T.J. Barnum

The Enemy’s Camp

We ran, hiding under bushes by the river, sometimes in trees with low, thick foliage. Unknown others ran with us. How far we traveled and how long, I cannot say. Our direction was haphazard, our movements determined by shifting enemy lines. I think we were herded. It seemed to me that a little distance more, and nothing but death waited.

Our running ended in a ruined house. My daughter and I climbed a splintered staircase. Finding a small door leading to the attic, we hid behind a pile of moldering shingles. Long past hunger and personal terror, the only feeling left me was fear for my child. She sat beside me, seemingly unperturbed, her eyes lit by the same inner fire that had burned in her father’s eyes.

I brandished a small knife. No protection at all unless one of them got close enough to acquire a new scar – my last gesture of defiance.

Too soon, they were in the attic. One spied us behind the shingles and sauntered over, shark eyes and rotting teeth grin. Too young to understand the value of silence, my child answered filth with filth, flinging insults that could not possibly sting a hardened veteran. Yet his dead eyes turned to steel and his gun chattered twice.

She lay moaning on the dirty floor, blood blossoming from her stomach. I would have torn him to shreds with my knife and broken nails, but my daughter called. I dropped my useless arrogance on the floor and bent over her frail body.

“I can’t see you, Mama!”

“I’m here Baby.” I sat down beside her, pressed firmly on her wound.

“Remember the Live Oaks?” I asked. “Running with the dogs, and jumping at the low branches?”

“You were so slow, Mama. The dogs and I laughed at you.”

“You ran like the wind,” I gathered her into my arms.

“Hurts!” she whispered.

“Not for long,” I promised. “You were always so quick, my summer child!”

“I know,” her voice slower now, shallow.

I talked softly to her, saying heart-words in cheerful tones. She listened, staring up at me. Much too soon, her light was gone.

Grasping her body tight against my chest, I looked up to find the monster who took her life, memorizing his face. Five of them stood in a half circle past the shingles. I saw eyes of sorrow, of death, of nothing. I made no sound, refusing to give them satisfaction from my devastation.  Years of joy were gone. I sat, not moving, my daughter and I frozen together.

After a time, I saw nothing.

* * * *

Maybe an hour . . . a day later, one of their women came to me.

“It is time,” she said. “Shall we bury her now?”

“You will burn her,” I whispered. “Or throw her into a mass grave.”

“You and I will find a place on the hill,” she answered. “She will lie among our dead. You can place a stone to mark her grave.”

I let the woman pull me up. One of the men took my joy in his arms.

I walked slowly, surrounded by soldiers. We climbed around splintered fences and up a small hill, away from shattered buildings. There were mounds among the lupines.

They buried my daughter near several fresh graves. The soldiers left after the last spade of dirt. I folded onto the ground, cursing myself for my cowardly heart that kept beating while my daughter’s heart was still and cold.

The woman who had accompanied us knelt across from my daughter’s grave. The air was still, and it seemed that nothing – not bird, nor animal, nor man – moved. After a while, I realized she was speaking.

“The soldier’s name is Gabriel. Strange, don’t you think, that he carries an angel’s name?”

I looked up. She was staring across the fields.

“A year ago, we were fording a river only a quarter mile from Coalition forces. Gabriel’s wife and daughter were already dead. He carried his son in his arms, waded through chest high water, and then swam with the boy clinging to his back. It was a night of the new moon, only faint light from the stars and flashes from tracers. The water was alive with bullets. As much as we tried to move quietly, there were moans and screams. Half of us did not make it from the river.”

She stopped for a moment. Her haunted eyes told more of the story.

I caught sight of a deer far down the slope near the tree line. A shot echoed. The deer crumpled. I looked away.

“We must eat,” the woman said.

After a while she continued. “I swam to shore and hid among trees, Gabriel close behind, son in his arms. He laid his child on the ground at my feet. I knew, before I reached down, that the boy had caught a bullet. He was too still.

“Gabriel built houses before the war . . .. He is the best fighter in our army.”

I glared at this woman in shock and disbelief. She did not blanch, and it seemed I was staring into a mirror.

“I have not told you my name,” she said. “I am Gabriel’s woman. It is the only name left to me.”

She waited for me to react. I sat, frozen.

What he did to your child is inexcusable,” she said. “War makes monsters of us all.”

She rose.

“They will come for you soon.”

I watched her walk back to the fence.

Only then did I allow myself to cry for my beloved child . . . for my world torn apart. When the sun neared the tree tops, I shoved my sorrow down and sat patiently with my rage.

I knew what awaited me in the enemy’s camp.