Introduction

Introduction

One Life for Another

The hard ground I lay on was the only thing my conscience could accept at that moment. I began regaining consciousness only after having stirred and felt tiny rocks cutting into my stiff back. Several seconds had passed before my body belatedly warned me of the pain. I was hovering, hovering between reality and a dream, between a blend of the good old days and these bloodstained ones, alternating sporadically in my head. Somewhere in the corner of my mind I knew where I was and what was happening, but the blackness, that horrible, thick substance, darker than blood, which kept enveloping my mind quietly and cleverly, was inducing me to close my eyes again and refuse to be here. Flicking its serpentine tongue, it wanted me to give up, to surrender. Just like that. Give up. It would be the easiest thing in the world. A blink of an eye would not be quick enough compared to the action that would suffice in order to forever vanish in the cold air, as if the world had never had me. My damned mind dared to doubt. I was at the very brink of surrender, I truly was, heavens forgive me, I didn’t want to be there anymore, to stand and punch back, to be me anymore, to exist anymore… I lay there thinking, praying, begging to pluck up the courage to disappear, but then a blast resounded through my body. I had nowhere to run. With cold steel fingers and a grip as stifling as the hug of death, the moment arose from the darkness, grabbed me and sucked me back into complete consciousness. I opened my eyes and screamed. Cognition restored, a return to the present.

Benevolent silence, blessed ignorance, they broke into a million tiny pieces, and my ears were immediately filled with the sounds of war. Women screaming, men shouting, children crying, the begging and the cursing. Explosions, hits, unearthly sounds. A scream got stuck in my throat as my heart began to cry hysterically. Is it not over yet? My eyes drifted through the blackness, watching the sky engulfed by the dark. Night had come, but the sky was devoid of stars, empty as my soul at this late hour. As my heart began to race, pressured by the sounds of hell, I was becoming aware of myself, and a tingling sensation, which had started to rush through my body in a freezing gallop, was luring me to burst into desperate tears. I finally realized what damage had been done. It required an uncanny effort not to scream my lungs out and disappear in a flash. Cowardice filled my already disheartened soul. I wished to whisper what was needed and, by the force of irreversible words, disappear from the jaws of that earthly hell, pretending in a different time and a different place that the world was turning in another direction… and just as I opened my dry, treacherous lips in my intention to do it, I felt a feeble touch on my shoulder. Gentler than a butterfly’s wing, it was shaking just like the voice that whispered to me:

It’s time.”

For a long moment I stared at the outline of her face, hard to spot in the darkness. For an instant I wondered what demonic dark had swallowed the earth so that not even a blink of light could reach us, and then all the painful wails, the bombardment sounds, the crying and the screaming became noise in the background of those words and her invisible eyes, which I knew were tensely watching me. A new insight rushed through my veins. How could I have ever thought I could turn away and disappear? How could I have thought I could ever close my eyes and sleep peacefully? The darkness and its thick cloak failed to suppress all the vivid images, flashing before my eyes in a discontinuous rhythm. My daughter-in-law, my son… it pained me to think of him, the true heir of my noble surname, a line which had never, not even in the hardest of moments, doubted, surrendered or given up… A line I have nearly betrayed with a single move. A simple whisper from her had opened all the doors in my darkened mind and chased the dark away. My family, their future, a world for them… I decided to fight. For every smile which bloomed in this and needed to continue in the next life. For all I got and haven’t given in return. For my unborn grandson for whom I have been doing this. I didn’t stand up, I couldn’t. I didn’t lift myself up, I couldn’t do that either. I turned toward her face hidden in the darkness and spoke my part with no thought, regret or fear.

Una vita pro alia.[1]

A sigh of relief slipped her lips as easily as a trace of sorrow scratched on my heart. She had doubted me. The whispers of others came dragging through the darkness, repeating the same words with a broken spirit, heart and body. It was the hardest and the easiest thing I have ever said. Still, I knew at the bottom of my core that I had done the right thing. Nothing else would have been right, not even close. I heard the last whisper to my left. I assumed we were all very close to one another. I closed my eyes to calm my panic-stricken heart and seething thoughts. I wished for silence.

Has night fallen?” I asked quietly.

No”, she replied in a whisper to my right. “Midday just passed.”

I sighed very cautiously and carefully, as much as my punctured lungs would allow.

How long have I been unable to see?”

Several hours.”

She started sobbing quietly. I wanted to comfort her, but I didn’t know how. A tear slipped out of my eye and surprised me with its velocity. It rushed toward my ear and tickled it before it vanished into nothingness. I noticed the screams in the distance had stopped, and again, for a split second, I wished to disappear. Of course, I banished the cowardly thought right away, and it was too late anyway. Words once spoken can never be taken back. It was something we repeated throughout our lives as we walked through them, something of great importance, of which we were aware just as we were aware of the existence of life itself. Verbum[2] is sacred. Verbum is the reason for our birth and death, the reason for this and a hundred other wars, just as it is for peace and its myriad of forms. This war, more terrifying than the scariest of nightmares, wasn’t supposed to end soon. I didn’t believe that for a second, but I did believe we had altered its course with our deed. It could have been just a crack in the glass, thinner than cobweb and tinier than a snowflake, but it was there, it vouched to shatter the glass and reduce it to dust. One day. The smell of open wounds, scorched houses and a shivering fear permeated the already heavy air, and for the first time I felt truly grateful for going blind.

Theo? Theodorus?”

Yes, my friend?”

We should… should hold hands. How… how can… I…”

If my eyes had not been forever chained to darkness, they would surely have extinguished themselves at that moment, not to watch his tormented face.

It’ll suffice to just put your hand on my shoulder”, I replied in a firm voice of a stranger, of someone who wasn’t going through this, not in this manner. I soon felt Dexter’s soft touch on my shoulder and I flinched slightly. I felt the scars and open wounds burning me under his fingers, but still I felt an unusual urge to laugh at his shaky fingers barely touching me, as if a stronger touch could hurt me even more.

Take my hand”, Onoria whispered to Dexter in an unusually composed voice. Was I the only one having qualms?

Carmen never removed her hand. On my left shoulder, where her timid hand touched the end of my collarbone, I felt a throbbing. She was very close, so close I could feel her warm breath and soft sighs as she resisted a new outbreak of tears. She was undoubtedly a very courageous woman. Damn, even I was barely holding back tears, because I knew no amount of teardrops could ever portray our suffering. The four of us were lying, I presume, in a circle, touching the one next to each other and awaiting the unknown, maybe the worst, as if all we’d already been through wasn’t horrible enough, as if the pits of hell hadn’t opened up long ago and devoured us in a blazing inferno. Dexter’s arm suddenly grabbed my shoulder. Carmen’s arm followed. I shivered. It’s starting. I turned my head to the side again, taking advantage of the moment which hadn’t caught up with me yet. I could have loved Carmen. I could have, had there been more time, had the world been different, and had our fates not been tightly woven. I saw us in some lost future, myself with a long beard, and her with silver streaks entwined in her auburn hair. My son would already be proud of the strength of his own son.

Someone screamed a terrifying scream which froze the blood in my veins. Only then was I filled with primal fear. Soon we were all screaming. My scream blended with theirs and merged into an inhuman choir of deathly suffering. My mind, exhausted from the fight and shocked with the intensity of the sudden pains, began to shut down, and for that I felt a hint of gratitude. We screamed in hellish, desperate voices as the skin peeled from our feet. Our burnt flesh rolled upward grotesquely and revealed snow-white bones, solid for just a second more of this lifetime, before they began to crack like feeble twigs, leaving a swaying dust behind. Had my sight not abandoned me, I would have seen the dark red meat retracting, blackening and shrinking until it became a flame. Dexter’s voice fell silent, and his hand slipped off my shoulder. Carmen was still shaking in pain. I slowly began to lose consciousness as my thighs burned, sizzling in the fire and vanishing. This smell… The cries and shrieks of my comrades were dying out and resounding in the air which smelled of burned meat and corpses. All the indescribable pain was making me cry, vomit, scream and shiver uncontrollably. I felt my essence surging toward the end of the bridge and disappearing in the breeze.

I turned my head toward Carmen once again, with eyes wide open and mouth gaping in a silent scream. She returned an equally silent stare. All of a sudden I could see her, her large eyes and the spark that was slowly going out inside them. I saw it with my heart, skipping beats just as it was about to come to a halt. I saw the fire eat up her pretty neck with a disgusting hunger, and seize her beautiful face, turning it into a grotesque mask of horror and agony. I immediately regretted that, before my end, instead of the face of Love, I memorised the face of Death… And there, just behind her, I saw my two cut off arms in a messed up, discarded pile. The fingers were detaching and falling off as the skin peeled off in chunks and disappeared with them in some abyss. There was blood licking the skin, piece by piece, until the fire ate it, too. I turned my eyes back to the sky, now glowing in an incredibly blue, encouraging colour. One last time it was just as I had always remembered – endless, magical and promising. Then came the darkness. I felt the flame on my chest, fire biting my lungs and piercing my back. The smell of burned hairs and skin filled my nostrils. The last thing I thought of was that blue sky. I wished my descendants would see it for as long as they lived. And then I, too, breathed out and ceased to exist. The flaming tongues, having swallowed the last body part in the circle of humans, crackled with a threatening sound and vanished in its very core. There was nothing left on the coal-black grass underneath us but a pinch of heavy magic we had voluntarily summoned to rid us of our lives… and erase us from the face of the Earth.

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