The Family

by | Apr 22, 2009 | Stories | 0 comments

War, once waged has an impetus of its own, and the outcome, and the manner in which it is concluded could never be envisaged while it lasts.
There was no doubt that the war was all but over, the enemy defeated, depending from which side it was viewed; but the anger and bitterness it had spawned remained, drawing out the cessation of the fighting. For the moment the killing continued with an ever increasing ferocity. For the victors they needed to bring about as speedy an end as possible, with of course the sweetness in victory and of revenge for the numerous scores still to be settled.
As for the vanquished they were fighting for their very existence, spurred on by the fear of the wrath of those they had fought against so long and hard. There was of course the vain hope born of numerous rumours, of a counter offensive, an imminent breakout if they could only just hold out for a little longer.
So here in the ruins and desolation of the homeland of the defeated, the fighting went on. Only now it was won by inches, street by street, man to man, and hand to hand. The anonymity of armies engaged on battle fields was gone. This was called mopping-up by those who stalked the streets as would-be victors, but for those defending, it was a desperate last stand. Men from both sides fought in small groups or alone, their lines of communications lost in the labyrinth of abandoned streets. This was the real intimacy of war.

He had become separated from his platoon as they systematically combed the streets advancing building by building, through the debris of this once great city. Here killing was of no consequence even when it came to facing the enemy. Until now that enemy had had no face, but here in the streets he acquired a face and with that face an identity.The exchange of death, or the inflicting of pain one on one, no longer bothered him, only that is, that it was he that survived. Not even the violation of a bayonet thrust deep into resistant flesh, nor the terror scream of his victim as he twisted and retrieved his weapon, the living blood spurting over his hands and his face, made any impression on him. He had ceased to care, to think, to feel. There wasn’t time for thinking. He had learned to live by instinct, that primal impulse to survive. To think, or to feel required time, and such indulgence made him vulnerable.
The bullet had hit him before he heard it. Then a second pounded him to the ground, and before there was time for it to register that he had been hit, he was cast into the oblivion of unconsciousness.

She had trodden on him as she picked her way through the twilight of night when warfare ceased in an uneasy truce. The war had not spared her the sights of the dead and dying. They littered the landscape; they were part of the debris which lay all around. Like so many she was trapped here by events beyond her control. This place, or what was left of it, was her city, her home where she had lived for most of her life. As the war had moved ever closer there was a time when she could have left. But where was she to go to be safe? Besides, she had no one to go to, so she decided to stay, to take her chance here in the place she knew best. As a high class prostitute she had lived well before the war had started. For her, self came first and last, her emotions hardened against there ever being any sort of meaningful relationship withanother person, particularly a man. She knew all too well their weaknesses, indeed she had made a living from trading on them. They had been easy pickings, and she could have no respect for those sad creatures of the opposite sex.
At first he seemed just another corpse amongst a city of corpses that lay scattered everywhere in this ruined landscape, and she made to go on. It was the moan as she stood on him, that, and the voice calling out feebly that halted her in her tracks. Until this moment she had only been a onlooker of this conflict. The dead and the dying had never been this close before, and she had avoided ever being drawn into any form of personal contact. Outside of her work she had always kept herself lonely, immune from feelings shared with others. Prostitution was her trade and her femaleness was only a tool of that trade. She took, but was never taken, taking the spent lust of the men who came to her along with their money. For her, cash was the consummation of him in her. The voice in the silence and the fact that it was living startled her, lifting her foot in reflex as if she had trod in dog shit. It was his voice crying out again and the helpless pleading in its sound rather than its meaning that held her. Why she paused when all her instincts told her to go on, there was no explanation. She knelt to the prone form of the soldier. The moonlight, pearl grey on his grey dusted face made him beautiful like a fallen statue. The open eyes stared out beyond her and the face lay in repose as if resigned to fate, that nothing now mattered. She reacted without reason, not knowing why, or what she was doing, as she dragged his limp body, inching it into the shadowed shelter of a nearby doorway. Here, among the abandoned home of others who had left their home in fear, she laid him down scraping some semblance of comfort from the remnants that remained.
The days came and went, and the watching woman and the wounded soldier stayed together. She ministered to his needs, dressing his wounds and feeding him until he was sufficiently recovered to look after himself. She had learnt his name from his dog-tags and other snippets of information from the contents of his pockets. When he was lucid and conscious she shared bits and pieces of general information with him, but she never told him her real name nor anything significant about her, herself. As time passed she realised that she liked the company of another being, even that of a man. Perhaps before loneliness had posed no threat, but now in war loneliness became something else. A woman on her own, here amongst such chaos that threatened her existence, she felt vulnerable. This man even though wounded offered some sanctuary to her fears, so she stayed, feeding her needs to feel protected..

They had lived in cellars and in the labyrinth of the city sewers, venturing out only when there was a lull in the fighting, which was invariably after dark. Her brother was barely a toddler, the innocents of his young years shielding him from the horrors that surrounded their day to day life. She on the other hand was ten years old, and together with her brother they had survived the shelling of their home which had killed her mother and elder sister, leaving them to fend for themselves as best they could. She only had a vague memory of a man that was their father who had left home long ago to fight in the war and never returned. Until now his absence had never bothered her. Her mother and sister had provided all the love and protection she had ever needed. Now she felt vulnerable but the needs of her baby brother had concentrated her mind to the purpose of their survival, so
she had never been able to grieve. To have given vent to her feelings at the time, to have dwelt on their vulnerability and the grief of being orphans lost in the ravages of this terrible conflict would have overwhelmed her. Over the ensuing days and weeks she had teamed up with other orphans of war and together their nimbleness of mind and limbs had foraged more than enough to keep them alive for the present, as they hid beneath the streets where death stalked. When she ventured out she took her brother with her. Nowhere was safe and they could so easily have become separated, perhaps lost forever. Her brother learnt to be obedient, to keep close. Perhaps he too had begun to fell vulnerable and clung close to the company of the mother figure which was his sister.
There were piles of tins of food stacked on an old table next to the wall of the empty house they were scavenging in. To find so much food in one place, this was their lucky day. The moonlight streamed through the gaping window void as she inspected her find. She placed her brother on the table as she filled her bag with the fortunes of food she had discovered. She broke open a tin of fruit. The sweet syrup was nectar to children who were always hungry. She placed a piece of fruit in the mouth of her brother who chortled his pleasure. This was a rare moment of delight shared in the eating and the exchange of smiles and a little laughter, and for the time being the threat the war imposed on their every waking moment was temporally forgotten.
A shadow fell across the table blocking the light as the little girl turned to face the face of a stranger, a woman standing in the shadow of that shadow. The light of the moon framed in the window fell on the frightened face of the child and that of her little brother as they faced each other in breath holding silence. The woman’s voice broke the impasse inquiring brusquely who they were and what were they doing here.
The little girl pleaded for herself and her brother. There was no need for other words to explain why they were here,They too were survivors, flotsam of the war, and their being here was because of their need to exist as best they could. The woman was confused as to what to do, how to react to the obvious vulnerability of these children. They posed no threat to her but their presence made her irritable. She had little knowledge of children, they had never been part of her life. Even when she was a child, as the only child of old parents her education had been carried out by a she had never had much contact with other children. Now these children had somehow imposed themselves on her and the man who lived here with her. She had already admitted, but only to herself, that she liked the current arrangement, but It was hard enough for the two of them without others intruding, particularly children. Their plight had not touched her and she ordered them to go, to leave and not to come back.
Before any action could follow her words the figure of a man limped into view, his hands held out to hold, to be taken, and his face smiling friendship to the children. Instinct reacted to instinct as the little girl went to the invitation of arms offered, and that held no threat or harm to her or her brother. It seemed that when a whole world threatens, for a child there is need of the protection of a father, and though she knew him to be a stranger, she spoke that word as she went to him without question or reserve. His need was as great as hers as he held her little form close, oblivious to the pain that racked his wounded body. Here, in this place, lost in a world of war that held only suffering, fear and despair, he had become weary, and his being cried out for some tenderness to take, and to give back in return. His heart was hungry for someone to love him and take from him that mountain of feeling that war had frozen within him. While the woman and the boy child watched, the man throbbed his uncontrollable sobbing holding the girl close to him, She too for the very first time since that fatal day cried her grief, sharing her sorrow with this stranger.
Days followed days as the war drew to its inevitable conclusion, and its machinery continued to wreak havoc among those that existed as best they could amongst such carnage. Among them a soldier, a woman and two small children, clung ever closer to each other taking and giving without reserve responding to each others need
The womqn gave herself for the very first time to him, and learned to love and care for children not yet scarred by the cynicism of years. Within herself she found feelings she had never known which drew her to give, without any holding back of herself, to a little girl child and her baby boy brother. For the soldier the war and its outcome ceased to be of consequence. The war had swallowed up those few who had been close to him before it had began. Only those who shared his life now meant anything to him; he would protect them with his life if it were necessary.
Each of them offered hope to the others and a reason to go on living.

One day dawn came without the sound of the pounding gun fire. It rained from the bleak grey of an overcast sky, the sound of its gentle dropping in this vast wasteland of silence held the lives of those who had survived in a suspense of anticipation of what, they could not know. They seemed to have lived a lifetime in the shadow of death and destruction and for now it seemed impossible to imagine it was over, just like that.
Time passed and gradually those who had survived began to emerge, to take in the intoxication that it really was all over, and that they could begin again to forage a new life for themselves. Destruction was everywhere, but the miracle was that, although thousands had perished some had survived. What happened to the soldier, the woman, and the children is unknown. As in all wars the fate of the individual is often lost in the enormity of the outcome that such wars leave behind That they survived can only be speculated. Suffice to know that in that time shared they had traded love for love, giving and taking in equal measure, and from the Grapes of Wrath, together they had pressed the fermentation of a family.


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