28 February 2012

The story of a carved bullet

After I posted the image below earlier this week, it was presented in a European blog - Poemas del rio Wang - with a similar challenge to readers to guess the object's function.  These were some of the responses:

• A deadly message carved into a bullet for the enemy
• A modern art work printed into an angler’s lead weight
• Halloween tooth filling
• Stylishly decorated head of a coffin nail
• Seal ring
• Carved tip of a pencil
• Mummy

• Votive seal of “for better for worse”
• Seal of a medieval dentist or inquisitor
• Iron for branding pirates
• Perhaps there are/were four similar ones, with various (eventually more cheerful) motifs, that is, a set for the five stones game
• Mint stamp

Easily my favorite response was the one crafted by Komaváry, who offered this delightful story, translated here from the Hungarian by Studiolum, and reproduced with minimal editing on my part.  Enjoy.

Don’t believe that only urban gentlemen can have hobbies, or that only craftsmen are able to become master artists. Consider for example this prison captain...

The administration of a prison is an art itself, and the more so in such a remote mountain landscape, where sometimes even the ass goes on a man’s back. He did his job with honor, and who could blame him for having also built a tower of rubblestones and having its yard swept clean even in the heaviest snow-storms. No scurvy or any other kind of disease killed anybody here - only lead bullets.  The ones who were allotted this fate came from somewhere down in the cities of the plain. The only killers here were the lead bullets cast by the captain.

The captain cast his bullets himself, and this was the purpose of the tower. It was perhaps the mountain air glowing around the bubbling lead, perhaps the purity of the mountain water into which it dropped hissing, but every solidified drop fished out from the pool below the tower was just like a metallic silver pearl.

An urban gentleman or a craftsman would have sat back in satisfaction, but the captain’s art just started here. The prison worked well, and if someone looked carefully through the annals, perhaps they would have noticed that all too well, but the annals were the first to perish in the fire when the tower was broken by anti-tank grenades and its ruins covered the guard wing with flames.

And if anyone had any suspicion, the captain would have explained to him that the boundary is as thin here between a mountain shepherd and a bandit as the stripe of a lead drop falling in front of a cell’s window.

When the time neared for executions, each prisoner was given three lead bullets by the prison captain. A special tool, a bullet-carving knife, was also given to them for two long hours before sunset
every day. For two hours the prisoners would carve the bullets, and then, when the thin evening soup was distributed, the carving knives were collected.

The bullets, however, were left in the cell. When the sentences accumulated one could clearly hear how the bullets rub to each other while rolling about in the sweaty palms of the prisoners.

The bullets were there in the prisoners' palms upon awakening, during the morning walk, at the poor lunch, and even when breaking stones, tightened to the pickax’s handle. Every convict carried with him for a week his own death in his palm.

On the morning of an execution, the prisoners were taken to the loess wall of the back yard. As each passed before the three uniformed soldiers, he placed the bullets one by one into the white-gloved palms.

The balls were glittering: the sweat lent them a patina which could never have been created by any blacksmith’s expertise.

The three soldiers put the three bullets into three rifles. The man sentenced to death in his last seconds stared at three gun barrels.

However, in the decisive moment only two guns fired. As soon as the prison doctor confirmed the death, the captain walked to the third soldier - to the one who had received the mute rifle for his task. Sometimes it was the soldier to the right whose weapon clock clicked dully, sometimes the shot was missing from the left, sometimes the bullet remained in the barrel at the middle – the captain tried to mix the weapons as long as he himself did not know which of the three carvings would be spared.

Then in the afternoon he went up to his room, poured himself a finger of cognac, and then – just like an insect collector who discovers a new species on a meadow browsed through a thousand times – changed his white saffian gloves for a thin white tissue glove, and taking out of his pocket the harvest of the day, he carefully examined each bullet.

Then he rubbed the bullet with a cambric kerchief, and put it in the next empty place in the ten-by-ten-cell timber frame made for this purpose. We do not know how many frames were filled by carved bullets, as we do not know where the frames disappeared.

We only know that destiny suddenly changed, and the captain, in his buttonless, torn, bloody uniform stood there in front of his own loess wall. Not three, but thirteen weapons were directed to his breast, and their bullets were not dropped from towers, but produced by the tons in far-away city factories to sprinkle with holes a whole continent.

In the brief silence before the captain's death – because the world keeps silent a little bit before every death – the thirteen riflemen heard a strange, rubbing noise, as if the captain was grinding his teeth, although he was breathing with an open mouth and his eyes staring.

When the body was completely cool and when, despite the cold mountain air, the soldiers were warmed up by the captain’s cognac, one of the riflemen slipped to the corpse lying at the wall. A year earlier he had been an insignificant swineherd; now he was a partisan, though he himself could not decide whether it was his machine gun which brought him there or whether he was bringing the machine gun. He did not want anything of the captain – the others had carefully gone through the captain's pockets in the afternoon; he only wanted to close those wide open eyes, he just did not want to see that gaping mouth. In the darkness he accidentally hit the captain’s hand, and accidentally found the three bullets. He hoped that he had found something of value, but when the next day he looked at the carvings, he hoped something else: that perhaps these three talismans would take him home.

And finally indeed he was the only one to return home from the thirteen, only to leave again a few years later.  He had to go.  He was chased by a hunger, by the hunger which took off everything else, leaving only a tiny bundle and these three bullets. As a last hope, he offered one of the bullets to the captain of a ship – another captain who, he hoped, would take it for a pearl, for a rare treasure.

This captain was an experienced man who had sailed over the seven seas, so he exactly knew that it is not pearl that a man of his age appreciates. Nevertheless, as he was an experienced man, he took one of the bullets, turned it over in his hands, and shuddered. Power is in this, boy, he said, and let him on the ship. The boy did not feel the power, but it was this piece of lead, the dead man’s pearl, which took him to the New World.

The two remaining pearls were with him until he learned the language, until he left the room in the tenement building full of immigrants and cockroaches and rented his own apartment, until he found the partner of his life, and until they moved out to their own garden house. A son was born to them, whom the father tried to spare from everything he was separated by an ocean from.

The boy was not even eighteen when he also was brought away by a machine gun – or the machine gun by him? – over another ocean. His father could not do more than just provide him with one of the carved bullets for protection. Months went by without any news, and he found himself praying in an almost forgotten language to a God more bearded than the one here.

Neither the bullet, nor the son returned - only an empty coffin covered with a flag. Later he wanted to believe that the bullet helped anyway, that it brought to the son a quick death, not one from the diseases of the jungle or from a bamboo stake. While he was turning the last bullet in the hand, he stopped praying, and decided that he himself would raise his grandson, the last gift of his child, a grandson who was conceived the night before his son enlisted.

The grandson who had known no father was afraid. And because he was afraid, he drank, and in order not to be afraid when drunken, he occasionally squeezed the talisman received from his grandfather. He was drinking and squeezing it when they buried his grandfather.  The drink and the carved bullet were with him at his first kiss and at his wedding, too. And it was with him now, when as a man who had no father, he tried to be a father. He watched his daughter playing by pushing back and forth the ice cube he plucked from his drink for her. He poured himself another drink, then opened the little leather bag hanging around his neck, and rolled a bright, carved ball toward the child.  Perhaps she would prefer it to the ice.

When his wife arrived home, he was already sleeping in the armchair, so he did not see her becoming pale and taking the bullet out of the mouth of the giggling girl. She recognized the skull and was angry. She was angry at her sleeping husband, angry at the empty bottle, but most angry at the lead bullet, as she remembered that it carried death – a slow poison leaking into the body which makes one dull. Right before the birth of the child, she had insisted on changing all the pipes in the house her husband had inherited, and had the old paint scraped off by professionals and had the walls repained, and now this…

Three days later the shouting garbage collectors did not notice that in one of the bags, in the plastic box of a diet yogurt, between coffee grounds and egg shells, there was a lead bullet.  They did not notice that the bag was four grams heavier.


  1. Such a delightful story. I must say it is a refreshing change to see original fiction posted in TYWKIDBI.

  2. Stan, I hope you'll forgive me for plugging my own collection of short stories here, under the theme of "if you liked that..."


    It's totally free!

    1. That's fine, James. And every year I try to do an open post where readers can list their own blogs -


      When I repeat that this spring, I'll try to specify also websites that are not necessarily blogs. Yours could go in on that list this year.

  3. Excellent story! It reads like a classic tale.

  4. This is a well written piece, enough to keep the reader at hand and enough to keep the writer in touch with the tale, bravo.


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