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24 October 2009

The Crutch

The holocaust had been sudden. And frightening. The skies had turned dark in the middle of the afternoon, black rain poured out of the heavens seemingly opened up in all its fury. Intermittent flashes lit up the scene giving it a surrealistic appearance. Huge walls of acrid smoke rose in the distance. All around lay vast mountains of rubble. A living, breathing town had disappeared in a matter of seconds. Those who survived the aerial attack would probably choke to death on the dust and smoke which hung heavy in the still afternoon air.

Everything was over now.

The town was quiet; not the quiet of the afternoons, she thought despairingly, when the men were at work and the old people took their siesta; but the quiet of death. Where were the people who once lived in this town? Who lived and breathed and laughed and cried? Where were they who breathed life into these houses of wood and stone, turning them into homes filled with love and laughter?

Sixty summers had she spent here, in this very town, in a small cottage at the edge of the woods. She had come here as a bride, and had been adopted by the town, which, like all small towns across the country, had the trick of making you feel like you had lived there all your life. She had seen a lot of change in these sixty years, all in the name of progress and development. Some good, some bad. After a time, she had ceased to care.

This was her country and like many women all over, she had sent her husband and her sons to fight a war their country fought. Neither her husband nor her sons had believed in the rightness of the war. They had all gone, nevertheless, so strong and upright in their country’s uniforms; and she had watched, proud and strangely sad.

They had left to make war on a native people, a proud race whose only fault was that they were not a ‘civilised democracy’. The new country was fighting for their freedom. She often wondered whether any one had ever thought to ask those people, whether they wanted the freedom that was being fought for on their behalf.

Her husband and sons had gone and never returned. Her breast had ached with the pain of lost loves. And now, that war had boomeranged on their little world. A world, which she had thought was so far away from the futility of war. And, so many other women must have thought, wives and mothers, secure in their own little worlds of love, she thought sadly. How soon did they learn differently?

Each missile had seemed caught up with a life of its own. They had screamed and whistled and circled through the skies like the messengers of death that they were. Where were the country’s leaders, who had called upon the country’s old, the young and the able, to lead them to war? Where were they now that the ‘righteous’ war had turned into the worst genocide the world had ever seen? Whatever the race, or religion, the wives and mothers of those killed in action would mourn them the same way. Emotions were not the prerogative of one country or people.

What was she searching for now that everything was lost? Why was she alive to face the sorrow of living death? She had neither home nor people to return to.

Slowly, she saw a few survivors getting up from behind slumps of rubble that once were the buildings that sheltered them. Wounded, helpless, having lost their homes and loved ones, they were truly a pathetic lot. How much better off was she – she, who had nothing left to lose. She didn’t grieve for the town that had been her home – there was no town to grieve for. She grieved instead for all the homes that had been destroyed, all the hopes that had been crushed, for the blood of the innocents that stained the earth where she stood.

She could have been a statue, so still did she stand, seeming not to breathe. Only the wild gleam in her eyes betrayed her. Somewhere in the middle of the rubble, she saw a tiny hand, grazed and dusty, the tiny fingers curled into a fist. So quietly did she stand, her heart now beating painfully against her ribs, that the slightest sound of the crackling flames made her jump. She gathered herself and moved silently in the way of her ancestors towards the pile of rubble. A silent prayer rose in her heart. Her heart was beating faster now. Please, God, there would be something worth living for. She stopped and slowly, slowly, put her hand out to grasp the tiny fist. Curling her palm around its warmth, she moved the blackened rubble out of the way.

Sharply, she drew in her breath. A child, so infinitely tiny, bruised and covered in dust lay amidst the stones and mounds, looking slightly the worse for being bombed out of house and home. As she looked, her fingers still clasped around the tiny fist, it gave a little gurgle of laughter, its tiny face crinkling up so it resembled the monkey from whence it marked its descent. Her breath caught in her throat and she felt her cheeks wet with the tears that she had not shed upon the death of her men folk.

She bent painfully and raised the child in her arms. It lay there trustfully, cuddling into the warmth of her breasts; a small infinitesimal bundle of humanity, the conscience of the present, the hope of the future. One arm around that precious bundle, one clutching the stick that was the crutch of her old age, she moved forward. Her lips moving silently in thankful prayer, she shaded her eyes against the dust and smoke. Someone needed her. Amidst all the uncertainty of war, was the certain knowledge that now she had someone to take care of.

Her tears came thick and fast. And as she straightened up, her crutch fell away unnoticed. She didn’t need it anymore.

© Anuradha Warrier  

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