Dulce et Decorum Est
The children rushed into the dusty yard while their moms assembled together in a nervous knot under the shade of a tree. The recent unrest did not change their routine; they gathered daily to gossip and pass the time. The children needed their exercise, the women needed to feel like their world wasn’t falling apart.
“Are they going to drop food today?” Gharam asked the crowd, she didn’t look like she missed many meals.
“You never know. Sometimes they come; sometimes they don’t. You can’t rely on them, gotta fend for yourself.” Badram scratched in the dirt with her foot, as she complained about the humanitarian aid that was periodically tossed in the yard. Always in brick red, she’d grown lean since her children left. Her skin hung on her like a robe.
“Anyway, you have to be grateful for what you can get.” Sirah was always grateful; she could find the bright side of a wooden nickel. She was round and petite, all the children loved her, she was easy to hug.
“Aye-uh.” Mina’s assent was all she ever said.
The women looked up suspiciously when Najwa strolled across the yard towards them. Najwa wasn’t really one of them; they tolerated her because she got information from the other side of the wall. Najwa liked to say “some of her best friends were from the yard”.
“Did you hear about Hanan?” She shook with eagerness, when she asked questions. She couldn’t wait for a reply, “She got taken last night.” The women froze. Each head turned toward Najwa, kidnappings were getting more common; but no one had heard Hanan was missing.
“Are you sure? Maybe she went visiting.” Even Sirah, ever hopeful, knew that Hanan had not gone visiting.
“I saw her place. Everything was thrown around. There was blood on the floor.” Najwa paused for effect, “It stank of Raiders.”
The women gathered up their children with their eyes. More and more women were being taken by bandits scaling the fence; each of them knew the danger.
“How long do they expect us to keep living like this? You can’t raise a family in a war zone. Between the War Hawks and Raiders we aren’t safe day or night.”
“Ay-uh” Mina interrupted Gharam’s wailing.
“All the men disappeared over six months ago. We can’t protect ourselves.”
“Can’t we?” Badram’s question drowned in the rising din of women wailing for god to have mercy on them.
“Animals are restless.” Mildred didn’t look up from her sewing table in the kitchen. Honed by years of motherhood, her ears were sharp.
“Yup.” Clarence pushed away from the supper table and looked out the window. “From the look of it, I’d say a storm’s rolling in.” He cleared his plate off the gingham table cloth and set his nearly clean dish in the sink; he wasn’t one to waste food. “I better get the animals in before it hits.” He kissed Mildred on the back of the neck as he walked out of the room. She pretended to swish away his attention, pleasing them both.
“Tell that daughter of yours to get her hind-parts in here.” Mildred called after him, she repeated herself to be heard over the slapping of the screen door bouncing against the jam.
Molly came in directly. She was bright and fresh as a farm girl should be. Her brown minehaha braids bounced on her back as she washed her hands in the sink.
“Sorry I’m late Momma. Bessie’s new calf was looking peaked. I wanted to make sure she was latching on before I left them. What’s for supper?”
Mildred nodded, but didn’t look up from her handwork. “A letter came for you.”
Molly tried to act nonchalant, “Is it from Maryland?”
“Yes.” Mildred knew what the fat envelope from the US Naval Academy meant, but she also knew what it meant.
“Can I have it?”
Mildred slid a corner of the thick ecru envelope out from under the newspaper. “Go get your father first.”
Molly sprinted out of the kitchen. Mildred heard the chickens scatter as she raced through the yard. She sat picking a crooked seam out of her new dress, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” She said as she put down her sewing. She used both her careworn hands to smooth her grey hair into place.
Clarence, arm and arm with Molly, walked into the kitchen. “Well, let’s see it! I can’t wait to tell everyone down at the VFW that my daughter is going to Annapolis.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself Clarence.” Mildred warned with a look also honed by many years of marriage. She handed the envelope to their only daughter. Molly turned and handed it to Clarence.
“You do it Dad. I can’t.”
Clarence solemnly handed it back. “You better toughen up, Midshipman.” He walked over and put his hand on Mildred in the same spot where he had kissed her before. They watched Molly slit open the envelope and unfold the contents.
“I’m in. I report first week of July for Plebe Summer.”
“Hot Damn! Hot Damn!” Clarence danced across the kitchen grabbing Molly by the waist and twirling her around the linoleum. Their two-step was punctuated by the first thunderclap of the storm.
“Better save your partying till after chores are done.” Molly and her father hurried out ready the farm for the storm. Molly didn’t miss that her mother had said “Your partying”.
The first explosion rocked the yard and the women clung to each other, then scattered to find their children. Most were huddled together against the wall. Each mother cooed to their children and counted heads, searching. The children trembled despite their mother’s reassuring touches.
“We have to fight back.” Badram tried to rally the women.
“Easy for you to say.” Gharam snapped, “Your children are grown. Go fight if you want, but leave us out of it.”
“We are safe as long as we do what we’re told and don’t step over the line.”
“Is that how you want to live? Are you happy just being safe? I want more than safe. I want freedom to live without fear.”
“Badram, we want to, really we do, but we have to think first. Who would look after our children if something,” Sirah choked on the thought, “bad happened? God forbid.”
The wind picked up and dust swirled around the yard making it hard to see. The brown motes obscured the wall and their path home. A second bomb went off and the women and children screamed.
“Najwah, will you help me?”
“Badram, it’s not like you can just mount an attack. You have no supplies. You have no soldiers. Even if I was the type to fight, I’d play the side that’s going to win. You have no plan. You cannot win. Plus, they treat me pretty well on the other side. If I fight with you what can I go back to?”
Badram spat out, “Traitor.”
“I call it smart. It keeps me alive.” Najwa hurried off, steadying herself against the increasing wind by skirting the wall. Within moments she disappeared into the cloud of dust.
The women chided Badram to follow them back to their homes. Mina and Gharam gave up and herded their children together, urging them homeward. Each woman followed by a hurried single file line.
Sirah pleaded, “Live to see tomorrow.”
“I will live to fight tomorrow.”
The guards entered the yard and began shouting.
“Why do you shout at us?” Badram shouted back. “We don’t know what you’re saying. Go Home! That’s all we want is for you to GO HOME.”
Sirah panicked, called for her children to follow; they ran pell-mell through the open gate. Badram eyed the other women with disappointment as she entered the housing unit. The guards locked it behind her. She shrugged off their looks and retired to her room. Najwah was right, she conceded, she had no plan. She settled down for the night and tried to think above the sound of exploding bombs.
The first flash of lightning, Mildred stood at the sink looking out the window. The power blinked out. Lightning flashed again, Mildred sat in her chair, head in her hands. The dishes shook in the cupboard when the ensuing thunder rolled overhead. Another flash of light, Clarence came in the door dripping with rain.
“Sky just opened up.” He groped along the counter for a dish towel. He wiped his face. He waited for the next burst of lightning before he moved to Mildred’s side. The strobed light showed him kneeling and embracing the seated Mildred. The thunder paused, but they still whispered to each other.
“You have to let ‘em go, you know it.”
“I’m not going to stop her, don’t worry.”
“She needs more from you than that. She needs you to be happy for her, and proud.”
“I am not going to be happy that my baby is going into the Navy. You know where she’ll end up.” Mildred sobbed once, then stifled her tears.
“You can cry all you want once she’s gone. Until then pull yourself together, for her sake.”
“I know we raised them all to serve. But she could have been a vet, or a real doctor like her brothers. I support our service men, I do; I do. I send care packages with the church, I have a yellow ribbon on my truck, I voted for the president. But our own daughter, it’s not the same.”
The thunder crashed around them drowning out Mildred’s tears.
Lightning blazed again. Molly stood in the doorway. Her happiness ebbed, seeing her mother cry. She knew it was coming. She rehearsed what she would say, but she didn’t expect to have to say it so soon. It was easier in the darkness; she didn’t have to meet her mother’s eyes.
“Mom, I know it’s hard for you to give me your blessing on this. But you taught me to demand the best of myself. You know I want to be a Navy pilot. I want to serve my country. I am proud that I am being given the opportunity to do this. I want you to be proud of me too.”
“Do you know what you’re risking?”
“I know what I risk if I don’t.”
The pulsed back on, the kitchen looked naked and stark in the sudden electric light. Clarence stood between the two women, his back up against the wall. He looked from one to the other. More thunder shattered the silence. Mildred rose and walked out of the kitchen, heading for her bedroom. Clarence pulled two chairs from the kitchen table. Molly sat down automatically. More thunder hid the noise of Clarence’s chair on the wooden floor. He sat, elbows on the table, fingers interlaced, resting his chin on his knuckles.
“Well Darlin, I think your mother is a little upset right now.”
“Give her some time. She needs to process. I am thrilled you are going, couldn’t be more pleased with you. But you know I’d be thrilled if you told me you were going to clown school, as long as that’s what you really wanted. I could never deny anything to my favorite daughter.”
Molly smiled at the ancient joke. “I’m your only daughter.”
Molly fiddled with the salt and pepper shakers, the cool glass smooth against her fingertips. “I want her blessing, but I’m not going to wait around for it.”
Badram’s room shook with each explosion. It was nearly relieving when the housing unit was finally struck. Women and children screamed as debris rained down through the hole where the roof used to be. The gate, torn from its hinges lay on its side. Badram moved slowly through the wreckage, hindered by the alternating light and dark that followed each explosion. She found one of Mina’s children, the child’s side torn open, leaking blood and gore. She stood stone still when Mina approached. Mina kissed her baby on the forehead and then covered it with a rag.
“Aye-uh.” She said.
“That’s all you can say?” Badram trembled unable to comprehend Mina’s unflinching acceptance.
“No.” Mina drew herself up to her full height and looked down on Badram, shrinking at the sound of a seldom heard voice. “No, but what else is there to say? I can wail like Gharam, she has a reason to weep at least, she lost her larder. Now she can’t feed her children or herself. They‘ll starve. My daughter, there, can’t be replaced; but her loss doesn’t kill me. I’ll grieve when there is time, when I don’t have other children to look after. When god, or life, or whatever you want to call it acts: all you can say is yes. Aye-uh isn’t a blessing, it’s acknowledgement. Life will do what it does. Just like you, you will do what you will.”
“That’s right, I will do what I will.” Badram gathered herself together and strode purposefully to the gate.
“Aye-uh.” Mina watched her leave then moved her living children out of the worst of the rubble.
Badram couldn’t accept what had happened. She couldn’t accept that Mina, who never hurt another, never even said an unkind word, could loose a child so swiftly without justice. During the night Badram had hatched her plan. She would follow Najwa out of the yard and into the guard’s fortress. She would find a leader and then blow them all to kingdom come. But her anger wouldn’t wait for bomb building or stealth. It demanded retribution. For Mina’s child, for Hanan, for all that was wrong with their world. She stood at the former threshold of the gate and vowed to kill the next guard she saw. Smoke and flames shrouded the path. Badram waited and prepared herself for revenge and for death.
A bolt of lightning slammed into the ground just outside the kitchen, shaking Molly and Clarence out of their chairs. Ozone snaked through the kitchen window Clarence opened to inspect the damage.
“It hit the sycamore, sheared it in two. We should make sure it won’t fall on the house.”
He and Molly braced themselves against the slap of rain; just steps into the yard were soaked to the skin. Small flames illuminated a large section of the tree, broken through the coop.
“Fire.” Molly screamed at her father, she had to cup her hand over her mouth to stop the feeling of drowning in the increasing rain.
“Right.” Clarence ran to the barn and grabbed the hose.
Molly moved toward the coop, afraid all the hens would be dead. She could see that many were hiding in the branches of the massive tree limb. She assumed the branch tore open the coop as it fell, allowing them to escape. Her father began to spray the tree. Steam billowed. Out of the steam emerged a hen’s head. It looked at Molly, irritation evident in the tilt of its neck.
“You poor thing, are you ok?” Molly leaned toward the bird. She was taken entirely by surprise when it burst out of the steam and leapt at her face pecking and kicking. Molly staggered backwards trying to fend it off with her hands, she fell sharply on her ass in the mud. At the same time her father deftly grabbed the hen and wrung its neck, tossing the limp body into the darkness.
“I can take care of this.” He helped her to her feet. “Go inside and clean yourself up.”
Clarence put out the fire. He tied a tarp over the remnants of the coop, hoping the birds would have the sense to stay out of the rain. He put his dog in the yard. Stroked her head and explained to her that she was to kill polecats and possums, not poultry.
The faithful dog, who never had a name, took up watch over the coop. She didn’t seem to mind the rain, she seemed to understand her task.
When he went back in the kitchen he found his wife doctoring their daughter’s cuts and scratches.
“-and the damn chicken attacked me.” They looked at Clarence.
“Don’t mind me.”
“I could have sworn that it was mad at me.” Molly finished.
“Well, I guess you never can tell what an animal will do.” Mildred dabbed the blood at Molly’s hairline. “My brother was bitten by our hog, Baby. Uncle Mac raised that runt, bottle fed it and everything. One day, when it was about six, it hauled off and bit him. Nearly took half his arm off.”
The women quieted down while Mildred wiped the last smudges of dirt and blood from Molly’s face. Thunder churned, but it was finally in the distance. Mildred reached to pluck a chicken feather out of Molly’s braids. Molly grabbed her mother’s hand before she could pull it away. She pressed her it against her cheek, held the palm against her fresh scratches.
“I promise I’ll be careful.”
Mildred used her shoulder to rub the tears off her cheek.
“It’s for the best, I suppose. It’s not like you’re safe here on the farm. Look at what happened tonight. You could have lost an eye.”
Clarence rolled his own eyes at his wife’s hyperbole. Molly embraced her mother. Mildred tried to smile over Molly’s shoulder, she prayed, “Insha’Allah.”
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED