We watched them dying and we were happy.
We threw our grenades and fired our bazookas. The tanks exploded. The ones who lived crawled out, their uniforms brown with sweat and red with blood; we shot at them and, as we hit them, we cheered. Women, men. Cheering, dying. Often, they did not die at once. We shot them again, in the arms and legs and genitals and waited silently. They watched each other die, they watched us watching them.
We didn’t think of them as people, as human beings, with lives like ours. We knew nothing of their lives and didn’t want to. What we knew was: We lived here, they did not. We wanted our homeland, they were invaders. Every foot of ground was land we cleared and tilled, built our homes and shops and farms on, with our labor and our sweat. And our blood. Sometimes I think the soil seemed red from how hard the sun beat upon it. Other times it was red, from how hard we protected it.
Before they came our lives were hard. They have been, for generations. Usually, we had only enough to eat, at best. Sometimes–when the rains were especially heavy or didn’t come at all, or during the worst parts of summer and winter–there was too little. We grow what we can but the soil is unforgiving of the weather and the weather has no compassion for our stomachs. There is grass for the animals so there is milk, cheese, eggs. There are rabbits and snakes. We do not grow fat but we survive. Life here has always been about surviving. I know, in some parts of the world–theirs, I have heard–it is about pleasures; our pleasure is from our families, our children, our parents, our history. There is a joke among my people, that our ancestors hid on the Ark and, when the flood ended, they did not wait for God to tell them to get off, they jumped. They didn’t know any better, so they jumped here and stayed, a little place where God would pay little mind. Which He does. We have little, we know little of the world. But we have joy from those we love, we know love through their eyes and their smiles.
When I see my husband’s eyes I remember that. When we fell in love we were very young; almost children. Children trust; we trusted: In ourselves, in our hope, in the future. When I married, I believed in many futures. When our first child was born I looked into her–not just her eyes but through the skin, so pale, so thin the light shined through it, the clear brilliance of our lake under summer sun–and I saw her heart pounding with hope, her lungs swelling with it. That is our hope, my husband said. He touched her hand and it opened, like a flower… like a beautiful new-bloom flower.
I have two children; and my nephew. They are still young. Not too young to know what is happening now, what has been happening these many months since they came again. My children don’t understand. They cry when they see the uniforms; they cry out, at night, in their sleep. They have seen things a child should never see. They have seen things you should never see, that I don’t want to see. I see them every day, since the invasion. I will describe some of them to you, you will, perhaps, understand why we cheer when they fall. Why we sit and listen–without smiles but without remorse–as we watch them suffer.
They have many weapons. Bombs and tanks as well as guns and grenades. The bombs and tanks destroy our homes and fields, our animals and grain. And kill us. The guns and grenades just kill us. Every one of us is the enemy, to their eyes. Age, sex: They don’t matter. Last week, they came to the village three miles from mine. It was a small village; only a few hundred lived there. The people had only a few old rifles, knives; they used these for hunting. ticks, machetes. My sister lived there, with her four children and her husband–an old man, over fifty, with a crutch.
They killed them all, except my ten-year-old nephew. He hid and they did not find him. But he saw. First, they killed the youngest–she was four. The others were bound and forced to watch. They killed the seven-year-old, the twelve-year-old, my sister, then my brother-in-law. My nephew who escaped said they asked, every time they raised the gun or knife or bayonet: where are the weapons? My family answered: there are no weapons. They did not believe that, so they killed them. The children were shot in the head. My sister and brother-in-law were cut–no, carved–open. Slowly, my nephew said, with their mouths gagged as they were sliced so they could not scream from the pain. And after each cut the gag was removed, so they could be asked, again, the same question they could not answer. They left them, unburied. Then they burned everything, to the ground. When I saw it there was nothing but ash. You could not even tell what had been human. My nephew held my hand. He wept. I wept.
Before they came I saw so much beauty here. The mountains, they rise through the clouds, when the sun rises over them they are gold with the snow and stone of the peaks. The rocks are black, spare saplings and old, huge trees struggle among them. At night the sky is clear and black, the stars are white. It is still beautiful but I rarely notice that now. There is too much else I must notice: sudden movement, tracks in the mud, fires in the dark, camouflage. There is too much to listen for, too; once, I listened for the music in the wind, and from the birds, from the songs we sang, from our pipes, our drums.
Now, listening–for their small sounds, their language, their laughter–is what comes before we attack. We attack and run. It is the only way we can fight; the terrain is difficult: we know it, they do not. We travel in small troops, carrying little, but there are many of us and we are good shots. We have learned to listen, and we have learned silence. That has been hard. We are a joyful people, we express what we feel in shouts and songs and claps. We dance. Even now, I dance; it is not from joy, but it is a way to remember joy.
We do not need music to dance. Dancing is a celebration, it comes from within, where there is always music. Our drums and pipes, they make music too; but it is different, that is the music of our country. This music is the music of our souls. It is the language we speak to ourselves. The other is for speaking to the rest of the world.
The rest of the world knows as little of us as we do of them. They read in their newspapers: there is a war in a far-off place. They see pictures on their televisions, their computers. I do not think they are indifferent, but our problems are not their problems; we matter less to them than they matter to themselves. We are foreign to them, just as invasion is foreign.
We have been invaded, repeatedly, for centuries; we have, always, driven the invaders away. A people defend their land, its people, its history, its way of life. Those who come say there is something better, they can make our lives better if we will live their way of life. But what is better? To live as you have always lived, to believe and pray and celebrate as you have always done, to accept change as you create it; or to live with values you do not know or recognize, and change because you are forced to? That is the true foreignness, to have your nature dissolved by the acids of other cultures, to have children and grandchildren taught ways and meanings which are not born of the traditions you yourself know. “Different” is not better. We change; we must: change is inevitable. But what we have been, that cannot change. The invaders, they would displace that with what they have been, they want to remake our hearts as they want to remake our land, our economy, our government.
There were invasions when I was a child. My parents told us of the invaders that came when they were children, just as their parents and grandparents had told each generation before.
Invading this land is a tradition, I think. A rite of passage: Our neighbors’ children come of age by stepping onto our soil, rifle on shoulder, and killing. My grandfather said our troubles are God’s will, that God would have us struggle in this life to remember it is the next one that matters. Which is, I suppose, why so many of us go on to the next one so soon. I wonder what those in the next life think when they look down to us–are they saddened, anxious, annoyed, infuriated by what they see? Are they scornful–do they “look down” on us as well as at us? Do they plead with God for mercy, or smile as God raises a hand–or does not raise a hand–and we suffer?
God would have us suffer, it is said. That I do not understand. God, like the invaders, I do not understand. Perhaps God is beyond human understanding, as the clerics say, but I cannot accept that: we are, all of us, in body and thought, in deed and in action, the spawn of God’s intention. If it is God’s intention that we are, continually, to conflict, then we are pointless: conflict is the annihilation of the value of life; harmony is the creation of its value. I am not so naive or immature to believe in the perfection of the world, but I know I would rather love than kill. I believe our people believe that, too. The invaders do not–they would not come here if they did not want to kill, more than anything, for they know, must know, that without killing they cannot conquer. So I believe that God is like the foreigners: our problems are not God’s problems, God does not interfere to help Mankind; not to hinder Mankind. We are objects of study; a scientific experiment; its integrity would be compromised by divine intervention.
Therefore I do not worship God. I believe in one, a deity that created the Universe, One which possesses the power to destroy any part of it. But I do not worship, because the indifference of such a deity does not deserve adoration.
What I adore is life. Without the invasion life is full, it is rich, it is the sight of the deserts from the top of the mountains: broad and endless, a horizon that is dark and light and gray. It is the harsh earth, it is the comfort of the moon’s radiance. In peaceful times, before they came again, we lived life. Now we live only war, the battles; against them, for our survival. For our homeland.
They watched us dying and they were happy.
They threw grenades and fired bazookas. Our tanks exploded. Most of us died inside them. Those in mine survived. I crawled out, behind the others; our uniforms were drenched with sweat and blood. Somehow–in the fire and smoke, I think–they did not see me crawl away. I hid, in a rock pile. The ones they saw, they shot. I heard cries and moans, and cheers. Women, men. Cheering, dying. Some did not die at once. There were more shots, my comrades cried, but no other sounds, no words. Finally, the cries stopped. I heard boots and voices rasping their language. I waited, the boots and voices grew softer. When they were gone I crawled out. They had left the bodies there, on the ground. They were shot, in the arms and legs and genitals. They waited while we died. They watched us and waited, silently.
They are not human beings, with souls like ours. All we know of them is what we see: they destroy, they have no mercy. We would have peace; they do not allow it. We come here because they threaten us: do not pass through this nation, they tell us, do not use these roads to cross the mountains, or we will attack. We have goods we must deliver; there is no other route. So we take our trucks and they attack them. Before there were trucks, they attacked our carts and wagons. And that was not enough. On our border there are villages where they come, at night, they set fires, they destroy the grain, the shops, the forests. Many are killed. More are left without food, clothing, homes.
My homeland is a large country. We are farmers, fishermen, carpenters, weavers. Poor people, almost all. But we are proud: we have made our land provide for us. We have raised food on soil that is too dry, too hard, too much used. We have woven wool into scarves and vests of such beauty they are treasured for generations. Tables, chairs, bowls that are art, shaped from the wood of our trees; in the summer the green of their boughs reaches almost to heaven. We can stand below the shimmer of their color, see the sparkle below the hidden sun. A legend says that God has given this part of the world a sky of emeralds. When they are hungry the children stand and wait for them to fall. “We will have food,” they say, “when the sky rains green.”
Until we came here, I had never left my homeland. I have been away a year; I miss it. This land is mountains and deserts; ours is plains and forests. Theirs is old and slow; ours is young and eager. Their people are angry and cold. Ours are joyous and warm. We are filled with the hunger to learn of the wonders life has to offer. These people have no wonder. I have seen them stare at the world as if it were a blank slate on which they have no need to create.
But creating is the meaning of life. Creating is life: I have two children. My husband and I created them, and we create them again each day. There is such extraordinary beauty in their faces, their eyes: they look at me and in them, I see the world as it could be—a vast openness, a vast hope, a vast empty canvas to be filled with the dreams my husband and I can paint upon them.
My children write to me. They say: I miss you. They say: I cannot sleep when you are gone. They say: when will you come home so my sister will not cry because you do not sing us songs or carry us on your shoulders or kiss us when we are sad. I write to them: I miss you. I say: I cannot sleep when I am without you. I say: I kiss you every morning and every night, I walk this land with you on my shoulders and on my heart with the longing I have to be with you again. My children should not be without their mother. I know their nightmares; I had the same ones as a child when my mother came here to face these people. I had the same fears.
But I am here. I am here because it is my duty; not just to my country, it is my duty because among the villages on our border is one where my Uncle lived. I was fourteen when I saw that village the last time; when I saw the empty sockets where my Uncle’s eyes had been, the stake upon which his twelve-year-old daughter was impaled, because they had no food, no livestock, left to give to the invaders who demanded them. Those are things a child should never see. Those are things no one should ever see. They cannot be forgotten. They should not be. I still think of them. I weep now, as I did then.
I weep, too, because here I have killed children. These people, sex, age do not matter to them: the children are taught to fight, they hide, they shoot at us, they run. Old men hide bullets in the hollows of their crutches. Young girls hide explosives in the heads of their dolls. They deny it, but we know they are there; we have found them time and time again. Last week, we—I killed three children; we killed their mother, their father, in a small village. There were weapons there, but they would not tell us where they were hidden. We burned everything; after, we found a pile of rocks; there were grenades and plastics beneath them. We did not want to kill them. But these people, of this village, had killed so many of our comrades. We could not let them keep their weapons. We could not let them live. This land is filled with our blood. I walk through it; everywhere there are reddish-brown stains, everywhere the scent of copper.
Before I left my land, I walked throughout my village. There was so much beauty to be seen. Narrow streets smelling of morning, coffees and baking and firewood-smoke. Music, there was so much music, fiddles and flutes and spinets praising the notes. Children dancing. Children shouting. Children dancing and shouting at the joy of sunlight. I taught my daughters to dance—we dance together. Now, here, I dance to recall that, though I dance alone.
We do not need music to dance. Dancing is in our souls, we are born to that music that only we can hear. There is music we play for the world, but I contain our music. Even here, even here, I can feel it, my daughters’, my husband’s, my peoples’.
The world doesn’t know that music. The world doesn’t know us. They read in their newspapers: there are people who must go to war. They know of our struggles, but they do not care about them. Our struggles are not theirs. Our way of life is not theirs, just as it is not the way of this land. But in this land they think their way is better, they would prevent change, our own and theirs; but there must be change: without change, a nation does not grow. A people cannot live in the past. They do not see that, they do not recognize that “different” is not worse, that the lives they live isolate them from us, from the world. To embrace change is to accept the world. To deny it is to deny nature.
Sometimes I am afraid. For my life, but more for my children: our people have fought here for centuries. I think we are children until we step onto this soil, rifle in hand. Then we kill and come of age. My grandmother said one must be a woman to kill. The world, I think, needs more children and fewer women. Children can have faith: in themselves, in the world, in God. I had that, once. Now, seeing this, being this, faith and God are beyond belief. If God wants us to kill, to die in the pursuit of death, God is cruel. It is cruel, to annihilate life, to trample its value like an unnoticed wildflower. I am not so naive that I believe in the perfection of humanity, but I know I would rather love than take lives. I believe our people believe that, too. These people do not–if they did not want to kill they would welcome us, let us welcome them, as neighbors. So I believe God, in His cruelty, allows the killing, shakes His head as it happens, but says, as the world says: theirs are not my problems.
I cannot worship God. I believe in one, a deity which created the Universe. But I do not worship it, because such cruelty does not deserve consecration.
What I consecrate is life. When the invasion is over life will be full. I will see the pale dry-yellow plains of my homeland, its green horizons, hear the bitter wind and the sweet splash of stones into a stream. I will hear the music of my children’s smiles. I will, again, live life. In peaceful times, we lived life. Now we live only war, the battles: against them, for our survival. For our homeland.
Evan Guilford-Blake writes plays, prose, and poetry. His work has appeared in about 90 journals and anthologies, winning 27 awards and garnering three Pushcart Prize nominations. His plays have won 46 competitions. Thirty-nine are published. He’s the author of the novel Animation and the award-winning short story collection, American Blues, for adults; and The Bluebird Prince for middle-grade students. Details are available here. Evan and his wife (and inspiration) Roxanna, a jewelry designer and business writer, live in the southeastern US.