cloud to break it. It parches this dry land drier.
Everyone thirsts. My only comfort is that the enemy must be thirsty
as well, and more miserable for it, for our cause is just.

Each
day I have scouted and refilled my canteen from the trickle of the
arroyo stream. The creatures grow increasingly comfortable with me.
They know I will bring them some food, bread, or a few bites of meat.
They will eat most anything, but meat seems to delight them best.
There are six of them, a pack. Or should I say a flock? They do not
fly, having no wings, but they are much like birds.

They
like me quite well, these strange creatures. Now when I arrive the
brave one I first met, who I have taken to calling Gray Spot, pokes
his head out and greets me with a chirk-chirk-chirk that I think
means he is pleased. Soon the others join in. They are ragged, and
thin. The fighting in the area has grown intense, the heat
oppressive, and they hide. They are hungry. Anyone can see there is
not enough in this arid land to long sustain beasts of such size.

I
cannot help but worry for them. I think of the stray cats you take in
and care for as the days turn cold, and so I know that you will not
laugh at me, nor at my fear for these strange creatures. I could die
at any moment, but these innocents are caught in our war, and each
time I am with them I feel the weight of their presence, as though
they were drawn to me for a purpose, and I to them.

Does
it betray my Anarchism to think such, my beloved? Perhaps it does,
but I feel it even so. The world is not as it must be, and certainly
it is not as it should be. It is as we make it. Perhaps fate or
chance or G-d helps us, if we know how to look. If so, then it may be
that they, like you, are here to remind me to be kind as well as
righteous.

Or
perhaps G-d does not intervene, and it is all only men. If so, men
will soon decide much. Little has happened of late, as both sides
position and seek out weaknesses in the other. The weather has slowed
everything down, but even if the heat does not break, the tension
will. The forces are in place, and supplies run low. Battle will be
joined soon, and decisively.

This
worries me. Fascist patrols have kept me from getting close enough to
the ridge to discover their defenses, but I have now scouted the rest
of the area thoroughly. They’ve extended their line to the east,
keeping to the hills beneath the ridge. We have moved our line
opposite them, with the plains between us. (My friends the
bird-creatures are in an arroyo just on our side of the hills, less
than a mile from the Fascist line.)

One
thing is certain: whoever holds Mosquito Ridge will claim a dominant
position on this portion of the battlefield. I am certain we will
soon try to claim it.

What will happen to my new friends once the fighting begins? I wish there was more that I could do for them. Perhaps it is my fate to do what little I can. It is not the first stone that builds a bridge; nonetheless, each stone is necessary. May I be a worthy stone.


July
10, 1937

My
Dearest Eli,

Commander
Law called me to his tent this afternoon. He hunched over a map of
the battlefield, the thick canvas blocking out much of the afternoon
light. He beckoned me inside and extended his finger to a point on
the map. Mosquito Ridge.

Our
orders have come down, he said. We attack the ridge tomorrow.

Yes,
sir, I said. I do not like the word sir,
but Law is a cunning tactician and always leads from the front, and
has earned it.

The
Fascists patrol the area constantly, I told him. I have not been able
to get close enough to judge their defenses.

Law
nodded, put a hand on my shoulder. I know you’ve done your best.
But now I need more than that. I need to know what we’re facing.
Can you get closer?

I
felt my jaw tighten. I can, sir, if I leave after dark. We both knew
the risk, but I saw this was my chance to repay my commander’s
trust in me, perhaps my one chance to help our cause.

I’m
counting on you, Goldman, he said, and we shared the look of men who
might not survive the next day.

I
am sorry to write it so plainly, my beloved. I know it will cause you
pain to see it put down like that. Even if you cannot forgive me for
my words, I must be honest. You were put on this earth to make the
world better, block by block, through small kindnesses and organizing
the masses. Perhaps I was put here for this moment.

Do
you remember what you asked me, the night before I left, as we held
one another and let the cool night wash over us?

Tell
me, you said, why you must do this?

To
stop the Fascists, I told you. I was hurting and preferred your anger
to your tears, so I added, you will have no trouble replacing me.

It
was a cruelty, and defamation besides, for I trust you completely. To
admit it would have made leaving harder, so like a coward I chose the
easy path over truth. Never again.

If
I die tonight, I pray you will forgive me for leaving you, and for
the hurt I caused you. No matter my foolish words, know that there is
nothing but death that would long keep me from your side.

Now, at last, I know the other half of my answer. If I could go back and rest with my head on your chest, here is what I would say: I fight to be a man worthy of your love.


July
19, 1937

My
Dearest Eli,

I
have lived to fight on, but in the strangest of circumstances. That
night, I made my approach to the ridge, moving through the
scrub-grass and keeping as low and silent as I could. It was long,
tense work, full of switchbacks and steep ascents as I moved higher
up the ridge. My wounded hand made the climb slower than it should
have been. Twice enemy patrols nearly stumbled on me, but fortune was
with me and, many hours after I had set out, I learned what I needed
to know. There were machine-gun nests halfway up the ridge,
entrenched and surely fatal for the attack we had been ordered to
make.

My
only thought then was to get back to Commander Law, to warn him. I
hurried down from the hills as quickly as I dared. When at last I
again had a view of the plains between the ridge and our Brigade, I
saw a terrible sight. In the pre-dawn light, Franco’s forces had
rearranged themselves. They had not moved far, merely from one side
of a low range of hills to the other, a distance of just over a mile,
but in so doing, they had cut off my route back to camp. There was no
going through them. I could have gone around, far to the east, but it
would have been a detour of several hours. Too late to warn Law.

I
made my way as far as I could, through the scrubgrass and the very
arroyo I had spent much time in, these last few days. And I
despaired.

I
sat with my head in my hands, trying to think, feeling I had failed
my commander and my cause, when from behind me I heard a familiar
quork-quork. The bird-creatures moved in a uneasy pack down the
stream, led by Gray Spot. They advanced to perhaps twenty feet away,
then hesitated. Gray Spot, always bold, drew nearer, still quorking,
tilting his head to one side. My friends were looking very hungry
now, the lines of their ribs visible to me even in the half-light.

In
my anxiety the day before, I had not touched any of my evening’s
rations, so now I tore off a bit of bread and tossed it to him. He
did not eat, but brought it back to the others, and they devoured it.
It would do them little good, I feared. They could not long survive
here, not while the battle continued, and on every side for miles
there were military lines.

I’ve
heard it said that great desperation breeds great insight. Perhaps it
is so. I think it more likely that I seized on the only half-chance
that presented itself. It was better than being caught, better by far
than doing nothing.

I
walked back the way I had come, crouching and dropping crumbs behind
me, every few feet at first, then with more and more distance
between. My friends moved cautiously afterward, always twenty or
thirty feet back. They were clever, and at least as desperate as I
was. They were less quiet than I, but we were now behind the enemy
line, and no one noticed us.

Halfway
up the ridge, I ran out of bread and switched to sausage. Not much
longer after that I could hear the Fascists nearby, reading for
battle. I feared we would be caught, so close to our goal, but the
brush and the steep terrain helped us, as did our approach. They were
expecting an attack from the only direction available to the
Republican forces, across the plain and up the ridge. I had
approached from what they thought was a secure flank.

When
I was very close to the nearest machine-gun embankment, I went down
on my belly. The skittish creatures stopped, save for Gray Spot, who
followed closely behind me. I reached up to him, and he did not
flinch away as I rubbed at the soft feathers of his neck. It was my
goodbye.

The
gunner was already at his post, hunched over his weapon and looking
drowsy as the light broke over the desert. Across the plain I saw my
Comrades advancing. They were a large force, big enough to not be
threatened by the Fascists in the hills to the west. But they had no
chance of scaling the steep incline of the ridge under sustained
machine-gun fire. In no more than twenty minutes, they would be in
range.

Gunfire
would give away my position, and my wounded hand made my rifle all
but useless, so I slid my knife between my teeth and edged forward.
Gray Spot didn’t move, but knelt low, watching me with those
strange, keen eyes. I had perhaps fifty yards between me and my
target, half of that in the open, with no cover. All I could do was
move silently and hope.

By
the time I was out of cover of the scrub, the morning was fully
bright. If he turned around, I would be caught out in the open, the
alarm raised and all lost.

I
inched forward, quiet as I could. I wished to break into a run and
have it all decided at once. But I held my nerve.

Ten
yards. Five. At last I was so close I could smell his sweat. I pulled
myself to a crouch. He yawned, and turned–

I
drew my knife across his throat. His eyes went wide and he clutched
at himself as he died, his blood seeping across the rocky ridge.

In
truth I did not feel any pity for this boy I had killed, this
Fascist, though he was younger than I am. I felt only the weight of
chance and obligation that had let me take his life before he could
take mine.

I
had no plan for what came next, no way to drive my friends forward,
but Gray Spot needed no convincing. He came to the body at once,
lowered his head and made noise like a pig in the undergrowth. He
drank at the blood, then began to feed. It did not take the others
long to join him. I could not easily stomach the sight of the
creatures’ meal, though I did not begrudge them. I moved clear of
their way, further up the trail.

My
instincts were fortunate, for their noise brought a pair of curious
soldiers down from the nearest machine-gun nest, one an officer. They
came around a bend and stopped, blinking at what they were seeing. I
feared gunfire would send my friends running, so I leaped from the
bushes, knife in good hand, and flung myself at them.

My
blade caught the officer in the shoulder, and we tumbled to the
ground. We rolled over one another, me trying to get a another strike
with my blade, him reaching for his own. I was dimly aware of
shouting, of the other man reaching for a weapon.

I
do not know whether I believe in miracles, but I do not know what
else to call what happened next. There were shouts from beyond me,
the echo of a machine-gun, and then: kaw-kaw-kaw from behind me. The
officer plunged his knife into my side–then screamed as Gray Spot’s
teeth tore at his neck. His companion gave a kind of choking cry,
only to disappear beneath the other bird-things.

It
was horrible to see. The two men did not survive long. Perhaps
fifteen seconds had passed. There were shouts from along the ridge,
and from below. No longer afraid of the noise, I pulled free my
pistol and saw, below me, Law leading the charge up the ridge, into
the line of fire.

I
rushed forward, around the curve in the ridge and toward the next
machine-gun nest, firing as soon as the enemy was visible to me. I
was dimly aware that my friends followed. Had I given them a taste
for blood, or were they responding when a friend was threatened, as
any good freedom fighter would do? All I know is that together we
rushed into the next nest, and the next, and the next. All along the
lines were shocked and panicked Fascists. One crew managed to point
their machine-gun at us, but Gray Spot leaped high and came down upon
them, all claws and teeth. Fascists fled, pale and screaming, down
the ridge towards my Comrades.

At
some point, I collapsed to the ground, bleeding from my side wound. I
had also re-opened the wound on my hand in the desperate fighting,
and blood coated my bandages. As my vision faded, I saw the
bird-creatures leaning over me, and I wondered if they would consume
me, too.

When
I woke, Commander Law was looking down at me. I had been dead to the
world for several hours. Long enough, it seemed, for us to secure the
ridge and for Law, having seen some of what had happened, to somehow
convince my friends to let him and a medic near me.

Those
things, he said, whatever they are, are quite protective of you, son.

I
smiled. Maybe they just hate Fascists as much as we do, Sir.

Law
smiled too.

The
battle continues, my beloved, though I am now in Madrid recovering. I
will rejoin my comrades as soon as the doctors will allow it. I do
not take well to sitting idle, but it has at least allowed me time to
finish this letter, and there is a nurse here who understands the
circumspection our love demands. She will see this reaches you.

There
is much to be done before the war is won. But the news from the front
is good, and the day is coming when I will beat my swords to
ploughshares, or at any rate trade my gun for a pen.

Yours
Always,

Mordechai


Postscript:
I have here a letter from Commander Law. It seems my friends will not
give him a moment’s peace. He says one of the Spanish officers, a
geologist, has solved the riddle of them.

You must return soon, Law tells me. These dinosaurs of yours must also be Anarchists, for they are barely controlled, and eager for the blood of Fascists.


About the author: Izzy Wasserstein was born and raised in Kansas. She
teaches writing and literature, writes poetry and fiction, and shares a
house with a variety of animal companions and the writer Nora E.
Derrington. She likes to slowly run long distances.

About the host: Margaret Killjoy is a transfeminine author and editor
currently based in the Appalachian mountains. Her most recent book is
an anarchist demon hunters novella called The Barrow Will Send What it May, published by Tor.com. She spends her time crafting and complaining about authoritarian power structures and she blogs at birdsbeforethestorm.net.

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