Below the wings of my fighter, the desert was a scrub-dotted expanse of sand, rock and eroded hills.
Far behind me, a smudge of smoke on the horizon marked the spot where the capital burned, heavy street fighting still going on as the enemy advanced through the shattered avenues. I wondered briefly if they had captured the Presidential Palace yet, or the National Assembly. It was unimportant – both had been reduced to wrecked shells weeks before – but the national flag had still been flying over them yesterday, when I’d flown low over them on a strike mission.
At this very moment, I should have been flying again over those streets, as low and slowly as I could have without stalling, to bomb the enemy tanks as they ground forwards toward the University and the factory districts. But it would have done no good. The war was lost, everyone knew it, and all that my mission could achieve would be to add a few more to the corpse count.
More than likely those corpses would have included my own.
I didn’t consider myself a coward. All through this war, and the civil war before that, I had fought as well as I could, flying though heavy enemy fire to strike strongly-defended targets many times. On several occasions I had brought half-destroyed planes safely back to base, and each time I’d gone back to fight again.
But that was when there had been hope. Now, there was none. And there was no point in getting killed for a completely hopeless cause, just as most of those in my squadron had already been.
I didn’t really know where I was headed. With luck, if I wasn’t intercepted and if my fuel held out, I might be able to get across the eastern border. I’d try and land at the nearest airport there, and surrender. That was neutral territory, and hopefully I’d not be sent back to become a prisoner of war – or worse.
The enemy were not known for the humaneness of their treatment of captives.
A low range of hills rose on the horizon. Back before the war, I had trekked in these hills, and camped out there. At night, one could hear the calls of jackals as one lay awake, watching the sky blaze with a million stars and the streak of a meteor. As I pulled back on the control column slightly, raising my nose just enough to clear the jagged crests, I wished I could have trekked in them just one more time.
I wish I could have done a lot of things just one more time, but there was no point thinking about it now.
The hills were fading behind me, and I’d almost begun to believe that I’d get away with it, when my plane’s missile warning tone sounded shrilly in my ear. Instinctively, I wrenched the column right and back, and pushed the throttle forward for all I was worth. The plane swung up sharply to starboard, in a climbing turn so steep that the G forces made my vision grey out.
It was not quite enough. There was a bright orange flash and the plane jumped as though a giant fist had struck it. For a moment, I almost lost control, as the port wing was flung up by the force of the blast. I’d been flying as low as I could, to try and avoid the radar; if the plane had gone into a spin, there would have been no way I could have ejected in time.
If there had been a second missile, it would have finished me. But there was none. The enemy plane had probably been low on fuel, or perhaps had run out of missiles. I caught a distant glimpse of him past the smoke trailing behind my aircraft – a tiny silhouette heading back towards the hills on the horizon.
I had no time to watch him go – I had too many problems of my own.
The one thing that was in my favour was the extreme sturdiness of my fighter. As a strike aircraft, meant for ground attack, it was meant to survive massive amounts of battle damage. Even though a missile exploding five metres behind its tailpipe was too much for it to withstand, it didn’t disintegrate in the air immediately as something of lighter construction might have. I still had a little time before I’d have to get out.
Even as I still clawed desperately for altitude, I scanned the desert to the east. Most of it was – like that I’d already passed over – sand-blasted rock and scrub, But off in the distance there was an outcrop of stone, a jagged line of hillocks half-hidden in haze. At least there would be shelter there, and perhaps some water. I’d have to try and make for it before my burning aeroplane forced me to jump.
I got most of the way. The aeroplane was shuddering like a live thing, increasingly hard to control, and when I looked back through my canopy I could see yellow flames trailing back from my wings. But the craft still held together, somehow, for longer than I could have believed possible.
The flames were licking at the back of the cockpit when I decided to eject without further delay. I had never, except in training simulators, ever had to eject, and for a moment I wasn’t sure I could remember the procedure. But my hands knew, even if my conscious mind didn’t. The explosive bolts fired, blowing away the canopy. Five seconds after that, I was floating under the canopy of my parachute, watching the carcass of my fighter head eastwards in a shallow dive, trailing fire.
I sent a thought after that aeroplane. I’d only flown this particular craft a few times before, so I hadn’t really made an emotional connection with it like I had done with a couple of my previous mounts. But it had got me through the last few desperate battles, and now it had stayed airborne for long enough for me to be able to parachute safely.
I sent a thought after it. I thanked it, and wished it goodbye. If machines had minds and feelings, it deserved that, at least.
And then the ground was coming up, fast, much faster than I’d expected. A gust of wind caught the parachute, and sent me tumbling across the desert floor. Even as I managed to hit the parachute release, my helmet slammed against a rock, and I blacked out.
I can’t have been unconscious for more than a few minutes. I was brought to my senses by the feel of something sharp pressing against my throat, between the bottom of my helmet and the collar of my flight suit. It pressed down quite deliberately, only just not hard enough to cut through the skin.
“I see you’re awake,” a female voice said, with the accent of the desert tribes. “If you try anything, I’m going to put this right through your neck.”
Very cautiously, I opened my eyes. Through the tinted faceplate of my helmet, the sun was a diffuse glare right overhead. In the glare, I could just see, outlined, a head and shoulders.
The pressure on my neck intensified, and I felt a trickle of blood. “Do you understand what I’m telling you? Raise a hand if you do.”
I raised my left hand from the elbow, and let it fall back. The pressure on my neck eased as the owner of the silhouetted head stepped back.
“Good,” she said. “I’m glad we understand each other. Now, sit up slowly and take out all your weapons. Throw them on the ground.”
I sat up slowly as ordered. My head was aching abominably and I was feeling nauseated. “I don’t have any weapons,” I mumbled.
“Don’t try to play smart with me. You must have a pistol and a knife at least.”
“I don’t.” How could I explain to her the situation in the capital, where just about every weapon had been handed out to someone or other, to mount a defence, however hopeless? My pistol was probably at that moment in the hands of a semi-trained teenager from the National Militia. Schoolboys trying to stop tanks with revolvers! I would have laughed if it hadn’t been so tragic. “I don’t have a gun, or any other weapon. I was trying to get away from the war.”
“Is that so? We’ll see. Get up.” With difficulty, I climbed to my feet. My head swam. “Take off your helmet,” she said, from behind me. “Let’s have a look at you.”
I unstrapped and removed the heavy outer helmet. It had a huge dent in the crown. I let it drop at my feet and began to unbuckle the leather inner helmet.
“Turn round,” she said. “Slowly. Remember what I’ll do to you if you try anything.”
The inner helmet dangling from my fingers, I turned. The woman was young, younger than I’d thought from her voice, and almost as tall as I was. She wore a grey robe and sandals, and in her hands she held a metal rod, the end of which was a jagged, broken stump. It was a crude spear, but would serve quite well as far as killing me was concerned. The sun glittered off it, burning an afterimage on to my retinas.
“You were running away from the war?” she repeated.
“Yes,” I said. “I was trying to get over the border when I was shot down.”
She frowned, biting her lower lip. She was thin, with the dark honey-coloured skin and high cheekbones of the desert tribes, and over those cheekbones her black eyes watched me warily. “Turn round,” she said. “Spread your arms and legs. I’ll search you.”
I complied, and felt her hand pat me down, roughly and none too expertly. In unarmed combat training I’d been taught how to take out someone from this position, but that had been a long time ago, and I was still so dizzy from the blow to the head that I’d probably have been run through before I could lay a hand on her. Finally, she stepped back.
“All right,” she said. “Start walking.”
“Walking?” I looked at her over my shoulder, confused. “Where?”
She shrugged. “Away. Anywhere. You wanted to get to the border, so walk to the border. Just get away from here and don’t come back.”
“But –“ I began.
“Not a word.” She hefted her spear, the muscles of her arms rolling under her honey-coloured skin. “I don’t want to hear a word. Get out of here and don’t come back.”
I looked at her. There was no doubt that she meant what she said. The edge of the iron rod was centimetres from my throat.
“All right,” I said, turning away to the open desert. “I’m going.”
She said nothing. I could feel her eyes on my back as I trudged away.
Far away, I could see a thin pillar of smoke climbing from the desert floor. That would probably be where my late aircraft had crashed, and it would more likely than not attract attention; so I turned away, and began making my way to the south-east.
I soon realised I was not going to make it.
Even if I hadn’t been weak and dizzy from the blow to my head, even if I hadn’t been completely exhausted, I doubt if I’d have been able to get far in the blazing desert sun. As my legs began to go unsteady and the edges of my vision began to flicker, I looked around for some patch of shade, some fold in the ground, where I might be able to shelter till the cool of the evening. All I could see was a spine of rock in the middle distance, and I began stumbling towards it, hoping that I might be able to lie up against it for a while.
I was still a long way away when my knees buckled and the world swung round once and went grey and silent...
It was dark when I woke. For a long time I lay still, relishing the cooling freshness of the night on my face, the darkness glimpsed through my eyelashes. Then I tried to sit up, and my head split into two.
My moan of agony was probably not very loud, but she must have been listening, because she was there in an instant. I could see her, silhouetted against the stars, as she leaned over me. “Are you awake?”
“Yes,” I whispered. My throat and tongue were like old wood. “I’m...awake.”
“Can you raise your head a little?” she asked. I managed it, though the pain made me groan out loud once more. I felt her hold something to my lips. It felt like the mouth of a leather bottle. “Drink,” she said.
I drank. It was water, cold, with a slightly bitter taste. “Thanks,” I managed, when I’d finished.
“There’s no need to thank me. Lie down again, now, and rest. You aren’t well.”
With a sigh, I lay back down. Only now that I’d become a little more aware of my surroundings did I notice that I was no longer out in the desert. Around me, I could see tall rocks, outlined against the midnight sky.
“I brought you back,” she said, before I could ask where I was. “We’re near where I live now, in the hills.”
“How did you get me back here?” I asked. It was easier to talk now, with my throat and tongue moistened. “It must have been a long way.”
I felt rather than saw her shrug. “I’m strong, much stronger than I look. And I’m used to carrying things in the heat.”
“Thank you for taking the effort to bring me back,” I said. “Why did you do it?”
“Don’t thank me, I said. I brought you back because, well, in that bright blue suit you’d be seen lying out there in the desert when they come looking, and I don’t want anyone to come. I did it for me, not you.”
That didn’t explain why she hadn’t simply skewered me with that spear and dug me a grave in the ground, but I let it pass – for now. “You’ve been here for a long time?” It felt like a silly question as soon as I asked it. She was a desert tribeswoman, this kind of place was her home. But then the desert tribes tended to congregate around oases, where there was grazing and water. And I’d seen no tent village, no other people.
“Ever since I came here, to escape the war.” She grinned, her teeth a flash of white in the darkness, but it did not seem a happy smile. “I mean the war before the war. The civil war.”
Oh, I thought, she’s one of those. The civil war had flooded the cities with refugees, but a lot more had scattered across the country, seeking shelter wherever they could find it. But that meant she’d been out here for at least...
“Six months?” I asked, astonished. “You’ve been living in the hills for six months?”
“A bit longer,” she said. “Eight or nine months, I’m not quite sure.”
“And you’re alone?”
“Yeah,” she said shortly. “I’m alone.”
“Pardon me, but what do you do for food?”
“There are wild goats in the hills,” she said. “I hunt them when I have to. Then there’s a surprising amount you can find to eat in this kind of place, if you know where to look.” She laughed. “Compared to what you can find to eat in the restaurants of the city, it’s nothing, of course.”
I was feeling immensely weary again, but it was a good weariness, not the tottering exhaustion of earlier. “Could we have a light?” I asked, after a pause. “I’d like to see where we are.”
“No. No lights at night. They attract attention from a long way off.”
I wondered what she’d been through to be so concerned about being seen. “How do you cook?”
“During the day, I make a fire inside a small cave back up in the hills a little. I use the driest branches, so they burn with almost no smoke.”
“And you live in that cave?”
“No...elsewhere.” She bit off the words. “How are you feeling now? Hungry?”
“No, just tired, and my head’s aching, of course.”
“Yes, you took one hell of a bang. It will likely be sore for a few days.” She paused. “Do you want any more water?”
“Yes, thanks.” It was a bit easier to raise my head this time, and the water tasted less bitter.
“Is it very bad, back in the war?” she asked, when I’d lain down again.
“Bad enough. The war’s lost, though the fighting will probably go on for a while yet.”
“So you decided to escape?”
“Yes, as I told you earlier. I couldn’t see any point killing and dying in a lost cause.”
“But the enemy still shot you down.”
“Yes...or maybe it was someone from my side, to stop me from escaping. It doesn’t make a difference now.”
“It makes a difference as long as you’re alive,” she said. “I’ve retrieved your parachute, by the way. I can use the cloth.”
“Yes, of course. You’re welcome to it.” I peered at her curiously as she sat cross-legged by my side. “Would you tell me your name?”
“Adra,” she said, after the slightest hesitation.
“Adra, that’s a nice name. Doesn’t it mean...” I searched my memory of the desert tribal dialects. “Storm or something like that?”
“Lightning,” she said. “It means Lightning.”
“Nice. Adra what?”
“Just Adra,” she said drily. “Do you want to know my tribe and clan names as well?”
“No, no,” I said hastily. “I’m sorry. I was too forward. As for me, I’m...”
“Oh, I know who you are, Major. I know who you are.”
Of course, she would have read the name tag on my flight suit. But that meant she was an educated woman, not just enough to read the tag but to be able to recognise the rank flashes on my shoulder. “You’ve been to school?”
She laughed, a bitter undertone in her voice. “School, college, I’ve done both, don’t worry. I was going to be a teacher, if it wasn’t for the war. The civil war.”
“I’m sorry.” I fought down the urge to yawn. “Sorry,” I repeated.
“Why are you sorry? It wasn’t your fault.” I felt her draw something over me, light and soft, a sheet or a light blanket. “Now sleep. You need rest.”
I said something more, I don’t remember what. I fell asleep looking up at the stars.
I spent the next few days recovering. I’d realised when I’d seen my smashed helmet that my survival had been a minor miracle, and it had taken another minor miracle to have avoided a broken skull. Even then, it took several days before the blinding headaches and dizziness slowly subsided.
Adra stayed in the vicinity. Sometimes I would not see her for hours. Then she’d reappear with a cloth bag filled with whatever she had managed to scrounge from the rocky hills around. After the second day, when I was up and around without too much discomfort, she let me help her cook: a couple of small cakes made of wild millet, or broiled roots, or on one occasion beetle grubs she’d found.
She laughed when I refused to eat the insects. “You’re used too much to luxury,” she said, not unkindly. “In the desert, we never had that kind of choice.” But she gave me a little dried goat meat instead.
On the fourth day, helicopters flew by overhead, too high up for me to be able to identify whom they belonged to. They hovered over the desert, far away near where my plane had crashed, and then they flew back towards the city. Adra and I stood watching them. Neither of us said anything.
By the fifth day, I was feeling much better, and able to walk around on my own. I’d been sleeping in the cooking cave, which stayed warmer at night than the desert chill outside, and that helped my recovery. The small range of hills was actually much more complex than I’d imagined, with folds and creases harbouring a fair amount of vegetation. There were a couple of small springs, too, dripping water into tiny pools with the same slightly bitter taste I’d by then got used to.
“It’s because of all the minerals,” Adra explained as she filled a leather bottle from one of the springs. “Maybe if someone took it to the city to sell as health tonic they could become rich.”
“With that tiny amount?” I laughed. “It would run dry in a week’s supply.”
She nodded. “I wonder if they’ll ever come here,” she said. “I hope not.”
“What will you do if they do come?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Hide as long as possible, I suppose, and then try and get away. I hope they don’t ever come, though. I’m tired of running.”
“Aren’t we all?”
“You don’t even know what running is about, Major. You don’t know anything about it at all.”
That night I climbed to the top of a ridge and looked back west, in the direction of the city. I didn’t really know what I was expecting to see – after all, the capital lay far below the horizon – but there was a faint red glow in the sky. I didn’t know if it was a fire or jut city lights reflecting off distant clouds. For a long time I looked, and then I came down again.
“Are you missing the town?” Adra asked later, while we shared a meal of millets and water. “Pining for the bright lights?”
I laughed. “There aren’t any bright lights left there, I don’t think. Not till they rebuild everything again. I was just wondering what was going on back there.”
“Do you ever wonder what’s going on out there?” She waved her hand at the desert to the north. “What’s going on in all the little villages and towns, all the way to the sea? You know – where the rest of the people live?”
I looked at her. In the darkness her expression was unreadable. “I suppose I should be thinking more about them. But I was living in the city, you know. It’s my home.”
“And I’m from out there, though I did live in the city.” She turned away and walked down the ridge quickly, and I didn’t see her for the rest of the night.
It was only on the sixth day that she showed me where she lived. It was in a small cave, a little larger than the one she used for cooking, but with a very well concealed entrance. I must have passed it by a couple of times without knowing it was there.
It was surprisingly light inside, as the sun’s rays seeped in through a couple of holes in the roof. She’d made it quite cosy, too, with dried branches covered with cloth serving as a mattress. She even had a few books. I picked two or three up. They were all textbooks on education and linguistics.
I glanced at her. She shrugged. “I still go through them sometimes. Maybe, someday, I might be able to get back to college, if this madness is ever ended.”
“You know what I’m talking about, Major.”
“Yes,” I said. My parachute and the rest of my kit were piled in a corner. I picked up my outer helmet and fingered the dent in the crown. “This does look like madness, doesn’t it?”
She hadn’t heard me. Her head was cocked to one side, listening. “Wait.”
“What?” And then I heard it too, the noise of helicopter rotors, coming rapidly closer.
She’d already started for the cave entrance, on quick sandaled feet. “Stay where you are,” she said over her shoulder, without looking at me. “I’ll see what’s happening.”
The noise of the rotors was so loud then that I knew the helicopters – there were surely more than one – were right overhead, and very low. I followed her quickly to the cave entrance, grabbed her by the shoulder and dragged her back before she could stick her head out.
She mouthed something at me, which I couldn’t hear over the sound of the engines, and struggled to get free of my grip.
“They’re right overhead,” I yelled into her ear, and pointed at the space outside the entrance. Dust and little pebbles were beginning to rise in the downdraft from the rotors. “If you go out they’ll see you!”
She looked at me, at the blowing dust, and suddenly went limp in my arms. At first I thought she’d fainted, and then I felt her body vibrating. I realised that she was shaking, with fear or stress. I hugged her close, in the warmth of her body seeking some respite from the tension that was making my heart hammer and my mouth run dry.
At any moment I expected to see soldiers’ boots appear as they rappelled down from the hovering machine. They’d come down, they’d look around, find the cave, and then what? Maybe they’d throw a grenade inside, as a precaution? That’s what I’d have done in their shoes. Even if they didn’t do that, if they just looked inside, then what? If they were from the enemy, what would happen to Adra – and to me? If they were from our side, which was unlikely, would they shoot me as a deserter? And what would they do to her?
I wish I had a weapon, any kind of weapon. But the only one we had was Adra’s spear, and that was worse than useless.
It was with overwhelming surprise and relief that I finally heard the helicopter rattling away. They hadn’t landed after all. Another flew overhead, but not as low, and after a while both engines faded away across the desert.
Adra was shaking and weeping in my arms, her face pressed into the hollow of my neck. I kissed her forehead. “It’s all right,” I said. “They’ve gone.”
She shook her head. “Hold me,” she said. “Hold me tight. Don’t let me go.”
I held on to her, as she clung to me desperately. It was only after a long time that I felt her muscles relax.
“Are you all right, Adra?” I asked her then.
She shook her head. “Not really. But thanks for taking care of me.”
“I didn’t take care of you.”
“You did. This wasn’t the first time that helicopters have come where I was.”
“What happened before?”
“I’ve been caught in the middle in more than one battle between the rebels and the army. And the soldiers came in helicopters – oh, forget it.” She looked away. “Stay with me tonight,” she murmured. “Don’t leave me alone.”
“Tell me about your family,” I asked her, early the next morning, as she snuggled by my side. Our lovemaking, by turns fierce and tender, had given way to a lazy glow of contentment. “I’d like to know about them.”
She stiffened slightly. “I don’t want to talk about them. None of them are alive, anyway.”
“It’s all right,” I said. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want.” Instead, I began talking of my childhood, about how I’d always wanted to be a pilot in the air force, though my father had hated the idea.
“He always said, what the world needs is healers and builders, not killers,” I told her. “He said that marching in uniform was for immature people.”
“He was right. But obviously that didn’t stop you.”
“Of course not. I joined the air force as a cadet right out of school. I didn’t really expect to be selected, to tell the truth. But they took me anyway.”
“Your father wasn’t happy?”
“He said that I’d live to regret my decision, and he only hoped I was still young enough when I regretted it to be able to start over again. But, you know, I didn’t ever regret it.”
“Until the day you decided to run away.”
“Until then,” I agreed. “And if my father was still alive he’d have asked what took me so long.”
“What happened to him?”
I looked into the semi-darkness. “He was killed by the rebels, early in the civil war. He was a government official, so an obvious target.” I laughed bitterly. “A hydraulics engineer, constructing water pipelines for irrigation. He was asking for it.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
I repeated her own words. “What should you be sorry? It wasn’t your fault.”
“I suppose I was asking for that,” she said, and kissed me gently. “What do you think they were doing – the helicopters, yesterday?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know, but probably looking for survivors from the fighting. The battle in the city must be over, if they can spend time and effort on things like this.”
“What do you plan to do?” she asked. “Still try for the border?”
“What else is there?” I looked at her. “Will you come with me?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I can’t stay here forever, I suppose.” She turned away from me and got up, her long body lithe as a panther. “I’ll think about it. You aren’t going today, are you?”
“No, of course not.” I got up too, and hugged her. Her body felt good against mine. “You come with me and we’ll make a new life together. I’ll find a job and you can go back to college. Maybe we could even get married.”
She laughed. “And have a house and two kids, and the rest of all that stereotyped crap.”
“Maybe someday we’ll make a film on our adventures,” I said, grinning. “All we have to do is write a screenplay and submit it to a producer. We’ll be famous.”
“If we live through this, you mean,” she said, laughing. “There’s that little thing to achieve first.”
“Yes,” I admitted. “You’re right there, of course.”
Later, when she’d gone down to the nearest spring to wipe herself down – the nearest we could manage to a bath – I looked again through her books. Under the textbooks were a couple of old novels, the pages creased and worn, and under them was another book, a history of the desert tribes. I opened it and flipped through the pages. There were a couple of terms I was unfamiliar with, but I remembered that I had a small phrasebook of the languages of the desert tribes in the knee pocket of my flight suit. I walked back to where I’d left it the night before and took out the phrasebook.
Something fluttered to the floor as I opened the book. I picked it up. It was a newspaper cutting I’d put inside it a long time ago, and told a story I was familiar with – the Battle of Gidna.
The rebels had taken Gidna by storm one morning, appearing in pickup trucks in the dawn and routing the tiny force of armed police posted in the town. They had then held the entire civilian population – more than five thousand people – hostage, declaring that they would kill them all if the government didn’t immediately open negotiations.
The government had chosen not to open negotiations. It had sent troops and planes to retake the town instead.
“What are you reading?” Adra asked, behind me. I hadn’t heard her bare feet on the stone floor of the cave. She peered over my shoulder. “What is that?”
“Just a cutting I had on me,” I said.
She reached for the yellowed piece of paper. “Let me see.”
I gave it to her. “I was at Gidna,” I said.
I could still remember flying over the dusty little town, rebel tracer bullets flying past my wings as bombs dropped away from my wings on to their positions, the blast wave jarring me as I flew away. We’d had to fight street by street, from the air and the ground, and in the end only two thousand of the five thousand civilians had been rescued alive. But the rebels had been beaten, several of their best commanders killed, and the town retaken, so the government was happy, and so were the media.
She looked up from the cutting. “You were?”
“I took part in the air strikes.” There was a strange look in her eyes. “Is something wrong?”
She crumpled the paper, slowly and viciously. “I’m from Gidna.”
“My entire family was killed,” she said. “My entire family was killed there, in an air strike.”
“We weren’t fighting the people,” I told her. “We were only fighting the rebels.”
She turned away without answering. I saw her shoulders shaking.
“Look,” I said, stepping toward her, “I’m sorry, but-“
“Get out,” she said. “Take your clothes and get out.”
“I don’t want to hear a word.” She pulled away from me and a moment later I was looking at the jagged end of her spear. “You killed my whole family,” she said. “My parents, my brother, sisters – if I’d not been in another room you would have killed me too.”
“I didn’t –“
“If I’d thought you’d killed them, yourself, I’d have stuck this in you now. It’s only because I don’t know that you were responsible that I’m letting you go.”
“The rebels would have killed them anyway,” I said, pulling on my uniform.
“They might have, but they didn’t actually harm a single person till you attacked the town. If it hadn’t been for you my family would at least not have died then.” She paused. “I still remember the bomb,” she resumed, softly. “I thought the earth had split apart. It blew the wall down and flung me into the street. I couldn’t even remember who I was for some time afterwards. You know who picked me off the street and took as much care of me as possible? A couple of rebel fighters. Teenage boys, but they had more compassion than you.”
“But it was war, and –“
“And orders. I know. Now get out. Don’t come back, ever. I never want to set eyes on you again.”
The desert was flat and hard and bright, and it seemed to stretch for ever and ever.
She’d given me a leather bottle of water and a few millet cakes. “I don’t want to be responsible for you starving or dying of thirst,” she’d said. “At least I don’t want that on my conscience.”
“I won’t give you away,” I’d told her.
She’d shrugged. “I don’t really care if you do. I’ll be moving on from here soon, maybe tonight.” The jagged spear had pointed at me. “Now go.”
Just once, I’d looked back. She had still been watching me, the spear glittering in her hand.
At first I’d been walking east, towards the border. But with every step, an image became clearer in my mind – an image of a house and two kids, as she’d said, a job for me and college for her. It was a ridiculous idea, and it would never happen. And yet if I made it across the border I’d be tormented by it every day.
In the blaze of the noon sun, my steps grew slower and slower, till I came to a stop. I stood there a long time.
And then I turned back towards the jumble of hills, where she waited. Perhaps she would greet me with the point of her spear. Perhaps she had thought better of it by now.
Either way, I would find out.
I was going back, then, to the only place I’d felt a modicum of peace and comfort.
For good or ill or something in between, I was going home.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014