Only the Dead
(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
"Only the dead have seen the end of war" - Plato
This is the third day I've been lying out on the side of
the road. It's still early in the morning, too early for the vultures to start
wheeling overhead, but they will as soon as the air warms up. You can plot the
thermals by them, as though they're climbing round invisible spiral staircases in the sky.
At one time, back in
school, I'd been interested in such things as thermals. Back then, I'd
fantasised about someday being a glider pilot, soaring high above the earth on
slender, silent wings. I'd follow the thermals up into the blue yonder until
the land was like a map laid out below me, and then when the thermal gave out,
I'd swoop down till I found another and climbed right back again.
The only soaring wings
that are overhead now either bring death or follow behind, to feast on death's
I suppose that I must be
dead. I can't move or feel any pain, I can't blink my remaining eye, and I
don't think I'm breathing. By now I must have been dead several days, then, and
I should by rights have been buried. But I don't think anyone's going to bury
Not that I care anymore.
If this is death, if this is all there is, burying me won't make any difference
to anyone among the living . It will mean I can't see the sky anymore, and
that's all that's left to me.
If I could turn my head
just a little, I would have seen, over my shoulder, the shattered and charred
hulks that line the road. I know they are there, because I had been on one of
the trucks in that line, that night when we'd been ordered to withdraw. We'd
crammed into all the vehicles available; we, and the civilians who'd chosen to
come along with us rather than face the enemy. But we hadn't gone far before
the traffic jammed up, converging lines of vehicles fighting for space on the road
north. Soon, we were at a standstill.
My hands had been
slippery with sweat on the wheel of my truck, and I'd wiped them on my thighs.
Jameel, my old friend, had been riding beside me, and I'd looked across at him.
"Do you think they'll
bomb us?" I'd asked. "If they do, we're sitting ducks. We can't fight back, nor
can we run."
"No, why should they?"
Jameel had replied. He was a big man with an equally big laugh, always
cheerful. "We're pulling out as they demanded, aren't we? By tomorrow we'll be
across the border, and that's all there will be to it."
"I hope you're right,"
I'd mumbled. "I just hope you're right."
"You and your pessimism."
Jameel had guffawed and tapped his fingers on the dashboard. "Of course I'm
right. Can't you ever look on the bright side for once?"
"I'll look on the bright
side when we're back over the border," I'd told him. "And then –"
The first bombs had
exploded at that moment, like blooming flowers, rising pink and red and orange
over the lines of trucks and cars ahead. The concussion raced down the road at
us, flinging vehicles over like toys, in a storm of fire and shattered glass
and mangled metal.
I hadn't waited. I'd
opened the door on my side, ready to jump, and looked across at Jameel. He was
staring open mouthed at the scene ahead, at the explosions marching down the
highway towards us. "Jameel!" I'd shouted. "Get out!"
He hadn't even turned his
head in response. I don't know if he'd even heard my shout, over the shriek of
enemy jet engines and the deafening sound of the explosions. He'd been looking
open-mouthed at the scene through the windshield. I'd reached out to grab hold
of his sleeve, to pull him from his seat and down on the road, but he hadn't
responded. I think he was frozen with shock.
I'd only run a few steps,
past the side of the truck and onto the side of the highway, when there had
been a blinding flash and something had picked me up and thrown me down again.
I'd felt dizzy for a moment, blacked out, and when I woke I was as I am now.
I still wonder what
happened to him, to Jameel. Is he, like me, lying somewhere close by, staring
at the sky? Did he get away somehow? I hope he got away. Jameel and I, we go
back a long way. We played football in the street together when we were kids. He
has a wife and a daughter, who calls me Uncle and likes to pull my moustache.
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