dark am i, yet lovely, a lily among thorns, majestic as stars in procession

dark am i, yet lovely, a lily among thorns, majestic as stars in procession

Saturday, 13 March 2010

WOMAN OF WAR by Sharon Hood

Gun-less, she bumped into someone alive. Another soldier, crouched and armed with a rifle.

‘I’m down to my last clip,’ the soldier said. ‘Take my rifle if I get hit––’ Before he could finish he flopped onto his stomach as if he were falling onto a bed after a double shift of hauling heavy furniture up and down apartment block staircases. There was a bullet hole the size of a penny an inch above his left eye.

Before she could even blink another bullet whistled past so close to her head that she had to check if her ear was still attached to it after she dived to the deck. Seizing the dead soldier’s rifle, she belly-crawled towards a T-junction. Fired warning shots towards the sound of scuffling enemy feet. Took the opposite direction, right, and clambered up a ladder set into the wall ten metres ahead. Popped her scalp up out of the trench.

Within gobbing distance was a makeshift den of sandbags where two friendly quartermasters were handing out ammunition beside their tripod-mounted guns. They beckoned her out and told her in thick ally accents to go in the direction of their pointed fingers.

Beyond them was a battlefield of jeeps and trucks and tanks, half of them leaking black smoke into the sky. Kamikaze planes lined up and dived and bombed like predatory flies on anything that moved. Troops scuttled from cover to cover like ants scooting out of the rain. Gunfire crackled and banged.

An explosion blew her off her feet. She landed on top of an upturned, burned-out vehicle, rolled off it, spluttered, and rolled under it. Spilled cartridges tinkled in front of her. A piece of shrapnel spun like a spinning top. A burning puddle of oil warmed her brow. She stared into the hot flames, their blueness reminding her of a gas oven, of sticking a folded length of newspaper into the fire in the living room, transporting it carefully to the kitchen, and lighting the grill so she could make some toast. All because the ignition button on the cooker in the bare kitchen had not worked; it just had clicked endlessly, as a child, when she was hungry. Nothing in her poverty-stricken childhood home had worked.

Now nor did her rifle. It had jammed. She flung it away.

A pair of booted legs ran past. Another soldier, dragging a stretcher. Like the first one, he dropped as if God had suddenly turned him off, like a robot with the power cut. The body on the stretcher slid off; an old civilian with leg injuries, the colour of an albino ghost.

She dashed to help, obligated to jeopardize her life. The fright on the face of the old civilian was infectious galore. The eyes said how can this be, how can this possibly be?

She shoved the poor chap back on and headed towards a medical tent, protected behind a pyramid of rubber tyres. She flinched at the sight of muzzle-flash. She jumped at the sound of every crash and boom. She almost tripped and fell, distracted by the pandemonium around herself. She could hear more foreign voices, barking out orders she could not understand. Some of them were chanting, singing, cheering.

At last, the flimsy tent was only a few more steps away. She shuffled inside.

There were twelve taken beds and other casualties on gurneys between them on the floor. There were no machines of any kind, no reassuring bleeps from a heart monitor. Several fatalities were covered in black tarpaulin. The survivors were silent except for the odd muted sob.

A single busy body male nurse attended to them, glancing up from the hurried process of washing his bloodied gloves. Every other aspect of his persona was impeccable. His eyes locked with hers for a long, long moment before flashing back to the victim. She stood back, weakened by the beauty of his eyes, and watched the male nurse remove debris from the wounds of the old civilian with a pair of tongs, before cauterizing them. That was when the old civilian passed out.

She could not take her eyes off the male nurse; he was more interesting to look at than all of the action outside. His movements, his facial expressions, his rigid hair.

‘You have to get more,’ he said to her. ‘Go.’

Her body remained rooted to the spot. Go back out there? This flimsy tent was a sanctuary. The image of him was an escape.

But the male nurse’s eyes locked with hers again. Another long, long moment passed. The explosions became distant echoes. He nodded at her. It was a nod with subliminal implications. A nod full of promise. As if he might want her for something shortly, as if she might be able to assist him in some way. It was all the motivation she needed to get on the move again, and haul some more survivors in.

© Sharon Hood 2010

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