The firing had stopped hours before, yet here they were huddled behind the broken wall like a couple of kids scared of the monsters beneath their beds. Ari craved for a cigarette but feared that the light of the matchstick might give his position away. He looked at the road, bodies torn apart strewn like an angry child’s victim. It was curious how he could no longer smell the rotting carcasses. Perhaps his mind was protecting him, a cocoon to encircle him from the brutality of the world, or perhaps it had simply become overloaded to the point of a constant numbness.
Beside him Serge started to cough. Alarmed, Ari stifled his cough with a strategically placed hand on Serge’s mouth. Serge jerked violently, his eyes streaming but Ari didn’t let go. Soon the coughing fit passed.
“Thanks”, Serge gasped, wiping away the tears from his cheeks. Ari nodded in understanding. Discretion was their only weapon and without that they would be dead in minutes.
Ari looked at Serge’s face and remembered how beautiful his smile was in the photograph he had shown. But war is a petty goddess who demanded it as an offering. Serge got hit by shrapnel on the second day of bombings and his face got the brunt of it. But instead of being relieved of duty, he was patched up, like broken china with quick glue, and sent back with the next dispatch.
And that was how Ari met Serge, with a blood soaked bandage on one side of his face, scared shitless but yet somehow determined to fight for the cause. The cause…, what was it? Ari had some difficulty recalling it. He remembered how he almost fanatically enlisted in the army to fight for the cause. But now today, that cause was a blurred memory from the past. He could not think what he fought for, only that he has to fight till it gets over one way or another.
“I think I can see some movement,” Serge whispered.
“Look closely, top floor of the building to your right,” Serge answered.
Ari put on his glasses and squinted. At first he saw nothing. Then slowly what he thought of was an house plant moved. It was the sniper in camouflage.
“So? What’s the plan? ” inquired Serge.
“We wait for the night to fall and then we move.”
Serge let out a disgruntled moan. Ari thought of saying something but stopped. This was not a time to fight over trivialities. Ari had watched his fellow soldiers one by one being devoured by the beast of war. It had hunted them, slowly, painfully, gnawing with its draconian teeth, morsel by morsel, till it had swallowed them, whole skin, meat and bones.
Now only the two of them remained. Had they met under different circumstances, would they still have been friends, Ari wondered. Perhaps not, Serge was too loud and bawdy for his tastes. He probably would have cursed him under his breadth and moved on. But war has a strange way of throwing together complete strangers in a grinder and letting it rip full throttle until it was one thick mixture.
“You know, my mother always dreamt of visiting this city,” Serge spoke softly, breaking Ari’s reverie. “To her, it was the ultimate pilgrimage.”
“What happened to her?” asked Ari.
“War” he sighed. “She worked as a part time teacher to gather money for the pilgrimage, when one Monday morning a bomb decided to take her for its own.”
Ari looked around and felt glad somewhat that Serge’s mother never got to see this city in its current state. Everything went away with the first air raid. The temples, the people and the warmth. Now all that remained were soldiers and dogs having a lavish feast amidst these crumbling walls.
Night fell and they decided to make a move. They had an upper hand of knowing the sniper’s location and with a careful eye on the sniper they crouched out of their hiding place and made way towards the base of the building. They moved in quiet precision. They were almost at the base. Serge looked at Ari and beamed crookedly at him.
Suddenly blood spurt out Serge’s chest, his smile disappearing as he stumbled and fell. Ari swiveled on the spot reflexively and hid behind the nearby car. Serge was lying in a pool of blood, moving feebly, lit dimly by the bent lamp post. Ari understood. There had to be a second sniper. It was all a ploy. To give away the position of one of the snipers so as to give them a false sense of security.
Serge was trying to reach around his neck. Ari tried to bring him behind the car but the sniper fired out a shot just missing him. Serge broke something, a small vial hanging like a necklace from his neck. He smashed it against the road and started rubbing the greyish powdery contents on the ground.
“Look Ma, we are here at last,” he said and then moved no more, his eyes looking at the stars above.
Ari stared at the corpse. He did not feel any sorrow nor any pain. All he felt was a sense of inevitability. He just lay there behind the car. The sun rose and set but Ari did not move. He kept on staring at the corpse. There were things that he would have traded happily just to step out of this diorama of death. Things, which he once held close to his heart, things which had defined him, shaped him and then become irrelevant to him. Like trinkets held dear by a child, tucked away in a box, hidden under the bed. In this continuous scream of nails scratching against metal, all he wanted, all he desired was a little bit of peace.
He remembered of all of sudden watching as a child Peter O’ Toole’s Lawrence calmly explaining, “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.”
The next morning he stood up with a final certainty and started walking. He was ready to feel the impact of the bullet on his chest like a hammer blow by a blacksmith. His face had a smile. The smile shared by soldiers and terrorists alike having lost the fear of oblivion.
But no impact came. The only thing that touched him was the cool morning breeze. His resolution broke as uncertainty and fear crept in. He had accepted death as his fate but this uncertainty shook him. He saw a glimmer of Hope and Hope being a treacherous mistress brought along with it the blood curdling fear of death. His walk changed to a sprint and he ran, ashamed, bewildered and afraid for his life, without looking back.
Perhaps, Lawrence was wrong. Perhaps the trick is minding the hurt, accepting it and then moving ahead making it a part of you.
The snipers on the other hand had been called off a night ago.