The moon lifted its heavy head over the flumes of dust and smoke that wrapped themselves around the spike of Saint Augustine’s bell tower and, as per the Treaty, at precisely eight o’clock silence struck Ugovinia. Both sides of this unholy war claimed to have the True God in mind; the two hour daily ceasefire had originally been instated so that everyone could still offer Him due service. Later, however, that time became known as the Hushed Hours: when the angry noise of warfare would shrink to a simper. When we would wipe grease and sand from our faces and change shelters. When we would bury our dead.
In the quiet, shouts for help filled the spaces where the bombs’ screaming had been, then it was the safest to move. Four days ago my daughter Anja and I buried her mother in a children’s playground. I had dug, choking. A playground. Buildings had collapsed outwardly all throughout our borough and not many homes maintained their structure; those that did were crammed tight with desperate men – and I would rather ruin the sanctity of a forgotten place of innocence than I would have those men ruin my Jannah.
So I had let tears run over my hands and sting in the blisters ripped open by the shovel. I let my seven year old daughter point to where grass used to be, where she used to sit and dream of picnics. I let her tear at the earth with angry hands when I had to stop; when she became overcome with grief we stopped and tried to remember life before all of this.
I had kept Anja safe. Four long nights without a mother’s protection, without Jannah’s naturally fearsome maternal teeth, nails and sharp elbows. I had managed it but it didn’t take many of those nights to realise that I had to get Anja away; that those cracked women wanted a replacement child, that those broken men wanted a replacement wife… I couldn’t let that happen to her. So, when the noise of the planes was replaced with the sobbing of our neighbours, we ran.
I had warned Anja that it was going to hurt but what does a child know of biting pains in the backs of calves? Or of dust, once a building, in the air she gasped for, grating her lungs as we weaved through streets no longer defined as they once were? We ran past her best friend’s house, what was left of it. I almost suggested we stop. A symbolic goodbye only, for there was no chance that Ezra, nor anyone who knew him was left beneath a structure that looked like a child’s tantrum with paper. I didn’t. We couldn’t. I don’t think she recognised the road without the rest of the familiar buildings either side of it anyway.
Roads were a more fluid concept than before. Before: when we could tell Anja not to go too far, to stay on the street, not to play in the road. When she played. Just, Before. Nowadays wherever a house had split in half, there were tracks through the centre. New roads plastered over compressed homes.
I decided Anya needed a break about forty minutes after we had left the shelter. We ducked under the fallen sign of the old Theatre. The word ‘Theatre’ was still discernible but the owners had closed up long before the war began so Anja had never been inside. There were no happy memories to corrupt, so it was the perfect place to pause.
With my arm around her, constricted slightly by the tight jacket I had stolen for the journey, I waited until her breathing slowed. After her baths she used to curl up on the sofa between Jannah and me and she would melt into us. I’d loved that. I’d run my fingers through her downy hair and she’d curl up under my arm and dissolve back from a whole person into pieces of her mother and I combined. Now her small body was rigid, tense, constantly alert.
I kissed the crown of her head. It didn’t matter if she was dirty or sticky, she was my little girl and I was going to get her out. Under the damp scent of the last place we slept, I could smell something naïvely floral on her skin. I almost smiled. She took a breath I recognised as her Big Girl Breath that she took when she needed to be brave – and for a moment my heart clenched tight around that thought. I so need you to be brave, sweetheart. Be brave.
‘Annie, can you run some more?’ I implored tenderly, my tongue thickly coated, unaccustomed to words. The long silences crouched under building ruins as we waited for soldiers to trample past us had made words an obsolete currency that no one could afford anymore.
She pulled out of my hug and nodded, hair matted and stuck to her face by tears. I kissed her forehead hastily, balancing her needs and the minutes slipping away in my mind. We had to move. ‘I’m sorry, love. When you get tired again I will carry you awhile,’ I promised. She smiled, an effort she made on my behalf. We both knew it. Before all of this, she used to beg to be carried on my shoulders. She would scream at the heights. She was different now.
‘I can do it,’ she reassured me. I cupped her chin for a moment in wonder then nodded.
‘Ready?’ I asked as I let go of her to rebalance my bag on my back. She was staring right past me when I glanced back at her. I turned my head quickly to see what she was looking at so intently, soldiers? Behind us lay a deeply compressed tank path – the familiar interlocked spears in the mud were laid over each other incongruously. Another new road forged by the insistency of military force. ‘Honey?’
It was a small, child’s question. Could we afford one minute, she was asking. Bewildered I nodded and she didn’t wait before she was scrambling over fallen ceiling beams and shattered window panes. I held my ‘be careful!’ inside. It had been almost three years of war, we had outgrown that. She had seen girls being wrenched from wreckage by soldiers before. She knew from their screams that echoed between the explosions that if that happened then you would soon beg to die. I shifted my bag again and went to follow her. We had to move.
Before I caught her she looked around cautiously and then dashed out across the new road. An old café, three piles of brick down, puffed out smoke and the smell of rubber laboriously. It looked bored of its demise; I could relate. We couldn’t wait any longer. I didn’t want that crap in her lungs any more than it had to be. To get across the border we still had almost two hours to go and we only had an hour left of safety promised to us – and that was only from bombs.
‘Anja! – we have to go!’ I called, keeping my voice low. It was not safe to raise your voice anymore. Those who did scream these days did so on the understanding that they were dead anyway. She ran back to me, holding what looked like a bowl, no, a soldier’s hat? I froze in the bizarreness of the moment but it was rare these days for Anja to do something so utterly childlike so I swallowed my confusion.
‘Is that for me?’ I asked, stupidly. She frowned, puzzled. As the words left my mouth I realised why. It wasn’t a hat. That would have been ridiculous; a futile token of safety against a world of schizophrenic turmoil. It was a tortoise.
Looking over her shoulder I realised that my daughter, not even eight years old yet, could tell how recent tank tracks were. Now that I was looking, I too could see that the road was obviously used a lot. Of course she had had to stop everything to save a tortoise from certain death… of course.
God, she’s so like Jannah.
God, did I just say God? I’m not sure I believe in Him anymore.
We left Stephan (the tortoise) near water. It was a stagnant pool spilling out of the side of a factory ruin, but it was something. Anja asked me if Stephan could survive on that water. I felt I may have gone mad as I wondered if we would survive; if the refugee camp would have water for us, space for us, beds for us. Or if, at the end of this, it might just be Stephan left. Would he emerge one day, and think fondly of the little girl that had saved him from a groove in the dirt too deep to paw out of?
We ran. We left Stephan and we ran. We escaped Ugovinia the next day, crossing the borders into Arasaia as midnight swallowed us. At the camp, I eventually got Anja clean, fed and into a bed. Then, finally, I wept; exhausted by the camp bureaucracy. Oddly, I was thinking of Stephan: drinking rancid water, padding ever onward in the search for somewhere quiet. Somewhere peaceful.
I was thinking of him finally collapsing on a scrub of grass, a fistful of it, no bigger than him. He would die there, curled up in his home he would find that divine truth that a whole country bled for. He would die so quietly, beneath the brash, siren calls of falling shrapnel and above the body of the woman who had raised a child who didn’t talk to strangers, who said please and thank you, and who always stopped to help animals in need. Even Stephan would give up on Ugovinia.