The book was a type of compensation, a token gift from guilty consciousness as tempers wound down from the frenzy the act had required. A peace offering, but sadistic in its intent: could it possibly be a replacement as it teased Sonnyjo to see if he could still flick the pages with one finger less.
He wanted the light to go away. He was lying staring into it. He couldn’t turn aside, only close his eyes and let the lids burn under its gaze. He didn’t want to look but wasn’t able to move. The pain had faltered, its own intensity blocking out reception; but he didn’t want to look, to see the bloody stump they had left behind. Finally, the light left and he was allowed to fade away in the darkness.
A new rhythm had been established. When they brought his food again, the light remained for longer than before, until it forced him unwittingly to adopt to its presence.
The first time he didn’t eat. Vomit splattered the plate once it lurched into sight. Later, lefthanded, spoon shaking, dribbling, he mumbled it down. There was still the blood on the floor, the sleeve of his shirt. Waving the thin spooned soup to dry lips, his eyes skipped to one side, unable to avoid sneaking a perverse glance, then a detached stare, as if the strange blooded hand at his side was no longer his own, from a film, an object he’d dug up in the field.
Later, childlike, he nursed the wounded fist. Only the blood remained. They’d taken the finger. The pain was continuous now, unending until he could feel it no longer, because it had become part of him. Holding the wound, staring at the walls, rocking senselessly, aimlessly, he’d become aware of the book, vaguely conscious of the light still shining. In the depts. of his stewed mind faint connections arose. Slowly, afraid of the shock, a boobytrap, his good hand reached forward, tripped the empty plate, glanced off the top page, clasped, drew it into his shell. He held it there, a baby, a new limb, rocking, rocking, back and forth, flapping gently on his lap.
At first he did nothing more than grasp it, his childish comforter. The thought of reading was the furthest from his mind. The groaning ache of what had been a finger had resurrected him from his tomb. He was aware again, wondering, remembering. The violence had wrung him from a dark slumber and he could no longer hide mindlessly in this cell: suffering his own pain reminded him afresh of the others. Staring at the puss twisted stub of his wound he could only see the eyes of his wife, the screaming shrieks of his daughter. Those trousers brushed before him again, another arm choked his throat as he relived, again and again, the horror he was unable to curtail.
He had known the end was near. Everyone knew. There was no escape. Driven back, down from the mountains, away from the river, there was nowhere else to hide. Destruction flew daily. Houses shattered, roofs collapsed, cellars rang with the cries of blind fear, loneliness as another disappeared. No escape. The roads were long cut. The mountains bred fire, the river a treacherous floating mine. No way out and too many entrances in. It was like the crumbling of the earth before a deep plated tremor, the drowning of the Egyptians in the Dead sea. When the morning finally came, they surged through the town in a tidal wave of heavy armor to ground out the final resistance, halfaimed sniping, suicidal Molotov’s, the last desperation of the few remaining men, the women not yet beaten down by the siege. Sonnyjo had raced home from his fields. He had never run so fast in his life. He was too late. Choking, spluttering, neck twisted as they forced him to watch. His wife’s legs, his daughter’s, spread before him at cruel angles. Their eyes wrenching in shame. His throat finally cracked with the pain of a raw scream. A laugh snapped the air. He struggled, then stumbled as they beat him.
“Vengeance is sweet!” they whispered in his ear, an orchestra of voices tumbling as one.
“They’ve done nothing,” was all he muttered, over and over in the silence of their gaze. He knew he was right and knew it was too late now to change, to give them a reason for anger. He thanked God when he heard the two single shots. At least they were gone. At last someone had the dignity, the compassion to kill. He hoped his own turn was next.
In the turmoil of these burning torments the weight between his knees gathered a soothing momentum. With the stunned rocking of the tattered body the pages fluttered gently to tickle the blunt touch of his remaining fingers. Finally, as the light refused to dim, he opened the book to break the illumination of his visions. He wondered if he could blow up a bridge, if he should have. His brotherinlaw would have. Someone did.
Both sides of the river boasted a string of cafes, bars and restaurants, most of which provided for all three needs, the town still being to small to require strict differentiation. You could eat, have your coffee and drink all night without moving in the majority of places. Only a few strictly maintained a singleminded purpose. This was especially notable on the Southern bank where a number of more expensive restaurants were only that. the prices they charged allowed them the luxury of closing early and refining their tastes in customer. Sonnyjo had never been in one of those, indeed very few of the northern farmers ever ventured into any of the southern cafes, unless for a quick beer after conducting some midday business. Equally untried were the majority of northern bars to the more discerning southern population. There didn’t seem much point: they were certainly dirtier, of poor standard, and the cheaper prices didn’t compensate for not knowing anyone, for not being seen.
Thus, like the people themselves, the cafes and bars stretched along the banks of the river, facing each other while seldom noticing the others presence. Like opposing domino games, lines of people took advantage of the rivers coolness during the muggy summer evenings. Then the tables would be out, battered plastic chairs rattling on the uneven pavements, children running, screaming, fighting as their parents struggled to regain control or ignored them for a few seconds peace. Later, as the evenings wore on into a breeze, a hint of cool night air, mothers took the children home to bed and the men retreated inside to perch on their regular stools and fondle the more serious talk and games of the male elite. In winter the women stayed at home; only the men ventured “down to the river for a walk” to sit by the chimneys, smoke more than the log fire and drink enough to put it out. Cards skimmed chipped tables, wine glasses rattled, fumes of alcohol and tobacco, damp clothes and stale breath, curled through the streams of endless banter. As the nights grew older, colder, talk would inevitably spin between football and politics, equally controversially. Stories were told, memories exchanged, old arguments, bias, heaved up for another round. Until the moon rose and it was time to go home.
Sonnyjo preferred the silence of his own company, the familiar ease of the farm, to this bawdy community; but no one could completely avoid a social life and remain a member of society. In summer he too wandered down with his wife and daughter to eat, drink, send them home and join the men in the back. His father was always there, in the centre, shouting, gurgling with laughter, exuberance and tales to prick the hairs into hedgehog spines of fright. Sonnyjo’s brotherinlaw was usually there also. Some said he was seldom elsewhere, which for a younger man was far from complimentary. The old were allowed to idle; the young were expected to earn it.
When the troubles reblossomed after years at seed, arguments had ballooned like over ripe mangos. Everyone suddenly found an opinion, a story or atrocity, a scrap they’d picked up off the radio bursting in fetid excess.
“They’d burned a village.”
“Shot in cold blood.”
“Run off their own land, farms they’d been working for generations.”
“They say the army is on the streets.”
“Who could trust them?”
“Which side would they fall on?”
“General MacMahonon might do something but General O’Leiryed was a bastard: everyone knows where he came from.”
“And that bastard of a President!”
“Nothing but a puppet with O’Leiryed behind him all the way.”
Politicians shouted, schemed in the bureaucratic canting of proposals, amendments, resolutions, which nobody could trust: you could only rely on your own, everyone agreed.
“It’s all a load of shit.”
“We know where he stands and fancy legislations won’t change that.”
“You’re right. We know which side we’re on.”
“So do they: they’re only waiting for the time to make it clear, to say what we all know they mean.”
“Too bloody right.”
“We kept them back before and we’ll do it again if it comes to that.”
“It’s about time.”
“Yeah. All that shit. All those politicians have been playing games with us for years. It’s about time we told them where to stand.”
“Too bloody comfortable.”
“Yeah. Forgotten where they come from half of them.”
“Except Coronel Fatur.”
“Yeah. Except him.”
“MacMahonon will talk and talk, then do nothing. Now Fatur. That’s another story.
“Is indeed. Does mor ethan talk, does he.”
“If only the others would listen.”
“He’s the only one who has anything to say.”
And then there was always a flagging of spirit, a splinter of doubt until someone, often the brotherinlaw, would remember a hearsay, another jab to stir the poison of pride through hatred and fear.
“Load of bastards the lot. Coronel Fatur better tell them where to stop or we’ll do it ourselves.”
“Do the same again.”
“Yeah. Stop them before they get the chance.”
“Yeah. Stopped them once but only just. Remember what they did back in the great war. And what they nearly did. Bloody traitors. Would have killed everyone of us if it hadn’t been for the river. And what they did on the other side to the poor bastards who hadn’t the river to separate them? There are still ruins up high in the mountains. Ghosts. I wouldn’t wander there at night. Wouldn’t like to have their souls on my conscience.”
“Fuck the dead, I don’t want my own family lying on my conscience.”
Someone always went over the top. Carried away by the heady spirits of malebonded courage, someone would startle, force a touch of real fear as if people suddenly realized that a lot of rattling meant the sable would have to be eventually drawn.
The older men were usually the first to go quiet. They could remember. In the lore of their bones they held the stories, tales of heroic pasts, feats of glorious courage. These spurted forth freely over red wine. Yet, there came a point when they faded, were withdrawn as their owners remembered the details, the price that was paid for heroism, the pain suffered in their youth as distant glory blended into more vivid, more ambiguous atrocities. More than one knurled hand had once twisted the knife that fed years of guilty nightmares. Unfortunately, by the time the elders had fallen silent there were few left to listen; their ancient remembrances had served their purpose, reworking, rekindling, rejustifying the world for those who were too young to have any experience, too immature to glimpse around the corner and see another angle, too taken by the fire in their hearts to believe another side could exist. And age could only ponder aimlessly the futility of the rolling years; the young were reborn with the same ignorant sins of the fathers.
At the time Sonnyjo hadn’t paid much attention. He listened as he always did, quietly, smiling consent at all parties, thinking of the next day’s work or the fishing when someone went on for too long or started repeating a story too often told, or bandying some threadbare slogan whose meaning if not power had long faded. Later he wished he had listened more carefully and maybe he would have picked up something which would make sense of it all.
Left alone to care for his family he used to go over the old discussions, run them through again and again attempting to grasp a meaning, a simple understanding he could accept. Once in a moment of lucidity he thought he understood at least why his father had died: he’d lived through it all once before and had no desire to see it again.
Yes, the old men were the first to go quiet, to be silent as they saw the tragedy their spoken memories could unleash only months ahead. They said less and less until they knew that it was too late; no one was interested in listening any longer, and then, even the talking was replaced as the actions it spawned grew into monsters, mere words could no longer hold. His father lost his laugh as rumors of distant Sud defeats drifted loser. “Serves them right,” he had mumbled halfheartedly. But he stopped going down the cafes. He didn’t talk to the brotherinlaw. He fell silent. The loss of his laugh, the new silence of the house became an omen for what was to come.
Sonnyjo still didn’t understand what had happened, or why, or what role he should have tried to play. But he did know why his father had chosen to die. He only wished now he could do the same. Alone, with his brotherinlaw up the mountains, his father dead, Sonnyjo was left trapped in the double binded twist of his indecision, his own lack of commitment. And now there was nobody left. No one even to protect. Only Sonnyjo. He didn’t know why. Didn’t care. He only wanted to be let die, to fade away like the book from his tattered fingers.
Violence doesn’t blossom overnight. It’s more like a weed, always haunting, sheltering where least expected, impossible to isolate and strangle. When it breaks through to over run the garden gasps of astonishment are nothing but false prophets: it was there waiting. There should never be surprise, only great care.
There had always been stories in the village and the surrounding lands. Two tribes can seldom be neighbors without an interlocking history of sparring and envy. The older generations had done nothing more than keep them alive, maintain a tradition until others matured enough to take the weight from their shoulders: the circle of the harvest, some good some bad, the cycle endlessly repeated, the land sucked until someone learns to rotate or DNA can be spliced into new creatures. Thus the past grew into the future spiking it with the suspicion and anger centuries of shared history had generated.
Even Sonnyjo, oblivious as he often was to the world beyond his own land, grew up unconsciously aware of the complex weave that was the fabric of their lives. Only now that it had unraveled did he glimpse how fragile it always had been.