HARRISON ABBOTT - BURNT HORIZON
She was making her soup when she saw the soldiers trundling down the hill. She watched from her window. Three young men, around her age. By their blue uniforms she knew they were from her country, but she was still afraid of them. They reached the bottom of the hill and hopped over the fence of her garden. She set aside the soup pot from the stove and she buttoned up her blouse to the top, and flinched when the soldiers knocked on her front door.
Rough inpatient knocking. Her daughter was in the main room; as she passed her the woman told her to be quiet and stay where she was. She opened the door and beheld the soldiers and said good morning. Their faces were red and unshaven and she got an instant whiff of brandy and tobacco. They were holding their rifles across their chests. They queried about the man of the house: was he here? She told him that he was in the army, elsewhere in the nation.
Then they asked her if she was the owner of the animal in her garden. She watched the goat, which was in the pen twenty yards away. It was looking back at her. She told them that yes, that was her goat. They told her that their battalion was in need of animals from the village. They were collecting them from all the houses. The woman asked them if they needed the animals for milk? She had already milked the goat this morning, and she could just give them the pail, if they wanted? And no need to take the goat away.
They told her that the milk was necessary and asked her to retrieve it. When she turned back into the house her daughter was hovering in the corridor. She’d overheard the words at the door; she followed her mother into the kitchen. As the woman got the pail of milk, the girl asked her if the soldiers were going to take her goat away. The woman told her to stay in the kitchen and when she got back to the front door, the soldiers were smoking and one was drinking a bottle.
The drinking man snatched the pail from her. They thanked her and they moved to the pen and unwound the rope at the gate. The daughter came to the front door and stood behind her mother and they watched the soldiers. One of the men cut the rope from the gate, then made a noose at one end of it, then put that around the goat’s neck. He tried to pull the goat out the pen, but the animal resisted. The other men snickered, watching him trying to tug the beast. The woman warned her daughter not to watch, but the girl stayed, clinging to her mother’s knees.
The woman wanted to rescue the goat but she did not know how and was too scared to intervene. The soldier holding the rope lost his patience trying to tug the animal. He let go of the rope and took his rifle and shot the goat in the head. The girl started screaming and she ran back into the house. The goat flopped over and landed quietly in the grass. The mother stood in the doorway and blinked.
The soldiers began arguing over who was going to carry what back up to the battalion camp. They had to carry the goat as well as the pail of her milk. The two other men were annoyed with the man who shot the goat. It was eventually decided that the man who shot her should carry it with one of the others, whilst the other one lugged the pail. They lifted the goat over the fence of the garden with great irritability. None of them looked back at the woman as they left. She watched them toil back up the hill, now in brilliant green with a blue sky above it, their uniformed shapes making black shadows versus the terrain.
Her daughter didn’t stop crying the entire day. The goat had been her pet; she’d given it a frivolous name. When her daughter was ill or sad, she usually warmed up some milk and put sugar in it to cheer her. But they had no access to milk anymore. She was furious with the idiotic men herself for taking her animal. But her daughter’s grief was what was needing attention.
The crying began to madden her as it continued into the night. Even when the sounds of the artillery were heard from the fields over the hill, the daughter couldn’t stop whimpering. The mother tried holding her until she fell asleep, and tried to console her with words, yet couldn’t think of any wisdom on how to reverse what the child had witnessed. Finally, she heated up some brandy at the stove, and put some sugar and spice in it. Then told her daughter to drink it. The child stopped crying and she was asleep within a half hour.
The woman knew that she needed to resume making soup so they could eat for the next few days. Initially she was angry, having to do this familiar chore; she wished her girl had a harder mentality, that she wasn’t so weak. She started chopping the vegetables and placing them into the pot; the greenness of the cabbage, white-brown of the potatoes, dazzling orange of the carrots. They were lucky to still have food: she shouldn’t moan.
She thought about having some of the soup after she’d finished it, but she needed to ration the pot because of her daughter. They could have it for breakfast tomorrow. She went into her daughter’s room and lay next to her. She listened to the bombs with their muffled soothing echoes. She held her child. She wondered where her husband was and if he was still alive. She slept and had magical dreams.
A physical force awoke her. It was her daughter shaking her body. The child said it was afternoon, and that she’d slept in all this time. The woman never slept this long and was surprised. She promptly went into the kitchen to heat up some soup. For some subconscious reason, she didn’t eat herself. She gave her daughter two portions, then went into the garden.
There was a strange tinge to the light outside alongside the smell of burnt lumber and petrol carried from the fields. The sky was coloured differently as if something had been altered amongst the clouds. But maybe she was thinking obscurely. The war was close but their village was still safe. She should get back to routine.
She spoke to her daughter, who was numb and no longer crying. She asked her if she wanted to go for a walk in the woods, and she shook her head. She asked if she wanted to go and play with the neighbour’s dog? No. She just wanted to stay home. Mother had some groceries to pick up in the village, so she needed to leave the child for a time anyway.
When she went through the village, passing the houses, she sensed a hush across the area. Something was missing. Then she realised what it was: all the animals had been taken away. Almost everybody had a little bundle of animals in their garden pen; some a batch of chickens, others a solitary cow for milk and so forth. But now they were gone. There weren’t even any dogs skipping around.
And when she reached the village square it was just as barren. The café was shut, the shawled old women who sat in the square had vanished. Not the usual gabble of kids playing with the footballs in the corner. The woman went over to the grocery store which thankfully was still open. When she opened the door and the bell tinged the keeper at the counter jumped.
She had known the keeper for a long time. She had never seen him nervous before, and greeted him cautiously. She looked over the shelves of the store and noticed how sparse they were. Then looked at the keeper, who wore an expression of shame and fear. He told her that the people had already come in the morning and taken most of the food, after the soldiers took the animals away.
She gulped, surveying the scanty shelves. There were some onions left, and a trickle of potatoes, and a trio of deformed carrots which nobody else had wanted. But there were still a good host of cabbages left. She put them in her basket. This will be enough for one more pot of soup, she told the keeper, she will just have to make the soup with extra cabbage. The keeper smiled as best as he could.
When she handed the coins over to him, he waved his hand and said no, she needn’t pay. She asked why. He said that he cared about her and that she knew she was the only one keeping her daughter, that her husband was away in the war. When she protested, he cut her out and asked her if she had heard about the battalion? Our battalion? she asked. Yes. The battalion had bad news – they were losing on a vast scale.
During last night’s raid, the bombing had destroyed a great number of the men, and the enemy had advanced on the fields. The keeper told the woman that there would be a huge battle tonight, where the troops would try to defend the terrain. But it would be a lot closer to the village. He warned her to stay inside, sleep in a place with sturdy shelter. She realised why all the people had panicked and bought all the food. It had been foolish to sleep in through the morning. She could have known if only she’d woken up earlier!
She felt afraid for the keeper because she was fond of him and she knew his wife was dead and that he lived alone. There was a mad inclination to ask him if she and her daughter could stay with him tonight, because his house was far sturdier than their tiny cottage … But she dismissed this whim and bade farewell, and retreated through the silent village back to her girl.
She checked on her daughter and asked her if she wanted some more soup. The child said no; she just lay in her bed, staring at nothing. Her mother knew that she couldn’t tell her about the battle that was going to happen tonight. She didn’t know how else to protect her, aside from making more soup. Even though they already had food, there was something reassuring about making some more.
It was an easy distraction for what was coming later in the night. She brought out the other old pot and made a new batch of soup, better than the last one. They would be safe, and they would survive the war, and her husband wasn’t dead and he would return when it was all over.
That night the woman slept with her child again and held her hard and the daughter didn’t know why her mother was trembling until the bombings came. It was far louder and the rips and booms were far more frequent than before. The child clung back to her and they could do nothing but shake in each other’s limbs. Through the shutters came small flashes of yellow and there were short intervals which seemed season-long where they would wait for the next bomb to land.
There came a lapse in the din, where nothing happened for minutes, and they both hoped that the battle was over and they didn’t care which side had won. Then came a whoosh and the sky blazed white and a blast came from the village. Their bed shuddered. It was definitely in the village, where the bomb hit. Both of them knew it. They cried; the warmth under the blankets was all they had: the tiredness was too extreme to break them from the only heat they had: they could learn what happened to the village in the morning. They needed sleep. And the bombing lessened and then it stopped and eventually the dawn invaded all.
She awoke far earlier than the day before. The smell of gunpowder was profound through the shutters. She didn’t want her daughter breathing that in, but didn’t want to wake her up. Cautiously she opened her front door and peered out. It was a merry spring day and the birds sang. She left the doorway and looked down into the village houses and couldn’t see anything abnormal. Perhaps they’d been wrong about what they heard last night?
Adopting her coat, she ventured into the village. She wished that any of her neighbours would be out in their gardens. Their next door neighbour, the pretty old woman that let her dog play with her daughter – she thought about going in and asking her how she was. Her house was still there, but was silent. As was the rest of the community. It was bizarre versus the sunlight and the birds.
As she approached the village square the smell of burning intensified. There were plots of debris on the road that grew thicker as she neared. She gave a solitary raven a fright as she entered the square and its squawking echoed across the mayhem that was now the village centre. The bomb had hit the far section, where the grocery store had once been. Now it was a mass of bricks and blackened wood. She walked towards the store, trying to suss where the keeper could be.
She imagined his body under the rubble, and wanted to call out for him but was too coy to make noise. She looked around to see if anybody else was here; it astonished her that the villagers were not outside, here, helping clear this rubble apart. This was the grocery store, the one source of food for the entire village. Why wasn’t there an outcry about this? Where was the community?
Her anger changed into fear. The store keeper was dead. The other army were bombing the village. Was there anybody even still here? She noticed that the raven had teamed up with a pool of others, sitting together atop the church. It was edging into late morning. The battles began in the afternoon. She rushed back home.
The girl was still sleeping when she returned. She woke her up, and made her eat some soup. The girl said she was tired and that she wasn’t hungry but her mother shouted and told her to eat. She was panicking, and it was beginning to make the girl panic as well. The daughter ate her soup and she watched her mother warily, and eventually asked her what was wrong. She told her nothing was wrong, she just wanted to make sure she had some food. The girl asked her why didn’t she have some food with her then? And she did, and she welcomed the sturdy nutrition of root vegetables, the salt coming to her head.
She talked to her girl, which she hadn’t done in days, being so worried about the war. When they had finished eating she stood up to wash the dishes and she looked out of their window and moving images on the hillside grabbed her vision. There were three men in blue uniforms walking down the hill. By their clumsy gait she could tell it was the same trio who had come here two days back and shot the goat.
She needed to hide her daughter. She took her hand and led her into their room, and put a blanket around her. Then told her to hide in the closet. The girl was scared and asked her why. The mother told her not to come out, no matter what she heard. The child asked if the soldiers were coming again. The mother said, yes, but that they would be fine and not to worry. And she shut the closet door on the child and seconds later a thumping came at the front door.
The men who killed her animal stood at the door. Their eyelids were cast over with drink and the smell of their sweat overpowered that of smoke. They spoke to her politely and told her that the army needed food from the village. She nodded and she told them she had some apples, and some sugar, and she had two loaves of bread. She was trying to get them to back away from the door but they kept their stance, suspecting something. One of them leaned into the doorway and sniffed. He asked her what that smell was. She didn’t answer. One of them began to smile.
She told them that she could give them the apples, bread and sugar. She asked them to wait and went back into the house. They barged in after her through the door and she told them that they weren’t allowed in here. One of the men grabbed her by the throat and pushed her into the wall. The others went into the kitchen. They exclaimed as they found the soup pots. Then they commenced crashing about the room.
One of them called for the man in front of her. He released her neck, then thumped her in the stomach. She buckled to the floor, winded. He went into the kitchen. She regained her breath and sat up. They came out of the kitchen, bantering amongst themselves. They were holding either pot of soup, and the other one had taken about everything he could carry from what else she owned. One of the soldiers thanked her for the food as they passed her in the corridor and she was surprised that none of them kicked her as they went. Their cackling faded away as they left her garden.
She went back into her room. Her stomach hurt. She opened the closet and her daughter was there, watching her. She picked her up and held her. They now had no food. But the soldiers hadn’t hurt her daughter. They were both still alive. The girl hadn’t realised what had just happened, and it scared her that her mother was more afraid that she was.
They needed to leave the house. The mother could not risk the three soldiers coming back. She didn’t like to think what they could take next. She dressed her daughter in her warmest clothes and bundled some things together in her bag. Blankets, soap, a knife. She put her best boots on. They really had nothing else to take with them. She checked the kitchen and the soldiers had taken everything that could be useful. What wicked, selfish young men.
What she did have was money. Her husband had left it for her in an envelope before he left, and told her only to use it if things got desperate. The money was kept in an envelope which she’d hidden behind their only bookshelf. When she moved the shelf the dust made her cough. Her stomach was still aching from the blow the soldier had given her.
Her daughter kept asking if they were going somewhere. Mother told her to hush up. The envelope was heavy with coins. The weight still didn’t feel reassuring. This was all the money she had. She hid the envelope under her brassiere. She knew that there were stores in the town which was around ten kilometres away. She needed to head there, get some food. Simple plan and doable; it would be taking them away from the battlefield, and as far as she knew the bombing hadn’t yet reached the town.
They left the house and the woman locked the door. The girl had quietened and she wondered why her mother’s grip on her hand was so hard, as if she might try to run away. They saw nobody as they passed through the village. They got into the fields and her mother’s grip lessened, and eventually she let go of her hand as the land spread before them in sublime daylight. But she was still walking fast and looking around the fields, for what, the girl didn’t know, and it was hard to keep up with her.
Whenever there was a snicker of gunfire on the horizon the mother would jolt. The child wouldn’t. She was already too accustomed to gunfire. She wanted to say to her mother that the guns weren’t anywhere near. But her mother’s silence deflected her.
The fields were devoid of cattle and the soil lay in mass dormant brown, confusedly unattended. There were courageous daffodils, snowdrops and tulips by the roadside, unperturbed by the tracks the machines had left on their way to the battlefront. Surreal visions, the untrustworthy sunniness. They walked on.
They had been walking for what must have been hours because the air had cooled. The child had began to complain that her legs were sore and kept asking to stop. The mother’s abdomen was pulsing with agony and it was difficult to retain the same speed. She began to fret that the soldier might have caused some internal damage. The child annoyed her, but at length she agreed that they needed to stop. They came to a little river with a bridge atop it and the sight of water made her weak.
They went down to the river and drank from it making cups with their hands, and rested on the bankside. As the water hit their gullets they felt light headed. The mother felt a sadness erupt in her, because of the war and all that had happened, and she told her daughter that she was sorry for being irritable earlier. They watched the water glisten in the sun and wondered why the world needed war. To witness the river, it seemed as if they were both safe. But they obviously weren’t. They needed food, or else they would starve. They needed to get to the town.
They got back on the road and the route turned into the midst of a woodland, the walkway surrounded by heavy trees on the cusp of spring. They were enjoying the spots of green on the tree limbs, and the mother sussed that the town wasn’t so far away now. Then a new, mechanical noise came from down the road in the distance. They slowed, and then saw a vehicle appear, coming towards them, fast.
The mother picked her child up and dove off the road towards the woods. The girl was a lot heavier than she expected, and she slipped down the mound and they crashed into the ditch. The girl got up first and began crying. They could hear the vehicle getting closer. The mother got up and they ran into the trees and she felt as if her stomach was going to burst. They hid behind a tree as the vehicle came roaring into presence.
It was a jeep. They prayed that it would drive on and they would be left alone. But the jeep merely slowed down as it neared their vicinity. And when they looked ahead, the soldiers in the jeep were not wearing blue uniforms, but green. They were from the other nation the mother and daughter were at war with.
The green men stopped the jeep and got out and they were holding guns. The girl was still crying and the mother grabbed her to stop but it was obvious that the men had already seen them. They stood at the roadside and pointed their guns at them and barked in a language neither of them understood. But the message was clear that they needed to come out of the trees and up to the road.
The green soldiers had wide light eyes and their faces seemed a little broader than the blue soldiers. Their guns were different. As the mother and daughter got closer to them they didn’t smell alcohol or tobacco. One of the men had a prominent moustache and he was the sole one who started to shout at them. He did it all in his own language, and used the tip of his pistol to gesticulate.
He didn’t gesticulate very well and the gun made it harder to understand. The woman tried to say to him that they didn’t care about the war and pleaded with them to just let them go. The man kept pointing at her body and then thrusting the rifle. He kept saying words which she guessed were attempted words of her own language, but she just couldn’t comprehend.
The other soldier came towards her daughter and pushed her to the floor and held his rifle to her head. The girl went silent. Her mother wanted to scream but she felt like she had earlier when the soldier winded her. Then the moustache soldier pulled her down to the floor and pointed his pistol at her skull. And she thought with profound freedom that she was about to be executed and she wondered what death would be like and how she had never been this close to it.
The man above her kept yammering vocabulary at her – they sounded vaguely like her own language but nothing quite intelligible. And he began to get angrier and angrier as she still couldn’t understand. Until he said one word, which she caught. The word sounded like her word for ‘Money’, and so she repeated the word “Money?” and he nodded and so he said it again. And she realised what they were after.
“You want money?” she said. And he nodded and she was surprised at the calmness of which she went into her brassiere and lifted out the envelope that contained all the financial aid in her life and handed it over to the green soldier. The soldier ripped the envelope and surveyed the contents, then nodded at the other man, and gesticulated, with his hand, for him to remove the rifle from the girl’s head. He did and the girl stood up and ran to her mother.
The other soldier got back into the jeep. The moustache man put the envelope in his pocket. He said something to the woman and pointed down the road, in the direction of the town.
“No,” he said.
“We shouldn’t go there?” the woman said.
“No,” he said.
She was surprised he said this. Why would he help them? He got back in the jeep and ludicrously she felt compelled to ask them for more information. She felt as if they had done her a kindness in not shooting them. They drove off into the fields and the sound of the engine drawled into nothing. The woman wasn’t sure how she felt that she was still alive. Her daughter’s embrace seemed superficial, as if she were holding a toy.
No money and no food and it was approaching evening, bringing the dark. And with the dark came the bombs. The mother, knowing that she couldn’t go to the town anymore, or go back to the village, decided to take her daughter into the woods. Which was madness: but they had no other route. The woman and child had first gone into the woodland, descending and colliding, glad to be free of the green soldiers.
Then the woods kept going, and got thicker and wilder, and eventually, more surreal. The birdsong rose to levels as if the beaks were hollering by their eardrums. And the smell of wild garlic below them thronged their nostrils until they hated it. And the night came and the only luck they had was when they found the river again. They thrust into it and drank and held each other after drinking, glad that hydration had been healed for one more day. They were too exhausted to go on for now.
As they slept, the bombs dabbled in the distance, and the sky flashed with artificial light. It was all still very far away but it certainly muted the woodland birds. The woman and the child slept for hours and through depletion and dreamed of nothing.
In the morning they drank from the river and tried to ignore the smell of gunpowder. But at least they could see the fields in the distance beyond the river, meaning that they were nearly free of the dark mystic woods. Both of them felt a wrenching in their stomachs – they had not eaten since this time yesterday. And yet the mother noticed that daughter was far harder-spirited than she’d thought, perhaps more than she was, adapting to all this as a child.
They crossed the river in bare feet and dried their feet on the grass the far bankside and moved on. The woods cleared and they reached the fields again. Neither of them knew the terrain or the new hills so they supposed they must have come a farther distance than they’d supposed. It was another airy spring day and the warmth of the sun cheered them. There was little about the fields save the deserted young crops. No sign of animals.
They enjoyed the peace but by mid afternoon the hunger was also beginning to kill them. Her mother knew that she could survive maybe three days without food, but it wouldn’t be the same with her daughter. They needed some form of food to keep them alive. Anything. If even they could find some mushrooms, or even if she saw a rabbit, or even if one of these damned cows would reappear. She had the knife to be able to kill something.
Nothing happened until the late afternoon, when their limbs were spent with fatigue and they hadn’t uttered a word in hours, not seeing the point in speaking. They saw a cottage at the end of one of the fields. Neither of them cared anymore who they would find in the cottage. Most likely it would be somebody from their own country, a civilian, who could help them.
The cottage looked quiet as they approached and when they knocked on the front door there was no response after several attempts. The mother tried to turn the front door’s handle and it opened easily, and she called into a small hallway to see if anyone was in. Her daughter asked her if they were allowed to go into somebody else’s house and the mother took her in by the arm. She listened and checked the rooms and there was no life anywhere. There were only three rooms and one of them was the kitchen and she checked the cupboards frantically for any side of food.
She opened a drawer and beheld a sack of carrots. She pulled the sack out and studied it as if to reassure herself it was real. Yes, a bag of carrots, still ripe and not rotten and brilliantly orange. She gave one to her daughter and then they sat on the floor and chomped away at them. They ate without manners and thanked the Lord, for He was still there after all.
The cottage had no identity aside from the carrots. There was nothing in the house to suggest any previous owner. But what was left in one of the rooms was a bed, large enough to fit mother and daughter. And they had blankets with them, and food in them. And the fields around the cottage seemed so vastly brown and anonymous that they figured they could sleep safely. And they slept and they dreamed a little. The girl dreamed about rivers and the mother dreamed that her husband had come home because the war was over. They both awoke in a panic around late afternoon after one of them coughed, wondering where they were. But they went back to sleep, and they slept on into the night, even when the volume resumed on the burnt horizon.
They awoke to a shrill noise which was the whooshing of a rocket which landed in the field just beyond that of the cottage. The explosion shook the house and the mother was naïve to think that they could both sleep here in brief eternity. Her daughter was up from the bed and dressed before she was. The woman looked out the window at the fields and there was a streak of dawn in the sky in low purple.
A second bomb blasted into the woods beyond the field, close enough for them to see the trees burst into flame. And then there came a roaring out of these woods and there were moving shapes in the young light. They watched, transfixed, by the window as the moving shapes multiplied and descended down the field. The shapes were men. Soldiers, running. A third bomb crashed into a gabble of the men, who disappeared into a cloud of smoke and earth.
The mother got the carrots and blankets and rushed out the cottage. They got into the garden then ran up onto the trail, the mother clumsily holding the child’s hand.
Behind them the soldiers burst from the cottage fence and ran up towards them. When the soldiers saw them there was a spring of surprise in their expressions. It seemed, in a brief flash, that they were more surprised by the presence of females than they were terrified by the bombs. The mother and daughter ran with them up the fields.
The woman saw that the men were wearing the blue uniforms and she supposed with some patriotic impulse that the best option was to follow where they were going. The soldiers got to the top of the hill and they ran down the other side of it and the woman and the girl pursued.
At the bottom of the hill was a road and beyond that another pocket of woods. Inside the woods was a battalion of green soldiers hidden in the trees. They waited until the blue soldiers had reached the road and then opened fire. They did not see the woman and child alongside the blue soldiers and would not have hesitated if they had.
The mother was shot in the head and the girl saw it as crisply as it could have been seen. As the bodies of the soldiers dropped around her she figured that she should just lie flat. And the din continued and the men were all killed around her until a perverse silence resumed. There was laughter over in the woods. The girl was aware of how warm the morning was. She thought it would be a lot colder to be outside at this time of morning in March. She looked over at her mother’s face.
The dawn ascended in bright bravado. She thought that the green soldiers would come and inspect the massacre to see if anybody was still alive. It seemed that she was the only one doing the inspecting and that all of the people around her were dead. She looked at their lame, twisted expressions and waited for one of the green soldiers to come up and shoot her as well. A part of her wanted them to.
There was a while when she heard the voices of the foreign language in the trees. But then that stopped, and she was left alone lying on the road amidst the dead bodies and the only sound was that of the tinkling birds. The girl sat up by her mother and she sobbed recklessly until her eyelids and her throat wouldn’t work anymore. She wished one of the blue soldiers would wake up so at least she could have a companion to figure out what to do next.
She knew that she had to do something with her mother’s body. She could not leave it lying there amongst all this carnage. But when she tried to lift the body, she couldn’t. She just wasn’t strong enough. The girl wandered past the road. And as she reached the edge, she saw the little patches of daffodils, snowdrops and tulips again above the ditch. The flowers seemed to ping so prettily against the planet, regardless of what was happening.
The girl picked a bunch of the flowers together and made as fine a bouquet as she could and took them over to her mother’s body. She took her mother’s bag off and leaned her body over and didn’t look at the gunshot wound in her head. Then she placed her mother’s hands together over her chest, and she put the bouquet of flowers between them. She thought that maybe she should do the same for all the other people here. But there was a smell of blood in the air and it made her nauseous. She knew that the flies would be coming soon.
She told her mother something none of the dead soldiers heard and she moved off into the country. In the bag she had the carrots, blankets and a knife and that was all she had in existence. But the road was still there. And here was another pleasant spring day burgeoning for her to venture into. She was ashamed that maybe she should stay near her mother. But what would that accomplish?
Where could she go? She had no knowledge of where she was. What she saw was a long sunny road surrounded by merry fields and parcels of woodland. She walked down it as long as she could. The terrain became hilly and she grew tired and she stopped and ate one of the carrots in her bag. She tried to visualise how long she could survive on the carrots. The taste gave her a shoot of nutrition.
She walked and walked. She came across a dead sheep in one of the fields. It was tiny, only an infant, and it didn’t look like it had been shot or that it had died violently. Its white fluff bristled in the light breeze. She walked on and she saw a white sack on the roadside and she hoped it might contain some food. When she got to it she found inside a wealth of unopened letters. All in neat envelopes and different styles of handwriting. And she found it a profound shame that none of these people would ever get their letters. She wished she could deliver them.
She continued down the road, came around a bend, and she saw a man lying in the ditch by the road. He was clumsily displaced from a bicycle; one of his legs was tangled in the middle part between the bars. She waited for minutes, scared, to see if he would wake up, but it became clear that he was dead. She went up to the body. He was young and handsome, or at least he used to be. He had nice thick eyebrows. He was a postman – he was wearing the uniform. “They shot the postman!” she thought with disgust. “Why would they do that?”
She pondered about doing something with his body as she had with her mother’s, but there were no flowers on the nearby ditches and she was too afraid to touch the body. She walked on.
The afternoon came and the sky stagnated and the air cooled and she came at length upon a new village she’d never seen before. It was more a hamlet – a small collection of cottages. She watched it on the road to see if any life would occur there. After nothing happened, she went towards it cautiously. The first window of the first cottage was smashed open, and as she veered the corner of the road, there was a burnt motorcycle carcass lying in one of the gardens.
The motorcycle had bashed through the garden fence and the grass blades around it which weren’t singed were ripped up. The cottage in front of the garden was pockmarked with black bullet holes and the plaster was hanging from the walls. One of the other cottages had its front door open silently like some forgettable dream and all of its windows were also smashed through. There were clothes still hanging from the washing lines in its garden.
She jogged away from the hamlet down the road and as she got to the last cottage and past its garden, something yowled at her from her side and she jumped. The thing yowled again and she looked down. It was a cat. It was just a cat, miaowing at her. The cat came towards her and her mind softened and she bent down to it. The cat was brown and black in fur and had a white chin and was very friendly. It let her hold and stroke it. And it was amazing to hold something living. She didn’t know cats well and it was powerful to feel the purring animal coil in her arms.
The cat was very thin. She wondered how long it had been without an owner, left in this bashed hamlet. She wished she had something to feed the cat. But all she had were the carrots and was fairly sure cats didn’t eat those. Still, she played with the animal and it played with her. Cats have beautiful faces and bodies and she wanted to keep this creature, and take it with her. She could surely bring it with her across the land and try and find it something to eat? There would be something else to find further down the road.
She was seriously considering this until an echo came from down said road. It was a jeep, galloping towards them. The cat had already heard the jeep and had leapt from her grasp and ran away. The girl followed it, behind the cottage building, and she saw it dart into the bushes by the back of the garden and she hid down and waited for the jeep to come. It came, and passed, beyond the cottage and into the fields. She waited until its echoes had gone.
Then she called out to the cat. Of course, she realised, she didn’t know its name. She went to the bushes and tried to spot it. She called and called, but it never came back. And now the evening was approaching night. There was a tremendous sadness over losing the cat. She had only known the creature’s friendship for that small time. She took out one of the blankets from her mother’s bag and shawled it around her, and continued down the road.
When the night came the wind grew more frequent and then it started to shower in light gasps. She blanket shawl was a decent protection against the rain, and it was actually not too cold. Walking along the road had a methodical mystery to it. She needed to keep going, without having a destination.
At length she came upon a sight in the distant fields. A collection of dreary light came from one spot on the horizon. It was some kind of settlement. By its size it had to be a town. By the sheer distance, she could see the town was too far away to be reached tonight. She was too tired to keep walking. She chose the closest pocket of woodland near the road and went into its moody murkiness.
Surprisingly she could see well enough in the dark and enjoyed the hushed secrecy of the trees. It stopped raining and she sat down for a while and ate one of the carrots. She found a little stream chuckling through the woods and slipped down and drank until her stomach was more than satisfied.
She found a fir tree with broad spanning limbs. A huge evergreen giant. She always loved fir trees and she climbed up it and found a place where she could lie across the thick branches. She lay her blankets down then wrapped them across her and she smelled the lulling sap of the trunk.
When the bombs came on the horizon, she was already in a state of dreamy indifference. It occurred, without her trying that, perched on the branches of the fir tree, she had a fantastic view of the town in the distance. The bombs hammered the town in all fantastic rainbow hues. The girl watched how the explosions sent purples and blues over the near fields. There were faint shapes of buildings which shone red and then disappeared. She had to admit it was all very beautiful. And after an indefinite time it all stopped.
The girl slept.
She woke up clumsily out of a pleasant dream and quickly realised she was back in reality which could not be sanctioned by dreamland and she heard men’s voices near her. Voices, masculine and angry, somewhere in the woods. She remembered that she was in some woodland, half way up a tree. She was intensely cold and shivering and she grabbed for her bag to see if her carrots were still there. They were.
The sound of the men grew louder beneath her and as her wits gathered she sensed the direction they were coming from, and then she looked out of the branches and there appeared a group of soldiers. Three of them wore green uniforms and two of them wore blue. The green soldiers held guns and the blue ones held their hands on their heads. It was the green soldiers who were doing all of the speaking.
It was very early morning and the light was pearly and shone on the trees, the buds of the branches begging for sunlight and receiving it. And the rain from the night before left a fecund scent across the woods.
And the green soldiers trundled the blue soldiers into the woods. They made the blue men kneel down and they stood over them talking, and they even lit some cigarettes, to revel in their virile claim for execution. The girl was watching thirty yards away up the tree and none of them knew that she was there. And when one of the green soldiers pulled up his rifle to shoot the first man, the girl screamed.
The scream made them all flinch and all five heads turned up to the tree in astonishment. The girl’s face appeared from the fur tree. A little head, clearly under the age of ten, and all the men remained in their incredulous silence as the girl climbed down the tree. She was holding the bag and she walked towards the men.
None of the men knew what to do. They were all interested to see what the girl would do. She unravelled her bag and brought out the carrots that she had left. To her mind they held the most colourful orange in the world and she held them out to the green soldiers. She said something to them so they might understand. She wished that she knew how to speak their language. What she said was:
“Please take this food and don’t kill the men. Take this food instead as a trade, and don’t kill them.”
The blue soldiers heard what she said and they looked at each other. And the green soldiers watched her face and then looked at each other. They pondered what to do. They collaborated amongst themselves in their rashly-toned language. She correctly guessed that they were discussing whether they were going to shoot her or not. One of the men, she also guessed, wanted to shoot her. But the other two green men didn’t want to.
One of these green men came towards the girl and he thrust the carrots back into her body. He knew a few words of her language and he said:
“You take … You go!”
When she kept standing there he repeated himself and pushed her away.
It was clear that this man was trying to save her life from his colleague soldier who wanted to kill her. And she felt herself walking away with her food. She was too ashamed to look back at the blue soldiers and she could feel their faces watching her, wishing she could come back and try to save them. But the food trade had not worked and she still had something to eat herself.
The green soldiers watched until the girl had disappeared into the trees. But their banter and loud excitement had been stunned by her entry into their scene. From laughing men, they had become furtive boys.
The green soldier who had told the girl to leave shot the blue soldiers dead.
The quick succession of the gunshots echoed around the woods and the girl did not flinch at the sound. She was in the trees and guiltily safe and the green soldiers were not going to murder her. “It is difficult to flinch at echoes,” she thought. “You don’t flinch at echoes. You only listen to them. You only make sure that you hear them and take heed.”
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