Thursday, 16 April 2015

A Tin of Tobacco

It was a quiet night in the middle of a brutal war. It was a bitterly cold night, the cold so severe that it was as though the sound had been frozen out of the air, and all that was left was silence.

It was a cold so severe that for this one night, the two armies had decided not to fight, but to draw back their forces into the warmth of underground shelters, and to resume the fighting and killing on the morrow.

They left sentries out, of course, because neither side trusted the other not to break the de facto truce.

High up on a rocky mountain ridge, two soldiers sat in the darkness, in trenches a short distance apart. The soldiers were from the two opposite armies. One wore a grey-brown uniform, the other one which was sand-yellow, and they had differently-shaped helmets on their heads. It didn’t matter, however, because neither of them could see the other in the darkness.

One of the soldiers was called Kasen. He sat in the trench, his rifle propped beside him and his hands thrust inside his uniform coat in an attempt to keep them warm. He was missing the distant green plains of his southern home with a great yearning.

The other men in his unit had told him he was lucky to be given guard duty all night, because that would mean that he didn’t have to take part in the fighting in the morning, when it would start again with even greater savagery to make up for the night’s break. But he didn’t feel lucky. He felt merely cold, hungry and miserable.

Suddenly, he heard a sound. It wasn’t much of a sound, and if there had been any other noise he would probably have missed it completely. In itself it wasn’t much, and yet it made him jerk up and frantically fumble for his gun.

It was a clink, as of a rifle barrel lightly striking stone, not far away.

There was nobody on Kasen’s side of the line, close enough for their noise to be heard by him. Therefore, the noise must have come from the other side, where the enemy with their different-coloured uniforms and differently-shaped helmets were.

And even as his fingers flinched from the freezing metal of his rifle, there was another noise in the darkness. Quite unquestionably from the other side, it was a soft sound like a cough.

The darkness was so intense that he couldn’t even see the barbed wire coils outside his trench, almost close enough to touch. Suddenly every patch of night, every hump of shadow, now looked like an enemy soldier crawling across the ground towards him in a sneak attack.

His hand fumbled towards the whistle hanging on a cord round his neck, which he was to blow if he had to summon the other soldiers, and then groped fruitlessly for it. The whistle was no longer there. The thread had broken, and it had fallen off somewhere.

A shadow that he could swear was a man seemed to shift across his sight, and he raised the rifle, but the shadow had already disappeared. There was only the darkness.

And then the sound came again, the sound he’d thought was a cough, and there was no mistaking it this time. It was a sob, a liquid sob as might be uttered by someone whose heart was about to break.

Kasen listened to the sobbing and put his rifle down slowly. “You there,” he called softly, in the enemy’s tongue. “Can you hear me?”

There was a brief pause and the answer came back. “Yes.”

“What’s wrong?” Kasen asked. “Why are you crying?”

“I don’t want to be here,” the enemy responded. “I’m freezing and hungry, and I’m frightened to death sitting alone on the mountain.” He sounded very young, perhaps younger than Kasen himself.

“What’s your name? I’m Kasen.”

“Nibrud.” The other soldier had stopped sobbing. “Are you alone?”

“Yes. Did your mates tell you you’re lucky to be up here?”

“Yours did too?” Nibrud was silent a moment. “Where are you from, Kasen?”

Kasen told him the name of his southern village. “It’s very far from here.”

“So’s my home,” Nibrud said. “Tell me about your village, Kasen.”

So Kasen told him about the village, about the thatched huts standing amongst the green fields, so green that it soothed the eye to look upon them, under a sky in which the thunderclouds gathered like crumpled sheets piled together. He spoke of the palm trees that nodded like royal courtiers before the wind, the river which flowed silver in the winter and brown and swollen when the rains came. He told Nibrud of the village girls, lissom in their flowing dresses, who danced at the harvest festival and livened the warm evenings with their song.

Then Nibrud told Kasen of his city, ancient and stone-walled, where the golden domes and spires rose towards the heavens, of streets paved with cobbles which were old when their two countries had not yet been born, of ancient halls where symphonies played music by composers long turned to dust. He spoke of universities so famous that people from all over the world came to study in them, and stayed back to teach and work. And he spoke of the dark-eyed girls who would disport themselves of an evening on the promenades and bridges over the river that never seemed to change, whatever the weather, except that its colour turned from sparkling blue to leaden grey and back again.

“So,” Kasen said at last, “it would seem that both of us are fighting in a place we hate, far away from where we live.”

“That’s so,” the unseen enemy from across the wire said. “What did they tell you when they sent you to fight?”

“That your side was looking to steal our land,” Kasen replied. “What did they tell you?”

“That you were out to take by force the lands that were always ours,” Nibrud replied. “And yet do you think this mountain is yours?”

“No,” Kasen confessed. “And I wouldn’t care if I never saw it again.”

“Exactly what I think,” Nibrud replied. There was a brief silence. “What do you want to do with your know...afterwards?”

Kasen was silent a moment, considering. “Once upon a time I’d wanted to be an scientist,” he said at last. “But now it seems to me that the only thing scientists do is prepare for war, to prepare even more destructive weapons. I would like to be a farmer, and grow things from the soil to feed the people.”

“And I,” Nibrud said, “wanted always, to be a lawyer. But it seems to me that the only thing lawyers do is prove, at any cost, that their side is the right one. Now I would want to be a teacher, and tell the children that there is nothing holy about a coloured piece of cloth called a flag, and nothing glorious about war.”

They fell silent a long moment. “If you could see me now, in your rifle sights,” Kasen asked, “would you shoot me?”

Nibrud was silent for even longer. “I don’t know,” he said at last, honestly. “I would try not to, if I had the choice.”

“I have a tin of tobacco,” Kasen said, remembering. “Shall I throw it across to you? Would you like it?”

“Please do,” Nibrud replied. “I’ll find it when it’s light enough to see.”

So Kasen took out the tin of tobacco and hurled it across the wire. He heard it clatter on the rock.

“I have nothing to give you in return,” Nibrud responded. “But if I had, I would throw it across to you.”

“I know,” Kasen said. “It doesn’t matter.”

They fell silent. “It will be getting light soon,” Nibrud said at last. “I will soon be relieved.”

“So will I,” Kasen said. “I suppose this is goodbye.”

“Yes,” Nibrud agreed. “Thank you for spending the night with me. Goodbye, my friend.”

“Goodbye,” Kasen mouthed, and tasted the words. “ friend.”

And so the dawn came, and Kasen went back to his unit, to the men with the same coloured uniforms and the same shape of helmet as he had. The battles started anew, and he killed men whom he saw in his rifle sights, men with the wrong-coloured uniform and the wrong shape of helmet on their heads. And blood flowed over the mountains. Kasen shot men without knowing whom it was whom he was shooting, and if perhaps one of them was Nibrud, or whether someone else had shot him. And he never knew from moment to moment if someone would shoot him, and if it would be Nibrud whose finger squeezed the trigger.

Then time passed, and with it the war finally ended. Perhaps the brown-grey uniformed army defeated the sand-yellow army, or perhaps it was the other way round, or perhaps the two sides decided to split the mountains between them. But the war passed.

And so Kasen returned home, threw off his uniform, put away his gun, and became a farmer. In time he married one of the lissom village girls and began a family, and even later he became a powerful voice in favour of farmer’s rights and the importance of the land.

And the years passed, and Kasen grew old, and then one day he began to yearn to visit the mountains again, where once, so long ago, he had fought and killed and seen his fellow soldiers die. He had seen them in war, and now, while he was still able, he wished to see them in peace.

So he and his wife and his daughter and her children travelled once more to the north, where the mountains were. Perhaps they had to cross a national frontier which had not once existed, perhaps not – it did not matter. And then one day, a warm spring day under a porcelain-blue sky, Kasen and his family stood looking up at the ridge.

“I’m going up there,” Kasen said. “You’ll wait here until I return.” And such was the tone of his voice that nobody attempted to argue with him.

So Kasen walked up the ridge, past the remnants of trenches and fortifications crumbled and filled in with the weight of the years, until he stood on the crest of the ridge looking across at the other side. And there was another very old man who stood there looking back at him.

“I’ve come back,” Kasen said to the other old man. “After all these years, I’ve come back.”

The other old man nodded. “I’ve brought you a gift,” he said, and held out something. “I told you I would.”

In his age-spotted, gnarled fingers, he held a tin of tobacco.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2015