There was a path from her school to her neighborhood that led through a field between the town and the river. It was the most direct route but not much used. Everyone preferred to go through the town, even though meant walking past the checkpoints and the crumbled facades that had long ago stopped breaking hearts and were now just the way things were. The avenue went past the school and the park to the crossing which still bustled with shops and cafes in spite of it all. From there she could take a right turn and follow it straight to her neighborhood. If she continued, which she didn’t, she would reach the walled compound just beyond the edge of the city where official visitors stayed when they were allowed to visit.
Like everyone else, the girl followed the main roads through town, sometimes stopping to buy a sweet on her way to or from, but then one day she noticed a group of foreigners walking from the compound to the center by way of the path in the field, and she asked her mother about it. A path existed, or rather several paths, but even before the war they weren’t much used. Teenagers would go there to sit by the river and do the things that teenagers do when they aren’t being watched. The city would cut the grass down when it grew too tall, but only where the ground was level and there weren’t any nests or burrows. Closer to the river the ground would turn muddy but you couldn’t tell until you stepped in it. Of course, during the war there had been a fear that walking through the field would leave one exposed to opportunistic sniping. Now that the government controlled both sides of the river there was no more sniping to fear, and since the river was too deep to cross at that point nobody had ever bothered mining the field, so it was probably safe to use the path, except that nobody had cared for that field for year so now it was overgrown and unpleasant.
The girl saw the foreigners every morning trek through the field. There were three men and two women. One of the women was old, and one of the men was so enormously fat that the girl couldn’t believe her eyes. But the other woman was beautiful, with her shining hair tied back in a way that was both unfussy and elegant, and the other two men looked handsome in completely different ways: one lean and young with an appealing stubble of beard, and the other with salt-and-pepper hair and a square-jawed face that was dignified, warm, and finely aged. For whatever reason they didn’t take the armored cars that drove too fast down the main roads. Perhaps they appreciated the thirty minute walk from the compound to the municipal building where they would spend the whole day in meetings or whatever they did in there. She never saw them trek back but assumed that they walked back in the evening after she was already indoors.
The foreigners left after a week, and the next day when school let out instead of walking out onto the main street towards the crossing, the girl turned and headed towards the field, where she found the trailhead just beyond the garbage dump. There were no signs warning anyone to keep off, and although at least a dozen adults saw her go into the tall grasses nobody stopped her, and so she went in, and discovered that the path was clear to follow. It intersected another which took her back towards the neighborhood and deposited her right by her house. The whole trip took fifteen minutes, which was faster than going through town. It meant forgoing sweets, but that would save her a little money anyway.
Mostly it gave her fifteen minutes of quiet, instead of the yelling of the boys in the schoolyard, or the squealing and belching of the cars and trucks and armored vehicles along the roads, or the loud everyday dramas that consumed the lives of the people who still frequented the shops even though they had no money to buy anything and not much was for sale anyway. It meant not passing by the soldiers who eyed everybody nervously and randomly inspected bags and pockets and sometimes led people away to the other walled compound, the one in the center of town, just behind the municipal building.
The girl didn’t use this quiet time to reflect or meditate or anything. She was eleven years old, to be twelve soon enough, and although she was old enough to know and understand what was happening around her she wasn’t old enough or clever enough or sensitive enough to process and analyze and find meaning in what it all was. She did look at the colors of the flowers that grew wild, and watched birds flit back and forth following urges that only they could understand. She saw a cat race through the path with a mouse in its mouth, and once nearly stepped on a green snake that looked too much like a fallen stem. Sometimes an insect would call out into the void, and sometimes for no obvious reason a whole choir of insects would answer back and the sound would become as loud as any shouting or fighting, and then just as mysteriously die down again.
Once she was home there would be no more quiet. She lived with her mother and three other families in a building just off the main road. The buildings on the main road had suffered the bulk of the damage the previous fall, and most of those were still uninhabitable, with only the poorest people choosing to live in apartments missing windows and doors and sometimes whole walls. The girl’s building, just behind those, had been hit, too. The roof on the top floor was missing and two of the four apartments were completely unusable, but the other two apartments on the ground floor still had running water and reliable gas and heat.
She and her mother had moved in that spring, after the campaign ended. Their old house, near the bridge, had taken a direct hit which killed her baby brother and probably also her dog. At least the dog had never been found. The baby was. It was the third child her mother had mourned that year and perhaps she was becoming numb to it. The girl admitted to herself that as sad as it was, without the baby things would be a little easier. Her mother could work during the day, and the girl could do her homework properly at night.
Losing the house, however, was a problem that would have ended terribly if not for a stroke of good fortune that allowed her mother to be in the right place at the right time and find an empty apartment. The apartment had two bedrooms in it, and the family that owned it was willing to let them take one. They would have to start paying rent, but with her mother able to work longer and no baby to feed or care for, they could afford it and still have a little money left over for treats and newer clothes. And with the front lines shifting farther away, the shops were at last beginning to stock merchandise.
Still, sharing the space with the other family–and with the neighbors, by default, because the other two families were crammed into an even smaller apartment, and tended to just wander between the two apartments as they saw fit–meant noise as they fought over petty things, or argued about politics, or accused each other of crimes big and small. Everybody was stressed, and they took it out on each other because they couldn’t take it out on the universe or whatever it was that was causing them such misery.
In only a matter of days the walk through the field became a cherished ritual. She tried her best to slip away when none of her friends were looking. She didn’t want to be followed, and to lose this time. Her mind went into a sort of a blank trance, a happy emptiness. What should she have thought of otherwise? She could remember her father, who was taken by rebels early in the war and never seen again. Or her older brother who had taught her to throw a ball and rail against the government, then joined the rebels and died during a raid across the river. Or her sister who worked while her mother stayed home, and was taken shortly after the spring offensive brought government forces across the river for the first time in years. She turned up later that night, and the girl both knew and didn’t know what happens when a group of men take a young woman, and both did and didn’t understand why her sister opened her veins under her favorite tree.
Or should she think about her school, which despite it all stayed open and took in the town’s children day in and day out, even though its teachers weren’t paid and the books grew shabbier every year, and stray bullets and shells fell in the playground or slammed against the walls or sometimes the children. About the day shortly after the spring offensive when a boy walked up to the principal, who had already agreed to cooperate with the government officials who began moving into the municipal building before the whole city had been taken. The boy, sixteen years old and brave, strode up to the principal in the playground as if meaning to walk past him, and then took out a knife and stabbed him in the neck. The girl, who was on what was left of the jungle gym, saw the blood pour out and the principal fall to the ground, and the other teachers on the playground run up to the boy to knock him down and to help their leader, and in the middle of the scrum was a thirteen-year-old girl who suddenly shouted the rebel slogan and blew herself up and killed three teachers, the boy, and herself. The force of the blast knocked the girl, our heroine, off the jungle gym and onto the hard playground floor.
And the children went back to class because even still there was no place safer for them to be.
Should she think about these things on her way home from school? Perhaps better if she didn’t.
And on one unusually warm day as she walked along the path home from school she saw through her empty trance a large dark shape in the grass and stopped to examine it. It was a long black rifle, one of the new shiny ones that government forces carried as opposed to the stubby and dirty ones that the rebels favored. She picked it up and in doing so disturbed the soldier to whom the gun belonged. He was lying in the tall grass on the side of the path away from the river. His lunch was next to him, and she understood that he had stopped to have lunch and, it being such a warm and nice day, he had fallen asleep. By the time he woke fully the gun was in the girl’s hands.
What a sight it must have been for him. She was thin and her hair was limp and lifeless but she was pretty, and her face betrayed a quick if untutored intelligence. The gun was comically oversized in her hands, incongruously highlighting her innocence.
What a sight he was to her. He had the softened features of a boy who had grown up far from the front, and the wide eyes of a boy whose knowledge came from books first and foremost. It was fitting that his uniform was half off and his weapon had rolled away. He, too, was an innocent.
She turned the gun in her hands so the barrel pointed at his head and her finger could slide over the trigger. The butt stuck out behind her between her arm and body. She need to use her second hand to hold the gun steady.
There was a moment when the soldier could have snapped to attention and pulled the weapon from her hands. He was trained to move quickly. He could have snatch it and she would probably have been so taken off guard that she wouldn’t have resisted. At most she may have squeezed off a round that would have been harmless enough. But that moment had passed. He was on the ground, half-propped on a single arm, and the gun was now pointing directly at his face.
She was a child and he was a man, and she had the air of a little sister and he knew himself to be a big brother, and so he smiled.
“Okay, you got me,” he said, beaming.
What did the girl see when she looked at him? Not a big brother. Her big brother wasn’t like this. He was loving but hard and unforgiving, even to her, and as he grew older he grew harder. He was never as soft or as old as this boy soldier, and she didn’t remember him ever smiling.
She felt the gun slipping in her hands and she shifted her grip. This startled the soldier. “Hold on, little girl,” he said, shifting back as far as he dared without scaring her.
What should she have been thinking? Revenge for her father and siblings? Anger at a war neither of them caused? She thought of those. About the soldiers who hurt her sister. About the baby brother that died in his crib. About the butterflies that drank from the flowers, and the grasshoppers that leapt from one overgrown stem to the next. About the weight of the gun in her hands, and the everyday indignity of the checkpoints and the disappeared, and the foreigners who came and asked questions or gave away that were both worthless and essential at the same time.
About the young man whose eyes changed from charm to fear. She held the gun higher. She had never been bigger than somebody before.
“Give it here,” he said quietly. “I won’t hurt you. You go your way and I’ll go mine.”
She both did and didn’t know what would happen if she pulled the trigger. He would die, and she would be a murderer. She both did and didn’t now that she would have nightmares and his face would haunt her to her final days. She both did and didn’t know that there would be repercussions for the whole community, that he wouldn’t report to the base and they would search for him, and find him, and this sector that had been declared secure would become the focused of renewed anti-rebel activities, and that there would be more checkpoints and more disappearances.
She both did and didn’t know that she wanted him dead, and both did and didn’t know that it wasn’t him but something larger and more inescapable.
“Please,” he said.
The report was swallowed whole by the quiet. The kick caused her to step back, and pushed his face down into the dirt. His eyes were open wide, and blood poured from the hole above his ear and later through his mouth. His eyes stayed open but he wasn’t looking at anything, just staring straight ahead, perhaps at her feet in scuffed school shoes. His mouth opened and closed but didn’t make a sound, perhaps a prayer or a plea.
She couldn’t move, or drop the weapon, or stop watching him until he gasped and coughed and died. She realized then she hadn’t breathed for a few minutes. She took a breath now, inhaled the fresh air of the field, and glanced around. She was alone still, or again.
The girl dropped the weapon next to the body and continued on her path. When she turned onto the path that led to her home she became aware of how fast her heart was beating, and how her legs and arms were shaky and a thin sheen of sweat was forming all over her. Color drained from the world around her and sounds dimmed.
When she reached the main road she saw the pockmarked buildings and sheets hung over holes in walls and she drew another deep breath. The colors rushed back and the sounds came back and her legs stiffened and her heart slowed down. She wiped her hands against her uniform, looked both ways, crossed the street into the neighborhood, and went home.