In a Time of War - Suzette Blom

Jansen crouched low, his body hidden by the corn stalks. The air was still beneath the leaden November sky. He pushed his chilblained hands deeper into his tattered pockets. Mercifully, the wind had stopped. He watched the smoke from the farm house chimney, his body aching for the warmth of a real fire.

He’d been in the field since late yesterday afternoon just before the storm started, not sure where to go. He became aware of the tantalizing aroma of beef stew and fresh bread. The more he tried to ignore it the more it seeped into every corner of his being.

A young woman opened the door and came out with a large pair of scissors to trim a few herbs off some pots on the dilapidated front porch. Jansen didn’t want to hurt her. He considered himself a man with a strict moral code. Murder was out of the question. But hunger, especially the penetrating hunger he felt after three days with no food, had no conscience.

He looked down at the rough red splotches on the backs of his hands. He still had enough strength to take what he needed, even kill. He pushed those thoughts to the back of his mind as he tried to suppress the dull ache the hunger seemed to leave everywhere in his body. His legs began to cramp so he lowered himself to lay flat on his back. He stared up at the leaden sky fearing the start of another storm. He felt so tired. Exhaustion gnawed at him almost as much as the hunger. It would be easy to fall into a deep sleep and not wake.

His will to move and survive began to melt away as he lay looking up at the sky. He heard the porch door slam shut. The sound had a startling clarity, a call to action. It seemed as if his body, independent of his will, remembered what was needed and was driven to find sustenance. He felt himself stand and run toward the house. As his steps took him closer to the door the aroma of the stew and the bread drove him into a frenzy. He leapt up the decaying steps and threw open the door.

For a moment the world froze. He felt paralyzed, staring at a young girl cradling a small child in her arms, her eyes rimmed in dark shadows. He hadn’t heard the baby and had not expected to be tinged with regret for what he knew the deprivation of his body would make him do. The girl sat eerily still, her arms locked around the child staring at the intruder in the open door. It was as if the energy required for movement had left them both.

The girl broke the tableau with a slow calm gesture. She pointed to the pot bubbling on the stove against the back of the house. Jansen strode to the stove. Lifting a wooden ladle beside the boiling pot, he began shoveling the sweet dark mixture into his mouth. His throat stung with a forgotten ecstasy as the shreds of salty beef and starchy potato hit his palate. He moaned with each mouthful, his teeth barely able to chew as he gulped down as much as he could.

The baby let out a small cry and the girl rocked it gently in her arms as she watched Jansen gorge himself. Much to Jansen’s surprise his body began a gentle protest against consuming so much so quickly. Although he didn’t feel satiated he was overcome with an intense exhaustion. He slumped down on the floor staring at the ladle hanging in his limp hand like it had cursed him.

The girl continued to watch him, silently, her eyes flickering over every part of him, gathering all the relevant information. He followed her gaze, his free hand touching his worn jacket and thread bare trousers. Then he realized she had seen the knife bulging in his pocket.

Her eyes spoke a certain resignation as she clutched the baby closer to her.

He was overcome by shame and remorse that she feared her beneficence would be rewarded with threat of harm. He slowly retrieved the knife from his pocket. He turned his palm up so she could see the blade glinting in his hand. The girl remained perfectly still despite the squirming baby in her arms. In a deliberate gesture he laid the knife on the floor beside him. He could see her more clearly now that his eyes had adjusted to the dimly lit house. She could not have been more than 16. Her face looked hollow and sad despite its lack of expression. Only the eyes enlivened her grey pallor. Wisps of blond hair hung limply around her face where they had escaped the bandana around her head. She was tiny and thin but the muscles on her arms grasping the baby rippled gently under the short sleeves of her rough dress, a reflection of the work she needed to do to survive.

The silence was unnerving yet perfectly comprehensible. It had its own unique ability to communicate. He wondered how he must appear to her, his hair greasy and unwashed so that even its natural color could not be discerned, his face grey from hunger. And the knife lying dormant beside him on the floor carried its own glaring message.

The girl got up and laid the now sleeping baby in the crib on the other side of the stove. She covered it gently with a nubby wool blanket. She crossed the room and took a half empty bottle of whiskey off a shelf with a couple of small chipped shot glasses. She sat down beside him cross-legged, careful to cover her legs with her dress and carefully poured the whiskey into the shot glasses. She picked up one, holding the glass with carefully portioned dark clear liquid in a small toast and drank it back up without savouring it.

Jansen picked up the glass she had left beside him on the floor and sipped it carefully. He was electrified by the exquisite burn as the liquid trickled over his tongue. He felt his muscles relax with each sip. Colour crept into the girl’s pale lips. She went back to her chair, her mouth curving in a smile. Jansen felt as if he had never known happiness until that moment.

He shut his eyes, allowing it all to sink in when he heard the loud crash of the door bursting off its hinges. The Kalishikov was the first thing to register in Jansen’s mind. The soldier held it level, his eyes squinting behind the trigger. In the dim light from the open door Jansen had an image of a drab uniform and heavy combat boots covered with mud. The face was blur hidden by the gun. All Jansen could see was the spikey hair behind the gun. Instinctively Jansen grabbed the knife and rolled away from line of fire. The shots from the gun came like small explosions shattering everything. Jansen turned to see the chair where the girl sat collapse, one its legs shot out from underneath it. The girl’s arm limply draped over the side as deep red seeped from her body over the floor. She moaned as blood dripped from her mouth, the first sound Jansen had heard her make. The baby screamed, awoken by the noise and then it too went silent after bullets tore through the crib. The soldier made his way to the stove and the pot of stew.

Jansen was infused with anger. He clutched the knife and sprang up, jamming his knife into the soldier’s back, feeling the thickness of the skin and tissue as he drove the knife deeper. The soldier let out a furious cry of surprise and turned to confront him. Jansen saw the soldier’s face for the first time. He saw the face of a young boy as hungry as he had been when he burst into the house. He saw the effects of the smell of the stew, the saliva in his mouth flowing almost painfully. The twinge of the muscles expecting to be fed. He saw the girl’s blood on the soldier’s boots and heard the eerie quiet.

The soldier was trying to lift his gun to fire in Jansen’s face. Jansen raised his knife and slashed his throat in exactly the same way he would have had the soldier been a sacrificial goat.

The kalishnikov rolled to the ground with a crash as the soldier grasped at the gaping wound. Bleeding from both front and back he melted to the floor in a pool of red sticky fluid.

Jansen lifted the baby from the blood drenched crib. He rolled the girl’s body over and placed the baby beside her. His throat hurt from the tears he could not shed. He took the bottle of whiskey and headed out the open door.

Suzette Blom has had careers in law and academics. She has published seven short stories in the last year.

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