We publish below the Best Short Story for the 2003 for CXC English A Examinations
by Miss Shivanee Ramlochan
St Joseph’s Convent
Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago
September 28, 2003
This story was written in response to the following question: “Some people never give up. They keep going on and on.” Write a story beginning with these words.
“Some people never give up. They keep going on and on and on. People of this caliber have forged themselves a place in history’s archives, boys, and if you live up to the challenge, so will you. Do your country proud.”
THE words of the arrogantly confident field commander whistled through his ears as a landmine exploded behind him. The blast of choking sulphur and ash rocked him, sending him to his knees on the ground. The screeches of Arabic curses seared his mind; he closed his eyes and wondered, “Is this what going on means?” How ironic it was that the passionate speech, fired with patriotism, had been given what felt like centuries ago, on the soil of a country he doubted his feet would ever kiss again. How ironic that he, a humble field soldier, now gambled with his life and a dubious metallic weapon, on the battlefield of someone else’s war, while the illustrious commander was tucked safely home, no doubt commenting gravely on the exploits of ‘our boys out there’.
He struggled to rise to his feet at the same time dreading the visual Holocaust sure to assail him. The centre of the town’s once prosperous financial district had been transformed into a base of squalor and destruction, where blood ran in the gutters instead of water … oh, for a taste, a drop of water, the soldier thought, raising his eyes to the relentlessly blazing Middle-Eastern sun. Mere feet away from him, children garbed in tattered rags kicked at the remains of a decaying mongrel. The stench of putrescence that rose from its desiccated limbs ought to have made them vomit, but they surely had nothing to expel from their empty bellies save gastric acid. Surely these people were promised food from my country, he wondered, the benevolent gesture of a superior nation, confident of its victory? No … then it seems the first casualty of war is truth.
A sudden, horrendous shriek rent the oppressive, steamy silence; the soldier whirled around, hands clutching his rifle. A hideous figure that might once have been called a woman, except for the torture marks of poverty and suffering carved into her frame, staggered through the street. Her skeletal arms were raised to the blazing skies above as if in praise, yet the sorrow imbedded in her deep onyx eyes made it clear she had nothing to rejoice for. The soldier followed her line of vision, seeing a young girl, of perhaps five years old, being detained by one of his colleagues, some metres away. He remembered that some of the local
Suddenly, without warning, the soldier up ahead slapped the child resoundingly about the face. Her little neck jerked backwards, as her head bobbed from side to side with the force of his blows. Piteous, moaning sounds escaped her mouth. Horrified, the young officer called out to his colleague to cease abusing the infant, but his reaction was overshadowed by that of the woman.
Imprecations burst from her mouth as she sprang forward with more energy than her emaciated limbs could possess. Angry, violent flames burned in her eyes in the place of sorrow, as her bare feet slapped the gravel of the ground. She cleared the distance in seconds, snatched the weeping child from her oppressor’s grasp with a fierce snarl, like a lioness would make when she discovers one of her cubs has been maltreated. The young soldier was amazed to see that her soles were bleeding, that lesions and gaping cuts peered from the bedraggled fabric of her dress. He tried to remember if he had ever seen anyone so strong, wondered if the commander he had once idolized would behave like this, to protect something he loved. He stood in the middle of the street, applauding silently as the woman and child made a hurried getaway, past the rubble of a destroyed building. He turned his back on his enraged counterpart and began walking off.
The burst of gunfire rooted him to the spot; he prayed to a god he had stopped believing in even as he heard the other man mutter, “That’ll teach you, you blasted woman”. He continued to stand still as the other’s booted steps grew ever distant, fading into the background. Had he gone to slaughter more innocents, the soldier thought, is this the bleeding face of humanity laid bare?
The woman and child lay on the ground some distance away. Their bodies were folded together, intertwined with Death’s gentle hands into a final embrace. Their souls fled to a place where suffering was but a nasty memory, where freedom lasted forever. The young soldier, once lit with shimmering ideals, once burning with desire to fight, to win, stood looking at their bodies, for a second, for a year. Though he was not dead, he felt part of his own soul flee his body, in disgust at the sight of what people did to other people. He leaned over and closed the eyes of the woman, realizing bitterly that her example of ‘never giving up’ had been more real and pure than any exhortations of a vainglorious commander.
“You”, he said to her lifeless body, with more conviction than he had ever felt, “have taught me what it means to go on”.