Throughout the year of 1811, even while a massive earthquake was making the Mississippi River run backwards, the inhabitants of Europe and Russia could step out of their homes at night to see a comet illuminating the heavens. To peasants, gentry, and aristocracy alike, the comet was an omen. Something extraordinary was in the works, the population was largely convinced–an event of historic gravity. Some witnesses recorded feelings of absolute terror, many refusing even to look up again until the thing was gone. Not everyone was as superstitious as to tremble at a natural occurrence; but those who were so disposed, as it would turn out, were justified in their anxieties, whether the epic events to come were attributable to coincidence or not.
In that same year, Napoleon Bonaparte’s valet, Constant, awoke one night to the sound of screams emanating from his master’s adjacent bedchamber. The valet found the Conqueror of Europe tossing in his bed, babbling unintelligibly, his sheets on the floor. After shaking the sweat-drenched Napoleon awake, Constant learned his boss had been dreaming that a bear was tearing his heart out. Napoleon brought that dream up in conversation several times over the ensuing months, attempting to decode its meaning as it might pertain to his present circumstances. The very fact that he thought a dream was in need of decoding suggests at least to a degree that he was assigning it supernatural properties.
At around three in the morning on the 23rd of June, 1812, Napoleon was galloping along the left bank of the Niemen River, reconnoitering the opposite shore. In his company was the largest army ever assembled in European history, poised to cross the river into Russian territory. As the emperor rode through the darkness, a hare jumped out of the weeds and through the legs of his horse, which shied and threw its rider. Witnessing this event were Napoleon’s two most trusted aides, Generals Berthier and Calaincourt. The former commented to the latter that the ancient Romans would have understood this as the bad omen it was, and refused to cross the river. Calaincourt wrote that at any other time Napoleon would have cursed and blamed the horse, the hare, and Calaincourt, but that this time he scrambled back onto his mount and acted like nothing had happened. Calaincourt went on to observe that his boss seemed uncharacteristically pensive and uneasy after the tumble, as if he likewise took it all as a sign of pending doom.
Six months from that moment, this imperial force of some 500,000 men was no more. Twenty-thousand humans at best, half-insane, more than half-frostbitten, beaten, bloody, bruised and starving, would drag themselves back across that river with whatever clothing and limbs remained on their bodies. In the wake of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was a type of devastation theretofore unfamiliar to historians. Countless villages had been removed from the maps, and hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children lay dead. More still were homeless or crippled.
Eye witness accounts of the invasion and exodus are replete with examples of spot-on prophecies of individual mortality. Under such circumstances, the accurate prognostication of one’s own death connotes no great feat of magic. However, many individuals involved handed over their personal belongings to comrades with great urgency, with assurances that they would not see another tomorrow and pleas that the trustee deliver those trinkets to a mother or sister. Geographical features, particularly rivers, were commonly cited as places presumably-doomed persons were sure they would never reach. We have no way of knowing how often such divinations were wrong, but journal-recordings of those that were correct are numerous.
All this puts me in mind of a similar episode in my own pages, when a friend wanted to show me where his burial plot was situated. At the time, I had more pressing concerns and I told him so. I said I’d go another day. But he was insistent. He wanted me to go with him right now. I couldn’t understand what the hurry was, but I relented and went along to look at his future gravesite. He was dead a few days later, suddenly, unexpectedly.
I cover these occurrences of presentiment in “Beyond the Berezina,” because they were a part of the true story. And because they spark interest in all but the most devoutly atheistic among us. None of the above proves anything, true, but it doesn’t hurt, either. I have had several déjà vu experiences over the years, and like most people familiar with the phenomenon, I had no idea what caused that bizarre feeling of having been through it all before. That is until I had a certain dream that I continued to remember long after the fact. One day the scene I remembered from that dream happened—it played out in real life just as if I were watching a film for the second time. And accompanying my repeat viewing was that cool déjà vu sensation. So, while I don’t know how I’ve already seen something, I know that I have. I pretty much feel like I was let in on a little secret with that one.
Again, I can’t prove anything—not about déjà vu, not about accurate premonitions. But neither can science prove anything in those areas, and science has made some desperate attempts at accounting for déjà vu. One thing is certain, though: those feelings—those forebodings—exist, and they have to come from somewhere. The nature of that source, unfortunately, is something we’ll never know. Never being relative, of course, to our material existence.