Covered with mud and full of fear, the soldier observed the ground which was at his eye level. He didn’t know where he was; only that he was safe from the battle. Neither did he know where his comrades were. Since the hole he had fallen into after the deflagration of the grenade offered little protection, he decided to run for cover.
There was smoke going up, slowly. The constant blasts reverberated in the air and shook the ground, followed by shouts and silences. One had only to walk a few steps to find scattered remains of friends and foes. The earth had become as red as a sunset after which humankind would no longer be able to wake up.
The soldier, half man half rag, chewed his fear slowly and then spit it on the mud. He raised his head, looked left and right, front and back, and, for a moment, he thought he were alone, completely alone.
That was when he heard a shot. A different shot from the ones he had heard afar. A sound unlike the explosions he had heard afar. It was a close, real shot. Then he saw the bullet. It was flying fast, like a dark silver dart, straight into his forehead.
He tried to bend down but he had no time. He tried to dodge the bullet but his muscles were paralyzed. He wanted to pray but no words came out. He tried to cry but it was too late. He wanted to shout but he was dumb.
And then the bullet stopped, at around ten inches from his face. The soldier blinked.
Suddenly, the war seemed to have stopped. There were no sounds, no smokes, and no fires. His own heart seemed to hover between two pulsations. And, when he was already expecting to see the film of his life unravel before him, he saw a little girl.
It was a very beautiful little girl, like the ones from the fairy tales. The soldier remembered well the fairy tales that his mother and his grandmothers had told him a long time ago. In those stories, the little girls were always as beautiful as this one. They had dark hair, grey eyes, and rosy lips. Their hair was like an angel’s, the eyes were bright, and their smile was sweet.
Her body was slender and delicate. It was a body that invited you to live… and to hope.
Were it not for the silence, the soldier would not have believed his ears.
The soldier blinked. Then, he opened and closed his eyes more slowly. He looked at the battlefield, where the war had stopped, and at the still bullet in front of his face. He realized he was not dreaming.
‘We have never seen each other,’ said the little girl.
‘But I know how death looks like. It is dark, black, like a skull covered by a thick cloak. A skull with big empty sockets and a mirthless smile. Besides, it does not hold flowers in the hands, rather a long scythe to make its macabre harvest.’
‘You know, soldier, you’ve also been deceived about that.’
‘They all did,’ she said, turning her head towards a place beyond the trench.
‘Go away, girl, or you may get hurt. This is war, after all,’ he said bitterly.
He didn’t want to, but he did as he was told. It was so still, only inches away from his life.
‘I’m death, soldier, and I’ve come to take you away with me.’
The little girl then laid the flowers on her lap and showed him her clean, naked hands.
‘You were told you were fighting for a cause, but you know you will die for nothing. You were told it was your duty, and now they take everything away from you. They told you I was horrible, but I’m gentle.’
‘You’ve also been deceived about that.’
Those were strange words. Still, why was he beginning to believe her? Was it the soft voice? The sincere eyes? The still bullet in front of his head? Or because he was tired of the war?
‘I don’t want to die,’ he said, bending his head down in embarrassment.
‘No,’ he said, recoiling from her in fear, and hitting the trench wall with his back.
‘I was not going to take you with me. Not just yet. First, I would like to show you something.’
He stretched his hand to hold the whitest hand he had ever seen. His black, dirty fingers brushed those fingers smooth as feathers. It was a weird feeling. When the two hands had become intertwined, she said ‘Come.’
The earth was still rough, but he felt he was walking over a smooth bed. The most surprising thing of all was the absence of time or space. They had wandered through a small (or what is a big) extension of that land consumed by hatred. Were it not for the little girl’s hand, the soldier would still be shaking and would have run away. But hers was a hand that invited peace. And he felt calm.Absurdly calm.
She took him to another trench.
The soldier saw an enemy soldier, as dirty as him, who was still in the position of firing his gun over the small protection that the ground afforded him.
The soldier wanted to hate him for that, as well as for being the enemy.
‘I know everything,’ replied the little girl looking at him gently.
‘I know that this soldier arrived at the front yesterday, having been urgently drafted. He is only eighteen years old and he loves peace as much as you do. Until today, he had never killed anyone or aimed a gun at a single person. You were his first victim.’
‘He is crying for himself as much as for you, soldier.’
‘You’ve been deceived about that too. Were you told that the enemy was perverse, evil, ruthless, cruel, bloodthirsty, full of hatred, different from you?’
The soldier was looking at the tears on the enemy’s face. The other soldier was clearly as scared as he was.
They did not go much farther from there, although time and distance had ceased to count for much. In the middle of a place where in the morning people had fought in anguish for a yard of land at the foot of a hill one could hardly see, the soldier saw the broken bodies of several men. They all had the enemy’s uniform on.
‘They told us that this hill was essential, that it could alter the course of war, that …’
The earth seemed to have burst inside out. There were pits, mud, and the same colours all over: browns, reds, and ochres that the rain would finally sweep. The scattered bodies made it all look like a macabre garden. Those were the dead plants of a dead ground. Most of them were just wrecks.
‘I saw myself trapped and I was alone. The bombs were coming from all directions, there were shots sweeping the air and, suddenly, amid the mist, I saw them coming.’
When he stopped, the little girl pressed his hand with that gentle manner of hers.
‘I threw a grenade at them and then I ran away,’ he confessed.
He went closer and looked at them. He found out that he no longer felt the fear of a few minutes ago or the hatred of the previous days. Each one of those enemy soldiers had a human face. Some had died as soon as the grenade had deflagrated. Others later on. One of them was looking at his open hand, torn from his arm, fallen on the ground before him. Another one had just taken a picture out of a pocket. The soldier also had a picture in his pocket that looked just like that. One could see a woman holding a baby, a quiet place, a home, a smile.
‘We all have someone,’ he said, looking at all that death full of bitterness. ‘I was fighting for my wife and son, for freedom, for my country, for myself…’
‘You’ve been deceived about that too. Come, soldier.’
He had never been at the Sector Headquarters. On the day he arrived, proud and anxious for a medal, he only saw it from afar. There were officers going in and coming out, all covered with decorations and looking distinguished and superior. Those were the men that would take the soldiers to victory with passion or to defeat with honour, although “defeat” was a word absent from their country’s dictionaries and army codes.
He saw them closer now. Two generals, five colonels, a dozen of commanders and captains. They were gathered around a table, studying a few maps. Their faces were serious.
‘To hear the rumour of their words, the echo of everything they said before the battle began. These walls testify to it and you can hear it, if you want.’
The soldier grasped her hand tightly. As a matter of fact, he had not let go of it since they had left his trench.
He closed his eyes and there was an immediate sound of voices. They were harsh, strong, authoritarian, and implacable. They were voices of command, used to giving orders, unable to accept rebuttal. They were voices of men that thought themselves enlightened, who were full of pride, heroic ideals, and drunken force.
‘We have to attack!’
‘We have been still for two months. And so have they.’
‘Our soldiers are heroes. They will fight tooth and nail if needed.’
‘Gentlemen, we all know the decisive battle is being fought elsewhere. What happens here will be no longer of interest to anyone.’
‘But our men ignore that and we cannot tell them. Their comrades died here. We cannot go back. They want to conquer glory, to win their battle.’
‘But it will boost the morale of our troops. Even if they don’t make it.
‘Fair? The hill is as irrelevant as the battle. Why don’t we all go away?’
Silence ensued. The question was asked by a young, weak voice.
‘Then we are agreed. Tomorrow morning we will attack the hill and we won’t retreat until the last of our soldiers flies our flag or falls dead. The High Command will be proud of us!’
The soldier opened his eyes. The voices died down, although he could still see the motionless officers around the table.
‘You wanted to win “your” battle?’ asked the little girl.
‘Were you told that you were going to die for a useless hill, for nothing?’
‘The truth is always twofold’, said the little girl, taking him away.
Suddenly, the soldier saw himself very far from the Sector Headquarters.
He wondered for how long he had been gone from his home and from his village. It certainly was a long time since his last visit to the beautiful capital city, with its stone buildings, high towers, and green avenues. Even though this was not really his city, but only the place where big men discussed war and peace. Their war and peace.
‘Yesterday fourteen thousand men died in this war,’ replied the little girl. ‘And twenty thousand more were wounded. It was a very busy day for me.’
‘There are always casualties in a war,’ said the soldier.
‘Today seven thousand have already died and nine thousand more will be wounded. Tomorrow the toll will be even higher, because there is a big attack being prepared.’
They were now in a big and imposing building. There were red carpets, marble columns, tapestries and paintings covering the walls, high vaulted ceilings, and furniture that seemed to have been there for centuries. The room had the shape of a circle and there were around a hundred men talking. They were seated in front of each other and they just talked. They were not quarrelling. They just talked. Some were even laughing. They all seemed to have slept well and eaten even better. These were vain men who dressed smartly. People with smart eyes and the gift of the gab.
The soldier closed his eyes as he had done at the Sector Headquarters, and he heard a buzz of voices anew. Some of them spoke his language. Others spoke the enemy’s. Others were speaking in the language of the mediators and negotiators. He didn’t understand them all.
‘Our proposal is clear. The new frontier must go through point A.’
‘Our proposal is also clear. The new frontier must go through point B.’
‘Gentlemen, we have been at this for three months now…’
How many men had the little girl said were going to die the following day?
‘If the frontier goes through point B, the copper fields will be on your side of the border.’
‘And if it goes through point A, the mercury ones will be on yours.’
‘Gentlemen, what if we tried a partition? If the border were to go through a point between A and B…’
‘What if the two countries explored the mines together?’
‘That’s correct. Thousands of millions.’
‘It’s getting late. The negotiations will resume tomorrow.’
‘That’s right, it’s getting late. We’ll go on tomorrow then.’
‘They are going to their houses, their hotels, maybe to their countries for the weekend. They will dine, sleep tight, laugh, read the war reports and they will feel sorry. Then they will sit together again to talk and talk, each of them thinking they are in the right.’
They walked away from the place where the peace conference was being held. The flags of the several countries were fluttering in the wind. Symbols. Men sometimes died for a piece of painted cloth, each one of them thinking that his colours were the most beautiful. But even colours change with time. Symbols. The winds of the soul were moving other flags.
The city was left behind. After they reached the coast, they left the coast behind. When they reached the sea, they left the sea behind. Finally, they arrived at another coast, at another city and at a big building with the logo of a bank.
They went into a luxurious office where half a dozen men were smoking big cigars. They looked very much alike the men in the peace talks. In their blood there were numbers. In their eyes there were profits, as if they were cash registers.
The soldier needn’t even ask the little girl what to do. He just shut his eyes and heard them talking.
‘It’s difficult to know. It’s a wear and tear war that cannot be won.’
‘If we give them the money they need to go on fighting, who will supply their weapons?’
‘Do any of the parties have any weaponry that might decide the war?’
‘No. They only have conventional weapons. We cannot allow them to have massive destruction weaponry. If everything were destroyed and contaminated, there would be no business deals...’
‘They have already been planned. We have a dozen or so in stock. Maybe more.’
The map looked like a chessboard full of colourful countries.
‘Peace is still in the “frozen products” section, gentlemen.’
Somebody had written a script and they were all actors in the big comedy. Actors and spectators. Some directed. The others died. Like him. Killed by…
The soldier was gripping the girl’s hand so tightly that he could have smashed it with his dark and dirty fingers. But the white fingers of the little girl seemed to be made of pure marble, and she felt no pain. The pressure he exerted did not even bother her.His fury, however, made him feel like a castaway boat.
‘The only monster is stupidity, soldier. And its allies: intolerance, misunderstanding, selfishness, the might of the strongest.’
‘You’ve been deceived about that too.’
‘I don’t understand,’ said the soldier bending his head.
The big bank where they had been was left behind and they reached the outskirts of the town. The town was left behind and they arrived at the coast. They crossed the sea and came again to the starting point of their journey.
‘I am just a moment in the life of each human being. Only Eternity is big.’
His companion remained in silence and together they returned to the battlefield, to the exact place where the bullet had been fired at him.
‘Do you do this with all those who are going to die?’ he asked the little girl.
‘Some need to see me, others to believe, and others to understand.’
She was still holding his hand. In the other hand, she had the bunch of flowers, which she offered to him.
‘Years ago, when you were still a child, you went to the hill to fetch some flowers for your mother. There were hundreds of them around you but, when you bent to pick them, you hesitated. They were colourful, fascinating, and unique. Still you knew that once picked they would fade and their beauty would be gone, and you let them stay. Instead of flowers, you gave your mother a kiss.
‘When I was a boy I loved life and everything alive,’ he agreed.
‘There is a moment in the life of each one of us when something happens. We don’t know when, where, or why. But it is there, it is a part of what we do, of what we are, and also of what we will become and do. That was your moment.’
‘But I will die knowing it was all a lie. You told me so yourself. I was deceived.’
‘Of what use is the truth to me now? Since I am about to die, it would have been better not to know at all.’
‘But what will I do with what I feel? My death will be useless, the war will end, they will count the dead, and everything will go on as before. My wife will mourn me, but, later on, she will meet and marry someone else. My son will grow up in ignorance of who I was, without the warmth of my hands, the love of my eyes, the advice of my voice. They will tell him I was a hero and he will keep the medal they will send him, all wrapped up in nice words, as a symbol of what we had to pay for NOTHING.’
The soldier raised his head, looked at the sky and added, ‘No, it is not fair.’
‘I’m with you,’ she said reassuringly, squeezing his hand softly.
‘You heard the shot. You know the bullet will hit you and that you will react to its impact.’
The shot was heard anew. And, as the soldier slowly came back to reality, he jumped to the side in desperation. The bullet hit him. When he woke up, he was lying on the dark ground, facing the sky. It was raining. The grey rain could hardly be seen and looked like lead. It also tasted strangely of ashes. He tried to raise himself. His chest was hurting. Was that death? Shouldn’t it rather be a heavenly paradise?He took a hand to his face. It was soaked but not in blood. Then he looked at his hurting chest. The bullet had come straight to his head, but he had jumped just in time. The projectile had hit the buckle of his belt and had ricocheted.
That was surprising, incredible even. That meant…
There seemed to be no fighting of any kind. There seemed to be no war. The soldier stood up, but no other bullet was fired at him, no other grenade blasted him, and no other cannon shot pierced his ears. There was only silence. And yet the world was moving, the smoke was moving, and a frightened ant was moving at his feet. There was wind and there was rain.
He walked without aim or purpose. Just for the wish of walking. He wandered among the bodies of hundreds of dead men, dressed in different uniforms, who had fought each other until they were utterly tired and desperate.
He saw the hill and climbed it, dodging more corpses as he went along the way. There was no flag at the top and no survivors, as if there had been no victors and no vanquished. There was nothing. There was less than nothing, just emptiness.
He buried his nails into the flesh of his palms until they bled.
Suddenly, in the sky over his head, a light flashed among the clouds and a timid sun ray beamed fully on his face.
He was waiting for her since the day he had received the diagnosis, especially since he had entered the hospital.
And there she was now. As if no time had elapsed. She had the same bunch of flowers in the hands and she looked exactly the same. She had the same dark hair, grey eyes, and rosy lips. She was very beautiful.
He remembered the first time they had met.
‘I am infallible, but humans are unpredictable. Who would think you would give that unexpected jump? And that the bullet would hit the buckle? You were one in a million.’
He would have laughed but for the pain he felt. Suddenly, someone came between them.
‘No, nobody would have believed me. I am not that naïve.’
He looked at the girl. The half a dozen anxious faces that surrounded him barely noticed that his right hand was grasping hers. He remembered that soft, sweet touch and the fingers white as marble. He had never forgotten them.
‘I do, but it is inevitable. Besides, I want to be with my wife. You took her away three years ago.’
‘I woke up, saw the end of the battle in which each and every one of us had died, and went home.’
‘Years later, when nobody knew anymore why they were fighting, an agreement was reached. Apparently, both copper and mercury had ceased to be important. Then, other wars and other peace treaties came, but that you already know.’
‘I prevented some of those wars, fought for peace, fought against power, intolerance and stupidity, although I could not be everywhere, obviously.’
‘He has been resisting for a long time,’ said somebody else.
‘A great man such as him, who has done so much for world peace, should never die,’ assured a third one.
‘They too have been deceived,’ reminded the little girl.
The little girl pulled at him and they both vanished in the air.