“They gouge your eyes out first then your stomach. Roast you. Eat you. They get your strength, swallow your power. And they’re the lucky ones. Imagine if you’re not worth it, ugly, weak, a child, they just hack off a finger or a limb, anything to make you worse. Then you can’t get away. Have to stay and be laughed at.”
“No way. Can’t be true.”
“Of course it is. Look at any of those who’ve run here from outside. How many missing bits and pieces eh? Ask them. Go on. They’ll tell you. Who do you think told me?”
“And me too!”
“Ask them. Ask them.” Dovric’s drowsiness was studded with such fragments, the boys teasing. All eyes and sweaty tongues the boys faces swung with the ferocity of storm lanterns from her bedside.
“Ask them. Ask her. Look at her.” Crawling along without a leg. “Go on, ask what happened.”
Dovric never had. The multilated bodies, the sightless eyes of the mobile scarcely needed confirmation. Their grief hung suspended on weakened shoulders far more permanently than the endlessly slipping shawls or loosely fitting jackets. Bursts of starving reality feeding fattened rumors.
“We’re safe now,” she pJuniored. Safe now. They’re all gone. Yet, through her silent chant hummed the uneasy resonance of doubt. Familiar faces from the other side swam alive from beneath the pillow. Was Mr. Smith of the store really gone. Were the women who buy meal. Linda who they’d danced with the winter before or Sadie who’d carried the flowers with Dovric on that march through the town square. She ran the straggling line of fleeting shadows and staggering coats through her mind attempting to review eah form, place a face beneath the stoop of a back, or spot the pattern of a once familiar dress. Had they all gone? Did that really mean they were safe? Were the monsters who eat you really living just across the river disguised beneath familiar faces and neighbourly gestures? Recognition and rumor clashed in spasms of pain until sleep enfolded her in the desperate arms of exhaustion. The complexity of her questions, the sparseness of answers would be spread out and lain bare before her surgeon’s inquisitiveness over the next few days.
The rains thundered on and the river rose in proportion, to divide banks still further, threatening to wipe out their distinctions in a floating vengeance off debris and careless rubble.
Unlike Dovric, their parents and many others, Marlene and YoungJed’s two sons Scottyboy and Little Jim Bob were far more prepared, less surprised, by the onslaught from the mountains.
Seeking only the best for them and long accustomed to ignoring traditional divisions, Marlene had willingly allowed them mix with whom they pleased. They were also bright and Marlene even toyed with the idea of sending them further south to a good school and maybe, if the farm went well, one of them to university. A generation later Marlene appeared to be fullfilling her father’s ambitions in reaching across boundaries to grasp at the flutter of further advancement. They have as much right as anyone she argued, equally encouraged by the opportunities at rubbing noses in it let them call her what they liked, she wasn’t going to sacrifice her son’s future just to salve her own conscience or the righteous demands of those from her own culture. YoungJed happily agreed. They weren’t alone. There were always mixed families struggling the tightrope. Stealing the best of both worlds, grumbled some, ostracised from everything sulked the families inolved, from a position of more delicate clarity.
Scottyboy and Little Jim Bob were all too aware of their position, the shaded eyes of their mother’s defiant instructions from birth. School made it clearer. Their solution to the unaccaptability of their heritage was to excell together at every challenge. Unconsciously refusing the isolated stocism of their father they fought to be accepted, sharply aware that excellence would always be eagerly acclaimed by someone. In the classroom their top marks banished masters more disparaging remarks to the extent they were heralded as future flag bearers for the school when they travelled to greater heights in the outside world, further south. On the playing fields they forced themselves upon the townies form the start and their thundering shoulders quickly marked enough scores to keep them in place: no easy removal to the culchies. The theoritical outcasts Scottyboy and Little Jim Bob fought for recognition, to banish the sins of their fathers.
With growing political unease their ties were further strained, more desperately reinforced. They were among the first to join the defense league, a handfull of young men and boys who “would refuse to be over run by those northern hooligans.” So, as events heated gently to a boil while grandparents finally deserted and their parents stubbornly stayed out of loyalty to the land and dead ancestors, their sons secretly oiled ancient shotguns and went shooting rabbits on a Sunday morning. “We don’t need any more!” Marlene protested as they handed two dead ones on the kitchen table. “I don’t know what you think we are. One now and again is fine but every Sunday.”
The boys continued their practice, but stopped bringing the rewards home.
Jimmy trained the raggled bunched as they wandered around on marchs shouted at by Seanie. They’d all do anything for Jimmy. Older, handsome, with a girlfriend and a good future in his father’s factory, he was the empthany of what they were eager to stand for. Fluid tongue and bright eyes wound spells as he patiently explained their role, their loyalties.
Despite what the league thought to be meticuloous preparations the Northern onslaught took the boys by surprise, shaking both their stomachs and heads into a cocktail of panicky confusion.
The slaughter of rabbits before lunch on a Sunday gave few hints of the required response to the mayhem rattling across their front door. After ritually uncovering and greasing their weapons they spent the first day clutching the farm, ready to defend, shaking in the anxiety of uncertainity while their parents huddled inside cursing their reluctance to having send the boys to safety earlier.
“Sssh” was all Marlene said as YoungJed attempted remorse. “Sssh. As soon as we can. We’ll get them out of here.”
“And you’ll go with them” he promised. She gripped his hand in response, a loving cringe which refused desertion.
Their parents thought the childrens faces were flushed with fright and hushed them inside like flies.
“Stay back!” YoungJed warned. “We’re keeping out of this. Won’t come here. Not our business.”
His sons swore at such shortsightness, debating in whispers their duties: stay and defend or cross over and join the others in a stronger position? Later on they eased their way back outside and risked a glance down the emptying road, over the town. Hiding will get us nowhere they reassured each other, pointedly avoiding the blame they unleashed on their father. “First place they’ll come.” said Scottyboy, the oldest, after a while. He quickly retracted spotting Little Jim Bob’s questioning fear. “Or maybe not. Maybe father’s right.” Little Jim Bob calmed. “But we better be ready.” his brother added in mutual encouragement.
“Yeah.” Little Jim Bob repeated. “Be ready.” He thought about it further. “Won’t come here.” The words issued faintly, lacking the reassurance of his father’s brusk retort.
Where were the others? What were they doing? Should they join up? The original plan of meeting behind the church loomed ridiculous as mortars spun skyward across the river. Could they even get to the other bank? From the smothering breath of damp hay, the childishness of their intentions spurred heated frustration.
Prowling their own land, scouting for intrusion, the first day pased into the glow of the night fires. Supper mumbled they slipped back outside “to check the animals.”
“Now’s our chance!” Scottyboy spurted suddenly.
“Come on. We’ll get over in the old flat boat, beat up behind and find Jimmy. Nothing’ll happen here tonight and we’ll be back before dawn if we’re not wanted.”
“Do you think ... I mean should we stay?” Little Jim Bob sought a shield for his anxiety, the potential distancing of parental security. “What about the parents? Should we leave them?”
Fighting his own indecision Scottyboy grew determined. “No. Come on! They’ll be ok for the night. We got to find out what’s happening. Best way to protect us all and we’ll be back before they know we’re gone.”
Gazing through his older brother’s shadow Little Jim Bob nodded unseen. “Suppose.” He wiped his nose with a dirty hankerchief. The faint smell of his mother’s washing powder stroked saddening memories. “Maybe Jimmy’s not there ... then what?”
His younger brother’s stubborness always threatened to strangle Scottyboy’s rasher confidence. The eldest was born to lead, the younger to temper overgrown confidence. “Well we don’t know do we, and won’t.” Across the yard, through the blurring windows they could hear their parents muttering in the upstairs bedroom.
“We’ll wait until they’re asleep.” tempted Scottyboy.
“No one is sleeping tonight,” Little Jim Bob told him sullenly.
Half an hour later they had progressed no further.
“If we don’t go now it’ll be too late.” Little Jim Bob finally concended.
“Are you right so?”
The door slided awake shakily between nervous fingers. The gravel of the yard tingled beneath trading feet. Each step seemed to awaken a thousand echoes. Constantly pausing to watch for a suspicious movement from upstairs it took ages to reach the silent ploddiness of damp soil.
“Right! Come on. Run now and we’ll be back before they notice.” A sense of duty drew them out of the safety net and up onto the trapeze they were still too young to understand. Having made a move their hesitance was suddenly twisted into a desire to get it over with and return as soon as possible to the security of home.
The night clung like wet dough as they struggled blindly past the coal cellar, down to the river and the old fishing boat, pJunioring it wouldn’t leak.
Soaked, salty perspiration layering into icy mist they scrambled upwards, heroic cravings diminishing rapidly as home wallowed in the fog and the town ahead reflected grimly, a mass of eerie shadows fingering the night sky, helplessly pleading from the bowels of smoldering flames. The oars splashed endlessly. They ducked their heads at each crash half expecting the snap of a bullet in reply. But there were larger fish to catch that night.
Panting they waded across up the slippery bank to recover earth. Fingers clasped their shotguns tighter. “They’re ok are they?” Scottyboy asked.
“The guns. Not wet are they?”
“Don’t think so. Not inside anyway.”
“We’ll try Jimmys first.”
They were whispering together, unaware of who was planning what, what was happening where and all too aware that none of their preparations had envisioned the reality, that they had never really believed that all the stories of horror would come true: how brave defiance is, how clear cut sides are when glazed with the aura of myth.
“Come on then.”
The outskirts were quite. Dark. Electricity was off. The lights smashed. Everyone hiding. Or already gone. Shouts escaped outwards from where they sensed the centre to be. Broken glass shattered the night blending in with the faint unresting cackle of creeping flames. Smoke tingled the boys nostrils. It wasn’t the faint sootiness of winter fires, a more arid taste, acidic with the ashes of objects they’d never smelled burning before.
Fortunately, they could avoid the centre on thir approach to Jimmy’s house. Less happily, once they’d found it, they didn’t know how to proceed.
“That’s his window.”
“Do you think he’s there.” Little Jim Bob’s foot struck a can. It rattled down the cobbled side street.
Scottyboy dragged him back against the wall. “Fool!”
Footsteps clattered along the main street nearby. They snuggled further down the alley into the grime. Across the narrow lane, scarcely out of reach, Jimmy’s house hung above them unacknowledging.
Little Jim Bob’s younger impatience finally got the better of their indecision; besides, his legs had become cramped and he had to move. “Should we knock or throw a stone or something?”
“Do you think so? Maybe it’s not worthwhile and we should turn back.”
Considering the temptation all his younger brother finally concluded was: “After all this?”
Scottyboy knew he was right, that pride would allow no retreat despite feeling frozen and increasingly frightened. It was too late. A machine cracked all too close; a voice hailed; more glass earthword bound.
“Maybe they’ve gone.” Little Jim Bob mused. The cramp in his legs was creeping unbearably towards his thigh.
They remembered the fleeing column and considered the possibility. Maybe it wasn’t too late yet. Pride could still be disguised by ignorance and the bavery of attempt.
“Maybe.” Scottyboy agreed.
“But what do you think?” insisted his brother, anxious for an executive decision.
“Come on!” Scottyboy fumbled on the ground for his shotgun. Little Jim Bob tugged his sleeve in guidance. “Come on!” his brother whispered again. “We’ll go back.”
Teeth clenched they hoped the boat was waiting. They were both pJunioring. A foot scuffled too loudly as they neared the street. They halted, wheezing as they tried no to breath. A sharp click bit the air, quickly disguised by a fresh outbreak of gunfire from closer to the centre. Moving away from it they rounded a corner and prepared to sprint the last fifty meters to the boat. Scottyboy, going first, choked as something pointed stuck in his gut. Little Jim Bob was too close to back away. Thumbling into his brother’s broad back they both fell noisily.
They winched, gathering into a single ball.
“Could have shot you! What the fuck are you doing creeping around like that. And where have you been?”
Seanie liked to consider himself Jimmy’s right hand man, making up in bullying confidence the vision he lacked when aiming straight at a scuttling rabbit. Younger than Jimmy but still older than the two brothers he always commanded respect. “What the fuck!” he repeated. The brothers were trembling too fast to notice Seanie’s own shake.
All three of them were huddled on the ground, edging themselves back around the corner to the safety implied by the gloom of Jimmy’s back alley.
“What the fuck! Could have shot you if I hadn’t been saving the ammunition for emergencies.”
“Sssssh!” urged Little Jim Bob.
“Jimmy’s been looking of you.” Seanie insisted once they’d regained the deepest shadow. “Well pissed off he was. Half the bloody rabbit squad, as he called you, ran off just like that ...” spasms of caution stopped him clicking his fingers in demonstration. He pushed the glasses back up his nose instead. They made little difference. He continued to squint, the world as hazey in darkness as broad daylight. “Suppose you had no way over the river.” he continued begrudgingly. “Are you ready?”
“Yeah.” Scottyboy had regained some composure. Their boat had slipped its mooring. Now way back now. Too late to run. “Yeah. Come as soon as we could.”
“Just as fucking well. They’ve gone wild. Fucking bastards. Shooting everything in sight.” Even Seanie was silenced by what he’d seen. “It’s fucking ...” and the words faded the way the image wouldn’t.
The others were left chattering with their imagination, the crawling rows of escapees: maybe it wasn’t just cowardice which had forced their dessertion. How simple things had been in the planning stages.
“Jimmy’s down in the old boiler shed behind the school.” They couldn’t see the perspiration lining Seanie’s face as he spoke; their own bodies were providing sufficient discomfort. “Safe there for the moment. Sent me out to round up anyone I could.”
Scottyboy and Little Jim Bob were more concerned with their future destination than Seanie’s excuses for not being there himself.
“They haven’t hit it yet,” their guide continued, “and come morning it’ll be perfect for some quick sniping. And then retreat back somewhere else. Can’t stop them now.” He was talking to himself. “But have to show them we won’t give up that easily. That we’ll be back. O.k? I’m off then.”
“What?” Brotherly harmony in the lonely question.
“I have to see if there’s anyone else around.”
“And who’s in the boiler house then?” squirmed Little Jim Bob.
“Well, at the moment just Jimmy. The others are elsewhere.” Seanie was anxious to be off.
Seanie guiltily sensed suspicion where there lay only incredibility. Coming hard, his breath wheezed to catch their faces full blast. “Listen, I’ve been running around all day.”
Scottyboy and Little Jim Bob weren’t listening. Jimmy alone? And all the others. Were they really else where?
“So go on. What are you waiting for?” Seanie was rebuilding his power. “I’ve things to be doing. You go on out there and find Jimmy or run away like the rest. I’ll send more later and by morning it’ll be all ready.”
“By morning,” the brothers were thinking. By morning their parents would be alone. And they’d taken the only two guns. Not to mention the boat.
Seanie had slipped away without further instructions, without further persuasion; they could do what they wanted at this stage, just like everyone else. Too young to recognize this, the brothers wilted under his final “Go on!” A brusk attempt at an order, falling far short of encouragement.
They held back another minute as Seanie’s footsteps rattled away indiscreetly.
“Jimmy’s alone in there.” Little Jim Bob prompted.
“Yeah. We should go. Although maybe he’s even left by now if no one else had turned up.”
“Where are they all?”
“Don’t know. But we can’t leave him alone, can we?”
Little Jim Bob was equally doubtful, equally brave in his intentions. “No, I suppose not.”
“And Jimmy will send more along. Be along himself later.”
“Do you think so?”
Scottyboy didn’t answer.
“Come on!” the older brother compromised once more, failing to recognize that it was blind compromise which many of the more radical leaders blamed for creating the whole drastic outpouring of frustration. “We’ll just go and see. If he’s gone that’s it. Straight back to the boat. Maybe he’s just waiting to see who turns up and then make a plan. He may even decide we’d be better off back home defending the farm.”
Little Jim Bob was accustomed to his brother’s reasoning and over the years had proved endlessly willing to follow; the second son always moves fastest as he struggles to keep up with the faltering strides of the elder, even outdoing him in the determination of the process. “O.k.” he agreed.
Two additional shadows thus haunted the Southern streets. Ducking corners, cringing with the noise they made, crouched in hiding, they didn’t realize how lucky the’d been in reaching the old boilder house safely.
The back door wasn’t locked. Slipping inside they snapped it shut behind. Further darkness. Stillness.
“I don’t know Scottyboy. Bet he’s gone already.” whispered Little Jim Bob.
“Mmmm.” Scottyboy was too exhausted to move any further. Needed a rest before the journey back. He stalled.
“Wouldn’t have left the door open just like that.” Little Jim Bob insisted before shutting up as he realized the room glittering before them unseen: anybody could be in there. Watching. Sighting down the barrel to his gaping throat. He pushed his brother down by his side hand clasping hte skinny elbow, refusing to release the familiar woolen cloth.
“Thank God!” rasped a voice.
The brothers clung closer. A match struck across the room. Flickered faintly. They caught the outline of Jimmy’s elongated nose. The bulb lared brightly before the crisp wood stung his fingers and he cursed. This time they recognized the voice.
“Thank God.” it repeated from the returning gloom. “The brothers. Ha. And they had to come all the way over the river!” Jimmy was chukling lowly like a starved hen. “Well. Well. At least someone came, at last. Know how long I’ve been holed up here?” The darkness was still to daunting to be broken. Jimmy was used to it. “And good old Seanie supposed to be out there rounding you all up. Scampered off like the rest of them.”
“We met him.” Scottyboy attempted a defense. “We’ve just met him. Told us you were here.” Little Jim Bob nodded silently. “The others will be along too. And then we’ll see.”
“And which direction was Seanie moving when you met him, eh?” A further chuckle scratching the stiffling air. The boilers had long been unstoked but their choking stiffness remained clogged between shuttered windows. “Come on over here,” encouraged Jimmy, voice suddenly warming. “We’re safe here for the moment. Not going to bother with this. Prefer some well stocked store or a bejewelled room.”
Jimmy’s constant chuckle grated on the skin like sandpaper. It wasn’t the calm sterness they’d been expecting. He’d never once laughed as they’d hidden among the hills producing rabbits from the most unlikely of angles. They weren’t to know how many people had changed in the past few hours. They moved closer in search of comfort.
Jimmy seemed to sense the need beyond his own cynical exhaustion. “Don’t worry,” he urged, “the bigger boys are placed else where. We’re not completely alone.”
That was reassuring. Not along. And Jimmy had always referred to “the bigger boys” with authority. No one was quite sure who they were although old Tom Jones had once accompanied them after the rabbits, grunting scant praise as a couple were bagged. In the rank silence of the boiler house any reference to bigboys lent a hopeful note. Beginning to feel part of a team again, an organized effort, proud of their stamina as their teeth stopped chattering, Scottyboy and Little Jim Bob relaxed slightly against the rough stone wall.
“Hold on!” Jimmy stopped them. “Push something against that door first.”
“But the others when they come.”
“They can break it down for all I care.” snapped Jimmy. “There won’t be any fucking others,” he added in unnecessary clarification as the brothers realized that big boys or not they were going to face the remainder of the night alone.
Minutes clicked into hours, into days in the emptiness of their prison. An occasional footstep still rang but even the streets were slowly regaining a deserving rest as the night dragged defiantly onwards. Little Jim Bob stopped looking at his watch when the crawling hand appeared to start moving backwards.
“Calm down.” urged Jimmy sensing the incessant squinting at invisible wrist. “Relax. While we can. The morning will be even longer.” he threatened, “even if it flies by before out eyes.”
“Ssssh!” stung Scottyboy, fright slashing respect.
Jimmy finally stopped chuckling.
Jimmy hadn’t lied. There were big boys, older guns spattered along high windows, gently sloping roofs; although there had been many more the day before. Seanie had lied: he found no one else, or at lease no one including himself returned to break the door down and join them.
“Better off,” snorted Jimmy. “No room for wimps at this stage.” Neither brother said a thing. Beneath his hoarse croaking and cynical humor Jimmy had suddenly lost the sheen of comforting leadership. The boiler house pumped sweat, the darkness blindness, the hours wells of doubts: Would they be of any value here anyway? Would they have been better off staying at home? Were they not shaking like the wimps they knew themselves to be?
Sleep was as scarce as petrol that night. Fumbling in each others arms sinking into the sunken centre of their ancient bed, Marlene and Illivac defiantly tossed in their attempts at hiding from what lay beyond the blankets. Come five in the morning Marlene surrendered and rose to brew the morning coffee. Illivac followed. Coffee steamed, spilled the house with a hissing smell they held in silence. The scarred wood of their kitchen table absorbed their thoughts without a word, glistening in the reflection of countless similar conversations over the generations.
It was seven before Marlene wondered where the boys were. “Leave them be,” her husband volunteered, “if they have managed to sleep.” Marlene attempted the washing up, any occupation to keep hands flickering as the light rose to timidly seep between the cracks of the shutters. They could do with some paint she noticed. Iilicac drew the blinds to take full advantage of the dawn. The town appeared quiet enough apart from the occasional crack and puff of darkening smoke. Perhaps they could relax a little today. Sleep better tonight.
“They should be up,” Marlene said as the fading night gave up all pretexts of comfort.
“Give them a knock”. His chair scraped the floor as he stood.
Marlene thudded the ceiling with the long accustomed handle of the brush. Dusk hit her in the face. As always. “come on,” she shouted as if it were just another schooldays.
“Probably hadn’t got to sleep for ages.” Her voice echoed the tiredness that must be keeping them in bed. She pounded again and one more time until a flaking chip of dried paint fluttered down to skip off the polished table. Her lungs skipped a breath as she waited for the feet to slap the floor above, springs creak as they unleashed their night’s burden. Without a word she ran for the stairs, sweeping brush thudding into the corner.
“They’re not there. They’re gone”. Her voice rose, then froze into inaudibility.
YoungJeds hand curled a little on her shaking shoulders. “Wait.” He paused in confusion. “I’ll go and get them.” His fingers tightened. “Couldn’t sleep so they’ll have wandered out the farm. Don’t worry. I’ll get them. They’ll be out the yard. I’ll arise now and go get them. You sit down here and we’ll all be back in a few minutes.”
Life had become filled with empty promises, half-realities which blew away in the mist the puff of a peat fire. As the seconds dragged by Marlene was recollecting the fragments of a jigsaw of terror. Sunday mornings regimentally regular. The hints of awe as they pronounced Jimmy’s name, usually in the same breath as Fatur, and their fear of him. Occasional verbal foJuniors into political opinion, shuttered out by a frowning glance at their parents. Oh God no. Oblivious to YoungJed, Marlene rose and left the house slippers flapping in the damp. She fumbled down the path to the road, ghostlike in the haze of an early morning dust. The damp hung on the leaves, a slight frost seeping from the branches. The bright whiff of morning clouded over by dark puffs seeping over the horizon, an acrid reminder of another long day under fire.
Finding determination in her nightmares her legs dragged her closer to the town. Over the bridge they took her automatically as if shopping for young pork. Too intent on barring departing traffic the sentries hadn’t notice her pass. She was nearly on the other side before they began shouting but they too were tired of losing, fighting against the rising tide. Fuck her. She could do what she wanted. Her legs were flailing, slippers flapping in the distance. Above the roar of another mortar her voice disappeared into the smoke. Her shouts were just another lost complaint in the fog of drifting humanity, thumping bodies, stale breath and the fearful rush of adrenaline trying to find a way out. They turned back and halted another tractor. “Back” they ordered, their guns indicating no return.
Their names fell off her tongue like treckle, slippery, treacherously difficult to swallow. Scottyboy, Little Jim Bob. Over and over she had nothing left to screech but their names in the silent scream that had become her mind.
“For fuck sake woman. Get out of here.” She was pushed violently down a back street, a gesture of scour. “Get out of here. Where the fuck do you think you are going?”
“My sons!” Their names rolled. Scottyboy, Little Jim Bob, Scottyboy, Little Jim Bob, Scottyboy, Little Jim Bob, Scottyboy, Little Jim Bob.
“Get out of here,” the voice whispered in her ear. Locked in a grimy grip she couldn’t refuse.
“Where are they?” she demanded, lips cracking in the effort. “Where are my sons?” She recognized the tattered sleeve, the cigarette breath and crooked had. “Where are they? You took them. You know.” She’d seen him prowl the farm, on days of training. Jimmy. “You know!” Sunday morning antics had turned too real. The guns had disappeared. That was what she had noticed. They’d gone. Scottyboy, Little Jim Bob, Scottyboy, Little Jim Bob, Scottyboy, Little Jim Bob.
He let her go. Too worn to be bothered. Too much lunacy to still deal with. He couldn’t take much more after the twenty-four hours just passed. “Fuck you then,” he muttered. It was far too late for offence. “They said…” he paused and heaved another breath. “They said they’d be in the old boiler house. They’re taking it hard over there now. All night.” He was still muttering but she had gone.
Dovric was shocked by how many people could live in what had been such a small half of town, or rather by the length of the line they formed when marching heel to heel.
Morning bred a fresh column, bulging off the edges of the main road in its initial thickness until it spread to a wispy trail as it met the more generous breath of the motorway. By midday it roamed from the town itself to the gentle rise of the horizon where tarmac faded many kilometers away into the misty concept of Southern civilization; centuries away to Dovric whose furthest adventure had been a little beyond her cousin’s sprawling abode.
All day through the jagged routine of attempted chores Dovric cast fugative glances at the exodus, as did her father and mother, equally shamefully from the pretext of their own indifferent preoccupations. How many more? How many left now? Dovric continually wondered. There couldn’t possibly be more. She wished it was over and they didn’t have to watch and choke back the nervous bile from empty stomachs.
And still the flow continued rivallying the river itself in putposefullness. A night of violence left little choice. From the distance of their home Dovric couldn’t isolate the burnt out shells of deserted homes, the hasty mess of frantic dessecration, the unnatural sculptures of the scattered dead.
The big boys opened fire first. The hoarse rattle of automatic shooting sped from a bewildering haze of early morning angles. Surprised looters fell arms dropping precious goods as they sprawled to stave off the ground.
Sneaking a peak through the window encased higher up the wall Scottyboy heard some one groan, out of sight. He wouldn’t shut up. In the monotonous frequeny of a church bell before service the choaking throat issued a fresh croak every twenty seconds.
The big boys initial foJunior lost its regularity and precision as victims drew up and sought carefully marked shelter. Down the street the first two stories of a building collapsed as Scottyboy gaped. Then the sound shock rang. Then smoke curling form the remains. A screech from the roof as it collapsed beneath a sniper. Artillary from beyond the street was awakening to revenge, to wither the final throes of sniping resistance.
“Fuck sake!” Little Jim Bob joined him, eyes just above the sill, as the fumes billowed the scene to obscurity. Another boom in the distance blotting out the thinny crack of a bullet from a partly demolished window.
“Get down.” Jimmy snarled. “Time enough for them to find us. Wait a bit.” Let the boys higher up do their work first. Then when they feel safe and slip out from behind corners. That’s what we’re here for. Catch the stragglers unawares. A little goodbye present.”
Even in the light of morning his chuckled unerved but the brothers were impressed by the plan. Trying not to elaborate the implications they obediently slipped down the wall beside Jimmy.
Ten to fifteen more minutes he promised through the crash of another heavy mortar, the supporting fire of a machine gun. Scottyboy fingered his shotgun nervously.
Little Jim Bob felt his pockets for the box of catridges. In less than five minutes the men down the street had emptied ten such boxes. Little Jim Bob noted his own wasn’t even full. He wished it would stay dark and no one could see his tears; then uncaringly, he slipped his hand onto Scottyboy’s knees as he used to as a child, a token of forgiveness after they’d had an argument. He wished they hadn’t met Seanie. Scottyboy returned the gesture. Unabashed they sat, back to the outside mayhem, like lovers, entwined fingers sensing only eath other’s familiar breath.
Jimmy ignored them, lost in his own pJuniorers. Outside there was a brief lull. “Our turn.” he decided suddenly. He sneaked to his knees edging eye over the ledge. The windows stretched almost to the roof, latticed with over twenty small panes each strung between a worm infested wooden frame. The majority of the glass had long been blown away in neglect. It wasn’t hard to find an empty square. Back flexing, gun barrel slipped over the ledge through a vacuent eye. The room thundered with recoil, the stink of spent powder. Jimmy’s eyes flashed, then blinded as they retreated to the darkness of the floor. “Got him!” he swore. “Almost certain.”
The boys knew it was their turn. Jimmy was already replacing the empty shell.
Scottyboy moved first, Little Jim Bob close to his side.
“Not the same fucking window!” warned Jimmy. “Spread out. No point making it easy for them.”
Little Jim Bob moved further aloong the wall to find his own slot.
Fingers slippery on the triggers they eased themselves into sight, barrells first. Jimmy had released another shot before either of his support team had braved themselves for a reckie. Despite their size and speed, rabbits were suddenly easy prey compared to the hulking shadows of human flesh dodging from corner to corner, sulking in doorways, beginning to panic as they realized the boiler house held its own bitterness.
“Load!” Jimmy was shouting. “Get that doorway before they get any closer.”
Scottyboy sought Little Jim Bob’s eye. His stomach churned with nerves, but also guilt for having lead his brother this far.
Stern faced Little Jim Bob stared back: he never was one for emotions, always hidden under a shield, refusing to be the baby all his life.
Together they rose, easing themselves up the shelter of the wall. They lost each others gaze as focus sought another target.
Confusion reigned outside. It was difficult to spot anything for long enough to squeeze. A wild dog scattering, hushed bodies darting, hidden before an eye could train. The frustration of finding a target, however, served to obliterate the realisation of what they were aiming for. Shadows became rabbits as the need to prove something pounded the brain to a senseless pulp.
Scottyboy finally released a shot.
Little Jim Bob watched it miss, transfixed as the target lept behind a burnt out car. Angrily, he aimed at the same dark overcoat, through the ugly snarl of what had been the windscreen. With the intensity of blind concentration, the car appeared to move closer along the lines of a firing range dummy. It was almost directly in front. The torn coat could be clearly glimpsed. Not as safe as it thought. He couldn’t miss. His shoulder tumbled, barrell twisted. A trembling current of power left, tickling his finger. Recharged for a second attempt Scottyboy saw it wasn’t necessary.
But now there were scuttling targets plying the street between every doorway. In panic Scottyboy fired again. The remains of the butcher shop window crackled. Did the shadow behind fall? He didn’t wait to see.
“Take it easy!” roared Jimmy; there was no need for further whisperings. “Don’t waste the fucking ammunition.”
Overhead something whistled until ears cringed. Little Jim Bob released another shot through the empty meat hooks. Reload. Figures moving closer down the street. Too many to hide all at once. A video game at the highest level. The back wall shuddered as the overflying shell tore out the yard behind. Dust choked their aim. Scottyboy’s shotgun was smoking.
“They’ve targeted us!” Jimmy was shouting.
Another cackle of fire. Chips of decaying mortar spJunioring through the windows. They ducked. Then remerged with the fury of fear. Fire! Hold back the emerging shadows.
An arm twisted from behind the tattered red door barely meters away. Scottyboy spotted the movement and attempted to sight.
Through streaming eyes Little Jim Bob too, unconsciously, caught the spinning elbow, the flying object.
The thud landed behind them. They turned around in disbelief: how could anyone have managed to get something through the fine netting of their protective windows. Luck or what? “Jesus!” shrieked Jimmy.
Their eyes were deceiving. They couldn’t manage that. Snapping their bewilderment, sapping their struggles, the street collapsed inwards on top of them. They’d never seen a granade before, never thought it could take so long to watch one ticking away.
Junior’s long involvement meant that he largely avoided the real action. He would have much preferred, however, to be on the street rather than selfconsciously perched with Commander Toffey on the back of the largest of their three armoured personell carriers.
His proven devotion, coupled with detailed knowledge of the town were invaluable Commander Toffee assured; no point in wasting his talent where any idiot could roam. Having been the principal architect of the bridges demise his work now was to guide events to their deserving end.
Advancing initially as a threat of further might, the carrier ground to a halt speedily as resistence faltered and the skimpy army opposite retreated to fight another day from strength rather than loose all in the folly of preordained defeat. Commander Toffey searched Junior questioningly as they gradually realized there was no battle to be fought.
“I told you.” Junior defended, “There would be little resistance. Several units have already pulled out. They never had any intention of making a stand here.” He said no more aware that Commander Toffy was somewhat annoyed: the bridge had been blown in fear of armoured reprisal but was now proving a brake on their own advance. He wasn’t a military man Junior told himself: he’d just fed the information. They could have made their own deductions. And the bridge was important. A spark if nothing else: dynamite under far more than metal. There was more to war than military strategy and Junior was far too aware of the psychological frontier the bridge had splintered. He argued his defense wordlessly, fuming at Commander Toffy’s ungratefullness.
Later in the first Day the Commander finally relaxed. “You were right,” he conceeded as the Northerners from the town surged through the streets wildly. “Good for moral.” He thumped Junior on the back encouringly. “We needed a break like this. Rattle them and save some strength for the backlash. Take as much as we can safely control, a little more perhaps to surrender afterwards as tokens just as we’re doing here today. Then fall back and negotiate final demands from the height of superiority.”
He seemed to be speaking almost to himself. Junior made no reply. He tried to tie down the sensation of unease the commander’s ramblings were generating. The careless combination of calculation and savagery was unsettling. Having expoused them for so long Junior was suddenly feeling the weight of wider goals.
“A toast!” the commander urged boisterously and they clinked imaginary glasses off the armoured shell of their encasement.
He didn’t talk about it but they said he was from Polsht. Burnt to the ground. Wife butchered. Commander Toffee knew what it was all about.
Junior tugged his new uniform nervously into position over his shoulders and ventured a wry grin of compliance with the commander. As the first night drew close he allowed a breath of satisfaction: so much of this had been his work, thanks to his preparation.
The scattered rattle of rampage kept Junior awake most of the night, him and the majority of the townspeople still unaccustomed to the untiringness of unleashed passions. Commander Toffee slept soundly.
With morning Junior began to hint that their “irregulars”, his fellow townsmen, should be called to order: they’d achieved more than had been hoped for. Commander Toffee nodded consent while guarding it from his lips. Watching the line of refugees thicken in the glowing daylight, cringing under the continued crack of sniperfire, the cluttered glimpse of looting arms Junior’s hints gushed into urgings. Commander Toffee remained uncommital. “Good for moral,” he muttered again.
‘Good for moral,’ Junior repeated. A few hours revenge for years of subservience. Not too much to ask. Again he scanned the dampening fires and dancing figures clearing out the remaining potholes of resistance opposite. Better do it well once and have it over with. There was no going back. From the tattered new bridge, slowly along the river, his eyes glowed in reflection that it was no longer the town he’d once known so well. The old bridge still stood of course, guarded firmly with regulars, it’s bare back humped sullenly under this new order. Suddenly his breath choked deep in his lungs. A lone figure raced across the gloomy arch. He watched her fall with the reckless pace. Crumble, then stumble to her feet in renewed anguish. The troops were moving to stall her. His throat was too parched in recognition to utter the cry building from below.
Only towards the evening of the second day, one half of the town bleeding away along a narrow strip of torn ground, did the other began to waver under the combined weight of looming order, and Canon Hopsman’s final symbolic deed plunging exuberance into weariness.
The town began to tremble with a different sensation. Events slowed. Swimming back into focus the collection of so many new images suddenly broke their chains. What had reeled by unseen only hours before was now halted, freeze frame, each grimace, shout, glance, finger, face, wound, torch, gleam, glimmering relentlessy in its perpertrator or accomplices eye. Only a few hardened hearts, remorseless souls could survive the torment.
Forty-eight hours rushed past in the speed of those seconds which form life lasting accidents. Lives passed before many eyes in the haze, some for the last time, others revolving again and again in a whirl of panic, aimlessly twirling as they slip a thread on the spool. A teriffic accident mutilating, scarring the survivors permanently, the guilty as deeply as the innocent, flying metal had little conscience. Then the aftermath of dazed shock when the flatening speed of events was slowed down; and for the majority saved from the blessing of amnesia, these images clung to the backs of minds with the haunting threat of permanece. Screeches resounded. Singed flesh. Splayed legs. The trickle of blood curdling flour on a sagging table. The flitter of a loose limb scuttling over a recently linoed floor. Rustle of crumbling glass, snap of rifle bolt. Hoarse screams of intent. Clasping arms of protecting panic. Flooding eyes, rubbery legs, shoals of loss, wavering goodbyes.
Finally, as the evening of the second day approach the fleeing crowd thinned and, the savage rampage of dark purpose served, the town was reigned back under control. Outsiders from more “experienced towns” and a few of their “welltrained” locals assumed authority, organising pillage, limiting reprisals, rewarding yet restricting with the benovalencce of a proud father. Their persuasive work achieved, the less desciplined were rounded up and sent home, or shot in the knee and left begging if they didn’t instantly obey: the usefullness of frantic cravings, barbaric shamelessness has a sell by date. Vengance, the excitement of a personal trigger, power without a consciousness, had served its purpose. Now it was time to consolidate. And that required experience and restraint rather than reckless ruin.
Glad of the commander’s restrictions, shadows lumbered back to their own side like dogs after hunting sheep. The majority sought alcholol, fiery words of justification cresting the waves of free liquor. They encouraged each other as they drowned in the mists. Some began to feel better. Ready to go on almost.
Reigning in the wild ones, the new commanders were in fact pleasantly surprised at the spead of their conquest. The bridge had originally been blown as a defensive tactic to restrain enemy reserves to a distance as they advanced down the mountain. Expecting stronger resistance, the commanders were caught off guard as they found the shattered metal severed their own ability at reprisal. It didn’t matter. Let the locals vent their fury and clean out the far side. Under the covering fire of inflamed passions and the availability of a personal trigger, Northerners who had long remained purely vocal were suddenly anxious to take up the challenge, all the more vicious in their rage to prove themselves worthy, valient in the eyes of their liberators. And nothing unleashes inhibition faster than the first taste of defenceless blood, the throbbing power of a firearm in the face of naked fear.
But now the time had come to reorganise. Discipline was the backbone of any serious advance; barbarity had stragetic value and thus must be carefully distributed. Ironically, it was Canon Hopsmanwho aided the commanders in spurring the town’s lunacy to a jerky halt in winding down even the most intoxicated. Or rather his body.
His death would doubtlessly remain in the minds of some unseen plunderers, however no one admitted to witnessing it happen. In fact, the body floated along for several minutes before it was even spotted. Others had clogged the waters earlier but the start black of his cloth eventually drew special attention. That and the obscene angle of his head as it slapped aimlessly with the tide against his left shoulder. No one was sure if it would be better or worse to have slashed it cleanly through and spare them the indignity of his final journey. But the stroke hadn’t been finished, slicing clean away before it severed the head.
Body and brain floating through the river wreckage painlessly, bloating, bopping uncomfortably where they’d once worked as one. And all around the noise gradually settled as the obscene water procession attracted a growing group of heretica on-lookers.
As the water heaved or some carelessly thrown debris snagged, the two bodily parts would twist unccordinatedly, grotesquely mocking the human form as one slipped around the other in unnatural formations. From the banks of the onlooking river all shouting ceased, ranks thickening as women scrambled out of hiding to the sound of an apparent ceasefire. From the depts. of the South side the gunfire grew more distant, erratic as if the rivers tauntness was stretching to include them in its spell. Smoking arms held high men turned to watch and then bundled away again to avoid the eyes of their families. The outsiders were harder, had seen it all before, yet they too were caught in the net of the holy man and his final trip.
The body flowed on still united with a weakening flap of neck flesh, a new frightening collar above the black uniform. There wasn’t even blood left to mark the slit and somehow the spectral whiteness of the smashed bone, knifed skin, was scarrier than a spouting jugular itself. Sterility. Canon Hopsman’s last journey edged peace over the town. By the time his body snagged once more on the remains of the equally mained lower bridge a funeral processioon had formed either side of the river to bade him farewell. A unique gathering, a one sided affair as few of his own congregation remained or dared a final wave: both banks had become one; his enemies were all around realizing that the dead man had had no enemies at all.
Time wavered. Seconds drew themselves out like puffed pastry. Speared to a standstill on a spiking column, sulking from the remains of the blown bridge, his body clung endlessly to the jagged spar, the current continuing to beat away at his loosening head. Then finally it spearated and bobbed off through the remaining debris, finally deserting the body as it struggled pointlessly to follow.
Eyes averted unable to face this final desecration.
Mothers began to fuss their children back inside, then the older brothers, then fathers, ensconding their arms beneath the sublt flow of lonog skirts. Someone would pay for such evil. It was an omen the older ones swore as the body clung to its final resting place until finally escaping under the privacy of darkened night.
Sonnyjo alone would obtain an untainted recollection, an objective view. Glancing occasionally as he rounded up unsuspecting sheep, the hazy collage below would float back from time to time, unintilligibly, from the distance, until gradually the scenes would be interwoven with the leaves of a crumbling book, intermingling until tattered fingers could no longer page one story from the other, light from darkness.