A short story by Pamela Morris
“Ma-ma,” whimpered the balding child that clung to her side. The little girl’s frail body did not have the strength to spare a single tear. Mary had aged rapidly. For all of her twenty-five years she looked more like a sixty-year-old. This, her fourth child, had been born of a rape just like its dead siblings. “Ma-ma,” the baby exhaled and closed her eyes.
For days and nights beyond measure, gunfire had surrounded the two of them. Bombs exploded wildly from all directions, lighting the sky and shaking the crumbling stone basement walls. Smoke billowed from hillsides once green with trees, now brown with death. Mary had not seen real sunlight for weeks. She lowered her head, pressing it to her daughter’s and prayed for the end of the world. She prayed her child would soon die and suffer no more. She’d not even bothered to name her.
Mary lifted her head and looked at the cobweb and dirt-laden underbelly of the basement ceiling with a sharp intake of musty air. Silence rang in her ears and the little girl on her lap fussed. Gray light filtered around the windows covered with cardboard. The glass had remained miraculously intact, but it was safer not to let too much candlelight escape when night came. Someone might see. Someone might want something.
The thumping of jack books coming down the wooden stairs was unmistakable. Guns and helmets silhouetted against the day light they let stream in behind them. She didn’t care who they were or whose side they were on. It didn’t matter to her anymore, if it ever had to begin with. She held the delicate body of her daughter close. The child was all she had.
One of the soldiers knelt down near her, more patient than the rest who paced and poked through the piles of trash with the barrels of their rifles. He unfolded a dark, green blanket and draped it over her narrow shoulders. Mary cringed as his fingertips touched her bare skin. He smiled at the babe in her arm even as his fingers trembled. His touch was incredibly gentle on the head that seemed too large for the child's skeletal frame.
“Let’s get going, Private. We haven’t got all day,” one of the others grumbled.
He ignored his comrades, unscrewed the top of his canteen and held it out to Mary. “It’s okay. Take as much as you want.” She liked the sound of his voice; smooth and calm, not rough and angry. When Mary had swallowed all the canteen had to offer, she looked into his eyes. “It’s over,” the soldier said.
“Over?” her own voice croaked, still dry and raspy despite the drink.
“The war, it’s over.” He helped her to her feet, patiently waiting as she adjusted the child in her arms and led her out of the basement rubble that had once been topped by her family’s four-bedroom, two-bath dwelling.
War, the word sank and swam inside her head. Yes, the war. It had been so long she could barely remember a time in her life without the constant gun play, the earth shaking bombs and the screaming air-raid sirens. Any memory she’d known of a full belly or air free from the ripe scent of death and gunpowder had evaporated. As far as she knew, there had always been war, always. Whose side was she on? Whose side was she being taken to?
He led her to a truck waiting outside. Others like her sat inside. None seemed to understand. Eyes as blank and confused as she felt glanced back at her, if they looked at all, except for one. The oldest man Mary had ever seen smiled at her and made a place for her to sit beside him on one of the long benches. His skin was sun-baked to a leathery brown. Deep creases ran from the outer edges of his nose down to the sides of his mouth. Others bloomed at the corners of her eyes. Cracks, like the surface of the dried up town pond, covered his cheeks and forehead.
Through the town the small convoy stopped and started. Men in faded, ripped and unkempt uniforms ran into and out of each house that still remained even half intact. Most of the time the soldiers came back by themselves, but sometimes they’d add another person to one of the trucks.
All the while, the old man had a smile on his face so wide his teeth could be seen even in the feeble of the covered vehicle. “It’s what we’ve been praying for, ain’t it?” he asked her.
She thought back over the years. Her prayers for the death of herself and her children sifted through her mind with the constant hunger and thirst, the dirt, the stench, the tears, the pain. “What we have prayed for?”
“Yes,” the old man said. “Peace. We have all prayed so hard for peace and the end of this war.”
A desolate look was all she could offer him. But something stirred in the back of the truck; an almost aching feeling that fluttered around her heart and on the faces of the others that now all stared at the old man.
“Peace,” the mother whispered the word, trying it out as if for the first time.
A man, barely into his twenties and who sat by the old man’s knee, perked up. “Like a piece of bread. I understand. There’ll be food. We’ll have something to eat.”
“Well,” the old man began.
“No,” a little girl no more than ten shouted. “It’s like a piece of cloth. We’ll have clothes like the ones my mama made from the scraps she found at the dump.” The child was beaming with delight at this idea.
“Well,” the old man started to say.
“Piece,” a teenage girl, dressed in a cast off army coat said, “that’s when you put something together again, like a broken mirror.”
They all looked at the old man as if to ask who was right. His brown eyes scanned their faces and he seemed to realize something with a slow, growing sadness. The lines around his mouth grew deeper. His lips turned down. Tears slid from his eyes as he lowered his face into his ancient, gnarled hands. Every single person on the truck that bounced over the rubble strewn and pot-hole filled street watched, shell-shocked.
From what had seemed like sorrow, the man lifted his face from his hands, threw back his head and began to laugh, the perfect vision of madness. “Peace,” he chuckled, as he slowly gained control of himself in order to speak. He grinned. “Peace, my young friends, means the end of the world as we know it.”
Mary adjusted the child on her lap. She took in a slow, quivering breath that somehow felt lighter and fresher despite the acrid smoke that still wafted between houses and leafless trees. “The end of the world as we know it,” she murmured, comprehending.
The smile on the old man’s face spread to Mary’s and hers to the boy and the boy’s to the woman beside him until everyone in the back of the truck was filled with something Mary could not put into words.
“Hope,” the old man said as the truck stopped again. He drew a tender line down Mary’s daughter’s cheek. “That’s what we got us now, hope.”
A bomb-shattered building hulked outside the truck. Rumor had it that it had once been a school. Groups of soldiers began to swarm around the new arrivals. Mary looked at her little girl, now named Hope, and held her all the closer.
It had finally come; the end of the world as they knew it and for them it was a very wonderful end indeed.