20 Jul 2011Labels: Short Stories
For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a soldier. Ever since I could read I’ve studied books on heroes and knights; watched documentaries on the brave men of our history. At bedtime I used to get my dad to tell tales based in times of war and conflict. I used to lie awake at night and visualize myself saving lost souls from the grasp of death. I never thought of taking lives; only of the admiration and gratitude I would receive from the people I would save. It never crossed my mind that some lonely child out there would be cursing my name because of the father I deprived him of. I never envisaged the tears I would cause to fall from the young bride left alone while her husband is laid silently to rest. I always thought war was going to be glorious and noble; like the final charge of the knights of by-gone ages. I never thought it would be like the abyss I stepped willingly into.
As a child I revelled in the past. I spent more of my time in the world of knights and noblemen, courts and kings, queens and princesses; than I did paying attention to the real world. Life was a blur for me; an endless prison from which I could only escape by delving into my imagination. And the older I got the more incredible my adventures became. I fantasized myself on epic quests that took days, even weeks to finish. I envisioned myself in the company of nobility; my stature, a courageous yet humble knight of honour. Anything required for me I completed with finesse, no matter how big, or small the task. Time and time again I would save the damsel in distress, the princesses of striking beauty and airs of gentleness. Always they would beg for me to stay and be their knight, but each time I would leave; only a simple token of their appreciation tucked under my armour, carefully pressed against my heart; a handkerchief, a ribbon, or a delicately tied lock of hair.
The day my imagination failed me was the day I took my first life. I remember lining him up, a helpless victim with no knowledge that he was about to be struck down. I remember the echo that the gun firing made as I pulled the trigger. And I remember standing above his limp, life-less body, and feeling numb. My mind found no grandeur in the situation, no nobility. Only waste. I remember the scathing look a young boy gave me, before another soldier struck him down. I remember feeling empty, waiting for my imagination to spring up and take me along into its welcome embrace. But nothing came to rescue me; not that day, or any day following. I killed more, ended lives of loved ones, of friends and families; and the hopeless, emotionless feeling failed to leave my body. At night I would lie there and search for my dreams of honour, of cavalierly; but all that came to me was the dreading realisation that I wasn’t a hero; I was a monster; someone to be feared and hated. Someone to be hunted down, and destroyed.
Days ebbed on and I ceased to think as an individual; I ate, I followed my squads’ orders, I drank, I slept, I rarely spoke; I killed. With every life taken I hated myself even more, and my childhood fantasy about being a hero faded until it was nearly invisible; silently hanging on the back of my head, waiting in vain for my innocence to return. For it would not return, I was no longer an innocent child.
A storm raged overhead as we trudged towards the battleground. Lightning hits the ground all around us as we march unflinchingly in silence. Mud is thick as we struggle to gain a firm foot-hold. The battle was looming, victory nearly imminent, and yet I was depressed; another day, another battle. It was all that ruled my life now. It was my life. And I hated it. I thought about deserting, but that childhood fantasy had drilled honour and loyalty into my soul; and I was determined to stick to my duty, even though it was destroying me.
The village was near deserted; all but a few had fled. Now and again I spotted a pale face staring from behind a curtain or wall. The smell of fear clung to the air and I felt my mood worsen. Like a rock in a pond, it sunk effortlessly.
Hunkering down, I await my orders. I watch as the other soldiers in my squadron laughed and joked making me feel more low-life than usual; these other men of war didn’t feel anything for the men they killed, lives they changed. And I did. It made me feel weak and unworthy.
I don’t want to participate in the upcoming battle. I don’t want to live while others die. Staring out at the vast, dusky land I feel dissolute. I don’t deserve to be in such a beautiful scene. War doesn’t belong here. In the midst of stunning beauty and gentle calm there’s war and conflict, and there’s me. And I no longer want to be here. I want to be free in the realms of my imagination where I’m not a senseless killing monster, but a knight of honour, preserving the weak and hapless; and staying the merciless, horrific hand of war. And one day, I’ll join the many who forever dream, and lie undisturbed in the realms of imagination; for as I found out, the world of hope and fantasy is only for the young, and the dead and lonely.
Nothing stirs as we walk; not a soul breathes. The only sound is our boots as we trek through the muddy paths, and the rare spine-chilling wail of the wind. As I’m preparing for the next leg of the journey I hear a shout. At first I think it’s our commander but then I realise the voice was too young and the language foreign. Spinning around, I search for the source and spot a young boy, no older than mid-teens. His eyes burn with a silent determination, and a familiar pain. The pain of having your entire life, your hopes and dreams, ripped away from you and replaced with the hard realisation that life isn’t as you thought it’d turn out to be. In his hands he holds a rifle, an antiquated relic from by-gone ages. It’s pointed at one of the squad who squats besides his pack. The soldier’s hand is hovering above his handgun. Then I realise that the rest of the squad are glancing between me and the boy. Briefly I wonder why before realising I’m the only one of the squad who still holds his weapon. It occurs to me that if the boy had been an enemy squad we would have been screwed, but I force the thought aside. I stiffen as the soldier closest to me whispers, “Take the shot.” I stare at him disbelievingly, he can’t mean it. The boy yells again and I see the threatened soldiers’ hand twitch towards his weapon. I tighten my grip on mine, then let go. I hear the clatter as it hits the ground and then the collective gasps from the squad. I don’t care; I’m not taking the life of a frightened boy. Sliding a foot forward I take a hesitant step. I know that any of the others would have taken the shot. But that doesn’t bother me anymore. I’m proud of who I am; I’m me, no one else. I’m not the weak link; I’m strong in my own right. I can stand straight and tall and not feel ashamed for my actions.
I take another small step towards the boy. He swallows and as he meets my eyes I see his confusion. Then he seems to realise that I’m not going to hurt him and he lowers his weapon slightly. I take another few steps and then freeze as I watch the soldier who first told me to shoot sweep up my discarded weapon. He smirks as he takes aim. The boy stands frozen, staring at the gun, his own lying forgotten in his hands.
"Don’t” I warn, barely a whisper. The soldier spares me a withering glance before pulling the trigger. I don’t think, I just act; forcing my body forward I hurl myself in-between the boy and his would-be-murderer. I feel the bullets impact me in my chest as I fall. I catch a glimpse of the soldiers’ unbelieving faces and the boy’s horrified expression as he flees.
I don’t regret my actions. The boy was young and innocent and didn’t deserve to die. Instead of remorse I feel satisfaction and an encroaching sense of peace. I’ve accomplished what I’ve always wanted; I’ve saved someone that was worth saving in a burning flame of honour and cavalierly.
Posted by H. J. Stephens on the 20.7.11