I wrote this story specifically for the SMH Young Writer of the Year contest, for which the trigger word was ‘chain’.
It was something she saw on the streets near Sniper Alley, coupled with a dream she had that night, which led to the development of Mariana’s philosophy. In the yellow light of early morning, the streets had seemed to shine in an unearthly light. Fragments of broken glass reflected the sunlight, bathing the two figures in creamy yellow. Their shadows were so strange, Mariana thought, one long, tall one, and her own tiny one. She felt the urge to laugh a little, but Kamil had told her to be silent with that adult sense of urgency that she didn’t quite understand. Kamil was the tallest person she knew, even though he was only thirteen, the second-oldest person in the shelter. She began to pretend that she was a princess and he was her bodyguard, leading her by the hand through the streets and knocking away shells and bullets with his bare hands.
They were on their way to the markets. If they didn’t get there early enough, all the good food would be gone. And Kamil said the soldiers were lazy, so the early morning was one of the only times that they could walk safely. They passed by the square – which was hardly a square anymore, only an empty place surrounded by rubble – and the anticipation of Sniper Alley loomed closer. The houses had started to look more like skeletons now and Mariana huddled close to Kamil. She remembered what Johan had said about ghosts – that they hid behind the rubble and grabbed you as soon as they thought you were alone. They liked children because they could eat them without anyone noticing.
They were near the marketplace now, Sniper Alley only to their right. Kamil’s eyes would quickly dart there, and then stare back in front. He was looking for Danger. Older people could sense the Danger, but not Mariana yet. She could hear it, though. It was a swift cracking noise, like the firecrackers her neighbours used to have on Christmas day, or it would be the heavy whine of a shell, the painful burst of noise as it landed. From Sniper Alley, the cracking began and Mariana almost yelped in fright. Kamil pulled her down behind the desecrated remains of a building, his eyes staring fearfully at Sniper Alley. A man yelled out – in pain, in fright? – and then there was no noise. Kamil slowly peeked his head out from behind the wall, saw the blood and ducked back down, pale. Mariana knew he was afraid. Kamil was often afraid, but he still acted like an adult. He pulled Mariana up and they walked on swiftly. “Wait, wait!” she pulled away from him, “What if he’s not dead? What if we can help him?”
Kamil shook his head. “We can’t. It’s too dangerous.”
Mariana thought her heart was going to burst. She looked out at the deserted street, her eyes finding the puddle of red in the centre, the remains of the man. She could not pull away, her gaze was stuck fast. “What’s that?” she whispered to Kamil, still trying to pull her away. “There’s something silver on him.”
“It looks like a chain,” Kamil answered, “Maybe he got caught in a fence or something. Come on.” He pulled her away this time and they continued on to the market.
But the image never left Mariana. That night she dreamt of it.
As she walked along the deserted street, the menacing Alley, she came across the man, close enough to touch. He was still breathing, his eyes staring blankly up at the golden clouds. A chain was wrapped around his wrist, silver but stained with the man’s blood. She looked up at the building, saw the round point of the sniper’s gun. In her dream, she could see the sniper clearly. He wore an expression of agony, as if he were in the worst pain imaginable. Around his wrist was curled another chain, but this one dug deeply into his skin, until the sniper’s own blood covered the silver metal. From that point, she woke. And for the rest of the day she pondered exactly what it could mean, with her determined eight-year-old intellect.
At the end of the day, she arrived at a reasonable conclusion, she felt. She did not tell Kamil, thinking he would be worried about her, but she told Georgios instead. He understood her and he would not tell any of the others. After Catalina and Kamil had told them all to go to sleep, she crept towards Georgios and whispered her theory to him as the soft, black night drifted around them. The theory was this: that every person in the whole wide world is connected by a silver chain. If somebody dies, their chain is cut, but the person that killed them is hurt by their own chain. The chains are there because people have to care for each other – if there were no wars and no shells and snipers, then the chains wouldn’t be there. Georgios nodded and said that it was a good idea. Then he kissed the top of her head like her older brother used to do and told her to go to bed.
Over the next few days, it was very difficult for her to forget about the chains theory. It was everywhere around her, it seemed. If she heard about a person killed by a shell, she would think about the owner of that shell and how his invisible chain would be cutting into him. What if his shell had killed more than one person? Would it cut deeper then? She thought she could hear the chains clanking and tinkling underneath the soldiers’ uniforms, but when she asked Georgios if he could hear them, he said he couldn’t. Maybe it was only her, she thought, because she had discovered them, like a secret treasure chest. Nobody else could see them, but the soldiers could still feel them cutting into them.
She thought about asking Johan about the chains. He always boasted after Esfir died about how he had shot the sniper who had killed her. None of the other children, not even Catalina and Kamil, even knew that she had been shot by a sniper. It had all been a big mystery. But Johan told them he had solved it. He had avenged Esfir’s death and killed someone with his gun, like a real soldier. “See,” he would tell them, “I don’t even need to join the army. They would take me now, if they saw what I could do.” Mariana thought he was being silly. Nobody could join the army when they were twelve. But Johan always seemed so happy – not sad, like the sniper in her dream had been. His jumper was too short for him, so Mariana could look at his wrists. There were never any chains or any red marks or scars that they could have produced. Perhaps, she thought, Johan never killed that sniper after all.
Sometimes, she thought of telling the others about the chains, but she knew they would laugh. Georgios never laughed, only smiled and nodded as she told him. As a group of soldiers walked past the shelter one day, Georgios would help Mariana spot the chains on their hands. When they couldn’t see any, he suggested that maybe they were a new unit of soldiers who hadn’t killed anybody yet. That made Mariana feel better. Georgios always believed her.
When it was nearing winter, Georgios became sick. A cough grew in his chest and exploded with each breath. When Mariana sat curled in his lap, she could hear each wheezing breath, as if he was struggling to breathe. That was why, when his turn came to fetch water from the stream under the brewery, he could not do it alone.
They went in the afternoon. Georgios had rested all morning, but still he breathed heavily as they walked. Mariana kept close to his side the whole way, chattering quietly about how many lollies she would buy with the coins she found in the gutter. The neared the brewery, heading through the quiet, dead street. There once were houses here, but most of them had been blown away. Still, half a house remained next to the brewery, the wallpaper singed dark, a couch vomiting stuffing in the front room. Mariana shuffled carefully past, eyeing the burnt child’s crib, the wood leafing off in matchsticks.
They reached the brewery and skidded down the steep path behind it, soil and stones stubbing their bare toes. The stream was cool against their feet, the water filled their buckets easily and Mariana drank deeply, cupping the brown water in her hands and sloshing it over her face. They took the buckets back up the slope and slowly, awkwardly, dragging the weight of the buckets, they walked home.
Night fell before they were halfway there. The darkness closed around them. The city, once full of lights, was now darkened and empty. Footsteps clattered on the quiet streets, a dog barked and shouting could be heard in the distance. Mariana’s hand grasped Georgios’ tightly. The city was never this quiet. The bombs would start soon.
And they did.
A yellow glow bloomed in the distance – the first shell of the night. Sirens yelled and people shouted. Mariana’s pace quickened and Georgios started to puff sickly. The shelter wasn’t too far away, she thought, but in the charcoal night she could hardly see in front of her. Bullets sounded near them and she jumped up, her breath rasping in her throat, trying to supress her urge to run. Quietly, she urged Georgios to hurry.
The bullets neared closer, their cracking reminded Mariana of the bright colours of that Christmas day. A spark of yellow lit up the corner of the building. The bullets were close, trying to find them. The Danger had its eye on them. They broke into a run, leaving the buckets behind them. A bullet found them and water sprayed everywhere. Urgency pumped through her veins instead of blood. Her legs weren’t fast enough to carry her.
In a moment of sheer self-preservation, she broke away from Georgios. Her hand felt cold and bare after clinging to his for so long. The bullets continued and there was a small cry and a soft thud. She turned quickly, her fear momentarily forgotten. Georgios was kneeling now, his eyes sad but… a small smile adorned his face. He opened his hand slowly and she saw the silver chain glint softly in the moonlight. The end was shorn off, it dangled from his wrist. He let it drop as he fell sideways, a tiny stream of blood appearing at the corner of his mouth.
Mariana ran the rest of the way home. Catalina wiped at her tears and kept her safe in her embrace. Kamil gently patted her on the head. She couldn’t tell them what had happened. The pain had dug a deep cavity inside her chest and with each breath it stung like an old wound. She felt as if the chain, the one connecting herself and Georgios, was digging deeper and deeper into her skin, around her chest, around her throat. She wondered if that one sniper was feeling that same sort of pain.
As she grew she remembered the chain around Georgios’ wrist. Why had he done that, why hadn’t he just told her the truth? She began to realise. Georgios, eleven years old, had understood when she hadn’t the preciousness of that eight-year-old philosophy.
I think this is my favourite short story so far. I was writing it in English class (illegitimately…) and just as I came to the most heartwrenching scene, my laptop ran out of battery and I made a very strange noise. Consequently, everybody looked at me and the teacher, of course, knew that I wasn’t listening to her. Oh well. It was quite embarrassing, but I got a good story out of it.