the short story project



   The square is deserted. White light heats the lime walls and the wind whirls the heavy dust around the dried-up fountain. The sky itself is white, melted metal flowing down the world. And all around me, the silence of this noon like every other noon, smothered under the floating sand.
   I take to the shadows, sitting against the collapsed wall of a house, my backpack spread over the shattered bricks, camera in hand. It is noon and the square is deserted, it is mine and I can photograph the death of these walls, of these streets, of this sky without a bird, a shout, or the dance of a single leave. No one here to ask me what I am doing, what I am hiding under my head-kerchief, in my sleeve, or in my backpack, what is my camera pointing at. My images capture the silence, the death confined in white amber. This moment shall slip away like the dust flying along the walls; when the too-white light passes, the bricks will come back to life in the hands of children, who will build tiny houses, miniature barricades, and pointless fortresses.
   I adjust the scarf that keeps sliding away, letting the heavy wind in; my skin is scorched, my eyelids feel like sandpaper. The kerchief glides down again along my overgrown beard. I’m not used to it, but it helps me avoid getting too much attention, or at least not be spotted immediately; if one doesn’t look too closely, I can get unnoticed long enough to be safe.
   The heat is treacherous and so is the silence; I feel in a dream while I take pictures. I know this square, these walls, these streets of stone and dust, I saw them live and die in the rhythm of the sun and the wind. The war has been here, has overflown, carried away its loot, and left. I photograph its traces that life covers up every morning, every evening, like this wind that fills up the holes in the walls and in the sidewalks with its heavy veil of white dust. Veil or shroud, I ask myself as I fall asleep in the square at noon, and dream of deserts and of her, of Lia, my beloved flame, dancing away, her fiery hair like a mirage in the middle of the white sky and the white land.
   I doze off in the shadows, surrounded by windwhirls and silence, until life comes back, carrying the noises of shutters, doors, dogs, games, and merchants around the square. I open my eyes and meet the scrutinizing gaze of a young boy hovering over me. We stare at each other in silence.
   ‘You have green eyes’, he declares.
   I nod.
   ‘You’re not from here.’
   I don’t answer. He might call a brother, a father; show them the stranger that got lost in their parts of this land.
   He pulls my scarf back up, and points at my camera.
   ‘What is it?’
   I turn it on and show him. He looks at the pictures with a grave face. On the corner of a roof, a long, thin shadow.
   ‘That was my uncle’s rifle. He defended our house.’ His voice is proud. The uncle must be dead. The boy hands the camera back.
   ‘My name is Mikhail’, I tell him.
   ‘Be careful with that’, he replies, then turns his back on me and runs to a group of children, which play has already covered in dust.
   ‘You’re dead! You’re dead!’, they yell, their fingers shaped like firearms as they chase each other around the fountain, attacking, defending, falling back. I pretend to be rummaging through the backpack so I can hide my camera and take pictures of this game of war.
   My uncle comes to me while I was buying a loaf of bread and a handful of fruit from an old merchant in a corner of the square. He gives the seller a few coins for his own dinner and we sit together on the edge of the fountain. The boys have abandoned it in the favour of an improvised barricade in a narrow street, which they defend with much yelling.
   ‘The call didn’t get through’, he tells me while eating. ‘We need to stay here a few more days.’
Our driver had left us at a crossroad a few kilometres away from the village.
   He was going up to the mountains to get his family.
   ‘If God wills it, I’ll be back in a couple of days. I will take you with me if you’re here.’
He didn’t want us to come with him.
‘It’s dangerous up there. They know me. You stay here.’ After that, without looking at the money in our hands, he started the ancient engine that coughed for a while before the car finally moved. We stood in the white dust and, when he got out of sight, pulled up our scarves and walked to the village.
  The square was deserted, but the house with a crumbling left wall was where he said it would be. We couldn’t knock in the middle of that silence, awake all the eyes the village had, so we sat on the bricks, in the shadow, facing the whirlwind turning around the fountains with its broken edges, and we waited for life to come back.
   When women came out for water, I saw other collapsed walls and a yard through the open door. In the poor shade of some skeletal trees, men smoked. We entered slowly, hands where they could be seen, while the men eyed us suspiciously. Upon hearing our driver’s name, they lightened up, came to shake our hands and wish us welcome. We could stay, but only hidden, the neighbours weren’t all safe, and obviously no pictures. We said yes, of course, it was the same condition since the beginning of this journey, and I have learnt to hide my camera, let my uncle distract people with his journalist’s notepad while I snap pictures blindly, without knowing what they would show me in the evening. They shared their dinner and their broken house with us, declining our money just like the village folk back home, just as poor and as proud on both sides of the sea.
   I watch them while I eat my bread, and almost believe I am a boy again, in our yard, because the men and the women I see, and I saw, have the same weary faces, all of them worn out by work, wind, sun, and hunger; the same old, tired clothes, and despite it, the same hearts, ready to welcome strangers, and proud to share their meagre supplies with them. And, just like back home, there are those that war has changed, turned into wolves; those who walk about baring their teeth, nostrils flared to smell danger, strangers; those who end up killing theirs along with the others. Back home where there is no home any more, because of the wolves.
   ‘Do you hear what I’m saying?’
He has stopped eating and is scrutinizing me. I’ve got lost in my thoughts again.
   ‘Yes, I heard you. What do you want me to say? If you get to call, someone will come for us, if not, we’ll wait for him to come back from the mountains. And we pray.’
   He scowls. He doesn’t pray any more; his faith was buried in our village along with his parents, under the ashes of the house and the legions of flies, he buried it with them before we left those lands forever. I remain silent and watch the tired faces of the men and the dusty faces of the child soldiers who play at war while dusk settles in.
   The earth quivers. We all feel it under our feet, despite the clamour of the square, and worried gazes turn to the road that the sunset paints scarlet. The wind raises and throws another kind of dust in our faces: a heavy, thick dust that smells of gasoline and sweat.
   The earth shakes and people slowly freeze, eyes wide, mouths open to call the children who hear nothing over the noise of their own war. The first shots break the frightened silence who has washed over the village like a tide. The soldiers jump out of their cars, guns pointing to the scarlet sky, but they don’t shoot yet.
   ‘Where are they?’, they bellow, grabbing arms, shoving the men, pushing the women to the ground.
   ‘Where are they?’ they roar, kicking with their boots and the guns, ‘we know you have strangers here, spies!’
   We are in the middle of the square, surrounded by the terrified villagers who huddle together, their ashen faces turned towards the soldiers. The shadow of dusk, our scarves and our beards conceal our eyes that are lighter in colour, and our skin which is less brown. No one can hand us over to the soldiers, because no one knows we are there; and we are sheltered by all these bodies that crowd between us and the advancing wolves.
   ‘Where are they?’ the soldiers repeat, and lower the machine guns, ready to reap this field of human wheat, which cannot escape and cannot give us in. We have been discreet for our safety, for our survival, so well that now no one can save all these folks, pays the soldiers the price for their own lives. The wind slows down, the dust whirls, whirls, whirls, as if in a dream; I watch these harried faces, these mouths contorted by fear, my parents and these parents, my neighbours and these neighbours, facing the surge of death in their lives.
   They are now howling, lips pulled back, eyes like wolves’, guns ready, smelling the blood so soon to be spilled. The villagers flatten themselves against the walls, trying to move away, wild eyes search for the strangers, for a last moment rescue. My fingers find the camera’s buttons; my eyes see her far away, in a dream. For Lia, so that she knows. A child is pushed down and yells – it is my inquisitive youngster, my little soldier already eager to uncover the Others – he raises an arm to protect himself from a soldier’s boot and sees me – I nod – he jumps to his feet, grabbing the soldier’s arm, points, almost shouts ‘there!’ – in one movement, the soldiers turn to us and gun down the crowd. He is the first to fall, a large, blooded flower where his face was, unhurriedly.
   The square is deserted and I am in the middle of it, a child, a man, between them all, staring at him.


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