„Only Hope was left within her unbreakable house,
she remained under the lip of the jar, and did not
The noise was too much too bear. It was like rain during a hot day of summer. What I thought ironic was the fact that it was indeed summer, but that rain wasn't going to revive anything back to life. Oh, no, not at all. That rain only brought death. It didn't splash the dry soil with fresh water; it was red, muddy blood that gathered in rivers across the ground.
Those were the thoughts that ran through my head as I watched the massacre. How much I despised that place! Hiding carefully not to be observed, I was trying to survive. You see, I was trapped there, forced to fight a war that was not mine. I could never understand those who blindly accepted to fight for something they actually never fully understood. When I asked them what they were fighting for, they simply answered: "For the cause". I never tried to dig deeper, fearing the fact that I might be seen as a traitor in their eyes, just because I had doubts. This war wasn't for people, it wasn't fought for their welfare. No war was fought for people, but for power. They were fought to saturate the insatiable hunger for power of the leaders. That was the true cause, and as I stood there in that bloody dust, I understood that my cause could never match theirs. Mine was to survive that hell and go back home. What I didn't know then was that I was a lost cause from the beginning.
Thinking about all those things, I didn't pay attention to the surroundings. When I noticed the total lack of sound I couldn't tell for how long the noises had stopped. It was a dense silence, almost hurting my ears. I didn't dare to leave my shelter though. It was a trick; it must have been a trick. I tried to convince myself to resist the urge to see what was going on. Others weren't so careful. My roommate Ellen was standing on her feet, scrutinizing the fields. Thinking she was on safe grounds, she stepped outside. Others followed her example. One step, two steps. Almost everyone was outside now, searching for wounded, mourning the dead ones, assessing the damages.
-It's safe, Hope. You can get out now! Ellen shouted happily. They retreated!
She had enough time only to finish her sentence, and then it exploded. The earth was alive, the soil was boiling, and the landmines were doing their jobs. While we were busy to hide from their attacks, they understood they should not waste time with us. The thick dust of that tormented land almost made me blind. The air was saturated with tiny particles of the exploding land. I could feel their bitter taste in my mouth and smell them as they filled my nostrils. Barely breathing and coughing hard, I managed to get to Ellen. She was still alive, but I couldn't tell how.
-Go find Ted, she moaned. No, please, let me talk. Go and tell him I love him. Promise me.
That was it. Her body was severely injured, and the smell of burnt flesh was in the air. She died with her now empty eyes searching for an answer to a mute question that would never be asked. As the blue sky mirrored in her eyes I had to make an effort to remember that the mutilated body I was holding was once a lively girl, dancing and flirting and gossiping like any other; beautiful and elegant like a gentle swan slipping on a silvered lake. I was never like her. I always preferred to keep it all to myself; my joys and sorrows were carefully locked inside my heart. My thoughts and opinions were hidden inside my head. After seeing poor Ellen dying in my arms, I knew that I couldn't keep myself silent for too long. They were so cruel to do that to us. How could we ever be normal people again, after all we had witnessed here? I figured it out as I closed her eyes that we could never be the same.
I wasn't sure why I was doing what Ellen had asked me. It didn't match my survival plans, and believe me, finding someone in that hell was a suicidal mission. She was dead; there was no need to fulfill the death wish of some silly girl. But I felt I had to. It was my duty, and I had to do it right, because somewhere deep in my heart, I would have loved someone to do the same for me. I felt that if I was respecting my promise someone would also respect my wish when time would come.
At first I thought I should go straight away and search for Ted on the battlefield. He was tall with a majestic posture. I never understood how that little and fragile Ellen could find the courage to approach this man who seemed so inaccessible with his dark eyes and a face which reminded me of those old fashioned cowboys. It wasn't my business, but I realized that after all, Ellen had the courage to come and join him willingly there whilst I tried to avoid being enlisted as much as I could. It was not the fact that I was a coward, because I knew I certainly wasn't, but I did not want to get involved in something that I considered useless. But I was there and I wanted to do as much good as possible. So after I considered things more properly I decided I should wait for the night, and sneak to the place where Ted regiment was fighting.
I realized quickly that simply sneaking without saying a word would bring the heavy suspicion of treachery among my fellows, or even worse, desertion. So I asked my captain if I could go to announce Ted Barrels that his fiancée died that afternoon. She looked at me suspiciously at first, but I was lucky enough for Hera to overhear our conversation.
-I could go with her, she said, with her eyes swimming in tears.
I must add now that our captain was very fond of Hera, for the simple fact that they were sisters.
-Very well then. Be careful, you two! she added, and I couldn't believe my eyes. That liquid which gathered in her inter corners seemed to be tears. My captain had a human side after all. As Hera later explained to me, she was touched by any tragic love story, even if she hated to admit it.
And so we went. Hera was the type of human who was very quiet, and that thing suited very much my own disposition of staying silent. We exchanged a couple of words about weather and we shared our predictions of how this war would continue, but other than that, we preferred to stay in the company of our thoughts only. When we were close to the battlefield I suggested that she could go home, but she insisted in staying with me. Was she afraid that I would run away? I couldn't tell then.
I asked here and there and I finally found Ted in his room. I knocked gently, and he opened the door. His mouth bloomed in a smile when he saw me, but when he saw my expression he understood. His lips curled down in an instant and he asked me with a dry voice:
-It happened today, didn't it?
-Yes, it did.
I surprised myself with the tone of my voice: very soft and gentle.
-I was with her. Her last wish was that I would come and tell you that she loved you more than everything else in the world.
He looked at me weirdly. His voice was angry:
-I didn't need you to say to me that she loved me!
I sighed, then I decided the best way to act was to put myself in his shoes.
-Of course she didn't need me for that. But it was her last wish, Ted, and I didn't want it to be wasted. She wanted me to come here and tell you that because...
I paused here. I noticed he was following my every word, paying attention to every bit I said.
-I don't know how to put it, but would you rather received a cold letter from them telling you that your "future partner" is dead, and would you rather read how they complained about losing another pawn in their games? Would you rather read the same robotic letter they send to everyone when someone is gone? Don't you prefer to hear this from someone who still cares, from someone who knew her and knew that she wasn't just your partner, the part of "the contract of marriage"? I knew she was you beloved, and I knew who she was, and maybe I care TOO much.
It was my voice's turn to start cracking. I wanted to put myself in his shoes, but I only glued myself into mine. However, I managed to reach his soft spot, and it was his turn to be gentle:
-Would you like a cup of tea?
-Yes, I would, I managed to say through little sobs.
Ted showed me a chair where I could sit, and then he went to the kitchen to fetch the promised tea. Meanwhile I calmed myself down, and when he arrived after a couple of minutes my voice was steady enough to thank him for his kindness. He looked puzzled.
-I am the cause of you crying, I am very sorry for that. But... you see...
I managed a smile as I continued:
-It's hard. It's so hard. You will get past it.
My left hand grabbed his.
-You must be strong.
I confess I had never seen in my life a man crying. It was quite a shock when he burst into tears, but I understood him. I didn't know what I was doing, but I felt he needed the proximity of another soul, so I gave him a hug as his tears were flowing freely on his cheeks. How much time had passed, I couldn't tell. It seemed like an eternity, but then he sighed heavily, and I knew it was over.
-Thank you, he whispered.
His eyes widened a little bit, and I could tell that he was a little ashamed of his behavior, but I knew he had nothing to be ashamed of.
-Would you like to talk? I asked carefully.
-I would love to.
He paused. I moved back to my seat, while he sat on his bed.
-I did not volunteer. You know, for war. It was only after I asked Ellen to marry me that I received the letter. I felt like everything felt apart that day. Was it possible, to have it all ruined in one single day; to be happier than any man alive and then to feel the most miserable of them all? I thought there was nothing worse than it.
His voice was calm now, but I could still feel his pain. I knew what would happen next in his story.
-And then Ellen came to me, telling me that she joined the army so she could be close to me. I yelled at her, begged her to stay home. But there was nothing I could do to stop her. She was so determined to be with me until the very end… and now she is gone. There is no life for me after this war ends. And it's all my fault, Hope, it's entirely my fault.
I nodded. I knew how it felt, to fight aimlessly for reaching a target which might not exist anymore. But I didn't want to disagree with him. Telling him that he shouldn't feel guilty at all about it was useless.
-How about you, Hope? How did you end up here?
I feared that question so much. It was like applying salt on a fresh wound. But I had to be honest with him, so I began:
-I wanted to save my brother. He is just sixteen… At the beginning he was to young to enlist, but the things went worse and he received the letter sooner than we expected. I did things that I am not so proud of… only to keep him alive.
I stopped. It was to painful to remember. His eyes were carefully watching me, and I decided to continue:
-At some point I couldn't do it anymore. Then I went to the recruiting center and obtained a bargain: me instead of him.
A bitter smile curled my lips.
-You know what hurts too much? He was wanted so badly to be a part of this. This hell… I can't wait to leave it, to be finally over, but we wanted it with all his heart. And now it's useless. All these months I had a target: to survive and go back home to him. Guess what? I can't go back to him because he is not there. He is here. Not on this battlefield, but somewhere on the front. My mother's letter arrived this morning, I added.
He came closer to me.
-I don't care anymore. All I ever wanted is gone now. I want to leave it. Coming here, it's useless now. I can't fight for something I can't believe in. I believed in protecting Tommy, but I failed.
He hugged me and I started to cry fiercely.
-You can leave if you want.
His voice was steady and determined. I stared at him in disbelief.
-Do you really want to go?
-Yes, I do.
-Do you know the risks?
-I know the risks, I repeated mechanically.
-I'll show you then.
We waved goodbye, then I was all alone. I struggled to find my way in the darkness. I had no light, fearing I might be discovered. I knew what happened with deserters. Nothing enjoyable, that's for sure. I confess I expected to be more excited about it. I believed that was I wanted, to finally be free. When I heard the noise of steps very close to me I understood that perhaps that wasn't the proper way of conquering my freedom. I carefully considered if I should run or surrender. I heard that surrenders had an easier death, so I decided in favor of my last option.
At least the cell in which I was imprisoned was decent. I would have hated to spend the last days of my life in a miserable room. My trial was scheduled that afternoon, so I wasn't surprised when I heard footsteps approaching my place. The surprise consisted in the visitor.
-Ted! I shouted happily.
His hands grabbed mine. He was holding them so tight that I thought he would have broken my bones if he continued that way until the end of our meeting.
-You look like you are the one who will die, I said with a sad smile on my face. I will die, won't I?
-Hope never dies, he answered. His grip relaxed a little bit; it was more pleasant now.
-Hope dies last, I corrected him with a bitter voice.
-I won't lie to you, Ted sighed. They want to settle an example, you know, for the others who might have the same idea. I thought about something yesterday.
His face turned a little bit paler, but he seemed determined.
-What is it?
-What if I told them that I persuaded you to do that. That it wasn't your idea, it was mine. It was my fa…
-Shhhht, are you out of your mind? I whispered to him, looking to see if somebody was watching us. Don't be silly, the only thing that would happen is that they might punish you too. And it wasn't your fault, Ted. I wanted it.
-No, no "but", I interrupted him. Let me tell you one thing. You are not guilty for Ellen's death either. Listen to me, I won't make it until tomorrow, and I might never see you again.
My lip started to tremble, and a funny feeling was spreading across my body.
-Please, listen to me. My voice was shaking but I made an effort to make it sound intelligible for Ted. I need you to find my brother and tell him that I love him dearly. Ask him to have mercy for my... actions. I don't think he will ever forgive me… But I love him anyway. And please…
Now I started to cry hard.
-If you can… Go home and tell mother and father that I love them too. Even a letter would do, as long as it's written by your hand. I know they will forgive me. Can you do this thing for me, Ted?
-I can, and I will.
-Thank you, I whispered softly, and our fingers entwined. Thank you, Ted.
He kissed the tips of my fingers and told me:
-Don't waste this chance. You can do something wonderful with you last moments. You might not die after all.
I looked a little bit puzzled. What was he thinking about? His eyes looked deep into mine, as if he was saying: "Figure it out. I can't explain this, because it's too dangerous"
I knew I would die as soon as I entered the room. All the faces were hostile. With this occasion I discovered that it was Hera the one who told them about my "plans". She happened to overhear my conversation with Ted that night, and warned them about my leaving. When they caught me I wondered how on earth they were so quick, and now I had the answer. They accused me of being a traitor, and from their point of view they were right. I think I would have indeed been a traitor if I went to the other side and sell them our strategies. I just wanted to have a choice, but that didn't match their plans. What I found ironic was the fact that the one they praised so much for honesty was in fact the real traitor.
My last hours were spent in an empty silence. I was almost grateful when they took me outside. I was to be hanged in public. They wanted me humiliated. I had other plans concerning my death though. The priest was murmuring his prayers while the hangman prepared me for my end.
-Do you want to express your last wish? asked the priest with a hurried voice. It was clear that he wanted to finish it quickly.
I had nothing to lose now. They wanted an example? I would give them something they will never forget.
-I would like to. There are only a couple of words left to speak.
He looked a little bewildered, but he let me continue.I took a deep breath; then I began.
-I want you to remember that in the end of the day, we are all humans. No matter which side we are, we are still humans. We are unique, we are not the same, so don't fight for equality because it's a waste of time.
I caught a glimpse exchanged by the priest and the hangman. I looked straight ahead, and I found Ted in the crowd. Approval was shining in his eyes, so I continued.
-We will never be equal. We can't be. But we can learn to accept it, and live with it. Don't fight for others causes, fight for you own. Are they worth it, thousands of lives being taken away? Remember the ones who had died: enemies and friends. They all had mothers who weep over their tombs, fathers whose hearts are broken, loving sisters and good brothers, lovers, wives and husbands. How many children will remain orphan after this massacre? I know each of you witnessed the death of somebody, and perhaps you death may be witnessed here. So stop it while you …
I lost my air. The priest himself pushed away the little chair I was standing, and the rope encircled my neck tighter and tighter. Within my last seconds I could hear that my words caused stirring among the soldiers. I could hear they were angry and sad. I could hear people crying, mourning their lost ones. Desperately looking in Ted's eyes, I mutely begged him to tell them that I love them all. Before I rolled my eyes over in pain, I knew that he understood. His eyes were reassuring, just like they were the other day. He was right. They wanted to settle an example of me and they did, but not in the way they wanted to. And I was more fortunate than I thought I was. As my eyes were searching for the light and my feet left the ground, my body felt as heavy as a feather. I had not failed my cause, I understood that clearly. Perhaps my body didn't survive the war, but my conscience did, my words nesting in every soul who listened to me. They would be alive for ages, and maybe they would change something. I was a survivor, and now I was finally going home.