When the Great War came, it left no one untouched. Even the ones who wanted no part of it. They said it was the war to end all wars. Instead, all it did when it was over, at last, was to end my life before it had ever begun.
Back then, I lived with my parents in our estate in the country that was destroyed in the Great War. I was betrothed to him and was the happiest woman in the land, without a care in the world. He had come to stay with us when the summons came. All young eligible men were called to the battlefronts to serve their country. He was one among them.
That night, after dinner, my parents went to bed early, leaving us alone. We sat in silence for a while. Then he stood up and went to the window.
“How peaceful everything is tonight! Look, even the moon is smiling like an innocent babe in the cradle of the sky!” he said, sighing. “Come, let us go for a walk.”
He took my hand, and we stepped out under the heavens flooded from the streaming lights of a full autumn moon. My heart was so heavy, words failed to come from my mouth. I held on to him like a scared infant latching on to his mother. A dense silence weighed us down in a pall of gloom. Still, though we did not speak, we were aware of everything we wanted to tell each other. We strolled for a long time in the moonlit darkness. The only sound that broke the stillness was the occasional hooting of the owls chatting in the woods. We stopped by an old tree whose reddening leaves of fall cast strange shadows in the night. Then he turned towards me and spoke.
“I will write to you. Amidst the incessant shelling, among bodies slumping all around, I swear I will let you know. But promise me. Whatever happens, don’t give up. Remember, my love. Even if we’re apart, I’ll always be with you. Drink from the cup of life. Both its sweet joy and its bitter sorrow. And when the time comes, I give you my word we’ll be together again.”
Tears rushed to my eyes, and I sobbed as I nodded in mute affirmation. I clung to him, afraid of that brief moment of togetherness slipping away. He pressed my face closer to his chest. I could hear his heart pounding like a hammer in the hush of the night. Above us, a sea of stars spilled across a jet-black sky. No one could say by looking at such beauty that a river of bloodshed was coming. The chill in the air foretold the looming advance of a frigid winter. Even so, the warmth in his presence made me forget everything for a while.
The break of dawn brought the first snow of the year. Winter had come early. My parents gave him a quick hug. We embraced, standing at the door, with the snowflakes falling outside. It was so cold we almost froze in each other’s arms. Then he tore himself from my bosom and went away. I can still see his footsteps marking the pure white expanse, disturbing the sad serenity of that October morning. War had come like an intruder in the night sundering us apart. All of a sudden, I felt a giant knife stab through my heart. In the alabaster plains of winter, I glimpsed Death stalking my love with invisible steps. I stared transfixed as he vanished from my sight.
After that day, all I did was wait. For his letters. For the end of the war. For one brief look at his dear face once more. They say the anguish of waiting is worse than the pain of knowing. How true it is! His first letter arrived ten days later. My fingers trembled as I ripped the cover open, my eyes hungry for his words.
We have been marching for days. My feet ache, not from the march, but from the weight of death we are carrying around on our shoulders. My comrades are cheerful fellows who think they are walking to glory. They sing songs of victory, of killing the enemy, of annihilating them. What they forget is what happens when it is over. When we are back with our friends and families. Then we realize it’s our souls we have lost in this war. That the enemy was never conquered, the foe was never overcome. For I have met the enemy and the foe. And he is us.
I burst out crying; for I knew in my heart that he was speaking the truth. Five days later, another letter arrived.
At noon, the dreaded moment showed up at last. When it had passed by, I was left standing. However, countless others were not so fortunate. We had to wade through pools of heads and limbs before we camped for the night. You cannot believe how red the earth is here. It is the color of the blood we have spilled; I cannot make out if it’s ours or theirs. We may call them demons, yet their blood is not blue. It is the same scarlet liquid that flows in our veins. Dearest, I am very afraid. The battlefield makes demons of us all. I have seen gentle people, who would not hurt a fly even, become rabid monsters. I have seen them running berserk, slaughtering the ones who happen to be on the other side. Is it not a random chance we are on this side of the fence, and they are on the other? The candle is dying; I cannot write anymore. But when the darkness comes, I only hope I can close my eyes and no nightmares will haunt my dreams.
His words made me shudder. I craved his presence beside me; I wished the war was over. That night, I stood in a vast field under a maroon sky. The horizon was blazing, incandescent from the ruby red of a sinking sun. I scuttled around, among an ocean of bodies, their faces smudged from the dreadful weapons of warfare. Turning around the lifeless shapes, I searched for him in abject despair. When I came to the edge of the field, a cavernous chasm opened up before me. A florid fountain spouted forth into the reeking air. On its precipitous brink lay a severed arm with the fingers holding a bleeding pen, and scribbling away in the empty void. I woke up gasping for breath, clasping his letter like a vice in my hands. Outside, it was snowing, covering the darkness with a numbing cloak of frost and ice.
His third letter was brief, arriving after a maddening gap of fifteen days. I slumped on my bed, sweating from the sheer stress of the long wait and the intoxicating relief of holding the letter in my hands.
I am in the deeps of troubled waters. I fear we are turning. I can see their bloodshot eyes peering with ravenous hunger at the enemy lines. Our ration is running low. Three nights ago, they ambushed our supplies. Even though I am famished, there is a pit of emptiness in my stomach. I have no desire to eat anything. I wish I was with you.
All my love.
I knew his situation myself. The whole countryside was beginning to suffer from a shortage of food. Old men and women were collapsing from starvation. The young children were howling night and day. There were rumors that the government was busy planning relief measures. Although at that moment, the only things visible were the scepter of famine and the ghost of death creeping upon the land.
Four days later, another letter arrived. This time he appeared to be under immense stress. His usual cursive writing had given way to garbled lines.
Yesterday, my comrades gave chase to a graceful speckled fawn. She was grazing on the grass at the edge of our makeshift camp. They hounded her through the forest like murderous fiends, before clobbering her lifeless before the mother doe. I shudder to remember the brain oozing out from her juvenile skull. The savage screams of my fellowmen drowned the piteous wails of the mother whose child was slain before her eyes. What have we become? I wonder. Humans have always been at war. If not with each other, then with other beings of Nature. Since the dawn of time, we have seen them as our enemies, to conquer, to subjugate, to devour, to destroy. I am too shocked and fatigued to carry on. Only the thought of being with you in the tomorrows to come keeps me dragging my feet, without stumbling and giving up. Only the sweet image of your face ever before my eyes keeps the malaise of my soul from engulfing my whole being. I love you very much.
I sank on the floor with the soggy letter resting like a dead bird in my lap. Before I had finished reading the last line, the spring wells of my eyes had dried up. The agony of his delicate spirit caught up in the impassive horror of the battlefield broke my heart into a million pieces. I could no longer cry because my tears froze from the enormity of his torments.
Two days later, I received another letter from him.
I killed a man today. Not one of them, but one of us. Do you think I am a sinner? No, I don’t believe so. Rather, I feel I have saved my soul at last. After the bombing happened in the morning, we roamed the area searching for survivors. While turning around the scorched bodies, I saw a faint moan escape from one of them. Gasping for air, he lay whimpering for help. One of my comrades came up and helped me lift him to a safer place. Suddenly, he let go, screaming that the wounded man was not one of us. Then he leaped on the man and started bludgeoning him with his rifle like a crazed maniac whose madness had burst forth in all its staggering force. That is when I raised my gun and pulled the trigger. And before me lay two corpses, one of us and the other of them.
PS: Never forget what I told you on our final night together. I will love you always.
That was the last letter I ever received from him, my one and only beloved on this terrible earth. Two days later, news of relentless bombings from the enemy arrived. I don’t know what happened to him. I don’t know if he died in that raid. I don’t know if his dear body was blown into bits by those grenades dropped from the skies. Or was he stripped of his garb, bound in chains, and strung up as a traitor against his own country? Was he dragged from his tent, lashed to a post in the early dawn, to face the firing squad? Did they pump his heart (his heart which was mine) full of lead like they loved doing to those on the other side? I have no answers. Whatever happened to him, he will always remain, not only my love but also my hero. He did what none dared do, he saw the true face of the killing fields and refused to take sides. He fought for the truth, and for that, he was crucified.
A few days later, the government confiscated the properties of its citizens. The authorities summoned everyone to the war front. I was separated from my parents and sent off to work in the military ghetto. I never saw them again. There were rumors that the old and infirm were being sent to secret camps. Undisclosed places suspected to be elimination sites. That was the government’s solution for the scepter of famine and the ghost of death. To lessen the burden by disposing of the old. And then training the young as more fodder for the trenches and their fields of blood. Men and women turned into mere machines of mayhem and murder in their theaters of death and damnation.
I can barely bring myself to write of the events that followed these atrocities committed by the ones who were supposed to be on our side. After many months, I escaped from the ghetto. I wandered alone from place to place among the ruins and ravages of war. I saw things with my own eyes which only confirmed the truth of the letters he wrote to me from the battlefields. Man had grappled with Man and had come out, not victorious, but a brute barbarian of the darkness. My heart trembled at the sight of men; my legs fled at their approach. One war had led to another, and instead of the war to end all wars, it became the mother of all wars. A war that would never end. Throughout the ordeal, which lasted an eternity, my only refuge was his letters. The memory of our last night together gave me the hope to go on. If not for them, I would not have dared survive on my own.
Many years have passed since then. My cup of life is almost empty. I will keep my promise to him. I will drink to the very last drop. Was it sweet? Some of the time. Was it bitter? Most of the time. But what matters most is I have kept drinking from the cup. I did not give up, in spite of everything. The war took everything from me, all my youth and all my joy of living, draining the very essence of my soul. Life itself became an everyday battle with the world against you in so many little ways. Still, I have kept fighting to the grim end. He was always beside me in my struggle; in the yellowing pages of his letters, I found my pillar of strength. And now, when the sun is setting on the battlefield of my life, I do not care if I win or lose. There are no winners in war; everyone loses something or the other. Do you think the bullets care for what’s inside your heart? I will bare my breast and stand tall in the line of fire. Let the bullets pierce through my ribs. Let them spill my blood on this scarred earth. Let my body fall, wounded and dissevered, to get up no more. For I know the time has come, and when I turn to dust, I will be with him at last.
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