“And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
- Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach.
The first shells of the evening barrage were hurtling by overhead as I finished packing the bag and slung it over my shoulder. Tonight the shells were landing in the middle distance, around the stadium. They’d been shelling it a lot recently. Maybe their drones had noticed something worth targeting, or maybe it was just for fun.
A lot of things these days were so inexplicable that someone might as well be doing them just for fun.
I came out of the flat and walked towards the stairs at the end of the corridor. There was, of course, no power, but it didn’t matter; enough of the dusk still filtered through the broken window at the far end to show me where I was going. The stairs would be darker, black as midnight, but I was used to them, too; I knew where each step was, the broken places and the part where there was a hole at the landing one flight down. I didn’t think I would have to use the torch in my pocket.
“Are you going away?” a voice said behind me.
I turned. It was the girl from the next flat, the teenage daughter of the couple who owned it. I’d occasionally talked to her when we’d met in the passage or out in the street, but I wasn’t even sure of her name. Mara, Maya, or Mala, something like that. Her hair was loose around her shoulders, her eyes dark holes in her pale triangular face. She looked terrified.
“You’re going away, aren’t you?” she repeated. She came out of her flat, leaving the door open, and clutched my sleeve. “I heard there was a convoy coming tonight. You’ll go away with it?”
“I’m just sending official documents.” I held up the strap of the bag. “If the convoy gets through, I’ll give this to a driver to take with him when they leave. That’s all.”
“You’re just saying that.” A shell burst, closer than the rest, close enough to feel the explosion through the floor. The girl shuddered as though the shell had shaken her, too. “Take me with you. Take me away from here.”
“Your parents...” I began.
“My parents won’t do anything. They don’t care. They think God will protect us and make everything all right for everybody.” She began to cry, the tears on her cheeks catching the flashes of the shells exploding over the stadium. “Look...” She pulled up her T shirt with both hands, exposing flat bare breasts surmounted by little nipples like dried flower buds. “I’ll do anything if you take me with you. I’ll sleep with you, give you my virginity. I’ll marry you if you want me to, do whatever you want. Just take me along!”
“I’m not going anywhere,” I replied. “Please, calm down. I’ll be back before morning, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Oh, no, you won’t,” she sobbed. “Even if you’re back, you won’t see me. I’ll be killed tonight, I know it. I’ll die long before you get back.”
I took my leave of her with some difficulty. From the head of the stairs I saw her, still watching me miserably. Her hands were twisting her T shirt, as though wringing out time from it, drops measuring out the seconds and minutes of life she still had.
The thing was, she wasn’t even wrong. If the convoy got through, I was going to give the documents to a driver to take back with him, but if I could find a way to get out, of course I’d go. I’d be crazy to do otherwise.
And yet, hadn’t there been a moment when I’d almost been tempted? Hadn’t there been an instant when I’d thought to myself, why not take what she was offering? After all, we didn’t even know whether we would be alive this time tomorrow. It was a nasty thought, and I turned my mind away from it.
If we got through the night, I thought, it would be different. If we got through the night, we’d see.
The street was bouncing slightly from the impact of the shells, but hadn’t been hit, and probably wouldn’t be tonight. By now we’d all got to know where a particular barrage was likely to hit, and which places would be spared. Sometimes, of course, we were wrong, and then kids scrambling for a bucket or two of water or women waiting in line for bread someone had managed to find flour enough to bake would be blown to pieces. But it was a chance everyone had to take; we’d never survive otherwise anyway, with the shelling that was like a routine, with barrages every morning, noon and night.
I hurried towards the west of the city, where the bus station was, and where the convoy would arrive if it could get through. The curfew was to begin in less than two hours, and after that anyone found outside was liable to be shot on sight and questions asked afterwards. But, of course, that was another chance one had to take. If you wanted to meet anyone, or needed anything like a strip of painkillers someone might have, in return for a half-loaf of bread, darkness was the only time when you could do it. Barter was forbidden, and everything was supposed to be handed in to be shared equally out among everyone.
Lately there had been nothing even to barter, let alone share out equally. Lately, people had been ripping weeds out of cracks in the pavement and boiling them in water scooped out of puddles to eat.
Coming round a corner, I ran right into a patrol. They’d been standing silently, watching the shelling, which was why I hadn’t known they were there in time to take another way.
“Stop,” one of them shouted in a high-pitched voice. “Where are you going?”
I looked at him, and at the others. There were only four or five of them, and they were all kids, of course. Their fathers, uncles and older brothers would be in the trenches outside the city.
“It’s not yet curfew time,” I pointed out mildly. “There’s still well over an hour to go.”
“You answer my question,” the boy shouted. He couldn’t have been more than thirteen or fourteen at the most. The uniform he wore was so large that the shirt hung almost to his knees, and the automatic rifle over his shoulder looked half as tall as he was. “Where are you going?”
I told him. He peered suspiciously into my bag, found only files there, and gave it back reluctantly. “Why are you not in the militia?” he demanded. “Everyone must be in the militia.”
“I’m a government health worker,” I said. “I’m exempt.”
“No, new orders.” He fished in his breast pocket and brought out a tattered scrap of paper. It was far too dark to read what, if anything, was written on it. “No more exemptions. Everyone to report for military training, right away.”
“That’s right,” another of them said. It was a girl, even younger than the boy. She had expressionless eyes that glittered in the light of the shell bursts, and her uniform looked as though it had been stitched out of a curtain. “Commander’s orders.”
“So you go right now,” the boy said. “Go and join militia.”
“Go and join the militia where?” I asked.
“Central School,” the boy replied. “You know where that is?”
“I know,” I said. I passed it every day. The classrooms and playground, which once had echoed to the voices of children, and then fallen silent, now again echoed to the voices of children – learning to shoot rifles, to crawl along trenches, to take apart machine guns and put them back together again. “I’ll do it as soon as I’ve sent these documents back.”
“You don’t forget,” the girl said. I wondered how long she’d been a militia member, and how much training she’d got. The rumours were that they were only training the kids for two days now, barely enough to learn which end of the gun the bullets came out of. It made them a danger even to themselves. She went up on her sandal-clad toes to peer into my face. “Or I will be finding you myself and bringing you.”
The rest of the kids laughed. “Will be good joke,” one said. They were still chuckling as they wandered off the way I’d come.
Walking on, I began to feel dizzy and weak. This was something I’d been feeling increasingly frequently the last weeks, and there was nothing strange about it; I didn’t even remember when I’d last had anything to eat. Perhaps it was the half a slice of mouldy bread I’d found yesterday, which I’d chewed for half an hour before swallowing. Or was that the day before? I’d forgotten.
I leaned against a wall, waiting till the dizziness abated, and the hunger twisting my gut eased. Perhaps I should join the militia after all, I thought. At least in the ranks they got whatever food was to be had. Only when the fighters’ needs were met was anything handed out to the civilians.
But being a fighter also meant you were first in line for a bullet in the gut, and, if the rumours and whispers of casualties were anything to go by, that wouldn’t take any time at all.
The shelling had abated by the time I’d arrived at the bus station. A huge fire burned towards the stadium, big enough to cast a reddish glow on the clouds overhead. A few hundred people were gathered under the station’s roof, watching the fire, not speaking. They looked as though they’d been waiting since the beginning of time. They were all sorts, civilians, militiamen, and a small contingent of soldiers sitting on the row of bucket seats by the wall. I felt like an intruder among them.
I heard my name called. It was my old friend G, whom I hadn’t seen in weeks. “So you’re here,” he said.
“Yes.” I peered at him. “I’m glad to see you’re alive.”
He laughed without humour, his white beard outlining his emaciated face. “That’s an achievement these days, isn’t it? Something to congratulate ourselves about.”
“Where’s Allika?” I asked, looking for his wife. “Is she all right?”
“She’s at home,” he said. “She’s OK, but, you know...weak.” He didn’t need to tell me the cause of the weakness; we all had the same problem. “If you can’t get back tonight, you ought to come back home and spend the night with us. It’s much closer for you, isn’t it?”
“I probably will have to.” I noticed he was carrying a gun, a huge black holster on his hip. It was the first time I’d seen G, a pacifist of the old school, with a weapon of any kind. “Where did you get that?”
He shrugged. “I’ve had it for years, but never found a need to carry it before. You know, the way things are going...”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.” I told him about my encounter with the children. “Are things really as bad as that?”
G shook his head. “Nobody knows anything, except maybe the commanders. At least, if the convoy gets through tonight, we might have some news. Along with the food and medicines, of course.”
“Do you think it’ll actually get through?” I asked.
“Probably not. I’ve not heard anything about them being willing to make any exemptions for the siege.” He indicated the backpack. “Are you thinking of leaving us?”
“Do you think I should?”
“If you could, of course you should go.” G looked quickly over his shoulder to make sure we weren’t overheard. “I’d go myself if I could, and if Allika could make the journey. But I can tell you already that it won’t be possible.”
I’d expected that, but it still struck me like a blow in the midsection. “Why do you say that?”
“We tried to leave with the last convoy, the one two weeks ago.” G leaned towards me, lowering his voice to a murmur. “You know the one.”
“I know.” The whole city had been waiting for that convoy for days, eagerly, anticipating the food and medicines and other essentials it would be bringing. It was supposed to arrive during the day, and the other side had agreed to a 24 hour ceasefire to let it through. It had actually slipped into the city in the dead of night, unloaded its cargo quickly and surreptitiously, and left again long before dawn; what happened to all that it had brought, nobody seemed to be able to tell. “What happened?”
“I spoke to one of the drivers. He said they were under strict orders to take nobody, not even the sick or the pregnant or nursing women. And he said the lorries were searched at the other side’s checkpoints. They threatened to shoot any passengers, and the drivers as well.”
“So that’s that.” I watched the light of a tracer shall float overhead with deceptive slowness before crashing into the city on the other side of the stadium. “It seems to be starting again.”
“Yes.” G glanced again over his shoulder at the soldiers. “I heard talk that the enemy is getting ready to invade directly – start a street to street battle for the city. If that happens, well...”
We silently considered the idea of what would happen then. “You can’t really believe all the tales that they say of the other side,” I said at last.
“No – but they aren’t exactly being humanitarian towards us either, are they?” G jerked his head towards the artillery fire now flashing on the eastern horizon, across the city. “I’ll tell you something, though.”
“When things finally break down totally, I’m more worried about our own militia than I am about them.” He tapped his holster. “That’s why I’m carrying this.”
“Let’s hope you don’t have to use it,” I said.
An army officer came into the bus station and glared around. “The curfew is about to begin,” he shouted. “Nobody is allowed to be outdoors. Go home, all of you civilians. Right away!”
“The convoy –” someone ventured.
“What convoy? There is no convoy. What’s this rumour about a convoy? Go away or I’ll march you off to the front line to dig trenches.”
People began to leave, in twos and threes. G looked at me expectantly. “Are you coming?”
I hesitated. “I’ll follow you. Let me talk to this officer first, see if he can pass on my bag to a driver if the convoy arrives. It’s government business, after all.”
“Right, I’ll be expecting you. Don’t be late, it’s almost curfew.” Rubbing his white beard, G walked away into the shell-lit night.
I went to the officer and talked to him. “Give me the bag,” he said. “If there’s a convoy – if – I’ll see it goes out. And as for you, I want to see you training in the militia tomorrow morning. There’s no more exemption for anybody.”
The kids had been right about that, evidently. I hadn’t even touched a gun in my life. I had no idea what to expect. I told the officer this.
“No exceptions,” he said. “If you can’t do anything else, you can at least fill sandbags or haul ammunition, or something.”
Giving him the bag, I walked away without a word. Except for the soldiers, the bus station was now deserted. The militia who had been there were just leaving. I walked alongside them, listening to them talk. They were older than the children from earlier, young men in their late teens.
“You have a cigarette?” one asked me, nicely enough. “If you have one, give me, man.”
“I don’t have a cigarette,” I replied. “I don’t smoke.”
“I’m dying for one,” he said gloomily. “Haven’t had one in so long.”
“Don’t worry,” one of the others told him. “You won’t have to die for it much longer.” There was some uneasy laughter.
We reached the turning to G’s home street. The barrage was creeping steadily closer, shells falling up and down the streets, shrapnel splattering against the concrete walls of the higher buildings around. At each explosion hot air buffeted me, like a door to a furnace opening and closing. Something exploded off to the left, a ball of flame rising into the sky.
“Must have hit a car,” someone said unemotionally.
“Well, I’ll be off,” I said. I’d seldom been so close to the shelling, and it was making my stomach knot with tension. I wanted to be indoors, away from the blast and shrapnel. “Be safe.”
“I’ll come along a bit with you, man,” the cigarette man said. He seemed to have taken a liking to me. “See you home.”
“All right, thanks.” I walked down the street to where G’s apartment building was. Something seemed to be wrong with it, and as I came closer I understood.
Sometime during the evening, the building had taken a direct hit. Half of it, the back half, seemed to have disappeared completely. The front half was still there, but dark and totally silent.
I took off at a staggering run, racing through the rubble on the street and into the building, up the stairs, pulling the torch from my pocket. G’s door hung open, sagging on its hinges, the wood charred and blackened, a chunk of broken wall crumbled before it like a sleeping guardian. I scrambled over it and into the flat.
I knew what I’d find before I entered the bedroom, and even then, it was a shock. Allika lay on the half-burnt bed, her corpse still smouldering. On the floor was G himself, his hand still clutching the huge pistol with which he’d blown half his head away. The floor was slick with blood that looked like black tar in the torchlight. The room was filled with the smell of burning and blood and roasted flesh.
It must have been a couple of minutes later that my friend the militiaman came into the room. “God!” he said. “What happened here, man?”
I waved a hand. It was as good an explanation as any.
“You can’t do anything for them,” he said. “Come on, I’ll help you out.”
I let him half carry me out and down the stairs. Once outside, I vomited into the gutter, again and again, until my throat was raw and I was retching dry. He turned his face away discreetly.
“If you don’t have anywhere to go,” he said, when I’d finished, “you can come with us. Nobody will bother you in the curfew if you’re with us.”
So I went with him, and if he asked me questions, I didn’t answer. I had nothing to say anyway. My mind was filled with two images: the scene in the bedroom, and the marks I’d glimpsed, just before I’d left, on what remained of one of Allika’s half-burned breasts. I did not remember them being there earlier.
And as for what I’d vomited into the gutter, I was profoundly glad that it had been too dark for me to see anything of it, at all.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015
Note to reader: This is another dream I attempted to exorcise by writing it as a story. I must say that I've actually drastically toned down the horror of the original dream. It was much more explicit than what I've written here.