A piercing scream woke me up.
As I slowly emerged from the fog, I heard gunshots, bangs and the loud barking of the dogs. Somehow, I thought I was still dreaming. But when I opened my eyes, the horrifying sounds were still there, emerging from the outside.
Everywhere around me was darkness. For a moment, that darkness fell silent. I tried to calm down, and convince myself I was caught in some weird, inexplicable hallucination. In mere seconds, the silence was broken, the deafening sounds becoming louder and coming from different directions. Following the source of that terrible noise, I strolled to the window. As I came closer, the angry voices, mingled with muffled cries and the never-ending growls in the background, became clearer and clearer until I was able to discern what was happening. I didn’t need to open the curtains to know I would witness the sight of life-threatening danger but, as if caught in a trance, I needed to peer outside.
With a shivering hand, I raised the edge of the curtain and peeked through the window.
Dozens of moving vehicles, the likes of which I had never encountered before, moved along the road. Tanks, trucks, cars and what seemed to be hundreds of soldiers only yards away from the house made for a terrifying and surreal sight. I took in the scene of chaos, and recognized a man in the crowd. It was our neighbor Jonathan, Mina’s father. He knelt in front of a tall soldier in a black uniform, crying and making incoherent sounds. Despite my efforts, I couldn’t make sense of his words, but it wasn’t difficult to conclude he pleaded for his life.
In my mind, I screamed and urged myself to get away, call for help or do something—anything—but my body wouldn’t cooperate. Instead of running, I stood frozen to the spot because I knew what that black uniform meant and what would take place that night. The Nyrmans had fooled us, and set the cruelest trap yet. There would be no evacuation in the morning. None of us was likely to see the light of dawn ever again.
The soldier laughed at Jonathan’s desperate attempts to evoke mercy. He struck his face with the back of his gun, then leaned the weapon against his forehead. What happened in mere seconds, felt like eternity. A heart-wrenching scream ripped through me when the soldier pulled the trigger. The shot knocked my friend’s father to the muddy ground, as if he was a bag of trash and not a person.
In the cold aftermath, the soldier kicked Jonathan’s bleeding body, making sure he was dead. Then, before I got a chance to turn around and run to my mother, the murderer looked away from his victim and gazed up at my window. As if burned by a raging fire, I quickly drew the blinds and hurried toward the door, bumping into a silhouette of a woman who wrapped her arms around me and offered comfort.
“They killed him. They k-killed Jonathan,” I mumbled in horror, hyperventilating and taking refuge in her embrace. “What are we going to do, Mama?” I asked in true fear, well aware we didn’t have time to hide or run.
“It’s okay. Everything will be all right sweetheart. I won’t let them hurt you,” she whispered in a soothing voice, leading me toward the tiny closet. Then she took a step back, opened the door and made me look into her eyes. Her expression was grave and filled with purpose. “Get inside, and don’t come out or make a sound...no matter what.”
I started to protest, refusing to leave her on her own with those monsters, but she slapped me as hard as she could, forcing me into silence. I stared at her in shock because she had never done that before.
“Do I make myself clear, Elena?” she scowled at me in sudden anger.
Loud, demanding knocks emerged from the front door, and echoed throughout the house.
Suddenly, both of us got a hold of ourselves, and quickly glanced toward the hallway. My mother gripped my shoulders, and leaned her forehead against mine. Her body shook with powerful cries. Her expression was pleading and desperate.
“I cannot lose you too, Elena. You need to listen to me.” She caressed my hair for what could be the last time, her eyes glistening with a rare sight of tears. “Get in. Hurry! There isn’t much time.”
I swallowed, and squeezed her hand for a moment, absorbing her reassuring warmth. Then I did as I was told, and walked into the tight space of that closet. My mother closed the door, and left the room in a swift pace.
The violent knocks subsided, and I was left alone, surrounded by numbing blackness. I listened with all my senses, cringing on every small sound or vibration that reached my cramped confinement. Seconds ticked away in silence.
A blaring thump of something heavy hitting the ground sounded like an explosion. The noise was followed by forceful steps and screaming orders given by two different voices, commanding us to come outside and surrender. I winced at the frightening thought that Nyrman soldiers, The Black Troops, roamed our home, ready to unleash the full extent of their rage and destruction.
When it became clear we wouldn’t meet their demands, they yelled it was better for us to come out on our own unless we wanted to die a slow, painful death.
For a while, I drowned in horror triggered by the interlude of their laughter and vicious threats.
The anticipation drove me insane and, in my helplessness, I searched for solace in the only thing that was left. I put my shaking hands together, and prayed harder than ever before, asking for whichever power above to save us, to keep us safe and sound—to stop them from hurting us.
The faint echoes of my mother’s voice interrupted the whispered prayer that fell from my trembling lips. She tried to reason with them, I could tell, but her words were cut off with a blow, followed by her shriek of pain.
I whimpered at the sound of her suffering, and reached for the door of the closet, then paused at the memory of her scowling voice.
No matter what! I cannot lose you too, Elena!
Contemplating my options, I gave up on what would have been a suicide mission, and crumbled into a miserable ball at the corner of that closet. Never in my life had I felt so weak and defenseless.
They were hurting her, and all I could do was listen to the torture she endured for the sake of keeping me safe.
“Don’t waste my time, you Sariyan scum.” The menacing voice roared from the distant darkness.
The savage sounds of their rough treatment continued mingling with her gut-wrenching cries. Every single one of them cut into my heart like a blade of a sharp knife.
“Please... P-Please don’t,” my mother suddenly cried out, then added in a resigned, broken tone, “That ring is the only thing I have left from my husband.”
She broke down crying. I could tell she was in immense pain because they were about to take away the only remaining thing that linked her to my father, and it tore me apart.
“I don’t give a damn about your husband,” the soldier retorted harshly, but he didn’t beat her. He only uttered a simple command. “Give me the ring or I will cut off your finger.”
She mumbled something that sounded hysterical, then cried out one more time. I imagined the soldier must have grabbed her hand in impatience, and snatched the ring from her by force. After that, everything fell silent.
Then, like a herd of wild horses, those hard decisive steps once again strode against the squeaking surface of the wooden floor and climbed the stairs with vicious haste. In clear panic, my mother yelled they had nothing else to take, that the ring was the only thing of value she had in her possession, but her pleas ricocheted against the deaf ears of the soldiers. The steps got more aggressive in their progress, until I discerned the noise came from the hallway. For a short while, they marched around, and went through our things as if they owned them, yelling when they were disappointed by the results of their inspection. My mother kept repeating she had nothing left to give them, but they refused to listen. I waited while they rampaged through every single room until they finally landed in the one where I was hiding.
Holding my breath, I pulled my knees to my chest and buried my head in my arms. I tried not to move or make a sound, but I couldn’t stop trembling. Danger was a palpable thing. It felt as if thousands of angry insects crawled all over my skin, waiting to devour me alive. The light of the flashlight penetrated the narrow crack of the closet and moved away as quickly as it came, once again leaving me in darkness. Sweat broke on my forehead because I sensed they would find me.
Through that small opening, I spied the silhouettes of the soldiers who paused in front of the nightstand. My mother stood behind them, holding herself as though she was absolutely frightened. One of them went through the drawers, slamming them shut when he found out they were empty of all contents. The picture frame on the cabinet got his attention, and he pointed at it with his flashlight. After staring at it for several seconds, he reached for the frame, and lifted it up for closer inspection.
“Look at this,” he said in a triumphant voice, as though something about the picture pleased him beyond comprehension.
The other soldier took hold of the flashlight and gazed at the picture frame in his companion’s hands.
“Nice photograph,” he replied with a mysterious grin, and uttered a comment that sent chills down my spine. “You have a pretty daughter.”
Something about the way he said it made my stomach turn with terror, and I felt bile rising in my throat. I listened to the echoing sounds of the boots strolling across the room, coming closer. All those sickening stories that described how The Black Troops exercised revenge on Sariyan women kept creeping into my mind, and I feared my position would be betrayed by the very beating of my heart.
“Elena is gone!” my mother exclaimed with all the determination she could muster, and the commotion stopped.
“Gone where?” The angry, deep voice demanded.
"Gone,” she repeated and I knew what she meant.
So did the soldier.
“Dead?” he asked, and I thought she must have nodded in confirmation because he warned, “Be careful. If you’re lying to me and I find her alive, I’ll cut her to pieces right in front of your eyes.”
Inexplicable panic took hold of me, and once again, I contemplated coming out. But then, after moments of hesitation, I heard, “I’m not lying. My daughter is gone,” my mother said harshly, and then her voice filled with pain. “I will never see her again.”
A heavy lump of sadness constricted my throat because I understood her words perfectly.
She knew I was listening.
At the same time, she had said goodbye and warned me to stay hidden in the suffocating confinement of that closet.
“Well, in that case, I offer my sincere condolences,” the soldier mocked her loss. “Such a pity she had to leave before she got a chance to experience the benefits of a Nyrman man, but since she is gone...the least we can do is make sure her mother gets the honor.”
She didn’t have time to protest because they immediately shut her up with a harsh blow on her face, and she collapsed on the bed. I heard the pulling of the zipper, and I could tell the soldier was taking off his pants. No... No...Please no! The sound of the fabric being ripped was followed by my mother’s cries, the merciless squeaking of the bed, and the soldier’s moans of pleasure. I pressed my hands against my ears as tightly as I could because I couldn’t bear to hear her suffering. But I heard it all the same.
“Tell me, you Sariyan whore.” An inhuman, animalistic voice roared from the merciless torturer. “Have you ever been fucked like this? Huh? Answer me!” he yelled when she kept crying and ignored his question. “Am I better than your husband?”
Again, there was no reply, and it gave him an excuse to enhance his aggression. The other soldier was watching, throwing vulgar comments and laughing at the misery of a woman who was violated in front of his eyes. There were no words to describe the pain and agony that consumed my entire being. Tears of helplessness rolled down my cheeks, and I felt like the biggest coward for not going out there to help her, but I couldn’t...I simply couldn’t muster the courage to face them. The ugly image of my mother’s brutal rape was inescapable. It was everywhere around me, inside and out, making me feel as though I was being punched in the chest over and over again.
I don’t know how long the agony continued, because at some point, my mind shut down, and everything went blank. Then, through the clearing of the madness, my mother’s sobs penetrated my ears, and I knew it was finished.
I imagined going over to her and pulling her into my arms. I wanted to hug her so badly and comfort her with all my love. I wanted to take away the pain and the shame she had to have been feeling. I needed to tell her I knew I was the reason she was broken, but I would make it up to her. I was going to heal her, no matter what.
It was so quiet. Too quiet. All I could hear was her crying and for a short moment, I wondered if they were gone.
“What are you whining about, you Sariyan bitch?” The voice of a demon burned the thread of hope, and I fought to muffle a scream that built in my throat, threatening to split it open.
I heard him hit her, but she didn’t make a sound to acknowledge his act of violence. She just kept crying silently, as though she gave up on life, hope or any form of resistance.
There was an evil laughter, so soft one could mistake it for kindness.
“You want more, don’t you?” The question was a taunting whisper.
My mother’s only answer was a series of earsplitting whimpers filled with extreme fright and revulsion. Tears spilled from my eyes, and I bit my lips bloody because I knew I was about to scream. Blindly, my hands searched the narrow space beneath my legs until I found a piece of old, dirty cloth and pressed it against my mouth.
“Go ahead. Ask him,” he ordered in a cold voice, referring to the other soldier. “Ask him nicely if he wants to fuck you.”
It was too much. I finally cried out, drowning the sounds of sheer misery into that cloth. But there was no relief, only more distress.
“ASK him!” he gritted through his teeth when she failed to satisfy his tyrannical demand.
“W-Will you...Will you f-fuck me?” she mumbled quietly, and I didn’t recognize her voice. It was emotionless, docile and drowning in tears.
Still, it wasn’t enough. Her humiliation wasn’t completed. She was punched again.
"Will you please fuck me, Sir?!” her rapist corrected, and continued the torment. “Now ask him again!”
Hatred, triggered by the maddening feeling of powerlessness, built inside me like a mountain that made me tremble in rage. I wanted to crawl out of my skin and become someone else. Someone who was strong and brave enough to kill them with slow precision for what they were doing. But I knew that wasn’t possible. The woman who had always protected me was suffering, and there was absolutely nothing I could do to ease her pain.
“W-Will you...please...f-fuck me...S-Sir?”
I winced at every single word that was spoken with chilling fear and excruciating pain. She spoke like she desired death. They had robbed her of everything, even her pride.
After a long break, the other soldier finally spoke.
“I don’t touch Sariyan scum.” His voice was filled with disgust.
What happened next would haunt me for the rest of my life. The soldier’s words were my mother’s sentence.
Two shots were fired, and her weeping instantly stopped. There was nothing but mortifying silence.
Many times after that event, I tried to remember what had happened in the moments before and after she had been killed, but the memory always remained veiled in impenetrable blackness. All I know is that, when I heard that first shot, the love I felt for her made me react with blind shock and instinctive protectiveness. Before I could stop myself, I screamed—Mama—belatedly realizing I had yelled the word aloud, and betrayed my position to the soldiers.
I never got the chance to grasp the severity of my mistake. In a split second, the closet door swung open, breaking the barrier between myself and the two dark figures from my nightmares. I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t even breathe, let alone utter a sound. They stared at me, transfixed with amusement.
“Not dead after all, are you...little voyeur?” one of them asked in a mild voice.
I recognized it instantly. It was the same voice that referred to my mother as Sariyan scum he wouldn’t touch. Complete mortification took hold of my senses, and I had no sanity left to rely on. I was mere inches away from her executioner.
The soldier offered me his hand, and calmly asked me to get out of the closet. I didn’t know how, it must have been because I was in complete shock, but I obeyed him. I actually touched the hand of my mother’s murderer.
He pulled me off the ground, and I immediately felt his eyes roaming the length of my body. The other soldier, the one who had raped her, was nowhere in sight. I was unaware of the moment he had left. Inside, I was yelling at myself to snap out of trance, to fight. On the outside, I remained completely frozen.
“So pretty.” The soldier caressed my face, and I heard myself whimper in sudden fright. “Shh.” His fingers pressed against my lips with startling gentleness, silencing my protest.
The most absurd part of the charade was that he seemed to be genuinely pleasant, as if he wasn’t one of the monsters who had just tortured and killed an innocent and defenseless woman. I knew it was just a cruel game. He tried to make me look at him, but I resisted the demand. His hold on me intensified, and I experienced the threat of an absolute blackout when he pointed toward the bed and swung me around, forcing me to look at my mother’s motionless body drowning in its own blood. The moonlight fell around her like a cloak, illuminating her face that was damaged beyond recognition. Tears constricted my throat, and my heart twisted with the searing pain of realization.
What have they done to you, Mama?!
“You better cooperate or your mother’s ordeal will seem like a joke by the time I’m finished,” the soldier behind me whispered in my ear, at last revealing his true colors.
Before I could make sense of his words, his big hands gripped my shoulders and made me turn around to face him again. Stubbornly, I avoided meeting his gaze.
“Look at me!” the angry voice rang with threatening annoyance, demanding my attention. Startled, I finally indulged his request, and he leaned so close I could feel his breath touch my face. “Have you ever been with a man?”
I was completely rigid, still too shaken and confused to even be afraid. I swallowed the feeling of disgust, offering no answer. The soldier observed me with hunger in his eyes.
“You should feel honored. I don’t usually fuck your kind before I kill them,“he told me self-righteously and snickered with viciousness as his rough hand moved down my body, claiming me like a possession, “but for you, I’ll make an exception.”