Annalemma short story: "When the War Began"

Joshua Craze. 13/04/2011. When the War Began. Annalemma Magazine, Online edition. Original available here.

Tuesday February 12th

Today, I asked R to get a manicure. He complained for hours before accepting. Your hands are hard, I told him, your fingers rough. That’s because I work, he said. Everyday I work for you, for our family. I thought he was being ridiculous. You can still work when you have soft hands. He said that men will think he sits in an office, that he has never done a day’s work in his life. R is proud of the time he spent in the bush, and proud of working in the factory.

Shouldn’t I enjoy your touch as much as you enjoy me touching you? I asked him. Perhaps R thinks that only men feel the touch of a hand, and women exist to be touched. He didn’t reply. He looked me directly in the eyes, and said, firmly, that it is unseemly for a man to go to a salon, and get such care from someone other than his wife.

I smiled inside. Fine, I told him. Don’t go to the salon; I will care for your hands.

That night, after the sun had slipped away, I gave R his manicure. He complained continuously. It was embarrassing, he said, as I rubbed off the calluses and hard skin, as I erased the years. I think he enjoyed it.

Thursday February 14th

There are rumors war will break out. T told me she hears trains after dark. “I couldn’t sleep last night” T said, “Huge trains! Rumbling down the tracks. The troops are going to the front.” T always gets so anxious. I laughed, and told her that she couldn’t sleep because she was worried – that was why she heard the trains. They always rumble down the tracks at night. It is because you are worried about war, I told her, that you hear it everywhere. And yet, I wondered.

Tuesday February 19th

This morning, just after I awoke, I looked out of the window. The street was full of people leaning against walls, sitting on boxes, pacing idly; carving out tiny circles of public space, as the city’s residents struggled to pass them and get to work. The city is being transformed into a refugee camp, and families are setting up temporary shelters on the street. I think it is the first time that some of them have come to the city; their eyes are wide, and they stumble through the market, unable to catch the rhythm of these strange city-people who walk fast, looking down, and always have somewhere to go. The refugees have nowhere to go, which is why they are here. My children think it is great fun, like preparing for an enormous camping trip, for which everyone is constantly packing and unpacking. My children play hide and seek amid the boxes.

When I walked to the shop this morning, I met J, who comes from our little village in the dusty countryside of A. I haven’t been there since our wedding celebrations. It is mango season in the north, and this evening we sat down with J and reminisced, eating the mangoes he had brought with him. They didn’t taste like home. My thoughts were outside, with the thousands who have fled the countryside, and who have turned our city upside down.

J discusses the rumors with R. Did you hear? The enemy will attack the area of A first, with nine tank divisions. R is dismissive. Ha! As if the enemy has tanks. All of A is arriving in our city, just as all the city-dwellers talk of more peaceful countries, and prepare to leave. Well, nearly all of us. I mention it to R that night, in bed, and he refuses to entertain the thought. We are staying, he tells me.

Wednesday February 20th

Perhaps the first weapon the enemy launched is rumor. Maybe that is the only weapon they will need to launch, and everyone will act as if we are at war: soldiers will desert their ranks, and civilians flee their homes, and not a blow will be fired. I cannot tell if the enemy is devious or humane.

Friday February 22nd

War was declared today.

Saturday February 23rd 

So we are at war! Absolutely nothing has changed. I feel just like I did after losing my virginity. I had such expectations, such a great sense that the world would be transformed, and instead – nothing, just a dull ache.

Today is like the last. The streets are a kaleidoscope of color, as evening dresses and dinner suits are stuffed messily into boxes, the finery sitting uncomfortably next to the grim lines people wear on their faces. Everyone is moving, and I have not seen a single soldier.

Monday February 25th

Four days since the declaration. It could be the beginnings of the last war, fifteen years ago. I remember hurriedly gathering my coloring books, and that long night-time drive to the city. Every evening, my brothers would discuss the day’s latest rumors – the skirmishes in the area of A, the advances of the enemy. Sometimes I dreamed the enemy was at the gates of the city, and I would stare at my room, planning hiding places. I would always win hide and seek in those days.

R is older than me, and just after we married, when we had returned from the celebrations in the village, and were beginning to build our life in the city, I used to ask him about the last war.

Growing up, R said, the only time we saw the government is when they came to take our cows. Then, at the outbreak of war, they conscripted us. We soon became tired of dying for them, R used to tell me. They had never given us anything. After six years, the rebellion broke out; our soldiers would become rebels at night, and sabotage the train tracks, or attack loyalist battalions. The government accused them of being traitors. We weren’t, R told me, we just didn’t want anything to do with the army or the government – of either country.

In those early years I would sometimes ask R about the time he spent in the bush, and he would answer flatly, in a few words, his voice hardened and closed. The tone of his voice told me: it is not your affair. I stopped asking him those questions after a few years of marriage. I never went to the bush.

Back then, I was just proud that I could recognize the enemy’s planes from the sounds they made as they soared over the city. In the evening I used to close my eyes tight, and wish they would arrive. Planes meant rushing to the air raid shelter. The air raid shelter meant meeting that fifteen-year old boy who held open the shelter’s heavy iron door, and whose eyes calmed me. The fifteen-year old boy meant that the world held some promise. I was thirteen, the war was three years from its uneasy conclusion, and the amnesty given to the rebels that was declared at its end.

Tuesday February 26th

I still go to the shop. There isn’t anywhere else to go, really. I think if someone came in to buy one of our beds – good mahogany frame, slatted base – I would cry.

The government has begun round-ups, the rumors say. There are knocks on doors in the middle of the night. Soldiers are looking for all of those who were part of the last rebel movement. The government says they are siding with the enemy.

I want to leave. Or else jump on a soldier. We were all part of the rebel movement last time, I want to say. I want to scream. But I am silent, and wait purposefully for a buyer of my furniture.

Friday March 1st

The knock came last night, except it was more of a smash than a knock. They took R into the corridor. I only learned what happened later. After an hour, he came back into our apartment, staggered to the bathroom, and threw up. They had made him kneel, naked, with a gun held against his head, while they checked whether he was a rebel.

The test of a rebel, they told R, was rough skin on the trigger finger; the last trace of a past life of resistance. I thought immediately of my family in the countryside, of my father, who spent every day of his working life with a hoe before he was called up to the army, and whose hands were so rough they could be smoothed by no manicure. Kneeling before the soldiers, those traces of a proud life of struggle, etched into his body, would be transformed into signs of guilt. Is that what fate is?

I thought of the city-dwellers, their masks stuffed into boxes, desperately working out how to get abroad and begin a new life; of the people of A, now occupying the city, and standing, alert as sentinels, on street corners. I imagine that tomorrow they will grab a glance of R, with his beautiful soft hands, and snort dismissively to themselves about these people of the city. I thought of the government, looking for the enemy everywhere, as if they were playing hide and seek amid their own people. And I thought of myself. This is my second war, and not a shot has been fired, and not a person killed. Nothing has happened.