Image from Flickr via U.S. Army Korea (Historical Image Archive)

By Ru Freeman
Brought to you by the Guernica/PEN Flash Series

The shrillness of audible prayers—that is the soundtrack. Theirs, his. Begging for peace in warring languages from their respective gods. Her feet fall in step with the flamenco beat of exploding ammunition. She tries to control her body, its treasonous harmony with the guns. Long forgotten prayers rise from her mouth as she runs for shelter from the echoing thunder of men playing god. She screams twice, once when it begins, and once at the end when Shaul flings her to the ground, and she feels herself crushed by his weight, the press of sharp metal tearing the skin on her back. Lying in the protection afforded by splintered wood and glass, she longs for the relative bliss of a checkpoint.

Look at what happens: Does the rubble underneath her lighten with the release from Shaul’s body?

Outside, the tanks roll by: eight wheels to a side, slow, so slow, and so unstoppable. A ghostly pall to the earth that flies up and resettles behind them as if it is tired of these disturbances. Everything is brown. Everything grimed with dusty residue. The girls come from nowhere. Two of them, running behind their mother, who seems to be urging them on with her voice, yet holding them back with her arms; there are weapons everywhere, bullets everywhere, explosions everywhere, where could they go? The younger one wears a blue dress patterned with pink flowers and a yellow cardigan. White socks and brown shoes. The mother is holding her hand. Her sister is ducking away from something out of view. She wears green. Long green trousers, a green and white sweater. Too bright. They are too bright!

Look at what happens: Does the rubble underneath her lighten with the release from Shaul’s body? Does the mother fall first? Seconds. That’s all. A few seconds. He is gone, occupying that other picture. The mother now replaced by Shaul, the girls clutching his legs behind him. He holds a gun. Where has it come from? He turns around in a circle, nearly airborne with the rattle of his gun and nothing, nothing but fury on his face. A macabre dance with the children flapping like rags from his legs. The gun empties. He returns. She opens her arms to hold the children and feels again the sharpness in her back, the cool spread of blood. Shaul wraps himself around them as if making a larger whole can save them now, as if these children were their own, and they, she and Shaul, parents, not lovers whose love could bring forth nothing worth living for, nothing worth dying for.

What happened? What happened? There is no time to weigh.

What happened? What happened? There is no time to weigh. There will be no more time.

When word comes, they crawl out. To pick up whatever might still be put to use in rebuilding, a whole brick here, an unwrapped tarp there, an inflatable infant bath-tub, stacking them along the sides of empty buildings. They are rituals constructed out of nothing, among houses with gaping walls and roofs that have flown away. Every now and again some camouflaged vehicle comes to a halt, two groups of men huddling around it, one civilian, the other in uniform, both with their palms up, pleading, negotiating; and Nadhi cannot tell who is more afraid, who sadder, only who is better armed.

Ru Freeman is the author of On Sal Mal Lane and A Disobedient Girl, the latter of which was long-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. She is an international activist and journalist, and calls both Sri Lanka and America home.

Check out more fiction from the Guernica/PEN Flash Series:

Ethel Rohan: Goodnight Nobody

Nathalie Handal: Last Night in San Pedro de Macorís

Randa Jarrar: A Sailor

Vaddey Ratner: The Cripple’s Last Dance

Earl Lovelace: A Story in Which I Look Good

Reginald Dwayne Betts: Travellin’ Man

Aditi Sriram

Aditi Sriram’s writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, Narratively, and, best of all, Guernica. Visit her website to read more of her work.