A little boy stares through barbed wire, wondering which direction his home is. He reaches out to rest his fingers between the rusted knots of wire but his watchful mother calls out to him to be careful. At the same time, a soldier patrolling nearby walks briskly up to him and pushes him back. “Listen to your mother” the soldier tells him not unkindly in shaky Tamil. The boy looks up along yards of camouflage material and searches the soldier’s face. “I want to go home” he says miserably. “I don’t like it here”
The soldier’s expression softens. He looks around awkwardly to see if anyone is watching and then quickly bends towards the boy. “I want to go home too” he says softly and pats the boy’s cheek. He straightens and clears his throat. “Go and play” he orders gruffly and strides away, the dark skin of his neck and hands glinting like his gun against the afternoon sunlight.
From a distance, the boy’s mother watches this exchange. She can’t hear what is being said, but tenses when the soldier bends towards her son. She is on her feet before she even knows it, her mouth open, ready to call out for help but chokes it off when she sees him pat her boy’s cheek and walk away. Relieved but still worried, she hurries towards the boy. This brief exposure to the appalling heat makes her curse softly and she takes up the long coils of her hair and expertly twists it into a knot against her head. She picks up the pace towards her little one.
There are so many stories going around, you don’t know what is true and what is false; what is exaggerated and what is made slight. In her opinion, the less you have to do with the soldiers the better – why take a risk? They stalk the boundaries of the camps, menacing, like prison guards, their guns firm in their hands, ready to be used at a moment’s notice. Sometimes she sneaks a look at their faces and is surprised to find that they are just children, not much older than her eldest girl. She pauses at the unbidden memory of her daughter; at the unexpected pain it brings, fresh and stinging.
She was 14 when she ran away from home to join the guerrillas. When they realized that they could not stop her, they forced themselves to be proud of her and her chosen cause. They visited sporadically at first but then got used to hearing next to nothing. Their daughter was gone. Vague news of her death wafted in and out of whispered conversation some years ago, and she ran, against the wishes of the family, to the massive graveyard reserved for guerrilla fighters. She could not find her daughter’s gravestone.
Now, she was no longer proud of the cause. The cause had become secondary to violence a long time ago. She was just tired of getting shot at from both sides. She was just tired of the monsters in their two different cloaks of camouflage. She was just. Tired. She didn’t know who to blame. She didn’t care. She just wanted to go home. But she was here instead, in a barbed prison guarded by boys with guns.
“Why are you sad?” her little boy asks, his own eyes dull with a silent sadness that makes him look older than his small years. She gathers him up in her arms and takes him back to their tent. She smoothes the hair away from his grubby little face and plants a kiss on his nose. His face wrinkles but he doesn’t move, enjoying the affection. “What did he say to you? Did he threaten you?” she asks anxiously. The boy shakes his head with difficulty reminding her to relax her hold on his face. “No Amma, he wants to go home too”.
Squinting against the sun, she searches for the soldier. He is standing some way away, watching the horizon, over the barbed wire, much like her son was doing a few minutes ago. She can only see his profile but she can tell he is young, like the others. Almost as if he can feel her stare, he looks at her and smiles shyly as their eyes meet.
She looks away.
He thinks about her a lot these days.
When he went back home after the war, he saw her and tried to speak to her but she backed away. His parents were a little way off, and even though he avoided their faces as they walked back into the house, he knew they were smiling.
There were fears he would marry this girl. He really believed he would. And in all her innocence, so did she. Even when he enlisted to join the army at his parent’s request, they skirted the issue, only looking at the war as an obstacle they would need to hurdle across, a period of time they would have to spend, achingly, away from each other.
They were children. They never talked about the things he would have to do. What she would feel about those things. Where their loyalties would ultimately lie. They had foolishly hoped to stay untouched from those things, as if it were all mutually exclusive.
And he had held on to that hope. Thinking about it with clearer eyes now, he can’t fathom why, but at the time, when he was flushed with victorious pride and anticipation on his way home, it didn’t seem odd to hope that even after everything that had happened in the last few months, she would be waiting for him. So, her reaction was, to say the least, unexpected.
The smooth dark skin that he used to caress in secret paled when she saw him. The eyes that used to speak soundless poetry to him now looked hunted as she searched desperately for an escape. The mouth that used to whisper love into his ears trembled, fearful. The feet that used to dance towards him now took her away from him.
He let her go. In that moment clarity slammed into him like shrapnel and stuck there. He understood. But still sometimes she creeps into his thoughts, a torturously bittersweet reminder of what his life could have held for him.
He rubs the sweat off his eyelids and forces himself back to the present. He blinks, suddenly tired, feeling a hundred years old. He hardens his grip on his T56. He’s used to the fear it strikes into the people he guards and sometimes wishes he could patrol with his hands empty, but knows he will feel naked without it.
He turns away from the barbed wire and what lies beyond it and looks at the mother with her young son. There’s something about her that reminds him of the girl back home. His girl. His girl no more. As she takes her child’s face in her hands, her hair comes undone, tumbling in polished ebony waves down her back. He feels strangely grateful for the glimpse of beauty in the midst of the ugliness around them all.
The child says something to his mother making her looks towards him and their eyes meet. It is shocking to him that the fear in her eyes reminds him again of home. Dispelling the thought, he smiles at her, but she looks away, leaving him alone with his dubious pride.
Originally published on Groundviews.