The Pit

Ivan Goran Kovacic (1913–1943)

BLOOD is my daylight, and darkness too.               
Blessing of night has been gouged from my cheeks                   
Bearing with it my more lucky sight.               
Within those holes, for tears, fierce fire inflamed                     
The bleeding socket as if for brain a balm –               
While my bright eyes died on my own palm.               

While played, I never doubt, God’s feathered creatures,
Reflected still in them, and clouds’ procession;   
But all I felt were my blood–spattered features,
Bruised gulfs in that once brillant profusion.   
Haw radiant lay my eyeballs in my hand,
Yet from those eyes no tear could more descend!

Then ever other fingers ran the warm
Coagulating blood my slaughterer found   
By the profounder agony of holes he formed
For better grip, more sensuously to wound;   
But me the softness of my blood enthralled,
And I rejoiced as blood were red tears falling.

The final light before the frightful night
The lightning swooping of the polished knife,   
The cry too white still in my blinded sight,
The bleach-white bodies of the murderers,   
Who stripped their torsos for their sweaty task –
Was dazzling even to my blinded mask.

O painful daylight, never so hard yet
Or penetrating did you break the East   
With fiery arrow; I might have thought I shed
Teardrops with leaping flames that seared my cheeks   
Through all that hell so many lightnings brent,
So many cries of other victims rent.

What time that furious conflagration fanned,
All that I knew of time were callouses for eyes,   
Hard-grown and aching; and could hardly stand.
And only then my slippery eyeballs fingered   
And knew – and cried: My sight, O Mother mine, is gone.
How shall I wepp when your life too is done?

Then dazzling daylight like a myriad carillons
From endless gleaming bell-towers in my crazy   
Brain illumined like the lights of Zion,
A lovely light – a light which sanctified –   
Bright birds, bright river, trees and, brilliant
Boon pure as mother’s milk, still brighter moon.

Now came a torture I had never guessed –
My murderer commanded “Break your own eyes!”   
I nearly prayed for mercy to the beast,
But slimy-fingered spasmic hands obeyed –   
And then no more I heard, no more could tell,
To empty nothyng faltered, and I feel.


WITH chilly urine woke me, and with blows
Belaboured fire back to my head, and then   
These executioners pierced our ear lobes
With blunted, clumsy spikes, each one in turn –   
“Laugh, laugh!” they ordered, as they thrust their tools,
“Ear–rings are fire for force-converted fools!”

Then horrid laughter, sobbing, loud and wild
Reverberated as if dead men laughed;   
But crazy humour hindered those defiled –
To silence us our wilted flesh they flayed;   
But endless now in our long choking wit,
With gaping sockets our dead sorrow wept.

Then suddenly like corpses we were still
(No doubt from fear lest we were still alive) –   
Tugged by our swollen ears they dressed us, till
The silent torture turned us all awry   
(But birds that sang to us, not one did tire)
While through our tattered lobes was drawn a wire.

So each man of us if the least he starts
Howls dully when he feels the frightful pain.   
“Silence” – the executioner – “we know it smarts,
But we’re not going to let you go again!”   
Not one of us could even shake his head
But give another blinding pain instead.

That warder wire appeased our cruel captors,
And, tired, nearby they sat down in the shade;   
Refreshing water gurgle then was heard
Down parching throats, laud pleasure as they ate,   
As if they’d laboured hard, till they began
To pass foul, slimy jokes from man to man.

Then even seemed our presence was forgotten;
We heard them yawn and break their wind at leisure.   
“Oh boy, I saw a skirt today” – a rotter
Spued dirty observations from his tongue.   
Thus passed their noon, in wine or cooling water –
Ours passed on burning wire, strung for the slaughter.


NOW in my rank a girl went mad and shrieked
Her warning – “Men! Fire! the house is burning,   
Fire!” And now the wire strung through us wreaked
New agony and rent distorted gaps   
In all our monster ears until she fell
And choking lay, oblivious to hell.

“Blind sockets, deaths-head skulls, you purblind rats,
We’ll doctor you with hot coals in those holes   
To make you see again, blind blinking cats!”
And, as he spoke, a drunken murderer lent   
Leering forward, and slashed down through a face,
To leave its ear still dangling, wired in place.

We heard the victim’s cry, his frenzied pace
As, thus released, down maddened dark he ran;   
Through mortal silence then we heard the chase,
And, as the knife struck twice, his heavy fall.   
So one is saved, I told my night of it,
No knew they led our steps towards the pit.

I heard the heart dull in my hollow breast
And through the wire to others’ beating harked;   
To that dumb drum we pressed our steps ahead
(Haw loud it rumbled through the weeping dark!)   
By that tattoo I saw through holes for eyes
My thoughts assemble as in bright sunrise.

And saw again, as I had seen at dawn,
The hollow pit which yesterday we dug;   
I strained my hearing and at last it came –
That sudden flat sound as each victim fell –   
Knife-edged, my thought itself began to tell
The forty-nine before me, known so well.

And, waiting fingered memory’s index,
Ticked whom they took before, behind, all round –   
So add, subtract, until the following blows
Descend and new men die; till all my strength   
Of mind to dazzling clarity was grown.
To let no change take place, and pass unknown.

Somewhere cicadas sang; a single cloud
Brushed fleeting shadow over everything.   
I heard one murderer nature easing loudly,
The while another, heated, wildly slew –   
All this engraved like sight, and glittered clear
As sun upon the knife-edge, in my ear.


WHEN the first sacrifice began to choke
I heard a silken sound, a fleshy sack   
Which settled slow. I knew that first the throat
They stuck, then in between the shoulder-blades   
A second thrust, then swiftly pushed away
To fill the pit, together to decay.

Before my blindness, limp and dead, one fell,
Then with a yell of fear, behind my back,   
While my keen senses noted down each blow
And every person dead, struck from my list –   
No man nor girl who cried or sudden wept
But in my heart – my wound – their agony leapt.

A comrade in the pit now whimpered like a child,
Throat but half stuck – that asound so ominous   
Alarmed me lest I lost the list compliled –
Then down below a hand–grenade they tossed –   
The firm earth rocked. A weakness bend my shape;
What hope now had I that I might escape?

Yet consciousness triumphant still possessed me;
Now nerves and blood and flesh and skin became   
A straining ear; I counted thirty–one –
Sixty and two more strikings with the knife –   
I heard a blow which fell with savage force,
And once again my folly took its course.

When now another cry for intermission
Brought yet another hand-grenade, new dead   
Began to fall with thuds of less precision,
As if on water, o’er a slush of flesh;   
And so in blood I feel my foot-soles sink –
A spasm shook me – I had reached the brink.


OH, THEN I saw, with suddenly better sight,
As if my eyes returned – but to my back –   
That whitened skin, that knife prepared to strike,
The victims too who while last seconds tick   
Stand stiff and still, yet automatic steal
By inches toward the knife their nerves can feel.

Uninterruptedly the ranks moved slowly on
– As if some distribution was ahead –   
Not one that shouted, started back or groaned,
While steadily in sultry air death mowed   
the deadripe corn, which fell with only sound
The fluent blood which spurted to the ground.

Thus step by step, with briefest pause between –
The croak, the knife, the thud; the queue pace   
Nearer, nearer still. Strained on a rack,
I backed, felt on my lips the bitter taste,   
Another’s blood, and thus became the third
Who waited at the pit till it – occurred.

The darkness more disgusting through my blindness
Blasted my mind and cluttereb every sense –   
And sense bevond a thausand daybreaks cried
Intense – O arrow! O flame! O bewildering snow!   
Light, come at last devoid of any shade,
With needles in my aching eyeballs played.

The comrade next bent suddenly towards me,
As if a cramp had gripped him, then he groaned,   
And, stumbling forward, set a soft sigh free,
That lonely sigh, consumed in his death–rattle –   
Swung downward, flopping like a fish. With this,
Before me gaped the bottomless abyss.

Each detail fresh today – my body swayed
In space – as if upon the final rung   
Of endless nothing balanced there before me,
And at my back another nothing hung.   
A whitened arrow was my own throat slit,
Black death the stab behind; before – the pit.


BUT in the pit, by quivering heart made keen,
I felt the chilling corpse that pressed me down,   
And my own clamour too, that webbed me in.
Fear flared my senses when a woman shrieked!   
I am in the pit, cold maw that took our flesh,
That took our corpes clammier than fish.

I lay upon a corpse – a mould of brawn,
A flabby slimy thing in bloody steep;   
Yet thought was rescued by that human cold,
And flashed new lightning when a woman screamed.   
I turned in fever quick towards the sound
And stretched my hand – to touch a soft, wet wound.

For the first time my every ounce of strength
Knotted together over all the dead;   
To hide that shriek I held my breath and pressed
Deep fingers in my sockets – bodies naked   
Shrieked together in the darkened pit,
And hell re-echoed with the din of it.

Then my new fear awoke – grenades would fall!
With awful spasm at first I thrust and gripped   
A woefully butchered limb – the body crawled
To writhe with me, and, writhing, slipped,   
The blood-lapped gurking gullet gaping wide –
When footsteps came and voices spoke outside.

O heavens above, a woman’s tense embrace
Of second death contained me and I felt   
My fingers ridging in her wrinkled cheeks –
O whitened hairs! O Granny! and I held   
Her bony hands and warmed them with my breath,
Felt I had caused my own dear mother’s death.

I heard how she lamented as she died,
How passionately still che longed to live.   
I begged all those now dead for absolution.
I felt a twisted lip grown swiftly stiff –   
And fainted then. When once again I stripped
The darkness from my mind, my flesh still wept.


STOPPED – alone – of all cold corpses, first!
But chill of death subtly up my spine;   
My limbs – congealed in choirs of dead men – thirsting
With gums and tongue and gullet throbbing fire.   
The ice of death is still. Inside, hell flamed,
Though not a cry, to give that silence shame.

Yet that lewd burden pressing on my body
Not even with the ice of death can slake   
My burning throat; that ever deader sod
Confines me – till I nearly shriek for water –   
Then water sprinkles, near and far by turns,
On, cooling shower! that burns, burns, burns!

Over the naked skin, the vale of ice,
Down belly, breast and flanks and thighs at once   
That cooling rivulet sets teasing fire,
And hollows angry furrows in the flesh.   
A burning droplet on my stiff lips traced,
My tongue revealed to me the quicklime taste.

The pit chockful, on carcases they poured
That fire, to spare the world our stealing stench:   
I thanked them that, now dead, they tried to warm
Us with that charity … I felt wrench   
Of naked corpses as their sinews turned,
Like long dead fishes by crude saline burned.

That final spasm of nerves yet not quite still,
That wondrous shudder on which I now floated   
Compelled me bless the guilty one for this:
When look! a corpse beside me was alive –   
Grey-haired old granny’s icy hand caressed
Me, now she knew I still had not found rest.


WHEN tat dead wave of life again subsided,
I caught the sound of steps as from afair –   
Somebody twice walked slowly round the site,
Then peace shone steady, like the evening star.   
I bent, to rise, hitched feet up, one by one,
Like digger when his graveyard job is done.

Then what surprise! The corpses moved about,
Slid over me and slowly settled in;   
They laughed and wept, groaned and sighed and shouted,
Reached for me – gripped me – furiously throttled –   
I felt their nails, their buttocks, and their thighs,
Their mouths and bellies corner me alive.

From terror I was still – then they still too –
Their weight decreased, a dead leg on my shoulder   
Dangled limp. They had pursued, but now
Pursed no more! – my climbing had undone   
The dead – I told myself. – That mangled nosse
About your neck, a dead girl’s locks have tangled!

Soft air now brushed its coolness on my mouth
Between the dead – then I was near escape!   
And as if drowning, gulped; and thickened blood
Through nostrils spurted down my parching throat.   
I laughed aloud – yet who saw me with gob
Of comrade’s blood bedecked, would sorely sob.

Or fear would petrify him, smite his speech
Before monstrosity like me – for why   
Deceive myself when mast think I grin
If i am weeping, or, if smiling, cry?   
Yet, in these empty sockets none may now forget
Like their tenebrous depths, the deadly pit.

For I could not relieve myself of guilt
Were I to leave my dead in that dark hole.   
The air’s alive – but do I also live?
I half expected they would clutch me to them –   
But then my mortal wounds “You live!” declared.
Be brave! Day’s done – the evening damp is here!


OH, NEVER did I wait for darkness’ coming
With such desire. For now the dew was seeping   
Over the upper bodies down to me!
My inflamed tongue set greedily to lick   
Drops from the arms and legs of those now dead,
And down contorted gutters nectar bled.

Like a wind creature, maddened then, I tried
To clamber out, on bosom or on belly   
Treading, non when those things like bellows sighed
Did I pay heed, but clutshed and cramped my fringers   
In the still hair, wherever dead flesh held,
Like maddened dog by burning thirst compelled.

Now was I free from pain and fear and shame,
Free to betray and spurn the dead, and crawl   
On bodies as on sodden ground that crumbled.
Was it my sister that I trod – I cared not;   
Some friend I mauled, girl’s fragile bones I shattered –
My maddened thirst was master – what else mattered?

When like a beast I’d clambered from the pit,
All wisdom, caution, fled, I cared not any more   
Who saw, but in blood crawled about and dragged
Myself to pasture, quadrupedal snorted,   
Rooted burning lips, and gaped, and sank
My oblivious body as I crept and drank.

At last twast done; with grass–filled mouth I lay
Twixt fire and ice, exhausted beyond sense,   
But saved! though beffled – whither could I flee?
A shudder broke me. Far aff the tyrants sang –   
With dirty catch their dismal triumph they shared.
When my soft mood was gone, and hatred flared!


MY NOSTRILS suddenly had caught the scent,
The wind–borne echo of our burning homes!   
From ashes rose my youthful years’ content –
The weddings, harvests, dances, and long hours   
Beside the hearth – the funerals with bells and wakes,
All that life’s sower sows and death’s scythe takes.

That simple happiness, the window’s glint;
Swallow and young; or windborne garden sweet –
Where? – The unhurried cradle’s drowsy tilt?
Or, by the threshold, sunshine at my feet?

The spindle’s whirring, or the sweetish scent
Or bread – the chairs, the nook, that all require
But pease – that squere of sky the window bent –
Door hinges’ gentle creak, the cosy fire –

The cowbell clanging stately from the byre? –
Afair, it seemed, through the floor boards seeped in
Drip drip in sleep, while one by one the stars
The ages lit, o’er villages and kin.

No weeping – only oaths and bawdy yells.
The moon above a ruined village stands.
no more below the house the well–hoist spelling
Peace. Death’s odour only fills our land.

Is there a place where suffering and pain
Men suffer, and endure, but yet alive?
Is there a place where men forget again
And live with those who wronged them by their side?

Is there a place, where children cry delight,
A father has a daughter – son, a mother?
Where even dreaded death is calm, and white,
With lilies for farewell, placed by brother?

Is there a place, where flowers on the sill
Enhance a pleasure or a grief diminish?
Could there be happiness or wealth more full
Than oaken table, chest, and humble bench?

The forest suddenly rattled, magnified
From hill to hill, and bullet scattering squeaked   
Like thunder children near me; high and wide,
Their errand missed, they sighed, and disappeared.   
Comrades were come, the avenging battle started!
Light as strong as health lit up my heart!

All the hearths of home blazed up in me,
And every sinew swelled with vengeance for   
Our bodies they had pillaged – I could see
The midday sun shrink gloom to liberty.   
The smoking village as my nostrils’ guide,
I strove to take my stand my men beside.

Then it was you found me, still by the path
Oh my own kin, my unknown warriors!   
Singing you came, like the first quickening swath
Of fruitful light, which, heralding the day,   
Boathed me. I tried to ask – for had I swoonned,
To dream of singing hands? o bowhund my wounds?

Upon my forehead moved a girl’s cool fingera,
Upon my ears sweet music “Comrade partisan,   
Rest now in peace, your agonies are requited!”
I reached my hands in dark towards her voice,   
Without a word I touched the tender face,
The hair, grenades, and rifle af my grace.

Began to sob and never have ceased yet,
With throat alone, for now I have no eyes;   
With heart alone, for now my tears the knife
Of murderers gourged away. I am deprived   
Of eyes to see you, and that strength is gone
Which I so need, to fight too, till we’ve won.

But who are you, and whence? I only know
That your light warms me. All – Sing! for I can feel   
At last I live; even though I’m dying now,
‘This in sweet Liberty, with Vengeance stolen   
From death. Your singing gives my eyses back light,
Strong as our People, and our sun as bright.

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