It was night and we sat together knees and shoulders beneath a blanket thin and tattered, scattered stars overhead, black sky, no moon, a small fire in a rusted metal can at our feet, Krin and I.
We sat alone in the bombed-out brick remains of what we assumed was a shoe cobbler’s, or so we hoped from the scattered brown soles and leathers, tools and aprons amongst the broken bricks, plaster, and shell casings glinting a dull gold in the weak firelight.
War has been here. War has been everywhere.
Krin leaned into me and I leaned into her. It was a dry penetrating cold out of the west, and the blanket and fire did little. Little was all that was left.
Beyond the jagged walls stood other broken remains of brick and wooden homes, townhouses, shops and cafés, each with its own dancing glow of refugee fires, and lines of ghost-like men moved silent through the ruins to the north, black shapes carrying black shapes of death in their hands.
No fires on the horizon but sometimes a thundering boom of many dying at once, of walls falling, of a shell ejected from a steaming turret and another shoved in place. It was war in our time, in the past, and it will be in the future. It was always and will always be this.
Krin’s hand in mine, a hand blackened by soot and small and no longer painted or ringed or delicate. She once mentioned Little Rock and also Boulder but we let those old selves slide as we moved west and north and back again, lost and free from compass arrows and time, moving with the waves of destruction and sources of food and warmth, little left and fading.
We once saw a roving buffalo herd across the tundra, and I thought maybe we’d come back from the brink as well. But I believe they’ll be here when we’re gone.
Krin pulled me closer and I pulled her and from the darkness and the bricks came the Selectman, his jaw lantern wide and stiff, head stubbled and cut from a dull shave, grit and exhaustion covering him in thick layers. He stood across the fire, coming into orange view, his rifle like a cane against the ground. I stood too, the blanket falling to Krin.
He said, “It’s time to go.”
“I won’t leave her behind.”
“They’re safer here.”
“No one is safe here.”
“If we don’t go, that will be true.” He picked up his long rifle and set it onto his shoulder. “You’ve been called.”
I turned to Krin and saw only an empty blanket and a rifle lying against a stone, a small almost empty bandolier beside it. My insides left me light and hollow, sick.
I turned to the Selectman, who waited, stared at what I’d stared at, his eyes narrowing, and I knew then I had woken from a dream brought on by suffering cold. I knew then where she was, and the only way back was to go. Go and find what waited for me where the thunder rolled and the bodies stank in ditches.
I picked up my rifle and bandolier and slung the tattered blanket across my shoulders and stepped carefully over brick and plaster, my breath streaming out as white mist while the small fires around me danced. I joined the Selectman in line with the black shapes of men moving into the dark with black shapes of death in their hands.
I moved north with them, Krin’s small blackened hand in mine, the tattered blanket slung across my shoulders, marching into the moonless night.
For more by James H Duncan, visit www.jameshduncan.com