Two children sat on a log, talking.
They were young children, ten or eleven years old, and they were talking about toys.
“I had a doll,” the girl said. “She was so big.” She held out her hand, at almost waist height. “And she looked – just like a baby. A real one. If you saw her when it wasn’t too bright you’d think she was real.”
“So you played with her?” the boy asked idly. He bounced a green rubber ball idly between the tattered sneakers on his feet. The ball was torn and did not bounce very well. “Did you like it?”
“Of course I liked it,” the girl said. “I loved her. The doll, I mean. Her name was...” She hesitated, and looked quickly at the boy out of the corner of her eye, to see how he would take it. He merely continued bouncing the ball. “...Jill,” she said.
“Jill?” The boy glanced at her. “Why Jill?”
“From Jack and Jill,” the girl replied. “You know.”
“Oh.” The boy went back to bouncing his ball. It made a flat cracking noise each time it hit the ground. “Yes. What games did you play with her? Tea and cakes stuff?”
The girl shrugged. “I never liked playing at those things. No, she was a friend. I used to love talking to her, all the day, telling her everything I thought, all my secrets.”
“You had secrets?”
“Of course. Didn’t you? Doesn’t everybody?”
“Well, I don’t know. I never had any secrets that I can recall. So you loved her very much?”
“Yes,” the girl said firmly. “We loved each other very much. We pledged to give our lives for each other.” She glared at him, daring him to laugh.
He did not laugh. “Yes, well.” He gave up bouncing the ball and tossed it from hand to hand. “I’ll bet I can hit that tree with this from here,” he said.
The girl cocked her head and judged the distance to the tree. “I don’t think you can,” she said.
“Watch.” The boy stood up and threw the ball. It wavered through the air, the torn rubber making it wobble, but it made it most of the way to the tree before falling to the ground. It rolled to the fot of the tree and stopped against a root.
“Stupid ball,” the boy said. “If only it hadn’t been burst I’d have been able to hit the tree.”
“Never mind,” the girl told him. “You almost hit it anyway. You throw really well.”
“I got good practice,” the boy said. “They were training me to throw grenades.”
“You were in one of the armies?’ the girl asked.
“No,” the boy said, and sat down on the log again. “They were still training me when they let me go to the agency. And then I came to this place.” He picked up a pebble and tossed it after the ball. “I wish they’d let me join,” he said.
“Well, never mind,” the girl repeated. “Maybe when you’re older you can join and throw grenades.”
“No, the war will be all over by then.” The boy shook his head irritably. “My neighbour’s still in the fighting. He has a machine gun. He fires it.” He held up his arms. “Tatatatatatata.”
“Don’t do that,” the girl flinched. “I don’t like it.” Her lips trembled. “Please stop it.”
“What’s wrong?” But the boy put his arms down anyway. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“It’s all right,” the girl said. “But don’t do it again. Please?”
“All right,” the boy promised. “I won’t.” He put his hands around a knee and leaned back as far as he could on the log. “So tell me about the doll...Jill.”
“What about her?” The girl broke a twig off the log and scraped designs in the dust. “I told you I loved her a lot,” she said defensively. “She was all I had for a friend.”
“Isn’t she still your friend?”
The girl looked at him. “Oh, she was. She was the best friend anyone could be.” She paused a moment and scrawled more designs in the dust. “She saved my life,” she said without looking up. “You can’t be a better friend than that.”
“She saved your life? How’s that?”
The girl twisted the twig in her hands. “One night,” she said at last, “one of the armies came to the village. They began going round from house to house, killing people. Their machine guns were going off...” she glanced quickly at the boy and away. “Like that.”
“Go on,” said the boy, after her silence had stretched out like a rubber band.
“My parents were at home,” she said. “My father was sick. He’d been ill for days, too ill to run. And my mother wasn’t going to leave him and escape. So it was only me.
“There was someone with the army, someone from the village. I knew him, he was a neighbour from down the street. We all used to call him Uncle. But he was taking the soldiers from house to house and telling them who lived where, so they knew whom to kill. He knew about how many people lived in which house. I saw him too, from the front window, standing outside houses when the soldiers went in to kill people. But he, himself, he never went in.
“My mother came to me as I was looking at the street through the window, too scared to move. ‘You’ve got to go,’ she said. ‘Run out through the back door, and keep running as far and as long as you can. Go!’ She said that and pushed me towards the back door."
The boy stared at her with fascination. “What did you do?”
“I didn’t want to go, of course, but Mother pushed me as hard as she could. ‘You can get away,’ she said. ‘Someone has to.’ “ Then she looked at me as though she had forgotten something, and snatched Jill from my arms, because of course I was holding on to her. ‘Now go,’ she said. ‘Jill will take your place.’ “
“And you went?”
“And you went?”
“Of course. What else could I do? She pushed me out of the back door and locked it. Before I could even cry I heard the soldiers. They were banging on the front door and shouting my father’s name, telling him to come out. And then they broke the door down, and I heard them...shooting.”
“They didn’t come looking for you.”
“No, because Uncle must have told them my parents had one daughter, and they shot Jill. They must have thought she was me. And then they set fire to the house.”
“What did you do?” the boy asked.
The girl shrugged and threw away the twig. “I ran, of course. I didn’t even know which way I was going. I ran until I couldn’t run, and then I walked until I couldn’t walk, and then I waited till I could run again. Then some people found me and I came here.” She looked at the boy. “Well, now you know about Jill. And why you shouldn’t make that awful noise.”
“I said I won’t do it again,” the boy said. “When I’m in the army I’ll find and punish those who did that to you.”
“I don’t even know who they were,” the girl said. “So how will you know?”
“I’ll find a way,” the boy said. “I’ll find out who did it, somehow.”
“Why? It’s not as though you have to. You aren’t my friend.”
“I’ll be your friend,” the boy said. “If you want.”
The girl considered his offer seriously.
“Yes,” she said. “I think I’d like that. I have no friends, you see.”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015