Eyes welling with tears, clouding his view of the charred remains, he half whispers:
His words are picked up by the wind and carried away. He can’t say he has heard himself. His chest is heavy, heavier than it has ever felt before. Despite standing there, in the open savanna, a gust of wind blowing his hair back and forth, he feels as though breathing is a task. This feeling takes him back to the time in boarding school he had to hide under the low-lying bunk bed – having evaded Prep – his heartbeat thudding louder than the Math teacher’s stilettos as she headed to class in the morning. His in drawing of breath seeming like the hardest of tasks as the Teacher on Duty’s heavy steps lingered and loomed over his cubicle.
“Until my last breath I will remember. After I have forgotten my mother’s face… I will remember.”
The ground beneath his boots is still warm and smoky. Ashes of burnt wood are lifted up by the gusts of wind, blown into and past their faces – leaving them coughing into their sleeves.
“Are you a good person?”
” I’d say my parts are mixed, good and bad.”
Turning to face her:
“If half an onion is black with rot, it’s a rotten onion.”
She stares at him and doesn’t say a word. In his face she can read many emotions but what lingers is his pain. His eyes, watery and distant, staring into nothing. The few words his mumbled since they left the jeep, all painting a forlorn picture. He is sad. Sad and abandoned.
The charred remains are of a house. A once beautiful and artful farm house. He recalls its vicinity, surrounded by a serene atmosphere all year. It had creaking floorboards as far back as he could remember himself living there. Paintings of his father and his father’s father before him adorned the stairway. Most nights he would stare into one of the old men’s eyes as he made his way up and in his child-like mind feel as though they were following his motion, sort of watching over him. He felt safe. He felt comfortable.
As he now walks through the ashes, every step is weighted with memories. A fading laugh here, a pouring of hot water there, a coming together of fists as he fought with his brothers, a piano playing somewhere…
“This is where I crashed and stubbed my first cockroach. I was three”, he says, pointing to a corner of the house.
“Did yellow fluids ooze out from under your heels?” she asks
“They did. Why?”
“Whenever I did that I felt like I was killing generations. Perhaps unformed cockroach eggs came from there and all I was doing was committing genocide.”
He turns and looks at her, a smile slowly forming from the side of his mouth. He chuckles.
“Why are you now lighting up when I speak of death and guilt?” she asks, a perplexed look on her face.
“I see the long lost goodness of man in your eyes.”
He stretches out his hand and it meets hers mid-motion. Their fingers interlock.
“This was good land. We could have raised a family here. Our children running across the marsh, their shoes wet and muddy, their hearts afire with the adventure of a juvenile soul.”
“It was. It still is. It’s funny how in times of war, the most beautiful of places are just that. Beautiful. Calm, serene, quiet. As if nothing is actually happening. As if man is just a cockroach that nature could step on, red fluids oozing out from under its heels.” She replies, her voice and thoughts drifting farther away from this ashen waste of a house, now gone.
“Ha-ha. I see what you did there.”
They stand there for quite some time. In silence, each lost in their own thoughts, their own fears and aspirations now seeming to get blown by the wind, every passing day. The violence is getting thicker and more intense. Neither of them could remember what exactly started it all. They had been killing fellow men for fifteen years now. Most of their family and friends were dead, some forgotten, fewer remembered and fewer still believed to be alive.
They stand on this land where there once stood a farm-house. Majestic and grand. The farm-house now razed to the ground. What remains much like a little bonfire, only just starting to dissipate.
“Future men shall pass here and not see what beauty I saw growing up.”
“At least in your memory, tales of the laughter and bliss of the days and nights of the years spent here will live on.” She smiles at him, squeezing into his hand.
He looks at her, his face resigned:
“…and those memories shall die with me…as if they never lived.”
In silence, they pick up their guns from the ashy ground, sling them over their shoulders and begin walking past the charred former-house, their hands still intertwined.
“I have something for you!” he says, remembering the rose he’d plucked from the forest earlier that day. Handing her the rose, he says: “It’s black though.”