We waited for the enemy.
In our homes of earth and loose brick, we waited. We took it in turns to trample through the powdery dust, to push ourselves against the wall and peer out of our city. What we saw was clearly divided between flat plain earth and clear blue sky. No room for enemies. But still we waited; our friends and our women and our sons and our daughters waited. Children who were too young to understand could still understand waiting. We did not know how long we would have to wait. We did not know when the enemy would arrive. And so while we waited we prepared for his arrival.
When I was a boy, I watched the pastor dig graves. He dug the graves himself because there was no gravedigger. The gravedigger was dead. We had a gravedigger when the enemy was coming, but still our neighbours dug and our friends dug and our children dug and I dug. We weren’t digging graves. Trenches, places to hide, although when we lay in the earth the steam coming from our breaths would surely give us away. Only the dead hide underground.
And we moved. The enemy moved us.
A great tide of people, we swept through the city. Collecting things as we went. Prams. Telephones. Books loaded onto a horse-drawn cart. Bedding materials. An armchair. Thousands of people and items, mothers and babies and young girls. A man carrying a cello. We flowed in a single direction. Somebody told us that the train station would be safe. The long building that had once echoed with the mechanical, throbbing sound of trains became a people place. A safe place, people thought, and their thoughts made it safe. When every dusty corner was filled, when there was no room to stand or sit, when our women and our children had forgotten the comfort of their homes, only the men remained in the city. And the city became hollow.
With no light, our city stopped being a city. It was a cluster of shapes, a scattering of buildings barely rising up to prick the moon in the night sky. We ceased to be citizens. We slept outside our homes, with the night sky as our only roof, too afraid to light a fire and watch the darkness scurry away. Like nomads, tribes in the desert or the hills, we lived outside our city. And when we took the night watch we became rats, darting and scuttling over the cold stones on which we had lived out our lives.
Echoing voices stopped me and turned me around and cocked the gun in my hand and placed by eye at the sight. Silence made me human again. We worked without a sound. Women had filled our work with song, children with laughter and now, without them, we were mechanical hands and feet. We placed sandbags like corpses and turned our paddock fences into barricades. We trembled as we walked, with one eye kept steadily on the boundary. Waiting for the enemy.
We waited at night, we waited in the afternoon, while we ate our meals, while we slept. In no action of ours was the waiting absent. When we visited our families at the train station they asked us if we had seen the enemy yet. They were waiting, too.
We never took our busy hands for granted. We hammered and strengthened and bolted and nailed and hid and slept in places where no-one could find us. Until there was nothing left to do but sleep. And wait.
The war came from far away. Drum beats and choruses of men awoke us from our sleep. But when we woke, we realised that they were not drum beats, but bullets, not choruses, but shouted orders. We peered out at the flat plain earth in front of us and there was no emptiness. The earth was full, its horizon interrupted, a sack full of rice about to burst at the seams. The people crawled like ants, the tanks like cockroaches. And we lay pressed into the ground, waiting for them as they made their way slowly towards us. We listened to the noise they made, and we were silent. Our women and children were silent. No sound existed in our city. We barely existed.
We watched the enemy come. They came slowly. Great silver airplanes flew above them and dropped their loads on the tanks, on the people, like fiery seeds falling from a farmer’s hand. Our enemy’s enemy was surely our friend, we thought. But we could not be sure. At night, from the battlefield, wolf-whistle sirens called like children caught in a nightmare. We dreamed to this symphony of sirens and shots. We imagined them burning our churches and our children, the snap of gunfire in our alleyways, the rivers of smoke and the shadows in streets. When we woke we watched the fire consume everything, great bombs exploding, their flames unfolding like petals on a rose. We watched and we watched and still they came but they did not arrive. We were ready, our weapons in our hands, our shelters built, our barricades impenetrable, our nerves set. We waited until we thought the enemy would never come.
But one day he was there. That day, the battlefield was silent, no children cried, no gunfire broke, no whispers, no words. We looked about at one another wondering if the world still existed. No words came from our mouths. Nobody dared break the glass stillness, as if a broken surface would unleash a torrent to wash us away.
When noise came, every person heard it. Scrabbling, like paws on ice, like boots on loose earth. A man climbed our walls, our impenetrable barricade. His hands grasped the ledge and we knew he was real. He lifted himself up on shuddering arms and for the first time we saw the blood-streaked and dust-choked face of our enemy. He did not look at us, but looked behind us and through us at something we could not perceive. He reached up and stood tall, stood tall on top of our barricade. And a long sound rolled off his tongue in a language foreign to us. Then he advanced. The enemy crouched and we readied our guns, he jumped down and our eyes found the sights, his boots hit the loose earth and we shot him down. His corpse hit the wall and fell, bent and twisted, to the ground. A bloody patchwork, a poorly-made human. And we lowered our guns and stood, our weapons at our feet. We stood for a very long time. We waited and the enemy did not move again. We left him there and we took our women and our children and we left that place. We left the city and the battleground where grounded tanks festered like flies on a windowsill and orphans played in the empty skeletons of aircraft. We left and found another place. A new place, an impenetrable city where there was no waiting to be done. A city that was full and alive with sound and people. A living city to replace the dead one left behind.
BELOW: inspiration for this piece came from watching a documentary in history class a year ago about the Battle of Stalingrad. Then it changed completely. Feast your eyes.