Thursday, 8 May 2014

Only The Dead

This is the third part of a trilogy of sorts. It follows Shifting The Sand and The Road To Nowhere. They are, however, independent stories in their own right, and it's not necessary to read them before this.

Only the dead have seen the end of war.” ― Plato

This is the third day I’ve been lying out on the side of the road. It’s still early in the morning, too early for the vultures to start wheeling overhead, but they will as soon as the air warms up. You can plot the thermals by them, as though they’re climbing round invisible spiral staircases in the sky.

At one time, back in school, I’d been interested in such things as thermals. Back then, I’d fantasised about someday being a glider pilot, soaring high above the earth on slender, silent wings. I’d follow the thermals up into the blue yonder until the land was like a map laid out below me, and then when the thermal gave out, I’d swoop down till I found another and climbed right back again.

The only soaring wings that are overhead now either bring death or follow behind, to feast on death’s aftermath.

I suppose that I must be dead. I can’t move or feel any pain, I can’t blink my remaining eye, and I don’t think I’m breathing. By now I must have been dead several days, then, and I should by rights have been buried. But I don’t think anyone’s going to bury me.

Not that I care anymore. If this is death, if this is all there is, burying me won’t make any difference to anyone among the living . It will mean I can’t see the sky anymore, and that’s all that’s left to me.

If I could turn my head just a little, I would have seen, over my shoulder, the shattered and charred hulks that line the road. I know they are there, because I had been on one of the trucks in that line, that night when we’d been ordered to withdraw. We’d crammed into all the vehicles available; we, and the civilians who’d chosen to come along with us rather than face the enemy. But we hadn’t gone far before the traffic jammed up, converging lines of vehicles fighting for space on the road north. Soon, we were at a standstill.

My hands had been slippery with sweat on the wheel of my truck, and I’d wiped them on my thighs. Jameel, my old friend, had been riding beside me, and I’d looked across at him.

“Do you think they’ll bomb us?” I’d asked. “If they do, we’re sitting ducks. We can’t fight back, nor can we run.”

“No, why should they?” Jameel had replied. He was a big man with an equally big laugh, always cheerful. “We’re pulling out as they demanded, aren’t we? By tomorrow we’ll be across the border, and that’s all there will be to it.”

“I hope you’re right,” I’d mumbled. “I just hope you’re right.”

“You and your pessimism.” Jameel had guffawed and tapped his fingers on the dashboard. “Of course I’m right. Can’t you ever look on the bright side for once?”

“I’ll look on the bright side when we’re back over the border,” I’d told him. “And then –“

The first bombs had exploded at that moment, like blooming flowers, rising pink and red and orange over the lines of trucks and cars ahead. The concussion raced down the road at us, flinging vehicles over like toys, in a storm of fire and shattered glass and mangled metal.

I hadn’t waited. I’d opened the door on my side, ready to jump, and looked across at Jameel. He was staring open mouthed at the scene ahead, at the explosions marching down the highway towards us. “Jameel!” I’d shouted. “Get out!”

He hadn’t even turned his head in response. I don’t know if he’d even heard my shout, over the shriek of enemy jet engines and the deafening sound of the explosions. He’d been looking open-mouthed at the scene through the windshield. I’d reached out to grab hold of his sleeve, to pull him from his seat and down on the road, but he hadn’t responded. I think he was frozen with shock.

I’d only run a few steps, past the side of the truck and onto the side of the highway, when there had been a blinding flash and something had picked me up and thrown me down again. I’d felt dizzy for a moment, blacked out, and when I woke I was as I am now.

I still wonder what happened to him, to Jameel. Is he, like me, lying somewhere close by, staring at the sky? Did he get away somehow? I hope he got away. Jameel and I, we go back a long way. We played football in the street together when we were kids. He has a wife and a daughter, who calls me Uncle and likes to pull my moustache.

He had a wife and a daughter, who called me Uncle and liked to pull my moustache.

I don’t suppose I’ll ever know.

I wonder, though, if I’d have got away if I’d jumped out at once, instead of trying to save Jameel. Could I have been running across the desert to safety, instead of lying on my back staring up at the sky? And would it have been worth it?

Could I have lived with myself if little Bushra had asked me what had happened to her father?

These are questions without answers, questions to which there can never be answers. If I could distract my mind from them, I would. But what else do I have to think about?

Is it my family? My mother is dead, my father long since married again, to a woman I still find it impossible to tolerate. They both greeted my departure to the army with sighs of relief, and I don’t think either of them has spared a moment of thought for me since. I must say that I have scarcely spared a moment for them, either.

Maybe now they’ll wonder. Does it matter if they do?

I hope nobody will cry for me. It’s not something that would make any difference, so why shed tears? The earth will keep turning anyway, the tides will rise and fall, and the sun will burn towards its final swollen end.

I am glad, at least, that I had never had any time for religion. I’d been told many times by many people that I would go to hell for my lack of belief, and my answer had been the same; that hell could wait. I’d a life to live. Now that life is over, and there’s still no hell, or heaven, or anything else.

A flight of the enemy’s ground attack aircraft flies over, so low that I can see their stubby wings and high-mounted engines, the rows of underslung missiles hanging from hardpoints. It must have been aeroplanes like this that had blown us apart the other night, and killed me. I wonder if they’re going to kill somebody else now.

Yesterday, they’d been over, too, just before we’d had visitors. One of those visitors had stood over me. That was the first time I had seen a soldier of the enemy.

I’d looked at him as well as I could with my one remaining eye, while he stared down at me. He was dressed in the enemy’s uniform, pinkish-yellow splashed with brown and grey, and his young pink face had been flushed with excitement and a little fear. I realised that this was probably the first time he’d seen death close up, at least violent death. To him, death had probably meant an aged grandparent in a coffin, surrounded by flowers and the scent of incense, not putrefying flesh and clouds of buzzing flies.

I was vaguely amused by this young warrior, who’d licked his lips nervously and grinned up at someone I couldn’t see. Even the way he’d held his rifle, gingerly, as though it was an accessory, was funny. He’d almost certainly never used it in combat, and never would. To the enemy, war is something to be fought at a distance, with artillery and missiles, and bombers taking off from bases a quarter of the way round the world. To them, fighting means blowing apart images on a video screen, for all the world as though it were a game. And then there are pink-faced boys of this sort, to follow along in the tracks of the attack aircraft and of the tanks with bulldozer blades, to look down at the carnage and make jokes to try and pretend they aren’t scared, or disturbed.

I’d watched him take out his camera and take a few pictures of the wreckage behind me. He’d gestured at someone, apparently adjusting a pose, and taken a couple more. Then he’d pointed it down at me.

It seems that I wasn’t positioned satisfactorily. I’d felt his boot under my shoulder, pushing me to the side. I may have shifted suddenly, or perhaps something had fallen off, because he’d jumped back, laughing self-consciously. Then he’d bent forward, eye to viewfinder, to take his picture. The flash had made a tiny spark against the glare of the sky.

I wonder what he’ll do with the pictures. Ten or fifteen years from now, when he’s a store manager or a car salesman, these photographs will be an embarrassing reminder of the past, something he’d rather keep hidden. He won’t want to talk to his wife and children about the blasted corpse he’d kicked around and taken pictures of. Perhaps he’ll want to throw the photographs away, but probably he won’t be able to bring himself to do it.

These things leave a mark on you.

After his visit, I’d felt immensely calm. After all, the worst had happened that could happen. I was dead. I would never have to lie awake at night, feeling the years ticking away, the stiffness in the joints and the rasping breath in my throat marking away the passing of the time. To be sure, he would know things I would never again feel, the breeze on my skin, the touch of a lover’s lips, the majesty of a mountain sunrise. But those pleasures are fleeting, and loss and sorrow follow hard upon them, and the fear of loss and sorrow.

I’ve done now, with loss or sorrow. I’ve been freed from the monster that still held him in its claws, though he would never know it – until, perhaps, many years later, when he would come to the same state as I. Then he would know.

I almost feel sorry for him, and the others.

The thermals are rising now, the first vultures already circling. Soon, if there is nothing to scare them away, they will come down, lower and lower, until they land here, around us. Today, probably, they will visit me.

That I can still do for them, provide hospitality, one last time. I used to feed birds once. I shall feed them again.

And the sun will wheel across the sky, the night will come, and the days will turn to weeks and months and years. All that I knew will pass, and what comes will pass in its turn. A verse comes to me, out of a poem read a long time ago:

Tomorrow, I may be
Myself with yesterday’s seven thousand years.

And the seasons will come and go, till no record even remains of this time, till this war is as forgotten as a clash of tribal warriors in Africa when the world was still empty and new. All this will fall to dust, and from dust it shall rise again.

The first vulture is coming lower. Its huge wings, feathers spread against the light, send me a message. Death is temporary and unimportant.

They say in fairy stories that the prince and princess live happily ever after. They lie, and they do not lie. The prince and princess will die and they, and the memories of them, will blow like dust in the wind.

It is life that will go on.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014  


  1. Like the person telling this story, I also have no time for any religion. All will die, but life WILL go on. There in lies any real hope for a better world, that life will continue and who knows, it may get better for all, some day, in some far distant future.
    Bill, you sure know how to push some buttons that very few writers today even know exist.
    Thank you so much for your wonderful insights and excellence with words. I am still amazed that you write so well in English, which you have told me before is not your primary language. Again sir, you DO remind me of Joseph Conrad. Another great story teller who wrote in English, which was not his native language either. I say again, you ARE a master story teller in my (not so very) humble opinion.
    Thank you for ALL of your writings.

  2. “You and your pessimism.” ....but then, it's reality & life goes on!


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