It happened one night that I slept, and, sleeping, dreamt.
In this dream I stood in the middle of an immense plain, covered with shattered ruins, on which only the burnt skeletons of trees grew, their branches extended like fingers to the air.
Though it was neither day nor night, the sky was black with smoke, in which sparks of light spiralled and danced, and half-burnt cinders fell like rain.
And I was not alone in the middle of this plain, for around me were those who lived here; hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of them, who stood around me watching, but neither spoke nor moved.
Some were those who had been blown apart by high explosive at Guernica and Shanghai, Hargeisa and Grozny; shattered, lacking arms and heads, feet and faces, their entrails spilling from their eviscerated bodies.
There were black Ethiopians in white shammas, their noses and mouths frothing with blood, skins bubbling away from Mussolini’s poison gas, all in patient lines, waiting.
There were the children of the fields of Vietnam and the streets of Gaza, charred with napalm and white phosphorus, their bodies naked and roasted, staring from their eyeless faces.
There were other children from Vietnam and Cambodia, bent and twisted from the Agent Orange sprayed on their lands in a war the perpetrators would love to forget, because they lost it.
There were children from Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen, their tiny bodies broken by rockets fired at an image on a video screen from half a world away.
There were the Iraqis, soldiers and civilians, blown to fragments in the name of being Shocked and Awed into surrender in a war based on a deliberate and cynical lie.
There were old and young women, school kids and commuters, ripped by shrapnel from bombs dropped by new Nazis winging their way to a new war in Ukraine.
There were the piles of ash in the shapes of men and women, incinerated by firestorms in Dresden and Hamburg, Berlin and Tokyo.
And there were those who were merely lines of shadows, blazed out of existence in the instant of a nuclear flash at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and all these shadows stood there, too, in that field of ruins and smoke.
And I saw that they were all looking at me; for, unlike them, I was alive and I was whole.
Then one of them stepped forward, a man or something burnt, shaped like a man; he stepped out of his burned truck, and on his faceless face there was a smile.
“We greet you,” he said, “for long have we awaited your coming. Our numbers grow by the day, and we awaited you, but still you came not.” And the multitude nodded, those who had heads still to nod, in agreement. And those who had voices murmured assent.
“You awaited my coming?” I asked, astonished. “Why did you await my coming?”
“To tell us what is your purpose,” he said, then. “To tell us why you brought us here, why you made us as we are. To tell us what it is that you wish to do.”
“I?” And then I saw that not only was I alive and whole, but I was dressed in flying overalls, and on my head I had a flying helmet fitted with all the equipment science could provide. And I remembered flying over them, over all their cities, in my Zeppelin and my Lancaster, my B 29 and my Heinkel 111, my F 16 and my B 52, looking through the bombsight as the load fell; I remembered staring into video screens, pressing down on triggers; I remembered standing back as another V1 took off from rails and vanished over the horizon.
“Tell us,” the dead people said, the people I had killed, the people around me. “Tell us what your purpose is, and make us whole.”
Hobbling on their legs without feet, holding up their arms without hands, speaking from their faces without mouths, they came to me to be told why, and to be healed.
To be healed, or to have their revenge.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015
Notes to reader:
1. The story title is a take on Kurt Vonnegut Jr's classic novel on the firebombing of Dresden, Slaughterhouse Five. The "fifteen", of course, refers to the date.
2. The photo illustration is of an incinerated Iraqi soldier on the Highway of Death, 1991. Photo by Kenneth Jarecke.