After the End of the War by Hanne Steen

After the End of the War by Hanne Steen

Fiction, Vol. 8.1, March 2014

Now you wander, dazed, through the mess after the end of the war. The buildings bombed-out and silent in the milky smoke and you’re trying not to look for pieces of bones, trying not to listen for the buried beats of broken hearts. You’re trying not to stumble in the rubble that hides the torn toys and scattered limbs, afraid of the sickness it will stir, afraid it will keep you from going on. And you have to go on. So on you go, letting the smoke sting your eyes so you can’t see through the swimming haze.

Now there is a rustle, a brush, a gentle sweep of something under rocks—a bird, or a waft of smoke on a breeze that knows nothing about the war. You tell yourself you must go on, keep moving with the smoke in your eyes and one day you’ll leave this behind and something will come along and save you. But the rubble so gently shudders again and now there is a voice with it and it says help, or if it doesn’t exactly say it at least you know that is what it means and you push on but you know that you will have to turn around; you know you can never go on and leave it behind now that you have heard it, or the memory of that sound will murder you in your sleep.

Now you stop and stand alone in the smoke of the end of the war. Now in the burnt breeze you gather and steel yourself and turn to retrace your steps, picking over rocky shards of shattered world with your heart in your mouth, metallic and bloody, still from pounding through the war. Now the sound comes again like a whimper but it’s close under your feet and swims like icy minnows up your legs and you lurch with vertigo in your veins at the thought of what lies beneath.

Now you are upon it and through a gap in the rubble, you glimpse a tiny, torn hand. You buckle and beg your hands to stab out your eyes and see no more of this, but now a breeze brushes the smoke aside and you see that it’s not the hand that’s torn but the red sweater around it unravelling, and the hand is bruised but not broken and bleeding, but not crushed, and so very tiny you could hold it in the palm of yours completely.

Now your heart is beating so fast you think it will burst through your skin but you know there is nothing left to do but push and reach for the nightmare. You mumble under your breath, not wanting to give false hope, something like I’m coming, and you imagine all the terrible crushed things under the broken world and you reel with the sickness but you shove through, heaving and pressing and leaning in.

Now the whimpering is unbearable as you pull the rocks and throw them to the side and you say, I’m coming, hold on, don’t worry, I’m coming. Now the whimpering is ringing in your ears and you know the nightmare is soon to be raw and splayed in your face and you don’t want to look but it’s too late and you have to go on. Now you know this is the moment and the last rock is lifted and falls away and the thing is sitting there filthy in its torn red sweater and shuddering in its tiny body and you see that it is you.

Now. It is terrified and tiny in that red sweater your mother knitted before the war and it is trembling looking down at those skinny scraped knees, and you can see that it is neither broken nor crushed, but just tiny and very afraid. And your big heart suddenly washes over with breezes that know nothing about war, and your eyes spill out laughing and your voice falls calm and you are not afraid at all anymore at the end of the war. Now you reach down and the child flinches but you keep reaching down with slow and steady hands and you say calmly but firmly it’s alright, you’re going to be alright, the war is over, you’re going to be just fine.

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